Formerly the Thinking Catholic Strategic Center
Sunday, September 4, 2011; Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
“All the commandments are summed up in this saying: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Paul, writing to the Romans, is on very firm ground here. He’s quoting the Lord Jesus Himself. Love is the fulfillment of the law. And that makes it simple, right? And easy? Just love others, which is pleasant anyway, and you will have fulfilled the law. No need to do anything else, or to know anything else; no need for the traditions of the rabbis or the teaching of the Church, all those thousands of years of careful moral theology, splitting of hairs. It’s really quite simple, isn’t it? Just love your neighbor.
Though I’ve noticed sometimes I think I’m loving my neighbor but my neighbor disagrees. Well, okay, so I need some objective basis to make a judgment whether I’m actually serving my neighbor’s true welfare, or simply serving myself. Surely the bare fact that someone doesn’t appreciate my effort doesn’t make my effort wrong. So what does Paul say again? – love is the fulfillment of the law because love does no evil to the neighbor. Evil. Can we have a definition please? Or an example?
Okay, I’m walking along the street with my neighbor, out for a morning stroll, and I push her out of the way of a truck careening onto the sidewalk. Saved her life. That’s good, not evil. If I hadn’t pushed her would that have been evil? Sure. So now we have sins of omission. Failure to do good can be as bad as actually doing evil. How much, then, am I obliged to do, failure of which would be evil? What if I could have pushed her out of the way, or jumped out of the way myself, but not both? What if she is intent on murdering her husband when she gets home from the walk? What if I have a large family to support and she is single? “Love your neighbor” sounded so simple when we started out, but take it out into the world and it gets complicated. Which is why all the great philosophers, Christian or not, have felt the need to develop a system of ethics. And why all the great religions of the world have a moral theology. Man is a spiritual creature, a moral creature, aware of good and evil and needing to choose.
Christianity not only has a body of moral reasoning, but claims to enjoy a special charism from God to reason correctly, and the authority to make it stick. Christ said, “I am with you until the end of the age”, and “I will lead you into all truth”, and “what you bind on earth will be bound in heaven.” He said this to Peter, and to the Church; to Peter, and so we believe that when a successor of Peter makes a formal statement on faith or morals, the Holy Spirit is guarding him from error, a charism known as infallibility. And we believe the same about an Ecumenical (Universal) Council of the Church’s bishops. But this charism extends only to matters of Christian faith or morals. It would be foolish to seek a papal declaration on the prospects for the Bengals this year; foolish and, in this case, totally unnecessary.
Sometimes people will look for an escape clause and say, “ah, but such and so hasn’t been infallibly declared by a pope or a council so I’m free to do as I whish and still be a Catholic in good standing.” I’ve noticed that the escape clause is most often attempted on sexual issues. But the escape clause is a chimera. Something that has been consistently taught from the beginning has as much claim on us as something that has received a formal declaration. This is known as the ordinary magisterium.
I recently read something about the dissent over contraception, so that might be as good an example as another. The Bible values creation, and so sex and procreation were always affirmed as God’s design. In the face of contrary pagan values, and then the anti-creation doctrines of heretical groups from within Christianity which condemned procreation, the Church insisted that sexual love and procreation belonged together. This was a consistent teaching. Even the Protestant Reformers condemned contraception. Even Sigmund Freud, the non-Christian pioneer of modern psychology, whom many regard as having been fairly obsessed with sex, thought that contraception perverted the natural significance and purpose of sexual relations.
The Catholic Church doesn’t look to Freud for moral guidance, but it is kind of interesting to find affirmation of its ancient teaching from a source such as that. It wasn’t until the 1932 Lambeth Conference of the Anglican Church that any significant Christian group considered that there could be circumstances that might justify contraception. The teaching authority of the Catholic Church continues to hold the original rule, though it does accept natural family planning as being consistent with Christian values. One might say that Church teaching is not so much anti-birth control as anti artificial contraception. Some ask, “what difference does it make, the result being the same?” But there might be multiple means of reaching the same end, some good, others bad. The end does not justify the means.
One practical indicator of the difference between natural family planning and artificial contraception can be found in the divorce rates. Couples using NFP have much lower rates of divorce than couples contracepting. Couples have told me that their practice of NFP develops attitudes that contribute to marital harmony, virtues like communication, patient forbearance, shared sacrifice, submission of immediate wishes to a greater reality.
The differing divorce rates are natural indicators that the teaching on contraception is true, but they don’t give authority to the teaching. The authority, on this or any other matter of faith or morals, comes from the Author: the Creator, Who became man and founded a Church to teach in His name, accompanied by His promise of guidance.
The Church is the instrument of God’s mercy, a watchman not for the House of Israel but for the whole of humanity, warning people of false ideas about human nature, human purpose, and what makes for genuine happiness. Her efforts in this regard are not always appreciated. She is in fact hated and persecuted for saying what she does to the modern world, but so was her Lord for saying what He said to the ancient world.
If the Church simply blessed whatever people had a mind to do, she would be no more than chaplain on a cruise to nowhere, without a captain or a rudder. Instead she, like her Lord, is a sign of contradiction to the present age, taking her lumps as she saves who she can for the life in the age to come.
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