Life Support

In “A Modus Vivendi?” (January 13), the editors of Commonweal speak impersonally, not to say a bit evasively: “There seems little chance that the teaching [of the Catholic Church on sex and marriage] will change in the foreseeable future.” But one can scarcely avoid hearing this as equivalently the more personal, not to say faintly confrontational “There seems little chance that the pope and bishops will change the teaching [of the Catholic Church on sex and marriage] in the foreseeable future.”

Catholic moral theologians and ethicists may be prepared for a change, but change, by the rules of the church, is not theirs to make. Much or most of the Catholic laity, Commonweal is honest to report, no longer abides by church teaching. In good numbers, Catholics still attend services, but there the subjects of sex and marriage are by and large avoided. Avoidance, silence, seems in fact to be the deeper subject that the Commonweal symposium really seeks to address. Eamon Duffy, Paul Baumann, and the other notables assembled for the occasion seem in considerable agreement that “the church finds it difficult to speak compellingly about the real satisfactions and graces of marriage.” But is there any way to avoid the inference that this very state of affairs will continue for “the foreseeable future”? I see none unless the church changes its monarchical, top-down, and celibate structure of governance; and since it is this feature, this structure, that makes the church the Roman Catholic Church, this, too, will continue for the foreseeable future, will it not? Am I overly pessimistic when I conclude that the current state of Catholic discourse on this subject is both stable and terminal?

Jack Miles
Irvine, Calif.


Like Paul Baumann (“A Modus Vivendi?”), I have my own story relating to birth control in the 1950s and ’60s. I married in ’52 at the age of twenty-one. My first child was born in December ’53, the second in January ’55 (thirteen months later), the third in October ’56 and the fourth in April ’60. Yes, we practiced the rhythm method, but no one would believe me when I said I thought I ovulated twice a month. One obstetrician insisted I’d been so careful that if I was pregnant, it must be a miracle! Well, I was and it was not.

When the fourth child was around three years old, I went to confession at my local parish and struck gold. The priest listened carefully to my story: I was risking divorce if I had another child; my husband didn’t even dare look at me, I got pregnant so easily. Then there were the fights, the money worries, etc. At the end of my litany, this kind, intelligent man said to me: “It’s a matter between you and God alone, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.” I thanked him profusely, called my close friend who was in a similar situation, and together we headed to our doctors for the Pill.

But a lot of damage had been done and, even though our marriage survived till my husband’s death last April, it was never what it might have been if the church had not interfered with the sexual aspect of our lives.

It is interesting to note that during the ’30s, when my husband and I were in our respective, nun-led grade schools, there were many parents raising only one or two children with little said from the pulpit. It was clear that the Depression ruled, not the church.

Lucy A. Adams
New York, N.Y.

Camera Obscura

Regarding “Christmas Cookies Recipe (Revised Translation)” (January 13): Chalices! There was no “chalice” at the Last Supper, as the celebrant is now made to say in the revised English translation of the Roman Missal. The English word is derived from the Latin calix, while Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Paul all use the most common and basic Greek word for drinking cup, which is related to the verb “to drink” (poterion). “Chalice,” in current English usage, is not merely archaic but has literally come to mean the ornate ritual vessel used in the Eucharist. And thus we risk confusing a ritual object with its original message.

With this first example we may be dealing merely with a misdirected sense of grandiosity. But there are more serious issues. While the Apostles Creed still says that Christ was “born of the Virgin Mary,” the Nicene Creed now reads “incarnate of.” In Latin, incarnatus maintains the connection with caro, flesh, and thus it conveys the full poignancy of a Son of God “becoming flesh.” In English that is a nontranslation, as if we are too squeamish to face the full existential implications.

Echoing the disgust of the Neoplatonist Porphyry, fourth-century Christians went so far as to claim that we cannot imagine the Savior as being contaminated by real birth. Yet such a position comes dangerously close to the heresy of Docetism, which stipulates that the human form of Christ is a mere appearance, and runs counter to the doctrine of Christ as both fully human and fully divine. The phrase “born of a virgin” captures the miracle much more effectively than the abstruse alternative.

Moreover, “born of” connects the Mother of God to all human mothers giving birth. There is nothing ordinary about birth. Mary is the sister who walks with women and watches over them as they go through this excruciating, momentous experience. Inadvertently (or not so inadvertently?), the new translation may have picked up a deep strand of repulsion at the female body in the Christian tradition. That would be a particularly inadmissible move for a church that sees itself as the chief advocate for the dignity of human life.

The new translation, then, mistakes mystification for genuine reverence in the face of mystery, and, in doing so, actually diminishes the power of faith. Christ was born in the most humble of human contexts, and there were bread and cups at the Last Supper. In simple human gestures all the power was made present of a God who became flesh.

Gretchen Reydams-Schils
Notre Dame, Ind.

Published in the 2012-02-24 issue: View Contents
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