Editors' Note: This article is part of the Public Square 2014 Summer Series: Conversations on Religious Trends. Read other perspectives from the Catholic community here.
Jesus, Elton John tells us, "was all about love and compassion and forgiveness and trying to bring people together and that is what the church should be about." Therefore, he claims, Jesus would have, without a doubt, approved gay marriage.
This sort of assertion is hardly limited to Sir Elton. Most actions that run contrary to Catholic morality with regards to human life and sexuality are currently accepted, justified and promoted in the name of love: any form of sexual activity outside of marriage, same-sex marriage, artificial contraception, artificial procreation, abortion, euthanasia—say it is "for love" and one must bow before it or be cast aside.
This is a tyranny of sentimentalism that affects all of us; we are all its victims when we adhere to sentimentalism's irrational and destructive axioms by engaging in or approving "the loving thing to do" even when it makes little moral or natural sense. We are also made victims when we refuse allegiance to the subjective diktat of sentimentalism, since we are automatically labeled as blinkered, fundamentalist killjoys in the eyes of a relativist world. You cannot dialogue with sentiment: you either love or hate. Conform or be marginalized.
In this context, the Catholic formation of adults, and particularly of couples, requires not only a faithful, merciful, and accessible proclamation of Church teaching in matters of sexual morality, but a preliminary cultural detox so as to avoid pitfalls and dead-ends. An articulate demonstration that artificial procreation is against the law of God and the good of the couple will make little impact on a sentimentalist who will often maintain that it is still the "most loving thing to do," and do it anyway.
The Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family scheduled for October is meant, in large part, to address failures in catechesis and new modes of pastoral outreach. As the Vatican has made a point of asking for feedback, here is a non-exhaustive model of three steps I recommend take place as a preliminary to Catholic teaching. These will help to disarm sentimentalism, by inviting adults to engage in a simple act of thinking through three questions:
1) What is love? Until you come into agreement about the definition of love, there is no need to proceed further. To love is to seek actively the good of the other above my own good. The finality of love is not myself, but the other person. Married or unmarried, if I seek the other person for the sake of my own unsubordinated sexual or emotional gratification, I am using this person. I (in my sexual or emotional needs) become the finality of my commitment to love. This applies also to the desire, acceptance, or refusal of a child, when it is subordinated to my emotional needs. Moreover, unconditional love does not mean unquestioned acceptance of a person's opinions or desires. To love diabetic persons unconditionally does not mean to encourage them unconditionally to eat the sweets they crave.
2) When I love, what good I am seeking for my beloved? Simply proclaiming Catholic morality to adults who have a utilitarian, subjectivist, and materialist understanding of the human person—as most do in our Western culture—will achieve very little. The human person is made by God and made for God. Only in the perspective of our origin and finality can we recover a sense of our dignity and true good. If this is agreed, then the good of human persons is not merely physical, economic, emotional, social, and intellectual within the span of their life on earth. The good of the person is also spiritual and eternal. To love is to seek the good of my beloved at all these levels, and according to this hierarchy.
3) How am I to discern concretely what is good, so that I can truly love? Many will agree in theory with the two points above, but when it comes to concrete choices such as artificial contraception, "my conscience tells me there is nothing wrong with it." How often have these expressions of absolutist relativism fully shut down a discussion that was going rather well! The conscience is the recipient and interpreter of the law of God inscribed in our hearts. It is our own personal compass. Like any old compass, it can be broken. It can misread the law of God, which it does not devise but merely discerns. So the answer to that one is "I fully respect the decisions of your conscience, but have you considered that your conscience may be wrong?" Our consciences are inalienable—no one, not even God, can force us to do what we know is wrong or not to do what we know is right—but are they infallible? My first responsibility, if I intend to love anyone for real, is to begin forming my conscience in humility, looking to Jesus and his Church, to discern what is truly good.
There are serious anthropological foundations to be established before engaging in Catholic moral teaching, to ensure that the words we use are not implicitly hijacked by sentimentalism. Here we can always ponder the wise advice of the Supremes: "Stop! In the name of love … and think it over.