Nonsense on ‘Sixty Minutes’

“Sixty Minutes,” the CBS News “magazine” that helped redefine television journalism, prides itself on challenging conventional wisdom, discomfiting the comfortable, kicking shibboleths in the shins, and opening new arguments. No such challenge, alas, was evident in the program’s recent segment on Pope Francis, which aired last Dec. 28.

One of the principal interviewees in that piece was Robert Mickens, formerly of the London-based Tablet and currently of the National Catholic Reporter. Here’s a part of what Mickens had to say about the “Francis Effect:”

“What he has done is he’s opened up discussion in the Church. There had been no discussion on issues like birth control, about premarital sex, about divorced and remarried Catholics. None whatsoever. There’s been no discussion for the last probably 35 years on that …”

Now, truth to tell, that’s been a longstanding (and endlessly repeated) complaint on the port side of the Catholic Church. The question is whether it’s true. “Sixty Minutes” correspondent Scott Pelley gave Mickens a pass, as if the truth of Mickens’ assertion were self-evident. But if there’s anything self-evident about Mickens’ claim, it’s that it’s self-evidently not true.

For far longer than 35 years, there has been intense “discussion” in the Catholic Church on the issues Mickens cited. Moreover, intense dissent from Catholic teaching on these questions has been central to that discussion: dissent in virtually every theology department in every prestigious Catholic university in North America and western Europe; in professional theological societies and Catholic publications; in certain episcopates. What Robert Mickens and similarly-situated Catholics are really complaining about when they say there’s been “no discussion” on these issues is that they’ve lost the argument: they don’t like the fact that the teaching authority of the Church has declined to repeal Catholic settled moral understandings about the morally appropriate means of family planning, the nature of human love, and the indissolubility of marriage by taking the counsel of those who have different (and defective) ideas on those matters.

Constant harping on all this by the self-identified “progressive” wing of the Catholic Church strikes me as a tacit confession of intellectual impoverishment. Pope Francis is trying to put serious questions on the Church’s agenda: How does the Church more effectively proclaim the “yes” that underwrites the “no” Catholicism must say on occasion? How does the Church teach the truth about marriage and the family in a culture which imagines that everything in the human condition can be changed by human willfulness? How does the Church offer those wounded by the sexual revolution the medicine of the divine mercy, so that those healed by mercy can come to know the truth about love? How can the Church call the men and women of the developed world beyond a “throwaway culture” that disrespects and devalues vulnerable human life, whether that life is unborn, poor, unemployed, handicapped, elderly or otherwise “other”? How does Catholicism reclaim its essentially evangelical character, so that it’s once again a “Church in permanent mission,” as the pope often puts it?

Those are Francis’ issues and those are the questions at the center of this pontificate. Yet those are the issues and questions that often go unexplored when Catholic “progressives” scratch those 60s itches again and again and again. How does such scratching advance the missionary and pastoral agenda the pope laid out in Evangelii Gaudium?

“Sixty Minutes” would have had a much livelier program if Scott Pelley had questioned Robert Mickens’ claim that there’s been “no discussion” of contraception, divorce and premarital sex in the Catholic Church for 35 years. He could easily have done so by showing Mr. Mickens the fare regularly on tap in the newspaper for which Mickens writes. But that didn’t happen: the shibboleth stood, and a potentially fascinating discussion of how Catholic progressives are responding to Pope Francis’ most urgent challenges to the Church was stillborn.

And viewers were left, at the end of the day, with a cartoon pope and a cartoon Church: not exactly the kind of groundbreaking journalism of which “Sixty Minutes” boasts.

COMING UP: On Fathers and Christian Masculinity

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The Year of St. Joseph points us to Jesus’ adoptive father, Joseph, as the essential model for fathers. Joseph not only manifests genuine masculinity, he also images God’s own fatherhood, as Pope Francis makes clear in his apostolic letter, Patris Corde: “In his relationship to Jesus, Joseph was the earthly shadow of the heavenly Father: he watched over him and protected him, never leaving him to go his own way.” Jesus, though the Son of God, obeyed Joseph, learned from him, and worked with him, acknowledging Joseph as a true expression of God’s own fatherhood.  

God does not just use fatherhood as an image of himself, because he himself is Father, even within his own triune life. Earthly fatherhood comes forth from him and should manifest his life and love. St. Paul speaks of honoring the “Father, from whom all fatherhood in heaven and on earth is named” (Eph 3:15). God wants everyone to be able to see his own fatherly love and called certain men to share in his own paternal gift of bringing forth life and caring for others. Every father is called to be liked Joseph, “an earthly shadow of the heavenly Father” for his own family. 

Our culture, however, often denigrates masculinity, sometimes viewing even its proper expressions as toxic. We too often see maleness in its fallenness — dominating and selfish — rather than showing self-sacrificial service. In fact, later in Ephesians, Paul speaks of the true vocation of the husband and father: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph 5:25). He also speaks of the role of fatherhood: “Do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph 6:4). Paul shows us the goal of fatherhood — sacrificing himself for the flourishing of the family by putting the good of his wife and children before his own desires.   

No matter what the contrary voices of our culture say, we need strong men and fathers. God created man and woman in complementarity, and they need each other to thrive, helping the other in relation to their own strengths and weaknesses. Children need the strong presence of a father to discipline and teach, as Paul reminds us. Study after study has shown that fathers have the largest impact on the faith of their children. Christian Smith explains in his sociological study, Young Catholic America, that “the faith of Catholic fathers is powerfully determinative of the future faith of their children (125). The same can be said for general wellbeing and success. When fathers are absent or refuse to exercise their role, a moral and spiritual vacuum appears. A strong majority of felons, for instance, grew up without fathers in the home.  

St. Joseph helps us to understand the strength of Christian fatherhood. First, like any good husband, Joseph listened — not just to his wife but also to God. Woken up frequently by angels, he demonstrated obedience and trust, quickly leaving everything behind to follow God’s instructions and to protect his family. We also know Joseph for his work as a carpenter and builder, content to live simply and to work hard. Importantly, he also taught Jesus how to work, showing that fathers model and teach by drawing their children into their life and work. And we can also learn from Joseph’s humility, serving the Incarnate God and his Mother without even a single recorded word in the Gospels.  

This humility points us to the essence of Christian fatherhood. Although living with two perfect people, Joseph was still called to lead. He quietly and humbly did what was needed for his family and taught his own maker how to share in his work. Fathers do not lead in order to be in charge or to get their own way. They lead because God asks them to care for and protect their families. Fathers and mothers share in the great and beautiful partnership of family life, although fathers cannot simply sit back and let mom take the lead in the spiritual life, as they are often tempted to do. Like Joseph, fathers should act firmly and lovingly to put God and the family before self, obeying God and leading the family in the right direction. They are called to model faith, work, and sacrifice to their children. 

On Father’s Day we can affirm that masculinity and fatherhood are not just good — they are essential to understanding God and his plan for human flourishing. If our culture turns around, it will be because, in large part, Christian men stand up and fight. As Christians, we cannot give in to the culture’s attempt to denigrate masculinity and fatherhood or to pit men and women against each other. We can use this celebration to affirm the essential role that our fathers play, leading their families like St. Joseph.