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

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Objectivity, abortion, and vocations

Communion and Liberation's annual Rimini meeting opened on Monday with the theme: "Truth is the destiny for which we are made." This notion of a Truth-capital-T which is everybody's destiny is the notion of a great objective truth that is a Person; our relativistic age is sometimes willing to grant that as a hypothesis, but never as a certainty. Yet one of the things I love about CL is that such a wildly countercultural theme is actually celebrated: with unrestrained music, lots of food, and not a little joshing as well as with a keen, prayerful awareness of how hard it is for us to let Truth Himself take over our minds and hearts. Love of and from Christ is palpable at CL gatherings—the small ones as well as, apparently, the yearly big one. This year's theme brings some specifics to mind.

The Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, has got the meeting into the MSM with an opening speech containing yet another criticism of Amnesty International for supporting legal abortion for rape victims in war zones. Like her disapproval of condom use by married couples for AIDS prevention, this stance of the Church is virtually incomprehensible to non-believers and to not a few believers. People wonder how can anybody with a heart could possibly oppose the availability of the choice of abortion for women who have conceived by being raped. In response, Cardinal Bertone is absolutely right to point out that, while "the Church is absolutely opposed to all forms of violence against women," she "cannot accept violence against the innocent child. Violence and injustice, he said, cannot be overcome by more violence and injustice, but only by the conversion of hearts." But such a response falls on generally deaf ears because subjectivity, at least for women, reigns supreme today. In the case of conception by rape, the child is a desperately unwanted intruder making use of a woman's body against her will. Since there are few if any violations of a human person's autonomy greater than rape, a violation which is augmented when conception occurs, the natural repulsion a woman feels is thought to justify at least giving her the legal choice to kill the intruder. The suggestion that the intruder is also an innocent person whom it is objectively and intrinsically wrong to kill is treated, in comparison, as a mere opinion—an opinion which a woman has the right to hold, if she chooses, but just as much right to reject. What matters is how she thinks and, even more, how she feels—not any moral duty that she might conceivably owe the life within her regardless of how she thinks or feels.

Whether in this particular form or more generally, the abortion issue is currently the most salient example of how Truth has been brushed aside as our objective destiny and reduced to individual opinion and feeling. The result of such an attitude, for nearly a century, has been the biggest waves of mass homicide in human history, of which abortion is not the least. Yet even many Catholic politicians believe we are not supposed to lift a finger to prevent the abortion holocaust because, on the conventional wisdom, what really matters is what women believe and feel about what happens in their own bodies—not what's true, regardless, about the life within their bodies. Such politicians conveniently ignore the fact that there are good non-sectarian arguments against their position; but Bertone is right that only conversion of hearts to Christ can change the underlying attitude.

From a male perspective, I believe the same phenonomen of contemporary subjectivity helps to explain the decrease of interest in the priesthood since Vatican II. Ironically, a bit of subjective narrative serves to explain that in turn.

First, the two subjects that far and away interest me the most are God and the Church. I have never been interested for long in any secular profession. I do not reject such professions, at least the morally legitimate ones; after all, God calls most men to them. What makes me unusual, I suppose, is that God and the Church interest me the most precisely because, as a Catholic, I believe they are objectively the most important realities of life. God is Being Itself, which is thus and also a triune communion of persons; the Church is that visible reality across space and time, heaven and earth, which as the Mystical Body of God the Son is meant to incorporate us into said communion. If one believes such assertions, I've always felt, why wouldn't one find the designated subjects more interesting than anything else? I realize that most believers don't, even when they have the time and leisure to do so; and far be it from me to condemn that. But I must admit that I don't quite get it.

Another reason I don't get it is that the Church actually needs more people with attitudes like mine. Consider the priesthood. I believe that the objective power and importance of the ministerial priesthood makes it the greatest vocation a man can have. It's not the "robes and rituals" as such that attract me; those are the outward, aesthetic symbols, which have their small appeal but are purely ancillary. What attracts me is the essence of the sacraments: the fact that the sacraments administered by priests, chiefly the Eucharist and Reconciliation, transmit the presence and transforming power of God ex opere operato—i.e., through the very thing done—rather than ex opere operantis—i.e., through the doing of it by this or that man. When a priest confects the Eucharist, it is the risen Christ himself who replaces the bread and wine on that altar as a living sacrifice of praise to the Father for our salvation. When a priest pronounces absolution, it is that same Christ who is absolving us. The grace and power that only a priest, by God's mysterious design, can transmit by such means are there whether we believe or accept it or not; so long as the priest intends what the Church does in the sacraments, their power does not even depend on his own virtue. It is the utter objectivity of the inestimable gifts given us through the priesthood that I find so compelling and attractive. For that reason I've always wished I had the vocation, even though at this point I must admit I don't. But there don't seem to be many Catholic men out there today with a similar attitude. The very idea that the priesthood is something inestimably powerful and noble for its purely objective reality is lost on most Catholic men in our society precisely because it is lost on most people in our society. The values of most Catholics seem to be formed more by the surrounding secular culture, with its emphasis on subjective gratification, than by what the Church objectively embodies. Is it any wonder that the ratio of priests to laity continues to shrink?

Whether we're talking abortion, the priesthood, or the Christian life generally, the biggest step in the right direction is the first step. By how we think, live, and above all love, we must preach to the world that Truth Incarnate, Jesus Christ, is what life is all about—and that he is what he is regardless of what the world thinks and feels about him at any given time. What ails the Church is that is not often enough kept in view, in a world that hardly has it in view at all.
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