This is the first article in the series “The Once and Future Lord.” 

I am not a fan of jigsaw puzzles. When I gaze at hundreds of small bits of cardboard daubed with variegated colors, my vision soon blurs, and my mind grows numb. However, during the Christmas days, it often happens that one of the nuns will upend a box of puzzle pieces (usually on a table too small for the finished product), and, out of respect for community life, I will, from time to time, try to fit a couple of pieces together.

Not infrequently, the two pieces I choose will seem to be made for each other: the edges of one go in where the edges of the other stick out, and the design (if one can call it that) seems to flow uninterruptedly across from one piece to the other. I match the sides and set the conjoined pieces back on the table. Apparently, I was not careful enough in joining them, and there is a slight unevenness between the pieces. I press them more firmly down on the table, but the unevenness remains. I ball my hand into a fist and pound the two pieces in place. They still buckle. With a sigh I break them apart and look for the missing third piece that should go between them. When I find it (if I do), it slides neatly and uncomplainingly into the edges of both the original pieces, and I feel the glow of success of someone who has achieved a notable triumph.

I had a similar feeling recently when I read an article about Bishop Robert Barron’s disagreement with one aspect of the recent report issuing from the Synod on Synodality. Bishop Barron, whom I greatly admire,

[T]ook particular issue with the suggestion that “advances in our scientific understanding will require a rethinking of our sexual teaching, whose categories are, apparently, inadequate to describe the complexities of human sexuality” in the synthesis document.

He called this language “condescending to the richly articulate tradition of moral reflection in Catholicism,” including the theology of the body developed by St. John Paul II.

“To say that this multilayered, philosophically informed, theologically dense system is incapable of handling the subtleties of human sexuality is just absurd,” Barron said.

The article says that both Bishop Barron and Archbishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney recognized a tension at the Synod between love and truth, especially in the area of sexual morality.

“Practically everyone at the synod held that those whose sexual lives are outside of the norm should be treated with love and respect, and, again, bravo to the synod for making this pastoral point so emphatically. But many synod participants also felt that the truth of the Church’s moral teaching in regard to sexuality ought never to be set aside,” Barron said.

He added that it would be more accurate to say that there might be “‘a tension between welcoming and truth’ because’ when the terms are rightly understood, there is no real tension between love and truth, for love is not a feeling but the act by which one wills the good of another.”

“Therefore, one cannot authentically love someone else unless he has a truthful perception of what is really good for that person,” he said.

I am not good with abstractions, and, in reading theological and philosophical treatises, I often experience a mental numbness similar to the one described when facing a jigsaw puzzle. However, I know very well the challenge of uniting truth and love in a balanced harmony. It is the challenge that lies at the heart of every religious community: how to love each member of the community in a way that helps them to grow into the person God intends them to be.

Every religious community is an icon of the Church, for every religious community is made up of believing Catholics who are called to live in communion with God and with one another. I have found that many of the tensions and challenges facing the Church worldwide exist also in smaller form in each religious community. The challenge of living truth and love is a prime example.

Each nun in my community is here because she believes that God has called her to be a member of our community, and the community has confirmed that call, or, for those in formation, is in the process of discerning it. Each one of us is called to witness to our Carmelite charism, which proclaims to the Church and the world the value of silence, solitude, prayer, and a vibrant community life. In the same way, each Catholic is called to witness to the truths of the faith and the call to perfect union with God in Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit.

In both cases, the call is the same to each member of the community and to each member of the Church, but each person will perceive the call with a unique resonance and will respond in a unique way. The call is the same, the responses are different. The challenge to the community is to help each member to balance their response to the call in a way that unites each person with all the others so that all together create a harmony that flows from the unity of the Trinity. This means that each member, and the community as a whole, needs to cooperate with the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives. As the saying goes, “the closer people come to God, the closer they come to one another.”

In past centuries, the way that many religious communities tried to bring about this harmony was by establishing minute regulations that governed every aspect of the lives of the members. This created a smooth-running organization that provided a peaceful atmosphere for personal development. However, too often it also caused personal relationships to remain superficial. Superficial relationships among the members of a community do not lead anyone to a deep relationship with God. A study of the lives of the saints shows that they were never superficial in their personal relationships. Their relationships with other people flowed from their union with God, which was deep and overflowing. The organization of the community needs to provide for the same depth in the relationships among the members. This need exists for the Church as well as for individual communities.

Vatican II called for a return to the sources: to the Gospel and the Fathers of the Church, and to the spirit and charisms of the founders of religious institutes. Many communities, not knowing how to achieve this, lost their bearings and discarded guidelines that were in fact helpful and even essential. In considering the past experiences of religious communities, we see more clearly the tension between truth and love. The truth is not to be found in conformity, nor does love consist in letting each person do what they want. Conformity destroys love by annihilating the personhood of the members. A person squeezed into a superficial conformity cannot love deeply. At the other extreme, freedom without parameters cannot bring about harmony among the  members, and without harmony, there is no unity. Even more obviously, there is no community; there are only people living under the same roof.

This is a short glimpse of the challenge that Bishop Barron is referring to. The pressure to achieve unity by demanding a consistent style of behavior is rightly rejected in the Synod’s Report. At the same time, no basis for harmonious relationships is provided save an admission of the “complexities of human sexuality” and a call to rethink our sexual teaching.   Fortunately for my sanity and providentially for my spiritual welfare, God has recently provided a third “puzzle piece” that, for me, at least, brought together in unity the two realities of love and truth when facing the questions raised by Bishop Barron and Archbishop Fisher. In a recent article at Where Peter Is, “Traditional or Pseudo-Traditional?”, I considered a talk by Joseph Ratzinger just before the Second Vatican Council, and to help explain the point of my article, I quoted a passage by Servais Pinckaers, O.P. In his book Morality, The Catholic View, Pinckaers describes the shift in the presentation of moral theology that took place notably after the Council of Trent. Unlike St. Thomas Aquinas, who saw moral obligations as being subordinate to the virtues, 17th century theology presented the morality of obligation, in which “obligation is given priority and invades the entire domain of the moral life.” Manuals were written to help priests and seminarians to minister in the sacrament of Penance. Moral theology was divided into two parts: fundamental moral theology, which treats the foundational principles, and special moral theology, which considers in detail the laws determining what is permitted or forbidden and governing the resolution of cases of conscience. Fundamental theology contains four treatises: laws, human acts, conscience, and sins.” This approach is familiar to us through the various forms of the examination of conscience that are presented as preparation for confession.

Fr. Pinckaers shows that this approach to morality leaves out certain important aspects that were included in St. Thomas’s teaching: one notices immediately the disappearance of the treatise on happiness and the ultimate end, as well as the absence of a treatment of the virtues and the gifts. Moreover, a treatise on conscience has been inserted that will henceforth occupy a central place. Lastly, the treatise on grace has been removed from the domain of morals and placed in dogmatic theology.”

Any life separated from the desire for happiness has lost its motivation. No form of obligation can replace the energy generated by desire. The desire for happiness is rooted in our being. The Catechism states that “This desire is of divine origin: God has placed it in the human heart in order to draw man to the One who alone can fulfill it.” (#1718) Moreover, because this desire for happiness is implanted by God, we cannot desire something evil. We can only desire something that in some way, to some degree, shares in God’s goodness. Pseudo-Dionysius wrote, “Without some share in what is Good nothing has ever existed, nothing does exist and nothing could exist. Take lust, for example. It is devoid of Good because of its senseless covetousness … but that does not prevent it from taking its share of what is Good by means of the feeble echo that remains in it of fellowship and tenderness… Even the person who desires the worst of lives, in so far as the desire is to live, and to live what seems a better life, by the very desiring, by the desire to live and by the aiming at a higher life, that person has a share in what is Good.” (Pseudo-Dionysius, “The Divine Names”, IV) But since the desire for happiness is implanted by God, it is not a vague, impulse leading in any direction. It aims at God Himself, and it urges us toward God through the practices of the virtues. Because the virtues aim at God, they are far more demanding than any “morality of obligation” can possibly be.

In that case, what has changed? The morality of obligation, which has been the basis for moral teaching in the Church for the last four centuries, has made demands in behavior that Catholics are expected to live up to, under the threat of sin and guilt. The practice of the virtues presents even higher challenges in behavior. So why should we practice the virtues? What changes if we choose to practice the virtues rather than conform to the morality of obligation?

What changes is the presence of grace and the action of the Holy Spirit. The moral theology taught in the manuals of recent centuries, as Fr. Pinckaers points out, moved the study of grace to dogmatic theology. Grace became something to be taught and believed, and no longer the outpouring of life flowing into us through the Holy Spirit. Practicing the virtues doesn’t mean girding up our loins and pulling up our socks and forcing ourselves through the obstacle course of morally correct behavior. It means opening ourselves to a life and power that lifts us up to do what is beyond our power: enabling us to live the life of God already in this world. “And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.” (1 Jn 3:3)

No one can love a rule. We are made for intimacy, and we can only love a person. When that person is God-made-man, what seems to be a rule is found to be an invitation, an invitation to the deepest of all intimacies. This is the morality to which we are all called, and which brings about that harmonious unity that we all desire.

Bishop Barron complained that the passage in the Synod Report was “condescending to the richly articulate tradition of moral reflection in Catholicism.” This may be true, but as long as that “richly articulate tradition” is held fast in the straitjacket of the morality of obligation, it will neither entice us to explore it nor empower us to practice it. The Church’s teaching on sexuality needs to be presented in the framework of the traditional teaching of morality, which is ultimately the framework of the transforming work of the Holy Spirit.  I have read enough of Bishop Barron’s writing to know of his deep veneration for St. Thomas Aquinas. I think he will agree that the Angelic Doctor and those writers who share his insights can provide the solutions that we need to live the truth in love, the truth of God and the truth of each person.

Image: St. Thomas Aquinas in an altarpiece by Carlo Crivelli. From Wikimedia Commons.

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Sr. Gabriela of the Incarnation, O.C.D. (Sr. Gabriela Hicks) was born in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, in the Gold Rush country of California, which she remembers as heaven on earth for a child! She lived a number of years in Europe, and then entered the Discalced Carmelite Monastery in Flemington, New Jersey, where she has been a member for forty years. www.flemingtoncarmel.org.

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