Theology of conversation

Passing on inherited wisdom is always fraught. Especially when the wisdom clashes with that of the prevailing culture.

I recently attended an instructive workshop for Catholic young adults on the ‘theology of the body’. The participants were keen to know how to live sexual relationships in a human way. The workshop was superbly led by young teachers who were open, knowledgeable and thoroughly familiar with the Catholic tradition. They first invited the participants to raise questions for discussion. They listed serious issues concerned with sexual identity and behaviour. The young adults were then invited to summarise Catholic teaching about sexuality. They responded with a list of prohibitions: no sex before marriage, no abortion, no contraception, no IVF, no divorce, no homosexuality, no condoms for AIDS, no tricks. Love made a late and timid entry.
In the ensuing discussion, the teachers dealt knowledgeably and openly with the issues, appealing to the wisdom found within the Catholic tradition, including the writings of the present Pope. They found it hard to find quotations that spoke tellingly to their listeners. But they led the participants into the Catholic tradition in exploratory and respectful ways, treating the young as contributors to and not simply as objects of church teaching.
Later the conversation became fixed on prohibitions. The catalyst was a TV program about Catholic attitudes to the use of condoms by AIDS victims. From the human framing of sexual relationships participants turned to the authority of external teachers and the prohibitions which they issued.

The excellence of this workshop showed the difficulty in passing on a tradition that is unsupported in the wider culture. A distinctive group can expect that the young will see its attitudes as negative in prohibiting practices the culture allows. Its attitudes will also be misrepresented by the culture.

The Catholic Church has an interest in leading young people beyond negative images to a positive Christian understanding of sexuality. This requires good conversation. In good conversation about sexuality, the Christian understanding is presented as a high ideal. When Christian attitudes are opposed to other attitudes as good against evil, instead of as ideal opposed to not ideal, young adults easily feel that their friends, and perhaps themselves, are rejected. They will not then continue the conversation with the tradition.

Good conversation also emphasises what is central to human living. It does not focus on the defects of messy ways of coping with hardship. To attack, for example, the use of condoms by AIDS victims instead of encouraging people in relationships blighted by suffering to nurture their love for one another, condemns young people to see a rich tradition as harsh and distorted.

When entering their tradition through conversation, the young must believe that they can contribute to the wisdom of the group. To stress the unique authority of the elders distracts the young from the rich patterns of human living that tradition commends.

The language in which wisdom is passed on is one of simple words and simple human gesture. The Catholic rhetoric of sexuality—partly legal, partly philosophical, and in part lushly theological—often forgets its roots, which is in a humble language spoken by ordinary people. 

Andrew Hamilton sj teaches at the United Faculty of Theology, Melbourne.




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