Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Stumbling Block of the Sacraments

A reader reminded me that Christopher West once said, regarding marriage, that there's nothing that happens at the altar that can make something unholy the day before into something holy.

Now, like almost everything the Westians say, this can be taken in two ways.

  • On the one hand, lust in and of itself is not redeemed overnight, even by the sacrament of Matrimony.  If you look on your fiancee as an object to fulfill your desire rather than as a person, little will change in your heart once she becomes your wife.  So to that extent West is right.

  • But on the other hand, there is indeed something that happens at the altar that makes something unholy into something holy, which West is hereby denying.  What West - and apparently Matt McGuiness - ignore is the ontological change wrought by God in certain of the sacraments, including marriage.

Marriage changes our very being - which is what ontological means.  Several sacraments effect an ontological change - Baptism, Matrimony, Holy Orders, Confirmation.  Through these sacraments, God changes who we are.

This means that what we do is also different.  Sexual intercourse between a couple not married to one another is either fornication or adultery - it is a different thing than the "marital act", which is what married people do, and which is an expression of their actual ontological unity as "one flesh", which is also a reflection of the love in the Holy Trinity, which is also a prefiguring of the coming of the bridegroom Christ, and which is ordered to procreation - in other words babies.  Only a married couple can perform the marital act.  In the same way that only a dog can bark and wag his tail because of his ontological status as a dog, and as only a priest can confect the Eucharist because of his ontological status as a priest, so also only a married couple can do the thing that is really not the thing West and the Westians spend so much time talking about.  They talk much more about sex that the marital act, because fornication and adultery and pornography and lust are sexy; but making love to your wife, a woman you see every day and night, sometimes in the worst possible light, with babies babies babies - those wonderful and frustrating fruits of love thrilling and exhausting you outside of the bedroom - sex with the missus ain't all that sexy.  

Thus something that is unholy for a non-married couple one day becomes holy for that same couple the next day because at the altar and by means of God's grace, they are not the same couple and it is not the same act.  Yesterday they were two people; today they are in fact One Flesh.

But the Westians don't like the sacraments.  The sacraments are a stumbling block for them.  McGuiness has trashed Confession in two separate articles as ineffective.  West is all over sex but avoids the much more interesting and complex problem of marriage.

For Westianism is, as I have said before, Gnosticism.  For the Westians, we are saved by a special knowledge, a gnosis of the Theology of the Body, which is why they are so contemptuous of those who criticize them.  For the Westians, their critics are not in the know, they are not the cognoscenti, they are instead Puritanical Pharisees who have hang-ups.

Which can be seen as well in McGuiness' assertion that by delving deeper into pornography (even as a "thought experiment") one can be saved.  We can, like the Prodigal Son, as a pro-West reader told me (in so many words), Sin our Way to Salvation.  Experience trumps faith.  This is a hallmark of Gnosticism.  So is a bizarre and unbalanced notion of the relation between the Spirit and the Flesh and between the Letter and the Spirit.    This is why "mature purity" figures so prominently in West's worldview.  What he seems to mean by that phrase is a form of gnosis, and it is gnosis - secret knowledge that only the illuminati can bear - that saves us, not God's grace and our cooperation with it; and therefore not the sacramental life.

The Westians share with the modernists the erroneous notion that substance does not matter or that it does not exist; doing is more important than being, and it therefore follows that power is more important than grace - and knowledge is power.  We don't change, we simply acquire things that empower us.  This is the common philosophy of the day, but it's not Catholic, and it's not sacramental.

For if West's notions were really sacramental, then the obvious question would not be "can a man with mature purity gaze upon a naked woman?", but "would a saint choose to?"  West's man possesses a trick or a gimmick that allows him to work the system - he has a kind of secret power: this is gnosis.  The saint possesses nothing.  He does not have "mature purity"; he is (as a saint) pure.  He is a different being than he was before Christ remade him.  The whole question of staring at naked ladies is not an issue for him - though on earth the saint-in-the-making would realize how quickly the old Adam might spring back up in him, and so he would guard against it through custody of the eyes - and Christopher West  and his followers would laugh at him with disdain and go on their merry enlightened way, leering at the pretty girls who are naked in Playboy.


But maybe I'm wrong.

Maybe Matt McGuiness in his third article on "A Second Look at Pornography", will prove me wrong.  Maybe he'll affirm the value of Confession and all of the Sacraments as effective means of conveying God's grace, which is what saves us.  What saves us is a gift freely given, not a gimmick cleverly mastered.

And St. Paul tells us

For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not? - 1 Cor. 4:7

At any rate, the only response McGuiness has yet made to his critics is to claim we do not understand Desire.  He then provides us with a definition of Desire which is a very bad definition indeed.  

For McGuiness, Desire is free-floating the way Faith is free-floating in pop culture, for example in movies like The Polar Express, where we are told just "to believe" as if "to believe" were an intransitive verb.

We must have faith IN something or IN someone.  Likewise, we must Desire SOMETHING or SOMEONE.  Even if all Desire is ultimately Desire for God, it is immediately a Desire for a way of getting to God; it is always oriented toward a proximate end, or means, even if also toward an ultimate end.  McGuiness in effect ignores the means.

But, as I say, I could be wrong.  Matt McGuiness has written two pieces.  Nobody really knows him.  He could surprise us all, and after some prayer and reflection, he might actually counter the serious criticism leveled against his first two articles, without explaining away the criticism as mistaken or uncharitable, as he seems so far to have done.  He might yet redeem himself as a writer.

He could start by affirming the value of the Sacraments.

If he did at least that much, he would appear not only to be a real writer, but maybe even a real Catholic.


Mrs. Pinkerton said...

The first time I saw/heard West speak was not live, but via video. I was enthralled. I said to myself, THIS is going to change EVERYTHING--no one in the history of humanity (or the Church) has understood IT ALL until this moment.

Since then, I've learned that when you think that about someone or his program, it's time to back slowly away. As you say, Gnosticism.

Michele Quigley said...

Well said Mrs. Pinkerton!

poetcomic1 said...

The Lineacre Report on the sex scandals and the Catholic clergy reached a surprising conclusion. They traced the explosion of sexual crime to a period in the early fifties in which centuries of carefully tested practices of austerity and mortifications were thrown away. Gone. Poof. Vanished. All else followed from this. G.K. Chesterton spoke of chastity as a 'blazing, wondrous thing' - the problem with Mr. West is that he offers sex as a blazing wondrous thing in and of itself.