Why is the Church so obsessed with abortion? Why does the Church talk incessantly about homosexuality? What is this creepy Catholic obsession with sex, sex, sex all the time? Why can’t the Church be concerned about real issues—poverty, for example—instead of always being all about the pelvic issues? Why, huh, why?
This is more and more the typical attitude of many towards the Church, or towards organized religion in general. And we are solemnly informed that it is for this reason primarily that the millennials are being alienated from organized religion and from Catholicism in particular. It is the fault of the Church and its laser-focussed obsession with sexual purity.
Except… that’s not true. Not remotely. Not at all. This article over at National Review does a great job showing this definitively. The Church, including all the various Christian denominations, gives billions of dollars every year to the alleviation of poverty throughout the world; the budgets for groups combatting the various ‘culture war’ issues is miniscule in comparison.
Meanwhile, I would echo the author of the article’s experience. I have been a Catholic my entire life, and I honestly think I could count on one hand the homilies I’ve heard that have even mentioned abortion, homosexuality, or any other point of sexual morality. I would add that the single source where we can see exactly what ‘the Vatican’ is saying is the newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, which reports pretty much every speech, every document, every word that comes out of Rome. While I haven’t done a scientific study of the matter, I would have to say that issues of sexual morality wouldn’t crack the top ten, or even the top twenty subjects the Church talks about all the time. My impression is that world peace and world economic justice are actually the two most urgent social issues Rome talks about, and has talked about for decades now.
All of this, while interesting in itself highlights something I have been aware of for some time. And that is the danger ‘the narrative’ poses to ‘the truth’. ‘Everyone knows’ that such and such is the case. But it turns out that it’s not the case. And yet even upon that being pointed out, everyone goes on knowing it, somehow. The Narrative trumps the facts, every time somehow.
We see this all over the place—the question of the Church’s obsession with sex is just one example which happens to matter quite a bit to me. (I do find it fairly odd and—what’s the word—oh yeah, ironic, that a culture saturated in erotic imagery and awash in x-rated material has the effrontery to accuse anyone else of being obsessed with sex).
But the question of narratives is an important one, one which we all need to be vigilant about. For Christians, we have to resist the narrative that the secular culture and those who are of that culture are utterly depraved and vile—the tendency to demonize the ‘other’.
The Sondheim musical Into the Woods, recently made into a so-so movie, has a lyric that goes “Careful the tale you tell; that is the spell.” Stories have a capacity to shape reality for us, a magical ability to both reveal and conceal. Stories, in fact, yield prejudice, and prejudice has a great power to render us blind and deaf to whatever contradicts it. ‘Liberals and stupid and evil… conservatives are stupid and evil… Muslims are all terrorists… Christians are all judgmental hypocrites… atheists are all arrogant jerks… black people are such and such, Mexicans are this and that, Jews are all xyz, Asians are all blah blah blah, white people are all that way’ and so on and so forth. Careful the tale you tell—all of reality shapes itself around that tale.
Meanwhile, life and the world and humanity are so much richer, so much more varied and complex, at once better and worse than the narratives allow for. Simplistic stories with heroes and villains, victims and perpetrators are all well and good for Hollywood or beach fiction, but serve us poorly in actually navigating the world as it is.
Personally, I try to limit the tale I tell to the One Story that I believe is absolutely true, because it is told by God and not men. And that of course is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Paschal Mystery in which everything God is embraces everything man is, in which God so utterly enters the human reality that He dies and goes to Hell, and in which the human reality is so penetrated by Divine life and love that the man Jesus rises from the dead and raises up all men and women who are joined to Him in faith. God becomes everything we are so that we can become, in Him, everything He is.
That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. Everything else is just fairy tales told by an idiot, to be taken with large grains of salt at all times. The saying today is ‘check your privilege’, but I would like to start a new saying: ‘check your narrative’, and be vigilant always, welcome continually the facts that contradict the stories you tell yourself and others. Stories are for children (in light of the Gospel this is no problem, as we are all God’s children). We are adults and should live our life as adults, narrative-free if at all possible.