I have always thought that those who teach ought to be both experienced and broadly knowledgeable. I have also long thought that those who teach ought to be exemplary students – humble, curious, and open-minded. Consequently, when I am challenged (in an honest and fair way) I don’t slink off to lick my wounds. When I am challenged (by faithful friends) I don’t lash out in anger at having been contradicted. When I am challenged (especially by students), I pause and retrace my steps, regarding the situation in question; and then I try to re-explain the concept. I believe I am a humble, curious and open-minded kind of guy – at least, in regard to some things.
So, when I was challenged regarding some questions that I had about the Roman Catholic Church, Contraception, and the Obama Administration’s health care bill, I was relieved to have the help of a friend that could direct my study along the appropriate lines of inquiry. Based on my exploration of Papal encyclicals, some rather dense philosophical content, and some slightly less dense theological writing, I am not left with much alleviation from my original perplexity. However, I have a whole hell of lot more questions…of course (If you’re interested, I’ll link to the stuff I have been reading at the end of this post. It will give you a sense of what I “know” and it may be helpful in guiding your own foray into the topics at hand).
As such, this post constitutes a first attempt to distinguish some important questions. I still clearly see two issues: one civil and the other theological. I am not saying that the theological issue has no bearing on the civil issue or vice versa. I am saying that the theological issue somehow precedes the civil issue for me. Therefore, I will spend some time doing two things: First, I will sort the theological issue from the civil issue (where possible); Second, I will explore the foundational ideas upon which the theological issue rests.
First, the issue of sorting the civil from the theological – here, I mean that I want to deal with loyalties to God and church without diluting that inquiry by mixing in national or governmental loyalties. This stems from a personal belief that Christians are called to be loyal to Christ and the Christian community via the Christian ethos of citizenship in a heavenly kingdom ‘before’ or ‘above’ all other loyalties. Namely, l feel like my faith ought always to be able to critique the State, and that they should not blend into a singular loyalty. Yet, I have to acknowledge that while I can separate myself from the State, I cannot necessarily separate myself so cleanly from my place within society.
It is a problem that seems to be addressed in what Andrew Shanks calls a civil religion or “Civil Theology.” In his words, civil theology is “a ceaseless critical back-and-forth” that juxtaposes citizenship with Christian living in a kind of self-examination where one is “able to criticize one’s given identity as an adherent of that tradition, on the basis of one’s solidarity with one’s fellow citizens – including those of other faiths and of none.” The ultimate result or goal being that a civil religion that transcends the confessional vocabulary of any single world religion would emerge as the status quo. So, while I still maintain a certain Christian autonomy from governments past and present, I do acknowledge that there is the difficulty of living the Christian life as the citizen of a government in this present age. Some might be tempted to quote Jesus here, “be in the world but not of it” or some such thing. Provocative as Shank’s appeal to a new civil consciousness that utilizes the absolutism or authority of religion without allowing a singular religious confession to ‘rule’ the populace happens to be, I think it represents the very thing I am trying to sift out here. In my opinion, a ‘civil theology’ must either come after or as an addendum to a theology (proper) of the Christian faith. A civil theology would expound the ways in which the Christian faith interacts with society at large and the other articulates the actual content of Christian faith.
And so, in my brain, being precedes doing and these kinds of issues raise questions about the ‘being’ of Christianity. While I understand that much of the conflict between President Obama’s Administration and the Roman Catholic Church has to do with government interference in religious practice (and I don’t mean to downplay this element in saying so), I am currently more interested in establishing why there is an established and enduring theological position against contraceptives.
Finally, I arrive at the belated and ultimate point of the post. The foundational theological issue underlying the cognitive dissonance I am having is one of anthropology. Generally, how does Christian theology inform what we know about being human; and, specifically, how does Christian theology inform what we know about human sexuality? It really does seem that in our generation, it all boils down to one protracted fight over sex. I have done my best to read primary sources, to establish foundational systems of thought, and to evaluate arguments in their proper context. Consequently, I am happy to pause here and hear from our community of readers about where I have gone astray, if anywhere.
Before I leave it to you, however, allow me to trace my thoughts. I think the initial distinction remains important. I think the voice of the Church will be a voice that speaks from a perspective not just inspired by the “spirit” of the Christian tradition, but also ‘Inspired’ by the Spirit of the Christian tradition; and this inspiration remains in tension with whatever broader social consciousness Christians all over the world may find as their context for living. However, and this is important, I think you can expect Christian men and women to have differences of opinion regarding how to discern where that inspiration is leading.
Next, after reading Humanae Vitae, I think it is clear that while human sexuality is ultimately the issue at hand, the method for evaluating the appropriateness of human sexuality (and bodily function by proxy) is St. Aquinas’ robust view of natural law. In fact, I have read many commentators that dismiss detractors in an out of hand sort of fashion, claiming that one merely has to have a background in Natural Law in order to see the unassailable truthfulness of Humanae Vitae. I have found this to be a bit irksome, because it seems a bit arrogant to wave off nearly 750 years of development in philosophical and theological thought like it is an uninterrupted string of people who just do not ‘get it.’ As such, one of the initial concerns I have about a Church document like Humanae Vitae amounts to learning just how reliant it is on natural law theory.
I plan future posts in the series to deal with several things which Humanae Vitae involves, including but not limited to: Natural Law Theory, the ‘Majority Report’ received by Paul VI, Human Sexuality, and issues that subsequently seem related.
Here’s that list of some of the things I have been reading: