Faith, Media & Culture

Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.

New Pope, same issues. Pope Francis certainly has made an impressive entry onto the world stage and, from press accounts, is a man of great humility who seems like just the person to rejuvenate the Church with a fresh start. He certainly has the goodwill of Catholics, including me, who certainly hope and pray for his success.

But serious issues — often pertaining, in one way or another, to sex — persist. Does this new Pope have the opportunity to deal with them in a new way and, perhaps, change some unflattering perceptions of the Church? Or is his papacy more or less locked into approaching these issues in the same way the Church always has? I asked Catholic theologian Christopher West. His thought-provoking new book Fill These Hearts: God, Sex and the Universal Longing tackles the challenges of presenting Church teaching on human sexuality in a modern world in a forthright way.  It should be noted that I asked my questions prior to the actual announcement of the selection Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina as the first South American leader of the Roman Catholic Church. Still, his answers are relevant and, I think, interesting.

JWK: With a new Pope about to lead the Catholic Church, is there any room at all for an updating on Catholic teachings toward sex (i.e. birth control)?

CHRISTOPHER WEST: If by “updating” you mean finding ever better ways to explain and present the Church’s teaching as the path to authentic freedom, happiness, and love that it is – absolutely, and it’s desperately needed.  In fact, just such an updating was begun by John Paul II and continued by Pope Benedict, but still has yet to be given a widespread hearing.  However, if by “updating” you mean an about-face change of Church teaching, that is not possible.  The nature of true love is eternal and unchanging because God, who is love, is eternal and unchanging.

JWK: Could rules about married clergy and/or woman priests be altered without undermining any fundamental principles of the Church?

CW: These are two different questions. In terms of married priests, we often forget about the entirely valid practice of Eastern Catholics who have married priests.  Marriage is not itself an impediment to priestly ordination in the Catholic Church.  But it is the common practice of the Western Church to choose her priests from among men who have committed themselves to a life of celibacy.  And one of the most important reasons is that the sacramental symbolism of the priest as Bridegroom to the Church is then clearer.

And this brings us to the second point of your question.  The entire sacramental system of the Church, as John Paul II said, is based on marriage as the “primordial” or “original” sacrament. Christ is the Bridegroom, the Church is the Bride, and the goal of every sacrament is to unite the Bridegroom and the Bride so that the Bride might be filled with eternal life.  This is what happens in a particular way in the Eucharist, the pinnacle of the priesthood: it’s the consummation of a mystical marriage and, for that to happen, you have to have a Bridegroom and you have to have a Bride.  Why do men train to be priests in a seminary?  Because they’re learning how to give the spiritual seed.  This is where the sexual difference matters: in the call to holy communion and new life.  A man cannot be a mother, and a woman cannot be a father.  Women are absolutely right to say, “I can be a doctor, I can be a lawyer, I can be president of the USA.”  But priesthood is not a career choice.  Priesthood is a call to fatherhood.

JWK: What can the new Pope and the Church do to help bring Catholics back who were deeply offended and hurt by the clergy sex abuse scandals?

CW: At the heart of the Gospel is the message that we encounter God’s strength and God’s mercy precisely in and through our weak, broken humanity.  Not just within the Church, but within the culture at large right now, there is a particularly deep and particularly painful wound caused by a profound sexual confusion.  We must have the courage to expose this dark and painful wound to the healing light of Christ.  We must have the courage to talk about the effects of the sexual revolution on all of us – on our families, our children, our clergy, our institutions, our schools, our neighborhoods and our parishes.

And I’m convinced we must take up a study of what the Holy Spirit has provided precisely to address this deep wound at this point of history: John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. It is breathtaking and life-changing. And my guess is the new pope will understand that.

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

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