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.

Benedict XVI: Do Not Be Afraid of Friendship with Christ

Pope Benedixt XVI

On February 11, 2013 Pope Benedict XVI announced that he would resign the Papacy. Last week, I shared a reflection on friendship Benedict shared in 2011, on the sixtieth anniversary of his ordination. Today, in honor of the fifth anniversary of his resignation, I offer another reflection on friendship with Christ, this taken from his 2005 homily marking his installation as the Bishop of Rome:

Are we not perhaps all afraid in some way? If we let Christ enter fully into our lives, if we open ourselves totally to him, are we not afraid that He might take something away from us? Are we not perhaps afraid to give up something significant, something unique, something that makes life so beautiful? Do we not then risk ending up diminished and deprived of our freedom? And once again the Pope said: No! If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great. No! Only in this friendship are the doors of life opened wide. Only in this friendship is the great potential of human existence truly revealed. Only in this friendship do we experience beauty and liberation. And so, today, with great strength and great conviction, on the basis of long personal experience of life, I say to you, dear young people: Do not be afraid of Christ! He takes nothing away, and he gives you everything. When we give ourselves to him, we receive a hundredfold in return. Yes, open, open wide the doors to Christ – and you will find true life. Amen.

Benedict XVI on Friendship with Christ

Benedict XVI blessing a child in Zagreb, Croatia

On Tuesday, Pope emeritus Benedict XVI sent a letter to an Italian newspaper. In response to a question about his well-being, Benedict wrote of the “slow waning” of his physical strength, and spoke with hope of his “pilgrimage toward home.”

“It’s a great grace, in this last, at times tiring, stage of my journey, to be surrounded by a love and goodness that I could have never imagined,” he wrote.

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An Important Translation Issue

An important passage* in the 1986 Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons was translated into English as follows:

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 one living on the face of the earth has personal problems and difficulties, but challenges to growth, strengths, talents and gifts as well. Today, the Church provides a badly needed context for the care of the human person when she refuses to consider the person as a “heterosexual” or a “homosexual” and insists that every person has a fundamental Identity: the creature of God, and by grace, his child and heir to eternal life. (§16)

The official text of the Letter is in Latin, promulgated in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis (79 [1987], pp. 543-554). In the Latin text, there is a word—unice, often translated as ‘only’—which is missing from the English translation. Thus, a more accurate translation of the last sentence would be:

Today, the Church provides a badly needed context for the care of the human person when she refuses to consider the person only as a “heterosexual” or a “homosexual” and insists that every person has a fundamental Identity: the creature of God, and by grace, his child and heir to eternal life.

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Reflections on Reformation Day

As most of my readers will be aware, Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of a Church in Wittenberg, Germany on this day, five hundred years ago.

95 Theses

No informed Catholic should deny that there were very serious problems in the Church in the time leading up to the Reformation. To see this, we need only read what Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, or any of the other Counter-Reformation saints had to say about the abuses they saw and the opposition they faced when they tried to correct them. We could also look at the reforms of the Council of Trent, or the biographies of Renaissance Popes for examples of corruption within the Church.

On the other hand, no serious Protestant should deny that the Reformation led to a fracturing of the Church and a proliferation of conflicting theologies that none of the original Reformers would agree with. I don’t think many Protestants would want to defend the purity of Henry VIII’s motives in breaking the Church of England away from Rome. And Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli soon found themselves divided against each other almost as much as against Rome.

Also, everyone hated the Anabaptists.

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