Preaching to the Young Casualties of the Sexual Revolution
FEBRUARY 1, 2016 BY
For over 40 years, it has been my privilege, challenge, and joy to teach Catholic theology. I began with the somewhat maligned Junior High level (seventh grade in my parish elementary school lingo), and then Catholic high school (Grades 9-12), with occasional forays into teaching adults in an archdiocesan Church ministry program, and some collegiate courses on morality and mysticism. Though I owe my classroom “creds,” as it were, to my basic training, instructing seventh graders (sometimes 50 in one class); and, although, working with adult students has its own perquisites, my métier has been working with high school students, mostly young men.
One of the two vexing issues that emerged early on in my journey was that most students—Catholic or otherwise—knew very little about what the Church actually proclaims. As an example, a devout, intelligent Catholic whom I know well, went through 16 years of Catholic school from about 1968 to 1984 and had never been required, or even asked, to readHumanae Vitae. He felt cheated. The other issue, which casts light on the previous one, was the reluctance of Catholics, even teachers in Catholic communities, to proclaim truth in a prophetic way. And it is not getting better. As far back as undergraduate days, I was stunned and irritated when many of the professors wanted to substitute relativist “Religions of the World,” “Dissent in Moral Theology,” or “Wicca 101” for Catholic theology. Little did I know what was coming. Why did Catholic institutions apologize for presenting Catholicism? Because it is unpopular and intellectually gauche? Ironically, many of the challenging topics in Catholic teaching—like the unity of doctrinal and moral issues, the correlation between Faith and Reason, the importance of the common good, and those topics on chastity, marriage, and family—are the very issues about which teenagers need to know. Young adults in universities, including prestigious universities, tell us of their “war stories” about date and acquaintance rape, depressive episodes following what was supposed to be “casual sex,” and near pandemic levels of STIs on campus. As author Mary Eberstadt avers: the arguments against promiscuity, and in favor of Catholic morality, come now from doctors, social workers, and the casualties of the Sexual Revolution themselves.1 Our sons, daughters, and students have a right to know the true teachings of the Church.
One of the seminal ideas from Vatican II is that Jesus Christ not only reveals God to human beings, he reveals to human beings who we really are. This was a constant motif in the writing, preaching, and teaching of St. John Paul II. Given the lack of evangelization, catechesis, and preaching, it is not surprising that a whole generation is adrift, lacking a coherent worldview, or even an identity. It is tragic to see this play out around us in our world. It is all the more devastating to see it in teens and young adults. Hurting adolescent males yearn for a father, and the Father. I think this is something they seek in priests. Male adolescents respond to authoritative formation by adult males. Far from this eclipsing the dignity of the woman, this incorporation into manhood is a wellspring of respect and love for the girls and the women in their lives. In religious education, this is almost tautologically true.
If we focus only on damage control, or even on generalized ethics, we miss the seminal issue. St. John Paul II warned that contraception, at its root, is actually the human technological/ideological refusal to let God be God.2 Twenty-first century human beings are, in this respect, identical to our ancestors. There is that rebel within who finds the First Commandment cramping his misguided style. (Once I actually had a student tell me he was resentful that he was not God. Hubris on two legs!) I have asked students to perform a thought experiment by answering the question: “If the God of Jesus Christ really exists, would he have the right to tell us how to live our so-called ‘sex lives’?” It is a question that I pray will be answered by the Holy Spirit in their hearts. It is a question we would all do well to pose for ourselves in examining our consciences. It is a question that the dominant death culture answers with an a priori, mindless, and callous negative. The Church needs to offer the genuinely alternative worldview, and way to live, to the crowds who hunger and thirst. It is not merely the Apostles whom the Lord commands to “give them something to eat.” The wisdom of the Church runs counter-culturally, and should be coming from classrooms, pulpits, and Catholic media.
It seems to me that St. John Paul II embodied the virile and paternal strength needed by students today. Unquestionably, the phenomenon of World Youth Days attests to this. Eighteen-year-old guys in my classes long for the Father, and need to be transformed into God’s sons through God’s Son. They respect you for taking a stand on the Truth, even when they disagree. After respecting truth, they are much more apt to love and live it. We can speak the truth authentically and still be sensitive in a realistic manner. “Love the sinner, hate the sin” may sound trite, but its value as an aphorism remains intact. Young people have the same restless hearts of which St. Augustine wrote sixteen centuries ago. When Catholic leaders try to mollify them with hazy slogans and watered-down doctrines, the restlessness is not even addressed. In the words of St. Paul: “How can they believe … (what) … they have not heard” (Rom. 10:14). Holding back in fear serves no one. Since faith is the opposite of fear, is it any surprise that timidity in proclamation has led to the widespread loss of the Catholic faith in the Western world? The exhortation “Be not afraid” comes to mind, again and again.
Magisterial teaching on the dignity of the human person, freedom, marriage, and sexuality has been articulated for generations, but the silence surrounding it is too often proverbially deafening in pulpits, classrooms, and the media. Since the root of sin is idolatry, the unchecked effects weaken or destroy the basic foundations of human society, and the common good. If the “self” is enthroned as god, we, sooner or later, have college students saying to their professors, “Well, we certainly don’t like what the Nazis did in the Holocaust, but who are we to say they were wrong?” Pope Benedict XVI was correct in warning about the dictatorship of relativism.
I harbor no illusions that the road to Damascus runs through my comfortable classroom. As a sinner in the process of being configured to Christ, I try to witness to the Incarnate Word; sometimes I’m in the zone, sometimes closer to “zoned out.” Metanoia is not magic. We know this, right? But, when the truth is presented, youth have an opportunity to experience this. The trumpet blast sounds in a clear and certain manner. Whether they like the music is not under human control. Thankfully, the position of Messiah has been filled for quite some time.
If we, as Church, dare to evangelize in word and action, will we be scoffed at? Sure. Will some (if they have a high SAT verbal score) call you antediluvian? Undoubtedly. Will some of your colleagues wonder if you were in Thomas Aquinas’s novitiate class? It could happen. Yet, it’s worth it, and, what’s more, every now and then, you might be blessed to see, or get a visit from, a former pupil in whom Jesus has taken the meager fish and loaves which you and many others have offered this former student, and he has done wonders with him or her. Parenthetically, let me add that teaching adolescent males, especially, calls for decisive and challenging interaction. Sugarcoating, dumbing down, and not recognizing how confrontational the Gospel of Christ Jesus really is betrays him, and the students. It is disastrous because treating boys merely as boys is a surefire way to prevent them from becoming men.
As a lay teacher, I do not have the blessing and the burden of preaching at Mass as do deacons, priests, and bishops. I imagine, though, that teaching about Natural Family Planning, openness to having children, the sanctity of the family, contraception as precursor of abortion-on-demand, and the Theology of the Body, is analogous to preaching on such truths. True, opprobrium is heaped upon the preacher, even for relatively trivial reasons. (And, as one of the congregants in the pews, let me note that many laypeople are quick to criticize a homily they deem poor, yet, relatively few of us affirm or praise the priest for preaching what is solid and spiritually nourishing.) Young people, nonetheless, need clear preaching on the hot-button issues as well as the popular ones. The Catholic Church has a countercultural, but consistent, kerygma. Being pastoral and being orthodox are not mutually exclusive. Naturally, there is great concern about rejection of the Gospel message, and of the messengers. Still, evidence about Christian communities which are growing indicates that when a Church seeks popularity and quasi-inclusiveness, membership dwindles. If the Church deals with the whole spectrum of issues, though, and is not fearful, it often occurs that people, especially the young, develop a respect for Jesus and his Gospel of Life.Mirabile dictu, some of the word falls on good soil and people embrace it. The Good News needs to be proclaimed from pulpits, podiums, and places, diverse and sundry.
In closing, I have written this piece to encourage readers, as well as myself. Evangelization cannot come to pass unless we refuse to be ashamed of Christ and the Catholic faith. We have to ask the Lord for the forthright audacity to speak the truth in genuine charity, and not to be embarrassed to be so out of sync with society. Given the state of the society around us, do we really want to sync with it? Postmodern Western culture has become hostile to orthodox Catholicism, so within that cultural bubble, Christianity appears weak and on the wane. Maybe so, but so is Western culture itself. Globally, the scenario is different. African cultures, Central and South American societies, and even parts of Asia, embrace traditional Christianity. Human fecundity, demographic growth and spiritual vigor, rather than sterility of body and spirit, characterize the Church in those milieus.St. Irenaeus famously affirmed, “The glory of God is the human person fully alive!” Indeed! That’s something you can preach.