Thursday, November 25, 2010

When Did Continence Become a Dirty Word?

When I introduced the concept of the "Death of the Catholic Male", one commenter was quite perturbed that I claimed many Catholics have contributed to it through their incomplete presentations of the Gospel.  I stand by this assertion, and I believe that a recent article vindicated my assertion.

In an essay over at Catholic Exchange, Bill Donaghy wrote:

We were not made for law; we were made for love. However, when it comes to living out our eros, our God-given passion for all that is good, true, and beautiful, it seems many of us don’t even equate it with Christianity anymore. We feel that eros is less than holy, and are content with continence, not consummation – so we divorce passion from purity and just tough it out, trying to stay clean, in a kind of legalistic contract with God that will keep us on the “Big Guy’s” good side.

In a certain sense, Mr. Donaghy is certainly correct.  One of the greatest problems inherent in human nature is our refusal to embrace what we were called to be.  St. Cyprian of Carthage (along with Augustine) talk about how one of the greatest difficulties to embracing the Gospel was that they were holding themselves back from becoming what God truly wanted them to become.  Once they came to the light of the Gospel, they were tormented by their sins and indiscretions, and would not advance forward.  They finally realized that God says "I will remember their sins no more", he meant what he said. 

Yet God was never content with a mere forgiveness of their sins.  In addition to forgiveness, God brings about a restoration.  Yet that restoration can be hard to accept.  We are indeed called to the eternal consummation of all things in Christ.  So if we understand Mr. Donaghy's words in this sense, he is indeed correct.

Yet I believe he is missing a vital part of the story.  Is there really meant to be the separation between "continence" and "consummation" that Mr. Donaghy talks about?  I submit it is precisely this distinction in the world and the Church at large that is one of the greatest reasons for a decline in not only an authentic understanding of our masculinity, but an authentic understanding of the human person in general.  One cannot reach the point of consummation without continence.

Ironically, Mr. Donaghy cites all we should need for this understanding, but misses the point entirely.  He quotes John Paul II's Novo Millennio Ineunte, where the Pontiff said the following:

“It is a journey totally sustained by grace, which nonetheless demands an intense spiritual commitment and is no stranger to painful purifications (the “dark night”). But it leads, in various possible ways, to the ineffable joy experienced by the mystics as “nuptial union.” How can we forget here, among the many shining examples, the teachings of Saint John of the Cross and Saint Teresa of Avila?”
A brief understanding of history tells us that these individuals understood continence quite well.  John Paul II engaged in "the discipline" of bodily mortification and intense fasting.  St. John of the Cross underwent intense purification in the natural and supernatural realm.  Near the end of his life, the majority of it was spent in a very cruel captivity by his rivals.  He died of injuries that his captors refused to treat.  Mr. Donaghy treats the Christian spiritual life as a life of enjoyment.  These individuals would disagree sharply.  While one receives great spiritual consolations at times, other times the soul receives an intense feeling of loss and suffering.  Both are used by God in purifying the soul.  This spiritual purification is inevitable.  We will go through parts of it now, and we will undergo it in Purgatory.

In their coverage of the Theology of the Body, many popular commentators almost entirely ignore the Theology of the Cross.  Put simply, we are fallen creatures.  As a result of that fallen nature, we have sinful tendencies, especially in regards to selfishness, that we understand as concupiscence.  As a result of original sin, this will always stay with us.  Even though Christ has indeed redeemed us, our selfish natures remain, albeit (hopefully!) in a diminished form.  As we are conformed to the Image of Christ, the effects of concupiscence are slowly but surely defeated.

Why is it slowly defeated?  When we are restored in Christ, we are restored to our original calling.  We were indeed called to the consummation, but original sin did a lot of damage to our participation in that calling.  Instead of directing our hearts towards union with God, we direct them towards increasing our own power, fulfillment, etc.  The remedy for this is the Cross, and only the Cross.  "Whoever does not deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me cannot be My disciple."  So says our Blessed Lord.  While sin and concupiscence exist, the Cross tells us they need not be our masters.  We can deny the influence they have over our lives through that same Cross.

Yet in order to do this, we must begin to renounce that past life, and live a life towards our calling.  Sometimes, we even renounce those things that are good normally, because they might not be fitting to our new calling.  Earthly food is good, helps nourish the body physically.  Yet at times, we are called to fast and abstain from certain foods, as an ultimate reminder that "not by bread alone" does man live.  Our true food is that of the love of God, given to us on earth principally in the Blessed Sacrament.  Where is this understanding in the thought of Mr. Donaghy?  He would seem to counsel us to eat and drink, since all food was made clean by God and given for our benefit!

So why does this lead to a decreased understanding in authentic masculinity?  God knew we would need help.  One could say He wired the desire for discipline and sacrifice into our very natures.  Even in the secular sphere, our politicians and athletes sacrifice constantly.  Very few athletes like watching film for several hours a day.  They'd rather be out playing, or enjoying their time away from the field, "living the good life" as it were.  If they could have it their way, many of them probably wouldn't like having to live such a strict diet and exercises regime.  Yet they understand they have to do it if they want to succeed.  St. Paul himself compares the Christian life to that of the athlete, who brings his body into subjection to compete, lest he find himself disqualified.  (1 Corinthians 9:27)

Take away continence, and you take away part of man's nature.  He also will never find true fulfillment.  Indeed, he is rejecting the very language written into his mind, body, and soul if he thinks continence is not necessary, if he has somehow passed beyond it.  That will not occur until we have finished the race.  Acting as if you have won the race before you actually cross the finish line is a sure way to lose it.

1 comment:

  1. This brings up a good point that many popular preachers either fail to see or fail to get across, and that is that while there are true aspects to what they're saying, including even the ideal view, they fail to include or elaborate on the fact the road to get to that state requires the hard work and perseverance to get there.

    The great saints were able to greatly subdue if not eliminate the concupiscience in their life, but this came after a long track record of prayer and perseverance, and not over night.

    The real danger here is the ill equipping of the Christian, while preaching a goal that, while true, is unattainable apart from true sacrifice. I heard a great talk on EWTN the other day where the host was commenting on the passage where Christ says "prayer and fasting" is the strongest tool we have at our disposal for spiritual growth and miracles, and to prove this by the fact that they're so hard to do consistently. The reason why is because Satan himself knows they are extremely powerful and thus will do whatever he has to in order to discourage and stop them.


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