More on the Gospel still: A reply to Pastor Mark

Pastor Mark, on his blog, has responded to my recent posts on “the Gospel”. As is my wont, I am replying here on my blog for the benefit of all my readers.

His “first reaction” is “sadness” for me and for the rest of you benighted souls who also belong to the “Roman Catholic Church”. Well, I can live without the pity, as I expect most of you can too. But he does agree that the question “What is the Gospel?” is the “most basic and urgent of questions”, particularly for those who seek to proclaim it.

He writes:

The Gospel is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes it (Rom 1:16) and David is profoundly correct in stating that unless the Gospel is clearly defined it cannot be proclaimed. I would add that without such proclamation sinners are not being saved, no matter how many of them fill the pews at each Mass (indeed, I can’t tell you how many ex-Roman Catholics, my dear wife included, who I have heard say ‘I never heard the Gospel in the x number of years I spent in the Roman church’).

What Mark’s wife and his other “ex-Roman” friends call “the Gospel” which they “never heard” in the Catholic Church is a very specific definition of “the Gospel”, one which is attractive because (to use my former categories) it answers a real “felt bondage” to personal sin. In this regard, I have nothing but admiration for the Lutheran doctrine: it treats sin as a real phenomena, and recognises that many (if not most, or even all – certainly more than would normally admit it) people struggle under the burden of bondage to particular and deeply troubling sin, experienced as real guilt (and not to be dismissed as simply a “sense of guilt”). I would suspect that there is not one of us reading this now who could not identify such bondage in our lives. The hearing of a message which results in a real liberation from this “felt-bondage” is surely going to be a real experience of “Good News”, no less so than for the blind to regain their sight or the lame to regain the ability to walk.

So in what I say from here on in, let me say this: the Lutheran doctrine of justification by faith alone is a very powerful statement of the Gospel, and one which should not be blithely dismissed.

Mark kindly gives us a formulation of this definition of the Gospel for us to work with (there are indeed many other variations of the Protestant “Gospel”, some less Lutheran than this one, but this will do for our purposes):

The Gospel [the Good News] is the proclamation that the Son of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, has taken upon Himself and borne the curse of the Law and has expiated and paid for all our sins by his suffering and death on the Cross. Through faith in him we enter into favour with God, our sins are forgiven and we are delivered from death and all the just punishments our sins deserved, and are eternally saved.

One might note the absence of the word “alone” after “through faith in him” above – but I am sure that Pastor Mark would want to add it. It is not very much different from the statement to be found in the 15th paragraph of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification:

Together we confess: By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works.

As a statement of the meaning of “justification”, I actually have very little argument with what Pastor Mark gives us as a definition of “the Gospel”. In fact the first statement in the Catechism under the section “Justification” says as much (and, by the inclusion of baptism, just a bit more):

1987. The grace of the Holy Spirit has the power to justify us, that is, to cleanse us from our sins and to communicate to us “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ” and through Baptism.

But as Mark himself says “more could be said on the subject of the Gospel”, and it is for this reason that I am ultimately less than satisfied with a definition of “the Gospel” as such which is reduced simply to “the doctrine of justification”. This is for several reasons.

The first is that when Jesus said “Repent and believe the Gospel”, I don’t think he was saying: “Believe the doctrine of justification”. It is not by faith in the doctrine of justification that the salvation which the Gospel proclaims is received. To give Pastor Mark his credit, his definition does not say this. Rather, as his definition rightly says, it is by “faith in the Son of God, our Lord Jesus Christ”. The doctrine of justification is, I believe, an application of the Gospel, rather than the Gospel itself. It is an application which St Paul made in his specific context of bringing the Gospel (which was originally proclaimed in a Jewish setting) into a context that was overwhelmingly Gentile. In that Gentile context – as in our own day – there is something quite specific which we must ask: who is this “Christ” in which we are to have faith? What does it mean to say that Jesus is “the Christ”? Of course, it means “Messiah”; but that title only has meaning in the specific context of the specific story of Israel (the history of her relationship with her God) and of Israel’s specific hope as a nation for the future. It was in the context of this history and this hope that Jesus called his listeners to “believe the Gospel”.

The second thing follows from this: limiting “the Gospel” to a statement based on the Pauline epistles (specifically the letters to the Romans and the Galatians) does not do full justice to the use of the term in the rest of the New Testament. (I will leave aside for a moment whether the Lutheran tradition has actually fully or accurately grasped what St Paul was talking about in these letters – I think not.) Is this the way the term is used in the Gospels and in the rest of the New Testament? Oddly enough, there are only a couple cases of its use in the New Testament that are not Pauline or from the works of the Evangelists (including Acts). One of these is in 1 Peter 4:17 which speaks of “obeying the Gospel of God” (compare to Romans 10:16 and 2 Thess 1:8). How does Pastor Mark’s definition of the Gospel explain such a use? How does one “obey” the Good News that one’s sins are forgiven?

But more seriously, I don’t think it does justice to the Gospels themselves. In Luke 9:6, for example, we are told that Jesus “went through the villages, preaching the gospel and healing everywhere” (ESV). Are we to believe that the message he proclaimed was something like this (based on Mark’s definition):

I am taking upon myself and bearing the curse of the Law and will expiate and pay for all your sins when I suffer and die on a cross. Through faith in me you will enter into favour with God, your sins will be forgiven and you will be delivered from death and all the just punishments your sins deserve, and will be eternally saved.

I am not saying that Jesus himself did not intend something very much like this to be the result of his ministry and work (in fact, for a given value of all the statements above, I believe that he certainly was conscious of just such a vocation), but I do question whether this is what he actually said when he “preached the Good News”. He certainly wasn’t proclaiming a Pauline doctrine of justification by faith. To claim that he did so would be anachronistic.

Thirdly, one of the difficulties I have with the usual Protestant definition of “the Gospel” is that it does not have within it a natural place for the Church. The Church is extraneous to the Gospel, an afterthought, an add-on (this can be seen even in Martin Luther’s Small Catechism, in the explanation of the third article of the Creed, where he first describes what the action of Holy Spirit in my own heart, and then says that this is what the Spirit does, in an analogous way, for “the whole Christian Church on earth”). The Protestant version of “the Gospel” is “Good News” for my personal “felt-bondage” – it does not explain why it was necessary for Jesus to inaugurate a community of disciples in which the Good News finds its true embodiment.

Finally, one of the reasons why I personally no longer hold to the definition of the Gospel as I came to know it in the Lutheran Church is because it doesn’t make sense of a lot of Jesus’ own preaching. Lutherans find many passages in the Gospels extraordinarily difficult to preach according their doctrine, for instance, the Sermon on the Mount and the Parable of the Judgement in Matthew 25. In part this is because of their Law/Gospel paradigm. These passages do not say anything much about how my personal sins are freely forgiven through faith in Christ, but rather appear to preach a new ethic (a new “Law”, even if it is a “Law of love”) for the new community he is constituting. I think the Law/Gospel opposition is behind Pastor Mark’s use of the phrase “the curse of the Law” in his definition. “The Gospel” is perceived to be the antithesis of “the Law” (for a given definition of both) and its antidote. Thus I find his definition of “the Gospel” to be limiting, and this is born out by what he says at the end of his post:

[I]n my estimation that is exactly how Rome has fallen into error – with what it has illegitimately added to the divinely revealed Gospel – a damnable tendency I like to call ‘the Roman and’: faith and works, Jesus and Mary and the saints, God’s will and man’s, and so on…

If Catholic theology is a “both/and” theology, Lutheran theology is an “either/or”. The Catholic “both/and” is admittedly a bit more “fuzzy” than the Lutheran “either/or”, and, I would say, as a consequence, richer. Nevertheless, in Lutheran theology, by means of the sharp limitations and exclusions of the “either/or” approach, they have achieved a definition of “the Gospel” which has a clear shape and sharp point . Can Catholic theology achieve the same clarity and pointedness, without losing the richness of the full use of the term “the Gospel” in Scripture and Tradition?

About Schütz

I am Catholic, married to Cathy, father of Maddy & Mia. Since 2002, I have been the Executive Officer of the Ecumenical & Interfaith Commission of the Archdiocese of Melbourne. I was once a Lutheran pastor, but a "year of grace" and soul-searching led me into the Catholic Church. It was a bumpy ride, but with the support of my (still Lutheran) wife, I was finally confirmed on June 16, 2003.
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14 Responses to More on the Gospel still: A reply to Pastor Mark

  1. David, glad to see you’ve taken my comment up with a little more seriousness.

    A quick reply:

    I think you’re absolutely right – Roman Catholicism is “both/and”, Lutheranism is “either/or” (I know we’ve come to the same conclusion before). That is the fundamental question those of us who regard doctrine as vital to the Christian life have to face. Luther put it in terms of justification by faith alone (as you know, he wasn’t the first to gloss alone into the Romans text -there was precedent in the patristic tradition), later Barth put it in terms of the analogy of being, etc. Behind both concerns are different approaches to the Patristic and Hellenistic heritage of the church and the authority given to Holy Scripture. Too big a topic to broach here but worth further thought. Anyway, for that reason I am doubtful that Catholicism can achieve the clarity of the Lutheran expression of the Gospel without a more significant rapprochement with Reformation theology than has occurred hitherto (JDDJ notwithstanding).

    Now, as to my statement which I put up for discussion, I think you’ve misunderstood the purpose of it. It’s a doctrinal definition and admittedly an incomplete one because it was designed simply as a starting point for discussion (correct: no Lutheran statement of the Gospel would be complete without mentioning the Gospel-proclaiming nature of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper).
    Yes, of course our Lord didn’t necessarily speak in such abstract (albeit Biblical) terms when he went about preaching and healing – but I submit that his ministry embodied that doctrine (and let us remember that the word “doctrine” simply means teaching) and his life and death can only be understood against the background of the Biblical history of salvation, which is why catechesis is so important these days – a knowledge of that history is rapidly disappearing from our culture (btw, what is most disturbing to me about this loss of knowledge of the Biblical story and its vocabulary (redemption, expiation, propitiation and, yes, justification) is the spiritual, moral and cultural impoverishment that it presages and what that means for the church’s proclamation. I find more implicit understanding of these terms among Hindu and Muslim migrants and students than I do among the younger, post-Christian generation of Australians). From our Lord’s ministry we take our cue – we do not preach “about” the Gospel and “about” Christ; rather, we proclaim the Gospel of Christ and his grace and righteousness to people in our time and place. Doctrinal statements serve that proclamation.

    Moving on – come on, David, of course Lutherans know of other words and metaphors for expressing the Gospel than the Pauline term “justification”. The point is that out of Luther’s experience the Pauline expression of the Gospel in terms of the justification of the ungodly has come to serve as a plumb-line by which to measure the “trueness” of the church’s proclamation. Is this an illegitimate “narrowing” of the church’s more fully-orbed doctrine? No. First of all because as even Catholic theology will concede, the justification of the sinner is the starting point for all subsequent growth in the Christian life (even Trent admitted this, although it incorrectly designated justification as a process). Therefore it is crucial that the church’s proclamation at any particular time and place is “plumb” with what God’s Word teaches on justification -and again as Catholic theology will concede the place to go to for that teaching is principally Paul’s letter to the Romans (not co-incidentally the most systematic and complete presentation of the “fully-orbed” Gospel there is). Secondly, while the doctrine of justification awaited a full and clear exposition in the Lutheran Reformation, the doctrine is not an interloper in the catholic tradition. It is there in the Fathers, as any unbiased reader of them knows. Thirdly, if I’m not mistaken, the Vatican itself has agreed that the doctrine of justification is ‘the touchstone for testing at all times whether a particular interpretation of our relationship to God can claim the name of “Christian”.’

    Your generic criticism of Luther’s doctrine of justification as providing no apparent reason for the church is easily answered by pointing to Luther’s longer exposition of the 3rd article of the Creed in the Large Catechism, which assumes the church as the community where Word and sacrament are experienced. Lutherans are nothing if not ecclesial; we are not Bapticostals!

    I’m out of time – David, I’ll reply to your statements about Lutheran problems with obedience and the Sermon on the Mount as soon as practicable.

  2. Alex Caughey says:

    Being justified in our faith in God is always a process of enlightenment rather than in any thought that our salvation is a secure fact of life when simply declaring, and believing that Our Redeemer lives.

    Those of us who enter into an active, and fruitful Covenant relationship with The Saviour are well aware that we are in partnership with our greatest, and most loving of friends whose only thought for us is our well being and salvation from our self destructive self focus.

    That all human life is flawed is a reminder to us that even the most passionate, and faithful of lovers can and does fail to live up to their/my own expectations.

    I plead guilty of being less than faithful, and am always aware how easy it is for me to neglect the quid pro quo that is the foundation of my relationship with my loving partner, whose love for me is greater than I can ever imagine me reciprocating, also understanding that my doubts daily encourage me to keep trying to return that love by remaining faithful to His undoubted love for me.

    Our life’s journey of self discovery step, by step is also a growing awareness that Our Saviour is travelling at our side guiding us to walk in His way, that we may better know Him and in so doing better know who we are becoming.

  3. matthias says:

    “The Church is extraneous to the Gospel, an afterthought, an add-on (this can be seen even in Martin Luther’s Small Catechism, in the explanation of the third article of the Creed, where he first describes what the action of Holy Spirit in my own heart, and then says that this is what the Spirit does, in an analogous way, for “the whole Christian Church on earth”).
    Just picking up on this point ,I think this is where a great many-not all – of the Emergent Church people see themselves. Their new ways of ‘doing Church ” seem to be different ,and radical and in tune to the Gospel,but if you wait some time you will see their own rituals appear-which are just versions of established ones-nad hierarhcies develop.
    As to pastor Mark’s wife’s comment that she never “I never heard the Gospel in the x number of years I spent in the Roman church’ i think that it could now be said of many Lutheran churches in Scandanavia and in the ELCA.

  4. Joshua says:

    Certainly as a Catholic I wonder why X could “never have heard the Gospel” in their years as a Catholic – since, looking at Pr Mark’s own definition that

    “The Gospel [the Good News] is the proclamation that the Son of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, has taken upon Himself and borne the curse of the Law and has expiated and paid for all our sins by his suffering and death on the Cross. Through faith in him we enter into favour with God, our sins are forgiven and we are delivered from death and all the just punishments our sins deserved, and are eternally saved.”

    – then this is exactly what the Mass liturgy, the readings, the prayers, (hopefully) the homily teach! One wonders if X paid attention each year when Lent, then Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday came round… indeed, the Eucharistic Prayers themselves teach the same; as does the Creed.

    I mean no disrespect, but too often I find that when X claims such-and-such about the Church, chances are X was not exactly a fervent weekly or daily Mass-goer, nor one who sought to deepen their faith by prayer, reading, and so forth. Instead, such an X was often a nominal Catholic only.

  5. Joshua,

    No offence taken, but just for the record, my wife was not a nominal Catholic. In fact I, a lapsed Anglican of sorts (on account of my parents dropping out of worship after marriage), ended up going to Mass with her quite often since it felt strange not to be with her for something so important to her (we were also married in the Catholic Church, in a cathedral no less, for what it’s worth).

    You’re quite right, though, the lections and the better parts of the liturgy proclaim the Gospel; that was always Luther’s reason for refusing to “unchurch” those who remained under the Pope – God’s Word, which the Roman church does retain to a degree, does not return to him empty (Is 55:11). What accounts for the reaction of my wife and so many other Catholics I have met when they encounter “evangelical” (i.e. Lutheran) preaching/teaching then? Firstly, the Gospel – the message of the forgiveness of sins for Christ’s sake and all that entails – does not predominate in the preaching of the Catholic Church in my experience. I’m sure there are “Gospel preachers” in the CC, but they seem to be uncommon. What one gets from the Catholic pulpit, in my experience, seems to be a message of Law. In a “traditional” parish one hears something based on the old Tridentine system of soteriology, while in a “modern” parish one hears a religiously tinged version of the Labor Party’s social ethic. The common emphasis in both types of preaching is on what I must do for God, not on what God has done for me and for the world in and through Christ. The result is unresolved guilt that never really hears a word of absolution: your sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake, now go and live to his glory in your daily life. So, in the end, this emphasis on Law (what I must do) “cancels out” the Gospel (what God has done and continues to do) in the psyche of the pious Catholic who is always trying to please God. Thus the sense of discovery and wonder when Gospel preaching is finally encountered.

    • Joshua says:

      I get your meaning; I just haven’t experienced it! Certainly I find the full forgiveness of my sins in my faith – while I know you wouldn’t regard it as compulsory, as a son of Luther you would appreciate that confession, with the advice of the priest to trust in the Lord, and the absolution he gives in Christ’s Name and in the power of His Cross, very much gives peace and the assurance of grace to the sinner – it does to this sinner! I’ll say more on preaching when I have time. In any case, no disrespect intended; I merely confirm what you assent to, that there is much of the Gospel (in both the true and the Lutheran sense! ;-) ) in Catholicism…

      • Joshua says:

        Modern preaching can, I fear, tend toward what I call the bourgeois gospel of “being nice”; from which, Good Lord, deliver us!

        I would not criticize traddie preaching, though, for the simple reason that it is usually of a much higher standard, tends to quote much more Scripture (!), and focusses on the one thing necessary, our journey to heaven, insisting on prayer and the sacraments, living soberly and uprightly in this present life, making use of the means of grace so as to avoid hell and follow the narrow way to heaven – knowing that it is Christ and the power of His Sacrifice on Calvary, applied to us through His sacraments, that saves. We do confess that others’ intercessions with us are not to be despised but treasured, but of course it is God Who Alone answers prayers and grants His mercy and grace, through Christ, in the Holy Ghost.

        But to be fair, all jokes aside, if anything I think that Catholic preaching can err on the side of optimism – priests seem to think that their parishioners are good Christians all – while, in the words of a Dominican friar, a little more salvation-anxiety might be in order. We ought, I go so far as to say (referring to Trent here) waver somewhat between hope and fear, neither despairing (for the Lord is God, mighty to save) nor proudly presuming (for without a special revelation, we cannot know if we will be saved; today’s hardened sinner can be converted at the last, the upright can always fall; and if our heart reproach us not, it is the Lord Who is our Judge, not our heart).

  6. Joshua,

    If the confession is sincerely made for the sake of the absolution, and no “penance” is imposed but the grace of forgiveness is freely given, then Catholic confession can indeed be an enactment of the Gospel in the Lutheran sense. The Lutheran Church has not done away with confession of sins, btw; for the most part we use a public, general confession before Divine Service proper begins but private confession is still available upon request. At our last general pastors’ conference a motion was passed to encourage the laity (and pastors) to a more frequent use of private confession where a need is indicated.

    • Schütz says:

      Penance is a neccesary part of the sacrament of absolution. In the way it is practiced now, the penance is given before but during the same rite as absolution. You will be aware that this order of things is ancient, even if it used to be a longer period of several separate rites. In any case, the penance is a part of the act of repentance (as the name suggests) not a part of the absolution. It is possible however that this point could be obscured and the poorly catechised think otherwise. In any case, I know that you, as a Lutheran pastor, would not give absolution to someone who was not truly penitent. Penance manifests repentance. Understood this way, it is no burden. In fact, the grace of the sacrament is such that it makes up even for imperfect penitence – something that I never heard when I was a Lutheran!

    • Joshua says:

      In my experience the penance assigned is something very mild – I think the last time I went, it was to say three Our Father’s, which I could hardly say was burdensome or unevangelical (if you will not quibble at the repetition). Indeed, the sense of gratitude to God one feels at being absolved, restored, forgiven moves one to want to pray, to thank, to do something, knowing that nothing we can do of ourselves can be self-justifying, but wishing to do whatsoever we can in any case.

      If we are Christians, if we are “in Christ” as members of His mystical Body, we are living members – and as Our Lord taught, branches of the Vine, branches very likely needing pruning, and which we pray are not deserving of being totally chopped off and burnt! Such pruning may be effected by Providence, or the inspirations of grace, or the exhortations of one’s pastor, or the discipline imposed by Christ’s Church. Penance is such.

      Of course such a penance is not imposed as if it could expiate sin – nothing but Christ’s Blood can – but rather as being a fitting human striving to try and make some paltry recompense, and to try to do better in future; in technical terms, it is a congruous act, but not a condign punishment (nothing could be short of hellfire I suppose).

      Penance is imposed as an earnest of good behaviour, one could say; in theological language, it is intended to go towards expiating the temporal punishment due to sin (the effects of sin in one’s life that one can do something about, in a merely natural sense, just as we today speak of rehabilitation), while only absolution can do away with the eternal punishment (for no human act can avail one to escape hellfire).

      Even in the early Church, when ferocious penances were imposed, and had first to be fulfilled before absolution was granted, there was the clear understanding that only the absolution, applying the merits of Christ, was salvific; the penance required was intended for the rehabilitation of the offender; and, in danger of death, the penance would not be required before the penitent be absolved, proving that it was a church discipline, but not a mandatory requirement of divine justice, so to speak.

      From memory, while of course you should fulfil the penance assigned if possible, even wilfully omitting it (while stupid and ungrateful to say the least) would be only a venial matter, unless it were a hefty penance (and thus presumably imposed on account of having done very wickedly).

      I do hope I’ve expressed the Church’s teaching correctly in all this – I think I have!

  7. Christine says:

    If the confession is sincerely made for the sake of the absolution, and no “penance” is imposed but the grace of forgiveness is freely given, then Catholic confession can indeed be an enactment of the Gospel in the Lutheran sense.

    I think Lutherans still have some erroneous understandings of confession as it is practiced by Catholics. It is true that “sins” are the result of “sin” which is part of our reality since the Fall, but in confessing specific “sins” I am compelled to acknowledge those areas of my life where I have sinned in what I have done and what I have left undone and where, for the love of Christ I need to improve. Joshua’s description of “pruning and chopping” is right on the mark. Jesus surely loves us as he finds us but he doesn’t leave us as he finds us.

    Due to the pervasive antinomianism that still pervades much of Lutheran teaching and practice our understandings of “Law” and “Gospel” continue to go in different directions.

    When I receive absolution given in the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit I don’t think it gets more Gospel than that.

  8. Joshua says:

    I suppose I just don’t get the very different mindset: all this mention of antinomianism and “Law versus Gospel” just makes my head spin. Could more be said to explain this? It would help.

    Also, I always wonder why so much is said on the Lutheran side about justification – it just isn’t a day to day concern in Catholic practice (the word seems to crop up only in theology). It also vexes me incredibly to hear it described as the doctrine of doctrines upon which the Church stands or falls – because that is dreadfully unbiblical: the Apostle rightly says that the essential doctrine, which, if false, leaves us all at sea, is that of the Resurrection.

  9. Alex Caughey says:

    Martin Luther spoke with great eloquence against antinomianism in his Against the Antinomians (1539):

    http://www.truecovenanter.com/truelutheran/luther_against_the_antinomians.html

  10. Christine says:

    Joshua, good points. The Resurrection, without which St. Paul says we would be the most pitied of all men is the essential doctrine. When Catholics speak of the “Law” it seems to me we are thinking more of the ceremonial and ritual holiness codes imposed upon Israel which have been abrogated in the New Testament. Love of God and neighbor, of course, are part of the OT and NT.

    For Lutherans Christ’s finished work on the cross leads to the solas of the Reformation. He has done everything needed to accomplish our salvation and nothing can be added. The purpose of the Law as is stated in the Decalogue is to show us that we cannot keep it, all of creation has been corrupted by sin and Christ alone has kept the Law for us although Luther certainly taught that faith is worked out in love. I was surprised, however, as an adult, to see for the first time that Paul did not add the word “alone” in his writings about justification in Romans.

    Some corners of the Reformation produced a radical antonimianism in which any good works were unnecessary and useless and adopted the notion that “once saved, always saved” which directly contradicts the teachings of Jesus and Paul that only those who persevere to the end will be saved and that how we live matters very much. Matthew 25 also clearly teaches that if we fail to see Christ in our suffering neighbor we have failed his command that we should love one another and will answer for that at the Judgment.

    Also, I always wonder why so much is said on the Lutheran side about justification – it just isn’t a day to day concern in Catholic practice (the word seems to crop up only in theology).

    That is true. Catholics wrap the doctrine of justification in a “both/and” mantle as was discussed previously on this blog.

    The “either/or” of the Lutheran “Law/Gospel” paradigm is unique to the Lutheran way of seeing things. Lutherans have often quoted from some of the Fathers of the Church to support it, but the problem with that is that one can find a directly opposite position from others.

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