Archive for the ‘Catholic Teaching’ Category

The Way Forward on Marriage and Family

Friday, October 24th, 2014

The dust has now settled a bit after the tumultuous Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family.  Viewed from afar, the two-week meeting of bishops was filled with fascinating stories, from allegations of internal intrigue to the emergence of the African bishops as major players in the universal Church.  Western news sources, of course, fixated on their favorite issues — homosexual and divorced couples — and treated the deliberative assembly as if it were an American political convention (or a mixed-martial arts match).

Since the issue at hand — the health and care of the family — is so important to me, I thought it would be worth adding a few reflections of my own about what has happened.

The first thing I would note is that I have virtually no interest in the internal politics of the Vatican and the episcopacy, and I think it’s probably unhealthy for people to focus on such things.  I’ve had a limited view into the engine room of the barque of Peter for 20 years now (to use Ronald Knox’s phrase), and if there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s that fretting about all these kinds of things accomplishes nothing for the state of my soul or to advance the Kingdom of God.

Of course, it’s still frustrating to watch the internal operations of the Church in action.   But I just don’t see that I can do anything worthwhile about it, beyond praying that the bishops and the Holy See (particularly the press office) someday become acquainted with the notion of message discipline.

As far as the substance of the Synod, it seems clear to me that the Holy Father has a pastoral agenda that he intends to implement to lead the Church.  It’s laid out in the Aparecida document (issued by the Latin American bishops in 2007, which the Holy Father helped write when he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires) and his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium.  It’s a renewed focus on evangelization and outreach, particularly to those who are marginalized and alienated, with an emphasis on the basic proclamation of the Gospel as a source of meaning and hope.  The bishops as a body are generally on board with that agenda.

In the context of the specific topic of the Extraordinary Synod, I think that it may prove to be a significant turning point for Church, and that it will help the bishops to focus on responding to the real problems with the family and marriage.  Instead of getting bogged down on the “hot topics” that the Western media is obsessed with, I hope that the bishops will now be able to recognize the real crisis in marriage — under the baneful influence of moral relativism and gender and sexual liberation ideology, as well as the sinful human tendency to hedonism, society has lost a notion of the importance of authentic marriage, and why it should be encouraged and supported.  I don’t know what the pastoral strategy will ultimately be in response to this, or how the bishops will respond to the special cases of divorced people, or those living in same-sex relationships.  But if they can keep their eye on the ball of how to preach the truth about marriage, and work to strengthen actual marriages, I think they’ll be on the right track.

So for me, the challenge is to prayerfully assent to the will of the Church, as expressed by Her hierarchy, to be obedient to my superiors, and not to be too distracted by speculation and second-guessing. Psalm 131 is wonderfully consoling to me in this regard.  In the meantime, I have to continue the apostolic work that God has given me, and strive to develop the virtues necessary for that work, trusting that God’s providence is somehow guiding it, and guiding the Church as a whole.

Tone and Substance

Wednesday, October 15th, 2014

There has already been a great deal of controversy in the Catholic blogosphere over the document released on October 13 by the Extraordinary Synod on the Family.  The Relatio, as it is technically called, is an interim document that essentially is a summary of the discussion so far by the bishops at the Synod, and a prelude of the next phase of the discussion.  It bears no doctrinal weight at all.  It’s like a working early draft of what will be discussed at the regular Synod of Bishops in 2015, and that eventually may form a part of an apostolic exhortation to be issued by the pope in 2016.

Much of the controversy has centered on the alleged change of tone in the document regarding homosexual persons.  And, admittedly, the document says some startling things about the proper attitude we should have towards our homosexual brethren, such as:

The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies… must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.

Or this:

These persons are called to fulfill God’s will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord’s Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition.

Or even this:

Homosexual persons are called to chastity. By the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom, at times by the support of disinterested friendship, by prayer and sacramental grace, they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection.

Scandalous abandonment of the traditional Catholic condemnation of homosexuals, right? How could they have forgotten to say this:

The Church furthermore affirms that unions between people of the same sex cannot be considered on the same footing as matrimony between man and woman.

Well, actually, the first three passages aren’t from the supposedly-liberal/radical Relatio at all — they’re direct quotations from the allegedly arch-conservative Catechism of the Catholic Church, sections 2358 and 2359, issued by Pope John Paul II and written under the direct guidance of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (who later became Pope Benedict XVI).  Only the last passage is from the new Relatio.  

Maybe it’s not such a ground-breaking ecclesiastical earthquake, after all.  The fact of the matter is that the Relatio reflects a mindset among the bishops that is very much in keeping with the Catechism, and that is — or at least should be — old hat among Catholics.  While we cannot accept the morality of any sexual sin or the validity of same-sex “marriages”, we still have to relate to homosexual persons as people made in the image and likeness of God, subject to the same sad legacy of concupiscence (i.e., “disordered inclinations”) as all of us, but who are loved by God and should be loved by us.

That’s nothing new in Catholicism, even if we have sadly failed to make it clear in our public statements.  I am as guilty of this as anyone.

There are some rather striking passages in the Relatio, in which the bishops note the existence of positive elements in imperfect relationships (such as cohabitation of men and women, and in same-sex unions).  In my mind, this is a crucial hint as to the pastoral strategy that our bishops — and most likely the Holy Father — are leading us towards.  It will not involve the slightest adjustment of doctrine, but it is indeed a change in tone and emphasis.

To get this, we need to think long and carefully about what, to me, is the most interesting phrase in the Relatio.  It is a very striking statement about the mission of the Church:

Following the expansive gaze of Christ, whose light illuminates every man (cf. Jn 1,9; cf. Gaudium et Spes, 22), the Church turns respectfully to those who participate in her life in an incomplete and imperfect way, appreciating the positive values they contain rather than their limitations and shortcomings.

The gaze of Christ is one of invitation, which calls us to a response, which has consequences for how we live.  But the love comes first, and that’s what will attract people to the Lord.

Encounter and Evangelization

Wednesday, September 10th, 2014

In this time of rapidly shifting cultural values — usually not for the better — the Church and Catholics are struggling to find the right way to proclaim the Gospel and live according to our faith.  The public witness of the Church and Catholics is becoming increasingly difficult, as our government and secularized culture becomes more hostile to us.  Each new day seems to bring a new challenge, and everyday Catholics are confused, uncertain, and frequently upset.

I think that in times like these, it’s crucial to make sure that we remind ourselves of the fundamentals.

The entire purpose of the Church is not to decide who can attend what dinner, or who can be part of a parade. The mission of the Church is to bring people into a loving encounter with Jesus Christ. That means we have to bring people to the real Jesus, and the model for this is the story with the woman caught in adultery (John 8:2-11).

That meeting involved two things — compassion and conversion. Both are essential, and can never be separated. The woman was treated with compassion and mercy by Jesus, and thus was open to his call to conversion. If we fail to present both aspects of the encounter, we are lying to people and presenting a false Jesus — he’s not just about mercy, and he’s not only about conversion (and he’s never about condemnation). The real Jesus simultaneously says “I love you even when you’ve sinned”, and “come, follow me”.

I think our Holy Father and our own Archbishop have realized that there are significant impediments in our culture to hearing the Gospel message, and thus people are unwilling to come to meet Jesus.  In the minds of all too many people, we are not seen as merciful and compassionate, but judgmental and condemnatory.  In response, our leaders have decided that we have to emphasize the message of mercy, so that people will be more open to hearing the message of conversion. In his closing remarks to the young men and women who attended World Youth Day in Rio, Pope Francis said this:

Every one of you, each in his or her own way, was a means enabling thousands of young people to “prepare the way” to meet Jesus. And this is the most beautiful service we can give as missionary disciples. To prepare the way so that all people may know, meet and love the Lord.

This is the task of the New Evangelization, and of the Church.  We have to make sure that when people encounter us, they’re encountering Christ, and feel both his compassion and his call to conversion.  When they see his face in our face, we will be fulfilling our mission.

Trying to Think about Immigration

Monday, July 21st, 2014

The debate over immigration has reached a fever pitch in America, fueled by the heart-rending spectacle of the plight of all those unaccompanied children who have been coming to our southern border in recent months.

I am no expert on immigration, but I’ve been trying to think about this issue from a Catholic perspective, guided by the teachings of our bishops and our Holy Father. It seems to me that there are a number of fundamental principles that are in tension in this area, and it extraordinarily difficult to make them all fit together well.

Let’s take as our starting point a teaching from St. John XXIII, in his encyclical Pacem in Terris:

Every human being has the right to freedom of movement and of residence within the confines of his own country; and, when there are just reasons for it, the right to emigrate to other countries and take up residence there. The fact that one is a citizen of a particular State does not detract in any way from his membership in the human family as a whole, nor from his citizenship in the world community (25).

The Catechism of the Catholic Church summarizes the basic issues very clearly:

The more prosperous nations are obliged, to the extent they are able, to welcome the foreigner in search of the security and the means of livelihood which he cannot find in his country of origin. Public authorities should see to it that the natural right is respected that places a guest under the protection of those who receive him. Political authorities, for the sake of the common good for which they are responsible, may make the exercise of the right to immigrate subject to various juridical conditions, especially with regard to the immigrants’ duties toward their country of adoption. Immigrants are obliged to respect with gratitude the material and spiritual heritage of the country that receives them, to obey its laws and to assist in carrying civic burdens. (2241)

These principles show us that the way we think about this problem is the key consideration.  There is no question that our civil authorities have an obligation to preserve and protect the common good of our particular political society, which includes enactment and enforcement of just laws. People have a right to emigrate to seek prosperity and freedom for themselves and their families, but they also have an obligation to obey the laws of the nation they enter.

But we always have to remember that human laws and political structures don’t exist as ends in themselves, and they don’t have the preeminent place in the hierarchy of goods. They don’t define the full scope of human aspiration or fulfillment. States are purely provisional entities that exist solely to provide for the good of the people within them.  I love America, but it is not a divinely-ordained institution, and it is not essential to the divine will or to the plan of salvation. To think otherwise can come very close to a form of idolatry.

As a result, we have to think outside of our political boundaries, and be concerned with all members of the human family — not just those who happen to hold a particular citizenship, or who speak a certain language, or who had the good fortune to have ancestors who emigrated prior to a certain date, or who managed to find a home within some arbitrary political boundaries.

Our policy solutions also can’t be dominated solely by economic factors.  We have to beware of any way of thinking that treats immigrants as mere means to be used for ends, welcomed to the extent that they are useful to us and discarded when they are not. People are not objects, and must be treated as the image of God among us.

Articulating these principles is easy.  Finding the right policies to implement them is certainly not so easy.  Our bishops and the Holy Father are not saying that we have to have open borders, or that people can disregard the law at a whim.  They are saying that we need to address the humanitarian needs of immigrants — particularly the unaccompanied children — as best we can, as our top priority.  We then have to work to reunite them with family members, without just throwing them on buses back or interning them in refugee camps.  Long-term answers would then include repatriation, or admitting them as refugees or as temporary residents based on an evaluation of their individual cases.

On top of this, we have to make sure that we work with the governments in the source and transit countries to improve the awful social conditions that have led to this emigration, and to prevent exploitation of migrants.  This is crucial.  The drug trade — largely fueled by drug use in America — has led to a disastrous disintegration of much of Latin American society.  The problem of immigration can’t be addressed without confronting this reality, and accepting our responsibility for correcting it.

When we listen to the Catholic perspective on this issue, we see that persons come first in our considerations, and our priorities start to fall into place.  We won’t’t make decisions based on fear, suspicion, party politics, or prejudice.   And we can work together to formulate sensible public policies that promote the common good and respect the fundamental human rights and needs of all.

The Holy Father Puts First Things First

Thursday, September 19th, 2013

The Holy Father recently gave a lengthy interview to a Jesuit journalist, and it has now been published around the world.  The secular media, once again displaying their strange ideological obsessions (and their habitual failure of reading comprehension), has cherry-picked some quotations on their favorite topics, resulting in some serious misinformation about what the Pope really said.

The interview itself is long, and very rich in content.  I urge everyone to read the original, and not the New York Times version.  I actually think that it will take several readings to get the full impact of our Holy Father’s thoughts.

One thing that’s clear is that the Pope is not changing any Church teaching, nor is he criticizing the way that the Church has taught about the “hot button” issues of abortion, contraception, and homosexuality.

It really is a beautiful and evangelical interview — the Holy Father does a wonderful job of expressing the essence of the New Evangelization.  To read his words, you clearly see his vision of the Church’s mission — to proclaim to the world that the Church is open to everyone who wants to come to God, even with all our imperfections.  So, for example, he says this:

This church with which we should be thinking is the home of all, not a small chapel that can hold only a small group of selected people. We must not reduce the bosom of the universal church to a nest protecting our mediocrity. And the church is Mother; the church is fruitful. It must be.

As for his comment about the “hot button” issues, Pope Francis said this:

A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality. I replied with another question: ‘Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?’ We must always consider the person. Here we enter into the mystery of the human being. In life, God accompanies persons, and we must accompany them, starting from their situation. It is necessary to accompany them with mercy. When that happens, the Holy Spirit inspires the priest to say the right thing….

We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.

The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent. The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently.

He’s right, of course.  We can’t reduce Church teaching to just the issues of abortion, contraception and homosexuality.  It’s about so much more than that — the essence of the Christian life is to have life and love in communion with God and each other, not just to follow rules.  The irony is that the world makes just that same error that they accuse us of — they think that we’re all about those issues and nothing else.  But that just means that they’ve missed the point of what the Holy Father was talking about.

The key point is that the Holy Father wants us to put first things first:

We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel.  The proposal of the Gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant. It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow.

That means that our focus must always be on the Gospel of Jesus Christ, his mission to us sinners and his offer of peace and healing and redemption.

If only the media would focus on this section of the Pope’s interview:

I see clearly that the thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds…. And you have to start from the ground up.

The message of the Holy Father continues to engage and attract the world.  May his words lead more and more people to the beauties of the Gospel and to the love of God.

The Holy Father Gets to the Heart of the Matter

Friday, January 4th, 2013

In the comments box of one of my recent posts about the redefinition of marriage, I had an interesting discussion with a homosexual gentleman about the nature of sexuality.

In that discussion, our essential disagreement came down to a fundamental point about what it is to be human.  As I framed the question (I’ve cut and pasted from separate comments to boil this down to its clearest expression),

The whole idea of “gender” reflected in your posts is that it’s just a bundle of attributes that are largely socially determined, and that can be revised according to the subjective desires of the individual… Our position rests on the notion that sexual difference can’t be assumed away. The complementary (i.e., different, equal, and necessarily interdependent) nature of male and female sexuality is a constitutive element of what it is to be a human being.

The Holy Father has now addressed this point directly and powerfully, in his annual address to the Curia — what you might call his “State of the Church and the World Address”.  His comments, which come in the context of a discussion of the threats to the family, are worth quoting at length (my emphasis is added in bold):

[T]he question of the family is not just about a particular social construct, but about man himself – about what he is and what it takes to be authentically human

The Chief Rabbi of France, Gilles Bernheim, has shown in a very detailed and profoundly moving study that the attack we are currently experiencing on the true structure of the family, made up of father, mother, and child, goes much deeper. While up to now we regarded a false understanding of the nature of human freedom as one cause of the crisis of the family, it is now becoming clear that the very notion of being – of what being human really means – is being called into question. He quotes the famous saying of Simone de Beauvoir: “one is not born a woman, one becomes so” (on ne naît pas femme, on le devient). These words lay the foundation for what is put forward today under the term “gender” as a new philosophy of sexuality. According to this philosophy, sex is no longer a given element of nature, that man has to accept and personally make sense of: it is a social role that we choose for ourselves, while in the past it was chosen for us by society.

The profound falsehood of this theory and of the anthropological revolution contained within it is obvious. People dispute the idea that they have a nature, given by their bodily identity, that serves as a defining element of the human being. They deny their nature and decide that it is not something previously given to them, but that they make it for themselves. According to the biblical creation account, being created by God as male and female pertains to the essence of the human creature. This duality is an essential aspect of what being human is all about, as ordained by God. This very duality as something previously given is what is now disputed. The words of the creation account: “male and female he created them” (Gen 1:27) no longer apply. No, what applies now is this: it was not God who created them male and female – hitherto society did this, now we decide for ourselves.

Man and woman as created realities, as the nature of the human being, no longer exist. Man calls his nature into question. From now on he is merely spirit and will. The manipulation of nature, which we deplore today where our environment is concerned, now becomes man’s fundamental choice where he himself is concerned. From now on there is only the abstract human being, who chooses for himself what his nature is to be. Man and woman in their created state as complementary versions of what it means to be human are disputed.

But if there is no pre-ordained duality of man and woman in creation, then neither is the family any longer a reality established by creation. Likewise, the child has lost the place he had occupied hitherto and the dignity pertaining to him. Bernheim shows that now, perforce, from being a subject of rights, the child has become an object to which people have a right and which they have a right to obtain. When the freedom to be creative becomes the freedom to create oneself, then necessarily the Maker himself is denied and ultimately man too is stripped of his dignity as a creature of God, as the image of God at the core of his being. The defence of the family is about man himself. And it becomes clear that when God is denied, human dignity also disappears. Whoever defends God is defending man.

The Holy Father thus gets to the precise center of the question — the debate about marriage and family is, at its heart, about the nature of the human person.  It is in the end a question about “who created me”.  The modernist approach is to create myself in my own image and likeness, making myself into my own little god, answerable to no objective or higher truth.  We’ve already seen how that false and destructive approach works (see Genesis 3, and the entire history of the Twentieth Century).

The Holy Father has pointed to us the way out of this problem — to embrace the truth of our nature and the truth of our origin, and to defend the social expressions of those truths in marriage and the family.

There Is Another Way

Saturday, September 15th, 2012

Over the last week, like many Americans, I have watched the news videos of violence around the world.  I have been shocked and angered by the attacks on American embassies and Western businesses, and the murder of innocent persons.  I have also listened and read the responses of our political leaders and pundits — all of whom, it seems, are advocating for retaliation, the use of force, and more violence.

But there is another way here.  We do not always have to resort to more violence, more killing.  Legitimate self-defense is necessary, but we have to question and challenge every use of force.  Violence is not the only way to deal with problems.  There is also the way of peace.

Pope Benedict is in Lebanon right now, giving a courageous personal witness to that way.  And he is using his position as Vicar of Christ to tell us that we need to seek peace and justice, and not to perpetuate the violence.   His address to the public officials who greeted him in Lebanon is a profound and eloquent call to the way of peace, and should be read, studied, and taken to heart by all our political leaders.

A few highlights are worth sharing here. On the dignity of the human person as the foundation of a peaceful society:

The energy needed to build and consolidate peace also demands that we constantly return to the wellsprings of our humanity. Our human dignity is inseparable from the sacredness of life as the gift of the Creator. In God’s plan, each person is unique and irreplaceable. A person comes into this world in a family, which is the first locus of humanization, and above all the first school of peace. To build peace, we need to look to the family, supporting it and facilitating its task, and in this way promoting an overall culture of life. The effectiveness of our commitment to peace depends on our understanding of human life. If we want peace, let us defend life! This approach leads us to reject not only war and terrorism, but every assault on innocent human life, on men and women as creatures willed by God… We must combine our efforts, then, to develop a sound vision of man, respectful of the unity and integrity of the human person. Without this, it is impossible to build true peace.

On the need for solidarity among people as the path to peace:

Mankind is one great family for which all of us are responsible. By questioning, directly or indirectly, or even before the law, the inalienable value of each person and the natural foundation of the family, some ideologies undermine the foundations of society. We need to be conscious of these attacks on our efforts to build harmonious coexistence. Only effective solidarity can act as an antidote, solidarity that rejects whatever obstructs respect for each human being, solidarity that supports policies and initiatives aimed at bringing peoples together in an honest and just manner…  Nowadays, our cultural, social and religious differences should lead us to a new kind of fraternity wherein what rightly unites us is a shared sense of the greatness of each person and the gift which others are to themselves, to those around them and to all humanity. This is the path to peace! This is the commitment demanded of us! This is the approach which ought to guide political and economic decisions at every level and on a global scale!

And on conversion of heart that all are called to:

A new and freer way of looking at these realities will enable us to evaluate and challenge those human systems which lead to impasses, and to move forward with due care not to repeat past mistakes with their devastating consequences. The conversion demanded of us can also be exhilarating, since it creates possibilities by appealing to the countless resources present in the hearts of all those men and women who desire to live in peace and are prepared to work for peace. True, it is quite demanding: it involves rejecting revenge, acknowledging one’s faults, accepting apologies without demanding them, and, not least, forgiveness. Only forgiveness, given and received, can lay lasting foundations for reconciliation and universal peace.

The Holy Father is calling upon all of us to look at the deplorable situation in our world in a new light — the light of the Gospel, which is the light of love.  We must demand that our political leaders break free of the false consciousness that impels them to advocate for violence in response to violence, to force in opposition to force, and to power against power.

God demands that we live in peace with our brethren around the world, regardless of our differences.  Our Holy Father is showing us the way.  Let us pray that our political leaders will see that, and choose the way of peace.

Hard Cases, Small Steps

Thursday, August 23rd, 2012

The political world has been abuzz lately over comments made by a candidate for the U.S. Senate in Missouri.  When asked about whether pro-lifers would accept a ban on abortion that permitted an exception for rape or incest, the candidate made some ill-conceived remarks that seemed to minimize the horror of rape.  This incident has now been used by the forces of the Culture of Death (including their allies in the media) to flog pro-lifers as being radical or anti-woman.

Some clarification and explanation is in order.

The unquestioned goal of the pro-life movement is a conversion of the hearts of individuals, and thus of our culture, so that every innocent life is protected from conception until natural death.  This protection will involve changes in the law so that the practice — and even the concept — of abortion would be completely eradicated from our land.  Given our presumption that every human life has inestimable value, and that innocent life cannot be taken, we work towards the ultimate goal of enacting laws to prohibit abortion with no exceptions.  One vehicle for this would be a Human Life Amendment.

In short, we aim to build a Culture of Life, in which all lives are valued.  To get a glimpse of this goal, and how we can get there, I suggest that people read the great statement by the United States Bishops, Living the Gospel of Life.

Unfortunately, our culture is not yet ready to accept the changes in attitude and in law that we are seeking.  While there have been shifts in public opinion over the years in favor of the pro-life position, there are still a large number of individuals who either approve of abortion, or who are willing to tolerate it for a perceived “greater good”.  We must redouble our efforts to reach out to our brothers and sisters who believe this, to convert their hearts.

One way that we seek to achieve this conversion of heart is by taking  incremental steps towards our ultimate goal — in short, building a Culture of Life, brick by brick.  This is why we support measures that limit and restrict abortion in various ways, such as parental notification laws, bans on late-term abortions, and such.  By supporting these initiatives, we are not accepting the morality of abortion — we are seeking to mitigate the damage, and to use these bills as a vehicle to educate people about abortion, as a way of calling them to conversion.  This approach to legislation was specifically approved by Pope John Paul II in his encyclical The Gospel of Life (see paragraph 73).

This is where the “rape exception” comes into play.  Pro-lifers hold steadfastly to the fundamental truth that a baby conceived in a rape is an innocent human being whose life may never be directly terminated.  We see rape as a horrific act, an inexcusable violation of the dignity of a woman, a depraved crime that should be severely punished by law.  We believe that a woman victimized by rape must receive our support as she strives for healing.  But we do not accept that the path to healing passes through the abortion clinic.  We firmly believe that one cannot heal a victim of violence, by taking the life of another innocent person.

Unfortunately, many people disagree with us — people who either consider themselves pro-life, or who are willing to support some of our goals.  These people are potential allies as we try to pass common-sense laws to restrict abortion.  We wish to build alliances and coalitions with these potential supporters, not alienate them.  So, many pro-lifers in the political and policy arena are willing to tolerate a “rape exception” to a ban on abortion.   That is not to say that we consider such an exception as a final goal — but we take what we can get, when we can get it, and press on from there, always moving forwards.

There’s an old adage that “hard cases make bad law”.  They also make unsatisfactory compromises, and disappointment.  But they sometimes can produce small steps towards our ultimate goal.

 

“Liberal Christianity” and the Real Church

Thursday, July 19th, 2012

In my last post, I considered a question of Catholic identity, stemming from a story about the Diocese of Arlington, and their request that all catechists make a profession of faith.

A second item in the press has also raised the question of Catholic identity.  In the New York Times, Ross Douthat, one of the most perceptive observers of modern religious trends, wrote on the question “Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?”.   The focus is on the Episcopal Church, but the piece (and his recent book, “Bad Religion”) is also a challenge to us as Catholics to consider the identity of our own Church.

“Liberal Christianity” is a notoriously protean entity, but it can be found in every Christian community, including the Church.  It has variously been known under the term “modernism”, or “revisionism”.  It is often conflated with political liberalism, but the two are not always or necessarily connected or identical.  Theological liberalism’s characteristics include:

  • A rejection of Church teaching authority either in whole or in part;  this is frequently seen  in assertions or implications that there are other sources of authority that are entitled to equal or greater weight than the Magisterium on matters of faith and morals (e.g.,  the writings of academic theologians, the alleged consensus of the people, the beliefs of other religions, etc.);
  • Promoting the idea that Revelation is subject to continual revision based on the purported lessons of modern science or philosophy; we see this most often in calls for the Church to “update outmoded teachings” or to “get with the times”;
  • A dislike or open disregard for certain aspects of Church law, particularly those that require doctrinal fidelity for individuals or institutions (e.g., Pope John Paul’s decree Ex Corde Ecclesiae on the fidelity of theologians and universities) or the liturgical rubrics;
  • Proposing the revision of moral doctrine based on the common behavior of people (i.e., their sins), the results of opinion polls, or developments in contemporary philosophy or psychology;  this is particularly focused on sexual matters (e.g., contraception or homosexual acts), and is very popular in Catholic academia (as was seen in the recent  Notification by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that a book by a prominent theologian was incompatible with the teaching of the Church);
  • Negative attitudes towards traditional devotions and liturgy; this can be seen in some of the opposition to the new translation of the Ordinary Form of the Mass, and in the contempt and hostility of some towards the Extraordinary Form;
  • A distorted notion of the absolute autonomy of individual conscience, without recognizing that conscience must always be formed by the teachings of the Church and subject to the commands of God;
  • A sense of the post-Conciliar Church characterized by what Pope Benedict has called “a hermeneutic of rupture” from tradition; we all know this as the amorphous “Spirit of Vatican II”, which has led to all sorts of innovations and abuses that have no basis in the actual teachings of the Council or the traditional teachings or practices of the Church.
  • Those of us raised in the 1960′s and 1970′s are very familiar with this brand of “liberal Catholicism”.  We have all been immersed in it, and have seen its failure, which led Cardinal George to call it “an exhausted project… [that] no longer gives life”.  There are many, many flaws in liberal Christianity, and Cardinal George does an excellent job of dissecting the corpse.

    Douthat’s piece in the Times focuses our attention particularly on the failure of liberal Christianity — and liberal Catholicism in particular — to properly understand the nature and purpose of the Church.  In that view, the Church is merely another sociological phenomenon, no different from any other worldly entity, the purpose of which is limited to worldly matters — to empower people (women, minorities, etc.), redress historical grievances, effect political change, and so on.

    This fails to understand the nature of the Church.  She is the Body of Christ, His Bride, and is, in a deep existential sense, inseparable from Him.  Although made up of flawed and imperfect humans, we can never speak of the Church without speaking of Christ Himself. She is human, indeed, but She is also divine.  As both a human and divine entity, the Church respects both the human and divine aspects of every person.

    So, the purpose of the Church is also not limited to human affairs.  Her ultimate purpose is to bring people into a loving relationship with Jesus Christ — an encounter with a real person — so that people can come to know the Father through the Spirit, and thus attain eternal life.   While the  earthly activities of the Church are valuable and must be pursued out of obedience to the will of God, they all take a distant second place to that fundamental task of bringing people to God.

    Liberal Christianity doesn’t think of the Church that way, and never speaks of Her that way. That is why, as Cardinal George pointed out, it “no longer gives life”.  Indeed, that is why liberal Christianity is diminishing in numbers and influence, because their interests (politics, sexual innovation, environmentalism, etc.) do not appeal to the basic desire of people to know and love God.  As evidenced by its obsession with separating sexuality from fertility, liberal Christianity is sterile, and we all know where sterility leads.

    The real Church, which passionately loves Her devoted Bridegroom, longs to bring everyone to know Him as well.  She is focused on the final goal — life forever in the eternal exchange of love that is God’s own life.

    Our real Church is rich and fecund, and will always bear fruit.