The Paschal Triduum this year seemed like a return from exile: Holy Thursday’s Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper, in church; Good Friday’s Commemoration of the Lord’s Passion, in church; Saturday evening’s Easter Vigil, in church—what a blessing. Thanking God, I could only be aware of those for whom the exile continues, whether because of the pandemic or, like my friend Jimmy Lai, because of unjust imprisonment for the cause of Christ and freedom in Hong Kong. May their exile end soon.
In his 2010 Easter message, Pope Benedict XVI noted that the “new Passover” Christians celebrate at Easter—the passing-over of the Lord Jesus from death to a superabundant form of life—replicates in important respects the form of Israel’s Passover, which the Church remembers at the Easter Vigil by reading Exodus 14:15-15:1. Yes, Easter changed everything, in that it revealed in a definitive way what God intended for humanity “in the beginning” (Genesis 1:1)—and nothing could be the same after that revelation of the power of divine love. Still, Benedict taught, it’s important to remember that “Easter does not work magic. Just as the Israelites found the desert awaiting them on the far side of the Red Sea, so the Church, after the Resurrection, always finds history filled with joy and hope, grief and anguish. And yet this history is changed, it is marked by a new and eternal covenant, it is truly open to the future.”
That is why, the pope concluded, the people of the Church, having met the Risen Lord, can continue their pilgrimage of conversion and mission with confidence and hope. Because of Easter, Christians are the people who know how the world’s story is going to turn out—not in cosmic entropy, but in the Wedding Feast of the Lamb who was slain, as the Church is reminded as it reads the Book of Revelation during Eastertide. Knowing that, the Church carries the life-transforming message of the Risen Lord into the future, singing (as Pope Benedict put it), “the song that is ever ancient and yet ever new: ‘Let us sing to the Lord, glorious his triumph!’”
It will be well to keep that Easter confidence and hope in mind if, as may be happening, Catholicism is entering a new “Humanae Vitae moment”—a moment in which public dissent from authoritative teaching about ancient and settled Catholic truth tears new wounds in the Mystical Body of Christ.
This is 2021, not 1968, and there are differences between this Catholic moment and that one. In 1968, dissenting bishops and theologians said, more or less openly, that Paul VI got it wrong theologically in affirming the Church’s ethic of human love: that the natural rhythms of biology are the morally appropriate way to regulate fertility. In 2021, dissident bishops and theologians are claiming that the re-affirmation of the obvious by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith—that the Church cannot bless same-sex unions liturgically because those relationships are “intrinsically disordered” (as the Catechism puts it) – is insensitive, inhospitable, hurtful, coldly abstract. That the CDF got it wrong is the subtext of dissent; but dissent was primarily expressed in psychological rather than theological categories, not least by bishops in countries where such “blessings” are performed.
This is not an improvement.
Pondering the assault on CDF and the now-typical confusions that ensued when various Vatican commentators tried to walk back the papal endorsement of the congregation’s statement, it struck me that “progressive” Catholicism seems to have forgotten Dorothy Day’s claim that divine love is “a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.” I was also reminded of a passage from a letter that Flannery O’Connor wrote to her friend Betty Hester in 1955:
“The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it emotionally…[Thus] there are long periods in the lives of all of us, and of the saints, when the truth as revealed by faith is hideous, emotionally disturbing, downright repulsive. Witness the dark night of the soul in individual saints. Right now the whole world seems to be going through a dark night of the soul.”
That the journey to Easter always passes through Good Friday is an annual reminder that the divine love burning its way through history is harsh and dreadful as well as compassionate and merciful. Losing our grip on what Dorothy Day and Flannery O’Connor understood reduces Christianity to sentimentality. That is why all of us, sinners that we are, must pray daily, “Lord, have mercy.”