One of the commonest complaints against Catholicism is that it is the religion of “no,” especially in regard to the sexual dimension of life. As the rest of the culture is moving in a progressively more permissive direction, the church seems to represent a crabbed, puritanical negativity toward sexuality. I think it is important, first, to make a distinction between two modalities of “no.” On the one hand, there is “no” pure and simple—a denial, a negation of something good. When a jealous person sees someone else’s success, he will say “no” to it, out of resentment. When a racist perceives the object of his irrational hatred, he will say “no” to him and try to undermine him. But on the other hand, there is a “no” which is in service of a “yes,” since it represents a “no” to a “no;” it is a double negative that constitutes a positive. Any golf swing coach worth his salt will say “no” much more than he says “yes,” precisely because there are a thousand ways to swing a club poorly, but really only one way to swing it properly. So when he says “no,” he is negating a series of negatives, trying to move his student onto the narrow path of the right swing. I would suggest that the many “no’s” that the church says to imperfect forms of sexual behavior are of this second type.
From the 1950’s through the late 1970’s Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II) was a professor of moral philosophy at the Catholic University of Lublin in Poland, specializing in sexual ethics and what we call today “marriage and family life.” He produced two important books touching on these matters, The Acting Person, a rigorously philosophical exploration of Christian anthropology, and Love and Responsibility, a much more accessible analysis of love, sex, and marriage. These texts provided the foundation for the richly textured teaching of Pope John Paul II that now goes by the name “theology of the body.” As was evident throughout his papacy, John Paul had a deep devotion to young people, and he wanted them to see the teaching of the church in regard to sex, not as a burden, but as an invitation to fuller life. In the context of this brief article, I would like to develop just one insight from John Paul’s rich magisterium on sex and marriage, for I share the perennial concern of older people that too many young people are treating sex in a morally casual way.
The just-concluded US Open was won by Northern Irishman Rory McIlroy in convincing fashion indeed. Wielding one of the most impressive swings in golf, McIlroy absolutely dominated the field, winning by eight strokes over his nearest competitor and posting the lowest score ever in the one hundred and eleven year history of that storied tournament.
The CNN Belief Blog, which has graciously featured a few of my pieces, just celebrated its first anniversary, and for the occasion, its editors reflected on ten things that they’ve learned in the course of the year. The one that got my eye was this: that atheists are by far the most fervent commentators on matters religious. This completely coincides with my own experience as an internet commentator and blogger. Every day, my website and YouTube page are inundated with remarks, usually of a sharply negative or dismissive nature, from atheists, agnostics, and critics of religion. In fact, some of my YouTube commentaries have been specifically targeted by atheist webmasters, who urge their followers to flood my site with “dislikes” and crude assessments of what I’ve said. And one of my contributions to the CNN site—what I took to be a benign article urging Christians to pray for Christopher Hitchens—excited literally thousands of angry responses from the haters of religion.
The Church has just celebrated one of the most important days on the liturgical calendar, the feast of Pentecost, the feast of the Holy Spirit. There are three great symbols classically associated with the third Person of the Trinity, namely, water, fire, and wind; and each of these has a negative connotation, for the Holy Spirit is dangerous.