(Ed. note: Spero columnist James Thunder is an attorney who has long been involved in pro-life causes. While practicing law, Mr. Thunder lived with his wife for three years in a home for 11 teen-aged boys with mental disabilities. For five years, he was on the board of directors of a legal clinic for person with disabilities. And he has served as full-time general counsel to a pro-life law firm. A pdf. version of this essay can be found here.)
On September 30, 2013, an interview with Pope Francis, that had been conducted by the editor of La Civiltà Cattolica, an Italian journal of the Society of Jesus (a/k/a S.J., Jesuit), in Italian for six hours over three days in August, was published in several Jesuit journals in 12 languages, including America, the Jesuit journal in the United States. The full 15,000-word text is available online. Five experts in translation of Italian to English were retained.
The media, using a shorthand that went viral, related that Pope Francis had chastised those Catholics who had been obsessed with abortion, gay marriage and contraception. To some degree, the media were correct. Pope Francis did use the word “obsessed” and he did say it was “not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.” The 100-word section of the interview was, verbatim:
We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. The teaching of the [C]hurch, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the[C]hurch, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.
The dogmatic and moral teachings of the [C]hurch are not all equivalent. The [C]hurch’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently…
These are my reactions:
1. Pope Francis, like all faithful Catholics, is obsessive.
2. In the United States, the media, and secularized Catholics, are obsessive about all things sexual all the time.
3. It’s okay to be obsessive – about the right things.
4.The proclamation of Christ included and includes, from the outset, a demand in change of behavior.
1. Pope Francis, Like All Good Catholics, Is Obsessive.
The media would say, if they were honest, that the Pope himself is obsessive. How else could they regard a man who vowed to be celibate (that is, unmarried) in the modern, 21st century? The media, and secularized Catholics, argue that human beings find self-fulfillment, self-expression, in sex (in or outside of marriage). They have argued long and consistently for the Catholic Church to abolish celibacy as a requirement for ordination in the West (the Latin Church of the Catholic Church). They blame celibacy for a lack of vocations to the priesthood and for priestly pedophilia. They applaud the 2009 departure of Catholic priest Alberto Cutié of Miami for marriage and the Episcopal Church of the United States.
In addition to celibacy, another way in which Pope Francis is manifestly obsessive is that he took vows of chastity, poverty and obedience, contrary to the contemporary understanding of self-fulfillment in sex, material goods, and freedom.
But there’s more. Francis joined the Jesuits, a society of men (I dare add: “men only”) who take a fourth vow, this one to whomever is pope, whether the individual pope is good or bad. (The regular vow of obedience is to “religious superiors,” including his superior in a “province” in Argentina, and the head of the Jesuit order world-wide who resides in Rome.)
Moreover, when Francis accepted his election as pope, he took a job that historically is a lifetime position in a literal sense. That is, it’s not like a “lifetime” federal judgeship that an individual has the option of resigning at any time or of retaining until death. Rather, a pope is expected to remain in the position until death. This is what the hoopla about Pope Benedict XIV’s resignation was all about.
And, finally, Francis chose to be called “Pope Francis” after St. Francis of Assisi (1181/82-1226). Now that guy was a wild and crazy guy…and medieval to boot. He rebelled against his merchant father, tearing his clothes off in public; gave a name to poverty (“Lady Poverty”); slept on the earthen floor; and started a society of men (a “religious order”) who were “mendicants,” that is, they lived by begging!
Isn’t it odd, from the media’s point of view, that such a crazy, out-of-sync-with-the-modern-world, obsessive guy like Pope Francis would critique some members of the Church of which he is head as “obsessive”? How credible is such a critique? Isn’t it, using an English language idiomatic expression, like the pot calling the kettle black?
Indeed, this whole religion thing is obsessive, isn’t it? Consider the elderly Jew Eleazar whose story is told in 2 Maccabees, chapter 6. He was commanded to eat pork, contrary to the Jewish laws. He was given an out; some of his Gentile friends offered to give him meat and he could pretend it was pork. Eleazar refused this offer and was executed. What’s a little pork? Why not pretend?
And the same fate was met by the fellow known as St. Stephen, Protomartyr, that is, the first Christian martyr. Whatever possessed him to give a long speech about the recently crucified Jesus of Nazareth before the Sanhedrin, the same group that had crucified Jesus? Stephen went and got himself stoned to death. (See Acts of the Apostles, chapter 7.) For what?
When early Christians were required, on pain of death, by the government to eat meat that had been sacrificed to the Roman gods, what was it to them? After all, it wasn’t poisonous meat. It wouldn’t kill their bodies.
Most Americans know the story of St. Thomas More (1478-1535) through the movie A Man for All Seasons (1966). To save himself from imprisonment, to save himself from execution, to prevent his family from losing all the real and personal property he had accumulated, all he had to do was to go along with the bishops (all but one, John Fisher) and monks (not Carthusians) and publicly acknowledge that Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine had been annulled and that Henry was the head of the Church in England. The American public applauds More as a man of conscience, but really, wasn’t he obsessive? Who cares enough about the validity of someone else’s marriage to court death? And if a king wants all the troubles that go with being head of a church, why not let him? Today it’s the Catholics in China who spend years in prison for refusing to acknowledge the Communist Party as head of the Church in China. What is their obsession with the papacy? What is their papal obsession?
The Jesuits were founded in 1540. In 1580, Jesuit priests started entering anti-Catholic England. One of them, (St.) Edmund Campion, born in 1540, was executed in 1581. Similarly, on this continent, after his ordination as a Jesuit priest, a Mexican by the name of (St.) Miguel Pro (1891-1927) returned to Mexico to serve as an underground priest, crazily risking death during the government’s persecution of Catholics…and death he got by firing squad within the year.
Think of (Blessed) Franz Jaegerstaetter who was executed for refusing service in Hitler’s army, leaving his wife and three young daughters behind. His fellow villagers thought he was touched in the head and that he had no good reason to resist induction. As I wrote in an online March 16, 2009, biography:
Franz heard the arguments of relatives, neighbors, and clergy that he could not sit in judgment on a war, that he had to do his moral duty to save the Fatherland, that he had moral duties to his wife and children, that his religious leaders were not declaring the war unjust even if the regime was evil, that priests and seminarians were agreeing to being inducted, that Nazis were no longer being denied Communion, that it was a morally good thing to crush Soviet Communism, that his refusal would have no impact on the outcome of the war, that he would be committing a form of suicide, that he was actively seeking martyrdom, that he would be foolishly wasting his life, that he may never be ordered to the Front or to kill, that Hitler rather than any of his soldiers should be blamed for prosecuting the war, that he was a religious fanatic, that as a soldier he could help injured soldiers and protect civilians. (For my online biography and analysis of Jaegerstaetter, see links at end.)
Obsession doesn’t need to lead to martyrdom; it can just lead to an odd life. There are so, so many stories of crazily obsessed Christians and they’re held up by the Church (“canonized”) as role models. For example, in the 19th century a 23 year old man from Belgium, sailed to other side of the world, before there was a Panama Canal to cut the length of the trip, to minister to Native Hawaiians. When he was 33, he volunteered to go to the island of Molokai where the Hawaiian government had established a colony of lepers. At the time, leprosy, like AIDS in the 1980s, was incurable and led to death. Sure enough, Damien died at age 49. (For my biography of Damien, see links at end.) And there is Mother Teresa of Calcutta (1910-1997). Not only did she become a nun and take vows of chastity, poverty and obedience, but she left her native Kosovo and became a missionary in India. Then she left her comfortable life as a teacher and worked on the streets with the dying poor.
New York Cardinal John O’Connor’s obsession with Jesus Christ led him to make an offer, in October 1991, of free medical and legal care to any pregnant woman and it was Mother Teresa of Calcutta’s obsession with Jesus Christ to do the same. She stated at the National Prayer Breakfast in 1994:
Please don’t kill the child. I want the child. Please give me the child. I am willing to accept any child who would be aborted and to give that child to a married couple who will love the child and be loved by the child. From our children’s home in Calcutta alone, we have saved over 3,000 children from abortion.
(For the links to the announcement of Cardinal O’Connor and the text of Mother Teresa’s address, see links at end.)
And then there’s the example of obsession with Church doctrine. Northwestern University professor Garry Wills has made it quite clear that he believes that Catholics are obsessed with their belief that Jesus is truly present in consecrated bread and wine. (This refers to what Catholics say is “the Real Presence.”) They’re ultra-careful about their treatment of broken pieces of consecrated bread or the spilling consecrated wine. They bend their knee (genuflect) in front of a golden box (“tabernacle”) that holds consecrated hosts. They kneel in front of, and adore, these…things. They teach all of this to their children. (For my article on Wills, see links at end.)
Blessed John Henry Newman (in No. 7 of Sermons on Subjects of the Day) described how many thought religion, consisting of almsgiving, fasting, praying, was “unnatural”:
Another consideration which the world urges. . . .is that religion is unnatural. . . . Almsgiving they think the virtue of a barbarous or half-civilized or badly managed community. Fasting and watching are puerile and contemptible, for such practices interfere with nature, which prompts us to eat and sleep. Prayer again is a mere indolence. It is better, they say, to put the shoulder to the wheel, than to spend time in wishing it to move. Again, making a stand for particular doctrines is thought unnecessary and unmeaning, as if there were any excellence or merit in believing this rather than that, or believing any thing at all.
* * *
If, indeed, men will urge that religion is against nature. . .certainly we must become infidels at once; for can any thing be so marvellously and awfully beyond nature, both the nature of man and the nature of God, as that the Eternal Son of God should take flesh and be born of a virgin, and suffer and die on the cross, and rise again?. . . .
Pope Francis is, like all good Catholics, obsessive. He believes in the Real Presence. He lives a life of almsgiving, fasting, prayer. He joined the Jesuits, agreed to lifelong celibacy, and took not just three, but four, lifelong vows. If he criticized some Catholics for being obsessive, that should have seemed extremely odd to the media and secularized Catholics.
2. In the United States, the Media, and Secularized Catholics, Are Obsessive About All Things Sexual All the Time.
The adulation by the media and secularized Catholics of Pope Francis for singling out certain Catholics – those who consistently speak against abortion, contraception, or homosexuality -- as obsessive is one-sided. Are those Americans who speak in favor of abortion, contraception, or homosexual behavior, deemed by the media or secularized Catholics to be obsessive? When the Washington Post includes an article or a picture nearly every day, month after month, sympathetic to same-sex marriage, is that deemed obsessive? When there is tremendous public pressure placed on the Boy Scouts to admit, not gay boys and young men as Scouts (since they were already allowed), but “openly gay” boys and young men, as Scouts, was that deemed obsessive? When the Girl Scouts laud Planned Parenthood, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, and Texas state senator and gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis (see the links at end), is that not obsessive? No, the media and secularized Catholics regard this as normal and healthy and just and right. They are like the slaveholders Lincoln described in his Cooper Union speech who insist on our approval. In America, there is no fence-straddling allowed. In America, there is a war for the hearts and minds of our young!
The reason certain Catholics are deemed obsessive is because they refuse to bow down to the American god of the last half of the 20th, and the opening decades of the 21st centuries, sex. The media and secularized Catholics insist that all Americans, of every race, color, ethnicity, age, creed and religion, worship sex just like they do.
Of course, sex is not just an American god. On February 5, 2013, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child issued a report on pedophilia within the Catholic Church. But it could not restrain its obsession with sex, by going beyond its jurisdiction, and demanding the Church to change its moral teachings on abortion and homosexuality.
[It is interesting that some of the enemies of America are also obsessed with sex. On January 7, 2014, PBS NewsHour broadcast an interview with a leader of al-Shabab in which he said, “When we’re martyred, we hope to be with God in paradise. We are hoping for beautiful women.” (For video and transcript, see links at end.) This may not reflect the orthodox Muslim understanding, but what matters is that it is the understanding of suicidal jihadists.]
It is because of the American obsession with sex that Georgetown Law student Sandra Fluke was able to garner so much favorable press coverage -- and even occupy the stage of a congressional committee room -- when she insisted that her school, a nominally Catholic school, provide her with free contraceptives, when contraceptives are so inexpensive (the price of a movie ticket or two cups of coffee a month) and accessible. She is currently planning on using this notoriety to run for public office in California. If not for the American obsession with sex, how else explain that there is so much government funding of Planned Parenthood for the dispensing of contraceptives? How else explain public universities providing condoms in student residences? How else explain the government’s desire to allow girls who are too young to consent to sex, to purchase “emergency contraception”? Or to allow men and boys to purchase contraceptives for their underage lovers? (For my article on the Obama Administration, Plan B, and child sex, see the links at end.)
(HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and President Barack Obama)
How else can we explain the insistence that caterers, photographers, innkeepers and others provide services for the weddings of same-sex couples?
How else can we explain the insistence that the unborn can be lawfully killed when part of their body is outside the birth canal? Or that a child who survives an attempted abortion can be lawfully targeted for death?
The media and secularized Catholics will take any little tidbit of language, especially from any pope, and use it as a license to continue - - - their obsession. They do so in the same way that some Boston College students (“BC Students for Sexual Health”) distributed condoms on campus in March 2013, justifying their actions by twisting the Jesuit dedication “to the development of the self -- both the body and the soul…” And Catholic legislators in Illinois justified their vote for same-sex marriage in November 2013 by quoting Pope Francis’ plane interview on July 29, 2013, returning to Rome from the World Youth Day in Brazil in which he said, “Who am I to judge [gay priests]?”
The media and secularized Catholics conveniently ignore Pope Francis’ anti-abortion statement made on September 20, ten days before his long interview was published on September 30, to the International Federation of Catholic Medical Associations, and the statements he has made against same-sex marriage and homosexual behavior, as late as in December 2013 in the context of a proposal to authorize same-sex marriages in Malta. (For links to these five statements, see links at end.)
Here’s an example of an obsessive secularized Catholic who favored the extremist New York “Reproductive Health Act” or “Women’s Equality Act” expanding abortion in 2013. On Friday, January 18, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo stated on an Albany radio talk show, “The Capital Pressroom,” the following:
Who are they? Are they these extreme conservatives who are right to life, pro-assault weapons, anti-gay? Is that who they are? Because if that’s who they are and they’re the extreme conservatives, they have no place in the state of New York because that’s not who New Yorkers are.
(For links regarding Cuomo, see links at end.) For this, Cuomo is given a pass by the media. But if a public official had asked pro-abortionists to leave his or her state, would the media have given a pass?
And of course there is U.S. Supreme Court Justice Kennedy, another secularized Catholic, who in the Windsor case decided in 2013 could not think of any good reason why same-sex marriage could be prohibited in favor of traditional, heterosexual marriage other than animus against homosexual persons.
And we dare not forget that, on a trip to China in 2011, Vice President Biden, a secularized Catholic, a mature man, stated that the one-child, coerced abortion, policy of the Communist Chinese government that has resulted in the deaths of over 160 million, the greater majority of them girls, was “understandable.” I don’t know about Argentina or Italy, but in the United States, secularized Catholics like Biden are on the wrong side of human rights, of history, and of Christ! St. Paul asserted this:
As I have often told you before and now tell you again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things. (Philippians 3: 18-19).
Faithful Catholics are no more obsessed about abortion, contraception, and same-sex marriage than were mainstream Americans until just a few years ago. Faithful Catholics did not change; the media changed and some Catholics became secularized. Faithful Catholics did not start this war against women and children, hearth and home. The media and secularized Catholics did. It is the Democratic Party and its secularized Catholic supporters that adopted a pro-abortion plank. Let me ask the Democrats this: “Was it okay that Republicans in 1860 were as obsessed with slavery as the Democrats of 1860 thought they were? And was it okay that Republicans were obsessed for a hundred years with abolishing segregation as the Democrats thought they were? And are the Republicans now obsessed with abolishing legalized abortion?”
The media and secularized Catholics quaintly refer to “the culture wars.” It is indeed a war. It is in fact a life-and-death struggle – for the lives of the unborn, for the salvation and mental health of their mothers and fathers, for girls and boys to be born into families with a father and mother and to allow girls and boys to understand heterosexuality to be normal.
This war is about a lot more than “abortion, contraception, and same-sex marriage.” It encompasses:
• child rape;
• parental rights;
• care for the unborn and the newborn;
• care for the mothers in distress – before or after giving birth;
• the destruction of embryonic human beings for scientific research;
• the destruction of embryonic human beings (“surplus embryos”) in the context of artificial methods of fertilization;
• permanent methods of contraception (tubal ligation and vasectomy);
• abortifacient drugs characterized as contraception;
• euthanasia; and
• adoption of children.
While each of these issues are among the concerns of Catholic Church teaching, not a single one of these issues concern Catholic teaching on doctrine. The Church has consistently characterized them as moral issues and the Church appeals to all the people, regardless of denomination or creed, to the universal truths embodied in Her moral teachings. To the Church, to faithful Catholics, and to Evangelicals, the Orthodox, and LDS (Mormons), these teachings are like the proscriptions against theft, cheating, lying and perjury, adultery, wars of aggression, torture, racism, anti-Semitism, socialism, denying the ability of workers to collective action, and unbridled capitalism. Amherst Professor Hadley Arkes, a Catholic convert from Judaism at age 70, has written several columns arguing that the HHS “contraception mandate” is not a violation of religious beliefs but of moral beliefs which mandates an exception for conscience. See, for example, a link at the end.)
The contraception, abortifacients, and sterilization mandated by the federal Department of Health and Human Services, headed by Kathleen Sebelius, another secularized Catholic, is just the camel’s nose under the tent. Once HHS succeeds, HHS will force the rest of the camel into our tents with mandated artificial reproduction, mandated taxpayer funding of abortion, mandated euthanasia. Henry VIII’s mandate of affirmative (not merely passive) acquiescence in the annulment of his marriage to Catherine and his title as head of the Church in England was the camel’s nose. He followed it with the suppression (that is, outlawing) of religious orders and the confiscation of Church lands, land that had been used to feed the poor, educate the poor, nurse the poor. Henry VIII refused to allow the Church to exercise its charity.
3. It’s okay to be obsessive – about the right things.
After Pope Francis’ words on obsession and abortion were reported, I had breakfast with a man in his mid-80’s who had devoted nearly his entire adult life in the pro-life vineyard. I told him that it was okay to be obsessive about such a right thing.
(President George W. Bush and Mrs. Laura Bush greet Sister Nirmala of the Missionaries of Charity)
There are hundreds of religious orders, of men or women, in the Catholic Church. Each possesses what is called a “charism.” In modern parlance, it is their passion. For the purpose of this paper, we can call it their “obsession.” It can be teaching college, teaching grade school, preaching (Dominican), nursing (Daughters of Charity), teaching in seminaries (Sepulchians), communications (Paulist), missionary (Maryknoll, Divine Word), tending to the poor (Franciscan, Little Sisters of the Poor, Missionaries of Charity), contemplation (Poor Clares). The United States alone has some nine hundred provinces (typically, multistate geographical territories) of these religious orders: Missionhurst Fathers; Glenmary Missionaries; Vincentians; Religious Sisters of Mercy; Passionists; Redemptorists; Trappists; Benedictines; Servites; Salesians; Christian Brothers; Carmelites; Holy Cross; and on and on. All of these obsessions are about right things. And they’re okay. And none of this work is done without the support, including the financial support, of the Catholic laity.
Instead of detailing the work of Catholic institutions in the United States over the last two hundred years undertaken by the Catholic laity and religious orders, let’s highlight Catholic charity by taking a quick look at the work of Catholic institutions in a different country, India. In May of 2007, Cardinal Telesphore Toppo of India reported the following:
The first Catholic school in India was started by [Jesuit] St. Francis Xavier in 1541, in Goa. Today the Church has 14,539 Catholic educational institutions in India, of which 448 are colleges. Some 60% of the schools are in rural areas.
Of the 7 million students studying in the Catholic institutions, 54% are girls and 46% are boys. The percentage of Catholic students is only 22.7%, while that of Hindus is 53%.
A large majority of the students, 41.4%, live below the poverty line, while 32.4% are low income, and 19% are middle income.
Almost all of India's political and economic leaders studied in a Catholic institution.
In February, 2007, Cardinal Ivan Dias, then the Prefect for the Vatican Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, and former of Archbishop of Mumbai, spoke at a conference in Rome entitled “The Christian Conscience in Support of the Right to Life” on the topic “The Role of the Christian Conscience in the Promotion of Life in Relation to Developing Countries.” He said, in part:
I come from India, an “emerging” country with a non-Christian majority. Indeed, out of a population of 1.2 billion people, 80% are Hindu, 13% are Muslim and only 2.3% are Christian. The rest are made up of Buddhists, Jainars, Sikhs, Parsees and Jews.
Despite this fact, Christians are responsible for 20% of all primary education in India, provide 10% of health care and literacy programs in rural communities, direct 25% of institutions for orphans and widows, and are responsible for 30% of homes for the mentally and physically handicapped, for lepers and for people living with AIDS.
St. Teresa of Avila (1515–1582), herself a woman obsessed with the reform of her Carmelite religious order, wrote this on the subject of Christian charity:
Christ Has No Body.
Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.
This, dear readers, is Christian charity in action. Its beneficiaries are not limited by creed or nationality or disability or immigration status or gender or age or sexual orientation or degree of sinfulness. Christian charity is given just like the farmer who sowed seed by throwing it simply everywhere. (Mark 4:l-20) As Pope Francis wrote in his November 24, 2013, Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, charity is a “constituent element of the Church’s mission and an indispensable expression of her very being.” Para. 179.
It is intolerable that anyone who has any awareness of Catholic charitable institutions (and they are indeed everywhere!) should scold Catholics for not caring about children once they are born. On this point, see the chapter on the counter-argument in James T. Burtchaell, C.S.C., Rachel Weeping (1984). They insultingly use that argument as an excuse for abortion. Let them be anathema!
There are countless secular passions or causes. I suppose the media and secularized Catholics would approve obsessions with the legalization of prostitution (“sex workers”), pornography, addictive drugs (marijuana in Colorado), and gambling, but these are not morally right. Consider, instead, the hard and long multinational work to abolish polio or smallpox or river blindness. Or saving species from extinction. Or preserving habitat. Or the long path to becoming an orthopedic surgeon. Or raising one child. Or caring for one frail person. Or the Fourth Commandment to honor one’s parents. To those men and women who have labored in the pro-life vineyard for some 50 years, let me say that their obsession for a morally right cause is no vice but is a virtue.
4. The Proclamation of Christ Included and Includes, from the Outset, a Demand in Change of Behavior.
Here are some additional words from Pope Francis’ interview published September 30:
The [C]hurch’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently. Proclamation in a missionary style focuses on the essentials, on the necessary things: this is also what fascinates and attracts more, what makes the heart burn, as it did for the disciples at Emmaus. We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel. The proposal of the Gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant. It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow.
The Pope uses these same phrases in elaborating on these points in his November 24 Apostolic Exhortation:
35. Pastoral ministry in a missionary style is not obsessed with the disjointed transmission of a multitude of doctrines to be insistently imposed. When we adopt a pastoral goal and a missionary style which would actually reach everyone without exception or exclusion, the message has to concentrate on the essentials, on what is most beautiful, most grand, most appealing and at the same time most necessary. The message is simplified, while losing none of its depth and truth, and thus becomes all the more forceful and convincing.
36. All revealed truths derive from the same divine source and are to be believed with the same faith, yet some of them are more important for giving direct expression to the heart of the Gospel. In this basic core, what shines forth is the beauty of the saving love of God made manifest in Jesus Christ who died and rose from the dead. In this sense, the Second Vatican Council explained, “in Catholic doctrine there exists an order or a ‘hierarchy’ of truths, since they vary in their relation to the foundation of the Christian faith”. This holds true as much for the dogmas of faith as for the whole corpus of the Church’s teaching, including her moral teaching.
37. Saint Thomas Aquinas taught that the Church’s moral teaching has its own “hierarchy”, in the virtues and in the acts which proceed from them. What counts above all else is “faith working through love” (Gal 5:6). Works of love directed to one’s neighbour are the most perfect external manifestation of the interior grace of the Spirit: “The foundation of the New Law is in the grace of the Holy Spirit, who is manifested in the faith which works through love”. Thomas thus explains that, as far as external works are concerned, mercy is the greatest of all the virtues: “In itself mercy is the greatest of the virtues, since all the others revolve around it and, more than this, it makes up for their deficiencies. This is particular to the superior virtue, and as such it is proper to God to have mercy, through which his omnipotence is manifested to the greatest degree”.
38. It is important to draw out the pastoral consequences of the Council’s teaching, which reflects an ancient conviction of the Church. First, it needs to be said that in preaching the Gospel a fitting sense of proportion has to be maintained. This would be seen in the frequency with which certain themes are brought up and in the emphasis given to them in preaching. For example, if in the course of the liturgical year a parish priest speaks about temperance ten times but only mentions charity or justice two or three times, an imbalance results, and precisely those virtues which ought to be most present in preaching and catechesis are overlooked. The same thing happens when we speak more about law than about grace, more about the Church than about Christ, more about the Pope than about God’s word.
39. Just as the organic unity existing among the virtues means that no one of them can be excluded from the Christian ideal, so no truth may be denied. The integrity of the Gospel message must not be deformed. What is more, each truth is better understood when related to the harmonious totality of the Christian message; in this context all of the truths are important and illumine one another. When preaching is faithful to the Gospel, the centrality of certain truths is evident and it becomes clear that Christian morality is not a form of stoicism, or self-denial, or merely a practical philosophy or a catalogue of sins and faults. Before all else, the Gospel invites us to respond to the God of love who saves us, to see God in others and to go forth from ourselves to seek the good of others. Under no circumstance can this invitation be obscured! All of the virtues are at the service of this response of love. If this invitation does not radiate forcefully and attractively, the edifice of the Church’s moral teaching risks becoming a house of cards, and this is our greatest risk. It would mean that it is not the Gospel which is being preached, but certain doctrinal or moral points based on specific ideological options. The message will run the risk of losing its freshness and will cease to have “the fragrance of the Gospel”.
I wholeheartedly agree that our Proclamation of Christ should make the hearts of listeners, like the disciples on their way to Emmaus burn (Luke 24:13-35), that the Gospel must be fresh, fragrant, simple, profound, radiant. The charity of the Church, upon which the Pope focuses is the charity of Christ, extended in time and space, and it is fresh, fragrant, simple, profound, and radiant. It is manifest to any spectator having eyes and ears. Let those who have eyes see! Let those who have ears hear! – the Gospels report Jesus said this 14 times. They have no excuse.
The actions and words of those faithful Catholics who work for the unborn, for the mothers of the unborn, for the mothers who have aborted their children (Project Rachel), for those who destroy embryos, for those frail or elderly or disabled persons who would be encouraged to commit suicide, do not detract from the Church’s charity, but add to it. Pro-life actions and words are not a “disjointed” part of the Church’s moral teachings, they are “essential” and “necessary.” They are no more “disjointed,” “non-essential,” or “unnecessary” than are the universal moral proscriptions against rape, incest, pedophilia, murder, perjury, infanticide.
Let me make an observation here of the number of non-Catholics who are attracted to the Church because of its consistent, two-millennia moral teachings. Typical is this: A middle-aged man asked me when the Church would adopt the modern view on sex. He said even Catholics didn’t accept it. I replied that it was the true view and people had resisted it for 2,000 years. He converted 10 years later.
I acutely remember the first time I heard a two-word phrase spoken by a middle-aged professor with a German accent in an Introduction to Political Theory course, a course required of all majors in political science at the University of Notre Dame. The late Professor Gerhart Niemeyer (1907-1997), whom I later learned had been a fugitive from Nazi Germany, uttered the phrase: moral order. There is a moral order. We are obliged as human beings to discern its principles.
Who would dare to say that the people complaining about sexual assaults in prison, in the military, or on college campuses are not obsessed, legitimately obsessed? Yet, secularized Catholics see pro-life activity as not essential or necessary to living a Christian life. Moreover, they erroneously take solace from the Pope’s words about obsession to justify their crimes against humanity.
In his Apostolic Exhortation the Pope makes it clear that he is addressing “pastoral ministry,” that is, the ministry of bishops and priests, and he gives as an example, a priest who would preach 40 times in a 52-week year on the single virtue temperance (or vice or intemperance). He does not describe laypeople who work full-time in proclaiming the truth and addressing the needs of the unborn and their mothers as being obsessive.
Let me insert here the practical observation about one of the three issues the Pope raised, that of contraception. I do not know about Catholic Church life outside the United States, but in the United States, it would be difficult to find a priest or bishop whose sermons/homilies have addressed contraception – certainly with any degree of regularity but less to the point of obsession – in the 45 years after 1968 when Pope Paul VI issued Humanae Vitae. Indeed, it is only in the past few years that a new generation of priests and laypeople in the United States have dusted off that encyclical and works like Love and Responsibility published in 1960 in Polish by then Bishop Karol Wojtyla and in 1981 in English, three years after he became Pope John Paul II.
Returning to the work of pro-lifer laypeople, it is instructive to consider the oral argument before the U.S. Supreme Court on January 15, 2014, in the case of McCullen v. Coakley. This is a case challenging the Massachusetts state law setting a 35-foot buffer zone between pro-life activists and women entering abortion clinics. As reported in the Washington Post, “The challenge to the Massachusetts law was brought by activist Eleanor McCullen, 77, and others who say they use quiet conversation and offers of help to try to persuade women not to have the procedure.” Yes, “quiet conversation and offers of help.”
San Francisco Archbishop Cordileone spoke the following words on January 25, 2014, at the West Coast Walk for Life:
When a woman in a crisis pregnancy feels she has no choice but really wants to choose life, where does she turn? When a woman has gone through the experience and cannot rid herself of those feelings of guilt and anguish, and desires the relief of healing, where does she turn? She does not turn to those who claim to be “pro-woman” and advocate for this so-called “choice,” which so often is no choice at all. No, she turns to those who stand for life, for they are the ones who will welcome her with open arms, love her for who she is, and go to all lengths to give her the support she needs.
It is not possible, I respectfully submit, to separate the Proclamation of Christ’s compassion from His demand for change in behavior. As recounted in the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Mark, when Jesus first went public, that is, when He started His public ministry, He worked miracles by curing the ill of their diseases and debilitating conditions, but we cannot ignore that the words He spoke at the same time were simple, direct, and a call to action:
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 4:17).
“This is the time of fulfillment, the kingdom of God is at hand: Repent, and believe in the Gospel.” (Mark 1:15).
The Greek word for “repent” meant “convert,” “change [behavior].” In his Second Letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul, who had changed his behavior, virtually screamed: “We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God!” (2 Cor. 5:20).
St. Luke’s Gospel’s account of Jesus’ beginnings in public ministry is not like Matthew’s and Mark’s. According to St. Luke, Jesus comes to Nazareth and enters the synagogue. He quotes the prophet Isaiah and proclaims that the kingdom of heaven is at hand. The people belittle Him as being merely the son of Joseph the carpenter. He responds by referring to miracles He had performed in Capernaum and says He won’t be performing any in their town. They became furious. (Luke 4:16-30) My, my, where are the kind words? Where was the compassion?
John’s Gospel’s account of Jesus’ beginnings in public ministry is told differently than the other three. After miraculously changing water into wine at a wedding, He “cleansed the Temple” by pulling out His whip, driving the moneychangers out, and upending their tables. (John 2:13-16) Where were the kind words? Where was the compassion? But there is no doubt He demanded an immediate change in their behavior.
John continues with a description of Nicodemus’ visit to Jesus under cover of darkness. Nicodemus had heard of His miracles. Jesus tells him he must believe in Jesus, be born again, and “everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come toward the light, so that his works might not be exposed.” (John 3:1-21) I think we may assume that He spoke gently to Nicodemus. Nicodemus was interested in the truth and, as the English language proverb goes, “One can attract more flies with honey than with vinegar.” Nonetheless, Jesus is clear that He sheds light on wicked things, wicked works. (He doesn’t refer to “wicked people” but instead to wicked behavior.)
There’s more. A short time later, Jesus goes through Samaria on His way to Galilee. He encounters a Samaritan woman. In this conversation, Jesus points out her most grievous sin – that she cohabits with a man not her husband, and the man with whom she is currently living isn’t the first. As she told her neighbors, Jesus told the truth about her lifestyle. (John 4:4-42)
In his Letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul provided details about the behavioral change demanded by Christ:
[The pagan Roman] females exchanged natural relations for unnatural, and the males likewise gave up natural relations with females and burned with lust for one another. Males did shameful things with males and thus received in their own persons the due penalty for their perversity. And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God handed them over to their undiscerning mind to do what is improper. They are filled with every form of wickedness, evil, greed, and malice; full of envy, murder, rivalry, treachery, and spite. They are gossips and scandalmongers and they hate God. They are insolent, haughty, boastful, ingenious in their wickedness, and rebellious toward their parents. They are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Although they know the just decree of God that all who practice such things deserve death, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them. (Romans 1:26-32. Translation from U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ website.)
Given recent history in America, maybe this letter should be re-titled, “Letter to the Americans.” In point of fact, however, this Letter is part of what are called the canonical Scriptures and are, indeed, addressed to, and binding upon, the entire world.
Let’s conclude this response to Pope Francis’ statement about some Catholics obsessing over abortion, contraception, and homosexuality, and most especially to the welcome reaction this had among the media and secularized Catholics.
Pope Francis, like all faithful Catholics, is obsessive about Jesus Christ. This leads him and faithful Catholics to proclaim Christ, to study the moral order, to demand change in their own and others’ behavior, to provide charity of every kind to every person in every land and in every time. While this includes proclaiming the immorality of abortion, contraception and homosexuality, it also includes serving the victims of abortion and it includes nurturing sexuality and heterosexual marriage appropriate to human beings.
All of this activity, all of this work, all of this service, is at loggerheads here in the United States with the media and secularized Catholics who are obsessed with all things sexual all the time.
(A pdf. version of this essay can be found here.)
My biography of Jaegerstaetter is here.
My analysis of Jaegerstaetter is here.
My biography of Damien is here.
My article on Garry Wills and the Real Presence is here:.
For details regarding the Girl Scouts, see here.
My article on the Obama Administration, Plan B, and child sex is here.
For details regarding the Girl Scouts, see here.
For the video and transcript of the interview with the leader of al-Shabab: See here.
BC Students for Sexual Health: See here.
Catholic legislators in Illinois on same-sex marriage: See here.
For Pope Francis plane interview, July 29, 2013, returning to Rome from the World Youth Day: See here.
For Pope Francis on abortion: See here.
December 2013, on same-sex marriage and homosexual behavior: See here
Professor Hadley Arkes: See here.