By Regis Martin
Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Martin is the author of a number of books, including Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God (2012) and The Beggar’s Banquet (Emmaus Road). His most recent book, also published by Emmaus Road, is called Witness to Wonder: The World of Catholic Sacrament. He resides in Steubenville, Ohio, with his wife and ten children.
When I first heard the story of a silly nun who’d gotten herself ordained as a Protestant priestess while teaching theology at a major Catholic University, I was not surprised. Nor was I surprised to learn of the subsequent lawsuit she filed to prevent her being fired. What did surprise me, however, was the fact that it was thrown out, thus enabling the institution to go ahead with her dismissal.
The good guys do sometimes win. But in a sane world, why should anyone be surprised when, boundaries of permissible belief and behavior having been set, those who violate them get canned? Because we live in strange times, that’s why. Times in which faithlessness, not fidelity, get rewarded.
Leaving aside the nonsense of this or that chuckleheaded nun, what remains essential to the maintenance of the Catholic Thing, without which there can be no coherent expression of faith, is the existence of an institutional structure divinely designed to uphold the fullness and integrity of that faith. “Intrinsic to the basic structure of the act of faith,” writes Joseph Ratzinger in Principles of Catholic Theology, “is incorporation into the Church, the common situs of that which binds together and that which is bound.” Then, referencing Romans 6:17, he reminds us that “this act of faith is defined as the process by which an individual submits himself to one particular creed and, in doing so, performs an act of obedience that comes from the heart, that is, from the center of his whole being.”
“Guard the noble deposit,” exhorts the Apostle Paul to Timothy, his young colleague and friend, in what was perhaps his final epistle. And why should he do that? Because, very simply, it is the mission entrusted to the Church by our Blessed Lord. It is not anything we have discovered on our own, pursuant to this or that swashbuckling endeavor. Rather, it is something that we have been given, a pearl beyond price, and thus a thing we should be loath to lose. As the inimitable Belloc once put it: “The moral is, it is indeed, thou shalt not monkey with the creed!”
Faith is not philosophy, in other words. It is not something on which we reflect, but rather Someone we receive, and upon whom we are blessedly free to repose the whole weight of our understanding and trust. “It is not a matter of learning and cleverness,” Hans Urs von Balthasar advises, “but the courage to put oneself at risk.”
As did Pope St. John Paul II, by the way, when asked why he would not allow the ordination of women. “I am not authorized to do so,” he said in effect. Not, heaven knows, because he despised women, or felt they were somehow inferior to men, whose bastions of medieval privilege he was determined to preserve. But because he and the Church, whose teachings it is the job of popes and bishops always and everywhere to defend, must remain on the side of Christ.
Christ willed these structures in the first instance, and thus they are irreformable. Just as you or I may not blithely set aside the whole constitution of being, the order of creation itself, in order to sanction same-sex marriage or, to cite the current grotesquerie, the castration of boys so that they may compete against girls on athletic fields.
Or, come to think of it, certain rogue bishops in Germany, who have lately become infatuated with the idea of Church blessings for homosexual unions. They appear to be in a great hurry to enact sweeping changes in the Catechism of the Catholic Church in order to accommodate what used to be called sodomy. The bishop of Mainz, for example; one of several spearheading the effort.
His fixation on the subject has driven him to the extremity of whitewashing practices that, until the day before yesterday, were classified as mortal sins. “As to the demand for chastity,” he asks “what does it mean from the perspective of people who experience same-sex attraction? I think that few of them would consider this demand as tactful and respectful because,” as he patronizingly continues, “this inclination is not self-selected.”
Is he kidding? What has “self-selection” got to do with it? Has he never heard of concupiscence? Or ever experienced the least tug of appetite for pleasures which, in the light of reason and with an aim toward greater self-mastery, demand that he say no to? Or is it only heterosexual temptation that needs to be resisted? Why should only married couples feel the need to exercise chastity when enticement comes around? Is moral heroism a vocation only for “straight” people to pursue? How insulting it is to exempt whole categories of human beings from having to travel the high road of holiness and sexual purity!
If great big bishops will not guard the noble deposit, then it may be time to depose them.