Reflections on Saint Joseph in St. John Paul II’s Redemptoris Custos

In 1989, Pope John Paul II (a recently canonized saint in the Roman Catholic Church) promulgated Redemptoris Custos, an apostolic exhortation “On the Person and Mission of Saint Joseph in the Life of Christ and of the Church.”  In the Introduction of this document, the Pope notes that, in composing the exhortation, he wished to highlight the centenary of Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Quamquam Pluries by offering reflections regarding St. Joseph, into whose guardianship the Father entrusted the precious treasures of the Virgin Mary and her son, Jesus.  Additionally, the Pope hoped that his thoughts would evoke greater devotion to St. Joseph, the Patron of the Universal Church and the one who served the Savior in an outstanding way.  

Section I of Redemptoris Custos, which is entitled “The Gospel Portrait”, focuses on Joseph’s marriage to Mary.  The Pope refers to the angel’s annunciation to Joseph that he need not fear to take Mary as his wife, that she is pregnant through the power of the Holy Spirit, and that Joseph should name the child to be born – Jesus, that is, God saves. (See Mt. 1:20 – 21)  The Pope notes that Mary was already betrothed, that is, married to Joseph so that the angel’s words to Joseph that he “not fear to take Mary as his wife” meant that Joseph should not hesitate to take Mary into his home, which was, at the time, Jewish practice after a year of betrothal. The Pope explains that before the angel’s annunciation to Joseph in a dream, Joseph was faced with the possibility that Mary had committed adultery.  If this were the case, Jewish Law demanded that Mary be stoned to death and, since Joseph was legally her husband, he would have to cast the first stone at his wife. Before the angel’s appearance to Joseph in a dream, Joseph had resolved his dilemma: he would quietly divorce Mary. However, when Joseph awoke from his dream, he acted in faith; he settled Mary into his home in Nazareth (though this was before the year of betrothal was completed) and awaited the unfolding of the mystery of her astonishing maternity.   

In Section II of his apostolic exhortation, the Pope discusses Joseph as the “Guardian of the Mystery of God.”  With Mary, Joseph assented to the revelation he received concerning the Incarnation of the Word of God and the mission of Redemption associated with it.  The Pope stresses that, by virtue of his marriage to Mary, Joseph was able to enjoy great intimacy with her son Jesus and that, in the shared life of Jesus, Joseph, and Mary, the true meaning of family which is  “to guard, reveal, and communicate love” (p. 5*) was eminently evidenced. As the head of his family, Joseph provided for his wife and exercised great fatherly care of Jesus. In regard to Joseph’s latter role, the Pope states

Since it is inconceivable that such a sublime task would not be matched by the necessary qualities to adequately fulfill it, we must recognize that Joseph showed Jesus all the love, all the affectionate solicitude that a father’s heart can know. (p. 6)

Section II of the apostolic exhortation also includes reflections on  the census, the birth at Bethlehem, the circumcision, the presentation in the Temple, the flight into Egypt,  Jesus’ stay in the Temple, and the support and education of Jesus. Because Caesar Augustus had declared an empire-wide census, Joseph and Mary journeyed to Bethlehem, Joseph’s home town.  It was here that Joseph became an eyewitness to Jesus’ birth, which took place, as the Pope describes “in conditions that, humanly speaking, were embarrassing – a first announcement of that ‘self-emptying’ (cf. Phil. 2:5 – 8) which Christ freely accepted for the forgiveness of sins.” (p.7) Also, in Bethlehem, along with Mary, Joseph watched shepherds adore the newborn baby and later witnessed magi from the East pay homage to him. Of note is the fact, as the Pope explains, after Jesus’ birth, Joseph officially inserted the name Jesus, son of Joseph of Nazareth (cf. Jn. 1:45) into the registry of the Roman Empire. In effect, in this civil way, Joseph secured the legitimacy of Mary’s son.   

Eight days after Jesus’ birth, Joseph met his religious obligation to have his adopted son circumcised.  During the ceremony, Joseph declared that the boy’s name was Jesus. In his exhortation, the Pope explains that “In conferring the name, Joseph declares his own legal fatherhood over Jesus, and, in speaking the name, he proclaims the child’s mission as Savior.” (p. 8) Forty days after Jesus’ birth, Joseph met his fatherly obligation to present his son in the Temple in Jerusalem.  According to the Pope, in this Jewish rite, “Represented in the first-born is the people of the covenant, ransomed from slavery in order to belong to God.” (p. 8) As the Pope notes, since Jesus already belonged to God by virtue of his being the Word of God, while formally fulfilling the Jewish rite, in actuality Jesus transcended it.

After the presentation in the Temple, in a dream Joseph received a message from an angel that King Herod, in fear that the newborn child would usurp his throne, had ordered the mass murder of all boys in Bethlehem two years old or under that age. Given the angel’s instruction to flee to safety in Egypt, Joseph immediately departed from Bethlehem with his family, where he sought asylum until after Herod died.  As the Pope indicates, this experience fulfilled the words of the Old Testament prophet Hosea: “Out of Egypt have I called my son.” (Hos. 11: 1)

After returning to their homeland, Joseph settled his family in Nazareth, a quiet village wherein it was improbable that Herod’s son, Achelous, who, like his father sought to kill Jesus, would succeed in his plot. When Jesus was twelve years old, as was customary in the Jewish religion, Joseph arranged for his family to travel to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover feast.  After a day’s travel back to Nazareth after the feast, realizing that Jesus was nowhere to be found, Mary and Joseph returned to Jerusalem. Three days later, they discovered Jesus in the Temple conversing with learned Jewish teachers. Jesus’ reply to his mother’s statement that she and Joseph had anxiously been searching for him: “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (Lk. 2:49 – 50) was Jesus’ way of communicating to his parents that he understood that his Father in heaven had sent him to earth to fulfill the messianic mission of redemption. After this Temple encounter, Jesus returned to Nazareth and was obedient to Joseph and Mary.  With his wife, Joseph raised Jesus to adulthood. In keeping with a father’s responsibilities, Joseph made sure Jesus was educated in the Law and apprenticed his son as a tekton, a highly skilled artisan who worked in wood, iron and, perhaps, stone.

Section III of the Pope’s apostolic exhortation is entitled “A Just Man, A Husband”.  As the Pope indicates, that Joseph was a just man is most evident in his decision to take his pregnant wife Mary into his home.  In so doing, Joseph chose to protect his wife’s honor and to honor her virginity as communicated to him by an angel who explained Mary’s mysterious pregnancy.  According to the Pope, as a spouse “Through his complete self-sacrifice, Joseph expressed his generous love for the Mother of God and gave her a husband’s ‘gift of self.’” (p. 11) Just as Mary’s motherhood was taken up in the mystery of Christ’s incarnation, so, too, was Joseph’s fatherhood and, as the Pope notes, this was possible as a consequence of the hypostatic union, that is, “humanity taken up into the unity of the Divine Person of the Word-Son, Jesus Christ.” (p. 12)

Section IV of the apostolic exhortation is entitled “Work as an Expression of Love”. Here, the Pope stresses that Joseph’s work as a tekton gave expression to the sanctification of daily life through his labor of love in support of the life of his family at Nazareth.  Referring to Joseph and Jesus’ co-laboring in the carpenter/artisan trade, the Pope asserts:

Along with the humanity of the Son of God, work too has been taken up in the mystery of the Incarnation, and has also been redeemed in a special way.  At the workbench where he plied his trade together with Jesus, Joseph brought human work closer to the mystery of the Redemption. (p. 12)

In Section V of his exhortation, “The Primacy of the Interior Life”, the Pope discusses Joseph’s mature spirituality that enabled him to consistently respond positively to the graces he received in his life as Mary’s husband and Jesus’ father.  In regard to Joseph’s latter role, the Pope stresses that “Joseph experienced … that pure contemplative love of the divine Truth which radiated from the humanity of Christ and the demands of love … required for his [Joseph’s] vocation to safeguard and develop the humanity of Jesus, which was inseparably linked to his divinity.” (p. 14) Furthermore, the Pope reflects upon the fatherly love of Joseph and Jesus’ filial love as mutually beneficial in the ongoing deepening of their relationship.  

In the final section (Section VI) of Redemptoris Custos, the Pope highlights Joseph as the “Patron of the Church in Our Day”. Just as Joseph kept watch over the Holy Family so, too,  he safeguards the Church in its ongoing history. Referring to Joseph’s role in the “economy of salvation” and to him as a model for all Christians, the Pope writes:

Recalling that God wished to entrust the beginnings of our redemption to the faithful care of St. Joseph, she asks God to grant that she [Church] may faithfully cooperate in the work of salvation; that she may receive the same faithfulness and purity of heart that inspired Joseph in serving the Incarnate Word; and that she may walk before God in the ways of holiness and justice, following Joseph’s example and through his intercession. (p. 15)

Conclusion:  

In Redemptoris Custos, Pope St. John Paul II depicts St. Joseph as an icon of faith, that is, one whose life exemplifies what it means to listen to God’s words and, in an unwavering way, act courageously upon them.  Redemptoris Custos marks a watershed moment in reflection on the role of St. Joseph in the history of Christianity.  In this document, the Pope interweaves biblical exegesis and profound theological insights regarding Joseph’s pivotal role in God’s plan of salvation.   In an outstanding way, the Pope highlights St. Joseph as loving father, faithful spouse, laborer, and patron of the universal Church. It is most fitting that the Pope concludes his exhortation with the following prayer:  “May St. Joseph obtain for the Church and for the world, as well as for each of us, the blessing of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”

Dr. Marilyn Sunderman, RSM, is Professor of Theology and Chair of the on-campus Theology Department of Saint Joseph’s College of Maine.

In this essay, all references to Redemptoris Custos (August 15, 1989) – John Paul II are taken from the online document at http://w.2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/apost_exhortations/documents/hf_jp-ii_exh_15 retrieved on 1.22.2018.

Bibliography:  Gary Caster, Joseph, The Man Who Raised Jesus, Servant Books, 2013; Francis L. Filas, Joseph Most Just: Theological Questions About St. Joseph, The Bruce Publishing Co, 1956; J. . . B. Midgley, Companion to Saint Joseph, CTS Publication, 2002; Pope Leo XIII, Quamquam Pluries: Encyclical on Devotion to St. Joseph, 1889,  Libreria Editrice Vaticana; Joseph, The Silent Saint [DVD], Art and Design, 2008, A&E Television Networks. (Note: In composing the above essay, the author read all texts in this listing and watched the DVD.  Hence, the essay reflects the author’s study of Redemptoris Custos viewed through the lens of insights gained from these other sources.)

 

 

 

Seeking God’s Forgiveness During Lent

Lent is an excellent time for seeking God’s forgiveness via the Sacrament of Reconciliation. In this sacrament, God cleanses us from our sins and reunites us to Christ. Although you may be apprehensive at the onset of disclosing your sins to priest, it is really Christ to whom you are confessing your sins, as the priest is acting in persona Christi, in the person of Christ. You will exit the confessional filled with God’s graces of gratitude, humility, joy and peace.

As a Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA) Coordinator for my parish, I work with people coming from other Christian faiths (or even no faith) who wish to consider becoming Catholic. One of the most common questions I get is “Why do Catholics confess their sins to a priest? Why can’t you just ask God directly for forgiveness?” To answer these questions, this video from Bustedhalo.com gives the best answers:

Seeking God’s forgiveness, along with that of the community, brings us back into union with God and neighbor. Lent is the perfect time to do that, as Jesus is at the ready to issue His pardon for our sins. So, make the time to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation in preparation for the Easter celebration. Open your heart, not only to God’s forgiveness, but that of your neighbor as well. By doing so, you will make your Lenten season more fruitful, not just for you, but for those around you. Then, be a witness for others to the saving grace of Christ received in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

Virginia Lieto teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online. She is the author of children’s book Finding Patience and blogs at www.virginialieto.com.

This post first appeared on www.virginialieto.com.

In the Image of God

Created in the image of God, human beings are called to eliminate borders and build bridges of understanding while building up the reign of God. Often times we really cannot understand the struggles of others until you walk in their shoe, until you take off your comfortable Uggs and realize that the person that you are thinking of may not even have shoes to begin with. What a privilege it is to wear shoes and to wear so many!

We are one human family whatever our national, racial, ethnic, economic, and ideological  differences. We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, wherever they may be.  Loving our neighbor has global dimensions in a shrinking world. At the core of  the virtue of solidarity is the pursuit of justice and peace. Pope Paul VI  taught that “if you want peace, work for justice.” The Gospel calls us to be  peacemakers. Our love for all our sisters and brothers demands that we promote peace in a world surrounded by violence and conflict.

USCCB on Solidarity

It is in embarking on journeys that we are able to understand the Catholic principle of solidarity, to me this is one of the most complex teachings since it calls us to a deeper level of sacrifice.

I challenge myself to one international mission a year. This year there is a possibility to take some students and families to Haiti, Jamaica or the Dominican Republic.  In these journeys, we can access social justice and charity and see through the lens of church our responsibilities to our brothers and sisters, especially those in need.

Last year, we journeyed to Jamaica. I could see through the eyes of my students that they struggled with this concept. The fears, anxieties and struggles were clear. Both groups were able to carry each other and embrace in holiness.

While with the economically struggling people, our new friends in Christ, it was often times hard to really and truly connect based on our differences. Once we were able to breakthrough there were some neat Holy Spirit connections made especially during worship.

Upon returning our hearts were broken for days as we thought rationally that we may never be able to see these amazing new friends again.

As the days go by and we are back in our comfortable shoes and places we might have forgotten the burning of our hearts and may not be affected as much by the heart-breaking poverty.

Solidarity is echoed throughout scripture; we are given a biblical understanding of our responsibility towards the body of Christ and the suffering and joy which one can feel when we experience true solidarity with others. Let’s examine our international relations: our understanding of globalization and borders in conjunction with the human experience.

If one member of Christ’s body suffers, all suffer.  If one member is honored, all rejoice.
1 Corinthians 12:12-26

 

Sherine Green teaches History of Black Catholics in the Church and World Religions for the Saint Joseph’s College Online Theology Program.

Ash Wednesday and Forgetfulness

From the perspective of those outside of the Catholic and Orthodox Christian traditions, Ash Wednesday appears odd. On one occasion, I can recall – on the campus of a Catholic college, no less – overhearing undergraduates speculate that ashes on the foreheads of students must be the product of “pledge week” for fraternities and sororities. (Yikes!) Frequently, in the classroom, I would encounter the belief that Christians should always be aware of their need for redemption, and that the practice of distributing ashes one day a year served to undercut what should be a constant mindfulness. In other words, it makes what should be a daily awareness into an annual activity. While I would agree that the disciple of Christ should always be mindful of his/her need for redemption, and Christ’s abundant love for us in bringing it about, the human reality is that we are in need of constant reminding. We forget. And we not only forget because we have poor memories, we forget because we have fallen memories.

If we take the time to reflect upon memory, we should be struck by its power. After all, it is a sort of conjuring. My Nonna (of blessed memory) passed away some years ago, and yet I can recall her image, the sound of her voice, and how the soft skin of her wrinkled hand felt against mine. Every now and again, I will even associate a particular scent with that of her home. It’s difficult to describe but, when prompted by a similar smell, I’ll say to myself: “That smells like Nonna’s house.” The substantial existence of these things has long since gone, but in my memory I experience them again. What a truly marvelous gift we human beings have been given!

Lent is that time of the liturgical year when we especially recall the gospel proclamation of Christ himself: “‘The Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel’” (Mk 1:14-15; see Mt 4:17). During today’s Mass, a portion of this passage is one of two that one might hear when receiving ashes; the other being: “Remember that ‘you are dust and to dust you shall return’” (Gen 3:19). It is a somewhat traditional English translation to render the word “repent” in this verse from the original word “metanoeite,” but the Greek word has a much richer meaning. It is a combination of the words “mind” [nous] and “beyond” [meta], and one could interpret this word rather physically as meaning “take your head and turn it 180 degrees.” In one sense, a better English word than “repent” is “conversion.” What we remember today is that Christ calls us to himself, to live in communion with him, and that this communion requires being attuned to him in heart, soul, and mind (cf. Lk 10:27; Dt 6:5). In short, today Christ calls us to “return to [him] with [our] whole heart” (Jl 1:12).

For the disciple of Christ, this turning of heart and mind should be a daily occurrence, an ever present mindfulness. But all too often, we forget. And forgetfulness often doesn’t happen all at once, but gradually our memories erode like stones by the seashore. Prayer becomes simply rote, then neglected. Reception of the sacraments (especially confession!) becomes infrequent. One’s spiritual life becomes the discrete unit of a time-managed schedule “blocked off” on Sundays from 10 am to noon.

If the above description resonates with you, today Christ is proclaiming his good news to you. This is not because he has waited for the appropriate day on the liturgical calendar to do so (he is always calling to you). But because we fragile human beings need more explicit reminders of Christ’s call to conversion from time to time. We need Ash Wednesday because we forget. We forget that Christ’s love for us calls for our love in response. We forget that our love for him is lived out in a life of prayer, fasting, and charity. And we forget that this life – while not easy – is joyful.

And so today we are reminded of death, so that we may live. We are reminded of our mortality, so that we might enjoy immortality. We are reminded of our sin, so that we might be reconciled to God. We are reminded on this one particular day, that Christ calls us to himself each and every day

Anthony Coleman teaches theology for the Saint Joseph’s College Online Theology Program.

 

 

My Sins are Running Out Behind Me

In The Wisdom of the Desert, a text edited by Thomas Merton, the following saying from the 4th century Desert Fathers appears:

A brother in Scete happened to commit a fault, and the elders assembled, and sent for Abbot Moses to join them. He, however, did not want to come. The priest sent the Abbot a message, saying, ‘Come, the community is waiting for you.’ So he arose and started off. And taking with him a very old basket full of holes, he filled it with sand and carried it behind him. The elders came out to meet the Abbot and said: ‘What is this, Father?’ The Abbot replied: ‘My sins are running out behind me, and I do not see them, and today I come to judge the sins of another! They, hearing, this, said nothing to the brother but pardoned him. (p. 40)

This story illustrates the theme of new life/new creation through forgiveness of sins.

In his Letter to the Philippians, Paul, a convert to the way of Jesus, describes himself as a
runner who strains forward to embrace what lies ahead. In his former life, Paul (called
Saul and a prominent Jewish rabbi) adamantly persecuted Christians. Having experienced
new life/new creation through Jesus’ forgiveness, Paul now counts all as loss, if only he can
share in Christ’s suffering and know the power of his resurrection. During his extensive Christian missionary endeavors, Paul suffered floggings, imprisonments, and, finally, was beheaded. In this way, he who had become possessed by Christ responded to God’s merciful forgiveness and love by laying down his life for the sake of the gospel.

In the Gospel of John in the New Testament, the author includes a narrative that concerns
an adulteress woman. In this story, the assembled Jewish leaders are about to fulfill the Mosaic Law that requires that this sinful woman be stoned to death. As the drama unfolds, Jesus declares that whoever is without sin should cast the first stone. One by one, without uttering a word, the scribes and Pharisees depart, for who among the living is without sin? Left alone with the woman, Jesus proceeds to offer her new life/new creation through forgiveness of her sin. The woman, who moments ago believed her life was quickly drawing to an end, is now being given the opportunity for metanoia. Jesus’ words to her, “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.” require that she let go of lust of the flesh and embrace life according to the law of authentic love.

In 2006, the world witnessed another example of new life/new creation through forgiveness of sin. The pain and anguish of the Amish community in Lancaster County, Pa., was extreme when five young girls in the community were murdered; in the face of this tragedy, the Amish chose to not balance hurt with hate. Hours after this horrific event took place in the one-room schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, the Amish reached out in compassion to comfort the family of the gunman. Later, dozens of Amish attended the gunman’s funeral in support of his grieving widow and three children.

The Amish went about the somber task of burying their dead in the simple way that characterizes their lives. Each slain girl was attired in a white handmade dress and buried in a pine coffin. When asked what message they wanted to convey to the world, an Amish community spokesperson replied: “We have the richest treasure in the world and that is fraternal love.” Throughout the ordeal, the Amish bore profound witness to the incalculable
value of forgiveness and love.

The story just recounted calls each of us to follow the example of the Amish by offering others new life/new creation through forgiveness. Additionally, in the Desert Fathers’ vignette quoted at the beginning of this reflection, the Abbot’s pronouncement: “My sins are running out behind me” is a poignant reminder that we are all frail humans in need of forgiveness. As we go about our daily lives, let us remember this truth as we strive to be ambassadors of forgiveness to others in a world in need of God’s merciful compassion.

Dr. Marilyn Sunderman, RSM, is Professor of Theology and Chair of the on-campus Theology Dept. at Saint Joseph’s College of Maine.

Saint Thomas Aquinas and Me

Today is the Feast of Saint Thomas Aquinas. I thought I would use this occasion to share how this great man has changed my life. Although he walked this earth during the 13th century, he had a life-changing impact on my life in this 21st century.

As I was studying for my Masters in Pastoral Theology, at Saint Joseph’s College, I needed to take the core course in Moral Theology. It was the last of the core courses to take before embarking on the electives. At this point in the process, I still had no idea what God wanted me to do with my life, after obtaining my degree. I was concerned about what electives to take, without a game plan for my future. Then, within the Moral Theology course, I met Saint Thomas Aquinas, via the study of his masterpiece, Summa Theologica. Saint Thomas Aquinas opened my eyes to see what it truly meant when Christ said that He is the “Way.” You see, Aquinas’ Summa Theologica goes into great depths to explain the various virtues. He devotes an entire subset of the masterpiece to logically explaining why we should embrace virtue. Through reading Aquinas’ masterpiece, I came to understand that by embracing virtue we can live happier lives. It is through the turning away from vice/sin, that we turn toward God and virtue, for they are polar opposites to each other.

I left a 36-year banking career to return to school to obtain my Master’s Degree, because I wanted to connect the dots for people; to show them what they can do that is right, and in the process, live a happier life. Saint Thomas Aquinas provided me with the direction I needed. He gave me the answers on how to connect the dots! With this knowledge, God began to reveal parts of His plan for me. The Holy Spirit inspired me to write a children’s book on the virtue of patience, and to start a blog, writing about virtue. Then He opened the door to teaching at St. Joseph’s College. But He didn’t stop there! He continues to use me to fulfill His plan. Occasionally, He has me speak on the virtues, or other topics, at parishes. Most recently, God asked me to be the RCIA Coordinator at my parish, where I am given the opportunity to share the Catholic “Way” of living with those seeking to enter into full communion with the Catholic Church.

I don’t know what else God has in store for me, but I do know this: I owe a great deal of what I have accomplished to studying the teachings of Saint Thomas Aquinas, and to receiving the grace of Christ.

The souls of Saints live on for eternity. In the case of Saint Thomas Aquinas, we are also blessed to have his literary works live on as well. What Saint Thomas Aquinas taught in the 13th century was as relevant then as it is now. When a Saint provides timeless, unwavering teaching, aimed at bringing you closer to God, then you know it was inspired by the Holy Spirit. I am grateful for all that Saint Thomas Aquinas has done for me.

May the Lord shine His face on Saint Thomas Aquinas! Saint Thomas Aquinas, pray for us!

Virginia Lieto teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online. She is the author of children’s book Finding Patience and blogs at www.virginialieto.com.

Consent is Not Enough: Harvey Weinstein, Sex, and Human Flourishing

In a breathtakingly rapid turn of events, Harvey Weinstein has gone from being a lionized kingmaker to persona non grata, as woman after woman has come forward with remarkably similar stories of his sexual predations. The common themes are a bathrobe, an erection, and a private room.

The coverage has focused on the sensational details, but we who are following the newsfeed are in danger, to paraphrase T.S. Eliot, of having the experience but missing the meaning. The legal concern has been, as it must be, whether the women consented, and Weinstein’s own public statements have zeroed in on this point. While not denying the many liaisons, his spokeswoman Sallie Hofmeister said, “Mr. Weinstein believes that all of these relationships were consensual.” His team then deftly shifts the goalposts on this front, moving from an assertion of consent to the inevitable he-said-she-said battle that they hope this assertion will provoke: “Mr. Weinstein has a different recollection of the events.”

The sheer weight of evidence might steamroll this tactic, but the move itself highlights the problematic nature of the contemporary refuge in consent as the seal of approval for sexual relationships. Consent may be the basic minimum needed for legality, but should we really reduce the good of a relationship to its barebones legal status? Surely we can have a richer understanding of love and relationships than that.

The Default of the Yes

The problem is that, without a sense of a true good in relationships, we don’t know to what we should consent. We are left with an arbitrary act of the will; it is an empty form with no content. The fixation on consent obfuscates larger problems: don’t we have to start to ask what people are consenting to, for the term to have any meaning? And are there cultural conditions necessary for a woman to be able to give consent?

We swim in a culture marked by what Helen Alvaré has called “sexualityism”—the conviction, springing from the sexual revolution, that any sex with anybody is probably a good thing. In this construct, non-procreative sexual expression is a simple necessity intrinsically tied to human fulfillment and personal identity (according to none other than the Supreme Court). This idea was also analyzed and criticized, in a somewhat different way, by Michel Foucault. A culture of sexualityism is not neutral; in it, the good of sexual expression as an end in itself cannot be intellectually challenged. All that is left is the will: do you choose it, or not? Consent carries the day.

If something is a basic human good, it is unreasonable to refuse it. One might consent not to sleep for obscure reasons of one’s own, but the burden of proof would be on the non-sleeper to defend her decision. I call this “the default of the yes”: it is reasonable to choose a good thing, and so it is expected that one will choose it. Thus has the seemingly freedom-friendly principle of the innate goodness of sexual expression become a weapon to attack the persons and institutions who do not agree. The apparent enshrinement of consent actually attacks the very foundations of consent itself: sexualityism puts a thumb on the seemingly impartial scales of choice. As women have observed about the “choice” for abortion, so too here: what begins as a right often turns into a duty.

This is what we see when we peer into Harvey Weinstein’s hotel room. More than one woman stated that Weinstein did not understand the word “no.” It’s probably more accurate to say he did not find the word relevant.

Lucia Stoller Evans, a college student and aspiring actress, told the New Yorkerthat Weinstein arranged a meeting and then forced her to perform oral sex on him. “I said, over and over, ‘I don’t want to do this, stop, don’t. I tried to get away, but maybe I didn’t try hard enough. I didn’t want to kick him or fight him.” She added, “I just sort of gave up. That’s the most horrible part of it, and that’s why he’s been able to do this for so long to so many women: people give up, and then they feel like it’s their fault.”

What clearly emerges from the scenes in Harvey Weinstein’s room is that he did not feel defensive. It is the women who feel the onus put on them. Here we see how the burden of the “default of the yes” complicates the matter of consent. Is it consent to dress provocatively? Or to say no, but to give in? Or to keep saying no, but stop short of physical violence? How much refusal outweighs the default of the yes?

This is the web in which Weinstein’s victims find themselves entangled, at the very moment when they need all their wits about them. “The thing with being a victim is I felt responsible,” Asia Argento said. “Because, if I were a strong woman, I would have kicked him in the balls and run away. But I didn’t. And so I felt responsible.” The horror of the assault is compounded by the postmortem self-accusation, which reveals that the default of the yes shifts the moral responsibility from the perpetrator to the victim.

Putting the Burden on Women and Children

One case of a woman who entered Weinstein’s room and at least figuratively “kicked him in the balls” is instructive. French actress Emma de Caunes followed Weinstein up to his hotel room to get a book he said would be the basis of a movie in which she might appear. After disappearing into the bathroom, he emerged naked and erect and told her to lie down, as so many other women had. “I was very petrified,” she told the New Yorker. “But I didn’t want to show him that I was petrified, because I could feel that the more I was freaking out, the more he was excited.” She added, “It was like a hunter with a wild animal. The fear turns him on.” De Caunes said she was leaving. “We haven’t done anything!” she remembered him saying. “It’s like being in a Walt Disney movie!” “I looked at him,” she related, “and I said—it took all my courage, but I said, ‘I’ve always hated Walt Disney movies.’ And then I left. I slammed the door.”

Why did she successfully escape? Certainly, Weinstein misjudged his power by choosing a woman who was not beholden to him for a job; de Caunes, in her thirties, was established as an actress in France and did not need his patronage. Perhaps because of her independence, she exhibited considerable self-possession and a quick wit that enabled her to put her finger on the psychological dynamics operating in Weinstein’s room. By keeping her head and walking out, she did not let herself get to the vulnerable place where she had to defend her no.

We can rejoice that she was so clear-headed in a situation in which women were reduced to pure “fight-or-flight.” But surely it should not be only the strong-minded and smart who are not victimized. As actress/screenwriter Brit Marling put it, “consent is a function of power. You have to have a modicum of power to give it”—or to refuse it. What about the weak and foolish? My daughters will be warned about the danger of networking with male colleagues in hotel bedrooms, and any female on a college campus should learn to avoid the toxic combination of alcohol and naïveté. That said, should their safety be only dependent on their ability to keep their wits about them in exceptionally stressful situations? The burden that the default of the yes places on them is unjust.

This reality raises the obvious, but often ignored, truth that sexualityism’s assumptions place the most burden on women and children. While men are certainly sexually harassed and assaulted, the relative disadvantage—both physical and often cultural—of women in rebuffing men is real and has been exacerbated by the default of the yes. Historically, while institutions such as slavery have normalized extramarital sexual activity, the weight of the culture provided support for most women to say no. As Mark Regnerus has put it, sex was “expensive”—set at the price of marriage, generally. Now sex is cheap, and women are the losers. More: as many of the tragic stories coming out testify, children are the losers too. If the ones who escape unscathed are the savvy and empowered, children by definition are not safe.

The Truth about Sex

What can we learn from this? First, a moral discourse dependent only on consent is insufficient. The web of confusion and guilt that the victims describe—did I refuse enough?—is inevitable if moral action is reduced to X-raying the action of the will. But consent is not an isolated action, distinct from the judgments of the mind concerning what is being chosen. If a grammar of moral good and evil is allowed, then the moral action is not held up by the flimsy support of the will but also buttressed by the intellect: what is truth about sex? This allows for moral responsibility to be shifted from the consent of the victim to the actual choice that the perpetrator made. That is, it enables us to judge that what Harvey Weinstein is accused of is wrong not only because the victimsdid not consent but also and more importantly because of what he chose. In this way, a richer moral vocabulary protects the vulnerable.

Once this richer vocabulary is allowed, the hegemony of the default of yes can be challenged. Not only perpetrators but also sexualityism should be put on trial. Is sexual expression really such an overriding good? If so, what do we make of the women’s unanimous experience of humiliation and anguish in Weinstein’s room? Sexualityism can make no sense of  the reality that sexual crimes reliably cause a trauma that, say, larceny does not.

Sexuality is not simply a matter of something that I have, as though my body is another possession just like my wallet or my car. If, as Gabriel Marcel said, I ammy body, then sexuality has to do with my very person, which has a deep value. To use the language of Pope John Paul II, when a person is reduced to being merely an object for another’s desire, then the experience violates the core of one’s sense of self.

Sexualityism attempts to demystify sexual relationships by making them a simple matter of scratching a perennial itch. It’s the hook-up myth: partners should be able to have sex and not care in the morning, as though what they did the night before was no more intimate than eating from the same buffet line—we are just meeting a need, you know? By ignoring the personal values at stake, sexualityism presents a false picture of sex that empties it of vulnerability. But that was emphatically not the experience of the women in Weinstein’s room, who unanimously related the vulnerability they felt, as if their very persons were endangered.

If sex makes one vulnerable to another person, then it must be more than the single-minded pursuit of pleasure, that idol of sexualityism, for surely pleasure can be jointly pursued without any vulnerability. The gulf between Weinstein and the women in his room is marked on this point: none of the latter use the word “pleasure” to talk about the dynamics in that room, whereas one suspects he would use it freely.

Pleasure is something you get out of a situation; it is something you take. The experience of the women indicates that sex should rather be something you freely give, precisely because it deeply implicates the person. John Paul II would have known how to make sense of their experience, because he recognized that, ultimately, sex cannot consist merely of the pursuit of pleasure but is the intimate self-gift of one to another. Sex reliably expresses this personal self-gift, which is why it is such a violation when something that should only be a free gift is stolen by force.

Perhaps, because of the accumulated testimony to such horror, Hollywood’s long-overdue moral reckoning has indeed come. Let us hope so. At the very least, let us not lose the opportunity to expose not only the brutal acts but also the ideology behind them.

Angela Franks teaches theology at Saint Jospeh’s College Online.

This essay originally appeared at Public Discourse: Ethics, Law and the Common Good and is reprinted with permission.

Letting God Be Found

Our Faith is rich in examples of God’s presence: in Scripture, in the lives of the Saints, in Creation itself – and most concretely in the Holy Mysteries (Sacraments), which are tangible encounters with the living God. Regardless of such riches, we want more. We want proof, whatever that means. Many, many years ago I made my very first retreat, and I was in the midst of a conversion of heart in which my faith was being renewed. Woman after woman at the retreat testified to powerful moments in which the Lord “spoke” to them, (sometimes “leading” them to a particular Scripture verse) and I was amazed, and intimidated. During discussion time, I shared with my small group that I’d never heard from God. Ever. The women smiled and assured me God speaks to me, even as I insisted He doesn’t. Their looks of motherly concern didn’t inspire confidence as one of them said, “I’m sure He will. Someday.” I’m convinced this is a common concern – and complaint – even among the most faithful. We “want God,” and we want Him here and now! The trouble is, we want Him on our terms, and most times we’re not really sure what those terms should look like.

On January 6, Eastern Catholic and Orthodox Christians celebrate the Theophany of Our Lord, a wonderful companion to the West’s feast of Epiphany. Through these feasts the Church reminds us that the Child born in Bethlehem became the Man from Nazareth, and was revealed to be the Son of God. He is Emmanuel, God with us, living – and suffering – with us and for us. The Word made flesh not only dwells among us, but is one of us. He is close to us, yet often we don’t recognize Him, don’t acknowledge Him, or don’t look for Him. That’s why these feasts of “revelation” are so important for us.

God reveals Himself in the ordinary: in the midst of family life and all of its attendant joys and worries; in our daily work and its satisfaction and hardships; and in any number of unexpected ways that surprise us in their subtlety. The problem is that we keep looking for God in the booming voice, the Burning Bush and the miraculous appearance. The truth is, He does reveal Himself in those ways, but more often He shows Himself to us in quietly, and in the ordinary. That is what’s so extraordinary about the Incarnation, and why so many people 2,000 years ago (and many today) find it hard to believe that God would enter into His own Creation as a man.  Maybe that’s why the “proofs” we look for of God’s existence in our lives aren’t there – or don’t appear to be there. We’re looking in the wrong places, and we let other voices drown out His. This is what I’ve been thinking a lot about lately, especially during Advent and the Nativity, and this current feast of Theophany: where is God, and am I looking and listening for Him?

I love the icon of the Nativity of Jesus Christ in my parish of St. Ann’s Byzantine Catholic Church. In Eastern iconography the Nativity is portrayed differently from the serene, “Christmas carol” scenes in Western art (for more on the icon’s symbolism, read what I wrote in 2014). There is one aspect of the icon I found myself drawn to during this Christmas season, and it’s the two characters at the lower left (closeup left.) The icon portrays a pensive, perhaps anxious Joseph being visited by a strange looking fellow in a cloak that appears to be made of leaves. He holds a walking staff and seems to be speaking to the new father about serious matters. According to the iconographic “language,” the man is actually the Devil come to the cave after Christ’s birth to instill doubt in Joseph’s heart. Of course this part of the scene isn’t Scriptural, but it’s a symbolic way to show how determined the Devil is to introduce doubt in our thoughts: doubts about ourselves, and doubts about God’s love for us. The Devil wants us to believe that God is really far removed from us, and not as close as the Baby in the manger who allowed Himself to become small enough to be held; small enough to be contained in a particle of bread and a cup of wine. It really doesn’t matter what the Old Man is telling Joseph in the icon, because we hear the arguments against God that he presents to each of us. We all have our own anxiety upon which the Devil plays and which he uses try to lead us into sin. As I sat in my pew each week, I thought a lot about that Old Man in the icon, and how often I allow him to highjack my thoughts; how many times I believe his arguments against God’s real presence in my life. It’s that nagging feeling I experienced on retreat many years ago: God doesn’t speak to me.

The icon of the Theophany of Our Lord (right) in my parish covers a portion of the wall immediately to the left of the Nativity as you face it, and I found myself drawn to it many times over these last weeks, as if the Lord were purposely diverting my attention away from the Old Man. This icon is one of my favorites, as is the feast. Theophany is a Greek word that means manifestation of God, and this feast commemorates the revelation of God as a Communion of Persons – the Trinity – and that this Jesus (born in a cave, raised in a family, and now presenting Himself for baptism) is the Son of God. The last thing anyone who was gathered at the Jordan that day expected was for God to enter into their midst. No one expected to hear His voice or witness His Spirit. No one would have believed a small town boy, the carpenter’s son, was the Messiah, let alone God Himself. As He would many times during the life and ministry of Jesus, God offered the people the “proof” they desired with His proclamation, “This is my beloved Son….” Yet such wondrous “proofs” are not greater than the reality: that God is among us, that He loves us more than we can imagine, and that He desires to be close to us.

It turns out the women on my first retreat were right: God would speak to me. In fact, He speaks to me all the time, but sometimes I’m too busy or distracted, or too unimaginative to hear Him. The icons of the Nativity and Theophany remind me again of how important it is to look for God and His word for me in the everyday aspects of my life. He’s there in my family, in my work, and in the simple things. He speaks in Creation, in music and books – and in the words friends and enemies alike. God is with us everyday and in everything. It’s up to us to be still, be humble, and be aware of the unexpected ways He manifests Himself in our lives.

…[T]oday the Uncreated One willingly permits the hands of his creatures to be laid upon him; today the Prophet and Forerunner approaches the Lord and, standing before him in awe,  witnesses the condescension of God towards us; today through the presence of the Lord, the waters of the river Jordan are changed into remedies; today the whole universe is refreshed with mystical streams; today the sins of the human race are blotted out by the waters of the river Jordan; today paradise has been opened to all, and the Sun of Righteousness has shone upon us; today, at the hands of Moses, the bitter water is changed into sweetness by the presence of the Lord!

~ The Great Blessing of Water, Feast of Theophany

Ann Koshute teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online Theology Program.

Do You Now Believe? by Pamela Hedrick – Book Review

Pamela E. Hedrick takes me back into the classroom, with her debut book, Do You Now Believe? In this short, yet jam-packed gem, Hedrick schools us on the balance required between faith and reason.

Faith enables reason. But an uncritical faith – a credulity or an unthinking belief that clings to certitude at the expense of understanding – can undermine faith itself and at least slow down the response to the grace of ongoing conversion (p. 77).

What I garnered from reading this book is that many of us have preconceived notions about God and faith, that inhibit us from fully understanding what God wants us to know about Him. It is when we can search beyond our limitations that we position ourselves to understanding God better. It is through this growth of understanding that we experience a transcendence; a conversion. We move from the intellectual to the experiential. We grow in love for God.

Mark and John Help Us Answer the Question: Do You Now Believe?

Hedrick takes us through the Gospels of Mark and John, using scriptural passages, to prove her points. I found this book to be intellectually stimulating; very thought provoking. I began to look at the questions that Jesus asks in these Gospels, from a different perspective. Hedrick has opened my eyes to Scripture, in a way I have not looked at it before. In my opinion, that makes for one treasured professor of Theology, as well as an excellent writer too.

I highly recommend this book for anyone looking to better understand Scripture, from a theological understanding. If you would like to get your copy of Do You Now Believe? then click here.

This review was originally posted at www.virginialieto.com and is reprinted here with permission.

Virginia Lieto teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online. She is the author of children’s book Finding Patience and blogs at www.virginialieto.com.

The Incarnation: “And the Word Became Flesh… “

As we celebrate Christ’s birthday, let us remember the reason for the season! “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish, but might have eternal life” (John 3:16). God’s love is so great for each one of us, that he sent his Son to enter our humanity and live among us. God wants us to know Him, in the flesh! He became man, just like us in all things, except sin! Through the Incarnation, the Word became flesh (John 1:14), and we celebrate this Incarnation on Christmas Day.

Far greater than any gift sitting under the Christmas tree, or sitting in our driveways, adorned with ostentatious bows, is the gift of Christ Himself – in our hearts. God’s gift of Himself, via the Incarnation, is a piece of God’s plan for the salvation of mankind. God’s master plan required Jesus to enter humanity, not only so that we could come to know and love God, in the flesh, but also so that Jesus could redeem us from our sins and make us holy in God’s sight.

The gift of Christ, in our hearts, is a gift of pure love. By Christ’s gift of Himself, we come to know and love the Father. Son and Holy Spirit. Through the teachings of Jesus Christ, as both God and Man, we’ve come to learn that as omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent as God is, He will not force His love upon us; He will not force the gift of salvation upon us. It must be our choice to decide if we will accept Christ’s love. Also, we play a part in our own salvation. It is up to us to decide whether we will accept Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior.

So, the plan unfolds anew today, with the babe in the manger. Will you accept the gift of Christ’s love? Do you believe that Jesus is the Son of God; conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary? Will you accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior? I pray that you will say “yes” to these questions, and by doing so, accept the gift of Christ’s love on this Christmas Day.

From all the Theology faculty at Saint Joseph’s College, we wish you a blessed Christmas season filled with God’s love, peace and joy. May your new year be filled with hope, patience and trust in Christ’s generosity, mercy and forgiveness.

Virginia Lieto teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online. She is the author of children’s book Finding Patience and blogs at www.virginialieto.com.