by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann
I came of age in the 1960s. It was an era of civil unrest, race riots, anti-war protests and the sexual revolution. One of the popular bumper stickers at the time stated: Question Everything.
These societal events coincided with the sessions of the Second Vatican Council and its early implementation. The council brought beautiful and much needed renewal to many aspects of Catholic life. Sadly, there was also a serious misinterpretation of the council that fostered moral confusion. The poisonous ideas of the sexual revolution crept into the church.
A great cultural myth was propagated that one could not be happy or fulfilled unless you were sexually active. The rate of divorce rose dramatically within the society and the church. Traditional sexual morals were considered antiquated. The virtue of chastity was mocked. Influential voices within the church sought to use the “spirit of the council” to change Catholic sexual moral teaching and practice.
With the availability and cultural embrace of oral contraceptives, Pope Paul VI warned that sexual intimacy outside of the marriage covenant would become commonplace, and the harm inflicted on children, women, men and society would be catastrophic. The Holy Father was prophetic. Out-of-wedlock births, abortion and pornography became common. Sexually transmitted diseases reached epidemic levels. Contrary to the predictions of advocates for contraception and abortion, child abuse and child trafficking hit record levels.
The unparalleled happiness that proponents of so-called sexual freedom promised never materialized. Instead, we find among young adults alarmingly high levels of anxiety, depression and loneliness. Pornography and other forms of sexual addiction have become rampant and enslave many at a young age.
The unraveling of sexual morals has continued for decades. Among the cultural fallacies is a prevalent notion that homosexual activity is healthy and normal, just another lifestyle choice.
In recent years, our cultural confusion has now spawned gender ideology, asserting that human beings can deny their biological gender. Tragically, many young people have been pressured to undergo gender transitioning hormonal regimens and to mutilate their bodies by “gender re-assignment” surgeries.
Gratefully, Pope St. John Paul II, with his landmark teaching on the theology of the body, gave us new language to articulate the beauty of human sexuality and to help restore moral sanity. Pope Benedict also provided clear teaching in these important areas. Pope Francis has spoken plainly and strongly about the evil of abortion and the danger of gender theory.
I have been saddened that in the preparation for the Synod on Synodality, there has been a renewed effort by some in church leadership to resuscitate moral confusion on human sexuality. The German Synodal Way is a striking example. The leadership of the German bishops conference has rejected correction from Pope Francis.
Most troubling has been statements by Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich of Luxembourg, who asserts that church teaching related to homosexuality is false because he believes the sociological-scientific foundation of this teaching is no longer correct. Cardinal Hollerich’s statements are particularly concerning because of the leadership role that he has been assigned as relator general for the Synod on Synodality.
Most recently, Cardinal Robert McElroy’s article in the Jesuit journal America magazine has charged that the Catholic Church “contains structures and cultures of exclusion that alienate all too many from the church or make their journey in the Catholic faith tremendously burdensome.” Cardinal McElroy champions what he terms radical inclusion that embraces everyone into full communion with the church on their terms. The mandate of Jesus given to the apostles to make disciples of all nations is construed to mean to enlarge the tent of the church by accommodating behaviors contrary to Our Lord’s own teaching.
Cardinal McElroy appears to believe that the church for 2,000 years has exaggerated the importance of her sexual moral teaching, and that radical inclusion supersedes doctrinal fidelity, especially in the area of the church’s moral teaching regarding human sexuality.
In my opinion, this is a most serious and dangerous error. Our understanding of sexual morals significantly impacts marriage and family life. The importance of marriage and family to society, culture, the nation and the church cannot be overestimated.
Proponents of radical inclusion cite Our Lord’s association with sinners. In the face of harsh criticism of religious leaders, it is true that Jesus manifested great concern, compassion and mercy to sinners. In every instance, Jesus also calls those who wish to become his disciples to repentance and conversion.
Are we to understand Our Lord’s call for repentance to be fostering a culture of exclusion? Was the clear and challenging teaching of Jesus regarding marriage or the consequences of lust intended to alienate, or was it an invitation to liberation and freedom? Was radical inclusion Our Lord’s highest priority, when many disciples walked away after his Bread of Life discourse?
Should any of us be surprised that when we listen to those on the peripheries, those not in our churches, those who are not Catholic and even those who do not believe in Jesus, that many will disagree with our countercultural moral teaching? Does this mean that we should repent for creating structures of exclusion and embrace the spirit of the secular culture?
Pope Francis has said clearly that synodality is not voting on doctrine and moral teaching. The Holy Father has also reminded us that synodality is an effort to listen to the Holy Spirit, not the spirit of the age.
If we are striving to be true disciples of Jesus, does this not require us to be countercultural? At the church’s beginning, what drew people to Christianity? Was it radical inclusion? Certainly, the Gospel of Jesus was offered to everyone, male and female, Jew and Gentile. However, included in Our Lord’s invitation was always a call to repentance, not that all are welcome on their own terms. Were Paul’s epistles or Peter’s sermon on Pentecost about radical inclusion, or were they a call to conversion?
What evangelized the culture at the beginning of Christianity in part was the radical love that characterized Christian marriages and families. What drew many to Christianity was the witness of the virgin martyrs! Women particularly found attractive the Christian teaching that husbands should be willing to lay down their lives for their spouses as Jesus laid down his life for his bride, the church.
In February, the Archdiocese of Kansas City will host a Life-Giving Wounds retreat for adult children of divorce or separation. Adult children of divorce represent a massive group of casualties of the sexual revolution.
In listening to those on the peripheries, we should include hearing the pain suffered by adult children of divorce, young people raised without the presence of a loving father, those addicted at a tender age to pornography and those emotionally scarred by the hookup culture.
The Gospel compels us to look at each human being as one made in the divine image. We gaze upon each person with the expectation that God is attempting to reveal himself to us through them. We revere every human being to be of such immense worth that Jesus gave his life on Calvary for each one of us. For this reason, we treat every human being with the highest reverence and respect — no matter age, race, ethnicity, gender, physical strength, intellectual capabilities or sexual orientation. This is not to say that we respect and reverence every choice made.
We acknowledge ourselves as sinners in need of God’s mercy, and thus we seek to receive warmly fellow sinners. We respect others enough to invite them to become free from enslavements to sin. Living the virtue of chastity in this oversexualized culture is a challenge for all of us. We are prepared and eager to walk with others in striving for virtue and accompanying each other along the pathway of ongoing conversion.
I pray that the Synod on Synodality will not unintentionally resurrect and breathe new life into moral confusion. If we truly listen to the Holy Spirit, I am confident that it will not lead us to abandon our moral teaching in order to embrace the toxic spirit of an age oppressed by the dictatorship of relativism.