Illusions and Realities: The Gall of the New York Times

The New York Times is a great newspaper, even though it sometimes does present itself as a missionary sent to earth to enlighten Roman Catholic darkness. So often it pats the head of Catholic “progressives,” and scolds “traditionalists.”

Consider this headline: Catholic Church Tenets Are Shaken by AIDS Among Clergy. The story (by Robert Lindsey) is not as gross as the headline. Its factual basis is that among the victims of AIDS are some Catholic clergy. The story suggests from interviews around the nation that a dozen or more priests may have died of AIDS, a tiny fraction of the nation’s 57,000 Catholic clergymen. This, it says, turns “a spotlight of skepticism on the integrity of the church’s requirement of priestly celibacy.”

But does it? Priests are human beings, like the rest of us. As every confessor knows, some lay persons commit adultery and other sins. Living a chaste life is not altogether rare, but sin in matters of sex is much too frequent to be taken as a sign of originality. No sensible Catholic believes that priests (yea, even bishops) never fall. Which is why “mercy,” according to St. Thomas Aquinas, is the dearest name of God — and also why it was the subject of one of Pope Paul II’s first encyclicals.

Have the editors of the New York Times never read Francois Mauriac, Sigrid Undset, Graham Greene, or Edwin O’Connor? The sins of the clergy, in all times and places, are staples of Catholic literature. To sin is human. Readers like to read about it.

Because some priests have contracted AIDS, the Times seems to hold that “the integrity of the church’s requirement of priestly celibacy” deserves skepticism. An odd notion of skepticism. If some priests engage in homosexual acts, it is not the integrity of celibacy they violate, but their own integrity. (But in one AIDS case I know of, a young man had changed his way of life; a failing from before he became a priest caught up with him.) Catholics want their priests to be faithful to their vows — to be like Christ, in fact — but who is prepared to throw the first stone?

In the Catholic community, forgiveness may be the single most cherished habit; some critics say, forgiveness to a fault. “Forgive me, father, for I have sinned …,” every Catholic has said in the confessional. Each has prayed often the prayer taught by Jesus: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive …” Surely, in raising his hand in absolution of others, each priest has asked forgiveness for himself, across a whole range of faults.

“Condemn the sin but not the sinner” is a cliché of Catholic households. Sin is a fact of life, and sinners need compassion, but you don’t re-write the rules.

The AIDS epidemic has, if anything, reinforced classic Catholic understandings. Catholics do not understand human nature in terms of its empirical picture only, but also in terms of what a man or a woman ought to be. (The ad man who designed the Army’s campaign, “Be all you can be,” expressed the idea.) Since all of us fall short, it is crucial to human life both to set high ideals and to learn to be forgiving, compassionate, and understanding. To expect perfection to be realized would be inhuman; to protect ideals is in dispensable to human progress.

The Catholic tradition has long held that homosexual acts are “unnatural acts,” contrary to the ideal of human sexuality, generativity, and monogamy. The Creator of human beings is the same God Who set out for them the way He made them to live. That they often fall short He surely knew from the beginning.

“The sinner,” the great French Catholic Leon Bloy once wrote, “is at the heart of Christianity.” So also are priests (or others) who contract AIDS. God’s compassion is made perfect in reaching out to all of us, no matter what we have done. So it is not wrong for persons to pledge themselves to a holy vocation, even if they sometimes fail to live up to it. Otherwise, no human beings could be priests.

But there is, actually, a story hidden behind the Times story. Ever since Vatican II, some Catholics including clergy have thrown all traditional teaching up for questioning, challenge, and experimentation. Some have jettisoned the traditional teachings of natural law — some have even done so, they insist, with good conscience. It’s outmoded, some have said.

But what the AIDS epidemic has turned “a new spotlight of skepticism” upon is not traditional ethics, but this “new morality.” Those who hold to traditional natural law and to traditional moral values have always held that there are reasons for such values, known to traditional and tacit wisdom, even if not easily brought to mind or tongue. In contemporary moral disorders, some find their confidence in traditional wisdom strengthened.

The Catholic Church proceeds slowly in history, always learning, always slowly changing — and there are sound reasons for the slowness of her changing. Each generation has its own pride of mind, thinking itself superior to all that went before, shaping moral law to its own measure. What some today think of as “traditional” (as in the slogan “the traditional family”) is only the habits of its parents’ generation. But Catholic memory goes back many generations, and through diverse cultures, from which it has distilled a few basics that are rather remarkably unshakeable over time.

I would bet that the New York Times will be more shaken in its judgment on “the new morality” than the Catholic Church will be, as the next two generations come and go, whispering of Michelangelo.

Michael Novak

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Michael Novak held for many years the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute and is now a trustee and visiting professor at Ave Maria University. He is a philosopher, theologian, and author, as well as the 1994 recipient of the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. He has been an emissary to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. He has written over twenty-seven books on the philosophy and theology of culture, especially the essential elements of a free society. He also founded Crisis Magazine with Ralph McInerny in 1982.

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