Born This Way

As a cradle Catholic, sometimes I struggle to understand converts.

What makes someone want to be Catholic? I have made peace with the Church, but it’s a hard and often uneasy peace. If I had not grown up Catholic, I doubt I would have given it a second look.

Yet so often I seen in converts not only an interest in the faith, but often a zeal for it. It’s a bit off-putting and more than a bit baffling. It’s like seeing someone thrilled to join your dysfunctional family. (Perhaps they don’t know about Uncle Bob. Maybe they haven’t seen The Aunt Marge Show yet. Comes on every Thanksgiving after she’s had a few drinks.)

It’s not that I’m unfamiliar with converts: My father is a convert (Southern Baptist) and I don’t completely understand him either. I read Jennifer Fulweiler‘s Something Other Than God, which was a good story, but not one to which I could relate.

But then I saw this exchange on twitter:

And all of a sudden, it made sense.

When people search for answers and the Church gives them answers. Not just arbitrary beliefs and blind faith, but that which is comprehensive and well-reasoned. It is a faith that is not and cannot be contradicted by reason. It is understanding that love cannot contradict truth. There’s so much in the faith that to find it must be like finding a “great treasure”. 

Thus the love for the Church and the joy I see in many converts.

While the Church may seem divided, the arguments are on a pretty high level. Catholics are overwhelming in agreement about what communion is (although, admittedly, not all fully understand it). The equal dignity of the human person before God is by acknowledged by all. The “big debates” in North American Catholicism are over issues of gender roles, sexual morality, and Church governance. The first two are largely because of the divergence of North American social norms and Church teaching. As for the latter, well, everyone argues about Church governance. Even the Apostles.

When you grow up Catholic, there’s a lot you take for granted. You know that there are answers. You may not like the answers or understand the answers, but you know that there are answers. There is no searching, no puzzlement. Not even for a kid catechized in the 1980s.

Most cradle Catholics learn the faith as children and, unless they rediscover it later in life, they can retain an immature understanding of what it means to be Catholic. Sometimes cradle Catholics can keep the view of a teenager that sees the Church as a strict, unreasonable parent who just wants to spoil all their fun instead of a mother that loves them and wants what best for them.

This is not to say that there is no advantage to being raised Catholic. There’s a lot of things that you “know without knowing” simply by being brought up in the culture. This is similar to how most native-born Americans couldn’t pass a United States citizenship test, but can still understand what it means to be an American. Converts are often baffled by how little cradles seem to know (and with good reason), but it’s not all about the “citizenship test”, in the country or in the Church.

The Church needs both converts and cradle Catholics. Converts show us how to see the faith with new eyes and a child-like excitement, and for this I am grateful.

7 Quick Takes – Volume 22 (Hope)

Yesterday’s post on why the clergy isn’t very supportive of Humanae Vitae was a bit of a downer. Here are seven reasons why I remain hopeful.

— 1 —

Barack Obama

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Yes, Mr. Hope and Change himself gives me hope.

Why?

Because the HHS Mandate was a wake up call for a lot of Catholics. We would never have reconsidered our contraceptive use if it weren’t for conversations that arose about the mandate.

The more he antagonizes the Church, the more Catholics have to stand up and defend the faith. As Tertullian said, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” (Conversely, “In the absence of martyrs, there’s a presence of thieves.” as the Jennifer Knapp song goes.)  Although bureaucratic interference is far from martyrdom, the Church has always grown through difficulty and stagnated in times of privilege.

Oh, and the HHS Mandate does include a lot of maternity care benefits. It’s not all bad.

— 2 —

Bloggers and Internet Discussion

Much of the discussion over the HHS Mandate and Church teaching has happened over the internet. Some of it good, much of it not so good.

But the important part is that people are talking. People are sharing their stories. People are arguing. Sometimes people are won over.

When we tried NFP earlier in our marriage, we were very isolated and very frustrated. We thought we were the only people who did that, except for the really Catholic mommas with the mantilla and the maxi-van full of kids. (Not that there’s anything wrong with mantillas and maxi-vans.) When we struggled with the method, we had few places to turn to understand why. When we were struggling with issues about Church teaching, we thought we were the only people who did so. We saw Church teaching as limiting our options and forcing us into a certain lifestyle.

Contrary to popular belief, the frump is strictly optional.

Frump is NOT required to use NFP.

Social media has given us access to a wider variety of people. People like us are following Church teaching. People like us are even driving maxi-vans. You can follow Church teaching without having to become someone you are not.

Through social media, we have been able to see the positive side of Church teachings. We have also been able to see that challenges and struggles are normal. It’s not just for the super devout or the extra holy, it’s something that is good for for everyone.

— 3 —

Improved Technology

Technology has made living Church teaching far easier than it had been in the past.

Gone are the days of paper charts, limited information, and the textbook-like Art of Natural Family Planning. Gone are the days of having to drive for an hour to a stranger’s house to talk about the most intimate details of your body and love life.

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Yeah, there’s an App for that.

Electronic charting means no more paper charts to worry about. Online classes via Skype mean that you can learn the method in the convenience of your home. Online research means you can learn more about the methods if you are having a problem or if you are just into that sort of thing.

Technology is also making the methods easier. The new Marquette Method uses a ClearBlueEasy fertility monitor to determine the fertile times. As technology gets better and cheaper and as interest in natural methods grow, I expect more devices to make things even easier.

Still waiting on my tricorder.

Still waiting on our fertility tricorder.

— 4 —

Increased awareness of Fertility Awareness as a woman’s health issue.

People are going green, and filling your body with artificial hormones isn’t compatible with a natural, healthy lifestyle.

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Not only are non-Catholics starting to appreciate the method, but more Catholics are talking about the women’s health benefits of fertility charting. Church teaching is not a burden placed on women by the old guys in Rome, but part of a healthy way to live.

— 5 —

People Crave Challenges and Self-Improvement

People do crave a challenge.  People like to improve themselves. That’s why more and more people run marathons.

NFP instructor Kristin Putnam asks why we don’t apply principles of self-improvement to fertility?

Getting in shape takes perseverance, sacrifice and hard work. But, everyone agrees that the end result is worth the effort. Look at marriage, a career, owning a home, staying out of debt, buying a car, and living life as responsible human being… every aspect of life requires some amount of sacrifice, self discipline and work to achieve a positive, desired end result.

So why is it, when it comes to our fertility, that we all of a sudden throw the need for effort out the window? For some, it is enough effort to try and remember to take a pill every day. The result for this effort? A false sense of security that pregnancy is no longer a concern for the duration of her prescription.

One of the benefits of charting fertility is that it gives women important data about their bodies. As Kati Bicknell of Kindara Fertility put it:

By recording your daily fertility signs a whole world of possibility opens up for you! While it’s true that fertility charting can be, and often is used to achieve or prevent pregnancy, the benefits of it don’t stop there. Fertility charting can answer important questions about our ovulation, luteal phase, cycle health, thyroid function and more.  I have friends who have finally figured out the root of several food allergies, from charting their fertility.  I myself have learned that a diet high in animal fat keeps my cycles regular. One reason I’m so excited about what we’re doing at Kindara is that as more and more women start quantifying their fertility, we’ll start to generate new knowledge about fertility for the benefit of humankind, creating a virtuous feedback loop that will help each woman feel calm and confident with her fertility in her specific situation.

For us, charting allowed K to spot that she was Vitamin D deficient, which allowed me to figure out I was too. By adding Vitamin D supplements to our diet, we were able to avoid the “winter blues” and have more energy.

It also gives couples data about their love life. How many “I”s this month? 😀

All fertility awareness based methods work based on self-awareness, self-control, and self-sacrifice. Making these a part of your relationship makes it stronger. Even non-Catholic couples often notice positive changes in their relationship when they switch from contraception (especially hormonal contraception) to a natural method. Not only is it good for women’s health, but it works to build cooperation between the spouses. Or as life an intimacy coach Kim Animi explained:

Women: Take control of your own body.

Men: Support women to take control. You can do it with them.

— 6 —

Theology of the Body

Promoting fertility awareness as a health and relationship tool is great, but there is more.

For years, Catholic teaching on sexuality was presented very negatively—”Don’t”. The teachings was presented as a series of rules and obligations and often with a very judgmental tone.

Then it became a matter of “Don’t ask, don’t tell”, where nobody talked about it.

While Theology of the Body is about far more than just sexuality, it presents Catholic teaching on sexuality in the context of the human person. It’s not about a technical discussion of how God and nature designed the “parts” to “fit”, but about how sexuality fits into friendship and love.

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Catholic teaching on chastity is a new way of thinking for traditional Catholics, Protestants coming from “Purity culture”, and secular people accustomed to the sexual revolution. It’s not about saying “No”, but about saying “Yes” to deeper and more intimate relationship. It’s not about rules, but about self-discipline.

As the culture is into self-improvement, the idea that chastity can improve relationships and personal well-being will cause people to be more interested in it.

— 7 —

Pope Francis

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I love our “frank” new Pontiff.

One of his big themes is about the importance of the laity being laity. We do not all need to be Extraordinary Ministers and distribute communion like the Priests. Nor do we need to be amateur theologians, giving our own personal spin to the teachings of the Magisterium.

What we do need to do is live our lives with holiness and joy.

For lay married couples to share with lay married couples ways to make their marriage better does not require the permission of a priest. It’s something that we can all do. It’s part of our vocation, not theirs. We don’t need to wait for Father to give the Big Homily On Contraception, we can tell our friends, family, and fellow Catholics what we have. Here. Now.

And I’m starting to see this promotion on the internet through sites like iusenfp.com, livingthesacrament.com, and many other blogs and websites dedicated to helping married couples have better marriages.

Which is why I am hopeful for the future.

For more Quick Takes, visit Conversion Diary!

Losing My Religion

Confession

The last few weeks have been rather stressful for me. When I find that I am over stressed and have difficulties in my life, I find that it is usually time to go to confession. There is probably some sort of sin in my life that is holding me back. If nothing else, I could use the spiritual guidance.

So Saturday morning I went to confession in the hopes that my soul would be unburdened. My regular confessor was out of town, so we had a substitute priest.

It was totally a Reconciliation Room.

It was totally a Reconciliation Room.

What I was looking for was help in dealing with the unexpected blessing that we found out about a few weeks ago. When you’re married to someone who is somewhere between highly skeptical and outright hostile to Catholic teaching on sexuality, an unplanned pregnancy can have serious consequences in your marriage. What I was looking for was reassurance, advice, and comfort.

What I got was not-so-subtle hint to just ignore the Church.

The priest was rather incredulous that anyone would have a third child after having two, much less that anyone would ever try to follow Church teaching on the matter. He told me:

I have to be careful about what I say, but, umm, you know more about your marriage than the Church does. These teachings aren’t infallible, you know.

Then I realized that in trying to unburden my soul, I had just scandalized a priest in the confessional. I had inadvertently reassured his doubts and dissents on Church teaching.

The Blind Leading the Blind

This is not an attack on this individual priest. Given his age, he was likely formed in the wake of Vatican II. He was likely told of the dangers of the clericalism that was prevalent before the council. He was probably lectured frequently on how little he knows and how unimportant he is—a “They are the Church” formation in the “Spirit of Vatican II.” (Note: This was not to say all was rosy before Vatican II. Clericalism, moral rigor, and legalism were real problems, especially in the United States, and they led to many of the problems after the council. Put another way, when you tell people that eating meat on Friday is as bad as having an abortion, you shouldn’t be surprised when they conclude that having an abortion is no worse than eating meat on Friday.)

The "Spirit of Vatican II" could be brutal(ist). Church should have kept the Oath Against Modernism

The “Spirit of Vatican II” could be brutal(ist). Should have kept the Oath Against Modernism.

Marital issues, especially sexual issues, are always awkward in the confessional. Most priests feel very uncomfortable with the subject and for good reason. It’s not their vocation.

They have no personal experience with marriage.

They have no personal experience with parenting.

They have no personal experience with marital sexuality.

They have no personal experience with women’s health.

As a result, many priests assume that the Church knows as little about it as they do. They assume that married couples appreciate advice from a priest on the most intimate aspects of marriage as much as they appreciate parishioners giving them detailed instructions on how to say mass. They assume we don’t want guidance from the Church or that we don’t need it. They are afraid that Catholics will stop coming to Church, or more cynically, stop giving.

They see difficult and unpopular teachings like Humanae Vitae, not as being the true teaching of Church protected from error by Holy Spirit, but as yet another example of clericalism run amok. They see the encyclical not as being about marriage and sexuality, but about a raw assertion of Church authority.

They see clergy who support the teaching not as faithful Catholics, but as careerists looking for a promotion from Rome. They are suspicious of Catholics who follow the Church as being radicals. (Admittedly, not always without reason—sometimes well-meaning, but overzealous and ill-informed lay Catholics can do serious harm to couples.) Because they were taught that the Church’s teaching is based strictly on authority, they don’t see how anyone who wasn’t power hungry could support it.

Then I realized why the USCCB isn’t doing more to promote NFP and is so resistant to those who would try: Not only do most Catholics disagree with the teaching, but so do a significant number of priests and bishops.

No Surprises

None of us should be surprised at how many pastors and bishops promote NFP less-than-enthusiastically.

Nor should we be surprised when Melinda Gates sees promoting contraception worldwide as fulfilling her Catholic faith. The Ursuline nuns who educated her told her “[W]e absolutely believe that you’re living under Catholic values.

Nor should we be surprised when the product of a Catholic education from kindergarten to college tweets about how we should spend more money on family planning (contraception) for the developing world.

Nor should we be surprised when a majority of Catholics—more than the general population—believe that employers should cover contraceptives in their health plan.

Nor should we be surprised when a majority of Catholic use contraception.

Nor should we be surprised when it’s so hard to find guidance and support in living the Church’s teaching.

Yet I remain hopeful.

…to be continued.

Battle of Who Could Care Less

This week begins the USCCB’s Fortnight for Freedom.

fortnight-4-freedom-logoDioceses across the country have special events to commemorate the fortnight. such as this:

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And this

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But the Fortnight for Freedom is doomed to fail.

I’m not too concerned about the HHS Mandate itself. It will likely be struck down by the Supreme Court.  Let’s just say the six Catholics and three Jews on the Court frown upon government intrusions on religious freedom. I fully expect the Administration to get bench-slapped by the Supremes.

Justice Scalia delivered the Opinion of the Court

Justice Scalia is not amused.

So why is the fortnight doomed to fail?

Because even though the bishops may win in the Supreme Court, they are losing in the court of public opinion. Badly.

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The Bishops are frequently the butt of jokes

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and portrayed as out of touch with Catholic women
Womens healthcareand shown as a bunch of political stooges.

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The bishops are being used by a cynical Administration who is quite good at playing politics and buying votes. They make an easy punching bag.

Ummm, you do realize that SOMEONE pays for that.

Ummm, you do realize that SOMEONE pays for that? Probably not.

Because the public doesn’t see the debate as one over religious freedom, but one over women’s health care

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and the bishops are losing.

But Wait! What about Natural Family Planning!

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Natural Family Planning is pretty awesome. (Even though we suck ROCK at it.) It’s a healthy, all natural alternative to artificial contraception with NO side effects.

This side effect is pretty rough on guys, too.

This side effect is pretty rough on guys, too.

It teaches women about their bodies. ALL about their bodies.

Natural Family Planning has answers for women who want to achieve pregnancy, avoid pregnancy, and safeguard their reproductive health.

Charting gave this woman an early alert to cervical cancer—and saved her life!

Charting gave this woman an early alert to cervical cancer—and saved her life!

But how do Catholics promote this alternative view of women’s health? With professional advertisement; prayer, fasting, and special masses; and lots of media attention?

Ehhh, not so much…

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Promoting NFP with Comic Sans. Always with Comic Sans.

When lay Catholic women do try to promote this “revolution in women’s health“, they get a less-than-enthusiastic response.

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The Project Chick says it best. (She’s passionate about NFP for a reason.)BTW, hormonal contraceptives nearly killed this woman. http://theprojectchick.blogspot.com/2012/04/project-recovery.html

So, while the USCCB keeps fighting battles over “freedom”, they continue to lose the war.

But the real losers are women.

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THIS is Women’s Health?

Love and Marriage

I have written quite a bit about sex, but I haven’t written anything about homosexuality.

In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis talked about why he did not address the issue of gambling:

Ever since I served as an infantryman in the First World War I have had a great dislike of people who, themselves in ease and safety, issue exhortations to men in the front line. As a result I have a reluctance to say much about temptations to which I myself am not exposed. No man, I suppose, is tempted to every sin. It so happens that the impulse which makes men gamble has been left out of my make-up; and, no doubt, I pay for this by lacking some good impulse of which it is the excess or perversion. I therefore did not feel myself qualified to give advice about permissable and impermissable gambling: if there is any permissable, for I do not claim to know even that. . . . I did not think it my place to take a firm line about pains, dangers and expenses from which I am protected; having no pastoral office which obliged me to do so.

Likewise, Lewis did not address homosexuality for the exact same reason—the behavior never interested him. As I have no interest, inclination, or temptation to homosexual activity, I am not qualified to write about whether it is right, wrong, or otherwise. Nor am I qualified to give persons struggling with same sex attraction any sort of useful advice on the matter.

The Meaning of Marriage

I am not gay, but I am married, so I do have something to add to the gay marriage conversation.

My belief about marriage is that God intended for marriage to be between one man and one woman. You can read Theology of the Body, or other sources about marriage to get an understanding behind the theological reasons for why the complimentary nature of the male and the female are an essential element to marriage.  “Complementary nature” does not refer to legalistic rigid gender roles, but more in the sense of the French phrase “vive la difference“, which celebrates the qualities that make the sexes unique.

At the most concrete, physical level, the complementary nature of the sexes is necessary to have sexual intercourse and to have children together. Our experience is that there is nothing more intimate than sexual intercourse and nothing that has had a greater impact on our marriage than having children. Our children are, in a very real sense, the product of us and our union: One daughter looks like her and acts like me, the other looks like me and acts like her. I find this incredibly amazing.

A gay couple can do sexual things, but they cannot have intercourse. They can adopt children or use assisted reproduction, but they cannot have children with each other. (As for infertile couples, those struggling with infertility know more about the difficulties this causes than I could ever write.) While marriage is about far more than sex and reproduction, my own experience is that if these things were missing from our marriage, it would be would a bit like a chocolate chip cookie without the chocolate chips.

The Matter of The Law

There is, as I see it, a difference between “what God intended marriage to be” and “what relationships the law should recognize”. God “hates divorce”, but the law allows it. Even the Law of Moses allowed divorce, despite God’s opinion of it. C.S. Lewis addressed the difference between Christian marriage and legal marriage in his native United Kingdom on the issue of divorce:

Before leaving the question of divorce, I should like to distinguish two things which are very often confused. The conception of marriage is one: the other is the different question – how far Christians, if they are voters or Members of Parliament, ought to try to force their views of marriage on the rest of the community by embodying them in the divorce laws. A great many people seem to think that if you are a Christian yourself you should try to make divorce difficult for every one. I do not think that. At least I know I should be very angry if the Mahommedans tried to prevent the rest of us from drinking wine.

My own view is that the Churches should frankly recognise that the majority of the British people are not Christians and, therefore, cannot be expected to live Christian lives. There ought to be two distinct kinds of marriage: one governed by the State with rules enforced on all citizens, the other governed by the Church with rules enforced by her on her own members. The distinction ought to be quite sharp, so that a man knows which couples are married in a Christian sense and which are not.

The purpose of legal marriage, as I see it, is to encourage a stable, healthy society. It is about more than reproduction, otherwise, there would be an age cutoff. Likewise, if marriage were about reproduction, the minimum age for marriage would be puberty, not legal adulthood.

The law encourages marriage and discourages divorce. Even with “no fault divorce”, in my state, it takes 24 hours to get married and one year to get divorced, unless evidence of fault is proven. The law encourages relational stability: North Carolina still has Alienation of Affection and Criminal Conversation laws, where an aggrieved spouse can sue a third party “homewrecker” for breaking up their marriage. Stable families create a stable society. Monogamy and fidelity prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. The state has good reason to encourage marriage for reasons beyond reproduction.

So, where do gay couples fit in?

Some have argued that gay people have the same right to marry a member of the opposite sex as anyone else. I know several gay people who have married opposite-sex friends. Nearly all of them eventually divorced. Encouraging gay people to marry friends they aren’t sexually attracted to isn’t exactly a recipe for relational and social stability.

Others have argued that gay relationships are less stable than heterosexual relationships. Even assuming, for the sake of argument, that this is true, the issue in allowing gay couples to marry isn’t preferring same-sex relationships over heterosexual relationships, but preferring stable same-sex relationships over unstable transient ones.

Still others make a quasi-theological argument based on Natural Law. They argue that gay sex is unnatural and harmful, therefore society shouldn’t recognize same-sex relationships. The problem with this line of thinking is that if such activity is indeed harmful, then gay marriage opponents should be able to provide clear evidence of the harms to those who choose to engage in them vs. those who have the inclination to pursue them, but choose not to. Arguments based in the Natural Law must be supported by nature, otherwise, they are merely arguments from authority in disguise. In this case, the evidence that most people with same sex attraction are worse off in a committed gay relationship instead of attempting a heterosexual relationship or remaining celibate is scant. The argument is philosophically sound, but the facts to support it are lacking.

Others make the argument that “marriage” means something. I irritate those on both sides of the debate by disagreeing with this assertion. I do not care if legal recognition is called “civil union” or “civil marriage”. Words describe principles and concepts, they do not have “inherent meanings”. I doubt that many gay marriage opponents are fighting for the “one man, one woman, children optional, for as long as we feel like it” that is the reality of civil marriage.

Finally, some argue that gay marriage will have all sorts of negative consequences for adoption law and for religious freedom. Both of these issues are legitimate concerns, but they are best dealt with separately. In the case of adoption law, adoption law is based on the best interest of the child, not the rights of the parents. If children are indeed better off with a heterosexual couple than a same-sex couple, then you are going to have to show that this is so and convince society to make sure that adoption laws reflects such findings.

As for religious freedom, if gay marriage has a negative impact on religious freedom, then the problem is that protections for religious freedom are too weak across the board. The controversy over religious groups providing contraceptive coverage has everything to do with religious freedom and absolutely nothing to do with gay marriage. (What do gay couples need with contraceptives, anyway?) If religious freedom is ignored over gay marriage, it will probably be ignored in many other areas, and the problem should be recognized for what it really is.

Faith and Reason

People on both sides of the debate are very sure of themselves, but this issue isn’t an easy one. Especially for heterosexuals who really can’t understand what it’s like to have same-sex attraction.

There can be no conflict between true faith and sound reasoning. True faith leads to truth; sound reasoning leads to truth; truth cannot contradict truth.

If faith appears to contradict reason, the problem must be either mistaken faith or flawed reasoning. Truth is not hidden—it wants to be found. What is true in faith will be confirmed by reason and the natural world, but if the natural world contradicts what the faith believes (such as the case of the theology of the Ptolemaic solar system) then we must re-examine our faith to see if we have misunderstood something.

To say something is “natural” or “unnatural” requires an understanding of nature and while nature doesn’t change, our understanding of it does.

As for the politics, my own prediction is that in the broader view, gay marriage is much ado about nothing. The most stable gay couples will take advantage of it, heterosexual couples will marry (and unfortunately, divorce) like they always have, and life will go on. It is neither the “Civil Rights Movement of our era”, nor the end of Western Civilization.

Sharp Dressed Man (What I Wore Sunday)

My favorite response to the What I Wore Sunday linkup was from a Priest:

He said he wore Purple over White over Black: Same as last Sunday.

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What I Wore Sunday: Clergy Edition

Although my Sunday wardrobe is not quite as predictable as that of the clergy, it’s not much more interesting.

What I Wore Sunday doesn’t make a lot of sense for guys. Guys usually wear very similar things each week: Coat and tie, polo shirt and khakis, Or at the more casual parishes, jeans and a t-shirt.

What I Wore Sunday is all about celebrating the feminine genius by posting pictures of all the many different ways that women attire themselves for attending mass.

So why am I posting?

The reason why I am posting is that there have been a couple of things that have made me rethink what I wear to Church on Sunday.

The first was in adult Sunday School, when our instructor mentioned that she felt it was important to dress well. It was a part of worship to bring her best before God. At mass, we take part in the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, and should dress accordingly.

The second was Jennifer Fulwiler’s post about chapel veils. Basically, Jennifer feels called to veil, but doesn’t want to stick out as THE WOMAN IN THE CHAPEL VEIL. To her relief, she didn’t feel like she stuck out when she veiled, so she is going to keep on doing it.

So, what does this have to do with me?

I go to Sunday morning mass at a “polo shirt and khaki” parish. A couple of women veil, but they are very much the exception. A few men wear coats and ties, but they are more unusual. A few men wear jeans.

I usually dress up when I lector. I have the clothes and they don’t get much use now that I have gone from a job requiring business clothes to a more casual office. But this week, I wasn’t lectoring, but I did wear a coat and tie.

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What I wore this Sunday

I have to admit that I liked dressing up. I did take mass more seriously. But I can’t say I did it out of humility. In fact, the spirit is somewhat contrary to humility: I am dressing my best out of respect for the Body and Blood of Christ. Which, for me, makes it difficult not to reason that others are not.

Should I keep wearing a coat and tie as a sign of respect, or go back to the polo shirt and khaki’s to be less noticeable and more humble?

To complicate matters, the Sunday night student mass is come-as-you-are-casual. The Saturday night vigil mass is almost as casual. Should I ever attend these masses dressed in coat and tie I would stick out. So, I may not do the same for these masses.

This isn’t a fashion question as much as it is a spiritual one. How do you determine what is and is not appropriate attire for mass. Or am I overthinking the whole thing?

Note: This is strictly about my spiritual attitudes about what I wear to Church on Sunday. If you feel called to wear a coat and tie or shorts and flip-flops or anything in-between, that is between you and God.

Let’s Talk About Sex (Follow Up)

This is the entire follow up post to my article about changing the conversation on sex.This was originally only posted at Real Catholic Love and Sex, but then I realized that some people might have problems posting because of internet filters. I have enabled comments, for anyone with this issue.

When I posted the original article, I noticed that a lot of the Catholic conversation on sex was very legalistic and focused on technical issues. I asserted that Catholics should change the conversation on sex.

And boy did I ever get a lot of conversation about sex! Some people agreed with me, others disagreed with me. Some were very informative. All were respectful and civil.

So, what I have learned?

Good Catechesis is Essential

Growing up, I didn’t hear anything about Catholic teaching on sex and marriage. I knew the Church frowned upon premarital sex. I had some vague idea that contraception wasn’t officially approved, but I was pretty sure there was a loophole.

The first time I heard why the Church opposed contraception, it was presented as a negative. Contraception was sinful, led to divorce and abortion, and was causing the downfall of Western Civilization.

When I first heard all the teachings on sexuality, they were presented as a series of rules based on this Natural Law reasoning. It was even in Question and Answer format, just like the old Baltimore Catechism. It was a list of things we should do because they are virtuous and a list of things we should not do because they are sinful. The only explanation given was because the Church said so and as good Catholics, we were to obey the Church.

The Baltimore Catechism fell out of favor because although it was good at teaching children the details of the faith, without showing them the big picture, it was easy for children to get confused about what the Catholic faith is all about. It was easy to think that Christianity was just a series of rules where you have to earn God’s love.

But Christianity is a love story. As Pope Benedict XVI wrote in his first encyclical, God is Love.

We have come to believe in God’s love: in these words the Christian can express the fundamental decision of his life. Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction. Saint John’s Gospel describes that event in these words: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should [not perish, but] have eternal life” (3:16).

God loves us unconditionally. Although we may refuse his love, we need not earn it, nor worry about Him withdrawing it.

To have a truly Catholic view of sexuality, one must view sexuality in the context of this love story and our relationship with God. Love is never legalism.

Because God loves us, he wants us to succeed. God wants us to love better. Catholics believe God’s grace can change people to enable us to grow in virtue and come closer to him. That’s why He gave us the sacraments, especially Reconciliation and the Eucharist.

But we cannot do it alone. If we try to follow the law without God’s help, we will be miserable and we will fail.

Natural Law Arguments Against Contraception Aren’t Convincing

Traditionally, the Catholic teachings about sex were not based on the relationship we have with God and each other, but were thought of as coming from the Natural Law.

St. Thomas Aquinas

According to St. Thomas Aquinas, the purpose of sex is procreation, therefore, a reasonable man would not want to use his sexuality in a way that contradicts procreation. Deliberate wasting of semen was a serious sin. However, sex that did not lead to conception “by accident”, such as if the woman were infertile, was no sin because the spouses did not intend to frustrate the process.

Aquinas, though a brilliant theologian, was limited to the science of his time. He had a very different understanding of the nature of semen than modern science does. He had no understanding of the menstrual cycle or times of infertility.

Aquinas paid little attention to female sexuality.  He condemned male masturbation as worse than rape(!) for wasting the seed, but did not address female masturbation at all. His idea of the purpose of sexuality being only for procreation, fails to address the clitoris, an organ which serves no other function than female sexual pleasure.

The Catholic Church has progressed since the middle ages, and Aquinas’s writings were never official doctrine. Still, Aquinas’s logic is the basis of the modern Natural Law understanding of Catholic sexual ethics.

The Church recognizes correctly recognizes the bonding the spouses as a second purpose of sex, but insists that the bonding aspect cannot be separated from the unitive aspect.

Modern science also seems to have found a third purpose for sexuality: Sex is good for your health. Regular orgasms bring health benefits. This is especially true for women, although the concept is nothing new.

With modern understandings of reproduction, is non-procreative sex really that immoral? With the bonding and health purposes of sex, is it that unreasonable to engage in non-procreative activities when regular sex is not available? These are reasonable questions and an Natural Law argument alone cannot answer them.

That being said, the Natural Law arguments against sterilization are common sense, though less often presented. Note that the birth control pill and other forms of hormonal “contraception” are not really “contraception” at all, but temporary chemical sterilization.

The problem with sterilization is that healthy human reproductive system is designed to reproduce. Surgically or biochemically altering a working reproductive system to have more sex is very unhealthy and seriously disordered. This alteration has multiple unpleasant health consequences, from annoying to deadly, whether chemical, bioactive, or surgical, for men and for women. Charting your cycle and avoiding these side effects is good for your health and good for your marriage. Additionally, treating fertility as a disease to be medicated is a profound negative social statement about our bodies. This is why I believe fertility awareness is good for ALL couples, not just Catholics.

Confusing the argument against contraception with the argument against sterilization weakens both.

Understanding Theology of the Body is Critical

So, how does sexuality fit into our relationship with God? How do we few sexual ethics as driven by something more than just nature and reason? Does our sexuality have a deeper purpose?

In the late 1950s a young Polish priest recognized that the old Natural Law arguments were resting too heavily on Church authority and convincing fewer and fewer people. So, he set out to rethink the reasoning behind the teachings. Instead of starting with nature and reason as Aquinas did, he started with the human person.

What is the ethical way to treat our fellow humans? The dignity of the individual makes it unethical to use others as objects for our own ends. What is the meaning of love? Love must be self-giving. It is acting in the best interest of the other. To use is the opposite of to love. The purpose of our sexuality is to love, not to use. An ethical use of sexuality is one that “uphold and affirms” the dignity and value of other persons. Using psychology and ethical reasoning, he re-explained the reasoning behind Catholic sexual teaching. The result is the book Love and Responsibility.

Pope Paul VI invited him to be on the Papal Birth Control Commission, but Communist authorities in Poland kept him trapped behind the Iron Curtain. Perhaps Humanae Vitae would have been better drafted (and better received) had he been there.

The priest became a bishop, then a cardinal, and eventually Pope John Paul II. One of the first acts of his Papacy was to present a series of lectures called “Love in the Divine Plan”, or Theology of the Body.

Pope John Paul II

If Love and Responsibility is the “reason” side of John Paul II’s philosophy on sexuality, Theology of the Body is the “faith” side. The lectures cover the following topics:

  • The Original Unity of Man and Woman [before The Fall];
  • Blessed are the Pure of Heart;
  • The Resurrection of the Body;
  • Virginity for the Sake of the Kingdom (consecrated celibacy);
  • The Sacramentiality of Marriage; and
  • Reflections on Humanae Vitae.

The central question of Theology of the Body is that if we are, as the Catholic Church teaches, a unity of body and soul created in the image and likeness of God, then what do our bodies teach us about God? Likewise, what role do our bodies play in living out the gospel in our lives?

A full discussion of John Paul II’s Love and Responsibility and Theology of the Body are beyond the scope of this blog post. But John Paul II changed the question:  The proper use of our sexuality is not one of nature, but one of vocation. Theology of the Body does not contradict Aquinas, rather, it further develops Catholic doctrine on sexual morality.

The question Catholic sexual ethics attempts to answer is how do we use our sexuality and our bodies for “the good works that God has prepared in advance that we should live in them”? (Ephesians 2:10). Such an question demands not just a series of rules about what we should and should not do, but a lifestyle based on showing love: to our neighbors, to our spouses, to God, and to society.

See, don’t they look happy?

Because loving and giving of ourselves is what we were created to do, only in using our sexuality consistent with these purposes can we find true sexual satisfaction and true happiness.

When we want to use our sexuality in a different way, this is often a sign that something is wrong. Sometimes the problem is primarily physical. But we should not mistake a “scratching an itch” to satisfy a physical urge for the total self-giving and communion of persons that God has called us to. In fact, knowing that the fullness of sexual expression in a marriage may not be prudent for unusually long periods of time may be a prompt to better learn her body or to seek medical attention.

But in other cases, struggles are the sign of deeper psychological, relational, or spiritual problems:

  • Is the couple using sex to get intimacy because they have not fully developed their sexuality?
  • Does the couple have an inappropriately strict view of chaste behavior? For example, married couples should remain close, even when abstaining from sex. Engaged couples should be growing in closeness in preparation for marriage.
  • Are individuals or couples using the pleasure of orgasm as a drug to escape the problems of life?
  • Are there sexual issues in the marriage that make sexual satisfaction difficult during the infertile phase?
  • Does one spouse not respect the body of the other, seeing the other spouse as “legitimate” means to an orgasm?
  • Is one spouse unusually afraid of pregnancy to the point of being fearful of sex?
  • Does the person have a negative view or sexuality, thus failing to see understand the concept of how sexuality can be an instrument of love and not just a physical act?
  • Does the person have a negative view of women’s bodies, thus failing to understand the value of the self-knowledge of fertility awareness?
  • Is there a misunderstanding about the nature of God and our relationship with Him, leading people to view chastity as a negative, enforced by an angry God?
  • Does the person have unresolved issues from past sexual, emotional, or spiritual abuse?

When struggles bring issues to the surface, it can be painful and difficult, but it also makes them apparent so that we can deal with them.

As St. Augustine once said: “God does not command the impossible but while He commands, He warns you to do what you can and to ask for the grace for what you cannot do and He helps you so that you may be able”. Sometimes God’s grace works by pushing you to seek professional help.

Not All Abstinence Messages Are Created Equal

Another part of the problem is that sometimes Catholics get confused by non-Catholic messages that are superficially similar, but in reality are very different than what the Church teaches.

For example, when I was a teenager, a common tactic to convince young people to abstain from sex before marriage was to compare those who had sex before marriage to licked Oreos/dirty spit cups/unsticky tape. These tactics were most common among evangelical Christians, but were also used by some Catholics and even secular groups, especially in 1990s where abstinence based-education was often driven by fear of HIV/AIDS.

Such fear-based tactics are both theologically and psychologically problematic and, while well intentioned, sent the wrong message.

Instead, the Catholic concept of “chastity” is a positive message. It is one of self-control and self-mastery, not repression and denial. Indeed, viewing sexual morality as a series of prohibitions and obligations without the context of a loving relationship, both with others and with God is a guaranteed recipe for misery. Abstinence is a behavior and virginity is a state of being, but chastity is a virtue. Chastity is not saying “no” to our sexuality, but saying “yes” to it in a way that is truly loving.

Conclusion

Catholic teaching on sexuality is more than just a series of rules or technical requirements, but is a way of using our sexuality to be the people God created us to be. Unfortunately, the teaching has been poorly presented, often misunderstood, and occasionally mixed with non-Catholic beliefs.

Furthermore, from those of us who were raised with the overly simple “Jesus loves you” catechesis of the 1980s and 1990s, to those who were catechized with rules without explanation, like was common before Vatican II, many of us don’t really understand the big picture of the Catholic faith.

The solution to this is to learn what the Catholic Church really teaches.

Theology of the Body is critical to understanding Catholic teaching. Unfortunately the writings of John Paul II that are accessible to us are the English translation of a Pole speaking Italian on very dense theological matters.  So most of us will need some help.

Edit: I recommend Men and Women are from Eden by Mary Healy as a basic introduction to the topic and an excellent alternative to Christopher West’s Theology of the Body for Beginners.

Love & Responsibility Foundation and Fr. Roger J. Landry have some great resources on the subject. Dr. Edward Sri’s series on Love and Responsibility is an excellent summary of the rather dense book. Many people like Christopher West, although I, personally, am not a fan of his style. The Family Honor program teaches parents how to communicate this message to their children, with age appropriate material for children to teens.

Because Catholic sexual teaching can only be understood in the context of ALL Catholic teaching, you may need to brush up on that, too. Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclicals are fantastic. The Catechism of the Catholic Church is an authoritative source for what the Church actually teaches and can be found at the Vatican’s website. For something a bit easier, a new youth catechism, YouCat, was released in 2011.


Fr. Robert Barron’s Catholicism series is incredible. We’re going through this in Adult Religious Ed (what the parents do during CCD) and I’ve learned something new every week.

This is the Year of Faith, so I encourage everyone to learn more about their faith. Think of it as something good to do for Lent.