Mystics, Martyrs and Rhetoricians

Soap BoxOr the Theology of the Soapbox

What follows in another one of my long expositions on the Theology of the Body.  I have to give a loud content warning at the outset.  There is some frank talk here about sexuality, or rather, my complaints that there is too much frank talk about such matters.  I would have asked Dawn Eden to publish this one, but she has very courageously retired from blogging.  I have to commend her on her decision; however, it is not without regret on my part.

I again want to let those I disagree with know that my intentions are honorable and I do not question their integrity or commitment to the faith.  I can take my lumps if I deserve them.

In a recent apologia for Christopher West, Father Thomas Loya makes grand assertions:

Christopher West is a bit of a mystic—in the best sense of the word. His work, which seems strange to some, is actually that of a pioneer. And like all pioneers, West is taking a lot of arrows for his courage. In the face of much resistance, West is courageous enough to invite all of us to do just what John Paul II invited us to do: to think and talk in spousal categories. Continue reading

The Theology of the Body and Courage: Fighting the Real Fight

In the light of John Paul II’s landmark teaching on human love in the divine plan, called Theology of the Body, there has been a recent effort in the United States to repackage the Church’s teaching on marriage and sexuality in “more positive” terms.  It is said that the Holy Father was reacting against “prudish Victorian morality,” especially prevalent in the United States, much in the same way that the sexual revolution was a reaction against “sexual repression.”  The difference, we are told, is that John Paul II’s teaching consists of a beautiful vision for marriage, not the world’s pernicious justification of lust.

Now while this modern sex-saturated age benefits from the beauty of the truth of God’s original plan for conjugal love, we run the risk of going off the rails if we make prudery the bogeyman for our pornographic age.  Modern man is not preoccupied with fear of the body and of sexuality.  Modern man is largely afraid of suffering and of dying.  This is also true within the Church.

Pope Benedict XVI critiqued modernity’s obsession with erotic love in his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est without denying a real problem with prudery:

Nowadays Christianity of the past is often criticized as having been opposed to the body; and it is quite true that tendencies of this sort have always existed. Yet the contemporary way of exalting the body is deceptive. Eros, reduced to pure “sex”, has become a commodity, a mere “thing” to be bought and sold, or rather, man himself becomes a commodity. This is hardly man’s great “yes” to the body. On the contrary, he now considers his body and his sexuality as the purely material part of himself, to be used and exploited at will (5).

The answer to this problem is not a new “holy” focus on all things erotic, but a subordination of eros to agape.  In the Benedict XVI’s language eros is “possessive love,” not bad in itself, but in need of being put in the service of agape or “oblative” (sacrificial) love (7).  God wants us all to be happy, but the way to happiness is through sacrifice.

The place we learn this more than anywhere else is at the foot of the cross, where the Hearts of Jesus and Mary are united in the wedding banquet of the Lamb and through which we are united to God by our participation in these mysteries in the reception of Holy Communion.  But first of all, the cross is the mystery of oblative love.  The Hearts of Jesus and Mary are opened for all mankind through the suffering and sorrow of their sacrifice.  Theirs is a battle against our ancient enemy.  While mankind has generally been the loser in this struggle, this new Man and Woman conquer by means of their fortitude, that is, by means of their willingness to face death.  This is more agape than eros.

But the fruit of agape is eros, because victory leads to joy and life.  Christ the King with His blessed Mother the Queen reign forever in the bliss of heaven because in this place of exile they overcame the enemy.  This must be the standard of our own effort to subordinate eros to agape.

Most Catholics are not afraid of their bodies.  They are afraid of death.  By definition, the virtue of fortitude is endurance in the face of suffering and death.  In reference to the cross and our participation in its mystery St. Bonaventure says:  “Whoever loves this death can see God because it is true beyond doubt that man will not see me and live” (Itinerarium Mentis in Deum 7.6, quoting Ex. 33:20).  Modern man needs to continue in the struggle against lust while striving also to see the beauty of God’s plan for love.  The focus of our lives needs to be on the cross where we find the Hearts of Jesus and Mary.

It seems to me that John Paul II’s Theology of the Body and Benedict’s XVI’s analysis of eros and agape fit hand in glove.  We should avoid using the profound insights of either pope to conduct a local crusade.  In the real battle we cannot afford to lose our focus.

Cross-posted here from Dawn Patrol.

Manly Marian Militance

On Saturday I conducted a day of recollection for the Knights of Lepanto. The question as to whether there is such a thing as Catholic masculinity was one of the main topics.

In the course of my presentation I brought up the controversy between Cardinal John Henry Newman and Charles Kingsley. Kingsley accused the recent convert to Romanism, Newman, and the Catholic clergy generally, of dishonesty. The polemical exchange between the two thinkers generated Newman’s masterful defense of his conversion and of the Catholic faith, Apologia Pro Vita Sua.

In the debate, much more was at stake than just the honor of the the Catholic clergy. Kingsley was an advocate of “Muscular Christianity,” a kind of manly expression of Christian faith, which emphasized physical exercise and sport as a necessary balance to a more bookish approach to Christian spirituality. While much can be said for a distinctly manly expression of Christian faith (as is often advocated here), Kingsley went further, by blaming Catholic Marian devotion and asceticism for the emasculation of the Church, and especially Catholic men.

Newman refuted Kingsley soundly, but the assertion that Catholic spirituality produces effeminate men is an idea that remains. Leon Podles in The Church Impotent: The Femininization of Christianity traces the current of bridal spirituality throughout the history of the Church, and even notes the Marian character of western chivalry as a contributing factor to the development of feminine spirituality. He also points out that while St. Bernard was one of the foremost influences on the development of bridal spirituality, he was also the great promoter of the Knights Templar, that is, of militant spirituality. While Podles critiques much of the ascetical and marian dimension of the western Church, he does admit that bridal spirituality is a part of the scriptural data.

Bridal spirituality cannot be jettisoned. Marriage is the fundamental metaphor for the spiritual life. It is the great sacrament as St. Paul says in Ephesians 5. It is the sacrament of nature; man is created male and female, and as such is the image and likeness of God. Christ is, in fact the Bridegroom and the Church the Bride. These realities are too fundamental to minimize.

If we adopt the language of Benedict XVI which he uses in the inaugural encyclical of his pontificate, Deus Caritas Est, and speak about the necessary balancing of eros (possessive love) by agape (oblative love), indeed if we assert the primacy of agape over eros, I think we have the answer to what sometimes might legitimately be perceived a feminizing tendency of bridal spirituality. Asceticism or perhaps better, spiritual discipline need not appear exclusively contemplative and oriented to religious experience. It is also part of the training of the whole man to confront the World, the Flesh and the Devil, our cosmic enemies. Likewise, Marian devotion is not merely the imitation of Our Lady’s virtues, particularly Her feminine virtues, but a commitment to defend all that is true, good and beautiful. Our Captain, Christ the Lord, enters into battle for the sake of His Bride and defeats the Dragon, but only at the oblative cost of His life. Yes, in the end oblation is a manner of submissiveness to the provident will of God. It is obedience. But it is also an undaunted militance. It is warrior spirituality. It seems that the real argument here is about the right balance.

On Saturday, one of the guys asked if I could give a practical example where the critique of Muscular Christianity against Catholic spirituality has shown itself false. After a little thought, I replied that perhaps the best example is the almost universal compromise of Protestantism with contraception. Wayward eroticism not only produces effete men who are more occupied with words and feelings than actions and principles, it also produces, as we know, men who brutally subordinate women to their own desire for sexual gratification. Only in the Church where the Virginity of Our Lady, and the ideals of consecrated chastity have been retained has the full doctrine on the sanctity of matrimony and chaste love survived.

Contraception is a plague upon our world which must be fought to the death, and those who choose to do so face humanly insurmountable odds. Even in nations where the demographics are radically changing and birthrates are well below the replacement rates, governments are finding that their efforts to encourage large families with entitlements are ineffective. The sort of self-indulgence which is involved in contracepting the future has certainly not produced a manly culture.  On the other hand, facing the monster and fighting against it, no matter how difficult or lonely the quest might be, is exactly the militant and evangelical spirit necessary to restore manliness to religious experience.

It seems to me that it is only chivalry, specifically Marian Chivarly, that guarantees for men, both prayer and action, chastity and strength, obedience and authority.  I will fully admit, though, that if Our Lady remains only and ideal and not the living and acting Queen Mother in the order of grace and prayer, then the extremes are not likely to be avoided.