Sex, Eschatology, and Everyday Life

by James Matthew Wilson on April 9, 2009 · 20 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Culture, High & Low,Philosophers & Saints

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Devon, PA.  I have contended that the two most vocal sources of outrage at Pope Benedict XVI’s remark about the deleterious role of condoms in Africa did not in fact have the African AIDS pandemic much on their mind.  The most formal denunciations came from the bureaucrats of administered society (particularly in once-Catholic Belgium!), who see condoms as a technological solution to what they view as a merely technological (social-engineering) problem: the consequences of fornication and the proliferation of sexual partners in contemporary western society.

More profane and demotic-and even more technocratically informed-young persons throughout the West ridiculed the Pope’s presumption to teach them about the ethics of self-giving (love) and self-government (temperance), even as, on the surface of things, he had done no such (perfectly fitting) thing.  Regarding the latter, I observed that the viciousness and irreverence of their attacks stemmed largely from an all too comprehensible source:

 family units have come to appear impediments to happiness rather than its condition of possibility, because they are largely unchosen entities whose obligations impose “unjust” restrictions on the kind of “individual self-cultivation” that liberal society preserves as the sole terrain for human action.  Sexual activity stands out, above all, as the one field of freedom, “expression,” and choice left to most persons in managed society, because, removed from its natural context and function, it seems to allow great pleasure with potentially no social cost.

 I intend such words as a specifically directed criticism and lament, of course, but as one that acknowledges simultaneously a basic truth about human societies-as opposed merely to contemporary liberal administered society.  In the lives of most human beings, the private sphere of the family affords the one sphere where the individual person can act meaningfully if not freely.  What is unique about our society is that this domestic or familial sphere has lost much of its uniqueness, its privilege, and its stability.  Whereas it had once provided a place where human emotion and activity most reliably, if modestly, found its meaning, it has long since begun to appear restrictive.  As one instance of what Tocqueville called “secondary institutions,” the family appears an unfounded authority whose position between the positive control of the State and the equal-freedom of the individual damns it as, respectively, irrationally inefficient and irrationally oppressive.  This restrictiveness has come over the years to seem even more outrageous thanks to our society’s ever-accelerating appreciation of only the kind of meaning that the individual can generate for himself through his unhindered freedom to satisfy his independently cultivated appetites.

As such, the error of which I accuse such young people is not their desperate search for a kind of action that confirms their lives as in some sense meaningful, much less for a kind of free action that affirms their particular dignity as persons capable of choosing the good (Cf. Mark Shiffman’s “The Human Meaning of Property”).  Such action has precisely been one of the traditional causes of the family sphere as a place of fulfillment and contentment for most people-even if, as Hannah Arendt frequently emphasized, it was never the place of those most elevated and lasting kinds of action that human beings always-even in spite of their egalitarian principles-recognize as true excellence.  But these young people-sitting alone at their computer, clacking a few keys of instantly published indignation and ordering a batch of condoms whose wrappers have received the imprint of the Pope’s benevolent moniker-these young people represent a grave misfortune in the history of the private sphere.

The family unit no longer affords them a field of meaning, and so they locate it not so much within themselves as within their erratic wills.  The family becomes itself a burden-insofar as it remains anything significant at all-and they reject its role as a place of meaning in order to enter a placeless consumer universe, where the most instinctual desires can seek out their immediate fulfillment unrestrained.  In their lives, freedom from unelected and binding secondary institutions is closely tied to the reward of an all too literal form of “free love,” and so, consequently, the condom and like paraphernalia take on an instrumental and symbolic weight they would not otherwise attain.  Sex has become, again, their one field of individual action, the one place where the evisceration of meaning everywhere else in society is compensated by an experience that can never entirely be deprived of meaning and satisfaction so long as one still has a functioning nervous system.

The Catholic Church has always recognized the priority and unique centrality of the life of the family centered on marriage, and has no less appreciated that ancient questions of sexuality and modern questions of artificial contraception must be addressed in the context of family life.  She has proven herself particularly concerned to speak out in its defense during the last two centuries, as the “modern” family has come into being-which is a polite way of saying as the real historical character of the family has experienced, at first, a delightful softening of bonds, followed by a slow asphyxiation in the loose hands of mobility, markets, and the modern state.

This careful attention to the family as the context in which marriage and reproduction must be addressed is evident enough in the major and most “maligned” encyclicals of the last century, namely, Leo XIII’s Arcanum, Pius XI’s Casti Conubii, and, above all, Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae.  Underscoring this conviction that the family is the sole context in which these vital moral and social questions can be understood, passages in these encyclicals as well as in the justly celebrated encyclical on labor, Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum, indicate that the sanctity and the priority of the family is the context in which the entire structure of society must be addressed as well.  We cannot understand labor, industry, and law, if we do not see how they are directed to the end of supporting the life of the family.

One discovers in reading these teaching-documents that the routinely iterated assumption that Church doctrine on contraception is merely a backward and ignorant assertion of power over the lives of autonomous individuals makes no sense whatever.  However, even within the Catholic Church, the necessary political and moral vision these documents ratify has been misunderstood.  If the advocates of artificial contraception have painted the Catholic Church as a benighted Scarlet Lady bent upon maintaining power by spoiling their fun and enslaving them to their natural fertility, even those who to some degree support these teachings have inadvertently adopted a similar or obverse understanding.

For those who reject Church teaching outright, her pronouncements on contraception seem a power grab, while, for those who accept it, these same pronouncements appear in a particularly modern guise as the benevolent version of a “power grab,” a declaration grounded in fideism: faith in Church authority as the Mystical Body of Christ provides the basis for her instructions, and those instructions are, in turn, the product of merely theological reflection on the nature of religious faith rather than a more modest but practical reflection on the demands of everyday life.

A surprising example of this fidestic acceptance that is won despite assumptions of real impracticality appears in the late writings of the great Catholic theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasar.  Few persons in the last century reflected with such profundity or at so great a length on the vast structures of cultural and Ecclesial life as did von Balthasar.  Most of his readers would insist that we are many years still from taking the full measure of his achievement or its implications.  And yet, some moments in his vast oeuvres seem to reveal a man so committed to reflecting on what he conceived as the nuptial mysteries of the Church (and, indeed, of all intellectual activity) that he failed to take much interest in the nuptials of nuptials, as it were-that is, in the natural philosophically intelligible realities that the official neo-Scholasticism he sought to transcend had addressed so doggedly.  Discussing the internal dialogue that bears fruit in Church teaching, von Balthasar observes

 A [Magisterium, or Church Teaching Authority] decision that is justifiable for those whose love is alive might be impractical for the lukewarm or otherwise defective masses; on the other hand, a decision made to suit these latter could seriously endanger the balance of the Church’s eschatological response, the ideal of those who love.

 If the object of this passage-”those who love”-refers to those with vocations to holy orders, and particularly to the religious orders whose members surrender their lives to the contemplation of God’s love, this it is uncontroversial.  Catholic tradition rightly recognizes the perceptible hierarchies that inform human life, and therefore emphasizes that the term “order” in regards to religious life refers specifically to those who by special vocation might spend their lives in the presence of God in a difficult, privileged, and sustained way.  They submit to an order (a rule), they occupy a particular place in the order of the Society of the Church, and their lives are ordered more fully to the perfect end to which all persons nonetheless by their nature are directed.

But von Balthasar’s language even here indicates its application beyond the confines of “certain men” called to the vita contemplativa, and does so in a troubling manner.  Who are the “lukewarm or otherwise defective masses”?  Is not the laity, which constitutes the great numerical mass of the Church, in some sense “lukewarm”?  And are not all Christians in that refuge of sinners, the Church, “defective”?  More importantly, would it not be for those unilluminated by the light of constant devotion that particular teaching decisions need to import the greatest practical obligation?  To these queries one adds the more troubling observation that creating a division between practical, that is, everyday, life and eschatology is one that it has generally been the virtue of the Church to avoid.  Von Balthasar intends by “eschatological response,” of course, the moral conclusions one draws in recognizing that the whole Church is finally-ultimately-called to the pure union of love with God.  How might those who love live in light of this ultimate Last Thing?  Not, he implies, in the same fashion as those whose horizon is constrained entirely within the practical because they are merely “lukewarm.”  What he suggests, in other words, is that theological reflection might lead to conclusions for those who would love perfectly, but might not be competent to provide instruction for everyone else.

The example with which von Balthasar follows answers these questions in a problematic way that intervenes precisely in the contentions over the Church’s teaching on marriage and contraception:

 This is the impasse (where a single solution is expected) such as the Pope encountered when he issued the much-maligned encyclical Humanae Vitae.  He opted for the ideal of the small, loving, devoted company and so unleashed a storm of indignation among the mass of people both inside and outside the Church.  He made this option despite the majority of his panel of advisors and despite the sociological contraindications.  It may be that he deliberately disregarded important factors that should have been taken into account, but this has not been proved.  The crucial difficulty in his decision . . . [was that] the Pope was burdening and binding the consciences of married Catholics in an issue that had serious consequences . . . It is probably the form rather than the content that needs to be criticized.  It might have been sufficient to point to the ideal as a “normative goal” to satisfy the objective, eschatological emphasis of the Christian concept of selfless and self-renouncing love, the personal ideal of the committed, while at the same time both stimulating and reassuring those who were either too unable or too perplexed to follow this course.  For who does not see the devastation created in the sexual area by the separation of pleasure from the risk of self-giving, as well as the tremendous weight of sociological arguments on the other side?

 This divagation distorts beyond recognition the traditional hierarchy of vocations proclaimed by the Church.  Some aspects of moral and devotional life really might be a “personal ideal” that most Catholics can fail to meet without in the least calling into question their virtue or obedience to the good.  Recall Chaucer’s awe-striking voluptuary, the Wife of Bath.  The widow of five husbands and looking for a sixth (whom she is well-schooled, she tells us, to please), the Wife recounts that the perfect life of devotion is that of the religious, and that virginity may offer a particular perfection to many, but that Christ and St. Paul both advise most of us to marry.  Perfection is not identical with devout, everyday goodness:

 Virginitee is greet perfeccion,

And continence eek with devocion,

And lordynges, by youre leve, that am nat I.

But Crist, that of perfeccion is welle,

Bad nat eery wight he sholde go selle

Al that he hadde, and gyve it to the poore,

And in swich wise folwe hyn and his foore.

He spak to hem that wolde lyve parfitly;

 Abstention from the natural goodness of marriage and procreation may be integral to that higher good of the life spent betrothed to God; that truly is a life wholly ordered to the “eschatological emphasis” of the devout life.  But, as I shall observe, Christian marriage is hardly disconnected from that emphasis–even if it is less purely ordered to it because of its simultaneous ordering to the present, practical goods of our present life on earth.

Von Balthasar seems to effect a much more radical break between the two than ever would the Wife of Bath, who, of course, confesses her sensual imperfections while on pilgrimage to Canterbury.  Her fertility and amorousness are unrepentantly tied up with her eschatological identity as a pilgrim en route to God.  Her example, scandalous though it may appear, is not that of a disobedient or “lukewarm” Catholic; rather she is exemplary in the laudatory sense of what G.K. Chesterton celebrated as the genius of Catholicism: its rich everyday devotion to the goodness of the gift of being.

In a misguided effort to sympathize with the weakness of human nature, von Balthasar potentially constricts the membership of the Church in a manner typical of Protestant sects but at variance with the Church’s self-understanding as universal.  In his fascinating but schematically flawed survey, Twentieth Century Catholic Theologians, Fergus Kerr, O.P. makes a disturbing observation about von Balthasar’s other comments on Humane Vitae:

 only Catholic Christians have much chance of understanding the challenging doctrine taught by successive popes, and, among them, he concludes, perhaps only the minority of married couples who practice the asceticism required by following the various natural methods can fully understand.  In other words, only those couples who have this understanding of human fertility and practise this asceticism are truly Catholic.

 This clarifies the implications of von Balthasar’s claim that Paul VI, in his encyclical, elected for “the ideal of the small, loving, devoted company.”  The decades since Vatican II have shown the Catholic Church (in America) largely disintegrating into the great legions of suburban Catholics who attend Mass but live and think like their Protestant-and, for that matter, “unchurched”-neighbors in every other way.  Few of them have failed to be “truly Catholic” in the sense of having grappled with the Church’s teachings and found them wanting or too demanding.  Rather, they have simply lost the sensibility that aided them to see those teachings as embedded in a whole way of life, and so, consequently, they appear to be the declarations from a less than intelligibile oracle whose authority seems itself entirely unintelligible in the context of modern personal, sexual, and individualistic autonomy (I have written, however inadequately, of this phenomenon in the “Death of Catholic Culture”  and the “Life of Catholic Culture“).  Such Catholics do not disobey so much as scratch their heads, say, “Sounds tough!,” and go back to their game show.

Von Balthasar was in one sense correct, therefore; while the greater number of Catholics have moved through indifference and disbelief away from the teaching Church, even if many of them participate still in the Church that Prays, a small number of Catholic laity have achieved a level of devotion and obedience that transcends-sometimes in fervor, sometimes in beauty, sometimes in intellect-what was typical when the Church could hope to be visibly universal, to beget Christendom, rather than a wee company.  But this constriction of “true Catholicity” to the few seems itself profoundly un-Catholic; while capturing well the sacrifices, isolation, scrupulosity, trials, humiliations, joys, and loves of those who have seen and internalized the eschatological call of the Church, it cuts adrift the fundamentally practical, human, and humane goodness of Catholic tradition.  And so, it effectively despairs of that tradition’s great genius.  Sexual morality and the life of the family for the pious Catholic cannot be annexed into the orders of religious life, as if it were a vocation for some married persons and something else for others.  Rather, sexual morality is not commensurable to a Benedictine rule that simply facilitates a rare life of perfection.  If it is to be morality at all, it must speak of norms appropriate to persons living in the world, and must be binding upon those persons precisely because they are persons rather than because they are a peculiar grade of devout persons.

And so, above all, von Balthasar seems to misinterpret the Church’s great concern for the support, vitality, and centrality of marriage and the family to its life and the life of civil society.  He transforms a tradition, rooted in the practical questions that all human persons confront and intended to inform how society as a whole has been historically and ought to be structured, into one that appears more and more like the rarified province of speculative theology.  No, not just that, but the province of a speculative theology descending exclusively from of the ether of eschatological, as opposed to all other, concerns.

Casti Connubii, Pius XI’s encyclical on Christian Marriage, does not outline a series of ideals that the pious Catholic might aspire to live.  Pius teaches us what natural reason and the Church tradition alike guide us to see as the normal challenges and responsibilities of married couples and their families.  Drawing directly on St. Augustine’s ancient defense of marriage in the face of certain Christian claims that only the celibate life was “eschatologically” good, Pius observes that marriage is at once a natural, rational, and divine institution.  Far from being a way of life indifferent to the pilgrimage of the Christian toward his God, marriage and the family are among the natural conditions that make that journey possible.

Consequently, Pius and Augustine catalog the three fruits of marriage that give it social and religious purpose: the production and rearing of offspring, the inviolate stability of conjugal faith, and the sacrament of marriage itself (Casti Connubii 10).  Most human beings, as the Wife of Bath reminds us, are not called to the celibate perfection of the religious life, but rather to the vocation of marriage.  Marriage is the means by which families come into being through its creation of a permanent bond of faithfulness and exclusivity between the spouses.  This bond normally leads to the conception and raising of offspring-which is itself the primary blessing of marriage.  In the eyes of nature, of natural law, any violation of faithfulness in marriage and any attempt to frustrate its natural generative power is a grave sin (56).

Pius was acutely aware of the various scientific and anthropological efforts to “denaturalize” monogamy and fertility-to claim them as conventional rather than natural, as incidental rather than central.  He simply refuses the claim: the human reason can discern in nature and history norms and laws that institute marriage as an exclusive, inviolate, and fruitful union.  Marriage is, in this respect, a natural blessing precisely because these are the things most human beings need in order to live their lives well-in order to flourish.  As such, the condemnation of artificial contraception is not an extraordinary demand sufferable only by them who would be perfect.  “Let no one be so rash,” proclaimed the Bishops at Trent, “that there are precepts of God impossible for the just to observe.  God does not ask the impossible, but by His commands, instructs you to do what you are able, to pray for what you are not able that He may help you” (61).

Fidelity and fruitfulness may appear extraordinary demands on the modern person.  Pius insists, to the contrary, that these are as normal and natural demands as those of eating, grooming, and-in the long run-dying.  We moderns have made them appear more demanding than they are through a relativistic cultural-constructionist anthropology (49); assertions of individual autonomy over one’s body-including a “right” to refuse its natural ends (71)-and of the more particular autonomy of the woman who must be liberated from the natural hierarchy of marital relations in which her inexorable obligations when she becomes a wife and mother trap her (75); the reduction of marriage to a temporary, open, and companionate arrangement (51); and, most terrifying of all, the rise of statism and the suggestion that civil authority and eugenic concerns can abrogate the natural path of most persons to marriage (68-69), or can render the natural family the exclusive properly of the “civil sphere” (79).

Such innovations may make marriage and the family seem a superannuated institution in the modern world, and so many will be tempted to dispense with or reorder them, Pius says.  But rather, they are the centerpiece, the cornerstone, of society, and so the modern world must be itself reordered to accommodate them.  Hence, Pius recalls Leo XIII’s demand, on behalf of the modern worker, for what we generally refer to as a “living wage.”  “To deny this, or to make light of what is equitable,” he writes, “is a grave injustice and is placed among the greatest sins by Holy Writ; nor its it lawful to fix such a scanty wage as will  be insufficient for the upkeep of the family in the circumstances in which it is placed” (117).  The proscription of artificial contraception and the new evil of abortion are not incidental to, but intimately bound up with, Pius and Leo’s call for just social structures.  For, all three notions spring from their understanding that society is ordered to, even mere auxiliary to, the flourishing of marriage and the family.

When Paul VI issued Humanae Vitae, the modesty of his project was missed by many-even, it would seem, von Balthasar.  Far from binding the consciences of married couples to avoid artificial contraception, Paul simply reaffirmed with great specificity the proscription of contraception that was already in place and which flowed naturally from the design of marriage (8) and the responsibilities for parenthood intrinsic to it: “In the procreative faculty the human mind discerns biological laws that apply to the human person” (10).  Deliberately frustrating that faculty will not just free the husband and wife from the responsibility of some or more children, it leads them to forget the reverence, care, and cultivation proper to their lives together as one of inviolate fidelity (17).

Far from appearing unnatural or perfectionist demands on the consciences of married couples, the refusal of artificial contraception merely reaffirms the natural care and cultivation proper to every human marriage, the natural centrality of marriage and the family to human life, and its foundational and unalterable position in respect to society.  One does not need a developed eschatological perspective to see this; one needs only to see the importance of the family and the importance of those things that make families fruitful and flourishing.  Joseph Pearce writes of the great economist E.F. Schumacher, that

 he was received into the Catholic Church on September 29, 1971, while he was in the midst of writing Small is Beautiful . . . he was deeply impressed by Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humane Vitae, in which the Pope reaffirmed in unequivocal terms the Church’s belief in the sanctity of marriage and marital love.

 Schumacher championed the idea of self-limitation, and he knew that this necessary virtue is enshrined in the everyday realities of family life.  Families teach us to be selfless and to sacrifice ourselves for others.  It is these very virtues that are necessary for the practice of the economic and political virtues advocated in his work.

 Schumacher was led into the Church because he saw that she was the rare, practically the sole, defender of the virtues necessary for the happiness of the family and, therefore, the life of society.  Pius-following Augustine-preached, conversely, that the life of virtue in the family may become, through the sacrament of marriage, a means to the perfection of the Christian.  Far from allowing for a radical divide between, as it were, normal, everyday life and the life of the loving, devout company, Pius insisted that the responsibilities that come with a couple’s commitment to begetting and raising children, and to living a life of inviolate fidelity to each other, are themselves a means to their mutual perfection.  He even claims that

 This mutual molding of husband and wife, this determined effort to perfect each other, can in a very real sense . . . be said to be the chief reason and purpose of matrimony, provided matrimony be looked at not in the restricted sense as instituted for the proper conception and education of the child, but more widely as the blending of life as a whole and the mutual interchange and sharing thereof.

From the viewpoint of the Mystical Body of Christ, this perfection is the third, highest blessing of marriage; it perpetuates not only of the human family on earth but also molds the spouse for eternal life.  The care necessary to live one’s life in accord with nature, fertility, and fidelity finally abets and serves the life of faith.  The refusal of artificial contraception is not simply one more legalistic imperative one must obey if one is to avoid the Church’s condemnation.  It is a specific, practical means to flourishing in this life and in the next.

Many of us would indeed take comfort were we to learn that the responsibility to remain open to children throughout marriage were just a noble, high ideal that only those who wish to live their marriage as the self-giving symbol of Christ’s own marriage to the Church need obey.  But that openness is, according the Church’s tradition and the light of natural reason, a practical one that informs the proper living of family life and the shape of social structures.  If it is a difficult road, it is not a difficult road only the saints can tread; it is, rather, a road of self-limitation, self-giving, and self-perfection itself natural to all persons and binding upon them.

Against these virtues the young technobrats protest, as they embarrass Pope Benedict by sending him condoms with his own face upon them (what an obscene and wasteful protest-even by the standards of the contraception-advocates).  Raised without seeing real marriages, and without belonging to families that fulfill their natural ends, they cannot conceive that the proscription of contraception rather than its prescription might be a great good.  It promises the means to a more responsible human economy, a more flourishing family life, and consequently a restoration and deepening of their own individual lives’ meaning and dignity.

{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Mark April 9, 2009 at 9:39 pm

I give thanks to God every morning that I was born a Lutheran. Sin boldly!

avatar James Matthew Wilson April 10, 2009 at 11:25 am

What a pity, for you, He could not have had you born a beast and spared you the burden of thinking. As Tocqueville observes, perhaps the modern managerial state will do on your behalf what Nature has refused.

avatar Mark April 10, 2009 at 8:30 pm

It would be fun to have been born a bird or a dog.

avatar dod April 11, 2009 at 11:25 am

Mark, Be not a half-Lutheran; move beyond popular fragments to his larger, richer message. As from one of his letters (a possible source of the reductive slogan):

“Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong (sin boldly), but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world.”

Or..you could read Master Wilson’s essay more thoughtfully and consider our common struggle.

avatar Ray Butler April 11, 2009 at 11:44 am

Eschatology. Damn you for using that word. I had to look it up!

avatar Mark April 11, 2009 at 11:56 am

James –

Perhaps my glib response gives the impression that I don’t find your article compelling reading. Having re-read it a couple of times, I will venture a brief reaction that is more serious than my initial response.

I appreciate the serious and careful academic response to an issue that is often treated with little consideration in modern society. That contraception is a technology that allows for the casual treatment of sexual interaction is true, and in its use, the sacred is indeed rendered profane. For a person who has chosen to live within the Catholic framework, this is, clearly, a problem. My first reaction, that I was glad to be born Lutheran, was glib.

On further consideration, I’m still glad to be a Lutheran. My perspective on what it means to be a person of faith, to live a life in relationship with God, centers on the covenant of grace through faith. Faith alone. I cannot act my way into a state of grace. Grace is a gift, born in the sacrifice of Christ’s crucifixion, and given freely to all children of God.

Just because we believe there are different roads to grace does not mean that one of us thinks and the other does not. As I said before, you are clearly a powerful thinker. And you manage your words with a dexterity that I’m sure makes you the envy of your peers.

I admire your confidence in your beliefs, and I applaud your commitment to the values you espouse. You could also be right, and Luther may have gotten it wrong — in which case I am screwed. I apologize for being glib, and leaving you with the impression that I did not enjoy your article.

Mark

avatar D.W. Sabin April 11, 2009 at 2:11 pm

What is always so amusing…in that consigned form of amusement…..about these loud and energetic campaigns against anyone who would be so bold to suggest reigning in the prevailing licentiousness is that they are so formulaic and regimented. The hordes scream at the Pope to butt-out and do so in a display underwritten, orchestrated and highly controlled by a mass market geared toward immediate and unchecked gratification. The young, who have not yet been exposed to the deep enjoyment and limitless satisfactions possible in a battle-scarred marriage are affable dupes in the Great Crusade of Empty Excess. A rejection of control is mouthed by those who simply embrace another form of control.

I am put in mind of the protestors on my college campus during the Iranian Revolution. Some socialist, some communist, some republican, a very few fundamental muslim and all simply anti-Shah…they would dutifully don the Chador as an emblem of dissent and march in a circle and adopt a very mechanistic chant of “The Shah is a U.S. Puppet, Down With The Shah”…over and over in a Puppet Show that ultimately prevailed. Many of the Socialists and Communists likely fared far worse under the new regime than they did under the frequently brutal Shah. Some of those same Chador wearers of the 70′s are likely included in the society of woman who live in wealthy foothill neighborhoods of North Tehran and wear make-up and short skirts indoors but feign devotion to the Mullahs when in the public square. One constraint has been replaced by another constraint and whatever gain might have occurred, if any, is beside the point.

One would think that by now, with the ready availability of condoms and the pedestrianization of sex that abortion would not be needed. Those who beat pans for liberty would then not have to wince in the face of contorted debates about when life begins or the uncomfortable fact that abortion is a form of infanticide….an act that would sacrifice a reverence for life and its de-facto inalienable liberties on the altar of expediency. That a modern State would elevate infanticide to a legal right is remarkable. That it would do so in a Republic not via legislation and vote but through Judicial fiat is remarkable. That it would do so in a nation whose creed is that all men are created equal and retain rights for the pursuit of happiness is preposterous. One would think that by now, with a widespread popular liberty and egalitarian society that we would not need the evil of infanticide to compound the evil of sexual predation. But we do not and the Mass Culture would have us believe that it is either through the employment of a simple mechanical device or even assassination that we can address our civic and societal failings. Mass Culture impugns the philosophy of the Pope because it wants no constraining philosophy, it wants complete and utter profligacy in all things, including death. The relativistic cult of death scoffs at what it calls a relic, an antiquated cult of Religion that champions life. Odd, but given the exigencies of this busy shoppers life , entirely predictable. Easy, quick answers are fine if we can go on to something else as soon as possible.

I am not against condoms but I am profoundly against the kinds of righteous indignation that lies behind the glib mass mailing of condoms to the Vatican, profanely decorated and in absence of , at the very least, a hearing of the essential message put forth by the Pontiff. As a rule, we agitate for freedom by willingly enslaving ourselves to an increasingly mechanistic and empty tyranny of 0% down, no interest and no payment for 9 months gratification.

avatar James Matthew Wilson April 11, 2009 at 6:51 pm

To Mark: You are right your comment was glib, but I should have appreciated the particularly Lutheran source of its “glibbness.” That is to say, I posted my own reply before recalling that passage where Luther says “Sin boldy” — a passage of which I was only aware because Jacques Maritain quotes it in “Three Reformers.” Perhaps this is an ideosyncratic response, but I find even the glib excusable when it is adequately allusive, if for no other reason than that it provokes reflection on the history and longevity of certain questions.

Your last paragraphs, of course, draw us back in thought to the putative fundamental questions at stake in the reformation and so in all modern western theology: the nature of justification and sanctification and of faith and reason. This set of questions is a many headed beast and it would be an overwhelming task (and a crude form of humor, given the subject of my essay) to address them all here. And so I’ll excuse myself from doing so, despite a longing to begin.

To All: As always, FPR’s posts and essays become illuminated through the polemical flashes of brilliance afforded by D.W. Sabin — long live the Grand Inquisitor of the Front Porch!

avatar Patrick Ford April 13, 2009 at 11:25 am

Prof. Wilson,

Your piece makes a fine point: the Catholic Church’s teachings on the nature of the human person, human sexuality, marriage, and the family do not present some rare ideal attainable only by the heroically virtuous. In fact, they provide a model of genuinely fulfilled, humane life, married or otherwise, a model that any person or persons can emulate if only they have the will to do so.

Most of the material of von Balthasar’s that you quoted could have been read differently than you read it, but the penultimate sentence leaves little room for multiple interpretations:

“It might have been sufficient to point to the ideal as a ‘normative goal’ to satisfy the objective, eschatological emphasis of the Christian concept of selfless and self-renouncing love, the personal ideal of the committed, while at the same time both stimulating and reassuring those who were either too unable or too perplexed to follow this course.”

Too unable?! It does appear that, as you argue, this can have no meaning unless he is conceiving of the Catholic “ideal” as a vocation analogous to the priesthood.

Still, this reading of von B. runs into its own difficulties. Indeed, if we read the latter two quotes as you suggest we read them, it seems necessary to read von B. as arguing that “the Christian concept of selfless and self-renouncing love, the personal ideal of the committed,” is simply not available to all Christians, and that the appropriate response to those who are “unable” to realize this ideal is to provide them “reassurance” (and “stimulation,” whatever that means). This seems a bit of a stretch, but, again, I’m not sure how else to read it. Perhaps you could illumine this with some context–but I won’t bet on it; more von B. usually equals more confusion, God bless him.

On another note, I admit to being confused by Mark’s response–as if Lutheranism was a repudiation of Christian ethics!

I am even more confused as to why he would interpret a reflection on the nature of Christian happiness and the good life into a question of soteriology. I must say, Prof. Wilson, that while you responded more charitably than I may have been able to do, you also let him off the hook a bit too easily.

I understand (and share) your unwillingness to let FPR become a forum for tired, uninformed intra-confessional debates about justification, but by declining to nip Mark’s silly old assumptions in the bud, you allowed him (and possibly others) to go on believing that Lutheran/Protestantism and Catholicism hold different notions of the “road to grace”–i.e., that the former believe it is a “gift” “given freely,” while the latter presumably believe that we can “act [our] way into a state of grace.”

There are indeed significant differences between Protestant and Catholic soteriologies, but the absolute prevenience of God’s grace is not one of them. And to keep the refutation short, let me simply counter Mark’s assumptions by pointing out that he is laboring under a fundamental misunderstanding of Catholic soteriology, and he should spend some quality time with Augustine and Aquinas before he presumes to comment on these things again.

avatar James Matthew Wilson April 13, 2009 at 11:57 am

Dear Mr. Ford,

You offer the kinds of commentary on this essay that I would desire and expect the essay to ellicit. I have a great admiration for von Balthasar’s work; I consider much of it an invaluable contribution to the theological life of the Church, especially when read as a meditation on the transcendental properties of being. Rather, I should say that von Balthasar’s major writings have the most to offer one who contemplates them in light of Aquinas and the specific kind of realist metaphysics his genius affords the Church as a grounding for philosophical-theology. I’m aware that many readers find his work great for very different reasons and from a radically opposed viewpoint, but am doubtful of their approach.

I readily admit one could try to offer a different reading of the quoted passages from von Balthasar I provide. I am not sure that their context would lead one to read them differently than I do, however, and I am fortified in this conviction because of Fergus Kerr’s similar conclusions to my own.

I did not refrain from engaging Mark’s comments out of any desire to offer a free pass. Rather, I have abundant opportunities, by grace of FPR and First Principles, to offer more formal, satisfying, and sustained interventions than this “comments” section affords. Preferring those venues, and the reflection they allow, it seemed reasonable to pass over the occasion — of dubious value — Mark’s comments might have allowed. Nonetheless, I’m grateful that you took a moment to state so forthrightly the response his comments demand.

I am unsure to what extent the Joint Declaration of Catholics and Lutherans on Justification indicates a real agreement, and to what extent it is a politic document. Truly, I am unsure; the grumbling that followed it made any clear understanding impossible. That said, I presume that the ethical demands on Lutherans and all pesons are identical to those of Catholics: to know the Good and to order one’s life in conformity to it. Early Catholic critics of Luther (Denifle, Maritain, et al.) did not believe Luther had any such vision of ethics, hence the reason they thought him a deranged and bad man. In the decades since then, Catholic theologians seem to have found many riches in Luther’s writings, and that appreciation presumably led to the Joint Declaration. And so, as you say, it would seem soteriology does not divide Catholics and Lutherans, even though Luther seems to have thought so.

Thanks for your comments. Be it noted that we should all spend a great deal of quality time with Aquinas and Augustine before doing much of anything. Even food tastes better when seasoned by their thought.

avatar D.W. Sabin April 13, 2009 at 1:05 pm

Wilson, you are too kind but the reality is more like sputters and flame-outs as the Dung Beetle loses himself to the excitement of the moment, rubs his legs a little too briskly and starts a methane flare that scorches his arse…leading him to believe something useful just came of the thing he thinks is a brain down there.

avatar Patrick Ford April 13, 2009 at 1:25 pm

Prof. Wilson,

Thank you for your response. I won’t spend any more time trying to parse von Balthasar; I agree that your reading of the quoted material makes the most sense, I just noticed that this suggested some other, rather odd, interpretations. Of course, trying to reconcile even adjacent sentences in von B. is a sometimes a hopeless task.

I think it worth noting that reading the von B. passages as descriptive rather than prescriptive causes a great degree of alignment between them and and your own reflections. So:

“A [Magisterium, or Church Teaching Authority] decision that is justifiable for those whose love is alive might be impractical for the lukewarm or otherwise defective masses.” Defective is perhaps an unhappy choice of words (perhaps the German has different connotations), but it does seem true that the fulfilled nuptial life that the Church (and you) described is possible (and thus justifiable as prescription?), only for those whose love is “alive.” But the same could be said of any of the Church’s ethical teachings–the posited good is impossible for those who are “lukewarm”–so that reading risks being merely tautologous.

“He opted for the ideal of the small, loving, devoted company.” After citing Kerr, you admit that as a description, von B.’s statement is in fact quite accurate. But then you go on to say that “this constriction of ‘true Catholicity’ to the few seems itself profoundly un-Catholic; while capturing well the sacrifices, isolation, scrupulosity, trials, humiliations, joys, and loves of those who have seen and internalized the eschatological call of the Church, it cuts adrift the fundamentally practical, human, and humane goodness of Catholic tradition. And so, it effectively despairs of that tradition’s great genius.”

I’m not so sure. By your own assessment, most people, including most Christians and most Catholics, “have simply lost the sensibility that aided them to see those teachings as embedded in a whole way of life, and so, consequently, they appear to be the declarations from a less than intelligible oracle whose authority seems itself entirely unintelligible in the context of modern personal, sexual, and individualistic autonomy.” Again, if von B. is simply describing the facts, then his assessment does not deprive the teaching of its genius; you observe that most people, having steeped so long in modern liberal culture, have been nearly blinded to the goodness of the life described by the Church’s teaching. I agree, though I disagree (seemingly) with von B. that this renders most individuals incapable of conforming their lives to this teaching. One might be tempted to think that the situation has made achieving the ideal impossible for all but the heroically virtuous. I think not, though….

What is wanting is that old virtue of docility, which would enable those who do not yet grasp the theoretical truth of the teaching (as you do, I think) to come to understand it existentially (which would then open the way for theoretical understanding). Unfortunately, our modern Western culture is perhaps more damaging to that virtue than any other. So the downward cycle continues: our culture renders people ever less able to understand the traditional Catholic vision of the good life –> Church reinforces its teachings in response to cultural forces –> Church becomes more discredited in the eyes of Christians and non-Christians, Catholics and non-Catholics –> hostility toward Church teaching reduces the desire and ability to perceive the good life as presented by the Church.

In sum, if von B. is describing the situation, I think he is often right; if he is suggesting that the Church’s vision of the good life ought to be held up as an ideal unreachable by anything short of heroic virtue, he is wrong. Again, I’m nearly persuaded that your reading of von B., at least in these passages, is correct.

Finally, I agree that the “comments” section is not the place to undertake certain discussions; I merely wanted to point out that responding to Mark at all (as you did) without addressing his central claims seemed to lend credence to those claims. But I suspect you were right to leave it to someone else to jump in.

The Joint Declaration is laudable insofar as it points out what I tried to point out in my earlier comment, namely, that whatever crucial distinctions there might be between Lutheran/Protestant (not identical) and Catholic soteriologies, there is unquestionable agreement that God’s unmerited grace is the first cause of our justification. That is not the end of the story, however, and so I disagree that “soteriology does not divide Catholics and Lutherans.” It does, just not along the lines that most think it does. The Joint Declaration perhaps did not emphasize the real differences clearly enough, thus eliciting a fair amount of skepticism.

Enough of that. Thank you again for your latest fine post.

avatar James Matthew Wilson April 13, 2009 at 1:47 pm

Mr. Ford,

You illuminate helpfully alternative readings in my post and, more importantly, you remind us of the limits and consequent source of the problems that remain in the Lutheran, Protestant, and Catholic debate — such as it is — on soteriology. It was of course a mistake for me to make the agreement sound more extensive than it is and the discontents persisting more mysterious.

I think you sorted all that out for the interested reader. Thanks.

avatar RJ Snell April 13, 2009 at 2:18 pm

Michael Hanby, in his really excellent _Communio_ piece, “The Culture of Death, The Ontology of Boredom, and the Resistance of Joy” makes an argument closely aligned with that of W. Berry in “The Body and the Earth,” viz., the gift of love escapes mutual consensual exploitation if and only if each is “committed to a third.” He uses the Holy Spirit as example of such a third. In marriage, the third might be a “child, a rule of life, a craft,” just as Berry suggests in his essay that the dismemberment of the household follows when sexual energy is isolated from the functions of household and community.

And so “technobrats” (lovely phrase), raised without ever seeing a Christoform marriage, inevitably isolate the marriage act from marriage, from household, from community, and in their freedom isolate themselves from their acts–an ontology of boredom (acedia/ennui/anomie) and a culture of death. If the marriage act is just a consensual act between two (safeguarded via technology), it can never find its form within a commitment to the third–the child, the rule of life, the household–and so it can never find its form. Absent its form it is just exploitation.

Acts are isolated from their telos always at the expense of the act, for without finality it must lose its form and become something other than itself.

Thanks for the post.

avatar Mark April 14, 2009 at 9:15 am

James and Patrick,

I will admit to not finding Augustine and Aquinas as compelling as Kierkegaard.

Mark

avatar Patrick Ford April 14, 2009 at 10:26 pm

Enough said!

Of course, the question wasn’t whether you find Augustine and Aquinas compelling, but whether you understand Catholic soteriology. You manifestly do not, and so I suggested reading these two as clear representatives of said soteriology before you made further comments relating to this issue.

avatar Fred September 19, 2009 at 3:04 pm

Alas, any reader familiar with Balthasar will know that he often alludes in an off-hand way to significant topics (my favorite is when speaking of the unity of Scripture he refers to ‘modern Homeric scholarship’ which doubtless refers to Milman Parry’s Preface to Plato, among other things!). To properly grasp his conception of the laity, however, one would do best to look to those works he goes into some depth, i.e. Explorations in Theology II: Spouse of the Word, or The Laity in the Life of the Counsels. I would note that the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience apply not only to the orders and secular institutes – but that these same counsels beckon in an analogous way to the married. I also would clarify that charism and rule of life include the laity in the form of lay ecclesial movements like Focolare and Communion and Liberation…

avatar James Matthew Wilson September 21, 2009 at 7:30 am

Such specific references and recommendations are always welcome regarding Balthasar, Fred. This should be interesting to track down.

I’ve since concluded that Balthasar is trying to echo Matthew 19, but, while this makes his language more resonance, it hasn’t clarified my concerned in the essay; perhaps “Explorations in Theology” will.

avatar Fred September 23, 2009 at 7:16 pm

James, thank you for your kind reply. I’ve never read Kerr, but I highly recommend Rodney Howsare’s new book, Balthasar: A Guide for the Perplexed to readers of FPR.

“those who love” indicates the saints – conceived of in the broadest sense, and thus includes both lay people and those in religious orders. It’s also a relative term indicating “the approved” whom Paul mentions in his letter to the Corinthians. Paradoxically, ‘those who love’ are precisely those least likely to separate themselves into a sect and to be most aware of their own lukewarmness and defectiveness. Balthasar is not interested in setting ethical norms that may be more strict or more lax, but in the gaze of love which which Jesus looks upon each Christian, calling them to leave everything and follow him – from whatever state or circumstances they are.

I’ve looked into a few books since your comment, and so can be more specific about where to look. Explorations in Theology II has the essay “A Theology of the Secular Institute.” This essay lays out in a clear way B’s theology of the counsels, most especially in the part of the laity who are in Secular Institutes. But this is the root of his understanding of the universal call to holiness for all the baptized.

avatar Tony September 24, 2009 at 7:18 am

I have an almost diametrically opposite reading of the passages that you quote from Balthasar. In my view, the passages in fact points to Balthasar looking with hard nosed realism at the way things stand with regard to marriage and the family in certain contexts. What he says I do not interpret to be pointing to some kind of ecclesiastical elitism. What he says rings true in third world countries where couples and families are constantly under threat and pressure from having to survive on a daily basis. The passages quoted express a desire to see Humanae Vitae expressed differently (the substance remains the same; the Church has the right to hold us to the highest ideals of the Christian life, which is worded as “eschatological”), i.e., in a way that takes into consideration that the freedom of couples and families to make the right decisions with regard to marital and family life is often vitiated by extreme poverty and a general sense of helplessness. Women are particularly disadvantaged here. Here is Balthasar, for once descending from the great clouds of his beautiful theology, making a comment about how perhaps the same truth could have been expressed differently, and he gets pilloried as a “fideist” and what not!!!

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