Saturday, January 28, 2012

Aquinas and Theology of the Body

Today is the feast of St. Thomas Aquinas. He was a giant-literally-in Catholic theology. Dubbed the "Dumb Ox" by his fellow friars in the Dominican order, Aquinas had intellectual gifts rarely seen here on earth. It was not an easy life. His parents locked him up in a room when they heard he wanted to join the Order of Preachers. They even sent in a prostitute to sway him from his desire to live a life following Christ's footsteps. What made Aquinas so unique was his ability to synthesize ideas. For instance, the basis for his theology was the great philosopher Aristotle. Aquinas essential took Aristotle's thoughts and baptized them into Catholicism. This is a very important point. In Rome there is a large obelisk in the center of St. Peter's square. People who are opposed to the Catholic church often look at that and say "See! the Church is pagan-they have a large pagan symbol right at the heart of their most important Church!" What they fail to see is the cross on the top of the obelisk. This is a very important teaching tool. The cross on top of the obelisk symbolizes how Christ came into the world and conquered paganism with the cross.

This is also Aquinas' approach to theology. He takes what is true, good, and beautiful in the world and brings it to Christ. To this very day the Summa Theologica is the standard and norm by which theologians approach their study of God. Pope John Paul II in his Theology of the Body followed the same approach. He often takes two seemingly opposed objects and brings them to a synthesis in Jesus Christ-male and female. The series of his catechesis that formed the basis of Theology of the Body were his talks entitled "The original unity of man and woman." Fascinatingly the Pope uses the biblical account of creation in Genesis to support his thesis. He has some pretty profound things to say. For example, "the call to nuptial love revealed through our sexuality is the fundamental element of human existence in the world." (January 16, 1980). If that is the case then sex and sexuality is no insignificant issue.

The other very important thing to St. Thomas Aquinas and Pope John Paul II is their epistemology (fancy word for how we know that something is true). In contrast to some philosophers who said that the human person was nothing more than a "ghost in a machine", Aquinas and Pope John Paul II both stress the importance of the human body. It is through sense experience that we first come to our knowledge of the truth. We don't start with our ideas or thoughts because there is no tangible proof. This is a direct rebuke of the philosophy of Descartes who said " I think therefore I am." I can think that there is a pink elephant in front of me all I want but without sense experience (see, taste, touch, smell, hear) to confirm it, there is no proof. So we begin with sense experience. For this reason Pope John Paul II stressed the importance of the body. We use our body to act morally or immorally. The actions of the body reveal who we are. We are more than just thought. This underlines the key principle that gets to the heart of his pro-life teachings as well: the dignity of the human person. It is through human bodies that a married couple reveal their love to one another. The human bodies of the original male and female (Adam and Eve) are how we image God. It is in the complementarity of male and female that we understand God and if we realize that God, from the beginning of time wanted to "marry" the human race in Jesus Christ, we see the tremendous importance of marriage, sex, and family.

Heavy stuff, I know. The importance of Aquinas is what we want to emphasize today. He takes some fundamental truths from nature and the world of philosophy and shows how Christ brings it unity. Pope John Paul II takes the "war of the sexes"-all the joys, love, but also heartache and pain in the relationships of men and women and brings them to a unity in Jesus Christ. God takes to very different human beings-a male and female-and brings them to a unity in Jesus Christ. This unity comes about in marriage where "the two become one", where "two hearts beat as one" and where, as Tony and Maria sing in West Side Story God "makes of our hearts, one heart makes of our lives, one life." Two lives become one in marriage. No one understood this better than St. Thomas Aquinas and Pope John Paul II.

To be continued....

Friday, January 27, 2012

Obamacare HHS mandate

This blog is dedicated to Pope John Paul II. One of the great legacies of this holy Pope was his teaching on Human Sexuality- The Theology of the Body. By and large this gem of Catholic teaching has been ignored by most of the Church. This is a shame because the teachings highlight the incredible dignity of the human person created in the image of God. The Second Vatican Council used the phrase "Total Vision of Man" in applying the church's teaching to these issues. So how does this apply to issues in the church today? Last Friday Kathleen Sebelius and the HHS department announced a mandate for contraceptive coverage. This mandate would apply to abortificients, contraceptives, and sterilization. This may leave some Catholics scratching their heads. Why focus on contraception when there are so many other issues, and doesn't contraception help reduce unwanted pregnancies? Dating back to Humanae Vitae, the encyclical on the regulation of human birth, there has been a split in the Catholic Community. Many Catholics simply chose to ignore this church teaching as out of date and not pertinent to modern times. This is unfortunate. Consider the following statistics from Walter Schu's book, The Splendor of Love: " In light of Paul VI's first prophesy, let us review once again the dire statistics on marriage and public morality since the 1960's which ushered in the widespread use of contraception......In what was called the 'demoralization of American societ,' a number of statistical indicators came together. In the 30 years 1960-1990, while the U.S. population rose by 41%, there was a 560 percent increase in violent crime, 200 percent in teenage suicide, 200 percent increase in divorce, over 400 percent increase in illegitimate births, 300 percent rise in childern living in single parent homes-producing in toto the significant fact tht children formed the fastest growing segment of the criminal population.........Up to 1920, the proportion of children born to single women in the United States was less than 3 percent, roughly where it had been throughout the history of the country...By the end of 1994 it (the illegitimacy rate) was 33 percent for the nation as a whole, 25 percent for whites, and 70 percent for blacks. In parts of Washington D.C, capital of the richest nation in the world, it was as high as 90 %. " Schu, LC continues in his book, "Pope Paul VI expressed special concern about the vulnerability of the young. Critics dismissed his worries with indulgent smiles. Are young people suffering today as a result of contraception? Consider the following stats from the Washington Weekly standard, 1996: " By age 19 8 out of every 10 males and 7 of 10 females has had sexual intercourse. Four of 10 teenagers have had at least one pregnancy....Nearly a million and a half abortions occur each year and nearly a third of these (almost 400,000) are obtained by teenagers.... These figures are so chilling; so too is their meaning. It is disturbing that they seem to be self-perpetuating; consider that roughly 80 percent of girls who are mothers at age 15 are daughters of women who had babies when they were teenagers."

I think it is fair to conclude that Pope Paul VI was correct when he said there would be a general decline in morality in the population. Secondly, he wrote that "man who becomes used to contraceptive devices, may in the end lose respect for his wife, and no longer caring about her physical and psychological well being, will come to the point of considering her a mere instrument of selfish enjoyment, and no longer his respected and beloved companion. Lastly, Paul VI expressed concern that contraception would be a "dangerous weapon that would thus be placed in the hands of those public authorities who have no concern for the requirements of morality." In a strongly worded sentence Pope Paul VI notes: "Who will prevent rulers from favoring, and even imposing upon their people, the methold of contraception they judge to be the most effective, if they should consider this to be necessary?" Indeed, this is where we are today, the Obama Administration has given, in the words of Archbishop Dolan, a year before they have to violate their conscience. Although the issue is serious and points to questions of religious liberty, it is also a great starting point to begin a discussion of why the church teaches what it does. Worth noting is that every major Christian denomination opposed artificial means of contraception until the Lambeth Conference in the 1930's. The Catholic Church is the only Church that has remained firm in declaring it to be a grave moral evil. This teaching, interestingly enough, was the thing that convinced Dr. Scott Hahn's wife, Kimberly, to enter the church. If the church were right on this issue she must be right on the other issues as well. "This teaching is hard!" we say like the Apostles. Yes, it is hard, but in future blog posts I hope to demonstrate the reasonableness of this teaching, how it fits into the "Total Vision of Man" and how if we give the Lord the best of ourselves, even our sexuality and fertility, The Lord of Life will not be outdone in generosity. Praised be Jesus Christ.....and Long Live Christ the King!

Fr Nagle