A Note on Courage and Language

One of the most consistent criticisms of Spiritual Friendship by those associated with Courage has been our use of language, particularly the word “gay.” One of the earliest criticisms was Dan Mattson’s July, 2012 First Things article, “Why I Don’t Call Myself A Gay Christian.” This article launched Mattson’s career as one of the most visible spokesmen for Courage, until they parted ways in January.

Why I don't call myself gay

The criticism which has frequently been directed our way, by Mattson and others who speak for Courage, is that by using the word “gay,” we were making our sexuality the defining aspect of our identity. We have explained that this is not our intent on numerous occasions (see below for further examples).

I recently read Courage founder Fr. John Harvey’s 2007 pamphlet, Same Sex Attraction: Catholic Teaching and Pastoral Practice [PDF], and thought the following paragraph shed valuable light on the rather absurd mentality behind Courage’s critique:

The time has come, however, to refine our use of the term homosexual. A much better term than “homosexual person” is the following: a person with same-sex attractions. The distinction is not merely academic. Instead of referring to “homosexual persons,” which implicitly makes homosexuality the defining quality of the people in question, we can put things in clearer perspective by referring to men and women with same-sex attraction. A person, after all, is more than a bundle of sexual inclinations, and our thinking about same-sex attraction (hereafter SSA) is clouded when we start to think of “homosexuals” as a separate kind of human being. “The human person, made in the image and likeness of God, can hardly be adequately described by a reductionist reference to his or her sexual orientation . . . every person has a fundamental identity: the creature of God and by grace, His child and heir to eternal life” (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Letter on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons, 1986, no. 16)

This criticism illustrates, I think, just how radical Courage’s view of language is, and how far it has departed from the language of the Church itself.

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Agapáo and Philéo by the Sea of Tiberias

In today’s Gospel (from John 21), we heard the story of Jesus’ third post-resurrection appearance to His disciples. Simon Peter and six other disciples were on a boat in the Sea of Tiberias. They had been fishing all night, and caught nothing. At daybreak, Jesus called to them from the shore, and asked if they had caught anything (they did not recognize him). When they replied that they had not, He told them to cast the net on the other side of the boat. They did so, and pulled up so many fish they could not get the net into the boat.

The disciples then recognized Jesus, and Peter jumped out of the boat and swam about a hundred yards to shore. The others brought the boat to shore, where they pulled 153 large fish out of the net, which they then cooked over a charcoal fire.

Tiberias

After breakfast, Peter and Jesus had a conversation which raises an interesting question about how to understand the verbs for love—agapáo and philéo—used in the original Greek.

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Benedict XVI and the Natural Law

Several friends have asked me questions about Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s recent essay on “The Church and the Scandal of Sexual Abuse,” which has led to a few conversations about various aspects of the document. Since these issues may be of interest to others, I have decided to share some of what I said more widely.

Benedict XVI

Some of these questions—which I will address in future posts—concern controversial issues that I want to research and polish more carefully before sharing. The first, however, which I will address in this post, concerns a relatively non-controversial question about what Benedict said about the natural law: “Until the Second Vatican Council, Catholic moral theology was largely founded on natural law, while Sacred Scripture was only cited for background or substantiation.”

A friend commented:

I agree that, in a sense, Greek philosophy provided a foundation for Catholic moral theology, but Benedict seems to be suggesting that Scripture just played a secondary role of providing a sort of support if things went sideways or if Greek philosophy needed further justification, as if Catholic moral theology is synonymous with non-Scriptural “natural law.” Or am I misunderstanding?

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Notes for Calvin College Talk

Ron Justin

I will be speaking this evening at Calvin College, in dialogue with my friend Justin Lee, about same-sex marriage in the Church.

Because of the limits of the format, we had to talk about Christian teaching about homosexuality in broad brush strokes, giving the overall picture, but not addressing a lot of details. However, I have written a lot about these topics over the years, and this post will help point interested readers in the right direction.

Back in 2003, Justin invited me to write an essay defending the traditional view that marriage is only between a man and a woman, and he wrote a companion essay arguing that same-sex unions are compatible with Christian belief. They were published online together as The Great Debate.

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Translating “Disinterested Friendship”

If you search for the phrase “disinterested friendship” online, many of the articles you will find are attempts to explain paragraph 2359 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which lists “disinterested friendship” as one of the sources of support for homosexual persons seeking to live chaste lives.

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The main difficulty is that, in English, the term “disinterested” can have two meanings. Most often, it means, “not interested, indifferent.” In a friendship that was “disinterested” (in this sense), friends wouldn’t care much for each other or for the friendship. But the older—and now rarer meaning—is “unbiased by personal interest or advantage; not influenced by selfish motives.” A few scans of 19th Century texts turn up in the search results, using the phrase “disinterested friendship” in this older, more positive sense.

The Catechism uses this older meaning of “disinterested,” as I showed in an older post that examined other uses of the word  in the Catechism. I concluded, based on the way the word was used in other paragraphs, that:

There is no reason that disinterested friendship should not delight in praising a friend. Disinterested friendship can be reciprocal and generous. There is no reason it should not be tender, forgiving, respectful, faithful, like a parent’s love for her child, or a child’s care for a dying parent. It is disinterested friendship because it has no selfish agenda. In the context of 2359, this would particularly forbid any sexual agenda. But to interpret this as calling for friends who are distant, uninterested, not concerned, or indifferent would do violence to the meaning of the word found in other contexts in the Catechism, and make no sense in the context of paragraph 2359. How would friends who are uninterested or indifferent provide the kind of support 2359 envisions?

Since the English phrase “disinterested friendship” seemed so ill-suited for communicating its intended meaning, I decided to explore the connotation of the corresponding phrase, “amitié désintéressée” in French, the language in which the Catechism was originally drafted. I thought this would help to understand what the drafters of the Catechism had in mind, and add to the analysis in my previous post.

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An Honest Question for Denny Burk and His Calvinist Friends

Denny Burk

In response to a tweet calling my recent Public Discourse article defending Spiritual Friendship and Revoice “the single most helpful, most thought provoking, and most clear thing” from the Spiritual Friendship perspective, Denny Burk tweeted in reply,

I agree. And I would add that Belgau has many other thoughtful articles on these themes on the Spiritual Friendship website as does Wesley Hill. There are still important differences between us, but I appreciate the thoughtful engagement here.

In light of recent controversies, I genuinely appreciate this acknowledgement, even though differences remain.

In an effort to explore at least one dimension of those remaining differences in a—hopefully!—thoughtful and charitable way, I want to ask Denny—and his associates like Albert Mohler, Owen Strachan, and Colin Smothers—a question about how Calvinists should view the sanctification of friendship in this life, in cases of ongoing struggle with the desire for homosexual sex.

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Am I a Sinner Saved by Grace?

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Public Discourse just published an article in which I make a major defense of Spiritual Friendship and the Revoice Conference. In this post, I want to focus on a point that Albert Mohler—president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Boyce College—made in his recent briefing on the Revoice Conference:

But finally, as we try our best to think compassionately and clearly about these issues, I think we have to turn to a text such as First Corinthians chapter 6, verse 11, where Paul writes: “And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” Now in First Corinthians 6 as in Romans chapter 1, Paul mentions specific sins, but by implication, he is indicting the entire human race. But speaking of our identity as sinners saved by grace, he says, “Such were some of you,” and then uses the language of being washed, sanctified, justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. It can’t be an accident, and we must not miss the power of that verb tense: “such were some of you.”

That’s not just a message for those who’ve organized and will be attending the Revoice Conference. That’s a word for every single Christian all the time.

I am puzzled.

The claim that we must speak of all sins and struggles with sin in the past tense is a surprising position for the leading Calvinist in the Southern Baptist Convention to take. In “Is Homosexual Orientation Sinful?” [pdf], Mohler’s protégé Denny Burk quoted John Calvin:

We hold that there is always sin in the saints, until they are freed from their mortal frame, because depraved concupiscence resides in their flesh, and is at variance with rectitude.

There’s no past tense to struggles with sin there, unless you’re in Heaven—in which case, I assume you are not listening to Mohler’s briefings or reading my blog: you have a better Source of instruction readily available.

The claim is also puzzling, because this insistence on the past tense comes in what Mohler says is a discussion of “our identity as sinners saved by grace.” But if we are not sinners, but only were sinners, then it makes no sense to speak of “sinner” as part of our present identity.

It’s important to pay attention to the last two sentences. Mohler’s argument here goes far deeper than just saying that he thinks it would be wiser for me to say, “I am a Christian who struggles with same-sex attraction,” rather than to say, “I’m a celibate gay Christian.” He’s making a much larger claim about the verb tenses which “every single Christian all the time” should use for talking about their struggles with temptation and sin.

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A Note on Eve Tushnet and Theology of the Body

Eve Tushnet recently wrote a post titled, “Catholic People’s Histories, Gay People’s Futures.” In a brief aside, she said that the Theology of the Body “is so beautiful and so unaccommodating to me, though that’s a very provisional assessment since I’ve only read the addresses once.”

A prominent Catholic writer and academic shared her post on Facebook, and another Catholic writer commented, “Her love for God and the Church is edifying and a sign of hope, as it should be. Same with her love of beauty and fine art. But her comment about ToB is telling—Anthropology remains the obstacle. Reality can be ‘unaccommodating’ to one who has other commitments.”

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Of course, Eve is free to clarify her meaning however she likes. (I would note that reading the Theology of the Body—even only once—is more than most Catholics have done; Eve is not criticizing out of complete ignorance here.) As someone who has spent a lot of time studying the Theology of the Body, I would like to make a couple of points.

To begin with, in the context of Eve’s article, it makes no sense to suppose that the accommodation she wants is support for same-sex marriage, or any similar revision of the Church’s moral teaching. As her first sentence proclaims, the article is about “orthodox gay people, seeking to live in obedience to the Church.” So what might Eve mean when she says that Theology of the body is “unaccommodating” to her? Continue reading

Tish Harrison Warren: True Love Dies

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In Christianity Today, Tish Harrison Warren writes about this year’s juxtaposition of Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day:

In John 15, Jesus said that the greatest form of love is to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. Strikingly, he holds up the highest ideal of love as friendship, not erotic love. And, perhaps more shockingly, the highest form of love is not “happily ever after,” but love that results in suffering and death for your friends.

I have a number of very close friends who are celibate, which inevitably entails some degree of loneliness, grief, and suffering. They have chosen to forestall some happiness, in the short-term at least. The false promise of Valentine’s Day—that life begins and ends with finding your romantic “soulmate” —is radically rejected by my friends’ decision to embrace celibacy. And yet, it’s not all doom and gloom and solitary sadness for them, because their choice is born of love and conviction, and though there are days of very real sorrow and pain, they also experience profound joy. Through both suffering and joy, my friends witness to the wonder and glory of friendship with God and also to the friendship and love of a community.

Many married couples, too, if they’re honest, will confess that they have also faced long stretches of catastrophic loneliness—times when they sat on a marriage counselor’s couch, white-knuckling their wedding vows, times when divorce seemed the happiest of all bad options—and yet they remained in the marriage. If marital love is to last, it will inevitably require the couple to lay down their lives for each other.

Jesus goes on to say, “You are my friends if you do whatever I command you” (John 15). Amidst the howling loneliness found both in marriage and celibacy, we face a kind of death born of obedience. Married and celibate Christians face different types of loneliness, yet they somehow match one another. Each calling lends its own joys, and each calling demands suffering. Each reveals the hope and redemption of the God of love, and each will require us to cling to him for dear life.

Image credit: J. McGuire, taken from Christianity Today article.