Challenges for the Faith
“You know how to read the face of the sky, but you cannot read the signs of the times.“ (Matt, 18:3)
Jesus entered human history to manifest the love of God and the power of the Holy Spirit for all persons and all time.
He was well aware that prophets who bring God’s ways of mercy and compassion to the poor and marginalized are threats to the powerful and wealthy.
He experienced the rejection and persecution, even to death, that is the fate of prophets of the reign on God.
COVID 19 revealed wide variations in individual and cultural responses to mask wearing and other public health measures highlighting vastly different understandings of rights and freedoms and duties to the common good.
The pandemic also demonstrated competing understandings of science and its relationship to faith.
The emerging science of epigenetics warns that cultural, political and economic trauma, such as pandemic, has devastating generational consequences. There is no return to the way it was, even if desired.
Restrictions on Sunday Eucharist and other religious celebrations resulted in many losing the practice of the faith and finding it made no difference in their lives.
Reading the “signs of the times” in a Nov 10, 2015 talk to the Fifth National Convention of the Catholic Church in Italy, Pope Francis said:
We are not living in an epoch of change as much as a change of epochs….We cannot demand that peoples of every continent, in expressing their faith, imitate modes of expression which European nations developed at a particular moment of their history, because the faith cannot be constricted to the limits of understanding and expression of any one culture… This would be a beautiful museum or concert but devoid of living faith.”(no.118)
Understanding contemporary challenges to faith requires some understanding of culture, which is a meaningful arrangement of society relationships, ideology, and power necessary for order, meaning and identity. Many in modern secular cultures are not concerned with questions of the transcendent, ultimate meaning or the ‘God question’, even as movies and media are replete with psychics, zombies and afterlife. Others speak of interest in spirituality distinct from religion. In the Global North, we see a rising number of “Nones” who have no religious affiliation, particularly among the young. So called ‘Generation Z’ young people cobble bits of religious belief with concepts from practices about foretelling the future or speaking to the dead into their own private and personal religion, like their highly personalized music ‘play lists’.
Many in the Global West hold a totally secular world view with reliance on science and objective data. They believe that only human experience and knowledge can make sense of reality. For them, human understanding should be based on logic and reason not authority, dogma or tradition. Religion and faith are even portrayed as delusional and dangerous by some.
Despite our faith’s strong affirmation of the compatibility of faith and reason, some Catholics have rejected scientific advance not only regarding the reality of pandemic and its transmission, but also evolution and anthropology. Dialogue between the Church and science is a critical area for discernment and evangelization today.
Pope Francis reminds us:
Technology has remedied countless evils which used to harm and limit human beings. How can we not feel gratitude and appreciation for this progress, especially in the fields of medicine, engineering and communications? (Laudato Si no.102, 2015)
Advances in medical science and technology have brought enormous benefits to those who can access them. In developed nations, these advances have benefited individuals. When coupled with belief in technology to save and cure and a culture where individual autonomy and choice have “run amuck”, individuals can receive more acute care than is beneficial. They profoundly affect the notions of the normal and the natural and reject distinctions between therapeutic and ‘enhancement’ particularly in robotics and genetic technologies. They challenge some elements of a “natural law” morality.
There have also been advances in public health sciences, notably epidemiology. COVID has dramatically demonstrated that the health of communities and populations-the focus of public health- is directly related to socioeconomic and political conditions. These bring challenges to the limits of individual freedoms and choices and duties to the common good. Countering some claims by Catholics to individual freedom in situations of pandemic, Pope Francis participated in an International August, 2021 public service announcement stating:
“Being vaccinated with vaccines authorized by the competent authorities is an act of love. And contributing to ensure the majority of people are vaccinated is an act of love-love for oneself, love for one’s family and friends, love for all people.”
Neuroscience advances and the development of artificial intelligence are of special concern because of their implications for moral responsibility. All these raise serious issues of transparency, inclusion, responsibility, impartiality, reliability, security and privacy.
The technologically driven information society is a real cultural revolution. Historically, we evolved from oral communication to the alphabet and print eras. Today, the seductive, even addictive, power of technological communication presents real challenges and opportunities. The Church must use technology and social media for evangelization and the mission of care and community.
“The Church’s approach to the means of social communication is fundamentally positive, encouraging” (Pontifical Council for Social Communications, 2000).
However, Canadian Catholic philosopher Marshall McLuhan has cautioned:
All media work us over completely. They are so pervasive in their personal, political, economic, aesthetic, psychological, moral, ethical, and social consequences that they leave no part of us untouched, unaffected, unaltered. The medium is the message. Any understanding of social and cultural change is impossible without knowledge of the way media work as environments. (McLuhan & Fiore, 1967, 26)
Ideology is embedded in every technology, and the uses of any technology are largely determined by the structure of the technology itself – that is – its function follows from its form.
Sound bites oversimplify facts with information which is facts in context and fails to recognize wisdom, which is the ability to use information for good. Technologies create new terms, such as web page, email, FaceTime and “to google” and create new definitions of old terms: information, news, “friends,” truth. Technological competency has created new elites and hierarchies with their possibilities for abuse of power and truth.
Lesson: We need to create a new dialectic that integrates the Church’s magisterial teaching with critically constructive theology and experience and science.
Challenges for the theological sciences
Bishops announce kerygma, the content of the faith, theologians critically reflect on its relevance and application in light of new developments in science and experience. Theology has been in decline in faith-based and secular institutions of higher learning because of their contemporary focus on the technological and the commercial. Pope Francis’ 2018 apostolic constitution Veritatis Gaudium on the renewal of ecclesiastical faculties and universities firmly placed evangelization at the center of theology not manuals and not apologetics. Pope Francis has reversed the history of theologians silenced for addressing complicated challenges to traditional teaching.
Encouraged by Pope Francis, a 2021 Symposium was held at the John Paul II Pontifical Theological Institute for Marriage and Family Symposium. It recognized the need to imagine and develop a theology for the future with attention to theology, philosophy, anthropology and the humanities.
The Church has faced major challenges from science in previous epochs. In 1543, Copernicus dethroned earth and humanity from the center of the universe and confirmed the heliocentric view of the universe challenging Church teaching. In 1859, Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species challenged biblical certainties regarding the beginning of creation. Our ecological crisis today can be traced to some teachings about human mastery over creation which are in contradiction to stewardship. These are addressed courageously in Pope Francis’ Laudato Si. They are confirmed by findings of the August 2021 UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and projections of irrevocable damage to the planet caused by our actions.
As demonstrated by the Jesuit paleontologist and theologian, Teillard de Chardin, in The Phenomenon of Man and The Divine Milieu, Christology itself needs renewal in light of evolution. Sadly, these seminal works could not be published until after his death. They posit that humans are still evolving mentally and socially toward a spiritual unity. The Incarnation continues in the community of believers. The new cosmology which is incarnational and Trinitarian offers insights into Jesus as the Christ for all time. Resurrection is the universal pattern for all creation dramatically manifested in Jesus. Science is helping us understand that life is not ended but merely changed.
Anthropology and the theology of sexuality
God created man in the image of himself, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them. (Genesis 1: 27)
Church structures and relationships are bound to outdated metaphysical and philosophical beliefs of Plato and Aristotle, adopted by Thomas Aquinas regarding human nature, embodiment, sexuality and gender. Interestingly God, in whose image we are made, is not sexed. These are deep mysteries which call for us to reflect on them and speak of them in a prayerful and rigorous way. Modern science brings new insights from anthropology and human sexuality which can enrich our understandings and reject the trivialization of sexuality prevalent today. Some findings challenge Church teaching.
The 1975 Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s Persona Humana: Declaration on Certain Questions Concerning Sexual Ethics emphasized natural moral law. Historically, the Church taught that, in God’s plan, marriage between a man and a woman is intended for procreation. The loving unity was almost ignored. Moreover, we were told that “Each and every act must be open to the transmission of human life”, rather than the relationship as a whole. When Pope John XXIII called the Second Vatican Council with a goal of aggiornamento, bringing the Church into the twentieth century, many anticipated a positive response to the development of safe and effective contraceptives. He formed a committee, which included laity, to provide advice on the matter but died before its conclusion.
1986 Pope Paul VI’s Humana vitae recognized both the unitive and procreative ends but, rejecting the recommendation of the majority committee, opted to continue the prohibition on artificial contraception. Paradoxically, it supported ‘natural family planning’ which has as its object to restrict intercourse to periods of natural infertility in the female cycle. This precipitated widespread non-reception of the teaching because of the sensus fidelium fidei.
Pope John Paul II’s The Theology of the Body tried to reclaim the beauty and mystery of human sexual activity. It has appealed to some young people looking for dignity in a world of glorified and objectified sex. However, it has been criticised as too lofty and idealistic even ‘disembodied’ because it lacks both the pain and play of sex. This is understandable given it was written by an elderly, male, celibate cleric. Many find it difficult to believe that the Catechism says that “Sexuality is a source of joy and pleasure.” (CCC no 2362) It maintained the relationship between men and women as complementarity, not equality.
Traditionalists focus on chastity, social stability and an anthropology determined by the magisterium. They fail to recognize historical developments and scientific advances in the complexity of human sexuality. Many today are calling for a renewal of Christian anthropology and human sexuality focusing on dignity, justice, equality and responsibility in a personalist and relational anthropology. It must address explicitly scientific advances related to our understanding of homosexuality and gender.
The Church teaches:
“Homosexual persons must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity.”(CCC, no. 2358) but gay sex is “intrinsically disordered” (no. 2357).
Sadly, the experience of homosexual persons in the Church has not been marked by “respect, compassion and sensitivity” but by rejection and isolation which often compounds their family’s rejection. Despite the strong support of Catholic social teaching for non-discrimination protection for members of the LGBQ community, hostility, not hospitality, is a hallmark of Christian response. Couples who are ‘out’ are refused funerals; can’t teach in Catholic schools or adopt children. There is an erroneous assumption that sexual identity is a choice and a conflation of sex and gender.
Complicating the issue, North American studies estimate that thirty to forty percent of priests are homosexual. This was understandable and presumed safe career choice in the past for a ‘good Catholic boy” who knew he was gay. However, the number of homosexual priests and research on the psychological and psychosexual immaturity of priests creates a tangled web of gender, sex and power for clerics responsible for Church teaching.
Formal Church teaching on homosexuality has not changed but Pope Francis’ attitude is different. When asked by reporters about a specific case, he famously said “Who am I to judge?” and left the issue to conscience. He has endorsed legal protection for gay couples in civil unions. He has supported Fr James Martin in his ministry to the LGBTQ community.
The importance of a new theology of sexuality was highlighted by a query from the CDF regarding the blessing of gay unions. The answer was “no.” However, the reason given was because a priest cannot “bless sin.” A priest can bless pets but not gay couples. Over a hundred theologians and thousands of others objected to CDF decision, reminiscent of the Humana vitae debacle with non-reception of Church teaching. Formation of conscience is crucial.
Sex is determined by genetics and manifested in external genitalia. It is assigned at birth. The first question after a birth is “Is it a boy or a girl?” In medical practice the birth of a child with ambiguous genitalia, where there is incomplete development or features of both sexes, is a medical and moral emergency. While a rare condition, it demonstrates the complexity of human sexuality.
Gender refers to the characteristics of women and men that are socially constructed. These have cultural differences. Gender dysphoria is a sense of distress because of a mismatch between a person’s physical body and their experience of their gender. The Congregation for Education 2019 document, Male and Female He Created Them: Towards a Path of Dialogue rejected the notion of gender as “ideology” and ignored a century of research on this issue. This compounds the isolation of members of the LGBTQ community and impedes compassionate care for transgender children and their families. The formation of young women and men that promotes equality and counters toxic masculinity is urgently needed.
Lesson: There is an urgent need for a faith-filled renewal of human sexuality which incorporates insights from science with Catholic principles of dignity and respect which reject the demeaning and objectification of sexuality.
What personal conversion of mind and heart is calling you?
What are the key theological beliefs and practices in need of renewal to the mind of Christ?
What are the central organizational and relational issues are in need of renewal and reform?
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