It did not require great perspicacity to predict some of the fevered negative reactions to the recent statement of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith declaring the blessing of same-sex unions to be illicit. One had only to recall the well-worn dictum of the Scholastics: “Quidquid recipitur ad modum recipientis recipitur”—“whatever is received is received according to the capability of the receiver.”
The current dominant “mode of reception” was sketched, in the midst of the culture-transforming 1960s, by the late Philip Rieff in his book The Triumph of the Therapeutic, a book at once recapitulative and prophetic. We dwell in a culture of subjectivity and emotional stridency, whose daily bread is the solemn proclamation of “my story,” “my truth,” “my comfort zone.” That a prevalent response to the CDF's declaration was the lament of being “hurt” only provides confirmation for Rieff’s thesis.
In such a culture, when the CDF employs expressions like “the truth of the liturgical rite,” “the very nature of the sacramental,” “objectively ordered,” they are bound to constitute stumbling blocks. And for the declaration to dare conclude with the stark assertion that while God “never ceases to bless each of his pilgrim children in this world . . . he does not and cannot bless sin” only seals the scandal in the minds of many.
It is important to recognize that the CDF’s response acknowledges the genuine pastoral concern of many who advocate for such blessings. It appreciates their desire to “welcome and accompany” individuals as they grow in faith. But, unlike some who facilely speak of “accompaniment,” the statement has clearly in view the goal of that accompaniment and the content of that faith: the holiness to which all the baptized are called—a holiness embodied in and enabled by the Lord Jesus Christ. And, though not explicitly cited, Paul’s exhortation to the Romans might well have been used as the statement's epigraph: “Brothers and sisters, present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your minds” (Rom. 12:1–2).
The CDF statement, though seemingly focused upon the issue of the blessing of same-sex unions, has much wider import. It confronts the crisis that has been roiling Catholicism since the conclusion of the Council. The crisis goes far deeper than the contrasting “styles” of a given papacy, or the appropriate balance to be struck between “institutional” and “charismatic” or “juridical” and “pastoral.” It concerns the sacramental substance of the faith, the distinct form of the Body of Christ.
The immediate occasion of the CDF’s intervention seems to be the situation of the Church in Germany, where the blessing of such unions is being promoted and engaged in, with the encouragement, tacit or overt, of some bishops. But the wider context is the so-called “Synodal Path” underway there. Preliminary documents of the Synodal Path have raised widespread concern that what is in the offing is not the development of doctrine, but the relativizing and undermining of doctrine. And this coheres all too closely with the therapeutic ethos that characterizes much of Western Catholicism.
Our present crisis was foreseen by Saint John Henry Newman 150 years ago. In an address at the opening of Saint Bernard’s Seminary, Newman acknowledged that all times have their distinctive perils, and that the Church will always be buffeted due to the misconduct and failings of her members as much as by the attacks of her foes. But he presciently cautioned that “Christianity has never yet had experience of a world simply irreligious”—a world, we might say, of “Nones.” And so Newman titled his address “The Infidelity of the Future.”
Of course, for Newman, a major sign of this impending crisis was what he referred to as “the spirit of liberalism in religion.” According to this spirit, “revealed religion is not a truth, but a sentiment and a taste; not an objective faith.” This leads to the belief that “it is the right of each individual to make it say just what strikes his fancy.” Though Newman admits that this mindset may assume various guises in different countries, “the general character of this apostasia is one and the same everywhere.”
“Apostasia” has a quaint ring, but a mortal consequence. Sixty years after Newman’s speech, H. Richard Niebuhr penned his obituary for the sad dead end of liberal Protestantism: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.” In this Lenten season, Newman and Niebuhr provide a salutary examen of conscience for all Catholics.
Robert P. Imbelli, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, is the author of Rekindling the Christic Imagination.
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