Who do they think they are? Such must have been the thought of many Catholics when the Obama Administration ruled that Catholic institutions must provide contraceptive services to their employees. We responded with outrage, indignation and, perhaps most of all, surprise over an assault on our complacently assumed right to religious freedom. As a Catholic community many of us gathered on common ground to defend our Church against this attack on a constitutional right we considered entrenched and unassailable. Our bishops publicly proclaimed that we neither can nor will succumb. As a community we asserted a claim to live our faith freely. As citizens of a constitutional republic we have both the right and duty to do so. But as Catholics perhaps the question we should ask is, “Who do we think we are?” Or we can simplify the question and ask, “Who are we?”
Biblical Israel confronted this question throughout the Old Testament. When the people of Israel saw themselves as children of God, obedient to God and trusting in God, they either lived in the Promised Land or were traveling toward it. When they lost trust in God and failed to honor their covenant or obey His commandments, Jacob’s descendants found themselves exiled to deserts both real and metaphorical. In the Exodus, God took the people of Israel under his wing to lead them out of Egypt. This clearly should have answered the question of who they were. Yet, in transit to the Promised Land, they soon forgot who God was and who they were. No longer trusting a God they could not see and touch, they replaced Him with a golden calf. For the next forty years they wandered the desert rediscovering who they were. Having finally gained the Promised Land the people of Israel mixed and intermarried into surrounding pagan cultures. In doing so they again lost their identity as a people loved by a God who they could trust. Their enemies invaded, conquered and dispersed them. And the cycle continued with those who remembered seeking their way back to the Promised Land and those who forgot, lost in the desert of their own making.
Who are we? As we clamor for our right to religious freedom, perhaps we should look to ourselves when we question our threatened exile to the desert beyond the public square. Are we a people who have placed our trust in God? Or have we gone our own way? Have we used the freedom God gave us to obey his commandments or have we pursued false gods and their false goals? Have we trusted the Church as the incarnation of Jesus in this world or have we decided that the Church was in error, setting ourselves up as the ultimate arbiters of the truth? Have we forgotten who we are, giving strength to our enemies while weakening ourselves? When we truly seek who we are we will find the enemy, and that enemy will be us.
Who are we? The Greatest Commandment tells us we are born to love. But how does that define who we are and what does that have to do with trusting God? We seem to think that we have love pretty well figured out. Love permeates our public and private discourse, it saturates our airwaves with song, it dominates our movie theaters and our TV screens with images romantic and lurid, and its acquisition or loss colors our lives brightly or darkly. How can we possibly be missing anything there is to know about love? Why should we listen to a church of seemingly dour disposition intent on dunking our pursuit of the new, improved modern love into the cold water of dated commandments and arcane papal pronouncements? What could a church of seemingly medieval sensibilities, dominated by fusty and repressed old men tell the modern world about love? These are not really questions but assertions of those who think they understand. But, perhaps, it is time to reconsider what we truly understand. In doing so we will begin to understand how love, trust, obedience and the commandments are multiple facets of a single gem.
To think we have created or can create a new and better love is to see love as mutable. To see love as something that can improve with time and technology is to assume its previous imperfection and to envision mankind as the agent of its change. This is not an explanation of who we are but a hubristic assertion of who we think we are. Missing in our attempt to define ourselves is the answer to the question “Who is God?” Any self-understanding must begin there.
St. John tells us that God is love. What does this mean and is it even something we can fully comprehend? The Old and New Testaments tell the story of man trying to understand God. Our lives are that same story. The Old Testament was written by people of their time, people who simply did not fully understand a god of love. Without the full revelation of Christ and despite God’s persistence as a lover of Israel, the God of the Old Testament was often seen as angry and wrathful. Many of us see the God of the Old Testament the way a teenager punished for wrong doing sees only the wrath and anger of her parents, rather than the love that drives them to correct a daughter who is her own worst enemy. However, if we look at the Old Testament from the perspective of a parent we might begin to see a different picture. We might begin to see the god of love that was there all the time.
But no matter how hard we look we will all find parts of the Old Testament disturbing because we will always see it through human eyes, ours and the eyes of its authors. In order for mankind to fully understand God’s love, they needed His son to show them firsthand. Even then we must be humbled by the fact that the apostles themselves, who knew Jesus intimately, did not fully understand that love. When Jesus was crucified they withdrew to the sanctuary of their homes thinking all was over. Only when they witnessed the risen Christ did they more fully understand. Only then did they realize the magnitude of God’s love.
We benefit from the full revelation of Christ, yet we are those same people who lived the Bible stories. We are the teenager who will not fully understand the meaning of parental love until we ourselves become parents. We are the apostles who followed Jesus to the cross, but then did not understand the love in His dying. We are men and women who cannot fully understand the love of God until we also love like God. To see this is to see that in this world most of us will never fully comprehend the love of God. To accept that God is love is to see that love is unchangeable just as God is unchangeable. To see God as love is to see ourselves as children learning love from a parent whose ways often seem arbitrary and contrary to our own inclinations.
But love is never arbitrary. It is not a set of rules defining a competition. It is not a sports event where we jump through this hoop, climb that barrier, and swim a mile to win a gold medal. It is not a test where we win by getting ninety percent or more. Love does not establish any goals other than itself. The only answer to love is love. But how do we, a people who cannot fully understand a love that is infinite, respond to a call to love? God himself instructed us. We begin by recognizing God as the source of love, the one we serve and whose name we reverence. We set aside time on a regular basis to focus our lives on this love. We honor our parents, we do not kill, or commit adultery, or steal, or lie about each other, or desire another’s spouse or another’s goods. This is the essence of the Ten Commandments. These are not prohibitions meant to cut down the weak and reward the strong but the beginning of a description of how a person acts who loves both God and neighbor. When we act contrary to any of the commandments, our love is incomplete.
To see God as love is to trust Him. It is to trust as a child who cannot fully understand a loving parent. It is to see that we are not toys in His hands but children whose best interests are His concern. It is to see that, like a good parent whose rules help us grow, He has given us the commandments to learn how to begin living a love we do not fully understand. To trust God is to see that He has given us both commandments and a church whose purpose is not to make our lives difficult but to lead us to love. When we obey the church and the commandments we are simply trusting in the love of God.
We now find ourselves challenged in our own country by a government insistent that our Catholic hospitals, schools and other institutions must support policies underwriting contraception and abortion. It is a challenge to those very commandments that tell us how to love. It is a challenge frequently led by Catholics against Catholics. How did we get here? Why do we stand broken rather than united? Why are we so weakened, particularly on issues of human love and sexuality? Perhaps we should look back at the history of Israel and ask ourselves, “Are we a people who trust God?”
Throughout history we have looked to the leadership of the Church to guide us in issues of current moral concern. On July 6, 1968, Pope Paul VI addressed the issue of human sexuality and birth control in the encyclical Humanae Vitae. Looked at through the lens of a child who is told he cannot play with his favorite toy, Humanae Vitae could only be seen as an arbitrary prohibition. Catholics in the United States and the Western world seemingly adopted this attitude wholesale. Pastors, if not actively opposing it, largely ignored it at the pulpit and parishioners in the pews largely walked away from it. Many Catholics joined others who ridiculed the pope as a man making rules for a game he does not play. The reaction to the pope and the Church recalls an account of Jesus in the gospel of John. When Jesus told people they must eat his flesh and blood, “…many of his disciples left him and stopped going with him” (John 6:66). They did not understand His love and they did not trust Him. When the Church explained where love and sexuality meet, we did not understand the love and we chose not to trust the Church. Many of us walked away.
It is the nature of our humanity to not see love even when it stands right before us, because to see it is a call to live it. We frequently don’t see love in our parents, our friends, and our spouses, and we also often don’t see it in our God. It is because of this that trust in the love of God is so important. It is the nature of trust to accept that which we cannot see and often cannot fully understand or don’t want to understand. It is the nature of trust to obey because we know the love behind the command. Humanae Vitae is no more a prohibition than the commandments. Like the commandments, Humanae Vitae describes sexual love lived fully. With almost two generations now passed since Pope Paul VI issued the encyclical, its predictions of sexuality lived without love are tragically writ large on our social landscape.
We now find ourselves attacked on the very grounds we chose not to defend. We should not be surprised to find ourselves flanked on a moral position we ourselves tepidly taught, marginally believed, and seldom lived. Our challengers can be forgiven for thinking they were moving into an empty house. We are not victims of a crisis inflicted by others but in a quandary of our own making. We are a people who did not trust in the love of God. Today we face a threat to a religious freedom to teach and to live what the Church teaches, a freedom we chose not to exercise because we did not trust a God who teaches us how to love. Maybe it is time to go out into to the desert to remember who we are.