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The Pope’s Troubles with America

Feast of Love: Pope John Paul II on Human Intimacy

By Mary Durkin

Publisher: Loyola University Press

Pages: 276

Price: $9.95

Review Author: Robert Coles

Robert Coles, an Episcopalian, is Professor of Psychiatry and Medical Humanities at Harvard Medical School as well as Research Psychiatrist at the Harvard University Health Services. The author of numerous books and a winner of the Pulitzer Prize, he is also a Contributing Editor of, and regular columnist for, the NOR.

On September 5, 1979, our present Pope, John Paul II, began a series of addresses on human sexuality, its moral significance, its vicissitudes, and not least, its welcome possibilities. He continu­ed these addresses for almost two years; the last one was given on April 8, 1981 — 56 in all. Though the American press, not always disinterested in matters sexual, paid little attention to those pa­pal statements, they were published in their entire­ty by the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Roma­no.

My attention had been called to them by a scholarly Jesuit I met in Nicaragua during the sum­mer of 1983. The priest had been pointing out to me the various sides of this Pope’s pastoral and prophetic life — his strong egalitarianism and his strong conservatism with respect to certain ethical matters. I had been upset by the reception the Pope had received in Managua, but the Jesuit wav­ed aside my concern this way: “We have had our troubles here with the Pontiff, but I assure you that in the United States there is reason for more trouble — between him and your people.” I didn’t follow the speaker’s line of argument, and said so — whereupon he suggested I read the Pope’s re­marks on sexuality and think of how my fellow cit­izens, Roman Catholic and non-Roman Catholic alike, live their lives.

Mary Durkin’s book certainly offers the read­er a chance to follow that Nicaraguan Jesuit’s ad­vice. The Pope’s addresses are carefully summariz­ed, and used as an occasion for reflection. Durkin, a pastoral theologian, is a careful reader, and wants to make the thinking of the head of the Roman Catholic Church clear and compelling to other readers. She herself obviously has a refreshingly open and relaxed attitude toward sexuality — a willingness to see it as an important aspect of our humanity. She clearly welcomes a similar inclina­tion in the present Pontiff.

Not that any pope would want to deny the legitimate and indeed edifying importance of self-restraint, even explicit “denial of the flesh” — e.g., as in the monkish life, or for that matter, priestly celibacy. What the Pontiff pleads for, again and again, is a full and utterly joyful sexuality — for those who are married. What the Pontiff pleads against — in line with Judeo-Christian teachings several thousand years old — is a sexuality that bows to instinct, as opposed to sacrament.

The issue is quite significant, obviously — how one regards the human creature. Are we only drive-bound — socially tamed, yes, but at the constant call of various bodily urges? Or are we, alternative­ly at the constant call of drives — yet able to be their sovereign: moral and spiritual masters of our particular lives?

There is struggle aplenty acknowledged in the latter line of reasoning, that of the Church. This Pope, like others, does not whistle in the dark — spin pieties without paying attention to the strug­gles, the serious and continuing conflicts, the ap­prehensions and doubts and disappointments all of us have, in one way or another, during the course of our sexual lives. Jesus was a pastoral Lord as well as a prophetic one; He soothed and healed and fed His flock, even as He preached to them. And His evident, powerful love surely connected Him to the love we all crave to express — for God, for our fellow human beings. Sex is a particular and won­derful aspect of that love — a means of asserting it, realizing it with one other person: a wife, a hus­band. It is this love, the sexual life that is a rock bottom part of marriage, that the Pope celebrates, and which Durkin discusses in connection with our contemporary American secular society.

Especially valuable is Durkin’s persistent refu­sal to succumb to a smug self-righteousness — the besetting sin of all too many preaching efforts to uphold a Christian view of sexuality. She embraces the Pope’s love of love, as it were, and too, his in­sistence that sexual love take place in a marriage. But she shuns the prudery one finds all too com­monly in religious critics of today’s sexual mores.

Hers is a loving exegesis of Catholic sexual morality as yet again propounded by the Vatican. Hers is a Catholic woman’s, a Catholic wife’s, a Catholic mother’s, a Catholic theologian’s state­ment: sex as physical joy, as the instrument of hu­man survival, as a challenge to our moral intelli­gence — and all three count, each of the three being a great consideration for millions of us who hope to live “lusty” Christian lives.


©1984 New Oxford Review. All Rights Reserved.

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