In my capacity as theologian, teacher, and culture commentator, I’ve been reading articles on ethical matters for years and have grown relatively inured to the expression of even the most outrageous points of view. But a few weeks ago, I came across a piece that was so shocking and so egregious that I was compelled, as I read it, to put the magazine down several times and just shake my head in disbelief. It was an article in the New York Times Sunday Magazine called “The Two Minus One Pregnancy,” dealing with the phenomenon of “reducing” (love the Owellian language) a pregnancy from two children to one. Evidently for years obstetricians had been willing to eliminate one or more children if a woman was pregnant with triplets or quadruplets, but now, at the behest of an increasing number of mothers, doctors are commencing to (again, I’m using the dreadfully antiseptic language from the article) “reduce to a singlet,” which is to say, to eliminate one of two unborn and perfectly healthy twins.
The summer’s most popular film, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” belongs to a genre that goes back at least to Mary Shelley’s nineteenth century masterpiece Frankenstein, for it tells the story of well-intentioned scientist who, through ignoring legitimate moral limits, courts disaster.
I have just completed one of the most extraordinary weeks of my life. For the past eight days, I participated in World Youth Day in Madrid, a gathering of some 1.5 million Catholic young people with Pope Benedict XVI. I met enthusiastic teen and twenty-something Catholics from the United States, Canada, Mexico, the Netherlands, Sweden, Nigeria, England, Australia, New Zealand, China, the Philippines, India, Denmark, and many other countries. The universality of the Church has never been, for me anyway, on fuller and more thrilling display. My Word on Fire team and I were especially encouraged to see so concretely the outreach that the Internet and the new media provide. To hear, over and again, and in dozens of different accents, that our videos and podcasts have made a difference in people’s lives was deeply gratifying.
I have long loved the cycle of stories in the first book of Kings dealing with the prophet Elijah. In fact, I’ve often told people who are just getting interested in the Scripture to commence with the fascinating, adventurous, and often comical stories concerning this prophet. His name tells us all we need to know about him. “Elijah” is the Anglicization of the Hebrew Eliyahu, which means, “Yahweh is God.” People can be named from what they worship, what they hold to be of highest value. Thus, someone who values her work above all is a “company woman,” and someone who prizes his family above all is a “family man;” someone who seeks pleasure as his highest good is a “good-time Charlie,” etc. Elijah is a Yahweh man, for he worships the God of Israel. Once we know this, we know all we need to know about how he thinks and how he acts and reacts. Because he is a Yahweh man, he stands athwart the idolatry of King Ahab; because he is a Yahweh man, he is forced to flee the persecution of Queen Jezebel; because he is a Yahweh man, he seeks refuge on Horeb, the mountain of God.
One of the commonest complaints against Catholicism is that it is the religion of “no,” especially in regard to the sexual dimension of life. As the rest of the culture is moving in a progressively more permissive direction, the church seems to represent a crabbed, puritanical negativity toward sexuality. I think it is important, first, to make a distinction between two modalities of “no.” On the one hand, there is “no” pure and simple—a denial, a negation of something good. When a jealous person sees someone else’s success, he will say “no” to it, out of resentment. When a racist perceives the object of his irrational hatred, he will say “no” to him and try to undermine him. But on the other hand, there is a “no” which is in service of a “yes,” since it represents a “no” to a “no;” it is a double negative that constitutes a positive. Any golf swing coach worth his salt will say “no” much more than he says “yes,” precisely because there are a thousand ways to swing a club poorly, but really only one way to swing it properly. So when he says “no,” he is negating a series of negatives, trying to move his student onto the narrow path of the right swing. I would suggest that the many “no’s” that the church says to imperfect forms of sexual behavior are of this second type.