Christ is the Light of the world
The opening sentences of Vatican II’s Lumen gentium state that Christ is the light of all nations, not the Church, but that this light shines on the Church’s face, especially in its proclamation of the Gospel. The human reception of that light—and hence of the Gospel—is, however, open to resistance and hence to distortion, misinterpretation, and rejection (see John Paul II, Dominum et Vivificantum, §§55-56, 47). Thus, the offer of salvation, or being called to salvation by God’s grace, is one thing, and the actuality of reception is another. Consider John 1: 5, 10. “And the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not understood it.” “He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him.” Both of these verses speak of the negative reaction of the world to the coming of the light. As Karol Wojtyla, the future John Paul II rightly said, “Jesus is both the light that shines for mankind and at the same time a sign of contradiction . . . , that sign which, more than ever, men are resolved to oppose” (Sign of Contradiction, 198).
The fall into sin and its effects
Still, the darkness of the unspiritual mind (Col 2:18), of error and sin, of distortion, misinterpretation, and rejection, does not extinguish the Light. The Light of Christ still shines upon the face of his Church, as John Paul II says, “while [the Church] attentive to the new challenges of history and to mankind’s efforts to discover the meaning of life, offers to everyone the answer which comes from the truth about Christ and his Gospel” (Veritatis Splendor §2). Furthermore, we can also appreciate that the light of God the Creator has not been extinguished since, even though the fall into sin (Gen 3) and its universal effects has savagely ruined the whole creation, man still reflects God’s image, the structures of creation, such as marriage and family, indeed, the whole temporal order, still affirm creation’s goodness, and dimensions of any culture, such as art, literature, music, law, moral standards, and so forth, still reflect God’s goodness in view of his common grace.
So, the Church does not claim that the whole culture of any society, including our own, is irretrievably evil and hence irreclaimable, beyond redemption. But neither does she accept all the dimensions of this culture as wholly good, or wholly tolerable. In its response to the surrounding dimensions of a culture, the Church, at its best, has adopted a threefold strategy of (1) total rejection (e.g., incest, bestiality, homosexual practice, adultery, child sacrifice, prostitution, and rape), (2) qualified tolerance (e.g., practices in the Old Testament, such as, polygamy, divorce that were tolerated, Jesus tells us, because of “hardness of hearts,” but it was not so from the order of creation [Matt 19:8; Mk 10:5]), and (3) critical affirmation, which means affirming positively, albeit discerningly, aspects of the true, good and beautiful in, say, the ancients and moderns (e.g., philosophical ideas of Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Scheler).
This threefold strategy, which we find evidence of in the Sacred Scripture, is an answer to the question as to how the Church should engage the surrounding culture. This question is fundamental to understanding the recent book, Mag ik? Sorry, Dank je, Vrijmoedige dialoog over relaties, huwelijk en gezin [May I? Sorry, Thank you, Open Dialogue about relationships, marriage and family (Lannoo, 2016)], by Bishop Johan Bonny (Antwerp, Belgium), moral theologian Roger Burggraeve, and Ilse Van Halst. Rather than this complex threefold strategy, the authors of this book employ a simplistic strategy of wholly accepting the culturally dominant sexual morality of our time, in particular its affirmation of pre-marital sex and hence cohabitation (33-36, 41-46, 48-50, 63, 70), contraceptive sex (108-110), and same-sex relations (62, 137, 143-145, 148149, 151, 153, 155-157, 161, 169, 174). They accept this morality because not only is it the way things are socially, but also the Church’s teaching no longer reflects what Christians experience as sin (41-42, 84). They also attempt to provide a moral as well as theological justification of these practices, going so far as to make a plea for ecclesial rites of blessing for cohabiting and same-sex couples (52, 54-55, 163-164).
Rejection of Church teaching
They readily acknowledge that their view doesn’t represent the whole Church (243). This is an understatement, and it is also inaccurate. They consciously rejects confessional Catholicism, the normative and authoritative exposition of the Catholic faith, particularly of the moral life in Christ regarding human sexuality (145, 162, 215), as found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (§§2331-2400), which John Paul II called a “‘sure norm for teaching the faith’, as well as a ‘sure and authentic reference text’” (xv).
Furthermore, these authors completely ignore the foundational moral teaching of John Paul II’s Veritatis splendor and his profound biblical and theological reflections in his Theology of the Body. I am not surprised about their ignoring the latter given their claim (see below) regarding the moral and ontological insignificance of sexual differentiation, and hence of bodied persons, for giving a positive account of conjugal marriage, of the two-in-one-flesh union of a man and woman (Genesis 2:24). This is ironic given the recent Dutch translation by Betsaida publishers of John Paul’s Theologie van het lichaam.
The use and abuse of semina Verbi
How do they theologically justify, for example, cohabitation and same-sex relations? They employ the concept of the “semina Verbi,” or “seeds of the Word” in order to find goodness or positive elements in these relationships (17, 43, 49, 50, 61, 147, 168, 214), suggesting that these relationships qua relationships are imperfect forms and incomplete realizations of conjugal marriage, of an exclusive and permanent relationship. They say, “love is love” (148, 169). But this is a misinterpretation and hence misapplication of this concept, which is typically applied in the context of appreciating the elements of goodness and truth found in other cultures and religions as a preparation for the reception of the gospel (praeparatio evangelica). But Vatican II does not move from recognizing those elements to concluding that those religions qua religions are themselves vehicles of salvation, even if imperfectly, bringing us into a saving relationship with God.
Fragments of truth
No wonder Vatican II’s Ad Gentes §9 takes the Church’s missionary activity to involve a “purg[ing] of evil associations [of] every element of truth and grace which is found among peoples.” No wonder that Lumen Gentium, §16-17 speak of “deceptions by the Evil One” at work in a man’s resistance to God’s prevenient grace as well as that the gospel “snatches them [non-Christians] from the slavery of error and of idols” and the “confusion of the devil.” Indeed, Ad Gentes, §9 speaks of the fragments of truth and grace to be found among the nations that the gospel “frees from all taint of evil and restores [the truth] to Christ its maker, who overthrows the devil’s domain and wards off the manifold malice of vice.” In short, the Church’s missionary practice is a transformative one of bringing “every thought captive” to Christ (2 Cor 10:5) by treating whatever truth or goodness is found in those cultures and religions as stepping stones that are brought into the service of the gospel and its reception.
God’s common grace
Similarly, consider the use of this concept with respect to cohabitation. Let us suppose that a cohabiting couple with children possesses certain stability for the raising of children (45-46). This is good, and let us say that it is even a sign of God’s common grace. But that doesn’t mean that a cohabiting relationship qua relationship is itself good, and that it is an imperfect form and incomplete realization of marriage (48). No more than the presence of truth and goodness in non-Christian religions by virtue of God’s common grace turns those religions into imperfect vehicles of salvation.
What is distinctive about cohabitation is that the couples are having sexual intercourse—fornication is morally wrong according to the definitive teaching of the Church—without having made a lifetime commitment to each other (and as the divorce rates show is a bad preparation for marriage). This relationship is incompatible with marriage, but is also not a suitable preparation or precursor to marriage. Simply stated, it is a sinful relationship, alienating the couple from God (1 Cor 6:9-10, 15-19), and hence it is not an incomplete or imperfect relationship that is as such ordered to the good of marriage but rather is a violation of marriage.
The authors pay very little systematic attention to sin and its manifestations, and that is intentional (42, 84, 144). It is not integral to their view of human beings and to understanding why people resist and hence distort, misinterpret, and finally reject the Church’s teaching on sexual morality. In particular, this means that they misunderstand the logic of mercy. Mercy is the face of God’s love turned toward sinners, searching them out, and offering them pardon and salvation through Christ’s atoning work. They speak throughout the book about a pastoral strategy of mercy but they never connect it to repentance, the forgiveness of sins, the atoning work of Christ, and the sacrament of confession (1 John 1:9). Muting or suppressing sin, judgment, wrath, and the cross—has given rise to a theology of divine acceptance—evident throughout this book—rather than a theology of divine redemption, and hence to a sentimental view of God and his love that result in cheap grace. Their view of mercy is pure theological liberalism: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministration of a Christ without a cross” (H. Richard Niebuhr).
How do they morally justify same-sex relations? There are several points here that must be made.
First, the authors are cultural relativists regarding homosexuality. The moral evaluation of same-sex sexual acts varies from culture to culture. Second, their relativism does not mean that “anything goes” regarding same-sex (or cohabiting) relations (25, 39, 76). They apply moral norms that generally apply to any (hetero- or homosexual) enduring interpersonal relationships (102), namely, norms, or boundary rules, as they call them (101), that prohibit lying, deception, coercion, exploitation, and so forth. They call this a relational ethic (13, 102, 158-159, 161, 163, 174, 218). Third, there is no distinctive sexual ethics, on their view, since it is the moral quality of the relationship, its enduring love, personal commitment and attitudes, affections, which expresses the normative essence of a relationship, rather than the natural goods of human sexuality, the unitive and procreative ends, of the body-soul person’s creational teleological ordering to the sexual “other”.
In short, these authors sever human actions from normative teleology and indeed from the soul/body unity of the human person. Human sexuality is, according to the authors, not designed with embedded principles and inbuilt meanings and ends. Therefore, they hold that sexual differentiation and hence the bodily nature of the human person is morally insignificant. Thus, the individual’s sexually differentiated body does not play a morally foundational role in evaluating sexual acts. In short, opposite sex and same-sex relations are not less just because they are different; each may experience exclusive and enduring love in their own legitimate way (153-155), according to the authors. But this denies the sexually different reality of the man and of the woman, in short, sexual differentiation and the dual unity of the human couple that is constitutive of the original character of the image of God and is foundational to the form of love that is marriage (Genesis 1:27-28; 2:24).
By assuming the insignificance of sexual difference for making a sexual act morally right, does this view fail to grasp the unified totality that is the body-person and hence the human meaning of the body? Does the view do justice to the embodiment of human persons as man and woman and hence to sexual differences between them? Does it properly express the intrinsic place of the body in interpersonal unity or does the body remain extrinsic to personhood? If the later, does that view satisfactorily deal with the human meaning as well as moral status of the human body, let alone the latter’s sacramental significance?
Consider conjugal marriage, as a love-communion, according to the Church’s teaching. It is based on the truth about humanity that men and women are complementary. Sexual complementarity is necessary not only because of the biological fact that procreation requires a man and woman, but also to become organically one complete organism and so contribute to a communion of persons. Same-sex couples lack the biological basis of organic complementarity making it impossible for them to perform the kind of reproductive-type act which makes them the one-flesh bodily union of marriage itself. The form of love that is conjugal marriage is founded through a bodily sexual union of man and woman as one flesh (Genesis 2:24).
This real bodily oneness—which is impossible for same-sex couples—actualizes marital unity. The authors are mistaken to hold that the so-called “evangelical ideal” of marriage consists only of exclusivity and permanence. They assure us that they subscribe to the “church law” that the sacrament of marriage is about the union of a man and a woman. But since the authors insist that what they think is the essence of marriage (exclusivity and permanence) may in fact be realized by a same-sex couple, this is a distinction without a real difference for them. But in the love form that is conjugal marriage, a one-flesh unity is not only essential to this form but is also the body’s language for one-life unity. This bodily union is made possible by sexual complementarity and it is not extrinsic to the mutual self-giving love that it signifies or symbolizes. Of course it is a sign or symbol of that mutual love but that is precisely what it is in reality because the human body is part of the personal reality of the human being—a one-flesh union—and not an extrinsic instrument of the self.
This emphasis on the body being intrinsic to one’s own self is rooted in the Church’s teaching on the soul/body unity of the human person. As John Paul says, “In fact, body and soul are inseparable: in the willing agent and in the deliberate act they stand or fall together”(Veritatis Splendor §49). Therefore, he adds, we can easily understand why separating “the moral act from the bodily dimensions of its exercise is contrary to the teaching of Scripture and Tradition” (Ibid). This teaching is explicitly embraced by Benedict XVI (e,g., Address to the Roman Curia, December 21, 2012) and Francis, in particular in Amoris Laetitia §56 and Laudato Si’ §155. The authors of this book acknowledge that here too they break with the Catholic tradition by denying the soul/body unity of the human person (Catechism of the Catholic Church §§362-368).
Moreover, the book is subtitled, “An Open Dialogue…” To be sure the authors of this book are open and frank about their rejection of the Church’s teaching, but they are not engaged in anything resembling a “dialogue.” To have an open, critical, and meaningful dialogue requires an exchange of views with the objective of listening to and talking with others who differ with us in order to promote a deeper understanding of the truth. This book is really a one-way conversation between a bishop and a moral theologian since there is no interlocutor that takes the opposing position of the Church’s teaching on sexual morality, responding to the claims of the bishop and the moral theologian.
I have no space here to discuss their interpretation of Pope Francis’ Amoris Laetitia. Also, I leave out of consideration here not only their uncritical assertions that there exists settled science regarding the homosexual condition (159-160), but also the often repeated but highly contested claim—and it has been refuted by reputable Protestant and Catholic scholars—that Sacred Scripture knows nothing of contemporary homosexuality (160).
The book also has some good insightful reflections and wise pastoral advice for dealing with troubled marriages (218-225, 229-241), for maintaining the vitality of marriage and family life for the common good (119-127, 130-134), for the having and raising of children (114-119). Still, this book is a scandal, particularly since it is co-authored by a Belgian bishop of the Church who, according to Canon §386 “is bound to propose and explain to the faithful the truths of the faith which are to be believed and applied to morals.” Thus: “Scandal is an attitude which leads another to do evil. . . . Scandal is grave when given by those who by nature or office are obliged to teach and educate others” (Catechism of the Catholic Church §§2284-2285).
Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not identifying the moral and theological errors these authors embrace—according to the mind of the Church—with spiritual unfaithfulness. I shall leave that judgment to the Lord. Nevertheless, their book is bad news because it diminishes the light that emanates from the whole truth about Jesus Christ, his mission and his Church to the culture.
[Editor’s note: A two-part article review was originally published in Dutch in the Catholic weekly, Katholiek Nieuwsblad, October 14 and 21, 2016.]