Volume > Issue > Briefly Reviewed: April 1986

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

Publisher: Doubleday

Pages: 246

Price: $15.95

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

Pages: 44

Price: $3

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

Publisher: Eerdmans

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

Publisher: Pantheon

Pages: 236

Price: $9.95

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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