February 28, 2013

Naive and Pessimistic, All At Once

Probably a mistake, but yesterday I took a look at the newspaper. There was an article about the problem of rape in the military. Another piece spoke about a prelate recently accused to inappropriate behavior against his subjects.

The two things stuck together in my thoughts.

Later in the day there was an email regarding some meeting on the problem of the exploitation of girls at  things like concerts, festivals, and sporting events. Soon after reading that, I surfed into a video on YouTube that I thought might have a song I wanted to hear live. Unfortunately, I had to turn it off right away because the main point of video seemed to be the display of young women stripping on the concert stage. Views of the cheering audience showed that it was mostly young men, most of whom were drinking.

Behold some of the madness of or society; we take immodesty and unchastity as givens, then act all shocked when they get mixed up with power and coercion and turn into violence and abuse.

It reminded me a little bit of college. Over the years I have realized that it was partly the culture shock of college that pushed me to 'look for something.' That something turned out to be Christianity. One of the very disturbing things about college was what they called 'date rape.' Everyone knew it was a problem. I knew a couple of victims myself. And yes, there were candlelight vigils and 'awareness days' and all that, but nobody questioned how the culture of binge drinking and the generalized expectation of casual sex might have played a part.

It was as if we were both naive and pessimistic, all at once. We were naive because we didn't take seriously what we Christians would call the effects of original sin; it was imagined that a little bit of offered 'awareness' would make the participants in a culture of drunken license into gentlemen. But in a sense we were also pessimistic in that virtues like chastity and practices like abstinence were thought out of as totally out of the question if not downright impossible.

But surely this is not the situation in the Church! After all, the Catholic faith proclaims a maximal anthropology of human flourishing; people are perhaps injured by the effects of original sin, but even in their misery souls cry out for renovation in Christ. And the Church cannot possibly be naive about sexualized violence and unchastity, not at this point. Anyone who has heard confessions knows the widespread unhappiness we human beings inflict on ourselves through the bad decisions and bad habits we get into with our sexuality.

On the other hand, maybe sometimes the Church, to her shame, imitates the world and does come to share in this curious combination of naivete and pessimism. A 'workshop' of a day or a few hours is supposed to protect children and vulnerable people from the deep-set sicknesses of those who abuse trust and power. There are confessors out there who will accuse you of scrupulosity just because you want to live chastity as the Church describes it for your state of life. There are formation directors who, when you say you want to be serious about living your celibacy or consecrated chastity as the Church describes these gifts, will say, get over yourself, honey.

So what to do? I don't know. I don't have all the answers. But what I do think of comes from my own experience of the sacred ministry: when I first started hearing confessions regularly, I soon began to pray over what to say to people who were struggling with chastity and seemed to be really suffering. In my search for something to offer, I landed on a couple of lines from the document Persona humana, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith's "declaration on certain questions regarding sexual ethics." In the section on masturbation we read:
In particular, one will have to examine whether the individual is using the necessary means, both natural and supernatural, which Christian asceticism from its long experience recommends for overcoming the passions and progressing in virtue. (IX)
That's the good news. It's all there for us, as individual Christians, as Church, and as the whole human community. We must take seriously our brokenness, our tendency to selfishness and the abuse of power, and seek seriously the means, both natural (e.g. modesty, custody of the eyes, fasting, vigilance) and supernatural (e.g., prayer and the sacraments), to consent to God's passionate desire to renovate our nature, to make us into creatures who are free to love. And yes, the Church too needs to take her own pastoral advice in this regard.

We must not be naive about the festering injury that original sin has left in each of us; it is the root of violence at work in each of us to one degree or another. It laughs at 'awareness.' It probably laughs at some workshops on the protection of children. But neither should we be pessimistic. Chastity, no matter what the world says in its boredom and fatigue, is possible. And this isn't to say that chastity is 'possible' as some kind of ascetic feat (for then it is just a rarefied way to taste power), but as an invitation to the freedom to truly love each other.

"More tortuous than all else is the human heart, beyond remedy; who can understand it?" (Jeremiah 17:9)

St. Charles Lwanga, pray for us.


Ryan Harty said...

Thanks for this encouraging and challenging post, father! :)

Judy Kallmeyer said...

That quote from Jeremiah, read at Mass today, nearly knocked my off my feet. Praise God! Jesus knows the workings of the human heart. In spite of its more devious workings, Jesus still loves us. And will always love us. Now isn't that amazing!! Protestant pastor and author wrote a book entitled "Just Like Jesus." A quote from the book appears on the jacket. It reads, "God loves you just the way you are, but He refuses to leave you that way. He wants you to have a heart like His. He wants you to be "Just Like Jesus." Imagine that! The perfect Son of God loves us miserable sinners just the way we are. But He wants more from us. He wants us to be perfect as His Heavenly Father is perfect. He wants us to be just like Him. Impossible,you say. But just look at the cross and see what He did for us. And then let His love lead you to perfection, whatever degree of perfection the will of God desires for you. And He will lead the way. He will lead you to the point of a true total self-offering on the cross of your life. And then you (and I if I follow that same path) will be just like Jesus. How glad I am that He knows the workings of my poor, miserable heart! And that He loves me anyway, and invites me to follow Him more closely!

Louis M said...

Father and Judy

Beautiful reflections. Thank you both :-)


Judy Kallmeyer said...

I left out the name of that Protestant pastor and author--Max Lucado. He is a man who has quite a way with words. Not unlike yourself, Fr. Charles!