Calming the Perfect Storm
8/1/2014Msgr. J. Brian Bransfield
Karol Wojtyła, the man who became St. John Paul II, regularly escaped from two of the worst totalitarian regimes in history: German Nazism, and later, Soviet Communism. By “escaped,” I do not mean that he ran away. Rather, as a priest and bishop, he escaped only by going deeper.
As the secret police patrolled the streets of Kraków, Father Wojtyła escaped into the mountains of Poland with young married couples. He enlisted not a militia but young men and women united by the permanent, faithful, fruitful bond of marriage because he knew they were the target. The goal of totalitarian regimes is not simply to conquer lands, but to control a people’s entire culture, to change the unchangeable meaning of things.
So, there in the freedom of the mountains, Wojtyła went deeper still: He spoke about the unchangeable nature of the human person. He taught about the enduring meaning of marriage and the nature of the family. Years later as pope, John Paul II underscored these truths in his landmark document on the Christian family, Familiaris Consortio: “The future of humanity passes by way of the family” (86).
And with his proclamation of St. John Paul II as “the pope of the family,” Pope Francis has signaled that the Church needs to meditate on the late pope’s insights in response to the confusion and violence of our modern era.
In the year 2000, Josef Seifert, rector of the International Academy of Philosophy in Lichtenstein, noted that more people were murdered in the 20th century than at any period in history. The primary reason for this, Seifert explained, was “a mere logical application to politics and private life of ideas about man which highly respected scientists and philosophers have taught for decades at the most prestigious universities around the globe.” More people are killed as a result of political ideologies, Seifert said, than by a “relapse to animal passions” or by “dark feelings of national pride or vengeance.”
If these words seem to refer to the bygone era of Nazi death camps and Soviet gulags, consider the following facts: One of the most renowned professors of ethics in the United States maintains that a healthy chimpanzee has more of a right to life than a sick child. According to a 1997 study in the British medical journal The Lancet, nearly one-third of pediatricians in the Netherlands had euthanized malformed infants, sometimes even without the permission of the parent. In February 2007, the Supreme Court of Switzerland declared that the mentally ill have a constitutional right to be eliminated. The World Health Organization estimates there are as many as 50 million surgical abortions worldwide every year. Consider further the innumerable evils of war, abuse, terrorism, poverty and hunger.
Many, with unsettling accuracy, point out that our age is marked by the rejection of God. Still, the daily headlines indict us; we have not only rejected God, but we have forgotten what it means to be human.
What lies at the heart of this cultural amnesia? Over the last 150 years, a perfect storm of sinister proportions has been gathering force. It has all but swept from our contemporary consciousness any sense of what it means to be human.
The first wave of the storm began with the Industrial Revolution. In the latter half of the 1800s, American society went from being based on the local community, with the family at its center, to being centered on the factory and the assembly line. Of course, industrial society ushered in some undeniably positive things, but as the nature of manufacturing and production changed, something else changed as well. Fathers, mothers and even children had to go to the factories for long hours. Hours meant output, and output meant profits. Human work became less about the human being, about making a living for one’s family, and more about the bottom line and an individual keeping score with others. Gradually, the sense of being a person became, “I am successful if I acquire … profits, position, status.”
The second wave of the perfect storm, the sexual revolution, came with gale force in the second half of the 20th century. Human sexuality was no longer about a permanent, faithful and fruitful gift of self in marriage and family, but simply about satisfying an individual’s personal erotic need. And so, adultery and cohabitation spread rampantly. No-fault divorce was presented as a panacea, yet it produced an epidemic of fatherlessness. Pornography went from being a dirty little secret in the 1920s to a cottage industry in the 1950s to a lifestyle and career option in the year 2000. Now, to be human, the goal was not simply to acquire things, but to acquire pleasure, which had lost its reference to genuine beauty.
The third wave of the perfect storm began to rage in the late 1970s with the advent of the technological revolution. Technology has advanced so rapidly that the computer or mobile device is now the unquestioned third party in every relationship. The digital screen has replaced the face.
Something else crept in along with the advances of the technological revolution. The goal became speed: quicker access to the Internet, to information, to communication. In fact, high-speed access is often too slow. Even instant gratification does not seem fast enough. And now, when we are not on a digital device, we anxiously want everyday people to get out of our way in traffic, on the elevator or at the checkout counter.
Today, as a result of the perfect storm, what it means to be human is not simply to acquire pleasure, but to acquire pleasure quickly.
By pleasure I mean something more understated than indulging in hedonism. It is the subtly insistent background music pressuring us to approach our entertainment, education, finance, home life, job and even our religion according to rules of consumerism, power and individualism. Failing to acquire pleasure quickly is tantamount to failing as a human being.
Recall Professor Seifert’s key insight: Transposed into political ideologies, these ideas about man have killed and continue to kill millions. The headlines are clear: Modern man straddles the extremes of unrestrained pleasure and untold violence. The irony is that the more society attempts to “acquire pleasure quickly,” the more everyone suffers.
When Karol Wojtyła was elected pope in 1978, in the middle of the perfect storm, he knew what to do. He had faced totalitarian regimes before. He went deeper, always deeper. This time, he did not lead young people into the mountains of Poland. He led the world into the center of the Church by proclaiming what it means to be a human being.
Throughout his pontificate, St. John Paul II fearlessly taught the great truth that countless generations had long known, a truth confirmed by both sacred Scripture and the living tradition of the Church: Human life and the beauty of man and woman are not toys or tools; they are gifts, and as such, are meant to show us something not only about ourselves, but about God.
The human being is created in the image of God, who is love (cf. Gn 1:26-27, 1 Jn 4:8). In the “quick fix” mentality of our age, we can think that love is about me and getting my way. But genuine love is not about me; it is about a gift of self to the other who is different from me.
The sexual difference that exists between man and woman is not simply a biological fact. It is essential, irreplaceable and naturally foundational to human existence itself. Sexual difference expresses a deeper meaning, an unparalleled and immeasurable openness at every level of a man and woman’s being. This openness is directed to the reciprocal gift of self in the two-in-one-flesh communion of persons proper to the union of man and woman in marriage. In other words, the human body, in its male and female particularity, is not something added to the person. Rather, it is inseparable from one’s very identity. All of our being, especially the blessing of our human sexuality, is called to express total, self-giving love, which is integral to the meaning of the human person.
Some people mistakenly think that in order to be holy, one has to be a priest or a religious. Some may even think that priests and religious set the rules for married couples or that marriage is some kind of consolation prize for those who could not be priests or nuns. On the contrary, the genuine love of husband and wife sets a pattern for what it is to be a priest or a religious. The life-giving gift of self in married love is the very form of the life-giving gift of self that is at the heart of being a priest or religious.
In Familiaris Consortio, John Paul II wrote, “Christian revelation recognizes two specific ways of realizing the vocation of the human person in its entirety, to love: marriage and virginity or celibacy” (11).
God has chosen, from the beginning of time, to mediate something of his ineffable love into the universe through human love. In fact, on the cross, Christ the Bridegroom offers himself completely in the sacrifice of love to his bride the Church.
Married love is thus meant to convey something of divine love in the world, and God has a plan by which this happens. In the very same moment that he creates human life, God also creates the sexual difference between man and woman: “God created mankind in his image; in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Gn 1:27). Jesus confirms this great truth of Genesis and proclaims it anew when he teaches about marriage in reference to “the beginning” (cf. Mt 19:4ff).
We find the first and primary form of the gift of self in marriage. The Second Vatican Council puts it this way: “God did not create man as a solitary, for from the beginning ‘male and female he created them’ (Gn 1:27). Their companionship produces the primary form of interpersonal communion” (Gaudium et Spes, 12).
The council further teaches that man “cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself” (GS, 24). To find myself I have to give myself. Think about this paradox. It is not the mantra of the so-called reality shows. To be filled up inside, I have to go outside in the authentic gift of self.
Man’s first recorded words in Scripture confirm the council’s teaching. Man and woman first come to recognize one another on the basis of their bodies: “This one, at last, is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh,” says Adam in joy and wonder. “This one shall be called ‘woman,’ for out of man this one has been taken” (Gn 2:23).
It is only in the sight of woman, recognizing the meaning of their personhood through their respective bodies, that Adam can name Eve. In naming her, he also names himself and knows who he is. His identity becomes clear, as does hers on seeing him.
THE BEAUTY OF LOVE
For husbands and wives, the conjugal act is a crowning moment of the lifelong, daily gift of self. This total gift of conjugal union, by which all their other daily gifts are summed up in their very flesh, is so significant that God has made it the source of the greatest of gifts: new human life.
Even though the conjugal act does not always result in a new life, it is always meant to reflect and manifest the total, complete and fruitful self-giving of marriage.
New life, like human sexuality, is a gift. Sadly, many people misuse the gift of sexuality by living through the dark prism of acquiring pleasure quickly. As a result, they likewise fail to recognize the gift of new life and treat it instead as a prize, a trophy or a curse.
The pleasure-seeking pressures of our culture are never far away, but neither are the mountains. The wisdom of the Church helps us to see that we are not meant to acquire pleasure quickly; we are meant, always and everywhere, to give beauty slowly.
Karol Wojtyła regularly escaped. He escaped deeper and proclaimed the central idea about man, the mountainous meaning of genuine love inscribed in the flesh of man and woman. He also knew, as human reason testifies and as Jesus taught, that if genuine love doesn’t begin with man and woman in marriage, it doesn’t begin at all.
The nature of the family the bond of father, mother and child reveals something about the inner structure of love that exists in its fullness only in God himself. To say that married love possesses this transcendent meaning is not to seek a naïve return to some idyllic past. It is to return to Christ, to return to who we are really called to be.
MSGR. J. BRIAN BRANSFIELD, STD, serves as the associate general secretary of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He is the author of The Human Person: According to John Paul II (Pauline, 2010) and Meeting Jesus Christ: Meditations on the Word (Pauline, 2013).