Briefly Reviewed: April 1986
Covenant of Love: Pope John Paul II on Sexuality, Marriage, and Family in the Modern World
By Richard M. Hogan and John M. LeVoir
Review Author: James G. Hanink
Scripture comes with “hard sayings.” But it is an act of compassion to preach the Good News. So it is a part of compassion to be clear about these hard sayings. Richard Hogan and John LeVoir offer us a welcome analysis of John Paul II’s teaching on family and sexuality — highlighting his biblical foundation — that faces up to such hard sayings.
John Paul repeatedly speaks on sexuality because our sexuality is, as Hogan and LeVoir recognize, a window on the soul. That we are often troubled and vulnerable in our sexuality is plain enough. The interesting question is why this should be so.
The reality of sin takes us a long way toward an answer to this question. For John Paul, original sin amounts to a “constitutive break within the human person.” Intellect and will are put at odds with passion. We cannot function as we were made to function. Yet if we speak only of original sin, we would altogether miss the Good News. So a reflection on original sin is only a starting point.
The governing theme in John Paul’s theology is, Hogan and LeVoir show us, his insistence that we are made in the image of God. In itself this is a simple idea, but its implications are profound. For the Good News is that we can, after all, overcome sin and live as God intended; we can, in human fashion, share God’s life. For Christ has restored God’s image within us.
But how does this imago Dei theme help us understand the family and appreciate sexuality’s exclusive grounding in marriage? First, God is love, and — as the doctrine of the Trinity tells us — God’s own life is a communion of persons. There is, then, a master analogy between the Trinity and a human family. Second, God’s love is generative: it issues in creation. Third, in creating us in His image, God makes us male and female. We are made to love, with our bodies, both for self-completion and for the creation of new life. Thus our sexuality is sacramental, a sign of God’s presence. Its expression mirrors, in a bodily way, God’s own life.
Once we see sexuality and marriage in this framework, the Church’s teaching on contraception and abortion can hardly be construed as anti-sex. Rather it affirms the greatness of our sexuality. Contraception, in contrast, trivializes sex by divorcing it from its creative potential, and abortion destroys the new life that sexual intercourse generates. Homosexual practices, of course, distort sexuality in that they lack any orientation toward new life.
What of fidelity in marriage? The permanence of marriage? How do they depend on the imago Dei doctrine? At the heart of the matter is God’s fidelity to us. God has formed a covenant of love with us. We can, in our bodily way, love as God loves — without reserve — only if we undertake fidelity in marriage and embrace its permanence. There is also another consideration: children not only require that their parents love them but also that their parents continue in their commitment to love each other.
One suspects that John Paul has a far better grasp of the current hostility to the Christian family than critics have of his theology. And because he sees the corrosive force of the dominant milieu, John Paul makes three specific proposals. First, if Catholics are to escape a contraceptive mentality, they must, well before marriage, have instruction in natural family planning. Second, if families are to fight clear of individualistic consumerism, parents must teach in word and example that “Man is more precious for what he is than for what he has.” Third, if families are to win their rights, they must accept the charge of family politics. John Paul warns: “Families should take steps to see that the laws and institutions of the state not only do not offend but support and positively defend the rights and duties of the family…. Otherwise families will be the first victims of the evils that they have done no more than note with indifference.”
A strength of Hogan and LeVoir’s analysis of John Paul’s theology of the family is that they connect its foundation, the imago Dei doctrine, with his teaching on the nature of work. Far from being privatizing, John Paul’s thought integrates the Christian vision of the family as a community of love with the search for a community of labor.
For in work, too, the human person can achieve communion with others and thus a realizing of self. In love, God orders His creation; we can share in God’s life by further ordering creation. In this co-creation, we are to safeguard the primacy of persons over things. When this primacy is lost, work no longer leads to the development of the person. It turns instead to the amassing of wealth, even at the cost of exploiting the worker. Again, John Paul speaks plainly — challenging both capitalist and Marxist: “The fundamental criterion for comparing social, economic, and political systems…must be the humanistic criterion, namely the measure in which each system is really capable of reducing, restraining, and eliminating as far as possible the various forms of exploitation of man and of ensuring for him, through work, not only the just distribution of the indispensable material goods, but also a participation, in keeping with his dignity, in the whole process of production.”
In exploring John Paul’s use of the imago Dei theme, Hogan and LeVoir take pains to associate it with his background in phenomenology. How much John Paul’s theology owes to phenomenology is an interesting question. In this study it is not rigorously addressed. Indeed it is perhaps obscured by Hogan and LeVoir’s sometimes adulatory tone. But this last is a minor irritant. What is important is that in Covenant of Love we have an accessible guide to the Holy Father’s thought — including its hard sayings.
Studies and Commentaries: 1984
By Various Authors
Publisher: The Society of Mary
Review Author: Donald Charles Lacy
This pamphlet collecting various articles on the Blessed Virgin Mary and produced by the (Anglican-oriented) American Region of the Society of Mary is characterized by theological profundity, intellectual integrity, and ecumenical sensitivity. Consider some of the contributions:
“The Annunciation” by Geoffrey Rowell was originally delivered as a sermon in New College Chapel, Oxford, and was inspired by a great painting by Fra Angelico. The author’s recurring emphasis is on Mary’s willing response and receptivity. With an apt and winsome terseness he proclaims, “Devotion to Mary as Mother of our Lord and Savior is never a turning aside from Christ, but our acknowledgment and recognition of God’s first choosing of her, and of her embodiment of humanity’s responsive reaching out to God’s saving grace.”
Harry Reynolds Smythe begins his contribution with this straightforward statement: “The Blessed Virgin Mary is understood and reverenced…in Anglican tradition in relation to her son Jesus Christ our Lord.” He finds a balanced position between those Protestants who kneel before sola Scriptura and excesses of popular devotion found among some Roman Catholics. He views “Theotokos” as the most relevant title for Mary, and is very helpful to those who tend to dismiss her because of the paucity of references in Scripture. Smythe is a brilliant ecumenical bridge builder.
Louis Weil, a professor at Nashotah House in Wisconsin, brings us valuable insights into the Virgin Mary as related to the Collects of the Book of Common Prayer. He focuses on specific Collects with Marian emphasis and reminds us that they are a “significant theological source for our understanding of the role of the Blessed Virgin in Christian piety.”
The concluding work is a sermon preached by Arthur MacDonald Allchin, Canon of the Metropolitical Cathedral Church of the Christ in Canterbury, on the occasion of the Society’s official Oxford Movement celebration. We are alerted to the truth that the devotion to Mary growing out of the Oxford Movement was not “some optional extra, some devotional extravagance,” not a mere afterthought.
The significance of this pamphlet far outweighs its size. From beginning to end it is an instrument of ecumenical reconciliation. If one is seriously interested in the place of the Blessed Mother in the Faith, as am I, a Methodist minister, then it becomes virtually “must” reading.
He Came Down From Heaven and The Forgiveness of Sins
By Charles Williams
Pages: 160 and 128, respectively
Price: $3.95 each
Review Author: John-Manuel Andriote
While the forms of Charles Wilson’s work ranged from poetry to theology, its content was quite consistent: he was concerned chiefly with understanding and explaining the Incarnation, what it meant to ordinary human beings. He Came Down From Heaven examines the ways in which love has been revealed (incarnated) since “man” evolved into peoples and nations. The Forgiveness of Sins considers forgiveness as a concept in the great poets, in Christian theology, and as it is practiced (incarnated) among men.
The Incarnation made it possible for Williams to say that “the extraordinary vision [of the poets of the Church] is that of the ordinary in excelsis.” In He Came Down From Heaven (first published in 1938), Williams says that because of the Incarnation, the Kingdom of God is “beheld through and in a carnality of joy.” Love is incarnated in acts as ordinary as loaning a book to a friend, as grand as the ennobling passion of the Beatific Vision. Whichever form it assumes, though, it will be an incarnate one, for we are fleshly men.
The uniqueness of Christianity is its belief that the Creator assumed substantial flesh and thereby substantiated the life of the physical world. Assertions to the contrary have historically been condemned as heresy.
In The Forgiveness of Sins (first published in 1942), Williams maintains that even forgiveness is physical. The proof “is shown by the many times when the best intentions of our minds are overthrown by the revolt of our nerves.” If good intentions aren’t sufficient to steady our nerves, they will hardly gain the redemption awaiting us on the other side of reconciliation. With typically wry humor, Williams describes our good intentions as “the hobnailed boots of ordinary moral effort.” And “they are hardly nailed with joy,” he continues.
Good intentions aside, then, what do we do? Where do we find God? Even more immediately, how do we live together peacefully?
First, we must recognize sin as “the preference of an immediately satisfying experience of things to the believed pattern of the universe.” That pattern is what Williams calls the “web of the glory of heaven,” the co-inherent, interdependent nature of man as part of the universal order.
Secondly, we must exchange selfishness for “pietas,” “exchanged human responsibility.” We must practice “the interchange of pardon”; that is, we must “forgive the evils we suffer because of the dreadful co-inherence of all mankind.”
“The dreadful co-inherence.” Williams never used words for mere effect, believing strongly that precision was as characteristic of heaven as hell itself is muddled and imprecise. Co-inherence is dreadful. In the Lord’s Prayer salvation and damnation turn on a single pivot: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Williams says, “No word in English carries a greater possibility of terror than the little word ‘as’ in that clause; it is the measuring rod of the heavenly City, and the knot of the new union. But also it is the key of hell and the knife that cuts the knot of union.”
Given the co-inherent nature of everything, “to forgive and to be forgiven [are] one thing,” says Williams. Likewise, while it is said that it is more blessed to give than to receive, “in the equity of the kingdom there is little difference.”
We can never be fully independent of one another because it is definitionally impossible: the name “Mankind” itself is a collective noun. We must therefore learn what Williams calls “the practice of substituted love” and the “technique of pardon.” “Where there is love,” he writes, “there is Christ; where there is human reconciliation, there is the Church.”
As the Church, we are to incarnate Christ’s “life of Forgiveness,” to help bring to this world a “resolution of all into a kind of comedy, the happiness of reconciliation, the peace of love.”
Notwithstanding Williams’s disparaging his own ability to convey truths about love and forgiveness, I concluded these volumes agreeing with him that “there are some books whose words, once we have studied them, seem to demand from us a moral, even a metaphysical, assent or dissent.” Williams’s books demand as much.
The Culture of Consumption
By Edited by Richard Wightman Fox and T.J. Jackson Lears
Review Author: Stuart Gudowitz
It is good to see people writing about modern Western consumerist society. This is indeed the unifying theme of the essays contained in this collection, even while the essays themselves have varied subjects. Mostly, it is worthwhile reading, but one still wishes the collection were better.
Primarily, readers might hope for more clarification of what a “culture of consumption” is. After all, all men this side of the grave consume. And, as to the sins of greed and gluttony, they have been with us since the Fall. Might it not be argued that all social “sins” are ultimately one or other of the seven deadly sins adopted by many individuals within a society? Might not American consumerist society simply be a function of technological advances? We may simply have more goods with which to be gluttonous. But this is not the whole truth. Else why does the Pope time and time again condemn consumerist societies?
The most helpful essays in this book are T.J. Jackson Lears’s “From Salvation to Self-Realization: Advertising and the Therapeutic Roots of the Consumer Culture, 1880-1930” and Christopher P. Wilson’s “The Rhetoric of Consumption: Mass-Market Magazines and the Demise of the Gentle Reader, 1880-1920.” Both make it clear that a culture of consumption is one in which the consumption of goods is made into a public orthodoxy, even an ideology.
Individual gluttony is portrayed in public discourse as the way to the fulfillment of man’s destiny, the way to true happiness. The unblinking realism that sees this world as a vale of tears in which we must follow Jesus by bearing our cross if we are to rise after death and find the fulfillment of joy in His presence in Heaven, is rejected. Instead the world is seen as a supermarket or, more aptly, a playpen.
In a consumerist society, the amusements of the world as the way to self-fulfillment replace self-denial as the way to holiness. Consumerism is the proper way, self-fulfillment the proper end of man. A consumerist society is not one where consumption simply occurs on a grandiose scale, but where consumption supplants faith. It is not simply a society where there is a lot of greed and gluttony around, but where these sins are ideologized and are proposed as that society’s proper way of life.
These essays don’t speak in such a theological way, but they come close. Writing about Bruce Barton (the advertising executive and son of a minister who wrote The Man Nobody Knows, which transformed Our Lord into the founder of advertising), Lears says, “Insistently equating business with transcendent ‘service,’ he eased his personal transition from salvation to self-realization by denying that it had occurred. The new corporate system was not secular but divine; that was Barton’s message…. Spiritualizing the corporate system, he provided a theology for a secular age.”
Whether one reads this interesting book or not, one is still required in one’s own life to avoid what St. John, in his first epistle (2:16) condemns as “the ostentation of living.”
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