The Big Interview: Father Raymond De Souza
"Canada's finest Catholic commentator" shares his views on faith, community and hope for the future
How do we think about morality? What do we learn from Scripture? How do we live our lives as Catholics when society doesn’t seem to have room for faith?
Father Raymond de Souza has been thinking about these questions for a long time. Described as “Canada’s finest Catholic commentator,” de Souza is a well known as a columnist for the Catholic Register, National Post, and National Catholic Register in the U.S. He is also editor in chief of Convivium – the online magazine he co-founded eight years ago.
Ordained in 2002, de Souza is a priest in the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ont., where he teaches in the Faculty of Education and the Department of Economics at Queen’s University
He was in Edmonton Nov. 23-24 as part of Newman Theological College’s Dr. L.P. Mousseau Ethics Lecture Series. His first lecture was on the 25th anniversary of Veritatis Splendor, St. John Paul II’s 1993 encyclical on the Church’s role in moral teaching, and the second was a discussion on chastity and the credibility of the Gospel.
Father de Souza sat down for an interview with Grandin Media to talk about current events, the role of the Church in Canadian society, and how Catholics can embrace the future of their faith.
What is Veritatis Splendor and why is it important to Catholics?
For the most part, the Church teaches that something is wrong because there is something wrong with it. It’s not wrong because the Church says so.
The key issue in Veritatis Splendor is that to follow morality, Catholic morality, the Christian tradition, is to live in accord with the truth. Veritatis Splendor says it’s the ‘splendour of truth,’ that the truth about the human person, the truth about God, the truth about Creation is reflected in certain moral rules.
For example, the reason that I shouldn’t tell a lie is not because the Church says ‘Don’t tell lies’ but because something about the nature of what it means to be a human person, something about the nature of language, something about the nature of human community, something about the nature of the common good, means it’s not right to tell lies.
If I understand that, then I can live more in accord with who I should be.
In the wake of alleged hazing incidents at St. Michael’s College School in Toronto and the abuse scandal in the U.S. Church, shouldn’t there be an innate knowledge of what’s right and wrong?
Knowing what’s right and wrong doesn’t mean that you always do it. Specifically in reference to the sex abuse scandals, with the exception of a few cases of a more pathological nature, the perpetrators here knew it was wrong. The first reason you know that someone knows it’s wrong is that they do it in secret or they keep it secret.
In the abuse scandals, and other such things, the problem is not that someone doesn’t know it’s wrong. It’s because of human wickedness, the fall of the human person corrupted by sin.
Veritatis Splendor is not about asking ‘Why do people do wicked things when they know the good?’ It’s really about, Do we know the good and can we formulate a coherent morality that tells us how we should behave? But even knowing how we should behave, sometimes we fall short and it has to be acknowledged. Sometimes we know how we should behave and we deliberately choose to do otherwise. We call that sin.
Your second lecture was about chastity. What does it mean to live a chaste life?
Chastity, in popular culture, has sometimes meant not engaging in sexual relations. In the Catholic tradition, it’s broader than that. Chastity is ‘What is my nature as a human person? What is my nature as a human person made male or female?’ And in regard to the sexual dimension of my being, my personality, how should I live that?’ depending on my state in life.
Chastity includes married couples who would normally be engaged in sexual relations. It includes those who are not married who ought not to be engaging in sexual relations. But it’s how do I live that? For example, it would touch on marital fidelity.
It would touch on things like pornography, which is a big problem in today’s society. It would touch on matters of purity. How do I regard the opposite sex? It would touch on my own understanding of myself as male or female. It deals with the whole sexual dimension of the human person.
Veritatis Splendor, in fact, was written in large part because in that area of the Church’s moral teaching, there was a lot of confusion and even, St. John Paul II acknowledges, dissent from the Church’s teachings.
Is it tough to be a Catholic these days?
It can be. I think when people say it’s tough to be Catholic these days, they refer to the news of the last few months especially, which has been a lot of uncomfortable, distressing, discouraging – even in a certain sense properly anger-provoking – news about sexual abuse crises.
But it’s actually tough to be a Catholic these days because the culture doesn’t make a lot of room for people who want to take their faith seriously. A lot of my work with university students – independent of the recent crises – is that to stand up and say ‘I believe in God. I’m a Catholic. I’m a practising Catholic’ means you have to have a certain amount of courage.
We have to be mindful that there also were times when it was more difficult to be a Catholic. In certain parts of the world today it’s very difficult to be a Catholic. Your physical security might be actually threatened. There are parts of the world where the government subjects the Church to physical violence.
The fact that it’s difficult to be a Catholic may be more true now. And I suppose in a certain sense when we see the world against us, we can say we have the Church with us. When the problems that make it difficult come from inside the Church, it’s a different kind of thing. We can feel beleaguered and sometimes even betrayed.
We have to remember that following the Lord Jesus has never been the easy option. We see that in the Gospels. We see that in the New Testament letters. We don’t look for difficulties in living our faith. We don’t rejoice certainly when it’s difficult to be a Catholic disciple. But we’re not shocked by it if we have a historical sense.
Are you surprised, as a priest, that Catholicism would seem almost counter-cultural?
We should be aware that in every time, in every age, the Church is at odds with the culture on some issue. There is no culture that’s perfectly in accord with the Gospel.
Today those issues are around moral teaching, about family life, about human life, and we see the clash there. But if we were living in the 18th century or the 16th century or the 14th century, there would also have been challenges where living the faith meant going against the culture.
You can never be entirely a disciple of the Lord Jesus, and entirely at home in the world. The Church is in the world but not of the world. We can’t think that there was a time when it was easy or when the culture was entirely in accord with the Gospel.
Where do people find their hope, so that they are not discouraged?
We know from the history of our faith, the lives of the saints and martyrs, that sometimes they faced extraordinary circumstances when the only thing that they could rely on was their hope in the Lord Jesus because the external circumstances were 100 per cent against them.
We’re not in that situation. But it’s very important for disciples to have fellow disciples. The Lord Jesus did not intend for us to follow him alone as individuals. He means for us to follow Him as a Church, that’s what He founded. And so we find hope not only in Jesus Himself but also in the Church.
The Church is very big. It includes all kinds of people. It includes things that exasperate us. It includes things that perplex us. It includes things that might anger us. But at the same time, that Church also includes people who would inspire us, and not just the saints of long ago, but those holy people who are around us.
It’s important for Catholics, not just young Catholics but Catholics of any age, to have fellow disciples who take their faith seriously, with whom they can have fellowship and common support. It’s true that our hope ultimately is in the Lord Himself but we need other sources of hope too.
Most Catholics today, who are serious about living their faith, who put the Lord Jesus at the centre of their life and live in a very Catholic way, are doing so in the company of others. Sure, you might have a small group of 10 or 15 people. It’s not 150, but 10 or 15 is enough in order to others to support you in our life of discipleship.
How does one live his or her faith in the public square?
There’s no aspect of our life that doesn’t belong under the sovereignty of Christ.
Many years ago there was that slogan that was popular, ‘What would Jesus do?’ That’s another way of saying ‘Does this aspect of my life belong to the Lord Jesus?’ And so our life out in public belongs to the Lord Jesus ̶ where we go for our recreation, how we spend our money ̶ and it includes more delicate things like ‘What are the conversations that I have?’
If I’m with my friends and the conversation takes a turn that’s contrary to the Gospel, if the conversation takes a turn that’s peddling untruths about other people, about the Lord, about the Church, I have to stand up and have the courage to say something about that. In a culture that’s increasingly secularized, those difficulties can abound. And it requires courage to respond to them.
Do you see the role and influence of religion in Canada expanding or contracting?
Certainly the role of religion in public ceremonies, in the kind of discussions that take place in our mass media, are less than before.
There’s a shift demographically going on. Immigrant communities tend to be more religious than the country they are coming to. So in that sense, the country is growing more religious. There are some aspects of religion in Canada where there is vibrancy and life and other parts that are evidently dying. So it’s a mixed picture.
One of the things to be attentive to is that everybody needs some meaning in life. And if religion doesn’t provide it, something else has to provide it. If it’s not provided, then you get very bad social outcomes. Behind those numbers and figures are lives which are very painful and involve a lot of suffering.
I’m not saying that anybody who’s not religious has a life that’s painful and suffering, but as the sources of meaning diminish in a culture, there’s a consequence and a cost experienced for that.
But you’re hopeful?
There’s a difference between being hopeful and being optimistic. Someone can look at the good things, that’s optimistic. A hopeful person is someone who looks at things as they are, who sees things as they are but has hope. Why? We already know the end of the story.
We don’t know, between now and the end of history, the whole story. But we know the end of the story because the end of the story has already been given to us by the risen Jesus. So yes, I’m hopeful.