In a moving video, Pope Francis speaks about Christian unity to an American Pentecostal conference. He expresses his joy that that the conference attendees have come together to worship God, and speaks movingly of the simple grammar of the language of the heart: love God, love our neighbor.
“How then shall we live?”
In every culture, human beings must face and find answers to this question. However, there is no single, universally shared language and or set of categories for thinking about the question. Instead, each culture develops its own—more or less adequate—way of thinking and speaking about how we ought to act toward each other.
Recent discussions of the language of sexual identity have gotten me thinking about a more general question: how should thinking Christians engage with moral questions generally in a culture, like our own, that has confused and poorly constructed moral categories? (I apologize in advance for a very philosophical post.)
In After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre argued against the various conceptual frameworks for understanding morality that emerged from the enlightenment, arguing that they had to fail. The key problem he identifies with post-enlightenment approaches to morality is the rejection of teleology.
Over at Christ and Pop Culture, Martyn Jones has posted an in-depth interview with our own Wesley Hill. A brief sample:
The main thing I want to try to communicate is this: We have to resist equating celibacy with loneliness. I wrote an essay once about being gay, Christian, and lonely, and a blogger picked it up and said, basically, “I was in the same boat once when I was a young man. And then love broke in….” Notice the dichotomy: single and lonely, or partnered and able to experience love.
But what if those aren’t our only choices? What if that’s a false dichotomy? What if, instead, celibacy could be seen as an occasion for love? What if choosing sexual abstinence doesn’t automatically equate to choosing isolation and repression? What if joining a parish community as a single person could be seen as a choice for close-knit familial bonds? Those are the questions I want us all to be thinking about.
Only the truth can set anyone free.
When I was twenty-one, I talked with a pastor about my sexuality for the first time. It was the pastor of my parents’ Southern Baptist Church, and in the course of our conversation, he told me about a man in the church who had been gay, but now was married and had children. He presented this as what I could hope for if I, too, pursued marriage.
However, I happened to know his wife’s side of the story. They had been married eleven years. During that entire time, he had been addicted to gay porn, and was regularly unfaithful to her on business trips. All this was going on during the height of the AIDS epidemic, before any effective treatments had been discovered. After years of forgiving repeated—and potentially deadly—infidelities, she was seeking a divorce. The pastor knew of this, because he insisted that as a Christian wife, it was her duty to keep forgiving her husband, and “not to deprive him” of his “conjugal rights”—despite the potentially deadly consequences.
Eve is correct, it seems to me, that gay Christians who are unafraid to tell the world — and the Church — what their journey of faith looks like, and to seek to join the life of the Church fully, in accord with what the Church knows to be true about human sexuality, are not only pioneers, but a blessing to the entire Church.
By “Church,” I mean the church universal, not just the Catholic church. When I converted to Catholicism in the early 1990s, I knew that I had to accept the Catholic Church’s teaching on sexuality. This meant that I could not live as I had been living before. I had to be chaste until marriage — and if it was not my calling to marry, I had to be chaste for the rest of my life. This was non-negotiable. In fact, I had tried to negotiate it when I was in college, and wanted to be a Christian without giving my entire self to God. I wanted fiercely to protect my sexual freedom. But it just doesn’t work that way. You cannot give yourself partly to Christ. It’s all or nothing. Unsurprisingly, my attempt to negotiate the terms of my surrender to God created within me an ersatz religion that had no power to bind me, and no power to inspire me. It was just psychological comfort, with smells and bells.
Anyway, by the time I converted for real, I knew that the greatest test I would face early in my walk as a Christian was to be faithful to Christ in all things, not just the things that came easy for me. I found very little help in the official Church, and, understandably, no help from my non-Christian or liberal Christian friends, who loved me, but thought I was a weirdo. I especially cherished the companionship of two gay Catholic friends, men who were close to me, who were walking the same walk, though theirs was made more difficult by the fact that they could never hope to be married, unless something absolutely extraordinary happened. Their walk was also harder because while fellow straights looked at me as an eccentric, the gay community looked upon them as traitors.
Yet they staggered on, rejoicing. It was an inspiration to me. It turned out that our common struggle to be chaste in an eroticized, de-Christianized culture like ours was something that deepened our friendship. It made me feel less alone in the Church and in the world.
In a new article in The American Conservative, our own Eve Tushnet explores the challenges we face, how our presence is changing the culture of our churches, and what gifts we have to offer.
For many Catholics of my parents’ generation, the dramatic shift in social attitudes about homosexuality and the new visibility of gay and lesbian people in the media and popular culture is troubling.
Despite their discomfort with a changing culture, however, most older Catholics have been through enough struggles in their own life to want to extend grace and to give space to those with different struggles. But when the struggle is same sex attraction, they are unsure how to welcome people while remaining true to their beliefs. This is especially difficult in a culture where merely expressing traditionally Christian beliefs about the sinfulness of gay sex can trigger accusations of bigotry and comparisons with the KKK.
Given all of this, it’s not surprising that many are unsure how to respond to younger Catholics who speak openly about their sexual orientation, but pledge fidelity to Church teaching. Eve’s article, however, may go a long way toward helping them to understand us a little better.
What gay Christians most yearn for, she writes, is a vision of what our futures might look like. After a touching reflection on the role of the cross in our lives, Tushnet concludes,
We’re often ashamed to admit that we suffer. It’s humiliating and it makes us feel like we’re not good enough Christians. This is bizarre since there are very few aspects of Jesus’ own internal life that we know as much about as His suffering. Jesus—unmarried, marginalized, misunderstood, a son and a friend but not a father or spouse—is the preeminent model for gay Christians. In this, as in so many things, we are just like everybody else.
This is only a brief taste of a rich feast. Check out the whole thing.
During the debate over Galileo, some theologians appealed to verses of Scripture to “prove” that Galileo’s sun-centered model of the solar system could not be correct. For example, Psalm 93:1 says, ”the world is established; it shall never be moved.” Along with 1 Chronicles 16:30, Psalm 96:10, and Psalm 104:5, this was taken to show that Galileo’s claim that the earth moved around the sun was contrary to the teaching of the Scriptures. Ecclesiastes 1:5, which says, “The sun rises and the sun goes down, and hastens to the place where it rises,” was interpreted to show that the sun does move. Taken together, these were thought by some to provide a conclusive biblical refutation of Galileo’s heliocentric arguments.
The problem with this kind of interpretation is that these interpreters were mistaking phenomenological language, which describes appearances, with ontological language, which tells us about things as they really are. The sun does appear to rise and set, but this is caused by the earth’s rotation, and not by the motion of the sun. The earth appears fixed and immovable, but in fact, it rotates on its axis and revolves around the sun.
One of the most persistent mistakes made by critics of Spiritual Friendship is the assumption that when we use any language that they don’t like (most commonly, though not limited to, the word “gay”) to describe our experiences, we are using that language to make ontological claims.
Over on his blog, Mark Shea attempts to answer a reader’s question about LGBT people “defining themselves” by their sexuality. After recognizing that some people (heterosexuals included) do, in fact, make their sexuality the most defining characteristic of their lives, there is a difference between acknowledging one’s sexuality and being defined by it:
We should, however, be cautious about assuming that simply because somebody frankly acknowledges that they are gay that they are making it the central fact of their life. I know any number of gay folk who live in fidelity to the Church’s moral teaching, but who don’t shy away from saying frankly that they are gay, that their appetites are what they are, and that this does not mean they have to indulge those appetites. I think this is simply being honest, as when an alcoholic says frankly that he has a disordered attraction to alcohol or a glutton is frank about his tendency to desire to eat too much. I think that some Catholics, uncomfortable with so much as hearing aboutthis particular disordered appetite can be swift to shush all discussion as “defining oneself by one’s sexuality” in the way a teetotaling fundamentalist tries to declare all discussion of alcohol sinful.
I think this is unwise since it communicates to the faithful homosexual that it’s not enough for him to be obedient to Holy Church. He has to repent even his temptations. The Church does not tie up for us the heavy burden of guilt for our temptations, only our sins. Indeed, the Church tells us that when we meet the challenge of our temptations with obedience we are being virtuous and our Father is pleased with us. No small part of why homosexuals get the message that God hates them is this curious double standard, reserved only for them, which says that when a heterosexual resists the temptation to commit fornication or adultery, he is a heroic saint, but when a homosexual successfully resists temptation he is still guilty of feeling tempted and must not speak of it lest he incur the charge of “defining himself by his sexuality”. I think that is a perfect formula for inducing despair in the homosexual who genuinely wishes to follow Christ.
One of the minor injustices of Martin Luther King’s legacy is that he was such a good speaker that he is often remembered more for moments of soaring oratory, (“I have a dream, today!”) than for the quality of his mind and the clarity of his arguments. The following excerpt from his April 16, 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail” illustrates that he was not only a powerful speaker: he is also a first-rate thinker. Indeed, a case could be made (though I do not make it here) that King is the most significant figure in twentieth century American discourse about the Natural Law.
The central point of King’s argument, which he takes from Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, is that there is a law higher than human law, and that any human law which is at odds with this higher law is unjust. All human beings are bound to obey the higher law, and thus are bound to obey human laws which are in harmony with this higher law; but, for the same reason, they are bound to disobey laws which conflict with the higher law.
The letter was written in response to a “A Call for Unity” published April 12, 1963 by a group of white Birmingham clergy, criticizing the protests led by Rev. King and local African American leaders.
One of the things that I have long admired and tried to emulate about Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. is his care to respond non-violently to those who attacked him, at to teach his followers to do the same. He was not passive in the face of evil, but his goal was always to convert those who treated him evilly, not to respond in kind, and not to try to destroy them as they had tried to destroy him.
I thought it would be appropriate, in celebration of the Martin Luther King holiday, to offer the advice King gave at the end of the Montgomery bus boycott for thought and meditation.
On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white bus rider. Within days, the black community in Montgomery decided to organize a boycott of the city buses, to protest the discriminatory treatment of black bus riders. Initially intended to last only a few days, the boycott lasted over a year, until the Supreme Court ruled that segregation on buses was unconstitutional, and integrated bus service began on December 20, 1956.