I don’t often get writer’s block; as you know from experience, I just post a day late or, in extreme cases, skip a week. But in prepping for this week’s Monday Morality post, I felt a recurring dissatisfaction with the material, or at least my ability to work with it, specifically the moral quadrant of the Catechism. My frustration was probably on display last week, too. The Catechism states “The Beatitudes are at the heart of Jesus' preaching.” I had a college professor who walked into a class one day with our corrected exams. He stated, “I have in my hands an assortment of the good, the true, and the beautiful, and a total absence of concrete answers.” I think this summarizes my problem with the way the Catechism addresses the Beatitudes; in the language of the good, the true, and the beautiful, but without the specifics of human behavior.
Having completed a somewhat ethereal treatment of the Beatitudes, the Catechism text moves into its comfort zone, the Ten Commandments and the natural law, with the precision of laser surgery and an attitudinal language of certainty that is easily open to misinterpretation and even arrogance. The religious man of letters G.K. Chesterton is famous for his quote, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.” Chesterton, a convert to Catholicism who brought his best pre-conversion life with him, understood that lived Christianity is hard, in large part because the sweeping challenge of the Beatitudes and the cost of living them; the contemporary theologian Richard Rohr uses the term revolutionary. Dogmatic certainty cannot forestall the uncertainties of God’s future.
[I have a good Chesterton story to insert here. He and a friend were walking in England when a man accosted them “down on his luck,” as they say. Chesterton reached into his pocket and gave the man money. His friend became irritated. “You shouldn’t have given him that. He’s just going to spend it on drink.” To which Chesterton replied, “That’s what I was planning to do with it.”]
The Catechism, in its quarter century of use, has proven to be a less than optimum tool in defining moral awareness, assigning as it does an almost “creeping infallibility” to certain moral matters that the Church has found wanting for its own consciences and the Church’s engagement with what is now accepted as a secular age. In discussing homosexuality, for example, the Catechism in paragraph 2357 states that “its psychosocial genesis remains largely unexplained,” but then continues “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.” It is my contention that given how little we know about sexual orientation, (or, for that matter, how much we need to know), it is at the very least premature to make such pronouncements. In truth, I find discussion about homosexual life unsettling to me personally; we are, in the final analysis, talking about people with souls, created by God, in my own case close relatives, priests, fellow parishioners, and friends. Catechetical instruction that segregates and objectifies populations worthy of dignity is itself a breakdown of the unity Christ longs to see in his people.
There are many such questions in Catholic morality, and how we address them among ourselves and to the world at large will determine the credibility and integrity of Catholic life as it lives in a world significantly different from 1300. In A Church with Open Doors: Catholic Ecclesiology for the Third Millennium (2015) Paul Lakeland introduces the idea of a “kenotic ecclesiology.” The word kenosis refers to an “emptying out” or a total self-giving. You may recall the hymn from Paul’s letter to the Philippians: “Jesus did not deem equality with God something to be grasped at; rather, he emptied himself and took the form of a slave….” Lakeland and many other Catholic theologians hold that the only way for the Church to be taken seriously in the new landscape of global meaning is to pour itself out in service to the world, in the fashion of peacemaking, hungering for justice, and the other moral priorities of the New Kingdom of Jesus expressed so well in the Beatitudes.
The same author cited in the previous paragraph illustrates an essay on the new evangelization on the USCCB website. The essay cites Pope Benedict XVI’s concern that while the Church wishes to “transmit the gift of truth,” it wants to assure “people and their Governments that she does not wish to destroy their identity and culture by doing so.” Rather, the Church “wants to give them a response which, in their innermost depths, they are waiting for.” Other authors in a variety of texts put the situation more bluntly: the Church comes to every meeting, whether with another Christian body, world religion, or civil institution, with all the answers. The Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes is shunted to the side; GS teaches that the Church “is not unaware how much it has profited from the opposition of its enemies and persecutors.”
This morning I was also impacted by a Facebook exchange between my two sisters: a lengthy, thoughtful, and inspiring exchange so rare on social media. Philosophically and theologically speaking, they come from different points on the compass. One is an active Catholic health provider; the other a post-Enlightenment humanist with decades of work in Buffalo’s demanding inner-city schools. The discussion began with my Catholic sister’s profound concern about the multiple ills of present-day American life and the idea of prayer in school. My humanist sister, while sympathetic, expressed concern about the cacophony of denominational confusion and the belief/practices of some religious groups that many might find invasive to the common good.
As their debate unfolded, I could see that both were seeking a common good—the enrichment of culture with commonly held values—a stasis where children are not routinely massacred in schools, for example. Discussions such as these are far too rare in American life, where a lust for certainty and superiority trumps the honest search for a sacred way of life. The times demand a kenosis, a pouring out of my individual and corporate certainties, a realization that there is no monopolization of truth. Catholic morality in this context involves corporate engagement in listening to the good will of other seekers. Catholicism’s position of arriving with all the answers and waiting for others to see the light—a position not restricted to Catholicism, incidentally—is counterproductive to secular and religious unity.
Consequently, I am going to jump ahead to the specific moral teachings of the Catechism, the “nuts and bolts,” beginning at para. 2084 with an eye toward translating how these teachings may be understood in the third millennium and, frankly, commenting on certain texts lacking sufficient basis in Scripture and Tradition, or actual Catholic practice, or interdisciplinary support; in a few cases, calling out formulations more hurtful than helpful in the living of the Beatitudes.