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Getting Rights Right and Other Antidotes for Teenage Thinking

A considerable number of Catholic youths who would never countenance the murder of an unborn child cannot see why two men (or two women) “who love each other,” as they say, should not have the right to marry. If you don’t believe me, then I’m guessing you haven’t spoken recently with a student at one of America’s diocesan high schools about something other than soccer or where he plans to go to college.

It is little wonder that so many teenagers are confused. The whole concept of a right to marry is fraught with confusion, because the concept of rights is fraught with confusion. Oddly enough it may be Barack Obama, with his aggressive creation of rights to unnatural behaviors, who will at last show Catholics that the muddled sentimentality of rights rhetoric is a poor substitute for the rigorous precision of the natural law.

Unmoored from eternal and immutable principles, rights quickly come into direct conflict: mom’s right to choose cannot coexist with baby’s right to life; Sandra Fluke’s right to contracept cannot coexist with the right of a Catholic university not to transgress the teaching of the Church; the right of two men to marry each other cannot coexist with the right of a child to grow up in a home with a mother and a father.

So, whose rights are right?

My guess is that most Americans would prefer not to examine the question. We live in a nation where the last public virtue standing seems to be some kind of vaguely defined tolerance. We say facile things like, “Let’s agree to disagree” and “Can’t we all get along?” Tolerance is good as far as it goes, but if I’m a shoplifter and you’re a retailer, that isn’t very far. Why not? Because both of us know theft is wrong. I cannot say, “I’m just exercising my right to choose to shoplift.”

That sounds stupid, right? Yet many Americans speak of a right to chose to do something much worse than swiping a pair of Levi’s: killing a baby.

How modern man became ensnared in the superficial sophistry that dominates so much public discourse is beyond the scope of a brief blog post, but it needs to be pointed out that the shift from the Christian age to the modern age was marked by a shift from love of the other (the perfect example being the Crucifixion) to love of self, a condition we euphemistically praise as “individualism” but which in practice means indulging in the pursuit of the empty pleasures that contraception, abortion, and state-sanctioned sodomy promise.

It would be fun to dump all the blame for this shift on such navel gazers as René Descartes, but men such as Martin Luther, who rejected the teaching authority of the Church in favor of private interpretation of Scripture, set the stage for the Enlightenment (I prefer Endarkenment) philosophers and the bloody revolutions that their bad ideas spawned.

Love of the other is the Christian ideal that the modern age cannot tolerate. “See how they love one another,” wrote Tertullian describing the pagan reaction to the early Christians. It is also the first principle that helps us clear the muddled mind of the teenager who cannot understand why two men cannot marry each other. When we next talk to him, we might begin with three questions that will draw him out of the sentimentality of rights talk.

The first is, “What is love?” The answer is, “Love is desiring the good of the other.” The second is, “What is the good of the other?” The answer is, “The good of the other is that which conforms to his nature.” The third is, “What is my nature?”

On this last one you may run afoul, because it is de rigueur these days to deny that man has a nature, or at least to deny that it is immutable, thus the expanding attention given to the “transgendered.” Nonetheless, one of the many charms of the natural law is how it never stops making the case for itself. People who routinely violate their nature find themselves afflicted with all manner of physical and psychological pathologies. Any sin we commit violates our nature, and the anxiety we feel in the wake of sin is a consequence of the disorder our sin causes.

If you can get your teen to start thinking with the precision of the natural law, that we have natures and that we are happiest when we are most in conformation with them, you can suggest to him that marriage, in fact, has a nature, and although our Lord elevated marriage to a sacrament, we don’t even need revelation to show us what it is. Anthropology, biology, history, drama, literature, poetry, and many other expressions of human experience testify to what marriage is. No kid who was read the Odyssey with an honest heart can fail to grasp the beauty, wonder, and truth of marriage. Marriage is a permanent bond between a man and a woman for the procreation and rearing of children, and indeed for the whole ordering of human society, because families are united by marriage. Extended families become clans, and clans become nations. A union that is not procreative cannot serve this end.

If you have been able to get your confused teenager to agree that love is desiring the good of the other, then you can suggest to him that two men who want to pretend to unite in an unnatural act cannot truly love one another because they are seeking pleasure for themselves rather than that which conforms to the other’s nature. The latter is the Christian ideal; the former is the modern ideal. We may yet be surprised by what wickedness the modern world has yet to reveal, but for now it seems the triumph of individualism is in the disordered self-gratification of the sexual sins our age is at pains to declare perfectly normal.

I have only scratched the surface of a few questions that are rendered unnecessarily complex by the paradigms of modernity to which we are all to one degree or another shackled. I recommend three resources to help teenagers work their way toward more precise thinking.

The first is an article in the latest issue of Catholic Answers Magazine called “True Compassion for the Sexual Sinner,” written by my brother, Fr. Paul Check, director of Courage International. My brother’s thought is less afflicted by modernity than mine, so he is able to answer these questions I’ve raised with considerably great clarity.

The second is a brand-new graphic novel from Catholic Answers Press called The Truth is Out There written (and drawn!) to set teenagers and on the path to clear thinking about eternal truths, beginning with the existence of God.

The third is Catholic Answers’ brand-new booklet that we will be distributing at World Youth Day next month. Written by Jimmy Akin, How You Can Change the World arms teenagers with clear arguments to confront the profound troubles of our age: unbelief, narcissism, despair, heresy, and sexual sin.

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