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Thursday, November 2, 2017

Once A Catholic Always A Catholic–Belief Is A Matter Of Principle, Not Faith

It was abortion that did it, that brought Robert Coles back to his Catholic roots.

Coles had been brought up in the disciplinary years of the Church, the days long before sex scandals but ironically in an era of severe moral probity especially when it came to sexual behavior.  It was wrong to sin in thought, word, and deed said Father Brophy every Sunday without fail, working himself up to a fine state of divinely-inspired justice and admonition. 

He was no less severe in the confessional, challenging young boys to admit their moral failings, to promise under threat of moral sin to repent, to reform, and to return to the chaste, pure life that Jesus Christ intended.

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Coles was quick to leave the Church.  Whether it was the anti-establishment sentiment of the Sixties, suspicion of the autocratic Vatican, or a maturing sense of a wider and more inclusive spirituality, Coles went to his last Mass, made his last confession, and received his last Holy Communion by the time he was eighteen.

At first he had doubts about his decision.  Perhaps he was wrong, naïve, and even arrogant in his summary rejection of an institution that had been the most influential, powerful, and universal arbiter of moral and spiritual values for over 2000 years.  Tolstoy in ‘A Confession’ deliberated for decades about faith, spirituality, and meaning; and then much later in life, worn out, dispirited, but still hopeful, he gave up his search.  If millions of people in human history had believed in God, then perhaps there was something to religion after all. 

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Coles sought out the Catholic chaplain at Harvard and met him twice a week to discuss issues of faith and the foundations of belief.  The chaplain, a Harvard graduate, a Jesuit, and an academic had been chosen for just this purpose – to engage smart undergraduates on common ground.  Approaching faith through the imposing intellectual minds of the Early Church who believed in Christ’s divinity but argued endlessly over his nature, the nature of divinity, and the logical pillars of faith would be the way to the souls of young, inquiring students.

After two months of these meetings, the Chaplain gave up.  There was no way that through exegesis alone could he return Robert Coles to belief.  Only faith would do.

Coles was satisfied that he had put the question of the Church, Christ, God, and salvation to rest, and followed a secular life.  He was neither an atheist nor an agnostic.  He was simply one of the millions who, if there had been an appropriate box on the census long form religion category, would have checked ‘Indifferent’.

His children were raised without religion, and other than an antique crèche on the mantel, an Advent calendar, and Christmas carols, years passed without thought, reflection, or consideration of the faith he had left behind.

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As he got older, he not surprisingly began to wonder if he had missed something, whether or not his indifferent secularism had left him unprepared for death.  Many courses on Biblical exegesis, the historical Jesus, and readings of Aquinas, Augustine, and Athanasius later, he was still unconvinced.

While fascinated by the doctrinal debates of the 4th century, the influence of Babylonian myth, Hellenism, and Gnostic heresy, they only encouraged his secularism.  The Church was clearly the result of easily identifiable social, historical, and cultural influences; and while he, like Tolstoy, could not ignore the fact that religion was common to all, and that the desire for faith transcended narrow socio-political developments, he remained secure in his religious indifference.

The later years of his life coincided with angry social and political divisions within the country.  No formerly established principle of social organization, religious principle, or moral code seemed to be left unchallenged.  There was no longer settled science, settled religion, or settled morality.

All of which forced Bob Coles to consider issues that for him had long before been concluded.  For years he had taken no strong position on abortion – when life begins, the morality of  voluntarily ending a pregnancy, and the more complex issue of late-term surgical interruptions.  He appreciated that views on abortion ranged from the religiously fundamental to the centrality of women’s rights to complete indifference; and he was unwilling to judge.

Yet as his friends began to have grandchildren, he could not remain on the sidelines. A short year ago they were not even second thought.  Now they were intelligent, sentient, complex beings.  How could one indifferently erase them from existence justified by a tenuously and poorly argued judicial decision?  No matter how insignificant the moment of conception was not singularity and the potentiality of life the central issue?

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Coles did not return to theology, metaphysics, or biology to further his thinking.  It did not take much consideration to understand the principles of the origins of life, conception, potentiality, and birth.  The issue of civil and gender rights had never been more than peripheral, and those who advocated for free access to abortion on the basis of a woman’s right to choose deliberately ignored or never understood the far more important and fundamental issues of the nature of life and its sanctity.

The pronouncements of John Paul II were essential to understanding the Church’s position on abortion.  Not only was abortion – the taking of life – a mortal, damning, and almost unforgiveable sin, but that it led to a devaluation of all life. Easy access to abortion bred expediency.  Decisions to end a pregnancy were no longer based on religious and moral principles but on convenience.  How could the ending of a potential life – God’s creation, not Man’s – not lead to an indifference to any form of life or all life?

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Pope Francis elaborated on this theme, focusing on the sanctity of life.  If one cavalierly aborts a child the most valuable and central being in God’s creation, then how could one given even a second thought to the rest?  Carefully but not facilely conflating the sanctity of human life with the environment, he found a more attentive audience than his predecessor.

Bob Coles was no environmentalist by any means, but both Popes’ focus on moral principle was what turned him.  While one might argue with or dismiss the Church’s position on sin and the a priori judgment of divine primacy, it was hard to dismiss the Popes’ moral concerns.

The issue of reproduction, while ancillary to the question of potentiality and the value of life but still important, had become as contentious as any.  Smiled at as quaint and old-fashioned, contraception was taken for granted; and the Church’s adamant position laughed at for its antiquated notions and complete disregard for modern life and the role of women in society.

Yet the Church was never illogical in its positions.  If one’s theological and philosophical starting point was God’s creation, endorsed and sanctified by Jesus Christ, then it was never a far-fetched to question the secular decision of pregnancy.  More conciliatory Popes such as John XXIII never hectored but advised.  He knew that the world was and would adopt contraceptive as a matter of course; but wanted only to raise the question of life, its divine nature, and its resultant sanctity.

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The Catholic faith had less to do with the embrace of Jesus Christ as one’s personal savior as fundamentalist Protestant denominations do than with  logically-argued principle; and it was this proposition that led Robert Coles closer if not back to his Catholic roots.

Amory, the daughter of a close friend of his was a lesbian who married her partner in a civil ceremony in Kentucky. 

Two years later, the young woman announced that she and Beth were going to have a baby.  The sperm would come from Beth’s brother, Amory’s egg would be fertilized in vitro and then transplanted in Beth’s womb.  The child would have enough genetic material from both partners to qualify it as ‘theirs’, but in fact it would be the child of Beth’s brother and Amory.

There seemed to Coles to be something profoundly wrong about all this.  While he was happy for his friend and his daughter, Coles could not feel disapproval and even, although he hated to admit it, disgust.  It was one thin to endorse genetic engineering for greater agricultural productivity, the neutering of malarial mosquitoes, or the propagation of new antibiotics; but to engineer human reproduction in such a tortuous way was another.

The baby was innocent, healthy, beautiful, and as unique as any; but it was the way it was conceived and by whom that bothered Coles.  The child was confected, the product of deliberate selection – would the sperm be from Beth’s brothers or Amory’s? Would the surrogate mother be Amory or Beth?

For millennia a procreative couple was a man and a woman, a union satisfying natural reproduction and selection.  

Andreas Kostenberger summarized the Old Testament conception of marriage and reproduction:
The divine institution of marriage is recorded in the foundational narrative of Genesis 2:24: “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh”. This implies… that the marriage union is:  exclusive (“a man . . . his wife”);  publicly acknowledged (“leave his father and mother”);  permanent (“be united to his wife”); and normally consummated by sexual intercourse (“become one flesh”).
On the basis of Genesis 2:24…the following is a biblical definition of marriage: “Marriage is an exclusive heterosexual covenant between one man and one woman, ordained and sealed by God, preceded by a public leaving of parents, consummated in sexual union, issuing in a permanent mutually supportive partnership, and normally crowned by the gift of children.”
He goes on to abridge the argument made by Jesus in the New Testament:
Jesus, when questioned about divorce, affirmed the permanent nature of marriage in no uncertain terms. Quoting both foundational Old Testament texts, Genesis 1:27 and 2:24, he concluded, “So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate” (Mt 19:6) …The marriage bond is more than a human contract: it is a divine yoke.
It was hard, then, for Coles to square the biological imperative, the Biblical injunctions, and the universality of traditional male-female heterosexual reproduction with the marriage and pregnancy of Beth and Amory.

Once again, his objection was not based on faith or received religious wisdom but on principle.  Just as there were moral implications of abortion that extended far beyond the act itself, so a lesbian union and an artificially engineered baby must be examined through the same moral lens. 

Does this engineered baby reflect the best human impulses and the greatest respect for the sanctity of life or the worst – a product of arrogantly secular, selfish, and ultimately disruptive intents?  What does it say about fatherhood, now often marginalized in an increasingly feminized world? Most importantly doesn’t it deny any higher order of principle and morality, religious or not?  If God is irrelevant, then so must Plato be.

“Once a Catholic, always a Catholic”, said Bob’s friend over coffee.

At first Bob was surprised and nonplussed.  He had never, despite his reconsideration of Catholic traditions, theology, and themes, every considered himself a Catholic; but the more he thought about it, the more he had to agree.  Adherence to the Church was not necessarily a matter of faith, but one of principle; and Coles had certainly come around to the principles of John Paul II, Francis, and the Early Church Fathers.  

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While he did not necessarily believe in the divinity of Christ, his remission of sins, resurrection, and eternal life, he could not ignore the moral foundations of the Church.  That was why he was indeed a Catholic, and when anyone from that day on asked him his religious affiliation, he answered ‘Catholic’ without hesitation.

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