Although the Catholic Church has often faced accusations of waging a war on women, many intelligent, successful, and accomplished women strongly support the Church’s countercultural teaching on marriage, family, and sexuality.
During Pope Francis’ Synod on the Family, which just concluded on October 19, faithful bishops were battered by secular voices falsely depicting the Church’s teaching on sexuality and by forces inside the Church pushing the Synod fathers to overturn settled doctrines. But throughout, women like Prof. Janet Smith, Sr. Anne Flanagan, Maggie Gallagher and others have stood firm in proclaiming the Good News to all those with eyes to see and ears to hear.
Married Sex and the Synod
Many eyebrows were raised when a lay couple from Australia told the Synod fathers, in explicit terms, how important sexual intercourse was to their marriage. NBC’s Ann Curry characterized this “sex talk” at the Synod as a stunning contradiction of the view within the Church that married sex is only “’ an imperfection that is permitted.’” But Theology of the Body expert Prof. Janet Smith explained that Ann Curry got it wrong. If any Catholics have gotten the impression that their religion barely tolerates married sex, “that means they have been taught badly,” said Prof. Smith.
Curry’s stereotype expresses a “reductionistic view of what the Church teaches on sexuality,” agreed Dr. Deborah Savage, professor of philosophy and theology and Director of the Masters Program in Pastoral Ministry at St. Paul Seminary in Minnesota. “The old and somehow lingering perception that the Church thinks sex is bad” is positively “medieval,” she continued. “It made me laugh!” Pre-Cana programs like the Archdiocese of New York’s teach instead that “when two people totally give of themselves” in free, faithful, and fruitful married love “they image God,” explained Marga Regina, Marriage Preparation Coordinator for the Archdiocese.
These days, it is “unlikely anyone ordained” – particularly the bishops at the Synod – “would not know about the beauty of the marital act and the importance of marriage as a vocation,” stated Dr. Savage.
“The problem is people have convinced themselves that all the Church gives is rules to follow” about sexuality, said Savage. But particularly through Pope St. John Paul II’s groundbreaking Theology of the Body, the Church offers a complete understanding of what it means to be human, created by God in his image and with the ability to generate new life through the sexual act.
“At least in the United States many bishops have held sessions for their priests on the Theology of the Body and Natural Family Planning. I suspect they are very accustomed to speaking frankly about sexuality,” Prof. Smith opined. Most U.S. seminaries are now doing a good job educating future priests on these topics, according to Smith, who holds the Father Michael J. McGivney Chair of Life Ethics at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. “The Institute for Priestly Formation has formed a large portion of the recently ordained and they speak freely about sexuality and provide an excellent formation based on the TOB. The Theology of the Body Institute [also]has first rate programs for priests and laity,” she continued.
John Paul II’s teaching on the Theology of the Body may not be as well known outside our borders, however. “It does seem to me that the Theology of the Body is much better known in the U.S. than in other countries,” stated Smith. “The predominance of speakers at international conferences are Americans, though some countries, such as Ireland, Portugal, Australia, some places in India and Africa, have strong programs,” she added. Moreover, the 2014 Theology of the Body Congress in Philadelphia, where Dr. Savage delivered the keynote address, had attendees from 18 countries. So interest is definitely spreading.
Greater dissemination of the Theology of the Body should go a long way to correcting any false views that linger in the way sexuality is taught, according to Prof. Smith. The Synod fathers could help by encouraging Catholics worldwide to take greater interest. “My view is that if the Church made wide use of the materials already available we would make rapid progress,” opined Smith.
Homosexuality and the Synod
In an effort to put pressure on so-called “anti-LGBT bishops,” the homosexual advocacy group Human Rights Campaign (“HRC”) has organized a series of vigils called “Pray, Listen, Discern” to take place while the Synod is occurring. HRC’s stated goal is to convince Church leaders to “recognize our humanity and our right to seek civil recognition of our relationships and our families.” Such tactics have become the norm, according to Maggie Gallagher, founder of the National Organization for Marriage and the Institute for Marriage and Public Policy. Advocacy efforts previously targeted at the “mushy middle” are now being directed at Christian churches and communities, she said.
In HRC’s fact sheet about the Synod, the group claims that 71% of U.S. Catholics support same-sex marriage and 60% favor allowing same-sex couples to adopt children. Although Gallagher emphasized that “polling on gay marriage varies depending on the wording of the question,” she noted that other polls have also found that at least a slight majority of mass-going Catholics now support same-sex marriage in the United States.
“The cultural pressure to conform is very strong,” Gallagher continued, “and I suspect Pope Francis’ call to us to show mercy is getting translated [into]‘standing down in anything that smacks of culture war’ in the minds of many U.S. Catholics.” She nonetheless sees nothing wrong with HRC’s hope that the Synod could secure “the baptismal sacrament for children of LGBT Catholic families.” Caring for a “child’s immortal soul” does not amount to political support for same-sex marriage itself, Gallagher said.
To avoid misinterpretation, however, it is important for the Synod to confirm “the complementarity that characterizes men and women,” who alone can cooperate in procreation, stated Dr. Savage. The purpose of sexuality is not only to unite the couple, but also to result in new life. By removing the possibility of procreation from their sexuality, practicing homosexuals show a “confused understanding of what their sexuality is for,” explained Dr. Savage. If the Synod doesn’t come out with a clear restatement of Church teaching on the meaning of sexuality, “it will only add to the confusion,” she warned.
Communion for Divorced and Remarried
Prominent American nun Sr. Mary Ann Walsh, formerly with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, recently cast her lot with Cardinal Walter Kasper who has repeatedly urged the bishops to find a way to allow the divorced and civilly remarried to receive Holy Communion. The Synod “dare not do nothing,” Walsh argued, or the Church will face a wave of dissent similar to that following the papal encyclical Humanae Vitae, which upheld Church teaching against artificial contraception despite broad public expectation of doctrinal change.
“Nonsense,” responded theology professor Dr. Savage. “The Synod is under no obligation to change doctrine.” Moreover, Humanae Vitae’s dire predictions that greater contraceptive use would lead to more infidelity and less respect for women have been proven to be prophetic, in her opinion. “People were upset about Humanae Vitae, but they were wrong,” she proclaimed.
Prof. Janet Smith, who has authored several works on Humanae Vitae, was likewise undaunted by implicit threats of dissent. “There is much more fidelity in the Church today than there was at the time of Humanae Vitae. We have had over 40 years of struggle within the Church and fidelity, in important ways, has won out over dissent,” she said.
One of Walsh’s proposals resembled a sort of do-it-yourself annulment process, in which individuals “convinced that their first marriage was not sacramental [can]approach Communion according to their own well-formed conscience.” Rejecting that proposal out of hand, Prof. Smith declared that “marriages are governed by law not by conscience. A well-formed conscience would want to submit to the Church.”
Sr. Anne Flanagan, known as “nunblogger” to her more than 15,000 Twitter followers, similarly looked askance at Walsh’s proposal. “Even in ordinary human matters, we are often quite blind to things we really ought to know about ourselves. How can we appraise our own spiritual condition, especially in matters of the heart?” asked Flanagan. She emphasized that reception of the Eucharist involves much more than the individual’s personal relationship with God, because it is also a public act of communion with the Church.
“The communion issue is so huge for people today … because at this point, Catholic life has been reduced to Sunday Mass,” continued Flanagan. “Fifty+ years ago, it was not odd to see five or six people remain in a pew at Communion time, and communicants had to awkwardly step between kneelers and legs to get to and from the aisle. … While frequent Communion was the ideal, it was not a given as it is now.” She mourned a lack of vibrant parish life that could fully welcome people in social and communal activities outside of Mass.
Dr. Savage similarly sympathized with the divorced and civilly remarried, seeing them as “victims of a culture that has taught them that marriage is a convenience.” But she cautioned that we must “be realistic” in our hopes of providing them with a warmer welcome without breaking with the history and traditions of the Church. The Synod “isn’t a Vatican Council [such as Vatican II]. We need to peg our expectations to the forum,” she stated. The Synod’s role is merely to advise Pope Francis.
Observing that not all Catholics run in the same circles, Dr. Savage noted that “some people are anxious for change, and others are hopeful that the Church will stay the course. I’m with [the latter group]. I see the Church as the last bastion in pushing back the tides of secularism.” There’s a tidal wave of cultural collapse looming, she predicted, and “there’s one wall left.” That wall is the Catholic Church.
Copyright 2014, Karee Santos
This article originally appeared on Aleteia and is reprinted with permission of the author.