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

Monday, May 18, 2009

Must thinking about sex be an oxymoron?

No, but sometimes it seems so. There's usually little sound thinking on the topic, and even when there is, it gets drowned out by gaffes, sound bites, kvetching, and plain old embarassment.

At the moment, Poland and the United States seem to have something in common beyond their geopolitical alliance: Catholics who feel the need to glorify conjugal sex. Many Americans have now become aware of Pope John Paul the Great's "theology of the body" through the recent, double-edged Nightline interview with TOB's chief popularizer, Christopher West. Until now, TOB has been the preserve of a small minority of American Catholics who are theologically orthodox but cannot be classified as "traditionalists." Their opponents usually describe them derisively as "neo-Caths." Across the pond, the small minority of European Catholics who take official Church teaching about sexuality seriously have been made familiar with TOB by the Rev. Ksawery Knotz's new guide entitled Sex As You Don't Know It: For married couples who love God. That book, which I had time only to leaf through in the library, seems to me a much-needed updating of the old "marriage manuals" sometimes given to couples of my parents' generation. On the other hand, the best thing I can say about the West interview is that all publicity is good publicity. I agree with the critiques of his presentation offered here and here by unquestionably sound Catholic thinkers. The curious thing, though, is that both West and Knotz have sparked misunderstanding and therefore criticism of TOB from opposite sides of the ideological spectrum. That is rather typical of all things Catholic these days. I think it opportune to defend TOB while, at the same time, giving the critics their due.

The basic problem TOB advocates face is a prejudice common to both ecclesial and secular culture in the West: that wanting good sex does not mix with authentic Christian spirituality. The general assumption seems to be that pursuing sexual pleasure, even within marriage, runs counter to the love of God as understood by the Great Tradition of Christianity. Unbelievers have no more trouble than some believers in seeing that "the flesh" wars against "the spirit" (Gal 5:17). This topic is one of the central salients in spiritual combat, as priests who hear the confessions of males know all too well. Its also being the most widely discussed is not altogether unreasonable from any standpoint. If only because of the effects of original sin, the deadly sin of lust is common and even manifests itself in marriages. Like any other deadly sin, lust is incompatible with the love of God and neighbor, even if the neighbor happens to be one's spouse. It doesn't even take faith to know that the line between lust and healthy sexual desire is quite porous. So the notion that one should strive to be both good in bed and an orthodox Catholic seems ludicrous to unbelievers and disaffected Catholics as well as to many traditional believers.

But all that only tells us what is the case. The purpose of TOB is to discern more fully God's original plan for human sexuality, and thus to tell us what can and ought to be the case. It can and ought to be the case that sexual relations between spouses both express and foster their genuine, spiritual love for one another, what the late pope called their "complete, mutual self-gift." In that context, their sexual pleasure becomes a medium for, rather than an obstacle to, the love of a God who has given us the great gift of sexuality for the sake of profound interpersonal communion. That such a message will fall mostly on deaf ears is only to be expected of secularists, both explicit and de facto. Among educated Catholics, however, resistance to that message does not arise simply from awareness of the dangers of lust. If that were the only difficulty, it could be chalked to up to cynicism, an attitude always called "realism" by its true victims. Such pessimism was pretty much St. Augustine's—unsurprising in a man who had fathered an illegitimate child in his oat-sowing days, and was inspired to a kind of asceticism by reading about St. Antony of Egypt. But TOB distinguishes healthy sexual desire from the sin of lust rather realistically, and that distinction is not in any case what occasions the most basic objection—save from people who, given their experience and level of spiritual development, are inclined to believe that sexual desire is always lust. I'm afraid that the main basis for objection is, once again, the hermeneutic of discontinuity.

As I've often said before, most progressives and traditionalists assume that some of the doctrinal developments rightly associated with the documents of Vatican II are innovations discontinuous with prior, definitive teachings of the Church. TOB is seen by progs and trads alike as one of those developments. What makes TOB a special case, though, is that both progs and trads dislike it; typically, progs like innovations as much as trads dislike them. To give some idea of the context for this unique situation, I shall begin with an ostensibly arcane but actually quite crucial point: the difference between the definitions of the object of matrimonial consent given in the 1917 and 1983 codes of canon law respectively.

The older code says that the object of matrimonial consent is "a right to the body, a right both perpetual and exclusive, for the purpose of performing the actions apt by their nature to procreate children" (c. 1081 §2). That arose from the long-standing theological doctrine that the primary purpose of marriage is procreation, a purpose which could only be carried out adequately by a couple's mutual conferral of a "perpetual and exclusive" right to sex of the procreative sort. But the newer code defines getting married as "an act of will by which a man and a woman, by an irrevocable covenant, mutually give and accept one another for the purpose of establishing a marriage” (c.1057, §2; emphasis added). On this showing, the object of matrimonial consent is logically equivalent to a theologically expansive definition of marriage: a "covenant by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life, and which is ordered by its nature to the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring" (c. 1055 §1).

That "covenantal" definition of marriage for juridical purposes, as distinct from the older, thinner "contractual" view, was occasioned by the words of Vatican II:

The intimate partnership of married life and love has been established by the Creator and qualified by His laws, and is rooted in the jugal covenant of irrevocable personal consent. Hence by that human act whereby spouses mutually bestow and accept each other a relationship arises which by divine will and in the eyes of society too is a lasting one. For the good of the spouses and their off-springs as well as of society, the existence of the sacred bond no longer depends on human decisions alone. For, God Himself is the author of matrimony, endowed as it is with various benefits and purposes. All of these have a very decisive bearing on the continuation of the human race, on the personal development and eternal destiny of the individual members of a family, and on the dignity, stability, peace and prosperity of the family itself and of human society as a whole. By their very nature, the institution of matrimony itself and conjugal love are ordained for the procreation and education of children, and find in them their ultimate crown. Thus a man and a woman, who by their compact of conjugal love “are no longer two, but one flesh” (Matt. 19:ff), render mutual help and service to each other through an intimate union of their persons and of their actions. Through this union they experience the meaning of their oneness and attain to it with growing perfection day by day. As a mutual gift of two persons, this intimate union and the good of the children impose total fidelity on the spouses and argue for an unbreakable oneness between them (Gaudium et spes §48; emphasis added).

Notice that the GS account pointedly omits the old teaching that the primary purpose of marriage is procreation. Instead, it says that marriage is "ordained" thereto and that children are the "ultimate crown" of marriage, because they are a gift which God typically, but not always, chooses to bestow on a couple within a relationship naturally ordered to spiritual not merely physical fruitfulness. Accordingly, the indissolubility of marriage is a spiritual exigency arising not merely from its necessity for the proper upbringing of children, but also from the "intimate union" of the "persons" of spouses in their "mutual gift" of themselves. Such a union is in fact constitutive of the marital "covenant." It is a spiritual reality first established, regularly expressed, and hopefully solidified by conjugal intercourse, and thus makes the couple fit not merely to reproduce, which any animal can do, but to procreate. That is why "having sex" is meant to be "making love" and, mirabile dictu, sometimes is. In my experience, women tend to get that much more readily than men. Despite my oft-expressed rejection of much contemporary feminism, they don't say men are dogs for nothing.

All the same, the first thing to be said about this theological development is that it is not discontinuous with prior, definitive doctrine. Rather, it is perfectly consonant with the vision of marriage laid out in Ephesians 5: 21ff, where spouses are urged to "be subordinate to one another" in such wise that their relationship signifies, and helps to make concrete, the loving union between Christ and the Church. That is what makes marriage "a great mystery," a musterion (5:32)—or, what is called in Latin a sacramentum, the term with which the Vulgate translates musterion. Thus the sacramentality of marriage, which the Lord himself sought to restore by insisting on indissoluble monogamy, consists in how the physical union of sexual intercourse establishes, expresses, and facilitates a fundamentally spiritual union. This is not to deny, of course, that the fundamental natural purpose of sex and marriage is procreation. Nor is it to deny that matrimonial consent involves what the 1917 Code said it does. It is simply to bring out explicitly what is sacramental and thus supernatural about matrimony. True as far as it went, the older juridical definition of marriage did not do that.

On the eve of the "sexual revolution," and for reasons I needn't belabor, progressive Catholics enthusiastically welcomed the aforesaid development. What they didn't count on, though, was how the papal magisterium employed it to reiterate an ancient teaching which, within living memory, had become extremely unpopular: the ban on contraception.

In Humanae Vitae (1968), Pope Paul VI asserted that the "conjugal act" has both unitive and procreative "significance," and that its purpose is accordingly dual: spiritual as well as physical, with the latter reflecting and enhancing the former. But that is also the main reason he gave for reiterating that "direct [intentional--ML] interruption of the generative process," i.e. contraception, is gravely wrong. He argued, in effect, that actively blocking procreation unavoidably entails corrupting the "unitive" or spiritual quality of the conjugal relationship, and confidently projected a general lowering of morals and of respect for women if a contraceptive mentality set in. The forty years since have proved him to be perfectly right. But at the time, not many people bought the projection or the argument. That is why, toward the end of his "catechesis" on TOB in 1984 (cf. #119 and ff), Pope John Paul endeavored to bolster the argument. According to TOB, a couple's withholding the gift of their own fertility from each other amounted to rendering their mutual self-gift less than complete, thus reducing their degree of union, opening the way to lust, and obscuring what is sacramental about marriage. Needless to say, progs have not bought that argument either. To this day, they do not at all concede that Vatican II's personalistic account of marriage requires upholding the traditional ban on contraception.

Progs continue to uphold the personalism, however, and it's not hard to understand why. If marriage is what Vatican II said it is, and the object of matrimonial consent is accordingly what the current Code implies it is, then the juridical grounds for nullity emerge as broader than in the past. Most people, at the time of their wedding, are quite capable of understanding and freely consenting to "marriage" as the old Code defines it; that is mainly why annulments were so hard to get prior to Vatican II. But nowadays it is unrealistic to hold that most Catholics, let alone most people, understand and freely consent to marriage as the new Code defines it. Hence, in the English-speaking countries at least, divorced Catholics who desire to remarry in the Church can, and often do, get annulments for the purpose of doing so. That ever-shrinking minority of theological progressives who still uphold the doctrine of the indissolubility of sacramental marriage approve of such relative liberality. I do too.

It goes without saying, however, that most trads do not. Their attitude is not hard to understand either. Many Catholic couples marrying these days, within as well as outside the Church, are indisposed to understand, let alone embrace, exactly what is meant by marriage as a sacramental covenant going beyond a mere contract for "perpetual and exclusive right" to sex of the procreative sort. Understood as such a right, indissolubility makes perfect juridical sense; but "covenant"? Explicitly or implicitly, most couples think of the marital covenant as a fuzzy, optional ideal rather than as a clear and binding norm: as long as we "love" each other, we're in covenant, whatever that means; but when we don't anymore, we (probably?) aren't. Human nature and the state of our culture alone would be enough to explain, if not exonerate, that attitude. And in many marriage tribunals until quite recently, marital failure was often taken, just in itself, as strong evidence of the sacramental invalidity of the failed marriages. That was, and to some extent still is, a pastoral abuse. But the theological problem actually runs deeper.

The larger passage about marriage in Gaudium et spes, a selection from which I quoted above, contains many syntactically indicative statements about marriage. E.g., a married couple provide mutual help and service to each other through an intimate union of their persons and of their actions. Through this union they experience the meaning of their oneness and attain to it with growing perfection day by day. Now I once heard the late Elizabeth Anscombe react to that by asking: "And what if they don't?" The point is well taken—for they often don't. One might put the point as a question: if the ideal is the norm, then what is to preclude saying that those who find they cannot attain the ideal are no longer bound by the norm? The Fathers of Vatican II clearly sought to preclude that conclusion, but it still isn't clear how to induce people to "get it." Marriage-preparation classes usually aren't much help.

As I've suggested, progs approve the wiggle-room for annulments provided willy-nilly in the new code, to the extent they uphold "indissolubility" at all. That wiggle-room disturbed John Paul II, who sought to reduce it by using TOB to argue that the baptized really are capable, as a rule and with divine help, of consenting to and living out marriage as defined under the new code. So, in addition to the use of TOB to bolster the traditional teaching on contraception, its use to support the dominical and formally defined doctrine of marital indissolubility also disturbed progs. But the trads, by and large, have not been mollified. That, I believe, is essentially because the prog and trad objections to TOB are mirror images of each other.

The prog objection is that the moral teaching TOB was meant to bolster remains too objectivistic: it doesn't give enough weight to the actual experience of the faithful, but disappoints by upholding rigid moral norms that used to be explained in purely natural-law terms. TOB, in this view, still presents a narrow and unrealistic ideal as the norm, thus making the teaching of the Church about sexuality and marriage as pastorally destructive as it was once theologically paltry. In other words, the abstract has been made the enemy of the concrete. The trad objection is also that Church teaching has become pastorally destructive, but for the opposite reason: the personalism which has so influenced Catholic development of doctrine about marriage is too subjectivistic. By making "love" essential to rather than merely desirable within marriage, it allows people who claim not to "love" each other to rationalize ditching their spouses and seeking sexual fulfillment in new spouses. In other words, the mystical has been made the enemy of the attainable. In both cases, the developed teaching of the Church on sexuality is seen as unrealistic.

Some critics from both ends of the spectrum have extended that critique to "nuptial-mystery theology" in general, of which TOB is the best-known application. NMT is a theological paradigm which, as I explained here, impinges as much on ecclesiology and even triadology as on sexuality. Essentially, the criticism is that TOB in particular and NMT in general are forms of "realized eschatology." What that means may be explained as follows.

The key to understanding eschatology is that it seeks to explain both the relationship and the distance between the "already" manifest reality of the Kingdom—i.e. the Church, and all who are drawn by the grace she mediates—and the "not yet" of the Kingdom whose definitive establishment awaits the Second Coming. Hence the Church, for example, is both the spotless Bride of Christ, one body with him in a mystical marriage—the "already" part—and a pilgrim Church of sinners, on the way to the consummation of that mystical marriage in the fully realized Kingdom—the "not-yet" part. So, the charge of "realized eschatology" is just a rather portentous-sounding way of saying that TOB and NMT emphasize the "already" at the expense of the "not yet." Or, if you like, it's a way of saying that they present a yet-to-be-attained ideal as the norm.

The charge is spurious. It reflects the same sort of despair about which Chesterton observed that "the problem with Christianity is not that it has been tried and found wanting, but that it has not been tried at all." Consider that is precisely the relationship between the already and the not-yet which explains how sinners can become saints while, in a real sense, remaining sinners as long as they remain with the Church Militant. Regarding conjugal sexuality, it is precisely that relationship which explains how a human faculty corrupted by original sin can nonetheless function as an important occasion of grace for the mutual sanctification of spouses. But neither progs nor trads seem to grasp that. They seem to believe that the ideal of holiness within marriage that TOB presents is so unrealistic as to undermine willingness to embrace it. But that's the main problem Christians have with Christianity in general. If that's not a reason to ditch Christianity, it's not a reason to ditch TOB.

To my mind, that's evidence of TOB's soundness. It's too bad that advocates like Christopher West obscure that with grandstanding. But it's good that priests like Fr. Knotz soldier on anyhow. Somebody's got to show that thinking about sex needn't be either lustful or prudish, and thus oxymoronic.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The politics of the charge of "politics"

The University of Notre Dame's intention to bestow, this weekend, an honorary Doctor of Laws on the most radically pro-abortion president in our country's history has taken the polarization in the American Catholic Church to a new level. On that much, I can agree with Peter Steinfels of the New York Times and the editors of America magazine. But a popular defense of ND that liberal Catholics have been offering uses an essentially ecclesiological argument that reeks of hypocrisy—a fact that itself suggests which pole is in firmer moral territory.

One night over drinks about twenty years ago, when he was editor of Commonweal, I debated Steinfels on the question of his support for Roe v. Wade. Following then-Governor Mario Cuomo, who had given a lengthy "pro-choice" speech at ND in 1984, Steinfels argued that abortion should not be outlawed so long as there was no social consensus for doing so. I pointed out that the question was moot so long as Roe was in place. For that decision took the abortion issue out of the hands of legislatures and elevated it to the status of a constitutional right, thereby making it impossible to limit abortion significantly by using the normal means of political suasion in a democratic society. I agreed that, as a purely practical matter, consensus first had to be forged by persuasion; but I argued that overturning Roe was a logical step toward doing precisely that. It made no sense to insist on consensus while, at the same time, keeping the issue out of the hands of the people. Of course Steinfels was unpersuaded. He insisted that the putative "right to privacy" trumped all merely political considerations, and that Roe could not be overturned without violating the Constitution. He then accused me of confusing a radical right-wing political agenda with the teaching of the Church. I was "playing politics" with my religion.

Reel forward seven or eight years. In his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae, Pope John Paul II wrote as follows:

Abortion and euthanasia are thus crimes which no human law can claim to legitimize. There is no obligation in conscience to obey such laws; instead there is a grave and clear obligation to oppose them by conscientious objection. From the very beginnings of the Church, the apostolic preaching reminded Christians of their duty to obey legitimately constituted public authorities (cf. Rom 13:1-7; 1 Pet 2:13-14), but at the same time it firmly warned that "we must obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29). In the Old Testament, precisely in regard to threats against life, we find a significant example of resistance to the unjust command of those in authority. After Pharaoh ordered the killing of all newborn males, the Hebrew midwives refused. "They did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but let the male children live" (Ex 1:17). But the ultimate reason for their action should be noted: "the midwives feared God" (ibid.). It is precisely from obedience to God—to whom alone is due that fear which is acknowledgment of his absolute sovereignty—that the strength and the courage to resist unjust human laws are born. It is the strength and the courage of those prepared even to be imprisoned or put to the sword, in the certainty that this is what makes for "the endurance and faith of the saints" (Rev 13:10). In the case of an intrinsically unjust law, such as a law permitting abortion or euthanasia, it is therefore never licit to obey it, or to "take part in a propaganda campaign in favour of such a law, or vote for it."

So, not only must Catholics oppose legitimizing abortion under civil law; they must not even obey any enactment that does so. Of course, the prog response was that it was now a Polish conservative, not just American conservatives, who were playing politics with religious principles.

It's taken the American bishops a while to absorb the papal message and actually lead on this issue; but they've gradually been doing so since EV. In 2004, soon after the controversy about whether John Kerry should receive the Eucharist, they issued a directive called "Catholics in Political Life" which included the following statement:

The Catholic community and Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles. They should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions.

The boldfaced phrase is in the original. As the local ordinary pointed out when explaining why he would boycott the ceremony honoring Obama, this is the exactly the directive that ND's board and president have defied. Dozens of bishops have publicly said the same. But pointing that out is also denounced by the Catholic Left as using religion for political purposes. And that's what's supposed to be unduly "polarizing."

One wonders why the obvious questions are so rarely considered. If the Church's agenda on abortion is "political" in an objectionable sense, why is it not political in an objectionable sense to promote the Church's agenda on capital punishment, which she opposes but the vast majority of Americans favor? Why are we not supposed to wait for consensus before trying to have the death penalty abolished, even though SCOTUS has upheld its constitutionality? Or, why should Catholics have followed the Vatican in opposing the invasion of Iraq, but not in trying to outlaw abortion? Why should we oppose "domestic violence" against women (such violence against men is never mentioned) but not violence against the most innocent and vulnerable human persons of all: those in the womb of women who are their mothers? The only answer to such questions I can think of is painfully obvious: "pro-choice," liberal Catholics are convinced that the Church is right on issues where her position coincides with that of the political Left, but are not convinced the Church is right on issues where it does not.

That's what makes their charge against the Right of "playing politics" so hypocritical. Politics is exactly what they are engaged in: so much so, that they evaluate and apply the Church's social teachings selectively in terms of a set of values deriving from an essentially secular agenda. Of course the Catholic Right is sometimes guilty of that too. Beyond the death penalty and other violence-related issues, the Church has consistently taught that, in countries that can provide it, basic health care should be treated as a right rather than as a commodity. Many American Catholic conservatives reject that position, but I can find no Catholic defense for doing so. A Catholic can reasonably oppose government-administered health care as inefficient and iniquitous; but that's a question of means, not ends. Surely there are other, better means of ensuring that nobody has to go without a necessity of life just because they cannot pay for it. But for the most part, the hypocrisies of the Catholic Right at least have a basis in Catholic teaching itself.

The Church, including the present pope, has clearly distinguished between actions of a sort that are intrinsically evil, such as abortion and euthanasia, and acts which are merely wrong for the most part, such as war or capital punishment. It is therefore quite self-consistent, logically speaking, to oppose keeping the former legal but sometimes to support the latter. Of course, it is possible to be wrong about when the latter meet the conditions necessary for justifying them. And sometimes, being wrong in that sort of way can and ought to be attributed to political motives. But error of that sort is empirical: people who support this-or-that war, or capital punishment under such-and-such conditions, are sometimes wrong about the facts, perhaps because they find it convenient to delude themselves about the facts. But they needn't be and typically are not wrong about the principles of Catholic teaching. On the other hand, there is simply no credible way to claim that wanting to keep abortion and related evils legal is consistent with Catholic teaching. So there is no credible way for the Catholic Left to claim that they are not playing politics with issues on which, citing Church teaching, they oppose American law or actions. They are inconsistent in the sort of way that only a politically motivated position can be. Accordingly, the charge that the Catholic Right is "playing politics" on abortion is—well, playing politics.

For good sense on the ND-Obama issue, see the following: