Paul’s Catholic spirit

St. Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus was marked by a calling to spread the Gospel among the gentiles. If before he “had persecuted the Church of God zealously” (Phil 3:6), insisting on exact fulfillment of all the ritual and dietary laws of the Torah that previously had defined his identity as an observant Jew, afterwards he would identify with Christ, “who loved me and gave himself for me.“ (Gal 2:20). This love of Christ would urge him on (2 Cor 5:14): “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” (1 Cor 9:16). The wall that separated Jews and Gentiles had fallen. Ethnic differences no longer mattered so much.

In this Year of St. Paul, we can learn from St. Paul’s attitude: “Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.” (1 Cor 9:19-22)

St. Paul identified with Christ, who “wants all men and women to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth,” (1 Tim 2:4), and thus he identified with everyone without exception. “Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant?” (2 Cor 11:29). As Abraham Lincoln once said, “If you would win a man to your cause, first convince him that you are his sincere friend.”

By his love for souls, St. Paul made the faith lovable. Yes, then, as now, there were important issues, issues of faith and issues of morals. But St. Paul, while hating the sin (one thinks, for example, of his condemnation of adultery and other disordered sexual relations), always, like St. Augustine, insisted on loving the sinner. It is, of course, easier to either hate both or love both, sacrificing either friend or principle in the process.

One thing that is clear is that ethnic Catholicism is not enough. We cannot be Catholic the way some English are Anglican or some Greeks are Orthodox--as a matter of ethnic and cultural identity that separates us from fellow Christians. Indeed, such an identity can be a superficially Christian form of the ethnic particularism that St. Paul managed to transcend through God’s grace.

Nor is ethnic or tribal Catholicism truly Catholic, for the very word Catholic means universal. It’s true that in Boston there has been a history of ethnic parishes within the Catholic Church, but we cannot let ethnic identity limit the love of Christ for all. The Boston Irish, given the history of discrimination that they faced in earlier days, should be the first to welcome other immigrant groups and not discriminate on the basis of religion or ethnicity. The same could be said of other ethnic groups.

I think we can take a lesson from the example of Pope Benedict. A year ago he visited the United States, and his message was invariably upbeat and hope-filled. While there is much to lament in the culture, he concentrated on accentuating the positive and winning friends. Without compromising the faith and moral teaching of the Church, he presented a loving face, the loving face of the Father of the Prodigal Son wanting to embrace his all-too-sinful son. May we be able to say with faith and confidence in God: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” (Luke 15:21).

Dwight G. Duncan is a professor at Southern New England School of Law. He holds degrees in both civil and canon law.