The Holy Father’s "Ecology of Man" speech has garnered a great deal of attention because one sentence, in a very long speech, made reference to the ways in which human sexuality falls short of the Gospel ideals. "What’s often expressed and understood with the term ‘gender’ is summed up definitively in the self-emancipation of man from the created and the Creator," Pope Benedict XVI said. "But in this way, he lives in opposition to truth, he lives in opposition to the Creator." This fine and important point has been lost in the media coverage because anytime a cleric mentions the word sexuality, everything but a narrow focus on the human pelvis gets lost in the dust.
American cultural – and political – history is a kind of dialogue between Enlightenment liberalism and mainstream Christianity. Our public institutions are designed to promote freedom, specifically a negative conception of freedom, a "freedom from" coercion in various spheres of life, most especially in the realm of conscience. The First Amendment is the most obvious example of this liberal creed. Yet that amendment was written by men who largely believed in some kind of providential guidance, more or less remote, of the universe: Even the least orthodox of the founders understood man to be a creature. Since the founding, our nation’s public life has mostly been lived within the cultural boundaries of mainstream Protestantism, at least until the last half of the twentieth century. Whatever my difficulties with the churches of the Reformation, and they are many, they nonetheless held that truth and value were things to be discovered not invented. With the advent of a consumer-driven culture in the past few decades, Americans have adopted a more Promethean ethic in which we create our own sense of meaning and value. "Life takes VISA," the television ad assures us.
Liberalism awaits its Aquinas. So far as I know, no one great thinker has provided a synthesis between liberalism and Christianity as Aquinas did between Aristotelianism and Christianity, or as Augustine did between neo-Platonism and Christianity. Perhaps it can’t be done. I don’t know, but I recall hearing Cardinal John O’Connor refer to "the seraglio of the Enlightenment" and feared he was correct. I do know that crafting any such synthesis will require a greater mind than mine and that the attempts of the Catholic neo-cons like George Weigel and Michael Novak to wed our faith to democratic capitalism have fallen short precisely because the capitalistic ethic requires exactly the same kind of Promethean ethic in the economic realm that the Holy Father was denouncing in the realm of human sexuality.
Of course, this grand, important and timely discussion did not get the attention of those who write headlines. "Pope: No To Sex Change" read some Italian dailies. And, as my friend and colleague Father Jim Martin, S.J. pointed out, the Reuters’ headline "Pope likens ’saving’ gays to saving the rainforest" was misleading in the extreme.
The most unintentionally funny commentary came from the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission. As reported by Rocco Palmo, they issued a statement that read: "In a season in which the immorality of genocide, lawless governments, lust for money and power and the destabilization of the world’s economy are destroying the lives of hundreds of millions around the world, the Pope’s obsessive focus on gay, lesbian and trans people who simply seek the right to live and love is out of touch with what humanity needs right now from its religious leaders."
Who is obsessed about sexuality? One sentence in a long speech constitutes obsession? When was the last time the Holy Father spoke about anything to do with gays? When was the last time you heard a sermon that focused narrowly on sexual ethics? Somebody is obsessed with sex, but it isn’t the Holy Father or the Church he serves.
A report in Zenit shows what truly obsesses the Church: "Some 27% of health care centers that attend AIDS patients around the world are administered by the Church; 44% are run by governments, 18% by nongovernmental organizations, 11% by other religious institutions, and 8% by other groups." I commend all groups that help care for those who suffer, but before you write a check to the Clinton Global Initiative, you might want to think about how much the Catholic Church accomplishes for the poorest of the poor with much less money. But, we have something the NGOs do not have, the precious awareness that the poor are created in the image and likeness of God.
In the story of Prometheus, you will recall, the protagonist met with an unenviable fate. The story of the protagonist of our faith, the child in the manger at Bethlehem, is not over. This Christmas, like last Christmas and next Christmas, the grace and love of Christ move the hands of His Church to care for all God’s creation and to revel in the beautiful, inestimable title of "creature" that is ours. For if we be creatures, there must be a Creator and His face was revealed to us two thousand years ago. Venite Adoremus, Dominum.
Michael Sean Winters