Q. I often hear references, both in worship and in religious teaching, to “fear of the Lord.” I struggle with this because I think of God as so forgiving and passionate in his love for the people he has created. Do we really mean “fear,” or just the highest respect? (Farmington Hills, Mich.)
A. The word “fear,” in many people’s minds, has a negative connotation. But closer study shows there are really two kinds of fear — servile and filial. “Servile” comes from the Latin word for slave, and that sort of fear is self-centered, worried about being punished for a misdeed. “Filial” is from the Latin for son or daughter, and filial fear is inspired by love.
It is the desire never to disappoint a parent or to betray a trust; filial fear is based on wonder and awe, reverence and respect.
Your question tells me that you understand this distinction. It is the second sort, filial fear, that is meant in the Book of Proverbs 9:10, when it says fear of the Lord is “the beginning of wisdom”; this is also the type of fear referred to when the Acts of the Apostles 9:31 says of the early Christians: “The church throughout all Judea, Galilee and Samaria was at peace. It was being built up and walked in the fear of the Lord, and with the consolation of the Holy Spirit it grew in numbers.”
Without forgetting that there are consistent reminders in the Scriptures about divine retribution for sinfulness, a Christian should primarily be motivated not by fright but by fidelity, by a desire to return God’s lavish love.
I sometimes ask people to tell me the first image they think of when I say the word “God.” To some extent, this is a function of personality type and, perhaps even more, of a person’s early religious education.
For me — and, I suspect, for many — that first image used to be of some giant scorekeeper in the sky, writing pluses and minuses on a large blackboard. But no more; now I think, instead, of the father of the prodigal son, running down the road to throw his arms around his once-wayward boy and saying, “It’s OK. Don’t worry about it. You’re home. Let’s have a party.”
That is the image Jesus projects of his heavenly Father, someone much more ready to embrace us than to punish.
Q. Regarding vocations to the priesthood, what is the church’s stance on whether to let a homosexual person enroll in the seminary? (North Plainfield, N.J.)
A. Bishops and religious superiors exercise a fair amount of discretion in admitting candidates to the priesthood. In 2005, the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education issued an “instruction.” It said, in part, that the church “cannot admit to the seminary or to holy orders those who practice homosexuality, present deep-seated homosexual tendencies or support the so-called ‘gay culture.'”
Far from settling the matter, this document engendered considerable discussion and a range of opinions.
All church authorities would agree that no one living an active homosexual lifestyle may be admitted — in the same way as someone who was active heterosexually would be disqualified. All would demand a suitable period of celibacy — three years, perhaps — before considering either a heterosexual or a homosexual candidate. All would require that a candidate be pledged not to “campaign” against church teaching.
The difference in interpretation revolves principally around the Vatican’s prohibition against admitting those who “present deep-seated homosexual tendencies.” Some bishops have seen the Vatican’s statement as virtually ruling out candidates with a homosexual orientation; they argue that the all-male environment of a seminary simply presents too much of a risk.
Other bishops continue to admit such candidates to the seminary, so long as they are firmly committed to a life of chaste and faithful celibacy; they argue that there have always been priests with a homosexual orientation who have lived chaste, faithful and pastorally effective lives.
Questions may be sent to Father Kenneth Doyle at email@example.com and 40 Hopewell St., Albany, N.Y. 12208.