The Personalist Project

Objectivity and inwardness

A person is an objective entity, which as a definite subject has the closest contacts with the whole (external) world and is most intimately involved with it precisely because of its inwardness, its interior life.

Karol Wojtyla, Love and Responsibility


Fr. James Martin contends that the "sexual relations between people of the same sex are impermissible" teaching has, to all appearances, never been "received" by the people it's addressed to.

He has a point--a seemingly obvious one. Or does he?

Catholic Digest columnist Matt Archbold has quipped in response: 

Based on the murder rates all around the world, can one assume that the Church's teaching about killing has not been "received" and is therefore non-binding?

He has a point, too.

Or he might. It all hinges on what "received" really means.

And that's what I want to think about today. Regarding Fr. Martin himself, just a couple things: No, he hasn't called Church teaching non-binding (not in so many words, not as far as I know), and yes, he does admit that some few of the people affected directly by the teaching do accept it. I'll leave further commentary on Fr. Martin's ideas to people who have read his recent book, Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion and Sensitivity. 

But it is worth considering what it means for a teaching to be "received." Let's begin with a few possibilities:

  • Does it just mean people are failing to live by it because they find it too difficult? Is it merely that, as Chesterton once quipped about the Christian ideal, it "has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried"?
  • Does it mean that a teaching has been just plain rejected--that its "target audience" has just plain refused to live according to it?
  • Does it mean that a teaching was never promulgated, or that people are ignorant of it? If someone were living on a desert island and had never heard of Christianity, would we say he has failed to "receive" it?

I don't think any of these capture it. But what then? 

One thing it could mean is to see the truth clearly, embrace it, internalize it, walk in it, and make it your own. This is something that goes beyond knowing of it and consenting not to violate it. It's possible to be familiar with a teaching but not have received it. It's possible, too, to abide by the truth--to refrain from violating it--but still not have received it.

How can we help people receive the truth? How can we facilitate their going beyond hearing about true teachings and even beyond staying within their bounds? In fact, giving people a chance to receive them doesn't have to be that complicated. Maybe it comes down to speaking the truth in love.

IAs Warren W. Wiersbe says,

Truth without love is brutality, and love without truth is hypocrisy.

Or, better, here's Edith Stein:

Do not accept anything as truth that lacks love and do not accept anything as love that lacks truth. 

Expressing an objectively true teaching without any regard for the subjectivity of the person addressed is "truth without love." Focussing on the subjectivity of the addressee to the point of indifference to objective reality is "love without truth." Or, to speak more exactly, neither is itself without the other.

Speaking the truth in love, though, means more than expressing it in an affectionate or respectful manner. It entails expressing it in the context of a loving interpersonal connection. If your attempt to get this truth into somebody's head is the extent of your relationship with him, you're not only disrespecting him--you're also highly likely to fail.*

So Fr. Martin is right if he means that maybe some obstacle has prevented the "LGBT community's" reception of Church teaching. It's not sufficient to announce that the Church, or God, prohibits such-and-such if something in your addressee's life experience is preventing him from hearing what you're saying--or if the message is tainted by your own bad example or conceit or manipulative approach or indifference.

And Matt is right that we shouldn't fall for the cop-out of abandoning the truth every time it turns out to be unpopular or hard.


*Of course this doesn't mean you can never address people en masse. Writing an article can bring somebody nearer to receiving a truth, even if author and reader never meet in person. You can't sidestep one-on-one communication, but truth can also be served in a public forum.

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* This is not a typical blog post. It's really an article. But I couldn't find a publication to take it, so I'm posting it here. Its subtitle is: One layman's questions and concerns about "restoring the original order" of communion and confirmation.

Two of our sons were confirmed in 2015: the youngest, then 12, with our parish, and the oldest, then 21, at the Easter Vigil Mass at the University of Dallas. Our middle son, 19, was confirmed in Rome last November, during his sophomore semester abroad. Both of our daughters, too, chose to receive the sacrament while away at school, one in high school the other in college.

The reasons for the irregularity are various and complicated, but they have a lot to do with the clericalism and bureaucracy bogging down diocesan religious education programs today. It’s bad enough in our current diocese that even though those programs are doctrinally sound and staffed with great people, my husband and I were genuinely concerned that making our children go through them would cause them to become cynical and lose their faith.

So, I’m more than sympathetic to the idea that substantial changes to sacramental preparation are in order. Many of my friends, including priests and lay directors of religious ed., strongly favor “restoring the original order,” i.e., having confirmation at a much younger age, before first communion. I’m not completely closed to the idea. But, speaking as a layman steeped in the personalism of John Paul II and attuned to the themes of our present Pope, I have serious doubts. Last year’s  announcement of the “restored order” in Denver and its accompanying pastoral letter from Archbishop Aquila increased them. I don’t live in his diocese, but I want to air my concerns even so, because the practice is spreading. Recently our summer diocese of New Hampshire became the latest to adopt it.

There is a strain of traditionalism (if you hang out in conservative Catholic circles, you’ve come across it) that tends to regard all modern changes and developments as errors and corruptions. It talks almost as if “the way it was before Vatican II” is synonymous with “theologically correct,” and at the same time treats theology in a highly legalistic way—as if it were grounded in books and canon law exclusively, rather than in experience primarily.

Christian experience is ontologically prior to theology. It is theology's proper horizon, whereas the reverse is not the case. Theology, understood as systematic and critical investigation, is in itself incapable of producing Christian experience by its own resources. What is more, theology is born of Christian experience and must ceaselessly refer to the horizon that this experience sets for it. (Angelo Scola, in a 1996 Communio article)

I don’t imagine Archbishop Aquila is that kind of traditionalist, but the tone and content of his pastoral letter remind me of it.

For instance, early on he writes, “I have been charged by Christ with guiding each of you on your journey to heaven.” Has he? It doesn’t seem so to me. To me, the claim sounds jarringly paternalistic. I can’t imagine John Paul II saying it. As I understand it, a bishop is charged with guiding his diocese, not each soul’s journey. Persons are self-determining. We are guided inwardly, by conscience and the Holy Spirit— a point stressed continually by John Paul II, who, preferred the term “accompaniment” to “discipleship” when it came to priests’ relations with the laity. Clergy are not to think of themselves as responsible to “form” and “mold” and “guide” laymen, so much as to serve and accompany us on our way, always with a profound respect for our freedom and dignity as individuals. When John Paul addressed the faithful, he sought to awaken in us a lively sense of personal responsibility. “You must decide;” “Be the protagonists in your own lives!” His favorite papal title was “Servant of the Servants of God.”

Pope Francis has, if anything, pressed even further in the same direction, frequently urging priests and laity alike to resist clericalism. (see, for example, Evangelii Gaudium 31, 63, 102, 104, 105)

We could maybe set aside the Archbishop’s phrasing as accidental and insignificant, if the paternalistic tone weren’t reinforced by the content of the letter that follows. I’ll come back to that. First let me first address National Catholic Register news story about the change

After repeating that confirmation-before-communion was the “original order” of the sacraments, the article quotes Fr. Michael Flynn, executive director of the Secretariat of Divine Worship of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) explaining the history of the change, which came about 100 years ago.

At that time, St. Pius X lowered the age of first Communion to 7 years old, but mentioned nothing about confirmation, where the practice to administer it at 12 continued. Over the course of the subsequent century, U.S. Catholics came to incorrectly view confirmation as a “sacrament of maturity,” because that is how they grew up with it.

I don’t dispute the history, but I question whether it follows that it’s incorrect to view confirmation as the sacrament of maturity, or that the only reason for thinking of it that way is that that’s what we grew up with. It seems to me that there are much deeper reasons. For instance, it makes intuitive sense. In baptism, our parents profess faith on our behalf; in confirmation we profess it for ourselves.

Years ago I heard a series of talks on the sacraments by lay theologian Scott Hahn that drew analogies between natural family life and the supernatural life of the Church. Baptism is spiritual birth; holy communion is sacred nourishment. He compared the graces of confirmation with the hormones released in the body at adolescence empowering us to become men and women. It was convincing.

Here’s another reason: There is an organic link between Judaism and Catholicism. Judaism’s ancient rites are mirrored in our sacraments: circumcision and baptism; temple sacrifice and Eucharist; atonement and confession. Judaism has its rites for marriage and ordination. It also has one for coming of age.

According to Jewish law, when Jewish boys become 13 years old, they become accountable for their actions and become a bar mitzvah… Prior to reaching bar mitzvah, the child's parents hold the responsibility for the child's actions. After this age, the boys and girls bear their own responsibility for Jewish ritual law, tradition, and ethics, and are able to participate in all areas of Jewish community life. (From Wikipedia)

Note how religiously and morally significant an occasion bar mitzvah is. Up until age 13, the child’s parents are responsible in front of God for his behavior. With the ceremony, he formally becomes a man, responsible for himself and co-responsible for the religious life of the community.

The idea of confirmation as a Christian corollary to the Jewish bar mitzvah makes sense.

Thinking of it as “the sacrament of maturity” also coheres with the personalist developments of the modern period, which the Church has explicitly made her own since Vatican II. Increasingly, the theological and pastoral documents of the Church stress personal dignity and responsibility. The faithful are not to understand ourselves as objects of the Church’s work in the world, but as subjects—co-responsible agents of Christ’s redemptive mission.

In a series of retreats given to young adults in the late sixties and early seventies, published in English under the title, The Way to Christ, then-Cardinal Karol Wojtyla indicated that he, too, understands confirmation to be connected to Christian maturity.

With the sacrament of Confirmation we become witnesses; and a witness is not simply a conventional figure but is a person who testifies to Christ. A witness is an adult Christian, adult in conviction, in experience and in fidelity to Christ.

Seven year olds can be true believers, even surpassing their elders in faith and holiness. But they are not adults. Barring exceptional cases, they lack the self-standing to make an adult choice for Christ and the Church. They are too young and too dependent on their parents and teachers.

Which brings me back to Archbishop Aquila’s letter. A prime reason he gives for preferring to do confirmation immediately before first communion is that young children are more “naturally receptive” to religious instruction than teenagers. That’s of course true, but to me it seems exactly a reason to favor the current order. Consider these lines from a short address Pope Francis gave to ecclesial movements in November, 2014 [my bold] 

A further issue concerns the way of welcoming and accompanying men and women of today, in particular, the youth (cf. Evangelii Gaudium, 105-106). We are part of a wounded humanity—and we must be honest in saying this—in which all of the educational institutions, especially the most important one, the family, are experiencing grave difficulties almost everywhere in the world. Men and women today experience serious identity problems and have difficulty making proper choices; as a result, they tend to be conditioned and to delegate important decisions about their own lives to others. We need to resist the temptation of usurping individual freedom, of directing them without allowing for their growth in genuine maturity. Every person has their own time, their own path, and we must accompany this journey. Moral or spiritual prgress which manipulates a person's immaturity is only an apparent success, and one destined to fail...Christian education, rather, requires a patient accompaniment which is capable of waiting for the right moment for each person, as the Lord does with each one of us.

The temptation to usurp individual freedom and short-circuit the maturing process in religious education is real. I have more than once heard catechists openly express an aim to get as much instruction and sacramental grace into kids as possible before they become teenagers and drift away. I understand the feeling, but it strikes me as a faithless way to conceive of catechesis, and a demeaning approach to persons. Catholics aren’t supposed to be afraid of freedom. We’re not supposed to be afraid of doubts and questions and independent thinking—not even of adolescent rebellion. On the contrary, our formation programs should consciously make ample room for the kind of inquiry, questioning, and intelligent engagement that older children and young adults want and need.

I would go so far as to to propose that it should be made clear to every Catholic or would-be Catholic child and young adult that the decision about whether and when to seek confirmation is entirely theirs. No one—neither parents, priests, nor CCD teachers—will force or pressure or cajole them into it. Confirmation is a gift, not a mandate. Its graces are meant for those who want them.

In his seminal, even prophetic, work, The End of the Modern World, Romano Guardini (a theologian who profoundly influenced successive post-conciliar popes) stressed that in the irreligious conditions of contemporary society, the absolute demands of Christian dogma come more to the fore, and with them the central importance of freedom.

[M]an’s unconditional answer to the call of God assumes within that very act the unconditional quality of the demand which God makes of him and which necessitates maturity of judgment, freedom and choice.” (p.107, my emphasis)

In a pluralistic society, where young people are constantly confronted with other beliefs and with unbelief, it is all the more important to stress in word and practice the mysterious and central reality that, as Wojtyla put it, “Christianity is a religion of choice.”

Learning from evangelicals

Especially those who have experienced the phenomenon readily understand why evangelical Protestantism and the charismatic renewal have been so effective in winning converts: They have captured something largely lost in conventional Catholic life and ethos, viz., the crucial importance of that personal choice for Christ—the “altar call” moment, when we freely “invite Jesus into our heart as personal Lord and Savior.” Often that moment of decision is accompanied by a powerful influx of felt grace—an intimate assurance of God’s love and presence in our lives. We experience that that grace empowers us to live as Christians in a new way.

So potent is that central feature of evangelicalism that many Catholic youth programs have incorporated it. But, typically, when they do, it’s done in a way that is dis-integrated with parish and sacramental life. It takes place “off campus” so to speak—at a retreat or a youth conference. Why should that be so? Doesn’t so momentous a spiritual occasion naturally “belong” to the sacramental life of our parishes?

Where is the primacy of parents?

Another thing about the Archbishop’s letter bothers me. It’s an instance of a wider problem in the Church. He acknowledges more than once that parents are the primary religious educators of their children, but he seems not to draw any practical conclusion from that fact other than parents have a duty to teach their children the faith. Yet, we know through moral philosophy that duties and rights are strictly correlated. In other words, the fact that we have duties as the prime educators of our children means that we also have rights as such. Clergy and catechists owe us real deference. At a minimum, it seems to me, parents should be consulted about major changes like this before they’re instituted, and encouraged to participate in the discernment about it. Do we think it’s a good idea? What is its theological rationale? What are the practical advantages and disadvantages? How will it affect family and parish life? What problems might it entail? What if we don’t think our child is ready at age seven?, etc.

But there is nothing in the letter to indicate that there was any consultation at all with the laity about the change. On the contrary, what comes across (albeit discretely) is something more like “I’m the bishop; it’s my decision; it’s your duty to submit to my authority.” It doesn’t feel like parental primacy to me.

The theological rationale

It goes without saying that experiential and intuitive reasons in favor of thinking of confirmation as a coming-of-age sacrament don’t suffice if the theological reasons for the original order are compelling. But are they?

Archbishop Aquila writes: “Even though it is closely related to Baptism, Confirmation is more than an appendix of Baptism. It is a sacrament in its own right. In Baptism the Holy Spirit is truly given, yet in Confirmation he is given in a way that completes the graces of Baptism and imparts special strength upon the recipient.”

This statement only raises more questions. How and why is baptism incomplete? Why is it not enough in itself? What is the spiritual need that makes sense of there being two separate and distinct sacraments of initiation? And if it’s all about getting as much objective grace as possible as soon as possible in life, regardless of personal subjectivity, why wait till the age of reason? Why not confirm infants immediately after baptism? I fear the question sounds facetious, but I’m asking it sincerely: Why not also give them the sacrament of the sick, so that the healing graces are present even before sickness begins?

Isn’t it so that there is a “natural ordination” of the sacraments to the human need at hand? Infants need the grace of baptism to be cleansed of original sin and welcomed into the family of God. Small children need the sense of belonging, participation and spiritual nourishment that comes with holy communion. When we commit to a specific adult vocation—marriage or priesthood—we get particular grace for that too. Doesn’t it seem fitting and right that the grace of individual empowerment be offered at the moment we, personally, are ready to take up adult responsibility for ourselves and in the Church?

Perhaps the most persuasive reason in favor of the original order that I have seen has to do with the mystery of the Eucharist as the summit and consummation of our faith. As such, it seems right that Christians be fully initiated before they receive it. But even there, I wonder.  Might it not be—as Pope Francis’ seem to suggest—that we have allowed that truth of Eucharist to overwhelm (in our thinking and ethos) its aspect as spiritual nourishment and sacred medicine? Is it impossible to believe that its wider availability today is not simply down to the carelessness of our too-lax age, but a further unfolding of the depth of the riches of God’s mercy and condescension in offering Himself unreservedly to a broken world?

In any case, while I see that it makes good religious sense for adult converts to receive confirmation before they receive holy communion, I also think it makes good sense for children being raised in Catholic families to receive communion even well before they are mature enough for confirmation, because it fosters and nourishes their still-developing religious life.

The Archbishop says that the change has borne good fruit in dioceses where it’s been implemented, but he doesn’t say what fruit, nor does he offer any real evidence for the claim. We’re left to take it on faith.

There may well be convincing answers to concerns and arguments like mine, but I haven’t seen them. It seems to me the real views and experiences of laymen like me aren’t being engaged at all, which is disturbing.

A different possibility

Here is what I wish we as a Church would consider as an alternative to “restoring the order.” I wish each parish would hold an annual Confirmation Mass, celebrated by the bishop, in which anyone over the age of, say, 12 or 13, is welcome to participate if he or she chooses to and prepares adequately.

Doing it this way would have several key advantages:

1)   It would emphasize the theme of personal responsibility and the reality that Christianity is “a religion of choice,” not merely a way of life we inherit from our parents. We are not passive. We are not just children doing as we’re told, but self-standing individuals stepping forward to profess publicly “what we ourselves have heard and believed.” We make a choice for Christ and His Church, in our own name, when we feel ready to do it. And the moment we do it is recognized and celebrated by the surrounding community as a great occasion for the parish and in our lives as Catholics—the moment we become witnesses, co-responsible for the local church, and the moment we are given the supernatural power to boldly live what we profess.

2)   It would revitalize religious instruction in the parish, since now that instruction would have to be adapted to the needs of individuals at various ages and stages of maturity and experience, rather than a class of children of the same age. I think we could expect that many more parishioners would get actively involved in serving as lay catechists and “fellow travelers.” Small group preparatory study and prayer initiatives would spring up naturally surrounding the sacrament, and continue beyond it—because the faithful would experience them as personally enriching, enjoyable and edifying. Sacramental preparation would be a more organic and integrated component of parish life, rather than a sort of department on the side. Catholic adults would learn experientially that ongoing study and formation is a natural part of the life of faith, as is sharing with others “the reasons for our hope.”

3)   It would ameliorate the age-segregation problem typical of parish life today. I recently heard a talk by a veteran youth minister in which he laments the way youth ministry has tended to isolate teens too much from their parents, and the way parents tend to be too disconnected from the religious lives of their kids.

4)   Youth ministry and sacramental preparation would be better integrated.

5)   It would better accommodate modern family life, including frequent relocations.

6)   It would be a way of responding to the Pope’s call for the Church make a fundamental shift from “maintenance” to “mission.” If we fully respond to that call, it should be increasingly normal for parishes to have to accommodate new believers of all ages.

Of course it would be messy, especially at first. It might even necessitate a pretty thorough overhaul of parish life. But isn’t such an overhaul already long overdue?

By way of summary and conclusion, I propose that Christian experience in the modern period—particularly since Vatican II— gives us good reason to believe that the current order of the sacraments should be received not as an accident of history, but rather a development, under grace, of Catholic understanding and ethos. I have in mind our understanding and cultural incorporation of especially three things: 

1)   The dignity of persons

2)   The lay vocation

3)   The centrality of freedom in Christianity

I hope to expand on those three and their relation to the sacrament of confirmation in a follow-up post. 

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Marie Tillman wants people to stop using her dead husband. 

Yesterday morning, the US President retweeted a post that used former NFL player and Army Ranger Pat Tillman's name and image to oppose the peaceful NFL protests that became ubiquitous this past week. 

"Pat's service, along with that of every man and woman's service, should never be politicized in a way that divides us. We are too great of a country for that," Marie Tillman replied in a statement released to CNN. 

As a writer and a personalist, I struggle often with the question of whether I have the right to tell a particular story or invoke a particular situation. It's very human to want to draw on communal myths and icons when making an argument or appealing to an audience. But when does that story-telling, that invoking of images, shade over into objectifying use of a human person? 

Some examples are, or should be, fairly clear. If we find the rhetorical use of the dead without consent disturbing, we should have no difficulty seeing the problems with using the actual bodies of the dead as literal props. I've also argued in the past against using images of victims of violence in exploitative ways, making a distinction between documentation and propaganda.

But other situations seem less clear. Can I retell a personal story that was told to me? What if I read it in a Facebook group? What if I don't use names? Does it make a difference whether I heard it somewhere public or private? Do I have a responsibility to make sure personal stories I hear second or third-hand have been shared by permission? Does it matter whether the story I'm using to support my argument is about someone living or dead? A private person or a public personality? Does it matter why I tell it? Is it OK if my argument is in support of something really important? What if telling someone else's story might touch a heart or save a life?

I don't have answers to all of these questions yet, but as they come up, I'm working out some principles to help me navigate them.

Some things are more obvious than others. It isn't "use" to tell the story of another person with their permission, without hidden or ulterior ends. Stories of individuals help us to understand the subjectivity of persons in a potent and ennobling way. (Thus the particular appeal of Humans of New York). If told with the intention of drawing attention to the humanity and dignity of overlooked or marginalized people, this kind of story-telling can represent a beautifully personalist approach to advocacy.

As we see in Marie Tillman's response above, using a person's name or story is problematic even when that person is deceased and cannot be directly harmed by your use. There's a violation that occurs when you misrepresent someone in a way contrary to the values they lived by. This is true, I think, even when the misrepresentation is the result of presumption and lack of basic research rather than intentional deception. (So remember to do a quick check before sharing that "gotcha" quote you saw on Facebook). 

Sometimes repeating a story comes across as exploitative even without many identifying details because of how and why it is told. Think of anecdotes told to support bigoted attitudes, or those that attribute hidden motivations or moral weakness to others. Rather than emphasize the subjectivity and dignity of persons, these stories simplify and flatten people to make them fit into the speaker's understanding of the world.

It's wrong to use people as means to an end. Insofar as we see in another person an opportunity or a point to win an argument, we fail to see the depth and breadth of their subjectivity.

We are called to love one another, and use is not compatible with love. Insofar as we use one another, we are failing to love one another. 

I want to be oriented toward love. 

Image by Juste de Juste [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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Amoris Laetitia is back in the news, and friends have asked me to lay out my interpretation of chapter 8 more concretely. I said I would, though I do it with some trepidation and lots of caveats, including that I am neither a theologian nor a canonist. I'm just a layman who's done a lot of reflecting on personalist principles and themes—on what JP II called "the priority of subjectivity."

Let me say first that I don't here mean to tangle with those who claim that Amoris Laetitia is heretical. It seems to me a waste of time and energy to argue with people who present themselves as staunchly upholding every jot and tittle of Catholic doctrine, while they make no practical provision for the central tenet of papal authority. Some of these go so far as to publicly heap scorn on the Vicar of Christ on earth in the name of Catholic fidelity. It's, inconsistent, schismatical and toxic, in my view.

I also decline to dispute with those (like the bishops of Malta) who pretend that AL allows for blanket exemptions for all divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Holy Communion. They seem to me unwilling (perhaps unable) to deal with the document honestly. 

Likewise, I'd like to set aside for another day the problem of how "other people"—e.g. liberals and dissenters, or anyone who is flatly unconcerned with preserving Catholic doctrine in all its purity and splendor—are likely to interpret the document. That's not my concern. My concern is with the true interpretation of AL, viz, the one that both fully accords with Tradition and adequately captures "what the Spirit is saying" to the Church in our day. 

On that question, some disagreement remains among the faithful. By the faithful—to keep clarifying—I mean those who receive the document within a spiritual context of lively trust and confidence in the guidance and protection of the Holy Spirit over the Church. They recognize the Pope as having divinely-given authority to teach truly in the areas of faith and morals; they recognize AL as papal teaching.

Among these latter, I find two basic groups.

1) Those who think that since it's impossible for the Pope to change the teaching of the Church, AL can and must be interpreted in a way that excludes the divorced and remarried from Holy Communion, unless they are committed to living celibately. (I count Cardinal Müller and Archbishop Chaput in this group.)

2) Those (such as Cardinal Shönborn and my former professor, Rocco Buttiglione) who think that AL allows for certain exceptions to that general rule, by making changes to Church teaching in its inessential aspect—a perfectly normal occurrence in ecclesial history.

I myself am in group 2. I believe with all my heart that the Pope lacks the authority to change the essential moral teaching of the Church. The Church has always taught that there is such a thing as intrinsically evil acts. Adultery is among those acts. Anyone who is committing adultery is ineligible for Holy Communion.  And, according to  Amoris Laetitia, there may well be cases of divorced and remarried individuals who are in a state of grace, discernible by their spiritual director.

How is it possible to hold such apparently contradictory beliefs? Bear with me while I try to explain.

When Rocco Buttiglione defends the document, he focuses on cases of "objective adultery," where moral freedom and responsibility on the part of an individual involved are practically null. I don't doubt such cases exist, but I'm here interested in another sort, one wherein the unions in question are "objectively irregular," but not adulterous.

Keep in mind that when the Church declares a marriage null, she isn't ending a marriage; she is formally finding that a marriage had never taken place. 

Feel your way into the following two scenarios. They are fictional, but not far-fetched. They are the sort of cases that priests are increasingly coming across in our post-Christian, broken and volatile world.

A woman who grew up in a conventionally Catholic family, but who then abandoned religion in college, meets, falls in love with, and marries an evangelical Protestant. He had been married before, briefly, to a woman who turned out to be mentally ill and an addict. The experience had traumatized and embittered him, but his new-found Christian faith helped him heal, and he is now a changed man. Joining her husband at his lively, Bible-believing church, his wife's faith reawakens, and with it, unexpectedly, a hunger for the Sacraments of her youth. She begins to attend mass, watch EWTN, and read Scott Hahn books. Over time, the conviction deepens in her that Catholicism is the one true faith, and she returns to the Church. It causes serious tension in her marriage, though. Her husband has been taught to believe that the Catholic Church is the Whore of Babylon. He doesn't acknowledge the authority of the Pope; he doesn't understand her intense yearning for the Eucharist. He even worries that it's idolatrous. Now his wife starts refusing to have sex with him, because she's been taught to believe that until he gets an annulment from his first marriage, sex with him is adultery in the eyes of the Church. He finds her refusal not only offensive, but sinful, selfish and manipulative. He quotes the Bible saying that a husband and wife should not abstain from relations, unless by mutual agreement and for the purposes of prayer. The alienation between them grows. She resents her husband for pressuring her to act against her faith; he resents her for becoming Catholic and refusing him his conjugal rights. Their children are suffering horribly.

A woman grows up in a remote area of a nominally Catholic country, where poverty, violence, alcoholism and domestic abuse are endemic. She gets pregnant at 17. Pressured by her family, she marries her no-good boyfriend in the local church. They have four children before she is 25. He is abusive and unfaithful. Then he abandons her. She manages to emigrate to America with her children, where they live in the shadows, hand to mouth. Then she meets a man who loves her and provides for her and her children. They can't get married officially, because she is in the country illegally, and they are desperately afraid of deportation. Meanwhile, the church where she had been married has been caught up in the drug wars; its records are inaccessible. For the time being at least, it's impossible for her to obtain an annulment. But inwardly she is convinced that that first marriage was no marriage at all, and her current partner is her true husband. He's not a perfect person, but he is faithful and committed to her. Secure in her new circumstances (even though they are not easy), her heart is filled with gratitude to God. She begins to go to church again after years away. Over time, her faith grows and deepens, and with it her sense of Jesus' unconditional love for her. Her partner supports this development in her life, but doesn't share it. He had been sexually abused by a priest when he was a boy. Just stepping into a church causes him waves of anxiety and gall. She hopes he'll find his way back some day, but she knows it will take prayer and patience and delicacy on her part.

How does the Church view these two women? How should she view them? As adulterers? 

It doesn't seem so to me. Their conjugal situations fall short of the ideal of marriage proclaimed by the Church, yes. Their unions are "objectively irregular," true. But not, I propose, intrinsically evil. I don't think they are committing sin when they have sex with their husbands.

These women are not flouting the moral law. They are not saying, "I don't care what the Church says, I'm doing what I want to do." Both of them, having found faith late in life, are genuinely striving for holiness. Their yearning for Communion doesn't come from defiance of the law, but from love and need.

They are not creating exemptions for themselves from absolute norms. They are not saying: "Adultery is okay in my case, since I don't feel guilty about it." Rather, they have good grounds for believing that the two first marriages were not real marriages. They hope and expect that they will one day be formally declared null. They are inwardly persuaded that the men they are with now are their true husbands. 

They are not saying, "I know it would be a sin to sleep with my husband, but sex is so pleasant, I can't resist it." Rather, they are worried that demanding celibacy of their husbands would be unjust and harmful. They are good men, trying to do right, but they are human beings, and they don't share their wives' commitment to the Church.

In claiming that these two women are not adulterers, am I indulging in Fletcher-like "situation ethics"? Do I posit that good intentions or circumstances can render an objectively evil act innocent? I don't think so. I'm proposing rather that a careful examination the subjective dimension in these cases reveals that the act isn't adultery.

Compare it to the case of a soldier killing an opponent on a battlefield. The fact that he's obeying legitimate orders in the course of a just war means that the killing isn't murder. When a doctor removes the fallopian tube of a woman with an ectopic pregnancy to save her life, the baby dies, but it wasn't an abortion. When (to use a case raised by Pope Benedict) a male prostitute puts on a condom to protect his client from disease, he's not committing the sin of artificial contraception.

These are messy scenarios—instances of what Veritatis Splendor calls "the obscure riddles of the human condition."  Some critics of AL prefer to dismiss such examples as adding to the confusion: "Hard cases make bad law"—as if the main objective of papal teaching were law-making, rather than grace-dispensing. 

There's a line in Amoris Laetitia that I found particularly arresting and important. I can't find it at the moment, so I paraphrase from memory: "I know there are some who would prefer stricter rules for the sake of clarity. I understand them, but I sincerely believe that Jesus wants this."

When the Vicar of Christ—a man chosen through the Holy Spirit to steer the Bark of Peter, and a man with a life-long reputation for personal holiness and deep prayer—says that he is convinced that this is a change Jesus wants, I think we should listen—especially considering how closely the "want" accords with the Jesus we meet in the Gospels—the one who caused scandal by dining with prostitutes and sinners; the one who talked about leaving the 99 sheep in the pen to search for the lost lamb; the one who said "I came not for the righteous, but for sinners", etc.

Critics of Amores Laetitia frequently claim that it's impossible for a priest to make a sound judgement in such cases, but is it? It may be impossible for outsiders, who know nothing of the couples in question—their history, the state of their souls. But why should it be impossible for the priest to whom they open their hearts and pour out their suffering and their longing?

Much more could be said, but this is enough for now.

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I recently read an article critical of Christian purity culture that was rather sensationally titled "I Stayed a Virgin Until Marriage, and My Virginity Caused Me to Develop Vaginismus." (It has since been re-titled, "After Staying a Virgin Until Marriage, I Couldn't Have Sex With My Husband.") 

In it, the author, Lauren Meeks, recounts her experience growing up in a Christian culture that emphasises the importance of sexual purity and of saving sexual intimacy for marriage. Embracing this ideal, Meeks and her fiancé decided to go a step further and avoid kissing until their wedding day.  

From there, Meeks recounts, “Let's just say...things didn't work out as planned. There was a problem.”

Instead of the passionate, joyful married sex she was expecting, Ms. Meeks found that her new married life dominated by the pain and embarrassment of vaginismus, a condition where a woman’s pelvic muscles contract involuntarily with attempted penetration, making sex painful or impossible. She and her doctors soon made the connection between her premarital attitudes towards sex and her current difficulties: 

I began to realise that decades of "saving myself" had subconsciously convinced me that sex was actually bad, something to be avoided and not thought about. And now that it was "good," my body didn't know what to do, because it had spent so many years not letting itself get too excited around members of the opposite sex.

She concludes that, had she known in advance what the consequences of her purity education could be, she would still have waited for sex until marriage, but “would have encouraged — and even demanded — open conversations about the many good aspects of sex and intimacy, rather than being told over and over again to simply avoid it until marriage.”

But would that have been enough?

By her own account, Ms. Meeks was already looking forward to a "hot, passionate sex life." She mentions that she experienced sexual desire for her fiancé and that there was a lot of sexual tension between them. Desire for sex was not the missing element.

A while ago, I read a book by sex educator Emily Nagoski in which she talks about the “dual-system” theory of sexual function. She says that, like other incentive-based desires, sexual feelings have an accelerator and a brake. The accelerator is responsible for interest in sex, but there is also a brake that is responsible for telling us when sex is not appropriate or safe. Any couple who has been interrupted just as things are getting interesting knows how effective and instantaneous that brake can be. 

When Christians talk about married sex, even within the context of purity-based sex education, it’s usually with the promise that it sex will be so much BETTER in marriage than it is outside of marriage. Married sex is the carrot to incentivize unmarried sexual continence. If you save yourself for marriage, you’ll have a “hot, passionate sex life,” as Ms. Meeks anticipated.

But while the carrot is there, so is the stick—and the stick is not merely directed towards the dangers of sexual promiscuity—STDs, crisis pregnancy, and the like—but at lust—which is often simplified to mean “sexual desire.” Both young women and young men are warned about the dangers of unleashed male sexuality, which is “a microwave” next to a woman’s “slow cooker,” and a powerful “Ferrari” compared to her “bicycle.” One speaker I heard as a teen cautioned against passionate kissing because, he said, “why would you choose to play on the edge of a cliff?” In this analogy, sex is the dangerous, potentially life-ending cliff.

And on go the brakes.

Secular culture does nothing to contradict this message in its desire to affirm sexuality in all its forms. It frequently skips past "vanilla" sex to celebrate kinks that many find demeaning. It accepts or tolerates pornography with a shrug even though porn tropes are almost always degrading to women. It ignores the way porn use always objectifies the user and the person/people depicted, making both objects for the viewer’s sexual pleasure rather than subjects in relationship with one another. “Sex-positivity” uses the language of feminism and equality to promote treating sex transactionally, as an exchange of pleasures rather than an exchange of persons. When it comes to sexual ethics, consent is the only standard. If everyone consents, then whatever happens is OK, regardless of context or consequences.

But, of course, there are consequences, and evidence of those consequences is all around us in broken hearts, broken lives, and broken families.

So the girl raised in a purity culture gets the message that sex is dangerous both implicitly and explicitly, from the warnings and metaphors of fellow Christians and from observation of the casualties of secular "sex-positive" culture. She sees that sex is frequently demeaning and bad for women.

She might be told, if she's Catholic, that the Theology of the Body warns us not to use each other, but I'm afraid even that instruction often just increases the fear of being used. If she belongs to some Protestant subcultures, she’ll notice that married women are frequently counselled that the secret to a happy marriage is sexual availability to your husband. After all, married men still have those Ferrari engines and can’t be expected to be happy in marriage if their sexual “needs” aren’t met.

And a fairly large proportion of girls (and quite a few boys), regardless of what they are taught about sex, will actually have already been used sexually in one way or another--molested or targeted for indecent exposure or suggestive harassment—long before their first purity talk or sex ed course. 

The result is that, for some people, women especially, the brakes go on, full stop, and they don't easily disengage, no matter how much we talk about the sanctity and pleasure of married sex. 

If sexual dysfunction is to be understood in the context of the interaction of psychological and physiological sexual responses, then the message that's missing is not that married sex is “good.” It's that it can be safe for the human person. And while both church and world are concerned with sexual safety, they lack the personalist’s insight into the danger of use in human relationships.

Birth control, condoms, and consent don’t protect a person from the fear of being used. Sexual continence outside of marriage doesn’t protect from sexual objectification within marriage.

Sex is sacred—this we know. But do we know that the human person—the sexual human person—is also sacred?

Do we know how to protect our own subjectivity from use without becoming closed to union?

Do we know how to teach our children to be both safe and open? 

I have some thoughts as to what a personalistic sexual education might look like, but, heck, my oldest child is 12. We’re still very early on this journey. So before I venture into giving my theories, I want to ask readers to share their experiences and thoughts. 

What can we do to guide our children safely through all of the messages about sex contained in popular culture and Christian subcultures?

How do we teach chastity and prudence without teaching fear? 


Bedsheets photo via Flickr. 

"Secret spell" by Francesca Dioni, via Flickr.

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