Soccer Over Dogma?

In spite of the pope's seeming preference for soccer over dogma, proclaiming the truths of the Catholic Faith—i.e., being "dogmatic"—leads to more joy and happiness, not less.

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News broke last week that about twenty Catholics, “ultra-conservative” as they have been called, “far-right extremists,” were arrested in Lisbon for interrupting a Mass at World Youth Day. The Portuguese article in Visio did not mention exactly what they were chanting, and except for their opposition to what they see as the normalization of gay relationships in the Church, and their evident belief that what was going on was sacrilegious, we are not told what was conservative or extreme about them. 

They should not have disrupted the Mass, not least because they thus gave plenty of undeserved publicity to a small group of gay people who are proud in their disobedience. The celebrant, Fr. James Alison, is, according to the National Catholic Reporter, “an openly gay priest.” It is not clear what that means, nor is it entirely clear that he is permitted to celebrate Mass; but let us concede that point. 

Fr. Alison said he felt sorry for the protestors because they seemed to live in an angry world. Well, protestors are wont to be angry. If you are contented, or indifferent, or pleased by some state of affairs, you are not likely to be a protestor. Of course, both Visio and the Reporter elide the question of whether the actions that Fr. Alison frankly encourages are evil. Protestors may be correct, after all. And sometimes their anger comes not from an angry soul but from a sense of justice outraged, or from frustration. 

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But whatever may be stirring in the soul of any individual protestor, the relevant questions for us have to do with the actions being approved or condoned, their principles and how those principles inevitably play out logically and practically, and their effect upon the rest of Catholic teaching and upon the common good. These questions are especially urgent in a society that is in the midst of complete sexual and familial breakdown.  

And they are questions that priests like Fr. Alison, as far as I have been able to determine, do not ask. Perhaps the questions are too uncomfortable. Do you really want to say that fornication between a man and a woman is all right? That the easy acceptance of such behavior has been a boon to mankind? That families are stronger now that marriage is considered an option detached from child-bearing than they were before? That it is good for so many millions of children in Fr. Alison’s own Great Britain to grow up, as they inevitably will when fornication is shrugged at, without a married mother and father, and more often than not, without a father at all?

Meanwhile—and for me this is not a digression—Pope Francis has encouraged priests to play soccer rather than, in the first instance anyhow, to preach dogma. Soccer is a better means of getting young people interested in the Church than is wagging a crooked finger at them for doing wrong. Yes, that certainly may be true. And which half-decent priest or evangelist in the world will deny it? 

In the Holy Father’s world, puritanism and pharisaism are ever-present threats; as if we will find millions of Catholics across the world sitting glumly the whole Sabbath through, after having been hectored for an hour at Mass about their many sins, with the jaws of Hell opening wide to swallow them down, as you might chuck a bean into the mouth of a lion.  In the pope’s world, puritanism and pharisaism are ever-present threats; as if we find millions of Catholics across the world sitting glumly the whole Sabbath through, after having been hectored for an hour at Mass about their many sins.Tweet This

But is Buenos Aires like Hawthorne’s Salem? Is any Catholic city in the world like that? Is New York, where Rockefeller Center has recently replaced every nation’s flag with the ubiquitous rainbow, like the gray Geneva of John Calvin? I have gotten plenty of experience at faithfully Catholic colleges, and they are not like that. They are generally very happy places, as Francis might recognize should he pay them a visit sometime.

Let me put the two hot wires together. One of the reasons why, say, Benedictine College can be a happy place is that the truth of the Church’s teachings about sex is respected rather than undermined, scoffed at, or betrayed. How often does it need to be said? The moral law is liberating. It orients us toward the right and proper and most dynamic use of our faculties. And in our common life it clears out a broad field for freedom of action. 

If you want young Catholics to be enjoying their youth, if you want, essentially, the soccer matches that Pope Francis recommends, then you must reject what Fr. Alison demands. They are not compatible. It is not hard to see why.

A close friend of ours was recalling to us yesterday how, when she was a high school girl, buses used to take kids from Queens to dance halls where the Catholic Youth Organization sponsored weekly dances. Buses, full of young people, every Saturday night; think of it. 

Do I believe that every one of those boys and girls was virtuous? Of course not. In what area of moral behavior will you ever find everyone to be virtuous? Is everyone on the highway a safe driver? No, but unless you could rely on the safety of the great majority of drivers, and the almost-safety of almost all the rest, you’d be selling your car for a bicycle. 

Is every financial advisor honest? Of course not. But unless you could rely on the honesty of the great majority of them, and an acceptable degree of decency among almost all the rest, you would rather stuff your money in your mattress.

We can only explain all those full buses taking the young people to all those dances, and to CYO basketball games, and to all the other events they sponsored, by taking for granted that almost everyone believed it was safe to do so. Nor am I claiming that the kids possessed some heroic virtue. It does not require heroic virtue, in times that are not insane, to drive safely on a highway, or to be honest with other people’s money. It did not require heroic virtue, in those times, to “flee fornication,” as St. Paul puts it. 

It did require, though, that the goodness of chastity should be preached to both boys and girls, which implied also the badness of fornication, just as you preach the goodness of truth-telling and the badness of lying, and the goodness of prudence and the badness of recklessness, and so on, as I have said, in every area of the moral life.

Yet there is more to say. Ultimately, Pope Francis does not want priests to play soccer and do nothing else. He himself was to be seen hearing confessions in Lisbon, and I presume that it means he believes that certain things are right and others are wrong. There is such a thing as truth. Surely, he does not believe it is a matter of indifference whether a Catholic believes that Jesus was the Son of God, and that He rose from the dead. For if Christ is not risen, says St. Paul, then “we are above all men most miserable.” 

St. John, who tells us that God is love, has the sternest things in all of Scripture to say about those who preach falsehood. Some people turn truth-telling into hatred: Satan can cite Scripture to his purpose. But you cannot love unless you are committed to the truth. Truth is to the mind what the practical virtues are to action. It liberates. It shines a bright light whereby we are led into deeper truths and wider vistas. But falsehood leads to contradictions, dead ends, muddled minds, and darkness.

Consider what Fr. Alison has said about homosexuality: that it is a mere variant among human beings, like left-handedness. This is patently false. A southpaw (I am one) uses his left hand for the same purposes as a right-hander uses his right hand, and in the same ways. No moral question arises. 

I have seen an illumination in a medieval manuscript of university students enjoying a merry snowball fight; one of the students is left-handed. It is of no moral consequence. What I do with my left hand has no bearing upon what a right-hander does with his right hand. Well, there’s baseball, where the counter-clockwise running of the bases gives the left-hander an advantage with the bat but a disadvantage with the glove. These are but trivial matters.

Now, what the homosexual does with his sexual organs is not at all like genuine sexual intercourse. That, too, is a plainly visible fact. It is clearly a misuse of the organs, robbing them of their specific sexual character, that is, their maleness and femaleness, and rendering them mere appendages for the pursuit of pleasure. The seed of life is not sown. It is as if you were to insert food into some orifice besides the mouth, or to try to eat and digest dirt or something else that is not real food.

But if we accept what Fr. Alison wants us to accept, then we can make no moral sense at all of the created reality of male and female, and we lose all hold upon the scriptural and dominical warnings against fornication and other forms of licentious behavior. St. Paul did not say, “Flee fornication, unless you are in love, or unless you are rich enough to take care of the child.” 

Jesus did not say that a man must not look at a woman with lust in his heart though he may happily look at another man that way all day long. The whole idea of sexual continence before marriage falls apart; what on earth does the consummation of a marriage even mean, in the view of the Reporter, unless it is some vague intention in the mind, without a first and specific act to render it real?

Yes, it is precisely because I want that vibrant world of community life again, a child-rich society in which marriage is the overwhelming norm, with fornication to be shunned, and divorce, its sour elder brother, a scandal—for to promote what is right and good is necessarily to restrain and disapprove what is wrong and bad—that I want the ideological project of those who support Fr. Alison to fail. 

We minister to sinners. No one denies that. We are all sinners. But we also uphold the truth, and it is truth—not sexual pleasure, warm feelings, personal commitments, love-fantasies, or ideologies of liberation that leave broken lives, loneliness, and enslavement in their wake—truth alone, as Jesus says, that sets us free.

[Photo Credit: POOL/AFP via Getty Images]

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