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The Pope, the Sinner, and Me

By: Dr. Greg Bottaro

cathedral

This is not a response to the media distortions of the recent interview with Pope Francis.  I’d rather focus on what Pope Francis actually is saying to me as one of his flock, and admit that maybe there is something here to personally grow from. Second of all, this article is not advocating or in any way considering a “change of church teaching.” If that’s what some readers take away from it, I’d ask them to please read it over.

This has been on my heart to write about for a while, but I must admit, I’ve been a coward. As a Catholic and as a psychologist, I want to add in my two cents to the conversation on homosexuality. This might be one of the single most divisive issues of our immediate time. I have been a coward up until now because this topic is a minefield, and I’m scared of bombs. I say up until now because our Pope has given me an offer I can’t refuse. In his recent interview, Pope Francis gave an example of courage and unyielding tenacity for truth, beauty, and goodness that sparked something in me.

Religion has become for some — myself included — an opportunity for mediocrity in following Jesus. I have a sneaking suspicion that it has been this way for thousands of years. Jesus certainly spoke out pretty vehemently against this sort of mediocrity in his time, and now the Vicar of Jesus is speaking against it now. By mediocrity, I mean to say that religion gives us categories to snugly place ourselves into. It gives us a moral system to fall back on that distinguishes “us” from “them.”  Well, for all of us comfortable Christians in the world, Pope Francis just punched us in the gut and knocked the stale air out of our moldy lungs.

“This church with which we should be thinking is the home of all, not a small chapel that can hold only a small group of selected people. We must not reduce the bosom of the universal church to a nest protecting our mediocrity.  The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently.”

Despite some “spiritual” traditions, trends, and movements, the Church is not to be primarily a megaphone on the street corner calling out peoples’ sins. Likewise, members of the Church, the body of Christ, are not to have these megaphones blaring out from our hearts. Mediocrity is a mentality of  “us vs. them,” those of us behind the megaphone, and those that are on the other side of it. Pope Francis is telling us that we can’t let church become for us a system of dividing “us” from “them.” What then, is he saying the bosom of the universal church is to be?

“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.”

Pope Francis outlines pretty clearly the mission of the Church.  We must make a proposition of Jesus to the world.  We must propose Love.  “From this proposition the moral consequences then flow.”

Pope Francis calls on an image that is extremely important in his interview — the road to Emmaus.  What happened at first on the road to Emmaus?  The two walking with Jesus did not recognize him.  They were the “them.”  Did Jesus chastise them, saying, “Idiots, don’t you know who I am?”  “Dirty scum, how are you so blind?”  No.  He walks with them. He speaks with them, as one of them.  They don’t feel the need to form coalitions and march in parades to find some form of validation.  He validates them. He builds friendship with them and leads them into a true encounter with himself,after  which “their hearts burned.”

As a society, we have been so wrong about homosexuals.  As a member of the Roman Catholic Church, I can also say that the majority of “faithful” Catholics I have ever known have also been so wrong about homosexuals.  I have a question to ask to make my point.  As you sit with the discomfort this article may be causing, ask yourself this question:

How does your attitude, belief, and demeanor toward men and women who identify as homosexual compare to your attitude, belief, and demeanor toward men and women who engage in some other mortal sin such as contraception?

How about masturbation?

How about drunkenness?

Let that sink in a bit. How do you treat the person?

I’d especially like to elaborate on this last issue of drunkenness. It astounds me how many Catholic circles consider drunkenness, at least implicitly, as acceptable.  Have we not heard Galatians 5:21 before?  “Envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that  those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” Wow. So it’s ok to get together and drink a few too many with our friends, but being homosexual is the supreme debauchery?

I am not advocating puritanical teetotaling. I enjoy my scotch or wine at the appropriate time.  Sometimes it is even me who has too many with my friends and I have to hand the keys over to my wife for the ride home. Yes, I am a sinner. Not in the garment rending, abstract, and safely generalized way, but I commit very specific sins. Somehow there is an appallingly strange mercy for me.  If we are to love with the love of Jesus, if we are to be Jesus as members of his body, his Church, we will love men and women who experience, and even act out on, homosexual desires the way we love ourselves or our friends when we know the types of sins we commit.

Now as a follow-up question, if you haven’t thought this already (and kudos if you have), let me ask: Did you realize my first question asked about the sinfulness of those “who identify as homosexual”?  Is homosexuality a sin? No, it is not.

First of all, if you do happen to know a person is committing mortal sins such as acting out on their homosexual desires, why in the world is it ok to treat him or her any differently than anyone else you happen to know committing mortal sin, including yourself?

Second of all, homosexuality in itself is not a sin. When you meet someone who is homosexual, you very well might be in the presence of a saint. If someone is living chastely with homosexual desires, he or she is living heroic virtue. Homosexuality is a cross that no heterosexual will ever understand. It is a life called to celibacy without the luxury of discernment. It is potentially the most extreme example of “chastity for the kingdom” that I can imagine. Do you happen to know the interior life of every homosexual?

If they look deep enough, many Catholics might be ashamed of their disposition of heart towards homosexuals. I know I am. Sure, I knew how to say that I “Loved the sinner, hated the sin.”  But Pope Francis seems to think such words aren’t enough.

If I’m the only Catholic who had these feelings, so be it. Here I am confessing my sin to the world. As Pope Francis said, “I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.”

Credit to Dr. Greg Bottaro of CatholicExchange.

 

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Emotional Pornography

By: Dr. Greg Bottaro

woman watching TV

Sex sells.   Marketing in our culture is almost exclusively based on sex.    We have known this for years, and although we think we are stronger than corporate marketing strategies, we (men) still fall easy prey to GoDaddy super bowl ads and Victoria’s Secret ceiling-high mall pinups.   When I say “easy prey,” I don’t mean we all necessarily go home lusting after these pictures and falling into sin, but somehow there is a movement of something in us.  That movement of something within us is because we were made by God to be moved!   Although the marketing media has no regard for our souls, we have to give them credit at some level for figuring out better than many Christians how to move people.   As men though, we have a serious responsibility to learn how to control our desires and direct them in a way that is consistent with what is true, good, and beautiful.   This is how we let our God-given desires propel us towards God himself through a life lived virtuously.

Using sex to sell is a form of pornography.   Pornography comes from the same word as prostitution, which is the Latin for “price.”   Porn uses a person as a marketable good in a transaction. Pornography is evil primarily because it goes against the very nature with which we were created.   As John Paul II said, “the person is the kind of good which does not admit of use and cannot be treated as an object of use and as such the means to an end.”   There are actually two major problems with pornography.   First, as JPII points out, it turns the people involved into objects of use. Second though, pornography presents fantasy as reality.   Porn trains its viewers to believe in a version of reality that does not actually exist.   Marketers and producers of porn have figured out how to provide instant and exaggerated gratification to the desires of men and women.   In reality, true gratification does not come in the same form.   This is why pornography is fantasy.   In the examples listed above, women are the marketed objects, but men are not the only ones moved by pornography in the media. There are two kinds of pornography rampant in our culture — physical pornography and emotional pornography.

Emotional pornography markets primarily to women and their emotional desires.   Music and movies — especially movies — present an idea to a woman that somehow moves something in her.   Movies like the Notebook or Twilight resonate with a woman’s desire.   The problem with movies like these though is that they present fantasy to woman as reality, very similar to the way physical pornography presents fantasy to a man as reality.   You may think you are stronger than corporate marketing strategies, but you still fall easy prey.   Somehow there is a movement of something in you.   That movement of something within you is because you were made by God to be moved!   As women though, you have a serious responsibility to learn how to control your desires and direct them in a way that is consistent with what is true, good, and beautiful.

Women across the board (and yes I am making a huge generalization here) typically feel pretty rotten about physical pornography.   Even women who pretend to be ok with it in public because they think that’s what men want still feel deep down that pornography is somehow way off.   It presents an unreal version of women, and a type of relationship they would never want to be a part of, because it supports the idea that women exist for men’s physical pleasure.

Men are very often uncomfortable with chick flicks.   While it is true thatmany men are just uncomfortable with emotions in general and could learn a lot about them from women, I am going to step out from behind the macho veil and let you women in on a secret. Just as you know that you will never be able to live up to (or down to) the level of those women in porn, we feel deep down that we will never be able to live up to (or down to) the level of those men in the movies you love.  These movies present an unreal version of men, and a type of relationship we would never want to be a part of, because they support the idea that men exist for women’s emotional pleasure.

I am not saying Twilight or The Notebook are evil movies in the same way physical pornography is evil.   I am simply saying that if you walk away from these movies feeling like your life isn’t that great, your relationship isn’t measuring up, or somehow you won’t be happy until you find a Ryan Gosling character to sweep you off your feet, you might want to consider how chaste you are being.   I am also not saying that women are the only ones to fall prey to emotional unchastity (or men to physical unchastity). The physical/emotional distinctions are only concerning the primary ways that sin affects us in our gender differences.

JPII said, “It is the duty of every man to protect the dignity of every woman, and the duty of every woman to protect the dignity of every man.”   If a person were being used to create or sustain some emotional pleasure, his or her dignity is not being protected.

Credit to Dr. Greg Bottaro of CatholicExchange.

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Pope John Paul II's Theology of the Body

By:  Anastasia M. Northrop

freddom

Freedom, truth, gift, communion, dignity, love, person, meaning: these are all themes which are continually found throughout the writings of Pope John Paul II. They were there even before he became Pope. As Cardinal Karol Wojtyla he was influential in the writing of several documents from Vatican II, not the least of which was Gaudium et Spes – the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World – from which he never tires of quoting in his many encyclicals and apostolic letters.

“Man is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself, [and he] cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.” (Gaudium et Spes 24)

How important it is to live our sexuality in a way which upholds and affirms the other person! Indeed, the true lover will never use another person or treat her as a means to an end.

We must first know the purpose of our existence and what we were created for if we are to live a fully meaningful life. Pope John Paul II explores the purpose of our existence in his Theology of the Body, which consists of 129 general Wednesday audiences delivered by him during the first five years of his pontificate.

Prior to his election as pope, John Paul II wrote a book, Love and Responsibility. In Love and Responsibility Karol Wojty a presents the Catholic Church’s teaching on love and sexuality in a way that makes sense to modern man.

Wojtyla stresses the dignity of the person and shows how important it is to live our sexuality in a way which upholds and affirms the other person. Indeed, the true lover will never use another person or treat her as a means to an end.

In his Theology of the Body John Paul II digs deep into the meaning of being a human person based on Scripture. As a person with a body and soul, made in the image and likeness of God, we find the meaning of life through finding out what it means to image God and what our bodies have to do with it.

We must first know the purpose of our existence and what we were created for if we are to live a fully meaningful life. Pope John Paul II explores the purpose of our existence in his Theology of the Body, which consists of 129 general Wednesday audiences delivered by him during the first  and make it his own, if he does not participate intimately in it.” (From the encyclical, Redemptor Hominis – “Redeemer of Man”)

The Human Body

What does the human body have to do with all of this? In a world which so often portrays the body as an object for one’s pleasure or as a machine which doesn’t have much to do with our spiritual side, John Paul II again seeks to present the truth as it is found in Scripture.

The body is not some little “add-on” to creation. Rather it is a vital part of who we are as human persons. Why? Because the physical body reveals the spiritual part of the person. For example, you can tell that someone is happy through the smile on his face. Happiness is not a physical, tangible, visible thing, so you need a physical sign to express it.

“Adam and Eve could see…they were called to  union and communion”

In the same way, Adam and Eve could see from the  difference in their physical bodies (remember that they were naked) that they were called to union and  communion — that they were called to LOVE, to give  themselves in a total gift to each other, both body and soul, in the most complete way possible for a human being, i.e. sexual union.

This physical union points to and expresses a deeper  spiritual union. In the same way that a smile is empty if one is not really happy, sexual union is empty without spiritual union. Not only does their physical communion point to an invisible communion between the man and woman, but it actually shows us that this love, this self-gift, is what we are called to, what we were created for.

John Paul II says that God created our bodies the way He did specifically to show us that we are called to love, that  five years of his pontificate.  Prior to his election as pope, John Paul II wrote a book, Love and Responsibility. In Love and Responsibility Karol Wojtyla presents the Catholic Church’s teaching on love and sexuality in a way that makes sense to modern man.

Wojtyla stresses the dignity of the person and shows how important it is to live our sexuality in a way which upholds and affirms the other person. Indeed, the true lover will never use another person or treat her as a means to an end.

In his Theology of the Body John Paul II digs deep into the meaning of being a human person based on Scripture. As a person with a body and soul, made in the image and likeness of God, we find the meaning of life through finding out what it means to image God and what our bodies have to do with it.

This physical union points to and expresses a deeper  spiritual union. In the same way that a smile is empty if  one is not really happy, sexual union is empty without  spiritual union. Not only does their physical communion  point to an invisible communion between the man and
woman, but it actually shows us that this love, this self-gift,  is what we are called to, what we were created for.

John Paul II says that God created our bodies the way He  did specifically to show us that we are called to love, that  our reason for existence is to love, to make a gift of  ourselves to others. He calls this the “nuptial (or spousal)  meaning of the body.”  He explains, “The human body includes right from the  beginning…the capacity of expressing love, that love in  which the person becomes a gift — and by means of this gift  — fulfills the meaning of his being and existence.” (TOB Jan 16,  1980) (This pope is not “down on sex”!)

“Through sexual union the body speaks a ‘language’  …this language must be spoken in truth” Perhaps even more surprisingly for some, John Paul II goes on to say that conjugal union itself is meant to be a sign of God’s desire for complete union with us (which is intimate, though not sexual). It is a sign of Christ’s love for his bride the Church.

Living the Theology of the Body

How crucial it is then, that couples live their relationships as they were intended to in order to accurately image to the world God’s eternal plan for mankind. St. Paul instructs, “Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her…” He then refers back to the beginning, as Christ does in the Gospels and says, “‘For  this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife and the two shall become one flesh.’ This is a great mystery, and I mean in reference to Christ and the Church.” (Eph. 5:25, 31-32)

John Paul II explains that through sexual union the body speaks a “language” and that this language must be spoken  in truth. Since the very nature of the conjugal act as designed  by God includes both the interpersonal union of the couple  as well as the potential for procreation, man and woman  cannot contracept their union without violating their dignity  as persons and the dignity of the conjugal act itself.

Because of his continual concern for what is truly worthy of  man, John Paul II uses the Theology of the Body to further  explain the reasons behind Pope Paul VI’s controversial encyclical on contraception, Humanae Vitae:  “Man and woman carry on in the language of the body that  dialogue which, according to Genesis 2:24,25, had its  beginning on the day of creation. This language of the body  is something more than mere sexual reaction. As authentic  language of the persons, it is subject to the demands of  truth, that is, to objective moral norms. Precisely on the  level of this language, man and woman reciprocally  express themselves in the most profound way possible to  them…Man and woman express themselves in the measure  of the whole truth of the human person.” (TOB Aug. 22, 1984)

“A Manner Truly Worthy of the Person”

If the procreative aspect of conjugal union is excluded, then  that truth of the person and of the act itself is destroyed.  On the outside it may look like the man and woman are  completely giving themselves to each other, but in reality  they are not since they refuse to accept everything about  the other, including his or her fertility. On the other hand,  exercising self-mastery and promoting respect for each  other and the conjugal act, couples are called to practice  responsible parenthood and in this way act in a manner  truly worthy of the person.

The other way of living out the self-gift to which each and  every human person is called is through the vocation of  celibacy. The celibate person shows the rest of the world  what we are ultimately called to and destined for in  heaven: complete union with God. Contrary to what many  people think, celibacy is not a repression of one’s sexuality.

Rather, celibate men and women are called to use their  sexual energy to make a gift of themselves to others in  different ways: in service, in evangelization and spiritual  parenthood, to name only a few.

John Paul II knows that living either calling is not easy. It  is not even possible without the grace of Christ’s  redemption. But, through the power of his death and  resurrection, living true purity of heart in relationships is  really possible, and not only possible, but necessary!
John Paul II is telling us we cannot let lust  weigh us down!

Christ does not condemn us but calls us to purity.  “[Man] is called precisely to that supreme value that is love.  He is called as a person in the truth of his humanity,  therefore also in the truth of his masculinity or femininity,  in the truth of his body. He is called in that truth which has  been his heritage from the beginning, the heritage of his  heart, which is deeper than the sinfulness inherited, deeper  than lust… The words of Christ, set in the whole reality of  creation and redemption, reactivate that deeper heritage  and give it real power in human life.” (TOB Oct. 29, 1980)

Christ appeals to our hearts and calls us to freely choose a  life that is in accord with our dignity as persons made in the  image and likeness of God! Only in living our true dignity
as men and women created in the image of God will we be  truly fulfilled, will we be happy in the deepest possible  sense, because this is the life that we were designed and  created to live from the beginning.

Credit to  Anastasia M. Northrop of MarriageResourceCenter.

 

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Theology of the Body vs. 50 Shades of Grey

By: Judy Keane

lovers

With fan-fiction origins, E.L. James book, 50 Shades of Grey, has officially become the most widely sold book in Britain — ever. The book, the first in a trilogy, includes explicit scenes and heavy doses of bondage, dominance and sadism. Here in America, the originally self-published book still stands near the top of The New York Times Best Sellers List with international sales hitting more than 65 million in print and digital copies. So far, it’s been translated into 30 languages making its author, a British housewife and mother of two, a multi-millionaire overnight. With a fan-base of teenagers, college students, along with single and married women over 30 — the critically panned book series dubbed “Mommy Porn,” has launched the way into a largely untapped market of female erotica readers.

I have not read the book and don’t intend to read it. Wikipedia’s synopsis tells the story well enough despite its author’s description of it as an “old fashioned love story.” Plain and simple — it’s pornography. Originally titled “Master of the Universe,” the book, due to “reader demand” can now be found on a waiting list at many public libraries across the U.S. Its wide success has spawned 50 Shades of Grey theme parties, PDF’s, board games, a 50 Shades Album, 50 Shades — The Musical and soon, 50 Shades of Grey — the movie. The trilogy has even become the subject of a university class started this semester at American University.

What is most astounding and frankly disturbing, is the popularity of a book series which features a lead character, Christian Grey, who represents the antithesis of God’s designs for the nuptial (spousal) relationship, along with the utter lack of self-respect its female protagonist,Anastasia Steele, has for herself. Since when did a sadomasochistic, non-committal control freak who finds pleasure in physically demeaning, abusing and emotionally manipulating a naïve college girl become a literary hero of so many women?

As ubiquitous as 50 Shades of Grey is these days, I cannot help but think of the vast spiritual, moral, mental and emotional strides women could make (not only for themselves but also our culture as a whole), if they read Blessed John Paul II’s Theology of the Body instead — a series of 129 addresses he gave under the form of Wednesday Catechetical talks in Rome from 1979 until 1984.

As the first major teaching of his Pontificate, Theology of the Body (TOTB) is an extended Catechesis on the truth of God‘s original design for human sexuality and thus the dignity of the human person. As part of TOTB, JPII emphasizes how the dignity of the human person can be distorted through sin — such as pornography — and how it has been restored and renewed through the redemption of Jesus Christ. TOTB additionally focuses on Catholic teachings about the sacramentality of marriage, chastity/virginity, adultery, the resurrection of the body and contraception. The central theme of TOTB is that “the body” is a sign of the invisible mystery of God. In this sense, the body can be viewed as a kind of sacrament — with the mystery of God being revealed through it. Therefore, the body alone is capable of making visible what is invisible: the spiritual and the divine.

However, in the case of 50 Shades of Grey, the complete opposite of personal and individual human dignity is presented. Instead, a twisted and false notion of love which reduces the human being to nothing more than an object is presented as something glamorous and dazzling. In reality, Anastasia ceases to have attraction as a person with her only value being a mere object of fantasy to be used for sexual pleasure. While women may feel the book is a harmless form of entertainment, Shades of Grey ultimately gives way to darkness leaving one on a path of deception. In other words, it belittles God’s gift of personhood and the body as the Temple of the Holy Spirit and we ultimately degrade and harm ourselves by reading it. “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God? You are not your own; you were bought with a price.” (I Cor. 6:19-20)

Part of John Paul II’s TOTB explains that lust in its distorted various forms destroys the nuptial meaning of the body and the full awareness of the human being by making it only an article of attraction. Lust depersonalizes and degrades, thereby hindering mutual acceptance of the other as a unique gift and expression of God’s love. In this way, it debases the marriage covenant which constitutes the foundation of the “one-flesh” union. Having our best interests at heart, Christ wants to remove distorted notions of the human body from the nuptial relationship so that in purity of heart, the nuptial meaning of the body and the individual person shines in mutual self-giving within sacramental unity. Thus, true union comes in discovering the true value of the beloved.

John Paul II’s TOTB is not about being prudish — or about me sounding like the Church Lady from Saturday Night Live. Instead, it is about accepting the love that Christ wishes for the nuptial relationship — the type of love he created since the beginning of the world which he called “good” (Genesis 1:31).

Unfortunately, in 50 Shades of Grey, millions of women the world over are instead buying into 50 shades of deeply defective and distorted fabrications of what constitutes real and lasting love.

In his reflections on TOTB, Catholic apologist and founder of Totus Tuus Ministries, Jim Seghers, notes that “such twisted notions of love disconnects the body from personhood and becomes exploitive, selfish and violent, ultimately cheapening and belittling the body as the temple of the Holy Spirit.” When we accept the lie of Shades of Grey and all types of pornography, we are ultimately left unhappy, disillusioned, confused and denigrated. Why? Because we are seeking something that has been designed to prey upon our human weaknesses and draw us away from God. It then becomes harder for us to recognize ourselves as children of God and temples of the Holy Spirit.

Blessed John Paul II gave the world a great gift with his teachings on Theology of the Body which points the way out of the gray and into the light of God’s loving plan for humanity. Theology of the Body is about recognizing, even amid a culture saturated in distorted versions of love, JPII’s personal invitation to all men and women, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, to freely embrace our true dignity.

Archbishop Fulton Sheen once said, “When a man loves a woman, he has to become worthy of her. The higher her virtue, the more noble her character, the more devoted she is to the truth, justice, and goodness, the more a man has to aspire to be worthy of her. The history of civilization could actually be written in terms of the level of its women.” If women would only then take a moment to pause and realize their great value and worth in the eyes of God, I wonder if a book series such as Shades of Grey would still be as popular. I doubt it!

Credit to Judy Keane of CatholicExchange.

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Singing "in tune" With the Church's Love Song

By: Christopher West

church pews

In a recent washingtonpost.com article entitled “Catholic Girls Gone Wild?” (March 1, 2010),   Patrick Reilly, president and founder of The Cardinal Newman Society, reported a disturbing trend among women attending Catholic colleges.   It seems that statistics on the casual “hook up” — sex without any expectation of a relationship — are hiked up among women at Catholic campuses.

Reilly writes, “Researchers from Mississippi State University considered a survey of 1,000 college students nationwide and were surprised to find that ‘women attending colleges and universities affiliated with the Catholic Church are almost four times as likely to have participated in “hooking up” compared to women at secular schools.’”  Why should this be the case?   Broadening the question, why is it that so many young people raised in Catholic homes end up throwing their morals away when they reach college?   I’m sure there are many factors.   One large one, I believe, is the way many of these young people have been raised to think of the Catholic Faith, especially around the topics of human freedom and human sexuality.

Hitting the Right Notes

The Church has a glorious and incredibly joyful song to sing to the world about freedom and love (it’s called the Song of Songs!).   But, in my experience with Catholic audiences around the world, it’s easy to observe that few Catholics are “in tune” with this joyful song.   Understandably.   As anyone who attempts to sing with the Church can attest, it ain’t easy.   In our attempts to hit the notes, we often go sharp or flat.  On the “flat” side, countless Catholics were not raised with correct Catholic teaching at all, other than to scorn it perhaps.   They usually grow up embracing a “do what you will” moral relativism.   On the “sharp” side, however, a great many Catholics may have received “technically correct” teaching, but in a very dry, sterile, and imposing way.   The “flat” way promotes freedom without respect for truth.   But the “sharp” way promotes truth without respect for freedom.

Respect for the freedom of the person in religious and moral matters — by this we mean not imposing the good by force, but proposing it in its full beauty and inviting others to embrace it — is a key teaching of the Catholic Church (see “Freedom” in the index of the Catechism of the Catholic Church).   As I wrote in my book Theology of the Body Explained, “How often have children educated in the faith rejected it as adults because their teachers — whether parents, pastors, or others — tended to impose religion upon them without respect for and education in authentic human freedom? Freedom must be challenged to submit itself to truth, but no one can be forced to accept the truth without doing violence to the dignity of the person” (p. 57).

Respecting Freedom, Embracing Hope

In the case of raising children in the faith, it is certainly proper for parents to provide structures and rules for their children in helping them make moral decisions.   However, as Pope Benedict XVI makes clear, moral decisions “can never simply be made for us in advance by others — if that were the case, we would no longer be free.”   Moral well-being “can never be guaranteed simply through structures alone, however good they are.   Such structures are not only important, but necessary; yet they cannot and must not marginalize human freedom” (Saved in Hope 24).

Parents have the delicate task, especially in the teen years, of learning how to honor their children’s freedom — even when they choose wrongly.   As John Paul II stated, “people have a right to their liberties, even if they make mistakes in exercising them’” (cited by Weigel in Witness to Hope, p. 533).   When we impose the good without respect for and education in authentic freedom, we actually contribute to the dynamic of rebellion in our children that often leads to college “wildness.”   This is why the Pontifical Council for the Family calls parents to “recognize the fragment of truth that may be present in some forms of [their children’s] rebellion” (Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality 50).

Educating our children in the moral vision of the Church is not about imposing rules upon them.   If this is our approach, we shouldn’t be surprised to discover that when the cat’s away, the mice will play.   Rather, we should be teaching our children the full splendor of the Church’s love song.   When we do this, the Church’s teaching doesn’t need to be imposed.   We naturally long to join in the glorious music.

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Immaculate Conception and Theology of the Body

By: Christopher West

mary & jesus icon

December 8 is one of my favorite feast days.   Why?   Because Mary’s Immaculate Conception (the solemn feast day celebrated in the Church on this day commemorating Mary’s being conceived without sin) is the certainty that what Christ did on the Cross worked.   It is the living hope of humanity’s redemption.   For redemption to be complete, it not only has to be perfectly given, it also has to be perfectly received.   It has been perfectly given in Christ, and perfectly received in Mary, who, through “a singular grace and privilege” was “redeemed from the moment of her conception” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 491).

The Connection Between the Cross & Immaculate Conception  

Volumes could be written about the connection between this feast and the “great mystery” unfolded in John Paul II’s Theology of the Body (TOB).   For starters, it’s no mere coincidence that John Paul II began writing his TOB on this marvelous feast day — the handwritten date on page one of his original manuscript says December 8, 1974.   And above that he wrote this dedication: Tota Pulchra es Maria — “You are all beautiful, Mary” — a clear adaptation of the bridegroom’s words in the Song of Songs, “You are all beautiful, my love, there is no blemish in you” (Song 4:7).  It’s a long held tradition of the Church to recognize Mary as the “unblemished” bride spoken of in the Song of Songs.   As the perfect model of the Church, Mary represents the mystical bride for whom Christ “gave himself up … that he might sanctify her” that she might be “without spot or wrinkle … holy and without blemish” (Eph 5:25-27).

Of course, it may seem odd to speak of Mary in some way representing Christ’s “bride.”   Bishop Fulton Sheen explained it this way: “Now we’ve always thought, and rightly so, of Christ the Son on the cross and the mother beneath him. But that’s not the complete picture. That’s not the deep understanding. Who is our Lord on the cross? He’s the new Adam. Where’s the new Eve? At the foot of the cross. … And so the bridegroom looks down at the bride. He looks at his beloved. Christ looks at his Church. There is here the birth of the Church” (Through the Year with Bishop Fulton Sheen, Ignatius Press 2003).

The work of redemption was consummated on the Cross.   And so, in a very real way, Mary was immaculately conceived — that is, she perfectly received the gift of redemption — not only in her mother’s womb, but also at the foot of the Cross.   In fact, the event that took place in Saint Anne’s womb is inexplicable without the event that took place at the Cross.   As John Paul II once observed, “Spouses are … the permanent reminder to the Church of what happened on the Cross” (Familiaris Consortio 11).   Perhaps the spouses that reveal this most clearly are Saints Joachim and Anne.

Anne & Joachim: Parents of the Virgin Mary

In the art of the East, the icon of the Immaculate Conception is actually an image of Joachim and Anne embracing.   Behind them is their marriage bed, and behind that sacred mystery we see the gates into the holy city of Jerusalem.   Through this “all holy” image (the Fathers of the Eastern tradition call Mary “the All-Holy”), we are led to contemplate a spousal love that not only cooperated with God in his power to create  human life, but also cooperated with God in his power to redeem it.   In this holy embrace of Joachim and Anne, we can truly speak of a love that was not only “pro-creative” but also, at the very same time, “pro-redemptive.”

As we learn in John Paul II’s TOB, authentic spousal love draws its deepest essence from the very mystery of creation and redemption.   It’s not only meant to bring new life into the world, it’s meant to save us from sin and prepare us for heaven.   Who by his own strength can live this divine kind of love? Only the grace of salvation makes it possible.   It’s not something we can muster up.   It’s only something we can receive.   And this is precisely what we celebrate on this grand feast of the Immaculate Conception — the receptivity of the human heart (Mary’s) to the saving love of God.

Mary, in all the joys and trials of life, teach us how to open our hearts to so great a love!

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Sexual Redemption

By: Christopher West

cross & sun

You may remember an article I wrote that began to explore the difference between sexual “repression” and sexual “redemption.”   It was in response to a former Catholic priest who had announced on the Oprah Winfrey show that “repression” of desire is the only choice for a person who remains celibate.   Because the question What is the human person capable of in light of our fallen nature? is so important, I wanted to expound on the issue of sexual redemption a bit more, especially in light of the insights of Pope John Paul II and his Theology of the Body.

Sexual Redemption & Freedom from Sin

It is abundantly clear from both Catholic teaching and human experience that, so long as we are on earth, we will always have to battle with concupiscence — that disordering of our passions caused by original sin (see Catechism of the Catholic Church 405, 978, 1264, 1426).   The interior battle we experience with our disordered desires is indeed fierce.   Yet, as Pope John Paul II insisted, we “cannot stop at casting the ‘heart’ into a state of continual and irreversible suspicion due to the manifestations of the concupiscence of the flesh…   Redemption is a truth, a reality, in the name of which man must feel himself called, and ‘called with effectiveness’” (TOB 46:4).

This “effectiveness” means that we are not hopelessly bound by our fallen desires.   The Catechism observes that the idea that concupiscence is insurmountable actually stems from the Reformation (see CCC 406).   As Catholicism teaches, through the gift of redemption “the Spirit of the Lord gives new form to our desires, those inner movements that animate our lives” (CCC 2764).   Summarizing the teaching of John Paul II on the matter, as we surrender our lusts to Christ and allow “the Spirit of the Lord” to move in us, we discover the ability to orient our sensual and emotional reactions in the realm of sexuality “both as to their content and as to their character” (TOB 129:5).   What once moved us to use  other people for our own pleasure, can lead us to want to lay down our lives for them “as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph 5:25).

This is good news — very good news.   Yet, for some reason, it seems many people are skeptical about it, and I’m speaking primarily of Christians here.   Many of us grow up with the impression that all we can really hope for in the sexual realm is a more or less successful program of “sin management.”   The idea of transforming our lusts, many believe, is simply beyond the realm of man’s possibilities.   It’s something we can only hope for in heaven.

Let Us Not Empty the Cross of It’s Power

From one perspective, those who think this way are correct.   It is impossible for human beings to transform their own lustful desires and — to be sure — the fullness of redemption awaits us only in heaven.   But those who enter the “effectiveness” of Christ’s redemption discover “another vision of man’s possibilities” (TOB 46:6).   Much is at stake in this question, as John Paul II makes clear: “[W]hat are the ‘concrete possibilities of man’?   And of which man are we speaking?   Of man dominated by lust or of man redeemed by Christ.   This is what is at stake, the reality  of Christ’s redemption.   Christ has redeemed us!   This means he has given us the possibility  of realizing the entire  truth of our being; he has set our freedom free from the domination of concupiscence” (Veritatis Splendor 103).

What is the alternative to an effective sexual redemption?   If man remains bound by his lusts, is he even capable of loving with a pure heart?   Marriage, in this view, comes to be seen and lived as a “legitimate outlet” for indulging our disordered desires and the celibate life comes to be seen and lived as a life of hopeless repression. And we end up “holding the form of religion” while “denying the power of it” (2 Tim 3:5).  “Ne evacuetur Crux!” — John Paul II exclaims, “Do not empty the Cross of its power!” (see 1 Cor 1:17).   “This,” he said, “is the cry of the new evangelization” (Orientale Lumen 3).   How desperately our sexually broken world needs to hear this cry!   There is another way to experience our sexuality than what our pornographic culture holds out to us, and it passes by way of the power of the Cross.   There is a water that corresponds to our thirst for love, and it flows from the side of our crucified Bridegroom.   Let all who are thirsty come — come and drink the water of life (see Rev 22:17).

Fasting: Crucifying our Lusts

John Paul II wrote that to experience victory over lust, we most devote ourselves to “a progressive education in self-control of the will, of sentiments, of emotions, which must be developed from the simplest gestures, in which it is relatively easy to put the inner decision into practice” (TOB 128:1). For example, we might examine our eating habits.   If a person can’t say no to a piece of cake, how will he say no to an email enticing him to look at Internet porn?   Fasting is a wonderful way to grow in mastery of our passions. If this isn’t already part of a person’s life, he should start with a simple sacrifice that’s relatively easy to put into practice. As one continues exercising this “muscle,” he will find his strength increasing. What was once “impossible” gradually becomes possible.

The muscle analogy, however, is only half right. Growing in purity certainly demands human effort, but we’re also aided by supernatural grace. Here, as I stated in a previous column, it’s crucial to distinguish between  repression  and entering into  redemption. When lust “flares up,” rather than repressing it by pushing it into the subconscious, trying to ignore it, or otherwise seeking to annihilate it, we can  surrender our lusts  to Christ and allow him to “crucify them” (see Gal 5:24).   As we do, “the Spirit of the Lord gives new form to our desires” (Catechism of the Catholic Church  2764).

In other words, as we allow lust to be “crucified,” we also come to experience the “resurrection” of sexual desire as God intends. Not immediately, not easily, but gradually, progressively, as we take up our cross every day and follow, we can come to experience sexual desire as the power to love in God’s image.  When sexual temptations assail us, as they often do, we might say a prayer like this:

Lord, I thank you for the gift of my sexual desires. I surrender my lustful desires to you and I ask you please, by the power of your death and resurrection, to “untwist” in me what sin has twisted so that I might come to experience sexual desire as you intend — as the desire to love in your image.

Perseverance & Self-Mastery

As John Paul II wrote in his Theology of the Body, “perseverance and consistency” is required in learning “what  the meaning of the body  is, the meaning of femininity and masculinity. …This is a ‘science that cannot really be learned only from books, because it consists primarily of deep ‘knowledge’ of human interiority,” that is, of the human heart.   Deep in the heart we learn to distinguish the mystical treasures of sexuality from that which bears only the sign of lust.   “One should add,” John Paul says, “that this task  can  be carried out and that it is truly worthy of man” (TOB 48:4).

It’s certainly true that sometimes love and lust are difficult to distinguish. A man, for example, upon recognizing a woman’s beauty, might wonder where the line is between seeing her as an object for his own gratification and lovingly admiring her beauty.   As John Paul writes, lust “is not always plain and obvious; sometimes it is concealed, so that it passes itself off as ‘love’….   Does this mean that we should distrust the human heart?   No!” the Pope insists. “It is only to say that we must remain in control of it” (TOB 32:3).

“Control” here doesn’t mean merely dominating unruly desires in order to keep them “in check.” As we mature in self-control, we experience it as “the ability to orient  [sexual] reactions, both as to their content and as to their character” (TOB 129:5). The person who is truly master of himself is able to direct erotic desire “toward what is true, good, and beautiful” (TOB 48:1).   As this happens we come to understand and experience the mystery of sexuality “in a depth, simplicity, and beauty hitherto altogether unknown” (TOB 117b:5).   In turn, we come to see that the version of sexuality promoted by the culture is like junk food compared to the banquet of love unfolded in the divine plan.

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Is Celibacy a Life of Sexual Repression?

By: Christopher West

freedom!

Recently, a former Catholic priest appeared on Oprah to defend his choice of leaving the Church in order to get married.   This priest had battled with desire for this woman for several years and finally decided his only options were to marry her or repress his sexual desires.   Indeed, as he announced to a national audience, “repression” is the only choice for a person who remains celibate.

Repression or Indulgence: The  Only  Two Choices?

Is this true?   Are our only options when it comes to sexual desire to “indulge” it or “repress” it?   Granted, to a world bound by sexual lust, life-long celibacy seems absurd. The world’s general attitude towards Christian celibacy might be summarized like this: “Hey, marriage is the only ‘legitimate’ chance you Christians get to indulge your lusts. Why the heck would you ever want to give that up? You’d be condemning yourself to a life of hopeless repression.”

The difference between marriage and celibacy, however, must never be understood as the difference between having a “legitimate” outlet for sexual lust on the one hand and having to repress it on the other. Christ calls everyone — no matter his or her particular vocation — to experience redemption from the domination of lust. Only from this perspective do the Christian vocations (celibacy and marriage) make any sense. Both vocations — if they are to be lived as Christ intends — flow from the same experience of the redemption of sexuality.

First, marriage is not a “legitimate outlet” for indulging our sexual lusts.   As Pope John Paul II once pointed out, spouses can commit “adultery in the heart” with each other if they treat one another as nothing but an outlet for selfish gratification (see TOB 43:3).   I know it’s a cliche, but why do so many wives claim “headache” when their husbands want sex?   Could it be because they feel used rather than loved?   This is what lust leads to — using  people, not loving them.  Liberation from the domination of concupiscence — that disordering of our appetites caused by original sin — is essential, John Paul II taught, if we are to live our lives “in the truth” and experience the divine plan for human love (see TOB 43:6, 47:5).   Indeed, Christian sexual ethos “is always linked . . . with the liberation of the heart from concupiscence” (TOB 43:6).   And this liberation is just as essential for consecrated celibates and single people as it is for married couples (see TOB 77:4).

A Mature Purity Leads Us to Sexual Freedom

It is precisely this liberation that allows us to discover what John Paul II called “mature purity.”   In mature purity “man enjoys the fruits of victory over concupiscence” (TOB 58:7).   This victory is gradual and certainly remains fragile here on earth, but it is nonetheless real.   For those graced with its fruits, a whole new world opens up — another way of seeing, thinking, living, talking, loving, praying.   The marital embrace becomes a graced experience of the holy, rather than a base satisfaction of instinct.   And Christian celibacy becomes a liberating way of living one’s sexuality as a “total gift of self” for Christ and his Church.

John Paul II observed that the celibate person must submit “the sinfulness of his humanity to the powers that flow from the mystery of the redemption of the body … just as every other person does” (TOB 77:4). This is why he indicates that the call to celibacy is not only a matter of formation but of transformation (see TOB 81:5). The person who lives this transformation is not bound to indulge his lusts. He is free with what John Paul II called “the freedom of the gift.”   This means his desires are not in control of him; rather, he is in control of his desires.

In short, authentic sexual freedom is not the liberty to indulge one’s compulsions, but liberation from the compulsion to indulge.   Only such a person is capable of making a free gift of himself in love — whether in marriage, or in a life of consecrated devotion to Christ and the Church.   For the person who is free in this way, sacrificing the genital expression of one’s sexuality for so great a good as the eternal Marriage of Christ and the Church not only becomes a possibility, it becomes quite attractive.

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Spousal Prayer of the Saints

By: Christopher West

man and woman

Recently, while preparing for a long drive, I decided to look through my old collection of tape series for something to listen to (yes, I still have a cassette deck in my car).   My eyes landed on a box set called “Passion for God” by a Carmelite Abbess named Mother Tessa Bielecki.   When I arrived at my destination before the tapes were over, I didn’t want to get out of the car.

Passion for God

“Passion for God” is an introduction to the spousal mysticism of St. Teresa of Avila.   Here’s how the back cover of the series describes it: “Inside the great medieval monastary at Avila, Spain, one of history’s great love affairs took place.   For it was here, within these turreted stone walls, that the Christian mystic St. Teresa surrendered her ‘ensouled body’ to God.   What emerged from this divine union informs our spiritual lives to this day through the ecstatic ‘spousal prayer’ form that St. Teresa embraced so fiercly. … Mother Tessa takes listeners far from the hard pews of dutiful worship and into a lush marriage chamber, where God is mystically experienced as spouse.”  Regular readers of my articles are certainly familiar with the biblical analogy of spousal love as a way of understanding God’s love for us.   God’s eternal plan is to “marry” us: the Church is the Bride and Christ the Bridegroom.   “Spousal prayer” means, very simply, to open oneself wholly and completely to Christ, surrendering to him in a union of love like a bride surrenders to the loving embrace of her bridegroom.

And, yes, as uncomfortable as this might seem for men at first, this includes us too.   As John Paul II wrote in Mulieris Dignitatem, “According to [the spousal analogy], all human beings — both women and men — are called through the Church, to be the ‘Bride’ of Christ, the Redeemer of the world.   In this way ‘being the bride,’ and thus the ‘feminine’ element, becomes a symbol of all that is ‘human’” (MD 25).   (Don’t worry, guys — it doesn’t mean we have to wear a wedding dress or anything.   It means, essentially, that we, as creatures, have to learn how to open and “receive” the love of the Creator.   This is not  a threat to our masculinity, but the key to authentic masculinity.)

The Love of the Bridegroom & His Bride

Spousal prayer, as St. John of the Cross put it, leads to “a total transformation in the Beloved, in which each surrenders the entire possession of self to the other with a certain consummation of the union of love.   The soul thereby becomes divine, God through participation, insofar as is possible in this life.”   Then he makes the analogy more explicit: “Just as in the consummation of carnal marriage there are two in one flesh, as Sacred Scripture points out (Gen 2:24), so also when the spiritual marriage between God and the soul is consummated, there are two natures in one spirit and love” (Commentary on stanza 22:3 of the Spiritual Canticle).

Oh to what astounding glory God calls us!   God is an eternal “explosion” of life-giving love, and he calls us to participate in it.   That’s where spousal prayer takes us — into the heart of God who not only loves us, but is love.   When we see the union of husband and wife for what it is, we see that it is a “great mystery” that reveals the master plan of God to become “one” with us in Christ (see Eph 5:31-32).   It’s an icon of something divine, a window into heaven.   And that’s precisely why our sexuality is under such attack in our world: the enemy wants to blind us to the divine “iconography” of our masculinity and femininity.

As Tessa Bielecki said so well in this tape series, we mustn’t repress or try to annihilate our sexual desires.   Rather, in and through Christ, we must sublimate them — that is, make them “sublime,” noble, holy.   Indeed, spousal prayer takes us on a journey of painful trials and purifications through which erotic longing becomes more and more a yearning for God, a path to holiness.   This is what John Paul II was positing when he said, “The sexual urge is … a vector of aspiration along which [our] whole existence develops and perfects itself from within” (Love and Responsibility, p. 46).  The great mystics of the Church not only understand eros  as a longing for God, they live it as such.   They live eros  as “prayer.”   For prayer, as Pope Benedict put it, “is nothing other than becoming a longing for God” (Mary: The Church at the Source, p. 15).

Letting Go of our ‘God Substitutes’

Spousal prayer invites us to enter more and more deeply into union with Christ the Bridegroom as a member of the Church, his Bride.   But for this to become a lived experience, we must learn how to let go of all of our “God substitutes” and open our deepest desires for love to the One who alone can fulfill them.  The Greeks called that deep yearning for love  eros.   As Pope Benedict wrote, “eros  tends to rise ‘in ecstasy’ towards the Divine…; yet for this very reason it calls for a path of ascent, renunciation, purification and healing.   Concretely, what does this path of ascent and purification entail? … Here we can find a first, important indication in the  Song of Songs, an Old Testament book well known to the mystics” (Deus Caritas Est  5, 6).

The great mystics of the Church love the  Song of Songs  because it speaks of an experience that’s near and dear to them — the experience of  eros  lived as “prayer.” For prayer, as Pope Benedict put it, “is nothing other than becoming a longing for God” (Mary: The Church at the Source, p. 15).   When  eros  is lived as a longing for God, we have “spousal prayer.”  In laying out his great pastoral “program” for the new millennium, John Paul II stressed the importance of such deep, intimate prayer: “Yes, dear brothers and sisters, our Christian communities must become  genuine ‘schools’ of prayer  where the meeting with Christ is expressed … [in] ardent devotion until the heart truly ‘falls in love.’” Indeed, we “have a duty,” John Paul said, “to show to what depths the relationship with Christ can lead.”   And to show these depths, he turned to mystics:

“The great mystical tradition of the Church … shows how prayer can progress, as a genuine dialogue of love, to the point of rendering the person wholly possessed by the divine Beloved.” — As an aside, I’d bet that the word “possessed” reminds you of demonic possession.   But  possession by evil spirits  is simply a diabolic mockery of what we are all called to:  possession by the Holy Spirit, which means “vibrating at the Spirit’s touch,” as John Paul wrote.   Learning how to surrender to the divine in this way means learning how to enter into “spousal prayer.”  This is “a journey totally sustained by grace,” John Paul insisted.   At the same time it “demands an intense spiritual commitment and is no stranger to painful purifications (the ‘dark night’).   But it leads, in various possible ways, to the ineffable joy experienced by the mystics as ‘nuptial union.’   How can we forget here, among the many shining examples, the teachings of St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila?” (Novo Millenio Ineunte  33).

Beware of Idols

Such deep, intimate prayer is not only reserved for those in a convent or a monastery.   It “would be wrong,” John Paul said, “to think that ordinary Christians can be content with a shallow prayer that is unable to fill their whole life.”   In fact, when we fail to enter into the depths of prayer, we are “not only mediocre Christians but ‘Christians at risk’ … [of] succumbing to the allure of ‘substitutes’” (Novo Millenio Ineunte  34).  Mother Tessa observes that one of the biggest “substitutes” on the market for intimacy with God is sex.   Sex is meant to be an  icon  — an earthly sign that points us to the heavenly reality of union with God.   But we so often treat it as an  idol.   That is, we go to sex as if it were our ultimate fulfillment, as if it were God.   Don’t we see this kind of idolatry everywhere in our media culture?

The way out of this trap for all of us — whether single, married, or consecrated celibate — is precisely the intimacy of spousal prayer.   If we lived spousal prayer to its depths, Mother Tessa observes, consecrated celibates would have their longings for love beautifully fulfilled in God rather than being prone to sexual frustration and bitterness; single people would be freed from a terribly destructive promiscuity; and married people would stop expecting their spouse to be God.  We have two choices as a culture, Mother Tessa believes: Mysticism or neurosis; sublimation of erotic desire or sexual chaos; spousal prayer or social upheaval.   In the end, she’s absolutely right.   Oh, Lord, teach us to pray!

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Sex and the Gospel

By: Christopher West

man and Bible in field

The Associated Press recently ran a story about a controversy brewing among a community of “bible-believing” folk in rural Alabama.   Many in the town of Good Hope were disturbed by a billboard advertizing a series of sermons at the local Daystar Church.   The billboard, next to a picture of a bride and groom, read: “Great sex: God’s way.”   “It’s really stirred up the people here,” said a town clerk.

The prickly topic of sex always seems to “stir us up,” doesn’t it?   Perhaps my sensitivities are just different because of the work I do, but nothing strikes me as untoward in what Daystar Church is trying to do.   It strikes me, rather, as an attempt to engage the culture in a conversation about God’s plan for sex and marriage.   And this is something we must  do.  The AP article reported that Jerry Lawson, the pastor at the center of the controversy, said one of the purposes of his campaign “was to get Christian parents talking to their kids about sex before they learn too much immorality from TV or playground buddies.”  Sounds good to me.   Not only good — essential.   Because if we aren’t feeding our children from the banquet of God’s glorious plan for man and woman, they will, without a doubt, be eating from the culture’s pornographic smorgasbord.

What Does Sex Have To Do With the Gospel?

“‘I think some people are kind of missing the point,’ said Lawson.   The church needs to be out front on the topic of sex when even kids’ TV shows depict illicit relationships and homosexuality, he said.   ‘It comes down to God saying the most healthy place for sex and the only right place for sex is within a marriage — one man, one woman, and one marriage,’ Lawson said.”  And this has “really stirred up the people”?   Why?   Local evangelist Roland Belew gives a simple answer.   He said the whole idea of talking about sex in church goes against the teaching of the New Testament apostles.   “Paul said preach the Gospel. …Talking about sex ain’t gonna get nobody to heaven,” said Belew.

Oh boy.   Where to begin?   Obviously discretion is required from the pulpit.   But the idea that “preaching the Gospel” has nothing to do with sex and that “preaching about sex” has nothing to do with the Gospel betrays layers and layers of seriously misguided thinking.   When we divorce God’s love from sexual love, as Pope Benedict says, “the essence of Christianity” becomes “decisively cut off from the complex fabric of human life” (God is Love 7).   The “gospel” then becomes cold, aloof, inhuman.   In other words, we’re no longer preaching the real Gospel.

Sex, the Gospel, & St. Paul

According to John Paul II, coming to understand God’s plan for sex — and by that I mean coming to understand God’s plan for creating us as male and female and calling the two to become “one flesh” — is essential  if we are to understand who God is and what his eternal plan  is for us.   In other words, it’s essential if we are to understand what the Gospel is actually all about — what it promises, how it challenges us, and what it leads us to believe in and hope for both in this life and the next.  For God stamped an image of his own mystery and plan right in our bodies as male and female. “For this reason…the two become one flesh.” For what reason?   The very Apostle to which Mr. Belew appeals tells us the reason for sex: it’s all a great mystery that reveals to us the “good news” of the Gospel: God has wed himself to us forever through the union of Christ and the church (see Eph 5:31-32).

In his Letter to Families, John Paul described this passage in Ephesians as “the compendium or summa, in some sense, of the teaching about God and man which was brought to fulfillment by Christ” (19).   In other words, if you are looking for a passage that summarizes the entire message of the Bible, this passage about God’s plan for sex fits the bill quite nicely.  I can agree with Mr. Belew that talking about sex the way the culture does “ain’t gonna get nobody to heaven.”   But talking about it the way St. Paul does will launch us there like a rocket.   If that’s what Pastor Lawson is trying to do, I’m all for it.