A Question of Morality

As year succeeds to year, I become more determined to resist all attempts from within and outside the Church to reduce Catholic teaching to an emphasis on morality, and thus limit fundamental religious questions to issues such as abortion, divorce, contraception, and homosexuality. The questions that every living human person represents are primary. Why am I here? Do I matter? Why do I get up each morning? How do I discern the meaning of reality? Religion embraces the universality of human possibility and yet too often Christians are encouraged to wallow in the mire of petty issues related to perceived ethical dimensions of reality. This is not to say that ‘life’ issues such as abortion and euthanasia are of themselves trivial; but too often, it seems, we are encouraged to narrow our focus on the ‘big’ issues.

The consequences of such a limited religious focus are arguably most evident in the potential disintegration of the Anglican Communion primarily over the issue of human sexuality, namely gay and lesbian bishops and same-sex marriages. Perhaps the more urgent issue to be addressed within Anglicanism, if I may be so bold, revolves around the identity of Christ Himself, “Who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:15). Having seen some video footage of the weird goings-on at the consecration of two bishops in Los Angeles in 2010, and heard other reports from the American Episcopal Church of, for example, Holy Communion being distributed to people of all faiths and none, the fundamental question facing Anglicans worldwide would seem to relate not to matters of sexuality but to the person of Jesus. The Catholic Church may be in a different place – no gay bishops here (or so ‘they’ would like you to think), and if there are any, they are safely concealed in their closets – but the question, “Who do you say that I am?” is no less relevant for Catholics  It is, indeed, a question that every Christian must answer.

More than two thousand years of images, formulas, devotions, experiences, teachings, and cultural interpretations have served both to conceal and reveal the unfathomable riches of the truth about Jesus, who refuses to wear our disguises, rejects our labels, smiles at our mediocrities, and despairs at our hypocrisies. We must filter through all these accumulations and, while we just can’t say or believe whatever we want about Christ, ultimately we need to decide in whom do we really believe. What is the essence of my faith, what do I aspire to, who gives meaning to my life?

If, with Saint John, we are able to say that Christ is the source of love, he is the North of my compass, what does it then mean to speak of the love of Christ? It has to mean more than an authoritarian idea, a moral idea or a sentimental idea. Warnings about the loss of his love through a gradual decline into sin simply do not convince me, primarily because this is not what I know of Jesus; which is not to say that I can choose to ignore the evidence of sin in my life. There are always things there that must change if I am to progress in union with Christ. The old, twisted understanding that human sexuality is problematic because it is sinful outside marriage – and even there it must be for the purpose of procreation – is as vapid as to state that human sexuality, in all its expressions, is the route to perfect happiness. Neither approach rings true.

The denial of the instinctive desires of human beings and consequently the suppression of those same desires has nurtured only fear and guilt within the Church. We still await a proper sense of the Church’s teaching on human sexuality as comprising values that serve humankind in its deepest needs. It is unlikely to be elucidated during this pontificate, that much is certain.

Odo Casel OSB, writing shortly before the Second Vatican Council, cogently explains that a system of both dogmatically certain truths to be accepted and confessed and moral law to be observed, belong within the Church – Christ’s Mystical Body – but that neither exhausts its essence (The Mystery of Christian Worship). There will be some who will protest that criticism of certain elements of Church teaching is off limits because this represents an implicit criticism of A Christ himself. The reasoning behind this protest is that the Church is the gathering of all the redeemed – past, present and future, in heaven, on earth and anywhere between – into the one body of Christ. While the Church is indeed the physical and, hence, visible presence of Christ on earth, nevertheless Christ becomes invisible when the Church and Christians fail to love. When the Church defends itself as a human institution, as it has often done in the past with regard to the physical and sexual abuse of children in its care, and neglects charity and truth, it can only create scandal and thus reveal its human flaws. We do not attribute those flaws to the person of Christ, who was innocent and without sin, only to those who manifestly do not reflect the presence of God by their words or actions. In Christ’s own words, they are to be identified with those who “tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they are unwilling to lift a finger to move them” (Matthew 23:4ff).

In the words of Charles de Foucauld, we must ‘Cry out the Gospel with our lives’. When the Church neglects to do this, then Christ’s message to the people as the only conceivable answer to their infinite desire becomes smothered in its own words, lost among the sheer volume of other words that constantly compete for the world’s attention. The only thing that distinguishes Christian words from other words is holiness; and holiness depends solely on making evident the presence and love of God.

This reflection by Adam McIntosh was originally published in Quest Bulletin 65 (Winter 2012/13).

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