During a stretch of eight days--June 4 through June 11--I am teaching five all-day courses for Catholic School teachers for my diocese. Over the years this early summer marathon has come to be known as "the June Institute," though don't let the title fool you. It is not a centrally situated program on a green avenue of ivy-covered brick buildings lined with trees to the sound of hourly Church bells. No, this is entirely a road show--a good thing, actually, to get out to all the parishes. But as I am scheduled for five different courses and locations, Tuesday is always different from Monday, in terms of site, mileage, distance to a Dunkin’ Donut Shoppe, etc. Yesterday, for example, I drove through the teeth of Tropical Storm Colin to a city that sits not too far from Tampa. As I battled visibility and driving rain in a very dark dawn, I did wonder why this city is in fact in the Orlando diocese, and not in the St. Petersburg diocese, which does begin on the other side of town. The question had a little more urgency yesterday than it usually does.
On the whole I enjoy doing the courses, though with the schools going to summer schedule (Florida schools are now off for the summer) it is a little more complicated in finalizing the arrangements. I work as a contractor for an office of the chancery that directs faith formation—that’s as best as I can describe it, because it changes names more than I change my oil. This office sets the schedule and collects the money: the contractor/instructors handle the middle-man position of communicating information via email to the students who have registered, etc. and getting our handouts arranged and printed. In fact, I just returned from the Apopka Staples’ where I burned out two of their copy machines doing my paperwork for tomorrow, Friday, and Saturday. As far as I can tell, I am one of very few instructors who is not employed at a diocesan or parish site, and thus I have no personal access to one of those monster Cannon copiers common to parish and school offices. (For reasons unclear to me, the faculty has not been convened since Benedict was still pope.)
It may be my imagination, but because I do not depend upon the Church for a paycheck I have seemed to draw a fair share of the courses that cause a certain amount of angst or anguish—where the issues discussed abound with land mines. There is an old joke in the Church that more promising clerical careers have been wrecked on the shoals of teaching morality than anything else. This summer I did not draw a straw for Course 105, “Morality,” but last Saturday I taught Course 211, “Christian Sexuality;” tomorrow I have 208, “Social Justice,” during a presidential election year, no less.
Whenever I enter a classroom to teach Christian Sexuality, I do feel significant pressure. There is always a portion of the room that carries an expectation—perhaps it is fairer to say “the hope”—that I will restate the teachings of the Church as found in the Catechism without gloss or nuance. My sense as a teacher is that those teachings are pretty well known, easily available for reference in the Catechism, and that the diocese has put me in the classroom to do more along the lines of explaining the nuances of the teachings and discuss with frankness why some teachings—notably on artificial birth control, for example—are not received by a large number of the faithful. Once you start down this road, however, there is always the risk of being accused of “squishiness” in expounding moral norms. You open yourself to terms like “liberal” (which for some reason has become almost an expletive in American life) or “modernist” in the blog world of the Catholic right.
In reading my evaluations from Saturday it does not appear that I offended traditional sensitivities in my assembly of professional teachers, but in the very open and honest exchanges during and after the course I did feel some stress about my choice of words and the need to carefully weigh my deliberations. First of all, there is a genuine fear among many Catholics that the culture is going to hell in a handbasket, and that the Church is the last best hope, like the Rock of Gibraltar. If the Church were to “compromise,” as many would put it, then the game is indeed lost. I heard this fear in the voices and saw it in the faces of some of the participants. As teachers they worry about their students, but as parents they worry about their teenaged kids and the amoral/cultural jungle through which they trod.
I sweated on Saturday because this concern deserves addressing, and I did my best to put them at ease with the better angels of Catholic theology. For example, I raised the various theories of human development, all of which converge on the basic truth that the teenaged operational mind has not yet fully knitted together, and probably won’t until at least the age of 21. (Privately I have always believed that teenagers are all oppositionally defiant to some degree in that they believe adults have nothing meaningful to offer them by way of wisdom.) Thus, when a parent discovers that a 15-year old son is burning up the Ethernet in his search for porn sites, he does not yet have the wisdom and the savvy to understand that the women he is viewing are often themselves victims of sex abuse, drug abuse, or trafficking; that there is an inherent indecency about the whole deal. Nor would they likely hear counsel that the stimulation of pornography can be as dangerous a drug as heroin or nicotine.
I also pointed out to them that even the Catechism’s concise definition of mortal sin is multi-faceted, that a number of stars must align to commit a full-blown mortal sin, and that their offspring will not go straight to hell for the trial and error of their youth. I had not exactly planned to delve into this area of Catholic moral realities, and so I had to think on my feet in order to balance the justice of Tradition with the compassion of Francis.
I will admit that there are areas of the Church’s moral teaching that remain works in progress, at least in my mind. In one exchange with a concerned participant who asked about in vitro fertilization, we agreed for example that if science would ever reach a degree of precision in which the by-product of extra fertilized eggs (conceived) would not be necessary or come into being in the process of fertilization, perhaps the Church might revisit its opposition to such procedures. As I pointed out, in my counseling experience I knew of a number of couples who spent massive amounts of money to conceive, who were in their own consciences trying to fulfill the very purpose of the marital sacrament, procreation.
I counsel professionals to listen to their students and their offspring, and I try to do the same for them. In the more delicate areas of Catholic life such a strategy presents subtle challenges and risks, and that’s why I sweat. But I try not to let them see it.