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    Fr. Joseph Jenkins

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We are Men and Women, Not Angels

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Biology uses the word “species” to refer to us as “homo sapiens.”  Thomistic philosophers sometimes use it in a different way, speaking of our species as human, albeit as composites. Angels and human souls are without matter, but every material composite has two parts, prime matter and substantial form. The substantial unity of a composite being demands that there can be but a single substantial form. The substantial form in human beings, men and women, is the soul.  This soul is exclusive of any other soul.  However, we are kindred to one another as a species or class.  Material composites know individuation because of their extension or dimensions.  By contrast, angels have no matter and are not composites; thus, every angel as a spiritual entity is a distinct species unto itself.

There is no marriage between angels.  There is no reproduction.  There is no complementarity of gender.  All we can say is that they may have traits that we usually associate with one gender over another.  But even that may be an oversimplification.  What do we know of what angels do or angelic character?  When we try to figure them out we illustrate them as naked human bodies with wings attached.

Why do I make such obscure academic observations?  It is because many seem to be confusing the human with the angelic.  What makes us human men and women is fixed; nevertheless, many are arguing that gender is simply a matter of choice.  While it would not include the quality of gender, angels by their intellect and will determine their unique species at the moment of their immediate creation outside of space and time.  We come to exist in time and within material creation.  We classify pure spirits as angels and even rank them but no one angel is like any other.  Some transgender people today are treating their humanity in a similar way, refusing to be labeled as either male or female.  But do they have this authority, particularly since gender seems to be fixed?  Do they have freedom or choice to embrace legal fictions?

Gender identification is today often called into question and debated.  Growing numbers seem to suffer from a sexual disorientation.  Many feel that they have a gender sense that is in conflict with their bodily composition.  Some have sought to have a legal designation to reassign their gender.  Others have sought through surgery or chemical intervention to change their gender.  The Church would traditionally view such efforts as absurd. The divine determination is taken for granted.  You are what you are… every body part and every cell… your basic DNA… all of it speaks to your identity as a man or woman.  This is the lens through which we know ourselves and how we look upon the world.  We relate as men and women in all our associations and friendships, even in our chaste relationships.

Gender is a differentiation we share with others.  Men and women are human but they come in two sexes.  These qualities are combined with many others, some shared and others unique to our identity.  Here I speak not so much about the accidentals that distinguish us but rather those qualities or elements that defy measurement or calibration.  We are finite creatures but the spark of the infinite both gives us life and keeps us in existence.

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The Mystery of Gender Permeates Body & Soul

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An accepted tenet of my classical training is that substantial forms inform all prime matter.  It is within this sphere that we usually discuss creation.  Christians believe in an ordered universe.  God is the source for an intelligent design.  We are not the result of a cosmic accident.  The substantial form is where we locate the properties and unity of an object.  The substantial form for the human person is the immortal soul.  If this soul organizes our constitution and gives us our identity then the soul must also include the element of gender.  Sexuality is not isolated to the body.  There is also a spiritual component.  There is no generic human soul and then male or female accidental renderings of humanity.  Unlike the substantial forms of things, each human soul while having commonality with others is unique.  Since the human soul has no parts it is indestructible and survives the death of the body.  We will be reconstituted in accord with our souls.

Separatist or dualist theologians argue against traditional Christian sexual morality because they treat the person as an operator in a robotic body.  The soul is distinct and not necessarily connected to the body.  They do not regard the body as the real you.  Materialists might have some regard for natural law, but often contend that morality is whatever men want it to be.  They argue that there is no soul that actuates or vivifies you.  They further insist that there is no spiritual operator running a robotic body— there is only the body. Since they judge everyone as merely thinking and loving meat, there are no eternal consequences for our actions to worry us.  They would say do as you want because tomorrow you will be nothing but worm-food.

My own view is one of an intense integralism.  While we are spiritual-corporeal composites, I would place a greater weight upon the composite itself over the body and even the soul.  Bodies without souls are corpses.  Souls without bodies are ghosts.  Neither is a condition to which I look forward.  Our hope in Christ is for the resurrection of the dead, body and soul.  Not angelic beings, it is essential to our personhood and identity that there be a restoration.  The soul is a higher principle in that it has no parts that can break down.  However, our constitution is set as a creature that bridges the material and spiritual worlds.  We are not mere animals.  Alternately, we seem to have little or nothing in the way of angelic powers.  Just as the soul informs the body; the body shares information with the soul.  There are apparent parallel operations between the intellect of the soul and the elements of mind and intelligence found in the organic (the brain).  There is an interposition between the spiritual and material.  Soul and body function as a profound unity.  I suppose this is why spouses can speak of each other as soul-mates.  There would be no marriage if men and women were not sexual beings.  However, this meaning cannot be reduced to the same denominator that defines cats, dogs, horses and other animals.  There is a transcendent factor that permeates the central axis of persons.  Everything the soul or body wants or does reverberates in the other.  Gender or sexuality permeates the whole.

 

An Over-sexed World Does Not Understand Sex

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Analogies scratch at the surface of truth and reality.  Nevertheless, they do allow a certain degree of illumination.  We speak of heaven as an eternal banquet.  We view the relationship of Christ to his Church as akin to the marital bond of a husband to his wife.  Just as there can be no gluttony in heaven, neither can there be lust.  The imperfections in human desires and activities can have no part to play in their eternal dimension.  While we are broken, the moral life demands that we strive toward something of the perfection that awaits us.  Food means physical life.  Marriage means the life of children.  Food gives satisfaction.  Marriage brings the joy of marital union.  God will sustain us and he will feed us with his very self.  Ultimately, the measure of our unity is within the peace of Christ.

It may be that marriage finds itself in trouble within the modern world because people do not know what marriage and sex is really about.  Failure to appreciate the truth damages relationships and makes the marriage analogy incomprehensible.  There is confusion because many refuse to admit that they might be wrong.  Just as certain virgins are anxious about telling others about their inexperience; those with active sex-lives may be reticent to admit that they are regularly engaged in something that they really do not understand.  Persons are often reduced to a means to a selfish end.  Sex is treated as recreation or as something to release tension.  While it should be expressive of a bond, it should not be regarded as bondage.  The abuse of sexual union leads to a whole assortment of ills.  That which should draw people together and make possible personal integrity can inadvertently fragment personalities and cause rifts of infidelity and frustration.  If one has a negative experience of sexual behavior, particularly when it is abusive, then how can he or she imagine that it is good, joyous and holy?  There may be no sexual intercourse in heaven; however, this does not mean that such loving coupling cannot point to a profound intimacy between the divine and the communion of the saints.

Our culture is erotically saturated.  Pornography has gone largely mainstream.  Sex pollutes the media entertainments and advertising.  Many people claim that they have to have it, giving impetus to a drug market where all sorts of dysfunction cures are prescribed.  Nevertheless, while there is a focus on fantasy and the mechanics of human sexuality; there is a paucity of reflection upon ultimate meaning and the theology of the body.  If human sexuality is reduced to an accidental then it might no longer matter… serial marriages, multiple partners, same-sex unions, fornication and even adultery are shifted to the periphery of social life with minimal moral importance.  However, the traditional Western philosophical and religious critic would lament that this is all a lie.  Human sexuality is not accidental and gender is not interchangeable.  There must be a genuine complementarity, sufficient gravity in importance and a lasting permanence.  Our gender identity is a core substantive element.  The union of men and women is not between two half’s but rather two whole’s.  It builds upon who they are, making them (together) something new.

 

The Dark Secret

What is the presumed dark truth that remains largely unspoken by the churchmen desiring a “paradigm shift” in reference to those in irregular unions being invited to receive the sacraments, i.e. the Eucharist and the penitential absolution?

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I suspect that despite objections to the contrary, they really do not believe that there is any lasting bond (sacramental, natural or spiritual) associated with the marriage of men and women.  There was a priest I knew, died some years ago, who ridiculed the very notion that there was a lasting spiritual change in the spouses akin to the sacramental character imprinted upon the soul of men ordained to the priesthood.  While I agreed that sacerdotal ordination was “forever” and that marriage was “until death do they part,” he spurned the notion of any real but invisible tie between spouses other than a psychological one.  His view seemed to me as overly Anglican, as does the Orthodox compromise of penitential marriage.  My thinking upon the question remains unchanged.

Marriage is a perpetual bond.  Our Lord insists that it remains in effect as indissoluble as long as the spouses are alive.  Further, while marriage ends at the threshold of this world and the next, we should all appreciate in Christ that love is stronger than death.  There is something about the connection that changes spouses in an irrevocable way.  They might marry again after a spouse dies; but a mysterious quality remains from the first union.  Something changed with the bond that does not revert back to what it was before.  Given that marriage is reflective of Christ’s relationship with his bride, the Church, this struck me as a necessary truth.  Our Lord will never abandon or divorce his Church.  Spouses give something to the beloved that is singular and that creates a union that is unique and unrepeatable.  A second marriage may have its own value and particular traits; however, while not maligning a second chance at love, the first bond (if real, and in certain cases even when suspect) has a residual or lasting impact or impression.  I am talking about more than mental memories; it is as if the body itself has its own remembrance.  Further, what we do in the flesh has a powerful interplay with the human soul and identity.

Matthew 19:3-9:

Some Pharisees approached him, and tested him, saying, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause whatever?” He said in reply, “Have you not read that from the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, no human being must separate.” They said to him, “Then why did Moses command that the man give the woman a bill of divorce and dismiss [her]?” He said to them, “Because of the hardness of your hearts Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. I say to you, whoever divorces his wife (unless the marriage is unlawful) and marries another commits adultery.”

C. S. Lewis has this to say in Letter 18 of The Screwtape Letters:

The Enemy described a married couple as “one flesh.” He did not say “a happily married couple” or “a couple who married because they were in love,” but you can make the humans ignore that. You can also make them forget that the man they call Paul did not confine it to married couples. Mere copulation, for him, makes “one flesh.” You can thus get the humans to accept as rhetorical eulogies of “being in love” what were in fact plain descriptions of the real significance of sexual intercourse. The truth is that wherever a man lies with a woman, there, whether they like it or not, a transcendental relation is set up between them which must be eternally enjoyed or eternally endured. From the true statement that this transcendental relation was intended to produce, and, if obediently entered into, too often will produce, affection and the family, humans can be made to infer the false belief that the blend of affection, fear, and desire which they call “being in love” is the only thing that makes marriage either happy or holy. The error is easy to produce because “being in love” does very often, in Western Europe, precede marriages which are made in obedience to the Enemy’s designs, that is, with the intention of fidelity, fertility and good will; just as religious emotion very often, but not always, attends conversion. In other words, the humans are to be encouraged to regard as the basis for marriage a highly-colored and distorted version of something the Enemy really promises as its result.

 

Who Can Be Saved?

I am a bit perplexed by recent soteriology debates.  One group assumes a form of universalism wherein most if not everyone will ultimately be saved.  This contingent hopes that hell is the afterlife’s ghost town, populated by a few like the devil, Judas and Herod and maybe with a Nero, a Hitler and a Stalin.  The other side contends, much in line with Scripture and the private revelations of saints that only a few will be saved and that hell is a crowded abode of souls anguishing in eternal hell-fire.  While we can hope the devil is lonely, it seems to me that we should merely acknowledge the reality of heaven and hell and leave it entirely to God’s merciful providence and justice as to where he will assign us.  Nothing about God’s generous mercy will be compromised if most souls should be damned.  After all, we have always spoken about salvation as a gift which we cannot merit and do not deserve.  I would not be surprised if God should save many that men would count as condemned.  We are fortunate that God and not men make such determinations as we struggle to love and forgive as we should.  Those who count baptism and Church membership as sure signs of being saved should be on guard against the “yeast of the Pharisees.”

Jesus tells us: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name? Did we not drive out demons in your name? Did we not do mighty deeds in your name?’ Then I will declare to them solemnly, ‘I never knew you. Depart from me, you evildoers’” (Matthew 7:21-23).

Is it not enough that we admit our sinfulness, ask for forgiveness, and invoke divine grace through faith in Christ— walking in right relationship with God and striving to take a few of our family and friends to heaven with us?

We come into this world wounded in the womb.  We cannot save ourselves.  The world would beguile us with false treasure and empty assurances of safety and success.

Jesus speaks to us the uncomfortable truth: “‘Amen, I say to you, it will be hard for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’ When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and said, ‘Who then can be saved?’ Jesus looked at them and said, ‘For human beings this is impossible, but for God all things are possible’” (Matthew 19:23-26).

Jesus gives us hope but not what some posit as an absolute assurance.  If he were to do any other, then malice could wrongly find excuse for the exploitation and satisfaction of vices.  Except for the Christ as the source of holiness and the virgin preserved from sin; there are some questions that must not be answered on this side of the grave.  It is so terribly hard to be good.  It is easy to love those who love us and to want those things that give us immediate pleasure.  More difficult is trying to love those who are hard to love and embracing those things wrapped with the crown of thorns.  As believers we have moments of grace that seem to enthrall or intoxicate us.  We feel as the great saints must have felt within the intensity of their mysticism.  But the joy is fleeting.  The veil comes down.  Suddenly the moment is gone.  We have lost the oasis and only have the dry sand of the desert.  The sense of loss is terrible and we are tempted to fill the vacuum with something less, anything that will take away the terrible sting of loss.  Once we have had a taste of genuine joy, we want more and we want it in never-ending abundance.

Our primordial parents brought death into the world.  Does this mean that in the evolution and battle of life that they were immortal?  It is true that they could have been.  No matter how the first man or woman was formed, it was their choice in sin that damaged the immediate trajectory of creation.  Even if mortal or physical death had remained, great theologians have speculated that it would have been entirely redefined— nothing as we now experience it.  The door between this world and the next closes abruptly.  We cannot see clearly to the other side.  There is so much pain and isolation.  We are afraid.  We are also naked and we know that we are naked.  Had our first parents remained in the full flower of grace, death might have been no more a struggle than our walking from one lit room into another.  They journeyed with God as a people in perpetual contemplation, desiring to cross the threshold from this world to the next with a hope to fully possess God and to have him possess them.  Unfortunately, they broke this peace for themselves and for all who would follow.  That peace is only restored in Christ.

A Cold Wind Blows Against the Cross

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The Cross of Jesus literally marks the spot.  It pierces the icy heart of a fallen creation. Our Lord enacts his claim upon the world with two pieces of wood.  Nothing would ever again be the same.  However, not everyone would be saved.  God come down from heaven had infinite power; but the price of freedom was that this deity would become small and vulnerable.  He would compress himself into the finite.  The mysteries of sin and death had been conquered but not undone.  During the time of unraveling there would still be iniquity, sickness and suffering.  The world’s harmony would remain broken, at least until the day of final consummation.

All would one day be light except for one very tiny corner, a crack where the irreformable would hide as specks in the shadow.  Life is eternal.  Ours is not a deity who forgets or annihilates his creation.  The blessed see God and know his joy.  The damned cower blind in the darkness and suffer hell-fire.

Our Lord came with a message about God’s love and the brotherhood of man.  The angels once sang songs to the newborn Prince of Peace. A promise of peace was extended to men of good will.  But this did not mean that all men who came to the manger would be good.  Indeed, it would be even less so when men came to Calvary.  Christ would die for sinners.  But would sinners live for Christ?  We have all played the part of betrayer, some like Peter who would reconcile and others like Judas who would despair.

After a few generations the Roman Empire became Christian.  But was the empire truly converted or was it the faith that was compromised?  The floodgates opened and the Church blossomed.  However, the world did not suddenly become a heaven on earth.  Some teachings were thrown aside, especially those about putting away the sword, about loving our enemies and about forgiving those who hurt us.  Hypocrisy was frequently the poison to the potion of faith.

I suspect our Lord shivered on the Cross, knowing the cold indifference and duplicity of men who would claim to belong to him.  All in his name, but really due to the hardness of hearts, many would be spurned, tortured and murdered as heretics, apostates and infidels.  Victims would be burned at the stake and heads chopped off.  Crusades would be fought against those who refused to accept Christ and wars enacted against those Christians who broke away from Holy Mother Church.  That cold wind that blew upon Golgotha must have been a terrible wind, indeed.  Naked to the cold, our Lord would die, not for the innocent, but for the guilty.

The true face of the Church would not show itself with earthly kings and the sword; rather, it would emerge in the witness of unarmed missionaries and those risking their own wellbeing in caring for the sick and suffering.  The model of Christ is not that of a king dressed in splendor but one attired in work clothes.  Even these would be reduced to rags as he is the king who lays down his life for his subjects.  He makes himself the slave of all and summons his followers, especially the one called ROCK to be the servant of the servants of God.

The Real Meaning of Power

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The world is so very wrong about power.  From swords and spears to guns and bombs, the world has always been wrong.  Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, Napoleon and more recently Hitler, Hirohito, Mussolini, Stalin, and Mao— the names change and the kingdoms rise and fall but they all measured power in terms of violence and intimidation.  However, power is ultimately not measured by blood that is stolen but by blood that is freely surrendered.  Real power is eternal.  Genuine authority and power is not taken by the military arms of short-lived empires but by an eternal kingdom that is inaugurated with a naked and vulnerable child in the straw of a manger.  The great I AM becomes one of us to save us.  No longer the apparition of a bush on fire, he is a human-boy-child with all the fire of God’s love within him.  The LIGHT OF THE WORLD comes to dispel the darkness.  Finite power can destroy, divide, wound and kill.  Infinite power can create, atone, heal and resurrect.  While secular history is filled with kings willing to allow their subjects to die for their ambitions of dominion; sacred or salvation history gives us a king who both makes his subjects members of his royal household and then lays down his life on their behalf.

There are no self-made men.  We imagine that we are substantial and strong.  But in truth, we are next to nothing.  We emerge from nothingness and are utterly dependent.  Most are born and die and the world takes little notice.  However, the Child of Bethlehem is of another sort.  He resembles us but he is the eternal Word.  Before anything was created, he was with God and was God.  He is existence or being itself.  He is the eternal entering into the ephemeral.  He is a sublime innocence that like a blanket will put to sleep and cover all the sins of the world.  What he will accomplish in a few moments in time will have eternal consequences.  All who would approach the divine Child must become children themselves.

We read in Matthew 18:1-5: “At that time the disciples approached Jesus and said, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’ He called a child over, placed [him] in their midst, and said, ‘Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever receives one child such as this in my name receives me.’”

Do we really appreciate the full importance of this direction from Christ?  We must reflect the innocence of the Christ Child.

My father shocked me with a question after my confirmation.  He asked me, “Do you understand the full meaning and consequences of your confirmation?” I asked what he meant.  He responded, “Confirmation means that you can now go to hell.”  I did a double-take… what did he mean?  No one before or since had described the sacrament in this way to me.  As was common years ago, the sacrament was described in terms of maturity in our holy religion, of becoming an adult fully initiated into the faith of the Church.  He said children can only commit little venial sins.  Adults are the ones who can commit mortal sins.  Most priest-confessors would probably agree.  Adults are guilty of far greater transgressions than failing to take out the trash, stealing a cookie or pulling a sibling’s ponytail.  All of us must return to the innocence of childhood if we want a place in Christ’s kingdom.  I suppose that is why our Lord spoke about faith and regeneration as being “born again.”  The old man or woman must be put aside for the new child born in Christ’s likeness.  While we might be adults in years, we must become spiritual children.  Paradise is populated entirely by children.

If we grow old in the world, maybe souls grow younger in purgatory— perfected by the fire of God’s grace?  Nothing of cynicism or sin can enter through the gate of heaven.  Any who would cling to earthly power would similarly be barred. The path to paradise is strewn with earthly weapons rendered as harmless and worldly treasures subtracted of any and all value.  Like a child entering this world, we must enter the next naked except for the wedding garment of the Lamb.