Revisiting “Realities and Ideas”
“Realities are greater than ideas” has become one of the signature phrases in the pontificate of Pope Francis. Said to be derived from Romano Guardini, a giant of 20th-century theology, it’s nonetheless a somewhat Delphic formulation that can be interpreted in a variety of ways. Some find in it a welcome antidote to a sterile intellectualism that reduces the faith to a catalogue of syllogisms. Others worry that it could bespeak a certain disdain for theology, and for the intellectual vocation as an essential service to the Church. Still others see in it a variant on the first step in that venerable Young Christian Workers formula for discernment and mission: “See, judge, act.”
Whatever “realities are greater than ideas” means to anyone, however, it ought not mean that “reality” and “ideas” are dichotomies, such that between them a great gulf is fixed that no one may cross. That would be a bad mistake with serious consequences.
None of us perceives “reality” in an unmediated way—save, perhaps, for that first infant apprehension of a mother’s smile, so crucial to an appreciation of the benignity of life; and even that, I suppose, is in some sense mediated through one’s prenatal experience. We “see” (and “judge” and “act”) through prisms made of ideas, and the acuity and perspicacity of our ideas is one index of how well we grasp reality. That acuity and perspicacity has a neurological dimension, to be sure; thus the deep wound of advanced Alzheimer’s Disease or Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, which renders otherwise healthy adults incapable of perceiving things as they really are. But growth in the ability to see things as they are also has spiritual and intellectual dimensions, and those ought to be part of Synod-2018’s reflection.
In the Synod’s first three and a half days of work, more than one bishop has already noted that the intellectual apostolate is largely missing-in-action in the Synod’s working document. Bishops have also observed that the Instrumentum Laboris has little to say about evangelical approaches to young adults that appeal to the mind and that integrate intellectual life and the spiritual life, which are so often sundered in postmodernity. So what to do?
Pondering a remarkable bronze composition in front of the archdiocesan offices in Cologne, the capital of the Rhineland, might be helpful, as the Synod fathers and auditors wrestle with the intellectual and spiritual dimensions of “Youth, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment,” and their relationship.
This sculpture group depicts Edith Stein—St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross—at three moments in her life. In the first statue, the girl Edith, youngest daughter of Jewish parents, holds the Torah but hasn’t yet grasped its deepest meaning in the modern world. The second statue displays the young philosopher, Dr. Edith Stein, with a split head: She is academically precocious, but her brilliance has not yet been integrated with her heart and her soul in a mature, personal unity. The third statue invites us to meet Sister Teresa Benedicta a Croce (Blessed by the Cross), garbed in the Carmelite habit, carrying a crucifix, and proceeding toward her martyrdom in 1942 at the Auschwitz concentration camp. I found the statuary both mesmerizing and deeply moving when I first saw it some fifteen years ago. It’s an altogether extraordinary expression, in bronze, of an altogether extraordinary life: Yet it teaches, I think, a universal lesson about young adults.
Like Augustine of Hippo, Edith Stein was a vibrant, engaged young adult who took a while to put “realities and ideas” together. And what finally brought the two into harmony was the experience of faith, understood as the truth. Augustine’s famous description in the Confessions of the “Tolle, lege” (Take and read) that sent him to Romans 13:14–15 and wiped away his doubt is eerily similar to Prof. Dr. Edith Stein’s experience of spending an entire night reading the Autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila, concluding “This is the truth,” acquainting herself with the catechism and the missal, and quickly seeking baptism. For both Augustine in the 5th-century Roman empire and Edith Stein in 20th-century Germany, reality and the life of the mind came together in the life of faith purified by reason. Surely this is an ancient conviction with contemporary resonance that the Synod should lift up before the Church and the world, not least in terms of a reformed Catholic catechetics that nourishes young minds and enables young adults to meet the many cultural challenges of living a Christian life today.
In this matter of “realities and ideas,” the Synod might also say a word about the reform of Catholic higher education in the West.
Shortly before Synod-2018 convened, C. Christine Fair, a professor in the School of Foreign Service at America’s first Catholic university, Georgetown, proclaimed her non placet with “entitled white men” via Twitter: Those men “...deserve miserable deaths while feminists laugh as they take their last gasps. Bonus: we castrate their corpses and feed them to swine? Yes.” This struck some as exceptionally weird, even by the standards of an historically Catholic university that once covered up religious symbols to accommodate a speech by a president of the United States beholden to a secularist constituency. But was it really all that weird?
Despite the impressive Catholic efforts underway on its campus, some of which were described in these Letters yesterday, and irrespective of a few dedicated faculty, Georgetown University as an institution ceased to be “Catholic” in anything but a vestigial sense a while ago. If you doubt that, consider the letter from Dean Joel Hellman of the School of Foreign Service, announcing that he and Professor Fair had agreed that she would “go on research leave effective immediately,” during which Ms. Fair would “accelerate previously scheduled international research travel.” Why? Because “Georgetown’s top priority is fostering academic growth and ensuring a safe and secure environment for learning.”
That definition of Georgetown’s “top priority” would likely come as a surprise to Archbishop John Carroll of Baltimore, the school’s founder (and the founding bishop of the American hierarchy).
Catholic higher education that does not take seriously both human and spiritual formation, and the integration of that formation through the life of the mind, is not Catholic higher education; and a “safe and secure environment for learning” by no means exhausts the meaning of true human, intellectual, and spiritual formation. Catholic higher education that defines its goals in Dean Hellman’s narrow, worldly terms is a hollow simulacrum of Catholic higher education. Period. And it is consumer fraud to suggest otherwise.
It’s important to remember at these Synods that the Church in the West is by no means all the Catholic Church there is. Some of the most vital local churches in global Catholicism (in Africa, for example) have already made it clear in conversations at and around this Synod that western decadence and its obsessions aren’t their problems. The fact remains, however, that, in the West, “youth, the faith, and vocational discernment,” this year’s Synod theme, often interact in college and university settings that advertise themselves as “Catholic.” Perhaps the bishops of Synod-2018 could lift up a vision of authentic and integral Catholic higher learning for the twenty-first century in their Synod final report. And perhaps bishops from the West (and especially North America) could commit themselves, on returning home, to doing everything in their power to ensure that the “Catholic” brand is not abused by institutions where the curriculum, the faculty, and the mode of life on campus tend to contradict, if not falsify, just about everything “Catholic” should stand for in the life of the mind, the integration of realities and ideas, and the formation of young adults who can live for others.
- George Weigel
TESTIMONIES FOR THE SYNOD
While there has not yet been extensive discussion at the Synod of the Church’s evangelical, catechetical, and pastoral outreach to young-adult Catholics who experience same-sex attraction, the use of the term “LGBT youth” in the Instrumentum Laboris—the first such usage in an official Catholic document—has attracted attention and predictable controversy. In light of that usage, and in an attempt to lift this discussion out of the ideological context in which it too often occurs, your editor thought it worthwhile to share the following “Open Letter” to the Synod fathers by a young woman, Avera Maria Santo. The “Open Letter” was distributed to several Synod members by Cardinal Wilfred Fox Napier, O.F.M., of Durban, South Africa, who authorized its circulation. XR II
Dear Bishops of the Holy Catholic Church,
When I was made aware of the efforts being made by pro-LGBT groups trying to persuade Catholic Bishops to change Church teaching on homosexuality, specifically at this year's Youth Synod, it devastated me.
As someone who has not only grown up in the Church, but has also come to love her and her teachings for myself, I would hate to see her teachings altered in any way, especially in a way that could cause such a grave amount of damage.
I wish then to lay my heart bare, and to share some of my story and my convictions with you, dear Bishops of the Holy Catholic Church, and plead with you to keep the Church's teachings on homosexuality good, true, and beautiful.
I am a 22-year-old young Catholic woman [who] experiences same-sex attractions. While I was growing up, I heard very little, if anything at all, on homosexuality, even though I attended Catholic school from Pre-K [through] 12th grade.
When I finally came to terms with the fact that I was romantically interested in other women, it terrified me. I didn't know where turn, whom to speak to, or if I could speak about it at all. The fear paralyzed me into silence for quite a while.
As time went on, I began to learn more and more about the teachings of the Catholic Church on homosexuality, and for some time, I didn't understand them. I wasn't sure what the words “objectively” and “intrinsically disordered” meant, and truth be told, I had the feeling that I didn't want to know. It wasn't until I was around the age of 20 that I finally began to understand.
I'll admit, I didn't like what I heard, but I knew it was what I needed to hear.
Recently, I came across a quote from Abbot Jean-Charles Nault, O.S.B., that spoke a great deal of truth to me. It read:
“For the philosophers of antiquity, and for the whole Christian tradition, freedom is the ability that man has—and ability belonging jointly to his intellect and will—and perform virtuous actions, good actions, excellent actions, when he wants and as he wants. Man's freedom is therefore his capacity to accomplish good acts easily, joyously, and lastingly. This freedom is defined by the attraction of the good.”
Time and time again, we will hear phrases such as “I just want the freedom to love whomever I want,” from those within the LGBTQ community. This desire is an inherently good one, when it is rightly ordered.
Man is only truly free when he can choose to do as he ought, not simply as he wants, for the things that we may want aren't always good for us.
I used to want to be in a same-sex relationship. The desire was overwhelming at times, to the point where I could see no other way to get through the day. But I know now, from the good and gracious teachings of God through His Church, that such a relationship hinders not only my freedom to love authentically, but also my ability to achieve holiness. Taking it a step further, being in such a relationship could ultimately block me from spending my eternity with my one true love, Jesus.
My dear Bishops, there is no one on this earth [who] isn't called to a life of chastity [and] that includes my brothers and sisters who experience same-sex attractions. This is not because the Church is oppressive and wants us to be miserable and passively submissive to her, but because each and every one of us is invited to enter into the Divine Life of our Creator, a life where no sin can remain.
The Catechism [of the Catholic Church] states in paragraph 2331 that “God is love and in himself he lives a mystery of personal loving communion. Creating the human race in his own image...God inscribed in the humanity of man and woman the vocation, and thus the capacity and responsibility, of love and communion.”
Not only should I be reminded that, as a Christian, I am called to love as Christ loved us, but I also have the capacity to do so. I am capable of authentic love.
Telling me that my cross of same-sex attraction is too heavy for me to love as Christ calls me to, is not just degrading, it is also a lie. God did not abandon me when man first sinned in the beginning, and He will not abandon me now.
He has called me, and each and every one of us to Himself, and I intend to return back to Him, no matter how burdensome my cross may be.
Like Christ remembered me from the cross, I pray that you would remember me, and my brothers and sisters like me, dear Bishops, as you pray about and discuss how to help young people in matters of faith and vocation, especially in regard to the topic of homosexuality.
Please remember that, as St. Thérèse the Little Flower, a dear patron of mine, so greatly put it, “My vocation is to love.”
Yours in Christ,
Avera Maria Sant
An alert reader in Iowa has pointed out a mistake in yesterday’s Letter, #4: The Nazi “People’s Court” judge who condemned Sophie Scholl and the other heroes of the White Rose was named Roland Freisler, not Roland Feisler. Letters to the Synod-2018 regrets the error, and Mr. Weigel has been duly chastised. XR II