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Waiting in Joyful Hope

The meaning of chastity

In my experience, the word "chastity" has to be one of the most misunderstood in our post-modern culture. In our existentialist culture (see post below) we see the idea of chastity as some sort of imposition. In fact, it is meant to be a liberation. The simple fact is that for many, a "mis-aligned" sexuality is a source of great suffering. For others, it is something which does not so much drag them down as prevent them from growing into full maturity. This latter effect is very often encountered by people who are starting on a spiritual journey. While they have lived for a time "in the world", making compromises with the values of the world, the spiritual quest means they are now called to live a different kind of life - a chaste life - and they find they can't. While they never felt like a slave before, once they try and exercise their freedom in a new way - the way of self-mastery - they find they encounter limits. They realise their ability to make this particular choice is weak, even atrophied. The choice acquires a new kind of edge. They can choose to go back to their old way, but do so with a conscious awareness that they are choosing slavery to their passions...or strive for chastity, and develop the strength they need for a truly free choice - a choice with options.

The existentialists once asked a rhetorical question: if a man freely chooses his slavery, is he still a slave? My answer is Yes, because once that slavery is initiated it is no longer possible to choose freedom - that is the tragic essence of being a slave. To be holy, to choose chastity, is NOT to simply choose an alternative slavery. The freedom inherent in holiness is to be able to continue to choose between all alternatives - even sin. Of course, once sin is chosen, holiness is lost and the slavery begins - that is why the choice must be made every day, and why the choice of sin is itself absurd, especially once the power and joy of true freedom in God has been tasted.

As a final point regarding the terminology, I should point out that chastity does NOT mean never having sex, it means choosing (and being able to choose) to use our sexuality according to the plan of God. For single people it includes not having sex, but for married couples it can mean the exact opposite - sexual union has a definite meaning and purpose within the marital bond. Most of all, though, chastity is not about actions or lack of actions, it is an attitude towards life and relationships. It is about treating people as people, and not as objects for our gratification - even if they consent to being used that way, and never consenting to being used that way ourselves. In doing so we discover our true personhood, and are able to grow in self- and mutual respect...and genuine love.

Same-sex marriage and existentialism

With regards to the current social policy debate here in Canada about same-sex marriage, people sometimes wonder where in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms does it mention that discrimination is not permitted on the basis on sexual orientation. The answer is: nowhere. In fact, the Charter is completely silent on the question.

How, then, did this become a question of human rights capable of being decided in a court of law and not just in the philosopher's classroom? The phrase is included in the Canadian Human Rights Act, particularly in the "Purposes of Act", clause 2:

2. The purpose of this Act is to extend the laws in Canada to give effect, within the purview of matters coming within the legislative authority of Parliament, to the principle that all individuals should have an opportunity equal with other individuals to make for themselves the lives that they are able and wish to have and to have their needs accommodated, consistent with their duties and obligations as members of society, without being hindered in or prevented from doing so by discriminatory practices based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, sex, sexual orientation (emphasis mine), marital status, family status, disability or conviction for an offence for which a pardon has been granted.

Based on legal action such as this, the courts have increasingly "read in" sexual orientation rights to the Charter, such that even though they are not mentioned they become, by means of court decision (rather than by constitutional amendment) a part of the highest law of the land.

What is particularly interesting about this legal article above, however, is its philosophical underpinning. Quite simply, it is a stunning example of legal existentialism. The Existentialists taught that "existence preceeds essence". Human beings are fundamentally, radically free, to the extent that there is no such thing as human nature. The "essence" of what is means to be human, according to the Existentialists, does not preceed our actual individual existence. Rather, our "essence" is created by our choices. To quote Austin Powers, "It's about freedom, baby, yeah!" Now go back to article #2 and see where it says:

The purpose of this Act give the principle that all individuals should have an make for themselves the lives that they are able and wish to have...

Ta dah! Existentialism at work!

While this sounds great in theory, even the Existentialists saw certain problems. First of all, in the Existentialist system there is no such thing as objective morality, an objective right or wrong, because objective morality depends in part on a consideration of human nature. As well, there are certain limits to our freedom, most notably the free choices of other human beings apart from ourselves. These free choices sometimes conflict, giving rise to the celebrated Existentialist phrase, "Hell is other people"!

The danger here is that society could break down, with people seeking to assert themselves over other people based on power and violence rather than relating to each other in justice. The State still needs to maintain public order. But on what basis do we then make public policy? In this kind of system the purpose of public policy is to maximize public freedoms as much as possible, to allow people "to make for themselves the lives that they are able and wish to have" as much as possible. It is impossible to have everyone have absolute freedom, so the function of law becomes to build a balance, to allow the maximum number of people to have the maximum amount of freedom. As the Act states, "to have their needs accommodated, consistent with their duties and obligations as members of society, without being hindered in or prevented from doing so by discriminatory practices".

At first glance it would seem this isn't a bad way to run a pluralistic society. Many Canadians have internalized these principles and accept them. Many of my parishioners ask me, somewhat puzzled, why the Church is so opposed to same-sex marriage legislation. While they would never choose it for themselves and would oppose the Church being forced to perform such marriages, they just don't see why its a problem to allow others to be married in a purely civil ceremony. After all, the legislation doesn't prevent or require something, it is simply allowing something. Doesn't this increase freedom? Isn't it a private matter?

These are powerful arguments, and quite frankly I am still waiting for someone from the Church (clergy or laity) to make the necessary precise counter-arguments, rather than simply re-stating general Church teaching. As my own modest contribution, I would like to point out what I consider the Achilles heel of the public policy recommendation of Existentialism: Hell remains other people. The Existentalist vision is that the individuals (perhaps banding together into interest groups) may be in competition for the assertion of their free will, but the State can create a "fair" environment for this competition. But what happens if the State itself gets taken over by one of those interest groups? The State becomes a powerful tool to emasculate the opposition. No, I'm not talking about concentration camps just yet. In this kind of conflict you don't need to eradicate your opponents, simply take away their ability to oppose you in the areas where your "assertiveness" is in conflict.

How would this play itself out? The Church, for example, might initially be told something like "You can continue to say Mass, have baptisms, perform weddings, teach the Rosary, and so on. We won't even force you to do something against your conscience. But we won't allow you to restrict behaviour either (that "maximization of freedom" principle again), or to incite others to restrict behaviour."

I submit to you that this scenario has already begun. The mechanisms of the State have already been used in this regard. The courts, in "reading in" elements to the Charter, have already forbidden the Church to restrict behaviour, most notably in the Mark Hall case in Ontario. Another mechanism of the State has now been used to potentially restrict certain elements of free speech, namely parliament. MP Svend Robinson's private member's bill C-250, now before the Senate, is being carefully and cautiously watched by religious groups fearful that its provisions might be used to silence the public proclamation of religious beliefs on the question.

It will be interesting to see how this all plays itself out. I think our American friends need to be aware that the exact same Existentialist principles are becoming enshrined in their law, notably in the Supreme Court Casey decision of 1992, which read in part: "At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of the meaning of the universe, and of the mystery of human life." Judicial Existentialism is triumphant again.

You know, in my heart of hearts I am neither a lobbyist nor a lawyer. I am certainly no prophet, just a priest trying to help his people understand the society around them, their place in it, and where God is in all of this. But I can tell you this: I am diametrically opposed to a public policy grounded in Existentialism. If Hell really is other people, then the only solution is utter existential loneliness. Well I have felt loneliness in my life, and I can tell you with some authority that it sucks. My vision (which I hope is the Christian vision) is Heaven, a place of perfect communion with each other (the "communion of saints") and with God. Even God is three Persons in communion with each other. Existentialism is wrong. Hell isn't other people, Heaven is.

How God creates the universe

In my theology class this afternoon we discussed "Theology in a scientific and technological age". Is there any place for faith in an age of science?

Stephen Hawking apparently isn't so sure. In his book A Brief History of Time, he wrote the following:

With the success of scientific theories in describing events, most people have come to believe that God allows the universe to evolve according to a set of laws and does not intervene in the universe to break these laws. However, the laws do not tell us what the universe should have looked like when it started - it would still be up to God to wind up the clockwork and choose how to start it off. So long as the universe had a beginning, we could suppose it had a creator. But if the universe is really completely self-contained, having no boundary or edge, it would have neither beginning nor end: it would simply be. What place, then, for a creator? (pp. 140-141)

In other words, if the universe if eternal, we don't really need a God to "wind up the clockwork and choose how to start it off". But is that what "creation" means? It seems to me that Hawking is confusing "creation in time" with "creation ex nihilo (lit.: out of nothing)". They do not mean the same thing.

Creation in time means that the universe had a definite starting point before which there was simply nothing. By definition, it cannot be eternal, because there was a time when it wasn't.

Creation ex nihilo can apply to a universe created in time, but can also apply to a universe that is eternal. It does not require for there to have been nothing, and then suddenly for there to have been something. There can always have been something. What counts is not that there is something, but for that something to depend on something else for its existence.

Take the following example. Suppose you were to imagine a world in your mind - you can see the planet, with the blue of the oceans, the brown/green of the continents, the white of the clouds. You zoom in to one part of the land, zoom in closer to a city, zoom in even closer to people chatting in a crowd.

Suppose you were to suddenly stop thinking of that world. What would happen? It would cease to exist. That world requires you for its continued existence. It is not just that you started thinking about that world at some point, bringing it into being: you are also the sustainer of that world, keeping it in being. Creation is not just a moment in time, a brief act of will: it is a continuous act, necessary for the ongoing existence of the world.

Since God is eternal, He could just as easily have undertaken the "act" of creation continuously from all eternity, rather than from a moment in time. Of course, the Biblical witness (and the best current scientific evidence) suggests a creation in time, but Hawking et. al. need to realise that even if it can be demonstrated that the universe is eternal, there is still plenty of place of a Creator as the Source of Being for that eternal universe.

What is a Christian? What is a Catholic?

I went out for supper with a good friend recently, and we had a very interesting (and quite extended) conversation about all things religious. I wish I had taken notes, because we covered a lot of ground. One part of our conversation that particularly grabbed me was the question "What is a Christian?", quickly followed by "What is a Catholic?"

A Christian is a person who places his or her faith in God through Jesus Christ. The earliest and most fundamental creed of the Christian is "Jesus is Lord", which is found in several places in the New Testament (such as 1 Corinthians 12: 3b - "No one can say 'Jesus is Lord' except by the Holy Spirit.") This is a lot stronger than it sounds. "Lord", or in Hebrew "Adonai", was a term used to refer to God Himself. This simple creed already starts to imply that Jesus has a divine nature. It also implies that just as there is only one God, there is only one Lord par excellence, and that is Jesus.

A Catholic is a Christian whose faith is lived in a concrete historical community (a "church") which lives in communion with St. Peter and his successors i.e. the Bishop of Rome, a.k.a. the Pope. There are lots of churches out there. What sets the Catholic church apart from the others is that this particular church lives in communion with the Pope. Catholics do believe that other Christians truly are Christians, but also believes that the function of St. Peter (and his successors) as a centre of unity is part of the will of God for the Church. For this reason, Catholics believe that the fullness of the reality of the Church subsists only in the Catholic church, without denying the authentic status of other baptized people as Christians.

Obviously these are more "spiritual" than "sociological" answers. I bet there are a lot of people who write "Catholic" on the census form who are not, in fact, living in communion with the Pope. I bet there are a lot of people who self-identify as "Christian" for whom Jesus is not really the Lord. But very few of us are perfect believers just yet. Very few of us have totally turned over every aspect of our lives and will to Jesus just yet. The real danger as I see it is spiritual complacency, and presumption. As long as people are still journeying, God can still sneak in with his grace. We just need to be willing to be challenged, and to be called to self-consistency with our faith and our life.