|Dr. Steve McSwain|
I’ve been detecting a trend in the mainstream media (MSM) following the election of Pope Francis and it is a trend that I dislike quite a bit. The trend consists of piling up unrealistic expectations upon the Pope and the desire of Catholics in general (usually, not the church-going Catholics) for the Pope to exercise a doctrinal line-veto and erase, in a few strokes, the Catholic understanding of God, of man, and of the Church itself in favor of postmodern dogmas held by our compassionate, and tolerant elites.
Now, Dr. Steve McSwain is not a member of the MSM. Yet, he embraces and proclaims a trend welcomed by many in our culture and often approved by members of the MSM which happens to be the easy way out for many: he is “spiritual” but not “religious”. In fact, he has been called the voice of those who think that way.
Those who embrace the “spiritual but not religious” idea are extremely subjective in their “spiritual” outlook, seeking to see “the best”and “what is common” among all religions without formally joining any one of them. The most thoughtful among them – like Dr. McSwain – become religious syncretists, but most are content with holding vague feelings of awe at whatever is “out there” but adopting an attitude of lazy, sometimes “pious”agnosticism when pushed to define their few beliefs. What unites them all is a strong suspicion, if not hatred, of all that is “doctrine” or “dogma”. They see these as shackles to free thought, a kind of mental servitude, and an enabler of ecclesiastical tyranny.
Like I said before, Dr. McSwain is not a member of the MSM. He’s probably too unconventional for them. Also, I’m not saying that he’s personally evil himself – I can’t judge him that way. In pictures he looks affable, approachable, even endearing. His dog looks happy and, being slave to two basset hounds myself, that counts for something. In other words, my argument is not a personal one. Why am I picking on him, then? Because in his essay published in the Huffington Post, titled, 8 Things Catholics (and Other Christians) Want the New Pope to Do he expressed the exact same expectations I have seen broadcasted far and wide by the MSM. I also must say that I don’t disagree with a few of them, in whole or in part, but I also disagree with a number of them, in whole or in part. This is his list:
1. Catholics expect what the pope says and what the pope does to be in sync.
2. Catholics want the pope to take action for the poorest among us.
3. Catholics want the pope to end the long-standing practice of mandatory celibacy for their clergy.
4. Catholics want the pope to end the Church's official opposition to birth control.
5. Catholics want the pope to hold high the sanctity of life but stop trying to legislate a woman's right to abortion.
6. Catholics want the pope to change the Church's official position of opposition to homosexuality, gay and lesbian couples, and same-sex marriage.
7. Catholics want ... no, you might say, they demand the new pope come clean on clergy abuse.
8. Finally, Catholics want the new pope to seek Church renewal around Jesus' primary mission: Evangelization.
As I will explain later (and briefly), the problem is that, in order to achieve #8, we need to have a clear understanding of God, Man, the Church, and the Gospel that contradicts #4-6. Doctor McSwain wants us to reconcile the Gospel with the good-natured goals of a higher “spirituality”held by those he whimsically calls “the nones” at the cost of the core message of the Gospel itself. The good doctor does not speak on behalf of Catholics (and other Christians) who understand the contradiction and the consequences its adoption would entail, for the Church as well as for the world.
I will discuss each entry in no particular order, or better, according to another scheme, which you will see in brief.
Numbers 1 &2
Let me start by stating that I wholeheartedly agree with #’s 1, 2. Of course I want that. Any Christian, Catholic or not, must agree that we strive beyond the hypocrisy and mediocrity permeating our culture and public spaces, and match our words with deeds. Not only the Popes, bishops, priests, and religious, should match words with deeds, but all of us also.
We understand that “faith without works is dead.” We know that, in the words of Archbishop Chaput of Philadelphia, “Jesus said that if we don’t help the poor, we’re going to hell. Period.” The “preferential option for the poor” the Church has is part of her constitutional mandate. Good, reasonable Catholics and other Christians (and non-Christians) may disagree on how we alleviate, eliminate even, the plight of the poor, but that’s the field for Catholic action. Alleviating the plight of the infirm, the suffering, and the defenseless is where we bring our consciences to bear on the issues of the day, of our country, and the world.
That’s why conscientious Catholics and other Christians and people of good will cannot embrace Dr. McSwain’s #5. Killing a human being in utero is the greatest evil of our day. Mother Teresa said so and she was a saint. Gestating human beings are the ultimate poor and dispossessed ones, depending in everything on their mothers.
Why should we limit our concerted action to challenge the Culture of Death on aiding and assisting the poor and the infirm when human persons are being killed at their most vulnerable for reasons of convenience? Not only the unborn, but now the old and the infirm are also being dispatched“with dignity” because our society is willing to reward sport, movie stars, and entertainers to the tune of millions of dollars. This millions could go to rescue, and place in adoption those who are killed in their mothers’ wombs, or cure or give true dignity to the old and the infirm, not to say that everyone in between, as well as teachers, nurses, physicians, wouldn’t benefit either. To admit Dr. McSwain’s #5 is to capitulate to all this, and to allow the hands of the state to ignore these biblically-protected classes in favor of the whims of the fashionable majority.
If we refrain from protecting human life across the entire spectrum of conception, birth, development, old age, and natural death, what are we? If we stop seeking that our society, nation, and government, acknowledge in practice the “inalienable rights” we all have to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” of which the first one is “life”, what have we become? To paraphrase Martin Luther King: if we can’t effect peaceful change in laws, government, and culture to enshrine our respect to life in our national consciousness, then what should we do? If not now, then when?
An excursus on dogma and doctrine
The rejection of dogma or doctrine by “the spiritual but not religious” is as its core a misunderstanding. Though it is true that a truly Catholic conscience is one that renders intellectual assent to everything that the Church proposes as true, the Catholic individual also knows that the Church is not a reality “outside” of him, but one into which he has been embedded through baptism. The Church is not merely an institution, but the Body of Christ, and dogma and doctrine does not come to it from “the outside” but from within Her, as a share in the life and knowledge of the Spirit of Christ that animates the Church.
It is true that the wording of dogmas and doctrines are historically and culturally conditioned, and that these limitations extend not only to the solemn teachings of the Church as expressed in dogma and doctrine, but to the words of Holy Scripture themselves. This is so because we are human beings who are by nature niched into a given time and history. A wise person once said that Holy Scripture is “the Word of God in the words of man” – and that is true. We can apply the same metaphor to the Church as a teacher of dogma and doctrine, for these are “the Voice of the Spirit in the voice of the Church.” The words of man and the voice of the Church share the limitations of our humanity, but that doesn’t mean they are unimportant, or ultimately disposable.
We Catholics acknowledge two realities when it comes to our theological language: that our language is limited when expressing things about the nature of God, his designs, will, and purpose, and even about the nature of Man – as male and female – and of the Church. Our language must be analogical when speaking of these truths and our theological language will never exhaust nor comprehend what is objectively an Eternal reality. Nevertheless, we also admit that “words mean things” and when they are concatenated into dogmas and doctrines, though not exhaustive of the reality it deals with, they are nonetheless meaningful. They tell a truth, the set boundaries to human speculation or negation. Dogma and doctrines are not arbitrary at all, but faithful guides born of the need of the Church to define herself against a world which has been always hostile or at least, suspect toward the Gospel and the Gospel’s Author.
Numbers 4 & 6: Marriage and Sex in God’s Plan
That’s why informed (and formed) Catholics must and do reject numbers 4 & 6 of Dr. McSwain’s list. We do because we understand that that our true unity as a human being is found in the intimate “knowledge”(“knowledge” in the biblical sense) we acquire in our union as “male and female”. Genderism is foreign to the thought of the biblical writer for whom, when it comes to the unity of the human being, and in order to conform to God’s primeval plan, psychological gender must conform to biological sex by the proper exercise of the will of those giving mutually of themselves, seeking by this self-giving a greater good for themselves and their children. We also know that this truth is so important that this fundamental unity reflects God’s own transcendental unity and for that God termed this unity between male and female His “very image and likeness” (see Genesis 1:27 and 5:2).
Whether one accept the Genesis narrative as a literal-grammatical truth or as a religious tale – “myth” even – containing eternal truths as “the Word of God in the words of man,” is ultimately irrelevant. If you are Catholic Christian, or any Christian for that matter, you receive the same truth. God made us “male and female” and in the cognitive knowledge of the sexual embrace we become as one being as God who, though Three Persons, is a Unity in Nature more ineffable, more transcendent, and more “one”that any other unity we may observe in nature, except for that unity humans achieve when they “know” each other as male and female.
For that fundamental reason, along with the anthropology deriving from that primeval understanding, Catholic believers in Church assembled, cannot recognize the legal or moral validity of same-sex unions as being the equivalent of heterosexual unions, for they do not reflect the unity of God, nor do they possess the sexual complementarity God wished for marriage that forms the essential unitive act of marriage, nor are they capable to transmit, in potency or actuality, the gift of life that is love incarnate in the form of a child. Call these unions whatever else you want, but marriage they aren’t, much less moral actions aimed at the natural or supernatural human happiness of those who engage in them.
It also follows that any technological obstacle constructed to separate the unitive aspect of sex from its procreative is a violation of the human unity the Creator envisioned for the marital embrace, and that such a violation is sinful, as it frustrates God’s will for marriage, and because it also violates the physical integrity of the spouses themselves. The use of technology to frustrate the dual purpose of this most human of acts turns sex into a mere, malleable thing, a “right” or “an imposition” to be claimed or denounced according to the whims of ideology. It also becomes a consumer good through advertisement, dramas or sitcoms, or pornography.
For that reason, #’s 4 and 6 of Dr. McSwain’s list fall flat as principles, means , ends. Catholics should become both form and informed as to the serious reasons why we as the Church teach the intrinsic evil of same-sex activity and contraception. We might not like it. But that’s the way it is, for the Truth we have received is not subject to a vote or a poll.
The End…for now
I wanted to tackle #’s 3 and 7 but I have taken too long as it is. I want to finish by saying that the Pope has no power to abrogate the dogmatic and doctrinal truths I have explained here. What he can do is to expound and explain them through his teaching, but he cannot abolish them. Why? Because these belong to the “Voice of the Spirit speaking through the voices of men” and form an integral part of the faith left to us by Jesus Christ and his Apostles. This is the Faith of the Apostles, of the Fathers (and Mothers), of the Church. We can’t change it even if, as St. Paul wrote, “an angel of heaven” were to come and teach us something different.
The honeymoon the MSM has with Pope Francis will come to an end as soon as the Pope demonstrates his adhesion to the faith the Church has both received and exercises. The MSM will then return to true form, blasting the Church and the Successor of Peter as dated, antiquated, blind, misogynistic, unrealistic, etc.If Dr. McSwain really wants to foster the understanding and harmony among people, he should engage Catholic teaching on its own terms, and stop feeding the MSM and the cultural elites and “nones”with expectations that will never come to fruition.