While I was doing graduate studies in Belgium, I lived at the American College in Leuven. On staff there at the time, in the housekeeping and maintenance department, was a wonderfully colourful woman whose energy brought oxygen into a room but whose history of marriage somewhat paralleled that of the Samaritan woman in John’s Gospel. None of us knew for sure how often she’d been married and the man she was living with at the time was not her husband.
One day an archbishop was visiting the college and there was a formal reception line of which she was part. The archbishop would shake each person’s hand and engage him or her in a brief exchange. When he came to her, she gave him her name and told him what she did at the college. He shook her hand and, by way of greeting and conversation, asked her: “Are you married?” She wasn’t quite prepared for that question. She stammered a bit and replied: “Yes, no, well, kind of.” Then, breaking into a grin, said: “Actually, your Grace, I’m living in sin!” To his credit, the archbishop grinned as well. He got what she was saying, not just her words, but too the nuance that her grin conveyed.
Living in sin. Acts that are inherently disordered. What’s Catholic moral theology trying to say with this kind of concept when so many people today, including many Roman Catholics, find such concepts unintelligible and offensive?
To the credit of classical Roman Catholic moral teaching, these concepts have an intelligibility and a palatability inside a certain moral framework within which their proper meaning and nuance is predicated on the overall system. In a simpler language, they make sense within that system. In today’s language, classical Roman Catholic moral theology might be compared to a highly specialized software; indeed one which was honed, nuanced, and upgraded through centuries so that, as a system, it has smooth internal coherence. The problem, though, is that today so much of our culture and so many of our churches no longer use, nor understand how to use, that software. As a consequence, its formatting and language are misunderstood and can appear offensive. Not everyone, like the archbishop just described, has a sense of humour about this.
So what’s to be done? How do we move forward? Do we simply abandon a lot of classical moral teachings because so many people today are taking offense at its concepts and language?
Admittedly it’s a huge problem, with a lot of sincere people weighing in very differently on the issue, as was seen at the recent synod in Rome on marriage and family life. How do we hold authentic Christian moral ground and, at the same time, properly account for the actual, existential reality of millions and millions of people, including many of our own families and children? How do we name the moral reality of people who are living in situations that, while clearly life-giving, are not in line with Christian principles? How do we name the moral reality of so many of our own children and loved ones who are living with partners to whom they are not married, but are drawing life from that relationship? How do we name the moral situation of a gay couple whose relationship is clearly life-giving? And how do we name the moral situation of the Samaritan woman and the woman I mentioned earlier who, while irregular in terms of the church’s teaching on marriage, bring life, joy, and oxygen into a room? Are they living in sin? Does their situation include some intrinsic evil?
We need a new software within moral theology to answer those questions, or at least to format them in a language that our culture understands and can be challenged by. And it won’t be a simple or easy task, as the tensions and polarizations within our churches and at our dinner tables highlight. The task is to hold our moral ground, challenge a culture which no longer understands or accepts our former way of understanding these things, and yet, at the same time, not bend the truth to the times, nor the Gospel to the world, even as we better name the moral situation within which so much of our world and so many of our loved ones find themselves.
The truth sets us free, but God often works through crooked lines. I’m a student of classical moral theology and truly believe in its principles, even as I am daily humbled and challenged by the love, grace, faith, and wonderful oxygen I see flowing out of people whose situations are “irregular.” How can the good be bad? At this stage in time, along with many of the rest of you, I suspect, I am forced to stay with the ambiguity, to live the question.
We need a new software, a new way of morally formatting things, a new way of holding truth in empathy, a new way of holding the essential within the existential.
Rolheiser, theologian, teacher and award-winning author, is president of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas.