On Ke’eamoku St. in Honolulu stands a tree. It is a large tree, with large, fanned roots that in and of themselves are impressive. I am always awed by this tree, and fascinated by its shape: one side obviously receives the brunt of the elements, and the other flourishes with leafy branches.
I came across a Crisis Magazine article on my Twitter feed this morning about Catholic Sexual Morality: the many, many arguments against it and why Catholic teaching is *of course* superior. The article’s premise is not wrong, but the tone is a familiar one I see throughout much of modern Catholic apologetics (especially conservative apologetics). After briefly ranting to my husband about this (who has heard this rant many times before and with the love and patience of a saint continues to listen with nary an eye-roll) and further meditation the Ke’eamoku tree came to mind.
The bare trunk of the tree could be seen as a back, protecting the delicate, precious parts of the tree from the unrelenting elements that beat down on it. Morality often feels like an unrelenting element that rains down on us from above, stripping away some of our delicate beauty and leaving us partially calloused. One “do not” rule led to ten “do not” rules, that led to 613 laws and regulations, and so forth until today. It’s exhausting, isn’t it?
Morality is not supposed to be this way, though, and that is why I am constantly saddened when I see moral apologetics like the above article wield Church teaching like a hammer without stopping to look at what they are wielding, or to whom they are directing their apologetics.
Let’s look at the Ke’eamoku tree from a different angle. Rather than a tree that is buffering itself against harsh elements, what if the tree is facing the elements head-on, with the full power and beauty of its delicate network of branches and leaves to support it? The amount of effort required to support such a stand is tremendous, but it is a sight to behold and can literally make people stop in their tracks to marvel.
This is what morality truly is, and what it was always meant to be. Not an unrelenting force that we must brace against for survival, but a beautiful, delicate-yet-powerful support for us to stand tall and strong before the harsh forces of a world that does not love us like God loves us. And this is the most important part that is missing from modern moral hammering: the source of, and reason for, morality. God’s love.
Morality cannot be understood rightly, or argued for rightly, without deeply rooting it in God’s love. Like the roots of the Ke’eamoku tree those roots need to be explicit: tall and wide and impressive in their own right. When we who teach and we who receive teaching begin with the roots of morality, our backs aren’t bracing anymore. The “do not’s” of moral teaching are rightly understood in the context of what morality truly is. Morality is a “yes.” It is our “yes” to God. Yes, we will accept that you love us unconditionally. Yes, we will love you to the best of our ability. Yes, we will keep working to love you like you love us. Yes, we will, as you will.