The summer’s most popular film, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” belongs to a genre that goes back at least to Mary Shelley’s nineteenth century masterpiece Frankenstein, for it tells the story of well-intentioned scientist who, through ignoring legitimate moral limits, courts disaster.
I have just completed one of the most extraordinary weeks of my life. For the past eight days, I participated in World Youth Day in Madrid, a gathering of some 1.5 million Catholic young people with Pope Benedict XVI. I met enthusiastic teen and twenty-something Catholics from the United States, Canada, Mexico, the Netherlands, Sweden, Nigeria, England, Australia, New Zealand, China, the Philippines, India, Denmark, and many other countries. The universality of the Church has never been, for me anyway, on fuller and more thrilling display. My Word on Fire team and I were especially encouraged to see so concretely the outreach that the Internet and the new media provide. To hear, over and again, and in dozens of different accents, that our videos and podcasts have made a difference in people’s lives was deeply gratifying.
I have long loved the cycle of stories in the first book of Kings dealing with the prophet Elijah. In fact, I’ve often told people who are just getting interested in the Scripture to commence with the fascinating, adventurous, and often comical stories concerning this prophet. His name tells us all we need to know about him. “Elijah” is the Anglicization of the Hebrew Eliyahu, which means, “Yahweh is God.” People can be named from what they worship, what they hold to be of highest value. Thus, someone who values her work above all is a “company woman,” and someone who prizes his family above all is a “family man;” someone who seeks pleasure as his highest good is a “good-time Charlie,” etc. Elijah is a Yahweh man, for he worships the God of Israel. Once we know this, we know all we need to know about how he thinks and how he acts and reacts. Because he is a Yahweh man, he stands athwart the idolatry of King Ahab; because he is a Yahweh man, he is forced to flee the persecution of Queen Jezebel; because he is a Yahweh man, he seeks refuge on Horeb, the mountain of God.
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.