I wonder what they would have said about New York two weeks ago when same-sex “marriage” became legal. When I was a girl I thought that freedom meant I could live the way I wanted to. Of course, that idea came from history class, as we studied a nation’s liberation from a foreign ruling power. But I personalized the notion, so that as a teen I longed to break “free” of home, to run my own life. Need I say that the reality of adult responsibility was a rude awakening?
New York Times.) I’m not sure that there’s a family or circle of friends among us that doesn’t feel torn on the issue because of a gay or lesbian relationship in its midst. Still, with most of the country bracing itself for a similar firestorm, it’s worth searching for some clarity that can help us all.
I wonder how many people realize that when we opened the door to contraception, this controversy was inevitable. As nothing else, contraception divides the unitive and procreative purpose of marriage, or as the U.S. bishops mercifully chose to say, its love-giving and life-giving aspects (To Live in Christ Jesus: A Pastoral Reflection on the Moral Life). Once marriage is cast in terms of “love” without openness to generating life, any loving union between consenting adults can then qualify as “marriage.” Just to be really clear, when the bishops said “life” they weren’t referring only to its cultural, spiritual, or social dimensions, but to children generated by that union. This doesn’t imply that there shouldn’t be any family planning or that childless couples are not living a true marriage. It does say that, to be what it’s meant to be, the couple’s relationship has to be structured and lived in such as way as to welcome the possibility of new life.
I’ve been meditating a lot these days on the words and actions of that champion of freedom, the Apostle St. Paul. With his sometimes flaming rhetoric, he traces out a few key themes:
1. Freedom from sin through faith in Christ. This is probably the aspect he’s best known for. As a sacrament of faith, Baptism effects that freedom through the power of the Holy Spirit and inserts us into the body of Christ as sons and daughters of God. We are freed from our sins, freed for faith, hope, and love in Christ and in the Church, the liberated People of God. “For freedom Christ set us free” (Gal. 5:1).Jesus of Nazareth, Benedict XVI offers his own insights into a freedom, not arbitrarily or subjectively determined, but a “seeing” freedom, with “our eyes fixed on Jesus” (Heb. 12:2).
2. Freedom to be who God made us to be, with our potential, gifts, and relationships. This launches us light years away from just what we think we want to be, especially when what we want is contrary to what the God of love desires for us. Our best plans for ourselves pale in comparison with what marvels God has in mind. “What no eye has seen and no ear has heard, what the mind…cannot visualize, all that God has prepared for those who love him” (1Cor. 2:9).
3. Freedom to grow in our humanity, which is what Christianity empowers us to do when it’s really lived. We become truly human as God intends. We shed what “makes us wobble” in our humanity, as one sister put it to me this week, and grow in “maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ” (Eph. 4:13). Each of us can probably point to something that would make us better persons—a course of study, a bad habit put to rest, an improved relationship—but because we’re shackled by something else (sometimes even by what we want)—circumstances, a compulsion, our weakness—we’re not free enough to do it. Clearly, then, freedom pertains to something other than our less-than-human desires. The social implications are just as clear.
Now, that’s fine for Catholics. But society consists of people from many faith backgrounds. How does religion factor in without imposing itself?
Every social issue is a moral issue that bridges religious divides. As a recognized moral authority, even in spite of the damning events of the last decade, the Church weighs in on what undergirds political solutions, even though it may not be partial to the solutions themselves. Even-handed pastors of other persuasions do the same, because they have both a right and a responsibility to. By the way, the Church’s leaders and teachers are also voters with opinions that can be and should be legitimately expressed. I remember Cardinal O’Connor writing in the Catholic New York about thirty years ago that he didn’t mind being beaten in the ring. Just don’t tell him he has no business in the ring!
Unfortunately in New York last month—and way before last month—the Church dropped the ball. That ball may be in the bishops’ court, but we’re all there with them. Like the rest of us, they’re overwhelmed by their responsibilities in an incredibly complex society and find that they spend a large part of their time just putting out fires. As Church we are still too accustomed to leaving the Big Issues of the day for them to handle, while the rest of us content ourselves with managing our own concerns.
Secularity and the Gospel: Being Missionaries to Our Children, edited by Ronald Rolheiser. Cardinal Francis George of Chicago contributed one of the essays.
Second, we need to be proactive in deepening our understanding of faith in its particulars, not waiting to be spoon fed, so that we will readily recognize truth when we hear it and so that our moral/spiritual discernment can be honed. Too often sound bite theology or feel-good stories suffice for our exploration of faith. Then when weightier issues elbow their way into our lives, we have nothing to fall back on (cf. Mt. 7:24ff.).
Finally, we need to learn the language of media. Without a doubt the digital revolution has had a lot to do with our contemporaries’ insistence on moral self-determination. With the advent of social media, suddenly the speaker’s podium became accessible to anyone, informed or not. Together with situations once considered taboo that have been “normalized” on TV and film, this accessibility has conditioned people to relativize authority and adhere to their own standard of truth.
Forgive me if, in the light of this, I tuck in an appeal for the Education Fund on behalf of our sisters, who are working toward both their liberal arts degrees and advanced specialization. Our studies prepare us to do just what I described (and prescribed), to help prepare our people—God’s People—for all that lies ahead. Click here to learn more and to donate. As the weeks go by, I’ll be telling you more about this year’s Afternoon Tea with the Daughters of St. Paul, our annual fundraising event to support this cause.
May our families and neighborhoods be the “home of the brave” as we gently yet boldly witness within them to the truth that sets us all free.
* © 2011, The Boston Globe