For at least the last half century, the Catholic Church, although charged with boldly proclaiming the Truth to the world, has been suffering from sloth, complacency, fear of ridicule by secular agents, and fear of appearing apathetic toward people’s sinful conduct. Many of the Church’s clergy have elected to take the path of least resistance on controversial issues. They rarely speak against the sins that are killing our secular and church cultures and almost never encourage the laity to battle sin and temptation.
Rather, they incessantly speak about God’s love and mercy without mentioning the conversion of heart and mind that is a condition for receiving mercy. They preach about grace without telling us how grace is received and rejected. Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), a German Lutheran pastor and theologian, aptly described this indolent approach to pastoring as “cheap grace”. This article will briefly discuss cheap grace and will outline a call to action.
Before that discussion, we should understand the nature of true grace. Our Catechism notes: “The grace of Christ is the gratuitous gift that God makes to us of his own life, infused by the Holy Spirit into our soul to heal it of sin and to sanctify it” (CCC, 1999). As such, grace is free because it is given to us without individual cost, but it becomes cheap when we behave as if there is no necessary response to it.
Cheap Grace vs. Costly Grace
In his book, The Cost of Discipleship (1937), Bonhoeffer wrote, “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” On the other hand, “Costly grace,” Bonhoeffer continued,
is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: “ye were bought at a price,” and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.
For Bonhoeffer, grace is cheapened by the clergy’s refusal to communicate our necessary response to unmerited grace. The Old Covenant Jews faced a similar problem with their priests, and God had a message for them. Hosea wrote, “Yet let no one contend, and let none accuse, for with you is my contention, O priest…. My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge; because you have rejected knowledge, I reject you from being a priest to me” (Hosea 6:4,6).
The trouble with priests who cheapen grace is threefold:
They set themselves against God and His desire that all people be saved by knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:3-4); they do a great disservice to the people they are charged with serving (Luke 22:26); and they not only neglect to proclaim the Church’s constant moral teachings, they set themselves in opposition to the many priests who love God and care enough to preach about sin, thereby causing confusion among the laity.
How many times have you heard a Catholic say: I thought the Church changed its teaching on contraception, homosexual behavior, IVF, etc.? This confusion would not exist if all priests preached against the multitude of sins that are destroying our world.
Bonhoeffer understood that grace is free but not cheap. Thus, he wrote, “Costly grace…calls us to follow.” Costly grace has infinite value because it is distributed to us by the infinite God whose Son paid the infinite price for our eternal salvation. Although we could never pay Him back for His priceless sacrifice, we are obliged to do good works and to reject all forms of sin. In other words, we are called to a holy life that in no way cheapens the grace we have received through no merit of our own.
Our Response to Grace
All people are called by grace to Christ and His Catholic Church, and all Catholics are called to a sacramental life with Christ. We are called to Baptism in which our sins are washed away and through which we enter the Body of Christ, His Church. If we mortally sin after being washed, we are called to contrition and auricular confession, which not only results in our forgiveness, but strengthens us in our walk with Christ, so that we may not continue in our sins.
We are called to Communion in which we receive the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of our Savior. This is true food for our earthly journey and our ongoing battle against the principalities, powers, world rulers of this present darkness, and the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places (Ephesians 6:12).
Rather than cheap grace, which results in slothful mindsets and behavior, we receive grace that strengthens us to inquire, learn, adhere, fight, purify, love, share, and help. Bear in mind that grace is not cheap because of its nature but because of our unwillingness to do the good we are obliged to do.
Jesus tells us to “be perfect…as [our] Heavenly Father is perfect,” (Matthew 5:48) and He would not have given us such a command without the grace to live it. Unfortunately, many in our Church have not heard this message, or they have not heard it since their Confirmation classes years ago.
All of this leads to a brief story. The pastor, the only priest at the parish, never (not hyperbole) preaches about any of the moral issues (e.g. abortion, contraception, euthanasia, pornography, masturbation, adultery, fornication, homosexual behavior, drug/alcohol abuse, gluttony, etc.) that plague our culture. I have respectfully asked him twice to preach on these issues. He refused my requests both times citing his discomfort in upsetting parishioners. I advised him that these parishioners were probably the ones who needed to hear this message the most and that, as a priest, he has a God-given mandate to preach the entire gospel.
If this priest had been preaching the entire gospel during his years as pastor, he would not have such a concern. Either these foolish parishioners would have left the parish long ago or they would have had a conversion of heart, mind, and soul because of the preaching.
Priests have a moral responsibility to preach the entire gospel message, not just the lovey-dovey parts, and parishioners have a right to hold their priests accountable to that fundamental aspect of the priestly vocation. Hearing the same message repeatedly causes its intellectual appeal to be lost, but a well-formed homily on sin is inspirational.
The laity have a duty to advise our priests when they are being negligent with the gospel message. Why should a priest or any Catholic stand before God with the blood of countless aborted babies on their hands or with a multitude of other sins on their souls because priests were too afraid to speak against sin?
Call to Action
I know the “cheap grace” problem affects many parishes, and the laity, who are members of the royal priesthood of the faithful (1 Peter 2:9), are responsible for bringing this problem to their priests’ attention. Therefore, if you are at a parish in which moral issues are rarely or never preached at the Mass, say something to your priest and find others who will do the same; hold him accountable. Write a letter to your priest expressing your concerns and dissatisfaction. Feel free to use a letter template I wrote for this very purpose.
Get to know your priest and be a volunteer at your parish. In other words, be a part of the solution. Read the bible and the Catechism to build up your knowledge of Church teachings. Read Vatican II’s Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity. Talk to your deacon or associate priest and ask them to discuss this matter with the pastor. Pray and fast for your priest.
God knows the reason for a priest’s reluctance to preach about sin, and only He can remove the barriers. Finally, be prepared to find another parish but exercise prudence before doing so. Above all, be firm in Christ and the truths He preaches through his Holy Spirit-led Church.
Unfortunately, cheap grace has become an all too common “ideal” in many of our parishes. So, please work with your pastor to restore costly grace. Our culture and countless souls cannot wait for the lethargic Church hierarchy to admonish dissenting or negligent priests. Lethargy breeds lethargy and only prayer, charitable actions, and fraternal correction will help our Church return to its proper role as moral teacher to a world full of cheap grace.