Dr. Susan Hanssen, Contributing Writer
This past summer I was sitting one afternoon with Gabbi Chee, University of Dallas alum and former history major, who now writes for the Southwest Airlines flight magazine, discussing the World Youth Day phenomenon. She mentioned that her brother, a student at CUA, was joining Pope Francis in Brazil for WYD 2013, and that it was his first trip outside of the United States in his life.
We then realized that we had this in common—my first trip outside of the United States was for WYD 1991 with John Paul II in his native Poland, and Gabbi’s first trip (that she can actually remember) outside of the United States was for WYD 2005 with Benedict XVI in his native Germany.
It dawned on us that, since over 15 million young people have attend these bi-annual gatherings since they began in 1984, millions of other young Catholics have had the same experience—their first international experience was literally a Catholic experience, an encounter with the universal Christian church gathered around the Holy Father. This is a truly amazing—and news-worthy!—phenomenon.
But sometimes the news media has a strange relationship with the Church. This past year I found myself on the media circuit during the papal conclave—a little bit of commentary on the “historic” resignation of Benedict XVI, a spot of speculation on the conclave, even an interview on the history of Swiss Guard uniforms for the Style section of the Washington Post! You really never know what the news media will take particular interest in—their appetites seem as erratic and sporadic as a teething child.
The most commonly asked question during the conclave interviews was whether there was any chance we might expect something “new” from the new Pope—anything “new” on the morality of homosexuality, abortion, contraception, or women in the priesthood. Similarly, when Pope Francis gave an impromptu interview on the plane-ride home from Rio de Janeiro after WYD, the question journalists raised was why he had not addressed the new laws, which “broaden the right to abortion and allow marriage between persons of the same sex.”
There was a marvelous gentle irony in the Pope’s response: “The Church has already expressed herself perfectly on this. It wasn’t necessary to return to it, just as I did not speak about fraud or lies or other things about which the Church has a clear doctrine.” The Church’s teaching that sodomy is a grave depravity, that abortion is the murder of an innocent person, and that tampering with the natural fecundity of the conjugal act violates the dignity of both husband and wife, is neither new nor newsworthy.
What is perennially new and newsworthy about the Catholic Church is the affirmation that Jesus Christ is alive, yesterday, today, and forever. The “news” par excellence—the latest Church “news” one might say—is that God the Father sent his only begotten Son into the world to unite Himself by the power of the Holy Spirit to our human nature, taking on our sins and reconciling all things in Himself. This is news. This is the ultimate reversal of the “nothing new under the sun” of the book of Ecclesiastes.
On the other hand, what is sinful, or the fact of human sinfulness, is not news. The moral teaching of the Catholic Church, the great “Thou shalt nots,” the moral prohibition on “intrinsically evil actions,” is open to our natural reasoning. The Church’s moral law is a re-affirmation of “what we can’t not know” (although our natural reasoning often forgets and becomes confused because of our sinfulness). As Aristotle put it eloquently quite a long time ago:
“Not every action nor every passion admits of a mean; for some have names that already imply badness, e.g. spite, shamelessness, envy, and, in the case of actions, adultery, theft, murder; for all of these and suchlike things imply by their names that they are themselves bad, and not the excesses or deficiencies of them. It is not possible, then, ever to be right with regard to them; one must always be wrong. Nor does goodness or badness with regard to such things depend on committing adultery with the right woman, at the right time, and in the right way, but simply to do any of them is to go wrong” (Nicomachean Ethics, Book 2, Chapter 6).
The monumental fidelity of the Catholic Church to the moral natural law is perhaps better described as “historic” than “newsworthy.” Certainly, if the Catholic Church reneged on that fidelity, it would become as uninteresting as the multitude of other passing movements that follow every new fad of public opinion.
The fact that, as the Holy Father pointed out, “young people know what the position of the Church is perfectly well,” and still flock by the millions to celebrate their love for their faith is newsworthy. Knowing the difficulty of living the moral law, they come to hear the Good News that no sinner is beyond the reach of the grace of Jesus Christ and the mercy extended to them one by one, day after day, in every corner of the globe in the sacraments of the Church.
In keeping himself firmly “on message,” Pope Francis, like John Paul II, is—as one evangelical preacher once put it—“a Pope who really knows how to pope.”