Looking ahead in hope
Looking ahead in hope
During the coronavirus lockdown, a number of things that had dominated official policies in education, welfare and health in Britain receded from importance. In fact, they began to look downright silly. Officialdom - Government departments and education and health authorities and so on – had, in the preceding months, been busy seeking to ban the use of words like “mother” and “father”, and there were campaigns to block speakers at universities who were deemed to have incorrect ideas about the differences between men and women. “Transgenderism” became an ideology to be imposed, and saying this was daft could bring bleak consequences for a teacher, local councillor, Justice of the Peace, university lecturer, author or broadcaster.
Now, with the challenge of trying to rebuild community and economic life in the wake of the problems brought by the virus, we might hope that this sort of daft rubbish has drifted out of our lives. But we should not assume things will be as simple as that.
The Church has learned, however, that stupid and ignorant ideologies can give way to truth. This is probably the greatest single lesson that we learned from the pontificate of St John Paul II. Deeply conscious of the misery and cruelty created by the Communist creed,he rallied humanity to the truth. In doing this, he also revealed how attractive the Church can be to confusedand wounded people. He showed the world the dignity of every person – something beyond the slogans that attempt to twist humanity to fit ideology. He brought alive the message of Gaudium et Spes: “only in the mystery of the incarnate Word
does the mystery of man take on light.” We are a puzzle: what are we, and why are we here? Are we different from the rest of creation? Does it matter? God has revealed himself to us, becoming one of us: when we encounter that fact, we can begin to make sense of ourselves.
And this is all relevant as we emerge from the lockdown imposed because of the threat of a worldwide virus. How are we to face the challenge of evangelisation as the Church in Britain is slowly able to reopen its sanctuaries, gather people together for prayer and for Mass, and become active with some possibilities for charitable projects, talks, pilgrimage, retreats, youth events? It is not just a matter of busy activity – although it will be joyful to have human contact again after so many weeks in lockdown. It is a matter of how to teach intelligibly to people confused and wounded by a society where God has for decades been marginalised. Pope Francis has spoken of the Church’s ability to act as a “field hospital”.
And it does not mean trying to push an integriste line which seeks to impose Catholicism as the official religion, or bind Church and State together. This has been tried and wherever it initially seemed to work best and with most enthusiasm, it has caused problems. In its milder and more modern forms it merely builds up resentment.
When Mary Tudor came to the throne of England, people cheered as her government re-imposed Catholicism and men were denounced as heretics and burned alive before enthusiastic crowds. The Church took a long while to learn that getting rid of heretics doesn’t get rid of the heresy.
At a solemn ceremony in Rome as we approached the third millennium, at the behest of St John Paul the Church expressed sorrow for errors committed by her children. The Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger later Benedict XVI, spoke of “methods not in keeping with the Gospel in the solemn duty of defending the faith.”
The Church proposes, she does not impose. Truth imposes itself because of its very essence. The Church seeks freedom to teach: she does not seek formal privilege. She has a mandate from God. And when the issue is the dignity of humanity as male and female, she will find that people will listen to her voice, as the voice of wisdom, speaking with the strength of the Holy Spirit and echoing in human hearts.
The Faith Movement offers a vision of the truth that is compelling and attractive, and answers the deep questions presented by the men and women of this era. It is a tragedy that, this summer, the range of youth gatherings that are at the core of each summer’s work for the Faith Movement cannot take place – and having young people watch on-line is not the same. It’s bleak to look at this summer’s might-have-beens for the Faith Movement… summer events…with the friendships, the talks, the eager discussions with no question ignored or dismissed, the liturgies and unforgettable evening processions – and the fireworks and the fun and the ceilidhs…all impossible in this summer of 2020 because of the Coronavirus.
The Faith Movement was exploring this matter of male and female, and the significance of the two sexes, before it was fashionable to do so in theological circles. It is not just a matter of denouncing feminism. An emphasis on women’s dignity has always been central to the Christian message from the time that Christ walked this earth and people “marvelled that he was talking to a woman”. Christ deliberately chose women as the first witnesses of his Resurrection, at a time when in law the testimony of a woman witness was given no credence. And down all the centuries of Christian witness, there have been women saints and martyrs and mystics and missionaries, women in public life and women in families and women in politics and in teaching and in religious enclosure who have been central in the life of the Church.
“Man and woman are both with one and the same dignity ‘in the image of God.’ In their “being-man” and “being-woman”, they reflect the Creator’s wisdom and goodness.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church).(1)
But – without going into great detail about the history and causes of 20th-century feminism – any genuine Christian aspects of the feminist movement were swamped and crushed by other forces.
Boys have suffered considerably from tax-funded Department of Education policies in recent decades. Always over-represented in remedial reading classes (boys learn to talk later than girls, and are less “verbal” throughout their childhood), their problems got larger as all books and reading materials became steadily more unattractive to them by being “sex neutral”. Endless pictures of talkative girls in dungarees having adventures sent out a message that boys were, at best, a very optional extra in life. School, always a place where girl-style project-work and working chattily around a table were rewarded, became increasingly a place where boy-style things such as competitive activities, or noisily running about in open spaces, were seen as being a nuisance, even at playtime.
The denigration of marriage, and the emphasis on claiming “empowerment” by divorcing sexual communion from marriage and family and even from lifelong attachment, brought loneliness. Deprived of fathers, and even of father-figures depicted with clear masculine identity in the mass media or in general culture, boys lost out, in some cases with almost irrecoverable results.
The Church endured problems too. There was a feminisation of liturgy in the 1970s and 80s, and too much hand-holding, and touchy-feely hymns pitched too high for men to sing, made Sunday Mass tiresome for many a male.
We now live with the after-effects of this. In the Church, it is now easy to get a laugh among young males in any audience by references to “elderly nuns in crimplene playing guitars” as a sort of general way of sneering at the 1970s-style liturgy. But deeper issues connected to, for example, achieving good male/female relationships and above all loving and fruitful lifelong marriages, are harder to explore.
But God doesn’t leave his Church to struggle alone. He is always there, and bringing the solutions. John Paul II, presenting his “Theology of the Body” complemented what had begun many years earlier with a renewed understanding of the spiritual realities of the importance of humanity created male and female, expressed in particular by the theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, and developed by Joseph Ratzinger.
And, thank God, the sometimes slow-moving relevant dicasteries of Rome are beginning to tackle this issue. The Congregation for Catholic Education produced Male and Female He Created Them: Towards a path of dialogue on the question of gender theory in education (2) which set out clearly the need to counter the “disorientation regarding anthropology which is a widespread feature of our cultural landscape” with its “tendency to cancel out the differences between men and women, presenting them instead as merely the product of historical and cultural conditioning.” (1) The document – a useful read for all Catholics, and a must-read for parish priests and Catholic teachers – points out that a person’s sex is a fundamental component of our personhood, and “plays an integral part in the development of our personality” (4). It notes that “Philosophical analysis also demonstrates that sexual difference between male and female is constitutive of human identity”(26) and goes on to emphasise the right of children to grow up in a family with a mother and a father and to “recognise the value and the beauty of the differences between the two sexes”.
“In the beginning”
It’s time now to go back to the beginning of things, to Genesis. No, this doesn’t mean a debate about whether the world was created six thousand years ago. The Book of Genesis is explaining about who we are in God’s plan: it’s not a geology textbook. And in God’s plan we are created male and female. “Here we find the heart of God’s original plan and the deepest truth about man and woman as willed and created by him. Although God’s original plan for man and woman will later be upset and darkened by sin, it can never be abrogated.” (Letter to the bishops of the Catholic Church on the collaboration of men and women in the Church and in the world, Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, 2004).
Marriage between a man and a woman is God’s original plan, and is, as the beautiful statement in the Nuptial Mass reminds us “the one blessing not destroyed by Original Sin, or washed away in the flood”. Pope John Paul expanded on all of this in his Theology of the Body. The Church celebrates every wedding with great enthusiasm and joy. “The vocation to marriage is written in the very nature of man and woman as they came from the hand of the Creator...their mutual love becomes an image of the absolute and unfailing love with which God loves man. It is good, very good, in the Creator’s eyes...” (Catechism of the Catholic Church). (3)
In the next years, as today’s young men and women take up their responsibilities and seek to make sense of the world, it will not be adequate if Catholics who are worried – as we all ought to be – about the sexual mayhem that has been created in recent years, simply denounce the evils of extreme feminism or even of the contraceptive anti-life culture with which it has been associated. What is needed is a coherent and attractive vision for the co-operation of man and woman in the always exciting task of building a life together and fostering a civilisation. This is, at heart, a theological matter: it concerns our understanding of God and his loving care of us all.
In this third decade of the new Millennium, a topic of pastoral concern in the Church must be the specific needs of young men. It will be important for pastors and catechists to teach about the heroes of the Church: missionaries and martyrs, statesmen, explorers, writers, musicians. Heroes like Damien of Molokai, Poland’s Jerzy Popieluszko and the monks of Tibhirine....these are men to inspire new generations and to be genuine real-life role models fostering the heroic values needed for this century.
And it will also be crucial to emphasise the fundamental unity that should exist between man and woman, male and female, the centrality of marriage not as a mere socially useful arrangement that might finally one day come into its own again, but as part of God’s original plan “from the beginning”, the great fact that the whole story of our redemption is a marriage story centred on Christ the Bridegroom and the Church the Bride.
God loved us so much that he came, conceived as a human male under the beating heart of a human mother, right into our world. In his life, death, and resurrection, in his Church, he has given us all sorts of rich and coherent teachings with which we can be guided in our own life journeys. Being a man or a woman is “very good” and life is meant to be a joyful adventure, finally celebrated in the great Wedding Feast of the Lamb in which all our earthly explorations and ponderings of these profound issues will reach their utter fulfilment.
1 Catechism of the Catholic Church section 369.
2 Congregation for Catholic Education, 2019
3 Catechism of the Catholic Church, sections 1603-1604.