I’ve been a priest for 48 years. During that time, I’ve heard thousands of personal confessions and hundreds of spiritual direction sessions. That’s a lot of listening. When you spend several thousand hours of your life hearing the failures and hurts in people’s lives, you get a pretty good picture of the world as it really is, and its effect on the human soul. People come to Confession only when they already have some sense of right and wrong; when they already understand that they need to change their lives and seek God’s mercy. But mercy means nothing without clarity about moral truth. Mercy implies a pre-existing act of injustice that must be corrected; and satisfying justice requires a comprehension of higher truth about human meaning and behavior. It requires an understanding of truth that establishes some things as good and others as evil; some things as life-giving and others as destructive.
The confessional is more real than any reality show because nobody’s watching. It’s just God, you, and the penitents and the suffering they bring with them. What is most striking to me about these confessions is the huge spike both men and women confessing promiscuity, infidelity, sexual violence and sexual confusion as an ordinary part of life, and the massive role of porn in wrecking marriages, families and even the vocations of clergy and religious. Listening to people’s sexual sins in the Sacrament of Penance is hardly new news. But the scope, the novelty, the violence and the compulsiveness of the sins are. In a sense, this shouldn’t surprise. Sex is powerful and attractive. Sex is a basic appetite and instinct. Our sexuality is intimately tied to who we are; how we search for love and happiness; how we deal with loneliness in life; and, for most people, how we claim some legacy in the world and its story by having children. The reason Pope Francis so forcefully rejects “gender theory” is not just because it lacks true scientific support, but that it subverts the very nature of sexuality by denying the male-female complementarity encoded into our bodies. In doing so, it attacks a basic building block of human identity and meaning, and the very foundation of human social organization.
Why is this so important? The truth about our sexuality is that infidelity, promiscuity, sexual confusion and mass pornography create human wreckage. Multiply that wreckage by tens of millions of persons over five decades. Then compound it with media nonsense about the innocence of casual sex and the “happy” children of friendly divorces. What you get is what we have now: a dysfunctional culture of frustrated and wounded people increasingly incapable of permanent commitments, self-sacrifice and sustained intimacy, and unwilling to face the reality of their own problems. This has consequences.
People unwilling to rule their appetites will inevitably be ruled by them — and eventually, by someone else. People too weak to sustain faithful relationships are also too weak to be free. Sooner or later they surrender themselves to a state that compensates for their narcissism and immaturity with its own forms of social control. People too worried or self-focused to welcome new life, to bear and raise children in a loving family, and to form them in virtue and moral character, are writing themselves out of the human story. They’re extinguishing their own future. This is what makes the resistance of so many millennials to having children so troubling.
The future belongs to those who believe in something beyond themselves, and who live and sacrifice accordingly. It belongs to people who think and hope inter-generationally. Weak and selfish individuals make weak and selfish marriages; weak and selfish marriages make broken families; broken families continue to spread the cycle of dysfunction. They do it by creating more and more wounded individuals. A vast amount of data shows that children from broken families are much more likely to live in poverty, to be poorly educated, and to have more emotional and physical health issues than children from intact families. The family is where children discover how to be human. It’s where they learn how to respect and love other people; where they see their parents sacrificing for the common good of the household; and where they discover their place in a family story larger than themselves. Raising children is beautiful but also hard work. It’s a task for unselfish, devoted parents. Parents need the friendship and support of other likeminded parents. It takes parents to raise a child, not a legion of professional experts, as helpful as they can sometimes be.
A mother and father can provide the intimacy of maternal and paternal love. Certainly, many single parents do a heroic job of raising good children, and they truly deserve our admiration and praise. But only a mother and father can offer the unique kind of human love rooted in flesh and blood; the kind that comes from self-sacrifice and self-giving; the kind that comes from the complementarity of sexual difference. True, no parents shy of the Holy Family do this perfectly. Sadly, some fail badly. Too often, the nature of life in modern America helps and encourages them to fail. But in trying, parents pass along to the next generation an absolutely basic truth. It’s the truth that things like love, faith, trust, patience, understanding, tenderness, fidelity and courage really do matter, and they provide the foundation for a fully human life.
While some of the worst pressures on family life come from outside the home in the form of unemployment, low pay, crime, bad housing and bad schools, and these are vitally important issues with real human consequences, government has a role to play in easing such problems – but not if a government works from a crippled idea of who man is, what marriage is, and what a family is. A government isn’t good if it deliberately shapes its policies to interfere with and control those good institutions in society that already serve the public well.
If we want strong families, we need strong men and women to create and sustain them with maturity and love. As a family of families, the Church is strong when her families and individual sons and daughters are strong; when they believe what she teaches, and then witness her message with courage and zeal. But she’s weak when her people are too tepid or comfortable, too eager to “fit in” or, frankly, too afraid of public disapproval, to see the world as it really is. The Church is “ours” only in the sense that we belong to her as our mother and teacher in the family of God. The Church does not belong to us; we belong to her! The Church in turn belongs to Jesus Christ who guarantees her freedom whether Caesar likes it or not. The Church is free even in the worst persecution. She’s free even when many of her children desert her. She’s free because God does exist, and the Church depends not on numbers or resources but on her fidelity to God’s Word. But her credibility and effectiveness, here and now, depends on us.
We live in a country where marriage, family and traditional religion all seem to be failing. But the Gospel of John reminds us that the truth, and only the truth, makes us free. We’re fully human and free only when we live under the authority of the truth. In that light, no issue has made us more dishonest and less free as believers and as a nation than abortion. People uncomfortable with the abortion issue argue that Catholic teaching is bigger than just one issue; that other urgent issues also need our attention. Being pro-birth is not the same as being prolife. And being truly “prolife” doesn’t end with defending the unborn child. But it does and it must begin there. Abortion poisons everything. There can never be anything “progressive” in killing an unborn child, or standing aside tolerantly while others do it. In every abortion, an innocent life always dies. That’s why we can never equate the intentional killing involved in abortion, infanticide and euthanasia on the one hand to issues like homelessness, the death penalty and anti-poverty policy on the other. All of these issues are important; but trying to imply them into having the same moral weight is a debasement of Christian thought. You cannot promote a “quality of life” if you are willing to snuff out life at its very beginning.
In his inaugural speech of 1961, President Kennedy told Americans, quite confidently, to “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” I’m willing to bet that many people in our society today might find his words not only naïve and annoying, but actually offensive to their inverted (and perverted?) way of thinking. Let me bring to his thought a parallel one: “Ask not what the Church can do for you; ask what you can do for the Church.”