Stories and souls: A monk contemplates those who dispute with the Church

Br. George Rumley, O.S.B. , Saint Anselm Abbey

A few weeks ago, a Conversatio monk panel ended with a question from a very perceptive student. To paraphrase: Given the monks’ adherence to Catholicism, what do they think about some Anselmians’ opposition to Church teaching on moral issues such as abortion, marriage, gender, and so on? 

This question is important because it acknowledges tensions about fundamental matters that we often sidestep. To address such a question deserved more than the few minutes remaining in that class and probably more than this article. Nevertheless, here is one monk’s thought.

It is often said that people’s stories should be heard. The Church too has a story. 

Her story reaches back to the birth of creation and tracks the human experience, with its sufferings, fears, oppressions, failures, quirks, hopes, longings, redemptions, and joys. The hero of this story united humanity and divinity in himself and crushed death in a supreme, history-shaping act of love. That act propelled the story ahead with superabundant life, allowing us to discover our own roles in a narrative advancing toward eternity. The tale is still being written even as it is told. 

The Church not only proclaims the story but also lives it out and invites others to do so. The chronicle of the Faith is illuminated with saints who exulted in it, martyrs who died for it, missionaries who voyaged with it, sages who pondered its depths. Our civilization has in no small part been built by it. Even its detractors enjoy its fruits and are grounded in it far more than they perhaps realize.

But the story is both a challenge and a gift, and we engage it on the Author’s terms, not our own. The challenge consists in whether we allow our fragmented lives to be rewritten according to the Truth imparted through divine revelation and a millennia-long tradition of examining human experience—faith and reason working in harmony—or whether we insist on the word salad of our jumbled desires, trendy affiliations, and shortsighted self-will.

The Church’s moral teaching, then, is not an arbitrary rule book but rather a series of guiding threads that emanate from the Author’s Word. When the Church speaks about the significant issues of our day, she does so holistically from the sacred, living heart of the story. 

The integrity of sacramental marriage, the inherent complementarity of the sexes, the dignity of every person from conception to natural death, the radical love for the poor, the stewardship of creation—these and other truths are essential strands, and without them, the story begins to unravel, much as it did in the Garden of Eden.

Sadly, sins against these truths by the Church’s members (especially her leaders) obscure the story’s transcendent beauty. To be sure, every Catholic is obliged to show respect and compassion and to desire justice for all. But even Christians’ worst hypocrisies cannot invalidate the story. Consider the words of Cardinal Ercole Consalvi, who, when told that Napoleon had threatened to destroy the Catholic Church, retorted, “He will not succeed. Not even we [the clergy] have been able to do that.”

So, to answer the question: because the Church’s teaching is lofty, its holism is overlooked, and believers fail to live up to it, disagreement is unsurprising and occasionally passionate. The situation warrants some empathy. 

Whether such disagreement is justified, however, is another matter, although on an intellectual level, it can be respected if it is principled. 

A liberal arts education should provoke us to adopt principled reasons for our views or else amend those views. It should also empower us to distinguish between a person and his or her stances, cherishing the former even when disputing the latter. One of our modern tragedies is the conflation of people’s human dignity with their claims on controversial issues, thus rendering disagreement a personal assault rather than an opportunity to discern the Truth. 

Various stories compete for your attention and for your soul. Beauty and truth exist in many of them, but no more than one can be wholly true if human life has any innate, non-solipsistic meaning. Saint Anselm offers you the chance to take up and live this wondrous story—the Advent of the hero being a perfect occasion—and fathom the part being composed for you by the very Author who loved you into life.