At a conference in Rome last year, the BBC’s veteran Vatican correspondent David Willey asked a question which has surely crossed the minds of many secular as well as religious journalists, the world over.
Why do announcements that emanate from the Church seem so frequently “anodyne”? Integrating recent comments from Pope Francis on “ecclesial narcissism”, we could offer this rephrasing for ourselves:
“Are we, the Church, in our official and unofficial manifestations, more interested in soothing internal sensibilities than sharing the glory and import of the Good News of Christ with the wider world, much less among one another? Are we hamstrung by mandated inoffensiveness and resulting timidity?”
This is not, of course, to deny a healthy place for optimism, social pleasantries, even the occasional good-natured comment about daily familiarities such as football.
Ultimately, however, if people look to the Church at all – and increasingly, they do not – it is implicitly to see if Christ really meant what he said: “I have come that they might have life and have it to the full”. People, in other words, are looking for bold and substantive answers.
Recently, The Record spoke to a mother about an online post she had made asking for help of a seemingly straightforward kind.
She had just bought a smart phone for her teen-aged son and, admitting to being technologically challenged, was pleading for advice on how to “lock it down”, to protect her son from depraved and debilitating content.
What she didn’t share with online readers was that she had discovered a stream of violent pornography on her son’s handheld device some years earlier; that her son had developed a reputation for soliciting naked images from girls via “sexting” apps; and that she had tried to get help from commercial providers, his school, and the state, to little or no avail.
Why has the incidence of this kind of behaviour become so prevalent and the ubiquity of exposure to pornography, even amongst pre-teens, become a reality?
If hell is the deprivation of God, how had such a space, despite her best efforts, opened up in her Christian home?
Without the aid of the church in understanding what has happened and much more importantly, helping her to elucidate the fullness of the only alternative – the plan of God – it would be impossible for her to feel anything other than alone against the world.
The “it’s the new normal, get over it” responses of some of her online correspondents are no answer at all. Like many committed parents, she told The Record that she hoped for a future of love-in-community for her son – of marriage, and children, and joy.
While many baulk at any mention of sexuality, parents and singles listening to drive time radio on the way to work or school or visiting commercial news sites online know that it is not the Church which has obsessively raised sex to a transcendental value in our society.
But divorced from the love of God, the life of the Trinity, even the good things of the world lose their lustre; they turn inwards and become toxic.
“There is a sense that secularity can’t any longer celebrate the world,” Anglo-Catholic theologian John Milbank said, last year, “[that] if you try simply to celebrate these things in their own terms they won’t work, in fact they will collapse; they will collapse into despair; they will collapse into nullity, perversity, and so on”.
The paradoxical outcome of severing sex from love and relationality might be gleaned from recent media reports on why scores of young Japanese have apparently lost interest in sex and romantic love.
Punishing anti-family economic realities, a fear of loss of autonomy, restrictive cultural expectations and extremely permissive attitudes to bizarre sexual sub-cultures have all contributed to an instrumental view of sex which has, in that context, rendered it uninteresting to many in Japanese society.
Exploring the thought of the Catholic philosopher-theologian David Schindler, Jeremy Beer wrote recently that the dominant liberal view of the world as a theatre for autonomous, self-actualising individuals whose natural relation to others is self-interest was entirely contrary to the Gospel: “To live well, Schindler argues, is to live in a way that is proper to our being,” Beer wrote.
“Conversely, when a misapprehension of being structures our thinking and actions, we experience unhappiness, brokenness, and poverty in its deepest sense—the absence of meaning…”
“Liberalism fails to apprehend that “love is the basic act and order of things.” Love brings all there is into existence, it is through love that all there is continues in existence, and it is for love that all things exist.”
“Understanding reality as an order of love has profound implications. Among these are that being is a gift, and our proper response to being is in the first place one of receptivity and gratitude. If we do not respond to the cosmos in this way, it is because in some sense we have been “coached out of it”—by our culture, perhaps, or by our own choices and habits.”
This might sound lofty to ordinary ears but a future of making these understandings incarnate to ordinary people will beat “how about those Eagles?”-avoidance, hands down. Anytime. Anywhere.