Category Archives: Theology of the Body

On Obligation versus Obligation

I don’t know about you, but I don’t like “obligation.”  It’s my Asperger.  It’s my Americanism.  It’s my modernism.  But I balk at being required to do something.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the idea of “obligation” and the faith, and I thought I’d look up what the word actually means.  While today it means more a “requirement” or “responsibility,” it originally meant “pledge.”  Before that, it came from a Latin word for “binding.”  In one sense, an “obligation” binds the person to do it, but also binds one party to another.
St. Augustine’s oft-misquoted “dilige et quod vis fac” comes into play here.  “Dilige” is the root word for “delight” or “delicious,” but it’s also the root for “diligence.”  So while St. Augustine is misquoted as saying “Love and do as you will,” with “love” here meaning “follow your delights” (something St. Augustine quite obviously would not endorse), he really means “Love your duty from that that do as you will.”
This is really a functional definition of “obligation.”  It is always an act of love.  Socrates says he accepts the death penalty because he loves Athens too much to be exiled.  The patriot loves his country so much he offers his life in military service, which involves obligations.  The student has an obligation to study, but if she loves learning, the obligation is easier.
I have obligations to my body.  I have had to drastically adjust my diet and lifestyle since epilepsy was added to my list of ailments last month.  Out of love for my family, I fulfill the obligations of my new condition, whether I really desire them or not.
I have obligations to my children.  Some are difficult.  Some are enjoyable, but I do all of them because I love my children.
I have obligations to my wife.  I keep those obligations because I love her.  Some of those obligations are tedious, like chores, while others are more pleasurable.  But they’re still obligations.  One of the things Natural Family Planning teaches about marriage is how to make love when one doesn’t feel like it: it’s an obligation.
Thus, when we speak of obligations in the Church, or even not obligations but “requirements” of devotions, the purpose is not to be legalistic as such: it’s to provide a tried and true guideline for building a relationship with Christ.  Just as hugging and kissing daily strengthen a marriage, so prayer and certain practices strengthen our relationship with God.  Sure, I could skip checking for discount flowers at the grocery store, but when I bring my wife flowers, she feels loved and I grow in love for her from that appreciation.  Sure, I can skip my Rosary, but when I give Jesus and His Mother that spiritual bouquet, they feel loved, and I grow in love for them.
Studies show that married couples should make love at least once a week, on average, to feel happy and fulfilled in their marriages.  That, again, can be an “obligation” if one or both isn’t “in the mood,” or especially if they have to schedule a time, and if legitimate impediments exist, they are usually stressful situations that will either strengthen or weaken the marriage depending on how they’re handled: do the couple turn to each other or away from each other?.
Similarly, frequency of Confession and Communion builds our bonds to Jesus Christ.  It’s an “obligation” because it binds us to Him.  We should receive the Sacraments because we love Jesus.  Sometimes, the experience can be full of spiritual consolation.  Sometimes, it can be dry.  Sometimes, we receive indicators that we need to improve our relationship with Christ.  And as with marriage, when crises, however frequent or infrequent, impede us from coming to Him Sacramentally, do we turn to Him for help or away from Him?

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The Proper Weight of Man

January 15, 2000, at about 9 PM at the now-closed Steak & Ale on Forrest Dr. in Columbia, SC, I proposed marriage by reading this passage:

“The weight of these golden rings”, he said, “is not the weight of metal, but the proper weight of man, each of you separately and both together. Ah, man’s own weight, the proper weight of man! Can it be at once heavier, and more intangible? It is the weight of constant gravity, riveted to a short flight. The flight has the shape of a spiral, an ellipse—and the shape of the heart … Ah, the proper weight of man! This rift, this tangle, this ultimate depth— this clinging when it is so hard to unstick heart and thought. And in all this—freedom, a freedom, and sometimes frenzy, the frenzy of freedom trapped in this tangle. And in all this—love, which springs from freedom, as water springs from an oblique rift in the earth. This is man! He is not transparent, not monumental, not simple, in fact he is poor. This is one man—and what about two people, four, a hundred, a million— multiply all this (multiply the greatness by the weakness) and you will have the product of humanity, the product of human life.”
Karol Wojtyla (Pope St. John Paul II), The Jeweler’s Shop, Act 1, scene 4).

Here’s a link to the play:

The Key to a “Perfect Marriage”

Is not to think there is one.

Back in the late 90s, Mary Beth Bonacci wrote a column about how the purpose of dating is to break up.  So often, that seems to be the purpose not just of dating but of most “relationship” articles.  “How to tell if your [guy/girl] is [cheating/wrong for you/the right one,” “How to tell if your relationship is failing.”  “What do all successful marriages have in common?”

Bai MacFarlane once observed of her divorce that there’s a certain attitude of the “perfect Catholic marriage” that has grown out of the JP2/NFP/TOB movement that sets a certain standard, and people are often led to stress about trying to achieve that standard.

A few years ago, Matt Walsh wrote a piece called “My Marriage Wasn’t Meant to Be,” which he apparently recently revised for his new Blaze column in response to the Sparks divorce.  His point is that we have free will, and the notion of being “destined” to marry someone takes away from free will but also creates an ideal that is too easily lost to sentimentalism–or questioning whether “this is the right one.”  I’d argue that a Mystery is far more complicated than that, and he is quite literally touching on the basic question of free will versus predestination and God’s plans versus our own, but he makes a good point.

Closer to home, my wife, thinking about cases like the MacFarlanes, or Nicholas Sparks and his wife, or of how every celebrity couple who give an interview about their great marriage seem to divorce shortly thereafter, always says, “Don’t say we have a ‘happy marriage.’  Saying that is just inviting the Devil to tempt us.  There’s no such thing as a ‘happy marriage’ or a ‘perfect marriage.'”  It wasn’t until recently that I connected all those thoughts and realized that’s what she means.

Maggie Gallagher a few years ago wrote of attending a 50th anniversary party, where the husband was asked the secret to staying married 50 years, and he said, “Arrive for your wedding and then wait.”

That, really, sums it up.  There are plenty of good points available for guidance in discerning whether someone is the “right” person to marry, and there is plenty of good advice for trying to do better.  But there is a great danger in constantly thinking that a relationship must be “perfect,” that a person must be “perfect,” that if you’re *not* living up to the standard, that you should call it quits.

Nonetheless, however you get there, presuming proper formation and discernment, and no canonical impediments, whether you’re “best friends,” “soul mates,” or arranged, or whatever, after the vows are exchanged, the key to marriage is a) to remember that divorce is never an option; b) to always keep working at it; c) to remember that you’ve given yourselves to each other and be grateful for that gift.

And that’s really all there is to it.

“Just believe in yourself”

“God just wants me to be happy,” says the contemporary Christian singer about her divorce and remarriage.

“Believe in yourself,” says the new age guru.

“The real Bruce Jenner,” say the headlines.

“Born that way,” says Lady Gaga.

Apparently, Jesus says “Affirm yourself, put down your cross, and follow your heart”?

Oh, no, wait.  That was, “Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Me.”

Scars and Self-image

As I approach the 19th anniversary of my first heart surgery, meaning that I’ve had my artificial valve now for half my life(!), the “me” I think of when I approach a mirror is still the “me” without the scars.   Now, the original “zipper” is less noticeable both from age and from the others that now surround it.  Every now and then, one strikes me.  A few weeks ago, I suddenly “saw”/noticed how big and dark the scar in my side from two years ago is-the one from the drainage tube and the chyle surgery, which healed wrong so Dr. Peterseim cut it back open in the CVICU–I can still feel the sensation of his fingers in my side–removed the infected tissue and partially stitched it back up, but it had to heal with mainly biodegradable gauze.  Every 2 days for my last month and a half in the hospital, a wound care nurse would come in and change my bandages.
They give my wife, the schoolteacher, a crash course in wound care and showed her how to do what a specialized nurse had been doing–but it saved us getting a home care nurse.
There was a lot to reflect on in that wound alone.  Then there was my  feeding tube hole, which required a slightly *different* kind of cleaning and dressing, and my trach hole–all three requiring slightly different treatments, and different healing times. . . .
Tonight, I looked in the mirror, and somehow the scar from my carotid-subclavian bypass, which prepared the way for my arch-abdominal aorta repair, struck my attention just now and inspired this post.  The bypass is kind of cool in and of itself–you can see my pulse in the tube that runs up my collar bone to my neck–but right under it is the scar, slightly curved, more like a fossilized centipede or a lightning bolt in a movie.
I can make an effort to see the beauty and the meaning in my scars–thankfully, my wife doesn’t need an effort to do it–and it’s much easier with the ones from two years ago–but still, after 19 years, I still expect to see my unscarred “self,” and I’m different.   And maybe it’s different when one chooses it, but I don’t understand how anyone can voluntarily do that–whether it’s piercing, or tattoos, plastic surgery or whatever–to make a permanent change that will be there, not just for the rest of this earthly life but possibly in the Resurrection.
While Catechism paragraph 2297 comes into play in these matters, I’m not really thinking in terms of morality here.  I’m more musing on the emotional experience, but that is  seen with a view to the resurrection of the body.  Presumably, the resurrected body will be free of worldly defects, though some of the Saints suggest those “defects” would instead be glorified.

Exactly which sport are they illustrating?

Yesterday I saw the controversial latest cover of the usually controversial Sports Illustrated “swimsuit” issue, at Bi Lo. It was on the highest row of magazines, making it eye level for me in the chair and for any child of middle years. As I often say, modesty is not necessarily about what’s covered so much as how it’s covered: a person can be covered chin to ankle in something that’s too tight, or completely naked yet elicit pity (_Schindler’s List_ or photos of starving children) or admiration (as in the classic example of Vatican art), rather than lust, based upon the circumstances, pose, etc. To reveal everything but the most specific “parts”, and then present those as about to be revealed, is the epitome of pornography: enticing the viewer to wonder what comes next.

Scandal versus Scandal, and Controversial Cardinals

I believe that, 10 or 20 years in the future, people will look back on “the Francis Effect” as they now look at “the Spirit of Vatican II.”  In the meantime, we seem to be reliving the 1960s and 70s.
Two cases in point: the upcoming Synod on the Family, which is supposed to be about determining how to more effectively articulate the Church’s teachings, but the media and some cardinals–most notably Walter Cardinal Kasper–are trying to make it about changing teaching.  Meanwhile, there are the still-unofficial rumors that Raymond Cardinal Burke will be removed from his post as Prefect of the Apostolic Signatura, in the wake of a book that Burke and other “conservatives” published that upholds the Church’s teachings against Cardinal Kasper’s “approach” to divorce.
Simultaneously, Timothy Cardinal Dolan will grand marshal the first ever New York St. Patrick’s Day Parade to include “gays” marching as homosexuals.  Dolan defends this position by appealing to the “Francis Effect,” and the idea–which he used a year ago to applaud openly homosexual football player Michael Sam for his “courage”–that the Church says it’s OK to identify with a disordered inclination so long as one doesn’t act on it.  Kevin O’Brien asks if he can start a chapter of Irish Adulterers and march in the St. Patrick’s Day parade, since–following Cardinal Dolan’s reasoning–having a disordered inclination to adultery makes one an “adulterer.”
Sadly, though, Dolan’s reasoning is not that far off from Kasper’s.  Kasper contends that we cannot know for certain if a couple who are divorced and remarried are living in a Josephite marriage.  Kasper has

accused his opponents of faulty interpretation of Scripture, saying, “We cannot simply take one phrase of the Gospel of Jesus and from that deduce everything.” That would be Luke 16:18, which quotes Jesus saying, “Every one who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.”

He apparently has not read St. John Paul II’s _Theology of the Body_, since that’s exactly what John Paul does (though “induce” would probably be the more accurate verb).  Cardinal Kasper heads into dangerous ground by suggesting that those who are divorced and remarried “don’t look like they’re committing adultery,” that somehow superficial happiness and later fidelity can atone for the previous infidelity–neo-pelagianism, indeed!

So, on the one hand, we have “you can be a homosexual, and be in a ‘homosexual relationship,’ and not act on it.”  Then we have “you can be divorced and remarried and not act on it.”  Both propositions are *technically* true.

Then we have the more important question, one of the foundational questions of Christian spirituality and praxis and the juridical question of Catholic governance.  If we set aside Cardinal Kasper’s 1960s theology of “conscience,” let’s focus on the objective viewpoint.  Technically, he’s correct that people can sometimes live in Josephite marriages or similar situations.  Technically, he’s correct that we shouldn’t assume the worst of other people.  However, in practice, his views defy common sense.

Why would someone get divorced and remarried and not act on it? Even if it is possible, and people are willing to (sometimes, they are), the Church should still say, “this is what you’re supposed to do in this situation.”

This is a paradox at work in much of “pastoral” theology and canon law: two meanings of the word “scandal.”  To the world, and many members of the clergy, scandal means rumor-mongering.   If Y knows X is divorced and remarried with no annulment and Y sees X receiving Communion, it is true that Y is possibly breaking the 8th Commandment in one or more respects to be scandalized by it in the secular sense and definitely breaking the 8th Commandment to gossip about it.

However, in traditional Catholic parlance, “scandal” means behavior that encourages other people to sin.  Maybe N is thinking about divorce and follows X’s example.  Maybe B *is* divorced and remarried and thinks it’s OK.  . . .

There are other times where the Church says precisely that we shouldn’t endanger people’s souls by encouraging people to put themselves into a possible occasion of sin, or of setting a bad example.  Another topic being hotly debated in mass and social media is Pope Francis’s example of officiating a wedding of couples who have been cohabiting.  Conventionally, pastors have discouraged marriage of cohabiting couples, although canonically they cannot refuse to marry anyone.  Sacramentally, as with any sacrament, a state of grace is necessary to confer the Sacrament of Matrimony, which is why couples are expected to go to Confession before their weddings.   The reasoning behind discouraging such practices is to discourage setting a bad example.  Since our society is heavily scandalized in that regard already, and in some ways always has been, I suspect the Holy Father is right that it’s better to encourage marriage.

Nevertheless, there is that understanding that people of opposite sexes who are not related by law or biology should usually not live under the same roof because they put themselves into situations of temptation and setting a bad example.

More surprisingly, I was reading an article somewhere recently about the notion of impediments–how, just as an annulment can be granted for inability to consummate, supposedly one of the few reasons the Church will preemptively deny a request for marriage is if one of the spouses is known to be incapable of consummation.  To the question of how that’s to be known without presuming attempts at fornication, I was told that obvious cases include people who are mutilated or paralyzed.

Apparently, go figure, the reasoning is that the non-deformed partner cannot be expected to go through life with a person of the opposite sex and not act on it, that he or she cannot be expected to contract marriage and be continent!  Of course, any argument in favor of such a relationship raises complex issues about those who struggle with same sex attraction, and “what about those who become deformed after marriage” was answered with little more than “That’s complicated.”

So, we cannot expect heterosexuals to live in continence (even though it has been done), but we cannot presume those who are married are having marital relationships, and we can expect people who identify as homosexual, have homosexual “significant others,” kiss in public, and so on, to be courageously living in chastity.

On the other end of the spectrum is Cardinal Burke, who argues in favor of presuming sacramentality in the vast majority of cases.  Perhaps such a presumption is good, but there is much to be said for simplification of the annulment process.