"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Friday, July 08, 2005

The project continued

In the latter third of the previous century, the Vatican issued three major documents about human life that were mostly focused on sexuality and procreation: Humanae Vitae (1968), about birth control; Donum Vitae (1987) about artificial procreation; and Evangelium Vitae (1995), about the sanctity of life in general and the horror of abortion in particular. Their message and their arguments continue to escape most people; on birth control and artificial procreation at any rate, they continue to escape even most Catholics. So if Catholics are going to evangelize today's secular culture—starting with themselves, to the extent they have imbibed it—the message about such issues must sink in far more deeply among them than it has been doing since Vatican II. So much has been said before, but few seem to have a clear proposal for bringing it about. I propose to sketch an approach to redressing that lack.

I do not propose to expound the arguments of said documents in detail; even if most Catholics don’t read them, there are plenty of popular expositions of and academic colloquia about the subject matter. But I have yet to see these things put into a compelling intellectual context that could get theologians and clergy, who don’t seem to have helped matters much as a class, thinking about them in a more inspiring way. The pivot is John Paul II’s “theology of the body,” which George Weigel has (approvingly) called a “theological time-bomb” still ticking in the Church. That theology could form the basis of a new teaching document entitled Sacramentum Vitae; since I doubt that Pope Benedict will make an encyclical out of that title, I'll just write a book with it as my own pontification. What is needed for such a project is a renewed yet economical emphasis on what is distinctive of Catholic theology itself and in general.

That it is “the pelvic issues,” more than any others, which corrode faith among Catholics today has become such a media commonplace that it is no longer the embarrassment to the bishops that it should be. After the sex-abuse scandal, of course, one wonders what could or would embarrass anymore; but the often-cynical dissent about abortion, contraception, in vitro fertilization, homosexual acts, remarriage after divorce, priestly celibacy, and the restriction of ordination to men makes it too easy to believe that the problem people have with Catholicism these days is just that it doesn’t sanction opportunities for sensual pleasure and personal self-fulfillment that contemporary Western culture has made readily accessible to the masses. That is indeed a serious problem; but it is not a theological problem and is no more peculiar to our age than to that of the Roman Empire—when all the above-mentioned activities, with the exception of artificial procreation, were common and accepted along with priestesses. (I can only imagine what the ancient Romans would have done with babies-to-go in a Petri dish.) Such a problem signifies only the appeal of the world and the flesh, which has always made it harder to behave than to believe, especially regarding sex; when adopted, the solution comes at the level of individual holiness rather than that of discursive theology. Yet the problem I have in mind is at once deeper spiritually and more amenable to theological treatment: most Catholics do not begin to understand—any more than people in general do—the necessity and the very catholicity of Catholic teaching on the pelvic issues.

That is only incidentally because of generally execrable adult catechesis, which is as spottily rectified as it is broadly lamented in the Church. At bottom, it is because the spiritual climate of the West today, generated by the media, the universities, and the courts, fosters a default ideology of personal autonomy. The very ways in which spiritual matters are broached in public discourse encourages people to define spiritual reality for themselves rather than conform themselves to an utterly objective spiritual Reality writ small in the human person herself. That is less about the world and the flesh than about the devil. And that is why it was so ominous that Justice Anthony Kennedy, nominally Catholic and quite possibly oblivious to what is at stake, propounded said ideology as American law in his majority Lawrence opinion over the incisive objections of his fellow Catholic, Justice Antonin Scalia. The confrontation of the enduring faith of the City of God with the City of Man’s ideology of non serviam now takes place, more than ever before, among and within Catholics themselves. Yet I am convinced that part of the solution, at least at the apologetical level, is to frame the Catholic teaching in a way that confronts the ideology of personal autonomy with the beauty of the truth as much as with the truth itself.

The place to begin, heuristically, is with what is often called “the sacramental principle.” That there is no single principle which scholars in general accept as “the” sacramental principle is inconvenient but hardly prophylactic. Sometimes the phrase is used simply to mean that the physical universe has spiritual significance because it expresses (to some extent) the nature of its Creator. That claim is true and fundamental but not specific enough for the purpose at hand. At the other end of the spectrum lies the Catholic teaching that the seven official sacraments, visible signs of invisible grace, actually offer grace ex opere operato: when celebrated as the Church prescribes, they offer grace irrespective of the other dispositions of the minister and recipient. I accept that teaching, and it is pertinent to a degree; yet it is too specific for the purpose at hand. For that purpose I posit the following intermediate working principle: a given concrete reality is sacramental just in case it is a normative means of bringing about the spiritual reality it signifies. Some such principle could do philosophical as well as theological work, and similar formulations may be found in some writers. But there is no need to dilate on that here.

What is usually overlooked, even though evident once stated, is that some of the most distinctively Catholic doctrines instantiate the sacramental principle thus formulated. I allude only in passing to sacramentals, which unlike the seven sacraments only convey grace if used with all the right dispositions. Sacramentals as such are not distinctively Catholic even granted that some sacramentals are. I mean such widely reviled doctrines as those of indulgences, the papacy, the Marian dogmas, and even that of the Church herself. Mutatis mutandis, the same goes for Church teaching about sex, procreation, and gender. I shall take all the aforesaid doctrines in ascending order of relevance.

By papal specification, a member of the faithful can attain an indulgence—a partial or full remission of temporal punishment for sin— only if, among other things, they are “free of all attachment to sin.” So much for buying indulgences as fire insurance. One is tempted to say that an indulgence, like a bank loan, is attainable only if one doesn’t really need it—or at least that most of us won’t get an indulgence when it would be most useful. For as the doctrine of purgatory implies, the primary purpose of temporal punishment is purgative; yet for those unattached to sin, no purgation seems necessary. But all that would miss the point, which is that the sincere performance of such pious acts as are prescribed for indulgences helps to bring about the very inner disposition that is necessary for such acts to be relevantly efficacious. Because the human heart is almost as mysterious as God himself, we can rarely say exactly when and in whom such helps suffice in concreto to gain an indulgence. But if Catholicism is true, then surely they sometimes do suffice. That is sacramental in the sense I have specified. But rare is the Catholic these days, let alone the Protestant, who truly appreciates it.

Grantor of indulgences, the papacy itself claims divine authority to loose or hold bound not only sin but much else. Now Eastern Orthodoxy is willing to grant a certain primacy of honor to the Bishop of Rome, and even primacy of jurisdiction to him as Patriarch of the West, but not primacy of jurisdiction over the universal Church. Though it would be a distraction to recount the reasons for that, it is worth noting a corollary: the Orthodox generally believe the universal Church can do without a single bishop who anchors the Petrine charism of the bishops themselves by exercising Petrine jurisdiction over them. On the Catholic account, such a bishop is precisely what the Church was never intended to do without. Thus, individual bishops exercise authority in their respective dioceses rightly only if they remain in a communion with their brother bishops that entails being in communion with the Apostolic See of Peter. More specifically, the principle of unity that a bishop constitutes for his diocese is mirrored and facilitated by an analogous unity writ large with the head of the episcopal college, who is himself the bishop of a diocese and enjoys no higher a degree of holy orders than any other bishop. Whatever the concrete forms of collegiality are or ought to be, bishops can fully be what they are severally called to be for their people only while collectively maintaining unity under a head who is just as visible as they are and thus constitutes a kind of alter Christi for them. Embodying in a special way the Petrine charism of authority shared by all the bishops, the papacy is a normative means of transmitting and sustaining that charism for the good of the universal Church precisely as such. Indeed, papal primacy is sensible and useful only as a genuinely efficacious sign of what bishops, both individually and collectively, are for. At least as understood by the Catholic Church, then, papal primacy is sacramental in the sense I have specified.

Then there are the Marian dogmas, which often dismay potential converts from Protestantism. As Lumen Gentium stressed, Mary is not sui generis but rather the “type” of the Church herself; the ways in which that is so illustrate the sacramental principle I have posited. Thus the two Marian dogmas unilaterally defined by the papacy—those of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption—are best seen as articulating and developing the insight of the sensus fidelium that Mary is the living paradigm of the fidelis, “the faithful one” among the redeemed. Her Immaculate Conception entails that she was par excellence, by virtue of her Son’s foreseen merits, from the very first moment of her existence what each Christian becomes at baptism; her Assumption entails that, at the end of her earthly life, she immediately became par excellence what each definitively saved person will become when her Son returns here in glory. Indeed all the Marian doctrines do something similar. Highlighting various aspects of her role in what Byzantine theology calls “the economy,” they exhibit Mary as the one who helps her spiritual children to become in our own lesser modes what she already is in the highest mode. She “serves” to bring about universally that “subjective” redemption—made possible only by her Son’s once-for-all “objective” redemption—which is already maximally accomplished in her individually. As the best example of what her divine Son wills for us as individuals within that collectivity which is the Church, she is the efficacious sign thereof.

What the late, great Hans urs von Balthasar called the “Marian” and the “Petrine” charisms within the Church form a spiritual polarity that symbolically recapitulates the intimate relationship between Christ and the Church and thus serves, sacramentally, to cement her unity with him. The Marian charism of receptivity to God, submissive fidelity to Jesus Christ, and fruitfulness in bearing him into the world is fully shared by every member of the faithful, from the bottom to the top; it just is the superordinate, multi-layered gift of grace empowering the Church to be the Bride of Christ and thus, by the power of the Holy Spirit, bear his children into the world. The Petrine charism of teaching and governing authority, invested primarily in bishops and derivatively in priests and deacons, exists to facilitate and serve the Marian by efficaciously signifying Christ as the self-immolating Bridegroom and Head of the Church. Hence the hierarchical nature of the Church—her hieros arché or “sacred order”—is an unpagan kind of hieros gamos, a sacred marriage. Just as Jesus is the male Bridegroom of the Church, all the faithful together as his Bride are female. That is the sacramental sign by which the ecclesia, the assembly of the faithful, is effectively related qua collectivity to her Lord as he intended. Extending that truth to the horizon is the teaching of Lumen Gentium: "By her relationship with Christ, the Church is a kind of sacrament of intimate union with God and of the unity of all mankind, that is, she is a sign and an instrument of such union and unity." As the sacrament of such union, the Church is also the sacrament of salvation (I prefer the Eastern term theosis) for humanity.

That is why the restriction of priestly ordination to men makes sense as a doctrine; why the sacrament of marriage must be heterosexual and indissoluble (cf. Ephesians 5); why the restriction of priestly ordination to avowedly celibate men makes sense as a discipline; indeed why the prescribed celibacy of all religious and many priests, if lived in response to God’s call, is a uniquely grace-bearing form of self-immolation that affirms the spiritual value of marriage even as, according to the Council of Trent, it is spiritually superior to marriage. It is no mere cultural accident that God the Son chose to incarnate himself as a man who applied to himself and the Church the Old-Testament motif of Israel as bride and Yahweh as bridegroom. The Deity didn’t have to choose a highly patriarchal but rather insignificant people as the context for its definitive self-revelation—but it did. The Deity, in itself beyond gender, didn’t have to create a race around the poles of “male and female” as a way to “image” the Deity—but it did. We could not have known, and do not know, any of that a priori. We know of it only by divine revelation—to whose structure, the Church confesses, it belongs ineradicably and definitively. Though such a thematic doesn’t seem logically necessary to begin with, it exhibits an incalculably rich symbolic coherence as well as that gloriously gratuitous fittingness which is a mark of perfect Love.

To the thoroughly post-modern mind, all that is at best arbitrary and at worst incomprehensible save as fodder for the hermeneutic of suspicion. It sees the basic context of human flourishing as neither a natural nor a sacred order simply given by a higher personal Power, but as interlocking, narratively developing choices whose content is fashioned by autonomous individuals and validated by the very acts of choice made by such individuals (acting separately or together). From that point of view, the easy availability of divorce and the legality of abortion are indispensable conditions of self-fulfillment, especially for women; limiting the locale of sexual consummation to one (female) orifice is the solemnization of outdated and hateful prejudice; male-only ordination is invidious job discrimination; canonically prescribed celibacy for priests is an invitation to neurosis; forbidding contraception is a nakedly self-serving power play that would ruin countless lives if taken seriously; and forbidding artificial procreation is anti-scientific obscurantism. What is to be the Church’s answer, beyond repeating the opposite with an authority more widely rejected than accepted even within her own house?

To be continued....
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