Fifty Shades of Moral Formation
Unless you are a cloistered monk or you haven’t paid your cable bill in a while, you are no doubt aware that today is the opening of the film “Fifty Shades of Grey.” Having neither read the series nor seen the movie (although the trailers were inescapable) I get the general theme line of a Hollywood glamorized relationship based upon dominance, violence and vulnerability. The last thing America needs right now—particularly in the face of growing awareness of and outrage over domestic violence—is a film which portrays male dominance over a vulnerable woman. I am grateful to my cousin Mimi for passing along to me a common-sense psychological assessment of the dangers of the movie’s underlying premises, from Miriam Grossman, M.D. I needn’t elaborate further on the medical/psychological points she puts forward.
From the point of catechetics and faith formation, however, here is another eminently potential “teachable moment.” One could argue that the Church’s teachings on sexuality are clear and precise, and naturally that would be correct. To simply reiterate these teachings every time a new cultural crisis comes down the road, however, seems like a shopworn strategy. Since the Age of the Enlightenment, western culture has demanded a persuasive why for every authoritative statement, be it religious, political, or scientific. Where catechetics fails at times is in understanding the importance of the why as integral to the faith formation process.
Yesterday, in my “Seeking a North Star” post (February 12) I wrote at some length about the anxiety or the angst (as the Germans would put it) of loss of identity. I spoke of the great philosophic tradition—Pagan, Jewish, Christian—which has and continues to explore the true nature of the human being. I use the term “human” because man and woman can never be divided in terms of their nature and being. When Jesus talked about “the two become as one flesh” in his famous teaching on marriage, he was teaching “ontology” (the philosophy of being”). Little wonder that his listeners could truthfully say that he did not teach like the scribes, whose interests were by our standards rather parochial and conventional.
Thus, the catechist must come to understand the nature of the human, what I referred to yesterday as Christian anthropology. From this nature, we can better understand and promulgate a human’s self understanding, help those to see that we are in fact “just a little less than the angels.” This leads to the inevitable questions of morality: what do we think of ourselves? What is our purpose? What kinds of behaviors are becoming of who we are and where we are going?
If we look at the culture we live in, we tend to live—in a phrase I used quite a bit with patients—“from stimulus to stimulus.” This is true of individuals and populations. You wake up in the AM with a nervous feeling in the pit of the stomach—how do I live today? The lead in Fifty Shades, as I understand this, has answered that question; like any domestic abuser, the stimulation of intimidation, control, and physical or psychological violence provide a temporary if satisfying escape from the introspection and acceptance of reality that spiritual and mental health demand.
If, as you have heard in countless Catholic weddings, “the greatest of these is love,” we need to be clear on what this word means in the context of human conduct, but particularly in our discussion here of unitive sexual love. The sacrament of marriage is in fact a life condition of focused love, where all decisions of a married person’s life are made in the context of wholesome and caring impact upon the partner. Marriage is such a critical sacrament because, perhaps more than all the others, it embodies the nature of humanity in the marital structure as a community of intimate friends and equals: it is a community of generation and formation; and in its sexual play and ecstasy it is, like the Transfiguration, a foretaste of the eternal destiny God intends for all.
Where is narcissism, control, contempt, subjugation or pain in this picture? Even outside of Catholic theology, has any great philosopher advocated such an imbalance in human existence? Socrates? Plato? Aristotle? Philo? Augustine? Thomas Aquinas? Catholic moral teaching, rooted as it is in the richness of even natural philosophy per the Catechism, brings self-understanding, purpose, and the comforts of body and soul we were created to possess. Let’s learn it and teach it that way.
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