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In the Field Hospital

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A comment in an exchange between French novelist Michel Houllebecq and conservative French columnist Geoffroy Lejeune in the journal First Things caught my eye recently.  I don’t want to exaggerate the importance of what may have been an off-hand comment in a dialogue in which the interlocutors’ attention was focused elsewhere.  We have far too much of this brand of hyper-critical “gotcha” journalism and commentary, where someone takes offense at one passing word or sentence in an article or interview. I mention it here only because it represents an assumption that I think is not uncommon among many intellectuals – and deserves an honest response.

In comments dealing largely with contemporary French culture and politics, M. Houllebecq remarked that, “The attention paid by the Catholic Church to the sexuality of its faithful appears to me to be markedly overdone. It isn’t rooted in the origins of Christianity.”

You hear this a lot in academic circles, and in a sense, I have a certain sympathy for it. I teach theology to American university students.  I feel privileged to do this, and I enjoy it probably more than I should.  But here are the things I would like to spend most of my time on:

  • the theology of the fathers of the early Church;
  • the intellectual disputes that lead to the doctrinal definitions of the early ecumenical councils;
  • the development of monastic spirituality from St. Anthony of the Desert to Benedict’s Rule and beyond;
  • the remarkable synthesis of faith and reason in the work of Thomas Aquinas;
  • the development of the ideal of liberal education from its roots among the ancient Greeks and Romans through its Christian incarnations in Victorinus, Augustine, and John Cassian up through its expression in the great medieval universities and in the nineteenth century in Newman’s Idea of a University.

And I haven’t even gotten started on the area I am assigned to teach regularly, namely moral theology.  I would love to do a two-semester course on the history of the natural law; another two semesters on the development of virtue ethics between Aristotle and Aquinas.  How about the relationship between theology and modern science?  I love that.  How about theology and culture?  That’s perfect.

Are you asking: What about Jesus?  What about the Triune God?  What about the relevance of the Cross, Resurrection, and Ascension? What about the Eucharist and the sacraments and salvation history?  I always teach about them. They are central.

But these are just some of the topics I would choose to spend most of my time teaching. And note, none involves sex.  I’m not opposed to sex – sex is a wonderful thing, even if its importance is a bit overblown. It’s just not all that interesting to talk about. And it’s not what I personally would choose to spend my time talking about in class.

A field hospital, WWI

But here’s the thing. I have been assigning reflection questions to my students for a good number of years now, asking them to reflect on some of the “fundamental questions of meaning” that Pope John Paul II talks about at the beginning of his encyclical Fides et Ratio.

“If you died in ten years, what would want someone who knows you well to be able to say honestly about you?  Did you have a meaningful life, and if so, what made it meaningful?”

“Would it make a difference to your life if you believed someone loved you so much he would give his life for you?”

“What does it mean to be human? How does your answer to that question affect your life?”

Now, when you read students’ answers to these questions and others like them over and over again, and when you talk to students regularly about their lives – their hopes, their dreams, their fears, their triumphs, and their disasters – and when you talk to priests who listen to student confessions day after day, you learn something interesting:  many modern students are hurting.

And the things hurting them more than anything else are the difficulties they are having or have had with sex or the break-up of families.

So I want to talk about all those issues in the early Church that M. Houllebecq thinks worthwhile, but I live in the real world of American teens.  And if I am going to heed Pope Francis’s call to serve as part of the “field hospital to the faithful,” then I simply can’t avoid addressing issues related to sex and family. Because I know that what is damaging these kids most is a culture that has lost its mind about sex and marriage the way previous generations lost their minds about nationalism, the use of icons, or whether the Son is “one in being” with the Father or only “similar” to the Father.

I can’t avoid talking about the issues of sex and the family any more than Francisco de Vittoria could avoid talking about Native Americans in the New World, even had he preferred teaching about the Trinity, or any more than Pope Leo XIII could avoid talking about the “labor question” even had he preferred talking about angelic intelligence.  Christians in the early Church faced their challenges; we must face ours.

The attention paid by the Catholic Church to the sexuality of its faithful overdone?  How many priests and bishops talk about it at all since any mention brings out howls of protest the way touching an open wound causes screams of pain? Most of the priests who address the issue do so not because they’re obsessed, but because society is. They hear confessions, and they know what’s killing young people’s hearts.

Talking about that isn’t popular; it doesn’t make them fashionable with the jet set, but someone has to care.  Especially since the jet set bunch isn’t doing much more than selling today’s young adults more expensive jackets, skirts, iPhones, and other stuff they don’t need, using sex as the lure.

Judging from the damage I’ve seen, that’s what’s overdone.

Randall Smith

Randall Smith

Randall B. Smith is the Scanlan Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston. His most recent book, Reading the Sermons of Thomas Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide, is now available at Amazon and from Emmaus Academic Press.