Monday, April 09, 2018

Pharisaism and the New Pro-Lifers

It’s become quite common over the past year or two to see articles, social media posts and comments, and other forms of expression declaring that “You can’t be pro-life and…” Exclusions include everything from “pro-death penalty,” “pro-torture,” “anti-immigration,” or “anti-welfare” to “pro-gun,” “pro-war,” and “alt-right.” When it’s not phrased according to the “you can’t be…” formula, the sentiment comes as an admonition or call out of those who claim to be pro-life but scandalously advocate some farther right view of one of these issues. There’s no question that opposing torture, taking care of the poor, etc. are important to the support of life, especially for someone coming from a Christian background.

It’s also common see the terms “pharisee” or “pharisaism” come up in commentary or discussions of this topic. Make no mistake: this is always a serious charge to throw around. After all, the Pharisees were on the receiving end of Jesus’ strongest criticism and serve as some of the chief antagonists of Christ in the Gospels. Their crime? “Hypocrites!” Jesus declared, for the Pharisees did not always practice what they preached. They were also known for getting into people’s business, harshly demanding the strictest adherence to the rules and to the law. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger” (Mat. 23:4). The Pharisees’ merciless approach was particularly hard on the poor, who often lacked the resources to fulfill the last letter of the law, the vulnerable, and those whose past mistakes had put them in difficult positions.

It makes perfect sense, then, to see accusations of pharisaism in this debate. So many of the items at hand here involve the same kinds of people that the Pharisees of Jesus’ day. Torture and the death penalty have as their focus the vulnerable (and indeed, law enforcement and peace keeping too often perpetrate injustices against vulnerable populations). Immigration and welfare policies impact the poor and the vulnerable. Those who rightly stand up for the lives of the unborn, one vulnerable group, but callously discount concern for the lives of other vulnerable groups are certainly being inconsistent. These new pro-lifers, as we might call them, have a point in admonishing and calling out inconsistencies and hypocrisy on these points.  

But there’s something important that these new pro-lifers (and many others) miss about the Pharisees. Most people know that the Pharisees were merciless taskmasters who enforced a very strict adherence to the rules and the law, but far fewer know why they did this. The Pharisees emerged in a time when Judea was only a tiny province within the Roman Empire, making both imperial law and pagan culture obstacles to the practice of the Jewish faith. Their
raison d'être was to find a way for the Jews to remain faithful to God under these living conditions and ultimately to be free of the Romans and have their independence once again. Unlike the Sadducees, who favored compromise with the Romans, the Essenes, who practiced total withdrawal from worldly affairs, and the zealots, who saw violent rebellion as the only answer, the Pharisees believed that God Himself would deliver them to freedom once more as He had done in the past – but with one critical caveat: the Jewish people needed to be pure – all of them (or at least almost all).

This belief is the reason that the Pharisees were so strict and so unwilling to show mercy or compassion. In their understanding, the Jewish people were suffering under the Romans as a punishment for their unfaithfulness and only when they had returned to faithfulness would God relent. This did make sense, after all: it was a pattern and theme which repeated over and over throughout the entire history of the Hebrew people, notably in the books of Judges, Samuel, Chronicles, and Kings. The Pharisees were so demanding and unyielding not because they were just callous or for whatever reason instinctively authoritarian, but because they saw every failure to keep even the smallest point of the Mosaic law as one more weight on the scale of judgment angering God and keeping him from freeing them of oppression. They insisted on separating themselves from the rest of the culture (indeed, this is precisely where we get the word “Pharisee” from) and rejected any imperfection or compromise not just as a personal sin, but as something which would be imputed to their entire people. This isn’t to attempt to rehabilitate the Pharisees or to defend their failure to grasp the spirit of the law, something for which Jesus strongly rebuked them. The point is that the Pharisees were severe in demanding total purity of their fellow Jews because they viewed anything less as contributing to keeping the intolerable status quo in place – which brings us back to the new pro-lifers.

While any pro-lifer is to be lauded for standing up for the rights of the poor or the displaced or for rejecting torture, it is a trend of late to see the new pro-lifers go further than this. To many, not only are those who have imperfect views on the broader spectrum of issues to be corrected, but they are to be denied the pro-life name, to be excluded, and to have even their positive contributions be disavowed. Like the Pharisees, the new pro-lifers demand purity from anyone who would bear the name with any shortcomings viewed as mortally harmful to the movement. Those who oppose abortion and may even hold consistent views on most other issues are often demonized as the reason that the pro-life movement has not been more successful. Lest we dismiss the comparison to the Pharisees is too tenuous, bear in mind that it is common to hear or to read these new pro-lifers warn that God will not grant success to the movement so long as such persons are welcome in their ranks.

One need look no further for an example of this than Donald Trump and his supporters. While Trump is far from the perfect example of a consistent pro-life ethic, he nevertheless received strong support from large percentages of the pro-life electorate for whatever he would be able to offer. He may not have been perfect, but to many he was better than the alternative. To some pro-lifers, this was viewed as very questionable. It was unclear just how trustworthy he’d be, for one thing, and even if he followed through his inconsistencies may harm the public image of the pro-life movement. These were reasonable concerns.  Far less reasonable and more in line with the thinking of the Pharisees were those new pro-lifers who went further, condemning any who would vote for Trump as “not pro-life,” as putting party over principle, and as drawing the ire of the Almighty onto the country by electing such a man. 

Trump is one example, but the stakes need not be so grand: this kind of truly pharisaical thinking has become common to see in all sorts of contexts. Worst of all is when this kind of exclusion and condemnation concerns not black and white matters of objective morality but prudential judgments about methods. A person might believe in the need to provide for the poor but reject a particular legislative proposal as a good or effective way to do it. Like the Pharisees who were so focused on the letter of the law that they could not see the spirit, too many new pro-lifers cannot see the good faith of such a person or try to understand their view, but see them only through the jots and tittles of the policy that they have questioned.

In his encyclical Deus Caritas Est, Pope Benedict XVI made clear that Catholics should work together with people of other faiths where improving the temporal world is concerned. A Catholic and a Protestant can work together to feed the hungry, while a Jewish person is a good an ally in fighting a worldly injustice despite theological differences. That doesn’t mean these differences don’t matter or even that they may not in some ways impact mutual work in the temporal sphere. Such differences need to be acknowledged and taken into consideration, but the ultimate goal is still to be pursued. In a similar way, pro-lifers who recognize weaknesses and imperfections in the views of others should acknowledge them and try to address them, but they must also recognize these persons as the allies that they can be in the ways that they can be.

Too many Christian pro-lifers today have come to regard imperfect allies as bitter enemies. Like the Pharisees, they view them as traitors, as repellants to Divine aid, and even as greater obstacles than the worldly powers which have us under their power. This is a tragic trend which must stop.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

About the Gravity of Lenten Fasting and Abstinence

I recently saw a reply to question about the gravity of fasting and abstinence during Lent in which a priest said that it is not a sin to violate Lenten abstinence and fasting requirements, but this is not correct. Moreover, the reasoning that he gave for this answer is demonstrably incorrect. He wrote: "In order for a merely disciplinary norm to be binding on pain of sin, the legislator has to make it so. The legislator (i.e., John Paul II, who issued the 1983 Code of Canon Law) has made the Sunday obligation gravely binding (hence a grave sin if deliberately disobeyed). He decided *not* to do so for the fasting and abstinence laws. Therefore, it does not bind on pain of sin. It is similar in status to the rule that religious congregations have."

 The controlling document in this case is Paul VI’s apostolic constitution Paenitemini, which says of the days of penance, "Their substantial observance binds gravely." You point to the 1983 Code of Canon Law as essentially abrogating this prior law, but the Code of Canon Law is very specific about what prior laws are abrogated in Canon 6:

 "1. the Code of Canon Law promulgated in 1917;" - Paenitemini was not part of this code

 "2. other universal or particular laws contrary to the prescripts of this Code unless other provision is expressly made for particular laws;" - The law as given in Paenitemini is not contrary to anything in the 1983 code. If there are any doubts about this, see the final few paragraphs about the US Bishops’ judgment on the question.

 "3. any universal or particular penal laws whatsoever issued by the Apostolic See unless they are contained in this Code;" - Paenitimini did not address penal law

 "4. other universal disciplinary laws regarding matter which this Code completely reorders" - The 1983 Code does not completely reorder the laws of fasting and abstinence (indeed, even debates about the controversial question of whether fasting is obliged on Fridays throughout the year always center of Paul VI's Paenitimini and documents which appeal to it's authority. Whether a person argues that Friday abstinence is required year- round or not, that person is always pointing to Paenitimini because it is still the document of legal force on these matters.) Again, see below on the US Bishops, who even note that parts of Paenitimini are "almost identical" to the Code.

 As Jimmy Akin notes, "In fact, the Code has so little to say about penance that one cannot determine what the Church’s law is without consulting Paenitemini. For example, the Code does not provide any explanation of what the law of fast entails. It states who is subject to it (Can. 1251), but it does not explain what the law itself is. To find that out, you have to consult Paenitemini." (Canon 1251 does give some more detail about the law of abstinence, but Jimmy is correct: if we want to know anything about what the Church means when legislating that we must fast, we need to look at the Apostolic Constitution. If we don’t consider Paenitimini, then we don’t know whether fasting means no food at all, eating only once, eating as usual but lighter, etc. The “one full meal and two snacks” thing comes – albeit in corrupted form – from Paenitimini.

In it's information on fasting and abstinence, the USCCB itself still points to it's own 1966 Pastoral Statement on the topic because although coming before the 1983 code, everything in it is, having been based on Paenitimini and not on Canon law (either 1917 or the then-not-yet written 1983 code), still relevant.

 Even the 1983 code of canon law uses the language of binding, such as in canon 1252 which reads, "The law of abstinence binds those who have completed their fourteenth year."

 All of this should be sufficient evidence, but the US Bishop's 1983 Complementary Norms to Canon 1253 provide perhaps the clearest. The complementary norm 1) Refers to Paenitemini as authoritative, 2) Appeal to Paeitimini's authority to support the changes that the US Bishop's wanted to make to age requirements for fasting, and 3) Explicitly declares that the US Bishop's 1966 norms, which are based on Paenitimini and which say that Lenten fast/abstinence binds under pain of sin, are not contrary to the 1983 code and so do not fall under Canon 6 as provided above.

The US Bishops' 1966 document, which recall is unquestionably still legally binding and confirmed by their 1983 complementary norms, also says: " In keeping with the letter and spirit of Pope Paul's Constitution Poenitemini, we preserved for our dioceses the tradition of abstinence from meat on each of the Fridays of Lent, confident that no Catholic Christian will lightly hold himself excused from this penitential practice." [Emphasis added]

Thus, AT A MINIMUM, Lenten penance binds under pain of sin in the United States. This is explicit according to the Bishops' 1966 norms which are confirmed in the 1983 complementary norms to remain in force. However, based on all of the reasons given above it should be quite clear that Paenitimini remains in force for the entire Latin Church - a belief certainly held by the US Bishops' Conference - and the Bishops' norms really just confirm this for us more than anything.

 God bless

Friday, July 03, 2015

My response to Matthew Vines' 40 Questions

Matthew Vines has posted 40 questions for Christians who oppose same-sex marriage, and while I do not normally do this sort of thing, I realized in reading through that many of my answers, especially about my personal relationships, are likely different from how Matthew expects people to be answering.  Therefore, I thought I would complete his entire questionnaire.

1.    Do you accept that sexual orientation is not a choice?
2.    Do you accept that sexual orientation is highly resistant to attempts to change it?
I am willing to grant this point.  I know that there are protocols which are reported by some to have a high success rate in changing sexual orientation, but I do not have the time or expertise to dig too deeply into this material.  Even  if it were demonstrated that sexual orientation were easily alterable, it is unlikely that more than a small proportion of persons experiencing same-sex attraction would be interested in changing it, and so there is really no relevance to considering it here.
3.    How many meaningful relationships with lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) people do you have?
I have had several very meaningful relationships with LGBT persons in my life.  Four stand out as what I would call close friendships.  Of these, three are persons that I currently talk to infrequently  because of the natural flow of life – people grow older, graduate school, get jobs, move away, etc.  The fourth is one of my current closest friendships.
4.    How many openly LGBT people would say you are one of their closest friends?
As of the current time, one.  See #3.

5.    How much time have you spent in one-on-one conversation with LGBT Christians about their faith and sexuality?
Hours upon hours upon hours.  Upon hours.
6.    Do you accept that heterosexual marriage is not a realistic option for most gay people?
7.    Do you accept that lifelong celibacy is the only valid option for most gay people if all same-sex relationships are sinful?
8.    How many gay brothers and sisters in Christ have you walked with on the path of mandatory celibacy, and for how long?
Several.  Of the close friends I mentioned in #3, two were gay Christians.  All told, I have spent years with them. There are several other gay Christians who I would not consider to be among my closest friends but who I have also had some form of relationship with for years.
9.    What is your answer for gay Christians who struggled for years to live out a celibacy mandate but were driven to suicidal despair in the process?
My response for and to such persons would be the same response that I would have to anyone who is driven to suicidal despair.  This would include heterosexual persons who have suffered despair or suicidal thoughts or feelings because they were forced to live in *involuntary* celibacy owing to being unable to find romantic partners.  It would also include the homosexual persons who suffer suicidal inclinations because they wish to live out a life of Christian celibacy and feel rejected by the gay community over their choice.  Yes – this is a real phenomenon.  The fact is that suicidal thoughts or feelings or temptations are not a matter of the circumstances in our lives.  They are a matter of depression, a mental illness which affects people of all walks and all beliefs in all circumstances.  It is, quite simply, ill-informed and insensitive to speak about suicide as you have in your question, as though it were simply a response to having a difficult path to walk.
10.  Has mandatory celibacy produced good fruit in the lives of most gay Christians you know?
In every case, the answer is yes.  That includes three people that I know personally, and several others who I know only through acquaintances or my church community.  That celibate gay Christians that I know are in many ways the most faithful, most devout, most knowledgeable, and most generous Christians that I know.  And, in case you thought to ask, yes, I would say that their discipline of celibacy has actually helped to build up these fruits and has not simply come alongside.
11.  How many married same-sex couples do you know?

I do not personally know any same-sex couples.
12.  Do you believe that same-sex couples’ relationships can show the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control?
Yes.  The Holy Spirit can work in anyone of us at any time. In the Old Testament, the Spirit prophesied through Balum as he actively tried to destroy the Israelites.  In the New Testament, the Spirit worked through the High Priest as well, even though he was working to have Jesus killed.  In the book of Acts, the Holy Spirit worked through people who had not yet even become Christian.  The reality is that the Holy Spirit works through all people and all situations as long as we do not put up roadblocks to it. This is also the case in bad situations or in sinning persons.  “God can write straight with crooked lines” is the old saying.  In a same-sex relationship, the Spirit will work whatever good He can, even if there is something problematic about the relationship itself.  This is, as I have hopefully demonstrated, how God approaches all people and situations.

13.  Do you believe that it is possible to be a Christian and support same-sex marriage in the church?
This is somewhat of a complicated question because it depends on what is meant by the term “Christian.”  Obviously, it’s necessary to draw a line somewhere in terms of what beliefs one may hold and rightly be called a Christian.  For example, can a person who believes Jesus never existed be considered a Christian simply because he self-identifies as such?  I think that most would easily answer in the negative here, but where precisely is then the line is drawn?  Different Christian communities will have different answers.

It gets a bit more complicated because of the difference theologies of salvation, justification, and sanctification that different Christian communities have.  Given a person who professes faith in Christ and even many doctrines of the Church but rejects some other doctrines, some theologies would say that such a person is not a member of the Church because we are once-saved-always-saved and the person’s rejection of a key doctrine would preclude him from salvation and therefore he must not have ever been a part of the Church.  Others would say that his faith in Christ is all that is necessary, and others would fall in between or even have entirely different answers to the question.

As a Catholic, I would say that any baptized person is a member of the Church and therefore a Christian, but that those who reject doctrines of the Church are not currently in communion with the Church and not “living members.”  They are united to the Church in virtue of their baptism and so they are Christians, but in their support of same-sex marriage (or slavery, as per #14) they have cut themselves off from the sanctifying and life-giving power of Christ and the Church.

Put more concisely, Christians can sin.  In fact, Christianity has always taught very strongly that Christians will sin as we are fallen creatures.  There is no contradiction between supporting same-sex marriage or slavery or murder or countless other things and holding the name Christian, but in doing so such Christians sin.
14.  Do you believe that it is possible to be a Christian and support slavery?
See #13.
15.  If not, do you believe that Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Jonathan Edwards were not actually Christians because they supported slavery?
See #13.

16.  Do you think supporting same-sex marriage is a more serious problem than supporting slavery?
Both same-sex marriage and slavery are offenses against the dignity of the human person made in the image and likeness of God, and so I do not see either as being especially more serious.
17.  Did you spend any time studying the Bible’s passages about slavery before you felt comfortable believing that slavery is wrong?

While I am studied on a great deal of what the Bible says, this is not a question which holds a great deal of meaning for me as I had already converted to Catholicism before the question of slavery really occurred to me, and as Catholics the Bible is interpreted in the context of each book’s literary genre and the teaching of the Church.

18.  Does it cause you any concern that Christians throughout most of church history would have disagreed with you?
This is the first of several instances in which your Church history is quite simply incorrect.  While many of the Protestant reformers and those who followed after them supported slavery for some time, dating back to the earliest Christians chattle slavery (the kind that was prevalent in the United States until the Civil War and which is under discussion here) was not widely supported.

When Christianity first came into existence, it lacked the social power to eliminate all slavery, but Christians did what they could to improve the life of slaves by making sure that they were treated well, were kept together with their families, and were even paid.  There are many records of newly converted Christian slaveowners freeing their slaves.  Several of the first popes were even former slaves.  Early Christian writers such as St. Gregory of Nyssa (c. 330) and St. John Chrysostom (c. 349) condemned slavery.  Early Church councils in 452, 506, 511, 517, 538, 549, 585, 589, 615, 633, and many others promulgated legislation about the rights of slaves, including in some cases prohibition of slave trafficking.  This is a very, very brief picture and I encourage you to do more research, but suffice it to say that you are greatly mistaken on this point.
19.  Did you know that, for most of church history, Christians believed that the Bible taught the earth stood still at the center of the universe?

Just as in #18, you are at least somewhat mistaken on this point.  There certainly were Christians throughout history who believed in geocentrism and geostationism, but they didn’t get it from the Bible.  They believed in it based on what contemporary science (loose though the term may be) taught.  David Palm, a traditionalist Catholic who has written extensively on the subject, has been unable to identify more than ten writers throughout the entire Patristic period of Christianity (about the first 700 years) who mention geocentrism or geostationism, and of these none cite the Bible or even Christian tradition regarding this belief, while several of them cite mathematicians and natural philosophers (primitive forms of scientists).

This is consistent with the way that early Christians wrote about nature and the faith.  To the early Christians, the Scriptures taught, as the saying goes, “how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go.”  St. Augustine of Hippo (c. 400) is a fairly standard citation of this belief.  Even Copernicus, who was supported by the Pope and the Church as he helped to pioneer the theory of heliocentrism about a hundred years before Galileo, declared that the Bible did not teach geocentrism.

Yet even if you were unconvinced by this, it is still not relevant.  See the answer to #20.

20.  Does it cause you any concern that you disagree with their interpretation of the Bible?
Even if I believed that historical Christians believed in geocentrism and geostationism, it would not be concerning or relevant because as a Catholic I do not believe that the Bible teaches matters of scientific fact, but that teaches facts on matters of faith and morals.  See #19 and #21.
21.   Did you spend any time studying the Bible’s verses on the topic before you felt comfortable believing that the earth revolves around the sun?
Just as in the case of # 17, this question has little meaning to me because while I am familiar with the Bible’s verses which are sometimes alleged to teach geocentrism, but I have also been aware since almost the beginning of my acceptance of Christianity that that they were not interpreted this way until certain Protestant groups did so in relatively modern times.  For example, there are many extant Scriptural commentaries from early Christianity, and to my knowledge none of them speak to any Scriptural passages as having anything to do with the physical motion of the Earth and/or the Sun.
22.  Do you know of any Christian writers before the 20th century who acknowledged that gay people must be celibate for life due to the church’s rejection of same-sex relationships?

In the early Church there were debates about whether or not all Christians were required to practice lifelong celibacy.  Even after it was settled that this was not the case, lifelong celibacy was still required in many parts of the Church for widows and widowers for some years, and when it was finally settled that this was unnecessary, celibacy was still promoted for centuries as the Christian ideal, and was always mandatory for western priests and for all bishops.  The We also see plenty of statements that those who are separated from their spouses – even if the separation is involuntary or unjust - must remain celibate for life.  In some places in early Christianity, marriages had to be approved by one’s bishop before they could be celebrated, and this permission was sometimes denied.

 This should be sufficient to answer the question, because it establishes that there is very much a tradition in Christian history holding at least some persons to mandatory celibacy, even when it is not voluntarily chosen.

To this, we can add the countless writers - many of the same who wrote of preferred or mandatory celibacy - who condemned homosexual relationships.  The understanding of a homosexual orientation as a fundamental reality to a person’s existence is of course relatively new.  Throughout most of Christian history, people simply didn’t understand it in this way, and so the writers who do condemn homosexuality tend to look at it as some kind of moral condition or disorder more than a psychological or biological reality.  They didn’t understand it as a lifelong intrinsic reality, and so expecting an explicit statement about lifelong celibacy is not reasonable in the same way that it would be unreasonable for an anti-vaxxer to ask for historic Christian statements on the morality of vaccinations because historic Christians had no concept of vaccines.

What would be more reasonable would be to look at the way that historic Christians viewed disease and medical treatment in general and then apply those principles to vaccinations in order to get a sense of what historic Christians would have thought about them.  In fact, the connections between lifelong celibacy for gay Christians and historic Christian writings are far, far more direct than the connections would be if looking for those pertaining to vaccines, or the internet, or carbon pollution, or any number of other things.

Quite simply, early and historic Christians unanimously believed that lifelong celibacy was a difficult but mandatory cross for any person who could for whatever reason not be in a legitimate marriage.  This includes gay couples, because they also unanimously believed that two persons of the same sex could not be in a legitimate marriage.
23.  If not, might it be fair to say that mandating celibacy for gay Christians is not a traditional position?
See #22.  Also, turn the question around and recognize that permitting marriage between members of the same sex is nor a traditional position. It is ultimately a self-defeating argument.
24.   Do you believe that the Bible explicitly teaches that all gay Christians must be single and celibate for life?
The Bible explicitly teaches that marriage is the union of a man and a woman.  It also explicitly teaches that celibacy is the only option for those who do not enter into marriage.  Therefore, by the laws of logic, it does explicitly teach that all gay Christians must be celibate for life.  If you are unsatisfied with this level of explicitness, it is worth noting that the Bible does not explicitly teach that God is Triune and consists of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  It does not explicitly teach what books make up the canon of the Bible itself.  It does not explicitly teach many things that all Christians unanimously believe.  Many of them are implicit or require exegesis.  See #25.
25.   If not, do you feel comfortable affirming something that is not explicitly affirmed in the Bible?
I am very comfortable affirming something that is not explicitly affirmed in the Bible.  As a Catholic, I believe that God reveals Himself through Scripture and through Sacred Tradition. Part of this Sacred Tradition is the very list of the Biblical Canon itself.
26.   Do you believe that the moral distinction between lust and love matters for LGBT people’s romantic relationships?
This question really gets to the heart of the issue.  Unfortunately, I am not going to try to invest a lot of time unpacking my answer because it would take far too much time.  For reference, I have a 700 page book on my bookshelf which just goes a tad below the surface of this idea.  What I will say is this:

As a Catholic, I believe that marital love is a total self-giving of one person to his or her spouse which admits to holding nothing back, whereas lust is any use of one’s sexuality whichdoes hold something back.  This includes giving one’s gift of fertility to the other.  This means that contraception or fellatio, for example, would constitute lust, for it would seek to receive some of the goods of sexuality while holding back the fertility of a person.  In the same way, two men or two women who engage sexually by their very nature cannot give their fertility to one another.  Rather, we are called to follow Christ’s words that it is the giving of one’s very life – of everything one has – to another which constitutes love.  Even when a person’s fertility is old or damaged and no longer functions, sexual intercourse between spouses can still offer it in whatever state it is in, in a way that homosexual orcontracepting relations cannot.

If you would like to learn more about this, look into the “Theology of the Body.”  There are many books, articles, and videos available to dig into it in far, far more depth than is possible here.

27.  Do you think that loving same-sex relationships should be assessed in the same way as the same-sex behavior Paul explicitly describes as lustful in Romans 1?
In one sense, yes, because homosexual behavior is intrinsically lustful as per the answer to #26.  However, there is another sense in which we can certainly acknowledge an important distinction between a committed same-sex couple and other lustful behavior.  Some Christians regard morality as having no place for degree or circumstances.  As a Catholic, I do not believe this.

So, for example, even though I regard all unmarried sex as a sin, sex between a committed but unmarried heterosexual couple is better than sex between a heterosexual couple in a one-night stand.  Both are gravely sinful, but in the case of the committed couple, there is present some additional good and right intention which is lacking in the one-night stand. Similarly, a man who steals a toy to give to his child is sinning, but it is still better than a man who steals something for himself.  In the same way, a committed homosexual couple would have some good that is lacking in a homosexual couple which met at a bar one night before having sex.  This goes back to the principle from # 12 that God can do good even in the midst of evil.
28.  Do you believe that Paul’s use of the terms “shameful” and “unnatural” in Romans 1:26-27 means that all same-sex relationships are sinful?
Yes.  In using the term unnatural, St. Paul goes beyond the specific situation in question and addresses the fundamental nature of same-sex sexual relation itself.  If one were to talk about something which was sinful in virtue of the circumstances rather than some intrinsic problem, then one would not use the term “unnatural.”  For example, nobody would call a man having sex with another man’s wife “unnatural,” even though it was sinful and lustful. 
29.  Would you say the same about Paul’s description of long hair in men as “shameful” and against “nature” in 1 Corinthians 11:14, or would you say he was describing cultural norms of his time?

He is making a statement about what is natural and unnatural just as in Romans, but we misunderstand it because of differences in cultural norms – so both, and neither!

There are two factors to consider here.  The first is that cultural norms are different as to just what constitutes long hair.  For example, based on a variety of Scripture passages it is likely that St. Paul himself wore hair that would be considered long for a man by today’s standards.   Jesus may have as well, if as some suggest he at some point took a Nazarite vow. Therefore, St. Paul is certainly not condemning as unnatural hair as one may see on some men today.  The second is that in this passage, St. Paul did not use the typical Greek word for hair, θριξ.  Rather, he used another word, κομάω, which seems to have referred in particular to a particular style of tresses worn by women.

In short, his point was that it is unnatural for men to make themselves look like women.   
30.  Do you believe that the capacity for procreation is essential to marriage?I would not use the term “capacity.”  Rather, I would say that marriage is ordered toward procreation.  Describing it the way you have in your question has an emphasis which is like saying that one wants to have a marriage and asking what the bare minimum requirements are to “get in,” whereas describing it the way that I have and that Catholic philosophers have tended to has an emphasis which is more about asking what marriage is for before deciding whether or not we want to enter into one.

Think of it like two different couples meeting with a pastor as to plan their wedding. One couple is asking the pastor, “If we get married, do we have to have kids?”  The second is asking, “If we want to have kids, should we get married?”  Big difference!
31.   If so, what does that mean for infertile heterosexual couples?
Not every instance of an act which is ordered toward some end has to actually achieve that end to maintain its purpose and ordering.  A batter swinging at a pitch may miss, but the act he is engaged in is still an act which is designed to hit the ball.  A little league batter may go up against a major league pitcher and have absolutely no chance to actually succeed, but his swinging of the bat is still the right thing to do at the plate.  On the other hand, a person who stood in the batter’s box grilling a steak wouldn’t be doing something ordered toward hitting the ball, nor would a .350 major league hitter swinging the bat while standing on third base.

An infertile or post-menopausal couple making love are still doing an act which is by its nature ordered toward procreation, even if in their case that act won’t actually procreate, just as are a fertile couple making love outside of the woman’s ovulatory period.  Of course, the little leaguer could, by the grace of God, manage to actually get a hit against the major league pitcher, and sometimes infertile or theoretically post-menopausal couples do in fact conceive.  
32.  How much time have you spent engaging with the writings of LGBT-affirming Christians like Justin Lee, James Brownson, and Rachel Murr
I am not familiar with these authors. However, I have read the works of LGBT Christians such as David Morrison, Eve Tushnet, and Steven Gershom, who oppose gay marriage.  I have also viewed documentaries like The Third Way or Desire of the Everlasting Hills (which gay friends tell me they think is better) featuring of gay Christians who oppose gay marriage. Have you?
33.  What relationship recognition rights short of marriage do you support for same-sex couples?
The same recognitions that any non-married persons have.  Notably, the recognition as human beings who deserve to be treated with love and respect.

34.  What are you doing to advocate for those rights?
I do not believe that there are many legal rights to advocate for, seeing as all non-married persons already have them.  That said, I will certainly speak out and, if necessary, take action against any persecution or hatred toward gay persons, as I would against persecution or hatred toward anybody.  I also make an effort to admonish fellow Christians and others who do not treat gay persons with love and respect any time the need arises.
35.  Do you know who Tyler Clementi, Leelah Alcorn, and Blake Brockington are, and did your church offer any kind of prayer for them when their deaths made national news?

Off the top of my head, I do not.  Of course, I could easily produce a list of names of persons who died from violence, persecution, or suicide who I am sure you would not know off the top of your head, either.  We unfortunately hear these kinds of stories every day on the news.  However, I can assure you that if I did at any time hear or read about their deaths that I prayed for them and their families, as I do for all deaths that I hear about, especially deaths that come from injustice.  I am also quite certain that the Catholic Church has offered prayers for them, as Catholic parishes regularly include public cases such as this in their prayer intentions.
36.   Do you know that LGBT youth whose families reject them are 8.4 times more likely to attempt suicide than LGBT youth whose families support them?No LGBT or any other person should suffer rejection from their families, whether their families agree with everything that they do or not.  I know Christian families who have had gay children and have made sure that those children feel loved.  This is the only approach acceptable for Christians.
37.  Have you vocally objected when church leaders and other Christians have compared same-sex relationships to things like bestiality, incest, and pedophilia?I would not vocally object to these kinds of comparisons, because these kinds of comparisons have their place.  Of course, I have also compared same-sex relationships to lesser sins that all of us fall into, such as lying and jealousy, in order to point out to people that we should not view people in same sex relationships as though they are the greatest sinners in the world as St. Paul does, after all, list them amidst things like jealousy.  I have most often compared them to heterosexual relationships involving pre or extramarital sex.

Noting similarities between two things is not the same thing as declaring moral equivalency between them.  In cases where people have compared same sex relationships to things like the practice of bestiality or the indulgence in pedophilia with the intention of creating a moral equivalency – that is, with the intention of saying that they are just as bad – I have objected.

I must note how in your question you talk about the act of participating in same sex relationships while you talk about the inclination to pedophilia.  This is an important distinction because most Christians who oppose same sex marriage would accept that gay persons are not be responsible for their sexual orientation (as per #1), just as pedophiles are not responsible for their pedophilia.  Both are responsible for their actions alone.
38.  How certain are you that God’s will for all gay Christians is lifelong celibacy?Completely. It is not an easy calling, but we are all called to carry our crosses.  Some of our crosses can be extremely difficult, but God's grace is sufficient, and we have a God who suffered for and with us, and provides an answer to our suffering in the form of Himself on the cross.

39.  What do you think the result would be if we told all straight teenagers in the church that if they ever dated someone they liked, held someone’s hand, kissed someone, or got married, they would be rebelling against God?Such an approach would likely prompt either a very negative or a very apathetic response.  In fact, this is the result that we tend to see in the Church when we tell not only teens, but just about everyone else about any moral issue.  People do not like to hear moral admonitions, and they generally react angrily or with apathy towards the faith. In the general Christian community it is only a select few who are willing to bear all of the crosses that life gives to them.

The difference, of course, is that one’s sexuality is an incredibly integral part – indeed, from a Catholic point of view, the integral part – of the human person.  This means that approaching this particular issue in a callous way would have much, much stronger, painful, and harmful results.  There is no question that same sex attraction and the call to lifelong celibacy is a cross – and a very difficult one to bear.

This is why, for example, the Catholic Church (and many other Christian churches) approach this issue not by speaking about what God forbids, but about the gift of integral sexuality that God calls us to.  We speak about what God has to give us, and the calling to goodness that it is.  Ministries such as Courage, an international organization of and for homosexual Catholics trying to live out Christ’s call to celibacy and sexual integrity are extremely important.  Did you know that it exists?
40.  Are you willing to be in fellowship with Christians who disagree with you on this topic?If by this you mean to ask whether I am willing to have personal Christian fellowship with them, the answer is of course.  If you mean maintain a communion of Churches, the answer is more complicated, but it is not limited to gay marriage.  The Catholic Church does not consider itself to be in communion with Churches which disagree onany issue.  However, they will of course maintain a positive relationship with such communities. 

Monday, October 13, 2014

Synod's First Document: We Must Meet and Lead the Wounded to the Fullness of Christian Living

After a long week of speculation and, among more conservative Catholics, some trepidation, the first "official" document from this year's Extraordinary Synod on the Family  is finally here.  Suffice it to say, there is a lot of reaction and analysis already out there, and we'll continue to get more daily for the foreseeable future.

In general, the document is encouraging.  There is a lot of good in it.  While we will see a lot of point by point analysis over the coming days, the most important thing to take from it is that the bishops want to encourage a gradual approach to leading those in difficult family situations into the faith.  This has been somewhat expected, as what little information the public was getting out of the synod during the first week was that gradualism had become a very popular topic of conversation among the bishops.  Not unjustly, concerns were raised that this may signal the return of a somewhat dissident idea, condemned by Pope St. John Paul II in the encyclical Familiaris Consortio (34), that God's law could be applied at different levels to different people because of their circumstances.  Fortunately for those so concerned, the document actually references John Paul's very condemnation of the idea and seems instead to suggest the view of gradualism promoted by the sainted pope.

In fact, this "law of gradualism" is ultimately the very theme of the entire document, finding its expression in virtually every paragraph.  The synod fathers are saying this: when a person is living a lifestyle that has fallen short of the teachings of Christ and the Church, it does no good to point out his sin and move on.  On a human level it makes the person suffer and feel excluded, and on a divine level it does nothing to lead the person closer to Christ and to living a moral lifestyle.  Rather, we must go out to meet the person where he is at (like the father in the parable of the prodigal son) and from that standpoint try to lead him away from sin and into the fullness of living Christ's teaching.  

Some may be concerned that this would be an implicit softening of the Church's stance against sin, but this concern is unfounded.  It's very foundation is the very Catholic and very traditional idea that sin darkens the mind and enslaves us, along with the also deeply Catholic notion that the concrete human circumstances of our lives have a profound impact on our spiritual lives.  A couple cohabiting stably for 3 years with a daughter very likely do not have any ability to meaningfully understand the Church's reasons for rejecting this lifestyle as moral, and their basic needs of paying the bills, putting food on the table, and caring for a young child make it very difficult for them to see a way to make radical moral changes even if they can begin to really grasp the importance of Christ's teaching on the matter.  Instead of telling such people that they are in sin and acting as though our job is done, we must accompany them along what is often a very long path towards Christ, meeting them where they are at and helping to move them to the fullness of Christian morals.

This idea is not new.  It's the very essence of evangelization.  The Jesuits who first brought the gospel to Central America in the 16 and 1700s did not make landfall and immediately begin pointing out the problems with the natives' marriages.  They began by introducing these new peoples to Jesus and gradually inviting them to conform their lives to him.  St. Paul did not preach to the Greeks an all or nothing Gospel; he began by presenting Christ in the context of their own experience and inviting them to see in him the fulfillment of their own spiritual beliefs.  The author to the Hebrews clearly took a similar approach, providing for his audience first "milk" before expecting them to be capable of taking "solid food."  Indeed, it's how even very traditional and conservative Catholic commentators and clerics encourage the laity to evangelize today: invite friends to Mass, be open to answering their questions, preach by example, don't push too hard, etc.

While the concept is certainly an old one, I do think its an area that many very faithful Catholics have as a bit of a blind spot today.  We see such sin and disregard for Christ and the faith of the Church all around us that we tend to lock down very hard against it - sometimes at the expense of being willing to allow Christ to lead lost souls to him in his own time.  Put another way, in a world which lives so little of the Lord's teachings we're so concerned with making sure everybody knows and follows what he has taught that we often forget that we need to help a great many people even care what he has taught in the first place - not to mention helping them realize that he cares about them.  Ultimately, that's what the synod fathers are calling us to do.

That doesn't mean that any process of building up a Church-wide attitude of leading people gradually will go smoothly.  I suspect that it will be similar to the process of implementing the teachings of the Second Vatican Council - which may scare many.  Ultimately, the degree to which an approach like this can be faithful has a lot to do with the faithfulness and dedication of the priests and bishops implementing it.  A faithful and tireless priest encouraged to approach things this way will be able to shepherd many souls to Christ.  On the other hand, dissident or more poorly formed priests will find it very easy to use such practice as an excuse to teach people that it is OK to live outside of Church teaching.  Fortunately, it is well established that the priesthood seems to be emerging from the crisis of the past, with more and more faithful priests being ordained each year.  As always, pray for our priests!

That said, the only truly concerning part of the document is truly concerning because it seems to suggest a widespread misunderstanding of mercy that I have written about previously.  At the end of the first part of the document, we read this very confused statement: "This requires that the doctrine of the faith, the basic content of which should be made increasingly better known, be proposed alongside with mercy."  Thoughtful readers will immediately see the problem.  In suggesting that the doctrine of the faith be presented "alongside" mercy, the it is implied that mercy is somehow not a part of the doctrine of the faith.  This is troubling in many ways.  First, the doctrine of the faith is mercy in its essence.  It is rife with mercy.  It is all about mercy.  Each and every teaching of the Church is nothing less than a declaration of mercy.  To riff on St. Paul, it is mercy to teach that divorce and remarriage is wrong because if not for the law, I would not have known it wrong.  It is also mercy because within that declaration of remarriages moral character is the ever-present offer of forgiveness.  More troubling, though, is a clear and glaring gnostic sense: God's traditional teaching is severe, but the Church must express Christ's "new message" of mercy.  

In any case, it's important to realize that this relatio, as its called, is nothing more than a summary of what's been discussed by the bishops.  It doesn't teach anything, it has no decisions, and it has no real binding weight of any kind.  What it does do is relay a general sense of the way that the bishops at the synod are thinking.  How are they thinking?  They are thinking about reaching out to people who have not lived up to Christ's teachings and trying to walk with them along a path back to fully embracing them.  This is good.  The synod, the discussion, and the spiritual battle are not over yet, however.  Continue to pray ever more fervently for the Spirit to Guide the Church into the way of salvation!

Friday, October 10, 2014

The Extraordinary Synod, Justice and Mercy

As the extraordinary synod on the family presses forward this week, one theme has emerged as clearly predominant: that of the balancing of justice and mercy. From the writing of bloggers, journalists, and priests to comments given by numerous bishops who are actually participating in the synod, it has taken center stage as the great conundrum of the gathering.

God is perfectly just and perfectly merciful at one and the same time, so it is repeated again and again, but we are only human and so have a much more difficult time trying to uphold the teachings of Christ on marriage while being merciful to those who have failed to live up to them.  Because the Church's current practice of denying Communion to such persons is seen as emphasizing justice, those posing the question suggest we have a good grasp on justice. Incorporating mercy into the picture is said to be a much more difficult task because it seems to oppose justice.

But there is in fact absolutely no difficulty or challenge to this question.  None whatsoever.

In fact, the question suggests that many do not seem to understand justice as well as they think. In justice, God recognizes sin and holds people accountable for it.  What he does not do is unwaveringly hold a sin against a person who has turned from it.  Unfortunately, this is most often our human approach. A person who kills another is forever known as a "murderer," even if he should regret his crime and never commit the evil again. During the priestly sex abuse scandals, some priests confessed to years' old sins, declared that they had repented and not perpetrated in decades, and resigned as active ministers to go live alone in a spirit of penance. Protesters followed them to their new homes to ensure that they would never be free of hearing condemnation. Countless other examples, both as serious and less important, could easily be pulled from the life of any one of us.  Fortunately, his ways are not our ways, and so in God justice means that while sin is indeed addressed, it is not held stubbornly against a person without end - even in the tiniest of ways.

In mercy, God forgives those who have recognized sin and decided to turn from it freely and without exception. He requires no atonement before he will forgive (Jesus has already made the atonement in any case), he does not wait for the sinner to be perfect, and he even reaches out to those in sin to offer them forgiveness before they ask for it or even realize that they need it. However, he does not ignore or neglect ongoing sin.  On the contrary, he does everything that he can to lead us out of that sin and away from the darkness that it brings.  

So we see that just because God holds people accountable for sin, it doesn't mean he eternally and unwaveringly does so to those who try to sin no more. In fact, virtually nobody involved with the synod would question this fact - even the most left wing bishop or even a Unitarian would readily agree with the notion.  That question so ubiquitous in discussion of this synod is concerned with squaring this truth with mercy.  However, in exactly the same way that God's justice is concerned with whether a person ceases to sin, just because God forgives sins it doesn't mean that he doesn't hold people accountable for ongoing and persistent sin.  The concept is precisely the same: both God's mercy and his justice by their very nature take into account what a person is doing now regardless of what a person may have done in the past.

When we look at it from his perspective,  we begin to see that justice and mercy are in no way opposed, but complement and, if we may put it as such, have an a symbiotic relationship to one another. They make one another possible. Because in justice God holds us accountable for sin, his mercy can meaningfully pardon that sin.  Because in mercy God moves on from past sins of the repentant, his justice can be concerned with the reality of a person's present state rather than a past which does not define the person.  This is precisely why many of the saints and great theologians declared that in God justice and mercy are not separate;  they have often been described as two sides of the same coin. Indeed, in Aquinas' theology God is perfectly simple, meaning he has no "parts" but all of his characteristics are identifiable with one another. His love IS his truth, his truth IS his mercy, his mercy IS his justice. It fits pretty well with the Scripture's teaching that God is love and that God is truth and that God is life, etc, doesn't it?

To bring this down to that great attention-grabbing issue of the synod, what does this mean for divorced and remarried Catholics?  It means that the Church can very easily know how to be both just and merciful in these tragic situations. Invite those in marriages which contradict Jesus' teachings to try to live by those teachings. Do not allow a person's past sins to define him but look to his ongoing choice to sin or to strive after Christ. Indeed, one of the most common complaints from married and divorced Catholics has been that they feel as though they are defined by one mistake in the past.  Calling these people to live in continence with "second spouses" would, if done with a good explanation, help them to feel and understand that the Church does not care what they did then and that an effort to reject grave sin now is what matters. This would be perfectly just and merciful, as God is.  Of course, other than what truly is a dire need for more outreach and education for those in irregular marriages, this is largely how the Church currently practices.

I would suggest, then, that the real question is not how to balance justice with mercy - or even doctrine with pastoral care when we realize that in these conversations "pastoral" usually means "merciful" and "doctrine" is usually what people have meant when they have said "justice." Rather, the question is that age old question of how to bear the Cross that discipleship in Christ brings. To live in accord with Christ's teachings on marriage will bring suffering to the divorced and remarried - great suffering.  On a human level, this is something none of us wants to put on another person.  It is also true that telling remarried couples that their marriages are invalid makes them feel excluded and hurt. These cases even tug on the heartstrings of those who minister to these people, as not a few bishops have explicitly lamented over this past week of the synod.  The reason we find this all so difficult is not that the question of mercy and justice is complicated.  No, it is because the question is so simple that we know our answer to it must be to lay crosses onto the shoulders of our brothers and sisters whom we love.

There is great suffering here, and helping to shepherd and support and accompany people through it must be a key topic - the key topic - of discussion at the synod. I hope and pray that the bishops realize this and can improve the Church's efforts in this. We must all become Simon of Cyrenes in helping to bear the crosses of our once fallen brothers and sisters - but crosses which they must bear and which lead to redemption.  It would be the most important thing they could hope to do these few weeks!

Yet the profound difficulty of this question must not be confused with the very simple question of how mercy and justice relate. The great preacher and likely eventual blessed and saint Fulton Sheen famously said that any theology which attempts to skip Good Friday to get to the Resurrection, that is, any theology which rejects suffering in favor of an easier resolution, is a sign of Satan's work.  Let us pray that the synod fathers may realize that they must not step a foot down that road.