Catholicism: Scandalous in Every Age

A few weeks ago, a Catholic priest caused quite a stir in one of our local diocesan high schools. He spoke the truth about sex. Pause here to sigh, and to wish that our heresies were more interesting.

Some of the parents and students objected. They did not say, “The priest presented the truth in a way that made it less likely that the audience would accept it. We are worried that the Church’s teachings did not appear in the best light. We need to do some considerable work right now, lest the students go on to reject what they do not understand.” No one said anything of the sort. It was clear that they objected to what the priest had said, rather than how he said it. Not one of the parents crying out for the principal’s head troubled to suggest any way in which the Church’s teachings might be presented with more effective power. They objected not to the strategy, but to the battle. They do not want the Church to win. They want the Church to surrender.

Somehow, I ended up on the mailing list of some of the objectors, and learned that they were worried that the principal was leading the school in a “conservative to orthodox direction.” They were also worried that the principal had recommended texts designed to encourage students not simply to know what the Church teaches, but to be “living crusaders for Christ.” Here was my response:

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

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I don’t know what the word “conservative” means, if we are talking about the teachings of Jesus and of the Church. That’s because those teachings transcend politics, and are always going to be a scandal, no matter what culture encounters them.

For example, there was a time when “honor” was the principle that ordered a man’s life, if he was a soldier or an aristocrat in Spain or France or even early America. Men whose “honor” had been impeached would challenge the supposed offender to a duel. Andrew Jackson fought twenty or so of these duels. They were “consensual,” because you couldn’t force somebody to accept the challenge, but the Church condemned them in no uncertain terms, equating them with murder. For that condemnation, she was accused of having no regard for honor, of not understanding genuine manhood, and of meddling in affairs that were not her business.

I’m not equating the Sexual Revolution with that culture of “honor,” but rather noting the principle that the Church is always going to offend. The Germanic tribes who heard the gospel heard what for them was quite baffling, that they were not supposed to take revenge—their whole culture was based upon loyalty to the clan and blood feuds. The Romans who heard the gospel heard what for them what was quite baffling, that they were not supposed to expose their infant children, or do a whole lot of other things that Roman aristocrats had gotten in the habit of doing, without thinking themselves any the worse for them. Socialists in the nineteenth century were scandalized by the Church’s insistence that the family, and not the State, is primary. Money-worshipers among us are scandalized by the Church’s teaching that, although your wealth is your own, it is meant for others, for the common good. Native men in Africa and in the South Seas were astonished to hear that they could have only one wife.

It’s always something, and for us now, the something is sex. That’s embarrassing; I wish it were something more “admirable,” but it is what it is.

Remember what Jesus says to the people who ask him about divorce. Those people include his own closest disciples. They ask him, essentially, “Under what conditions may a man divorce his wife?” Or, to translate it literally, “When may a man put away his woman?”—because in both Hebrew and Greek, there is no special word for “wife” or “husband.” It’s the same in German today: a woman’s husband is her “man,” and a man’s wife is his “woman.” Now, they are expecting Jesus to raise the bar, as he always did. They thought he would side with the more severe of the two points of view that were current, and they thought he would refer to Moses, the Lawgiver, as an authority.

But Jesus shocks them. He baffles even his disciples. He does not bring in Moses as an authority. Moses allowed divorce, he says, “because of the hardness of your hearts,” but “in the beginning, it was not so.” When he says, “In the beginning,” he is referring to the creative intention of God himself, expressed in the order of creation before the Fall. In the beginning, he says, and the words mean “at the foundation of things,” and not just “at the start,” God made them male and female, “and for this reason a man leaves his mother and father and cleaves unto his wife, and they two become one flesh. So they are no longer two, but one.” That change, from two to one flesh, does not depend upon the feelings of the people, or upon their intentions. It can’t be, because no human being has the power to sever that one flesh. Jesus says this quite clearly.

He is not talking about “porneia,” or fornication, which is clearly wrong, and not a part of the controversy at hand. Nobody listening to him believed that fornication was all right, least of all Jesus, who said that if a man but looks at a woman with lust in his heart, he has already committed adultery with her, or who said that it’s not the things that enter a man that make him unclean, but rather (and think here of the daily needs of the body, that made a Jew ritually unclean, and required washing) the things that come out of him, including lewdness and licentiousness. Everybody agreed about that. What shocks them is that Jesus broadens the scope of the condemnation against adultery. Or, I should say, adultery is what it always was, but even the faithful Jews did not know what it was, and how long they had accepted as a matter of course things that were adulterous. Jesus says that a man who puts away his woman and takes another commits adultery, and the same for the woman. And “therefore what God has joined together, let no man put asunder.” The “man” in that sentence includes Moses! He was the great lawgiver; yet not even Moses had the authority or the power to separate what God had joined.

This teaching is clear. For a long time it baffled people—the Romans, the Greeks, even the Jews. Then for many centuries it did not baffle people, not even those Protestant groups that allowed for divorce, since as late as 1900 divorce was still very rare; I have found both Catholic and Protestant Americans at that time crying out against it, because it had dissolved as many as one in ten marriages. Well, now it baffles people all over again, along with the other teachings regarding sex, even the ones that have never baffled anybody.

The Church can’t win a popularity contest. She never will. In one age she is accused of being effeminate for loving peace and condemning war. In another age she is accused of being warlike. In one age she is accused of being too indulgent towards sins of the flesh. In another age she is accused of being puritanical. In one age she’s said to have her head in the clouds because she instills a suspicion of material wealth. In another age she’s accused of being the tool of the rich. It is always something.

I came to this realization many years ago, and it scandalized me too, and forced me to make a decision. I decided I would trust the Church. Another way to put it is this. Jesus demands not most of me, but all of me. If I obey him only in those things that don’t cost me much, what good is it? I can’t say to him or to his Church, “You can have all of me except for my bank account,” or “except for my pistol,” or “except for my lips and tongue,” or “except for these inches down below.” That is to set up another god in place of him. It makes no sense.

The Church’s teachings liberate. I’ve experienced it. The habits of the Sexual Revolution enslave, and bring in their wake a great deal of human misery, and even blood. That may make people unhappy to hear, but it is a fact. To be Catholic now is to be something that the important and clever people outside of the Church will despise. On Good Friday we memorialize what the important and clever people did to Our Lord. Let’s not join them.

Editor’s note: The image above depicts “Christ Cleansing the Temple” painted by Luca Giordano.


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