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June 26, 2003 Edition

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Grand Mom

Theology of marriage:
Man plus woman equals injustice?

photo of George Weigel
The Catholic 

George Weigel 

When Dr. Johnson famously suggested that patriotism was the last refuge of scoundrels, he wasn't demeaning patriotism. Rather, he was criticizing clever rhetoricians who, to advance their own political agendas, fired off patriotic chaff while undercutting the sovereign's legitimate authority.

What scoundrels called "patriotism" was in fact sophistry - word games to confuse the gullible.

The same unsavory tactic is at work when activists appeal to the complexity of Catholicism to distort Catholic teachings that are in fact quite clear. Here's the most recent, and brazen, example.

Affirming marriage

This past May, the Massachusetts Legislature's Judiciary Committee was considering H.3190, the "Marriage Affirmation and Protection Amendment," which states that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts understands "marriage" to be a union of one man and one woman.

By amending the state constitution, H.3190 would pre-empt any decision by the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts that could require the state to issue marriage licenses to homosexual couples. The Massachusetts Catholic Conference, speaking for the state's bishops, publicly supported the bill.

Catholic theology?

Fr. James F. Keenan, professor of moral theology at the Weston School of Theology and next year's Gasson Professor at Boston College, publicly opposed H.3190. Stressing that he appeared before the lawmakers as both priest and moral theologian, Father Keenan offered the Judiciary Committee members copies of an article he had recently published in Theological Studies, which, he suggested, would help the lawmakers "appreciate" the ways in which contemporary Catholic theologians "differentiate" in complex moral and political situations.

You are now imagining, perhaps, that Father Keenan intended to "differentiate" between the regnant media stereotypes of a homophobic Catholic Church and the truth of the matter? Think again. What Father Keenan wished to "differentiate" for the legislators was "the Church's theology of chastity" and "its theology of justice" - by which move, Father Keenan concluded that the Marriage Affirmation and Protection Amendment "is contrary to Catholic teaching on social justice."

Why? Because defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman is, in Father Keenan's words, "active and unjust discrimination against the basic social rights of gay and lesbian persons."

Which is, at the very least, disingenuous.

Vatican doctrinal note

A few months before Father Keenan's testimony, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican office charged with promoting sound theology and defending orthodoxy, issued a "Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Involving the Participation of Catholics in Political Life." The "Note" was personally approved by Pope John Paul II.

It is inconceivable that Father Keenan was unaware of this statement, which was widely discussed in Catholic circles. This is what the "Note" says on the question addressed by H.3190:

"When political activity comes up against moral principles that do not admit of exception, compromise, or derogation, the Catholic commitment becomes more evident and laden with responsibility. In the face of fundamental and inalienable ethical demands, Christians must recognize that what is at stake is the essence of the moral law, which concerns the integral good of the human person . . .

"[Thus] the family needs to be safeguarded and promoted, based on monogamous marriage between a man and a woman, and protected in its unity and stability in the face of modern laws on divorce: in no way can other forms of cohabitation be placed on the same level as marriage, nor can they receive legal recognition as such" [emphases in original].


Father Keenan failed to inform the Judiciary Committee of the most recent, authoritative Catholic statement on the matter at hand. As the "Doctrinal Note" makes clear, Father Keenan's judgment on H.3190 is not congruent with the Church's teaching.

Defining marriage as the stable union of one man and one woman is not an invidious act of discrimination; it is sheer sophistry to suggest that the Catholic Church would regard a law defining marriage in those terms as unjust.

The legislators of Massachusetts presumably understand what caveat emptor means in this case: don't buy a theological pig in a poke. What remains to be seen is what Father Keenan's religious superiors, and the administration, alumni, and donors of the Weston School of Theology and Boston College, do about this breathtakingly bold misrepresentation of the Catholic Church's position on marriage law.

George Weigel is a senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.

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Debt of gratitude: We owe to sisters

photo of Audrey Mettel Fixmer
Grand Mom 

Mettel Fixmer 

Life has a way of punching us with a series of blows to make us aware of certain truths that have previously escaped us.

For many years I have been speaking to groups of Catholic women on the subject of motherhood, proclaiming the thousand and more ways in which it is a boot camp for saint training.

I liked to remind people that we mothers of big families are an endangered species. Recently, however, I was asked to speak to the residents of Siena Center, a home for retired Dominican sisters in Racine, Wis. Catholic nuns? Talk about an endangered species!

Power of prayer

I was the last speaker in an all-day health fair, and I was supposed to get them laughing, as evidence that laughter is the best medicine. The average age of these sisters was 92, so I figured that my greatest challenge was in keeping them awake. I was wrong.

My greatest challenge was in finding the place! With Wisconsin's two seasons, Road Ice and Road Repairs, I was stuck with road repairs that had me going in circles. I had allowed myself an extra hour, but I arrived exactly three minutes before I was scheduled to go on, a bundle of nerves, reminding myself that I was getting too old for this.

But when I was met by the director, who greeted me with such a warm embrace, I melted. Later I learned why I made it; the sisters were told to pray "that our speaker will arrive safely and on time."

Nostalgia and humor

My only attempt at humor was telling them about the actress playing the role of a nun in the hilarious comedy, Late Night Catechism, the popular show from Chicago that hit the road with a bang. Everyone finds it a stitch, but to those trained in Catholic schools, it is delightful blend of nostalgia and humor.

"Sister" marches into the room in her full 50s nun's habit, looks over the audience, then in her sternest voice says, "What do we do when Sister enters the room?" A few people stand, she glares at the others until finally they stand also, and remain standing until she proclaims, "You may be seated."

From that point on we get a catechism lesson as well as a lesson in humility and respect, virtues alas, that are sorely absent in today's world. It is an experience in interactive theater, demanding an actress that knows her faith and can be funny-on-her-feet.

Sister threw out a question, "Who can tell me what is meant by the Easter Duty?"

No one else raised a hand, so I did. When she nodded at me, I started to answer that it is the obligation to receive the sacraments between Lent and Pentecost Sunday.

"Is there something wrong with your legs?" she asked, and I meekly answered, "No S'tir," as I rose to my feet. Sister praised me and told me that I had won a prize, a glow-in-the-dark-rosary. She asked me how much Catholic education I had, and I told her 14 years. Then she asked, "And what have you done with all that good Catholic education?" My answer brought down the house: I had 10 children.

Being serious

In speaking to the "Real Sisters" in Racine, I could not help being more serious than funny. I was compelled to tell them what a debt of gratitude the world owes them. Having spent 22 years teaching in public schools, I experienced firsthand how difficult a classroom of 25 can be, say nothing of the 40 or so they handled with such apparent ease.

As an English teacher, I valued the kids from parochial schools who came to me with superior backgrounds in grammar and all language arts. Looking out over this audience of sweet little old ladies, I felt that they could have been anyone's grandmas in their simple little cotton dresses. I had to remind myself that they once wore the religious garb that told the world their love of Jesus.

Recently my daughter's serious health problems brought us back to the world famous Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and to St. Mary's Hospital, where I was struck once again by the impact made by nuns, this time the nursing sisters.

It was more that 170 years ago that the original Mayo brothers approached the Franciscan teaching sisters in Rochester, asking them to consider training as nurses, a whole new kind of career training. They embraced the challenge, pouring all their many virtues of dedication and skill into the project. They became not only sisters of mercy, but brilliant administrators as well.

Today, in this magnificent hospital, the only signs of sisters I saw were those in the history books and the huge portraits of the five administrators that line one wall. If there are others still active, they are not noticed nor set apart. I miss that.

They still have a beautiful chapel at St. Mary's, however, which invites us to come and find comfort and healing at any time of the day or night. That, and the memory of those sweet retired sisters in Racine praying for all of us, brings great comfort to my family in these hard times.

New studies prove the healing power of prayer, something we have known all along, thanks to the sisters who taught us.

"Grandmom" likes hearing from other senior citizens who enjoy aging at P.O. Box 216, Fort Atkinson, WI 53538.

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