The Pope’s Troubles with America
Feast of Love: Pope John Paul II on Human Intimacy
By Mary Durkin
Publisher: Loyola University Press
Review Author: Robert Coles
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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