An Apologia Pro Vita Mea — and an Invitation to Readers

As we look at the problematic state of our world and the Church, it’s time to open our mouths and speak out.

(photo: Vane/Pixabay/CC0)

As 2019 has come to an end, I want to begin 2020 with a few words of why I write these blogs, and to invite readers to tell me what concerns them.

I write mostly in the field of moral theology, largely because it implicates what most people do in their ordinary lives. Writing in moral theology/ethics is always delicate, first because there are always wrinkles in individual’s lives and second, because moral theologians have at least as many failings as those whom they hope to help. The danger, however, is that by refraining from saying anything, one surrenders the field to those who would say what many people simply want to hear inspired by voices having nothing to do with the Church.

I also write in a field that might broadly be called culture and society, because what we do generally has public implications. We are not isolated individuals, much less autonomous monads. American culture still prizes the image of the Marlboro man, astride his steed alone, peering over the Grand Tetons. It still gets a frission from Sinatra declaiming, “I did it my way!”

But Catholic theology does not see man disconnected from his fellow man, much less man necessarily at odds with his fellow man. It does not see society as simply an unfortunate, albeit necessary contract imposed on people at the price of survival and ideally limited to its most constricted degree. Even less does it want to stir class warfare. It sees man as inherently social, naturally wanting to “reach out and touch someone.”

The forces, particularly the intellectual forces that seek to shape our world are at best ignorant of, at worst outright hostile to, a Christian view of that world. Indeed, they are in large part hostile to a Judaeo-Christian, religious view of the world, i.e., to the view of the world as we have known it.

To shape that world, we also need to be in the intellectual battle. That is not something that should be alien to us, heirs of a tradition that values faith and reason, that gave birth to modern science, that was the mother of the university, and which has not feared to encounter truth.

When I was much younger, getting ready to go to college, I remember getting a booklet, Adrian van Kaam’s Psychology of the Catholic Intellectual. I didn’t understand much of it then, nor am I saying I endorse it today, but the title really pricked my interest: for the first time, I understood what I had often vaguely known and felt — that there was a Catholic intellectual tradition and a Catholic intelligentsia, and that these were noble vocations to aspire to and which the Church needed. It’s arguably just an extension of the role of witness that is part of Confirmation.

My years in college cemented my conviction that we needed Catholic intellectuals working with young people in their college years, and I could never (and still don’t) understand the remarkably shortsighted ignorance of most diocesan bishops who considered it a “waste” of their sacerdotal resources to have priests in seminaries, much less colleges or universities. The hemorrhage of young people and the rise of “nones” ought to challenge us about the incredibly purblind scope of their vision. I decided I wanted to stay in academe and spent the next 13 years happily there.

My writing is an effort to continue to that public dialogue in the Catholic intellectual tradition, a tradition with the perspective and resources to say much to modernity, but which seems to have voluntarily put on a muzzle. That is especially paradoxical in the United States, where we once made up a quarter of the population and, instead of forming the culture with the best of the Church, allowed the culture — including some of its worst elements — to form us and seep into the Church. That’s why I continue to argue that the election of JFK on his terms, far from being a sign “Catholics made it,” was the beginning of our surrender.

As we look at the problematic state of our world and the abysmal condition of our Church, it’s time to recover our resources, to open our mouths, and to speak out.  I am particularly convinced—to steal Jesuit Father Tomas Morales’ title — that this is “the hour of the laity.” The laity have been in the vanguard of demanding accountability in the wake of the Church’s abuse scandals.  They have been in many ways firmer in the Church and her teaching than some hierarchs — think moral theologians Germain Grisez and Bill May, both laymen, versus Fr. Charles Curran and Fr. Richard McCormick. I’ll even admit: one reason I chose moral theology and wrote the dissertation I did (on the pre-papal sexual morality of John Paul II) was in reaction to my first moral theology professor, Father Anthony Kośnik of Human Sexuality fame: I was absolutely convinced Polish Catholicism could do better than that book, that even managed to get the Vatican and the American bishops of the 1970s to say it was not Catholic thinking. 

So, those are some of the things that inspire and drive my writing. But the problem of any writer is that one rarely hears much from readers. There’s usual some faithful correspondents and some axe-grinders who offer comments, but most readers just go on their way.

So, at year’s end, looking ahead to 2020, I invite readers: what are topics that you want to hear about?  What are the issues, questions, topics, and subjects that you would like addressed? Do you have general topics, or very specific issues? The floor is yours. I can’t promise every idea will fly, but I do promise to look at your feedback. Just click below and submit your comments. And a happy and blessed 2020.