Collect for the Fourth Sunday after Trinity

O God, the protector of all that trust in thee, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy: increase and multiply upon us thy mercy; that, thou being our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we finally lose not the things eternal; grant this, O heavenly Father, for the sake of Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

From the Office of Shadows

The Supreme Court cases dealing with same-sex marriage have inspired a wave of slacktivism such as I have rarely seen, on both sides. Facebook is becoming a field of red and pink mines, and of remarkable self-righteousness and snideness -- on the part of both sides of the debate. Apparently God is very fervently in favor of, and also passionately opposed to, gay marriage; the legalization of gay marriage at a federal level will (I am given to understand) definitely strengthen our society, and also tear its very fabric; while reaffirming DOMA will be a moral disaster and also a salvific victory. But then, when one becomes a Catholic, one must accept a certain degree of paradox.

I have already made the only contributions I intend to make to the discussion, as far as this blog is concerned. Sheer ennui, quite apart from my own moral and political views, has shrouded me completely on the subject. I am utterly bored with it, and will welcome the time when, irrespective of the judicial decision, people are ready to stop talking about it.

Yet the tone is of some concern to me -- especially between Christians of differing perspectives, but in general. I attended a Tenebrae service at my parish last night, at which the Office of Readings was sung, and the patristic passage (drawn in this instance from St. Augustine) caught my attention. I feel strongly that we all, on both sides of the gay marriage debate and of every debate, would do well to listen.

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From St. Augustine's Treatise on the Psalms

Hear my prayer, O God, and hide not thyself from my petition: take heed unto me, and hear me: how I mourn in my trial, and am vexed; because of the crying of the enemy, and of the tribulation which cometh from the ungodly. These are the words of one who is disquieted, beset by trouble and anxiety. He prayeth as one under much suffering, desiring deliverance from evil. Let us see from what evil he doth suffer: and as we hear what that evil is, let us recognize that we also suffer from the same thing; so that as we share in his tribulation, we may also join in his prayer.

I mourn in my trial (saith he) and am vexed. When doth he mourn? When is he vexed? In my trial, saith he. He hath in mind the ungodly that cause him tribulation, which same he calleth his trial. Therefore, think not that the wicked can serve no good purpose in this world, and that God is unable to accomplish good by means of them. Every wicked person is permitted to live in order that he may be made righteous, or else that the righteous may be tried by him.

Would that they who now try us were converted and tried with us: yet, though they continue to try us, let us not hate them: for we know not whether any of them will continue to the end in his evil ways. And mostly, when thou thinkest thyself to be hating thine enemy, thou hatest thy brother, and knowest it not.

The devil and his angels are shown to us in Scripture as doomed to eternal fire. Their amendment alone is hopeless, against whom we wage a secret strife: for which strife the Apostle arms us, saying: We wrestle not against flesh and blood: that is, not against men, whom we see, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world. Lest that by saying, the world, ye should think perhaps he says: Of the darkness of this world. He says, of the world, that is, the lovers of the world: Of the world, that is, the impious and wicked: Of the world, that is, of which the Gospel saith, And the world knew him not.

For I have spied unrighteousness and strife in the city. See the glory of the Cross itself. Now on the brow of kings is placed that Cross, which enemies did deride. Effect hath proved strength: he hath subdued the world, not with steel but with wood. The wood of the Cross seemed a worthy object of scorn to his enemies; and standing before that wood they wagged their heads, saying: If thou be the Son of God, come down from the Cross.

He stretched forth his hands to an unbelieving and gainsaying people. If he who is just lives by faith: he is unrighteous who has not faith. Therefore when he saith unrighteousness, understand that it is unbelief. The Lord then saw unrighteousness and strife in the city, and stretches out his hand to an unbelieving and gainsaying people: and yet, waiting for them, he saith: Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Reblog: Rabbi David Wolpe

Okay, so strictly speaking this isn't a reblog because the original wasn't a blog post. But this is an excellent article from the Rabbi of Los Angeles' Sinai Temple. (My favorite retort to the "spiritual but not religious" sentiment is "I'm religious but not spiritual," first heard courtesy of Brother Peter Totleben of the Dominican House of Studies in DC, but this takes a different tack.)

Friday, March 22, 2013

The Perennial Heresy

By special request, a short treatment of one of the major heresies follows.


It's a little difficult to put a name to this heresy, or rather this group of heresies. It is often called Gnosticism; often, more misleadingly, called Manichaeism, after its fifth-century incarnation. It is a perennial tendency of the human mind when it turns to spiritual things; indeed, though other such repeated themes exist (e.g. what might be called the "Third Age" heresies in which the revelation of Jesus Christ that superseded the Torah is itself superseded by something else, such as we see in Montanism, Mormonism, and arguably in Islam), this recurring heresy is the most persistent. It might, after a fashion, be called the heresy of spirituality.

The Catholic faith can be regarded as essentially a commentary upon three central mysteries (neither confusing the mysteries nor dividing the substance): the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the Redemption. Every doctrine, whether naturally supported or supernaturally revealed, exists in relation to these three doctrines; and the Incarnation is the linchpin, for it is the bridge between the other two, the means of revelation of the Trinity and the means of effecting the Redemption. The heresy of spirituality is an attack on, or more commonly a retreat from, the fullness of the Incarnation.

This to be expected. The human mind, when once it has conceived of a transcendent rather than a substantially anthropomorphic Deity, is offended and shocked by the notion of such a being coinhering with the smallness, the dirt, and the need of humanity. When once we begin dealing with spiritual things at all, it is easier to deal with them by themselves and disdain the physical, rather than adopting the Catholic sacramental mindset* -- as, when a man has been civilized and educated, he finds it easier to be snob than a gentleman. It is an easy reality to forget, because our own day and age has been (until quite recently) so shaped by the doctrines, and still more shaped by the imagery, of Christianity that it seems to us as if that is the natural form that religion takes. In truth, judged by the standards of literally every other religion that has ever existed, it is far more normal to have either a religion that is idealistic and regards the body as a hindrance or at best a thing of indifference, or a religion that is orgiastic, magical, and unreflective. The stern, clean spirit of the Stoics and the divine madness of the cults of Dionysus are the directions in which the human soul naturally goes; the sacramental, incarnational atmosphere of Catholic Christianity was something really new, and continues to be a shock to those outside of, if they can be made to understand it. The outrage of a Moslem or the bafflement of a Buddhist at being told that a personal God became Man is much more rational and natural than our humdrum acquiescence or humdrum rejection.

I have a sort of educated guess (which is half gut feeling) that we are in for a major revival of Gnostic thought. In part, its general absence from our culture for such a long period strikes me as fishy; but the extreme license of our age tends to point to it as well, I think. When people have seen everything, and done most of it, a certain amount of ennui is bound to set it. It is, thanks be to God, pretty hard to get human beings to be bored of sex (though, speaking as someone who has studied Classics, it is in fact possible); but when once that does happen, Gnosticism is one of the natural reactions. Not a desirable reaction, but quite an understandable one. This is a very good reason to emphasize not only the goodness but the true character of Catholic asceticism: it is not a rejection of the material world but a renunciation of its use -- a confession, "This created thing is very good, and it is not for me." It is, equally, a reason to emphasize the highly contrasted but naturally allied phenomenon in the faith of a boisterous indulgence in bodily pleasures: one that does not overstep the bounds of virtue, but that does rejoice in the pleasures and in the body as good things, made by God for enjoyment among other purposes. (Think of Irish Catholicism, at least as conceived of by Americans, and you've got the idea here.) Both true asceticism and what we might call a sanctified sensuality are replies to both modern licentiousness and the overreactive disgust with licentiousness that will likely take its place.

It is also a good reason to emphasize devotion to the Mother of God. Mary, in her function as Theotokos, symbolizes the union of affirmation and renunciation: motherhood and virginity being both realities in themselves, and images of all affirmation and all renunciation; neither immoral license nor any attack upon creation can be sustained alongside acknowledgment of her. She, and especially her title Mother of God, are a unique and irreplaceable assertion of the Incarnation of God.


Throughout the history of the Church, this heresy has taken various forms. There are hints of such thought being combatted in the New Testament itself, probably syntheses by Greek believers of philosophical ideas with the Catholic creed -- "spiritual" interpretations of things like the Resurrection, for instance, which St. Paul addressed in I Corinthians 15. But for the most part these sects do not seem to have been fully formulated during the lifetime of the Apostles.

In the first two or three centuries, there was a brace of heresies of this kind, loosely called by the collective name of Gnosticism. They were so called from the Greek term gnosis, meaning "knowledge," because they believed that salvation from this corrupt world came through knowledge -- in contradistinction to the Christian view that salvation from sin came through faith. The famous Nag Hammadi library, found in Egypt in 1945, was to Gnosticism what the Dead Sea Scrolls were to Judaism and Christianity; most of the "secret gospels" and so forth much touted in the media today, like the Gospel of Judas, were of this character. The Gnostics had a number of typical marks, such as secret passwords, an inner ring of "perfect" surrounded by an outer ring of camp-followers, complex genealogies of deities and angels, and so forth; but their essential character was twofold: salvation through knowledge, and a belief that spirit was good and matter was bad. The early bishops and apologists of the Church had no tolerance for this doctrine, which would have made Jesus an illusion (or in some systems, such as that of the Mandaeans, an impostor); St. Irenaeus and St. Ignatius of Antioch wrote forcefully and eloquently against the Gnostics.

Manichaeism -- often classified as a form of Gnosticism -- swept over the Roman Empire in the third, fourth, and fifth centuries. It combined Christian and Gnostic ideas to a certain extent (as had many Gnostic sects, such as the Marcionists). St. Augustine spent some time as a Manichee; it seemed to him to have a solution to the problem of evil, for, originating in Persia, it had borrowed the Zoroastrian idea of two eternal deities, one good and one evil, and assigned the responsibility for all bad things -- including the creation of the material world -- to the latter. It also indulged itself in some more puzzling and, if you're in an uncharitable mood, entertaining beliefs, as that cucumbers and melons contain imprisoned particles of divine light that are released when you eat them -- but the inner circle, who claimed they could hear the light particles screaming when these fruits were harvested, got believers of the outer circle to do the harvesting for them. St. Augustine converted first to Neoplatonism and then to Christianity, both of which discountenanced and to some extent despised Manichaeism, and wrote extensively against it.

The name Manichaeism stuck throughout the Middle Ages and later still -- possibly in part because of St. Augustine's influence, even more so because the Medieval mind was formed in the twilight of the classical Empire. For this reason, though they were also known as Cathars (from the Greek term for "pure") or Albigenses (from the French city of Albi, a major center of the heresy), the Medieval adherents of this type of belief were often called Manichees. They attacked all seven Catholic sacraments, the Eucharist particularly, and opposed more or less all sexuality: not only did they reject marriage, they normally refused all food that was the product of sexual reproduction -- meat, but also eggs and dairy. They rejected every kind of violence (in theory, anyway), a significant departure from the typical worldview of the Medievals, to put it mildly. They also rejected penance: someone who sinned after receiving what they called the consolamentum, an elevation to the status of a perfect believer, was irredeemable. Some went as far as to starve themselves after receiving the consolamentum, to hasten death. The sect lasted only a few centuries; between the Inquisition, the Albigensian Crusade (proclaimed in 1208), and the missionary activity of the Dominican and Franciscan Orders, the Cathars had more or less ceased to exist by the middle of the fourteenth century.

Between the Late Middle Ages (roughly 1300-1450) and the end of the nineteenth century, Gnosticism as such does not seem to have reared its head much. It is possible that it was preserved in certain secret societies, such as the Rosicrucians; but these often had an alchemical or Christian coloring that prevented a fully Gnostic attitude toward the material world. Many Catholic thinkers (and even some Anglican and Lutheran ones) have identified Calvinism as the heir of the Gnostics during this period. It cannot be denied that there are similarities, especially in the Calvinist emphasis upon predestination. In some ways, that similarity has increased as time has gone on: Calvin and his immediate successors, for example, were sacramentalists, in the tradition of Augustine -- that is, they believed the sacraments really conveyed what they signify, although Calvin interpreted this differently than the Catholic Church does; but modern Calvinists typically don't believe that the sacraments actually convey grace to the believer (at most, they are held to be occasions of grace). The popular objection to Purgatory is of a similarly Gnostic character -- as a friend once put it to me, "Once we're free of the sinful flesh, we don't need to be purified any more"; though to do them justice, many Calvinists, while fully disbelieving in Purgatory, would reject that reasoning forcibly. I'm not satisfied that Calvinism can be regarded as having more than a partly superficial and partly coincidental resemblance to the spiritual heresy: although it mostly lacks the doctrine of the sacraments and the practice of the liturgy that characterize Catholicism and its ideological relatives, and although it tends to be hostile to Mariology, it confesses the Incarnation in quite as orthodox a fashion as the Council of Chalcedon.

As the Victorian era drew toward its close, however, this Gnostic trend of thinking experienced a revival. The Theosophical Society of Madame Blavatsky was one example, a pantheistic mystical group; Spiritualism was another, which often viewed a disembodied afterlife as a higher plane of existence (in marked contrast to the Christian expectancy of final resurrection). During and since that period, down to the present day, a number of formally and explicitly Gnostic churches, claiming to revive the ancient doctrines and practices, have come into being; others, such as the brilliant and depraved Aleister Crowley, have been content to draw on such ideas and radically alter them (some forms of Wicca, which, being a nature-oriented religion, is pretty un-Gnostic, owe something to these streams of thought, especially with regard to sex magic). Scientology has been noted by some thinkers to have pronouncedly Gnostic elements as well.

*This mindset is not exclusive to Catholicism: our Orthodox brethren have it quite as much as we do, and some Protestant bodies (chiefly of Anglican and Lutheran cast) have it as well. However, it is not a special mark of the evangelical world, whose doctrines and history have developed in an exceedingly different direction, centering on the Redemption. The sacramental worldview is not necessarily incompatible with Protestant doctrine per se; but the atmosphere is so unmistakably divergent that it is, in this country, meaningful to speak of it as specifically Catholic.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Enter Pursued by a Bird

I have at last embarked upon tweeting, as Gabriel Blanchard @MudblodCatholic. I wanted to tweet and blog under the same handle, but regrettably MudbloodCatholic had one too many letters, so "blod" will have to mean something for these purposes, instead of being the sort of sound you might expect from a punctured whoopie cushion.

Monday, March 18, 2013

The Coal Miner's Faith

Several months ago, at a Bible study, a woman of my acquaintance was describing a conversation she had had with a skeptical friend. He was scoffing at the account of the parting of the Red Sea in the book of Exodus, declaring it impossible on scientific grounds. My friend replied that that was why faith was necessary.

Hopefully without being a jerk, I differ from this as forcefully as possible. I stop short of saying, with Luther, that the unconsidered and really irrational faith of the proverbial coal miner -- who, when asked what he believes, can only say "I believe what the Church believes," and when asked what the Church believes, can only say "The Church believes what I believe" -- I stop short of saying that that is not faith. God can work with anything or nothing, and far be it from me to say where the Holy Ghost is not operating. But I do emphatically affirm the old saying: gratia non tollit naturam sed perficit, "grace does not take away nature but perfects it"; and the relationship of faith to reason is not one of replacement or contradiction.

This is not to say that reason, unaided, can penetrate all of the mysteries of faith. If it could, it wouldn't be faith. But we must be careful not to take the false step, the false step that explains and in some measure justifies the sneering of skeptics that in being Christians we throw our minds in the garbage, of saying or implying that reason and faith are incompatible. Reason can show that the Christian mysteries are mysteries, rather than contradictions; what it cannot do is plumb the mind of God -- nothing and no one can do that. "No one hath seen God at any time: God the only-begotten, who is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him."

The reason I object so strongly to what my friend said to her scornful acquaintance is that it implied an acceptance of the claim that miracles (or that miracle in particular) are irrational. It doesn't have to be miracles, of course -- any mystery will do as a peg upon which to hang the discussion. But if once we accept that assertion, and try to defend faith in the face of it, we are trying to defend what is, in my view, indefensible -- at any rate, indefensible if we have a sense of intellectual honor. For that which is truly irrational, i.e. that which is internally contradictory, literally cannot be true. It is immoral and insulting to demand that someone assent to something that cannot be true. And the transcendental claims made by Christianity do precisely solicit belief; they do not present themselves as merely useful, but as the truth.

A proper reply would involve pointing out that irrationality is really not what attends miracles. As Chesterton, discussing what is (somewhat misleadingly) called liberal theology, put it, "If you really wish poor children to go to the seaside, you cannot think it illiberal that they should go there on flying dragons; you can only think it unlikely." There is nothing internally contradictory about the parting of the Red Sea or any other miracle; if a purported miracle does involve a logical self-contradiction, then what we are dealing with is not a mystery but a muddle -- not something from above nature interfering with it, but a piece of nonsense that does not acquire meaning by acquiring the prefix "God can."* Distinguishing logic from the scientific method, and both from common sense, is essential here: faith most certainly leaves common sense huddled in a corner, and deals with things in which science as such has no interest, but logic properly so-called is naturally allied to faith, not opposed.

This is a matter of no small import in an age that, whether or not it is a highly scientific age (whatever that means), regards itself preeminently in the light of scientific and technological accomplishment. I'm not saying that Divine revelation needs to acquit itself in the court of public opinion; but I do say, with some warmth, that it is a Christian obligation not to put stumbling blocks in the way of those outside the faith, and to suggest that there is anything irrational in Christianity -- a different thing from saying that it is full of mysteries -- is exactly such a stumbling block. It is a disservice to those who, rightly, regard honesty and consistency as essential qualities of any belief. When we hear the remarks of atheists and skeptics deriding the Christian faith and explaining why, the easy excuse that they just don't have faith will not do. It would be more accurate to say, to ourselves if necessary, "The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you."

Does that mean that those outside the Church are never guilty of simple stubbornness in unbelief? Well of course that happens, but it isn't often our business. And, aside from praying, there is not as a rule much we can do about it, either: our primary concern must be with doing our part, not theirs. The mind is like a nose, in that you are only allowed to clean your own.

*Yes, I shamelessly stole this from C. S. Lewis. Good for you for reading Miracles.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Rethinking My Gay Celibacy

I'm sometimes asked what I think about the origins of homosexuality, very much as if I know what I'm talking about. I try to embellish that impression, except when admitting its inaccuracy with ironic frankness, as a piece of witty social self-deprecation. It consistently charms people.

The nature-nurture debate has been thrashed ferociously between the LGBT community and the churches in this country for perhaps a quarter of a century. The usual tropes are that gays believe homosexuality is genetic and therefore immutable, and Christians believe it is environmental and therefore alterable. That there are plenty of unchangeable things that nobody claims are good, and plenty of changeable things that don't need changing, is rarely considered in this fracas.

The exhaustion of unsuccessful speculation and research has drained me of anything more than mere intellectual curiosity on the subject -- not least because I am not convinced that there is any one answer, people being as incorrigibly plural as we are. How does homosexuality start? Is it nature or is it nurture? "Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?" Framed in those terms, the problem is a torment if it is unsolved, and a worse torment if it is solved, for either the one or the other must be made a scapegoat as well as a sufferer. But Jesus waives the question. "Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him." That mode of approaching the problem is wrong; we need a new mindset to go with our new hearts, as believers.

This passage from John has been much in my mind of late. I was journaling on that, among other things, after an appointment with my spiritual director last month, when, rather to my own surprise, I penned the sentence, "Possibly, I am not celibate because I am gay, but gay because I am celibate."

This was a startling step forward. Hitherto, I have tended very much to view my vocation as both highly confusing (which, to a limited extent, it is -- like every vocation), and as a second-best, a "leftovers" helping of Divine grace and purpose (which it is not). After all, all of what we might call the obvious vocations -- marriage, the priesthood, the religious life -- are closed to me; partly because of my orientation, more importantly because I have discerned all of them as not being for me. It's easy, in that situation, to view yourself as the unwanted detritus of the Church. It's easy, too, to view being gay as a curse laid upon you: thus has our Father seen fit, if not actively to bar you from the real vocations, at any rate to allow you to be barred from them.

But suppose that our Father's plan is, logically, the primary, and the circumstances of our lives secondary. (Crazy, I know.) Can it be that my homosexuality was incorporated, or permitted, by God, so as to help me discern my vocation to lay celibacy?* "That the works of God should be made manifest in him." This possibility has allowed me to see both celibacy and homosexuality in a quite different light ("'Go, wash in the pool of Siloam,' which is by interpretation, Sent"). Lay celibacy as something positively desired for me by my Father has a different character, and an attractiveness I did not perceive. It is not simply an absence of another vocation, but a specific call to a distinct direction in life, one that would be fulfilled less perfectly if marriage, or priesthood, or consecration to an order, were involved.

And homosexuality takes on another character here as well. I'd already come to think of it as having a slight resemblance to sickle-cell anemia, which has the surprising benefit to those who suffer from it of making them immune to malaria. Likewise, on Catholic premises, there are distinct drawbacks to being attracted to the same sex, but there are definite compensations -- a markedly lower tension in relating to the opposite sex, for instance; a unique perspective on the nature of gender; for gay men, a more intuitive understanding of certain forms of mysticism, such as that of St. John of the Cross. Conceived of as a concomitant to my vocation -- as a result, rather than a cause, of a call to celibacy -- it draws my mind to St. Paul's rejoicing over his "thorn in the flesh."

Of course, it's important to note that I don't think all gay people are called to celibacy. Some, for a combination of theological and personal reasons, do get married. Some do become consecrated religious. And depending on the interpretation of the canons and the granting of dispensations, some become priests. Nor do I suppose that I have cornered the whole of my vocation just by discerning lay celibacy. But the point is the Divine intentionality, the embrace, the -- to quote the Athanasian Creed, "not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh, but by taking of the Manhood into God"; that is, not by God taking His cue from us, but by His making every element of ourselves an occasion of grace, a vehicle of the Glory.

I am not done yet. I am not perfectly chaste; I am not even wholly reconciled to lay celibacy: I continue to have twinges, not only of natural human loneliness (which affects everyone regardless of their state in life), but of rebellion, despair, and bewilderment. Nor is my understanding of that vocation much fleshed out as yet. But all of these hardships have assumed a different form. Where before they seemed the very fabric of my life, they seem now more like individual threads -- parts of the background of a more vivid pattern. I feel as if I have gone from seeing things upside down to seeing them the right way up. And, whatever else goes on in the foreground of my exterior life, or in my ever mercurial emotions, I can sense a deeper bedrock of peace. Thank You.

*Strictly speaking, lay in Catholic terms denotes simply everyone who is not ordained; so that, in fact, all religious sisters and some brothers are technically laymen. However, the word is also used colloquially to signify those who are neither priests nor vowed religious, and it is in this colloquial sense that I intend the phrase lay celibacy. Theoretically, there ought to be another word for this, but if there is one, I don't know it.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

News: Habemus Papam

At 3.12 Eastern Time (DST) today, Cardinal Bergoglio of Argentina was announced from the loggia as Pope Francis I. May St. Peter, St. Paul, St. Michael the Archangel, St. Joseph, and the Blessed Virgin Mary commend him and his ministry to Our Lord Jesus Christ.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Small and Powerless

I went to see Oz the Great and Powerful this weekend. It wasn't terrible: the dialogue and directing were poor, but it had some cute shout-outs to the original sources, and a few outstanding moments of its own, such as (it's near the beginning, so don't need to yell at me) a scene where the wizard, having begged heaven for another chance at life when he thought he was going to die in the tornado that took him to Oz, on realizing that he has landed in one piece, laughs with joy, points skyward and shouts merrily, "You will regret this!"

The total message of the movie was faintly reminiscent of the themes of belief in The Santa Clause, though I think that film did a much better job on most counts, and it also delivered its moral more intelligently. Oz leaves the viewer with the impression, not quite of an end-justifies-the-means mindset, but of an "It came out all right, so we must have done the right thing!" mindset. The former would seem to be the cynical incarnation, the latter its naive counterpart.

This isn't at all unique to that film, or to art in general; it is a (though certainly not the) motive force in our culture -- a sort of pragmatically retrospective optimism. It is a close parody of a number of more creditable attitudes (such as making the best of an admittedly unjust or unsatisfying situation), and is one of the flowerings of the pragmatic element of the American psyche -- the worship of success.

Whether in its naive or its cynical forms, I take success-worship to be essentially opposed, not only to Christianity, but to common sense and human happiness. That cynics are not happy, and that naive optimists are not sensible, seems like a truism. Really both parties are neither. The cynic, who reduces everyone else's motives to either stupidity or self-interest, is just as unintelligent as the naive optimist -- indeed, he is often an optimist who has been soured -- the thing that has changed is the direction in which he oversimplifies, not whether he does so. And the naive optimist may seem happy; but is he? Naivete (not to be confused with purity of heart) is always the result either of immaturity or of stunted growth. Any growth as a human being will come at the cost of that naivete, though not necessarily at the cost of his goodness: the only way to remain naive is by deliberately resisting that growth, and -- "We cannot go on being ordinary, decent eggs. We must be hatched or go bad."*

I rather think that this is one of the things that makes the virtues so hard. We have been sufficiently affected by the surrounding culture that we import its success-worship into our view of growth and holiness. Take fasting. I have been a Christian for as long as I can remember (with one exception that need not detain us now), and yet it is really only within the last year or so that I have begun to practice fasting with anything resembling regularity. Why? Because it's so hard -- so hard that I thought, surely, if God wanted me to fast, it would be easier. Surely doing the right thing would come with -- not instant gratification in the vulgar sense, but at any rate instant interior gratification, instant assurance of rightness and consolation and all of that. Surely it would work!

But of course that isn't how reality is. Donald Miller, in one of his books (Searching For God Knows What, I think), recounts a friend saying to him, "Reality is like a fine wine. It will not appeal to children." An adult spirituality, suited to a corrected palate, is the desideratum: and an adult palate knows not only the milk and the honey of the promised land, but the myrrh and the vinegar of Golgotha. And that does not only indicate repeated hardships, but repeated failures on our part, something I have been grappling with in great anguish over the last two or three years. The choice between settling for the quite livable compromise of mere social decency, and being bad at an attempt at real holiness, is a humiliating one: in either case, you must make peace with a kind of inferiority in yourself -- either you know that you have deliberately refused a greater glory, because it is too shaming to be continually confronted with the ways in which you fall short of it; or you embrace that continual confrontation, and feel the repeated sting of being so far beneath the heroism you aspire to. Either you must know that your heart is too small for a great ambition, or your powers are too small for a great heart. For years, much though I love the saint, I bitterly hated St. Teresa's maxim, but I am starting to grasp it more of late -- here, so applicable: "You must learn to bear for God's sake the trial of being displeasing to yourself."

*C. S. Lewis, from Mere Christianity.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

An Afterthought on Gay Marriage and Conscience

I had a nagging feeling of dissatisfaction in my recent series on gay marriage, that I'd neglected something I meant to get to, something important. A commenter on Part Four reminded me of it, for which I'm grateful. Specifically, it is the complicating dimension that, ninety-nine times out of a hundred, gay couples don't agree that homosexual sex is wrong in the first instance. This is a matter of no small importance.

I don't mean that it is important to convert lesbian and gay friends to a traditional understanding of sexual mores. Now, we should all want people to believe true things, and we should all believe things because we think they're true -- and what that means in practice is that, within the bounds of Christian love, good manners, and common sense, trying to persuade people of the Catholic view is appropriate; and it is equally appropriate that people who disbelieve the Catholic view would try to persuade people of their view. I don't mean that the truth is relative; but our responsibility is to live in accord with the truth as well as we can, having found that truth to the best of our ability. So if someone is honestly convinced of something, it is to be expected that they would live in accord with that belief -- we shouldn't be shocked or scandalized by that.

Charles Williams hinted in passing at the difficulty we are likely to experience in part of his commentary on Dante. In one of the more famous passages of the Inferno, when he first enters the circle in which heretics are housed, Dante encounters the soul of a man who was (on Dante's premises) both a religious and a political heretic. Williams has, among other things, this to say:

"The chief sinner to whom Dante here speaks is Farinata, a Florentine, an Epicurean, and an enemy of Dante's party in Florence. With our modern views of party politics, at worst, or with our English views of party politics, at best, it is a little difficult for us to remember that Dante thought his own political opponents metaphysically and morally wrong. He was also so touched by the habits of the Middle Ages (which he, of course, did not think were the Middle Ages; he thought he was a modern) that he believed it to be less important that men should think for themselves than that they should think rightly. We later moderns, on the whole, believe that men had better think for themselves even if they think wrongly. There is much to be said on both sides; this is not the place to argue it." -- The Figure of Beatrice, p. 126.

This catch, between the importance of intellectual honesty and the inevitable metaphysical consequences of ideas, is a difficult one. It does make the persecutions and Crusades of the Medieval era far more understandable, to consider that they at their best thought truth of such paramount importance that even honesty might conceivably be sacrificed to it; as it makes our own age more comprehensible (and, to my mind, helps correct the grossly exaggerated impression that our age is relativistic about morals to the nth degree), to see that we at our best consider honesty of such paramount importance that even truth may conceivably be sacrificed to it.

Here -- a little uncharacteristically, perhaps, but it is one of the ways in which I am a true child of my age -- I actually think the modern view preferable to the Medieval. I don't believe we really have to choose between honesty and accuracy. The truth, as Fox Mulder and St. Thomas believed, is out there. Which means that it is in principle discoverable by the human mind, according to its lights. "Christianity," said T. Kallistos Ware, an Anglican convert to Orthodoxy, "if true, has nothing to fear from honest inquiry" -- a sentiment we might do well to emblazon on our brains. Similarly, the Church at the Second Vatican Council declared, in Dignitatis Humanae, that "the truth cannot impose itself except by virtue of its own truth, as it makes its entry into the mind at once quietly and with power." But if we sacrifice honesty, we sacrifice our very capacity to receive truth.

And what does this have to do with gay marriage? Well, if two lesbians or two gay men have gotten married, it seems a safe assumption that they have no moral problems with doing so. And their consciences must be respected. This doesn't mean that we cannot disagree. What it does mean is that we should not be shocked, or contemptuous, or assume that they are being willful or irrational, because disagreement is not grounds to slander someone's character -- not even in the privacy of our own minds and hearts. It also means (though we ought to keep this in mind anyway) that we have no business commenting on their eternal destiny: we can read neither the future nor men's hearts, and the judgment of our fellow man has, rather emphatically, not been committed to us.

What about warning people of the consequences of their actions? Well, for starters, that sort of thing is not very effective outside the context of a relationship of mutual trust and respect, so I'd say work on that trust and respect first anyway (two-way street, remember). But more importantly, being a freelance catechist is not what witnessing to truth requires. If someone asks you what your beliefs are, then of course you should state them, without rancor and without apology, since truth requires neither. Equally, you should expect and accept that those who categorically disagree with you will likely state their beliefs without rancor and without apology -- it is not a mark of brazenness in them; it is a mark of authenticity of belief. And if someone doesn't ask, why are you bringing it up? Not every Christian is called to be an evangelist in the sense that St. Paul, or St. Patrick, or St. Francis Xavier were. There is a place for taking the initiative, but only ever with humility, charity, and wisdom. And it must be noted that the exhortations of the New Testament are directed chiefly toward living in such a way as to provoke questions, rather than talking unpromptedly to strangers about the answers.

In short, as my mother likes to say, "You are not the Holy Spirit."

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Reblog: Justin Lee, "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Church"

I'm getting to it a bit (well, five months) late, given that I only recently discovered Justin Lee's tumblr. But I'd like to plug this post from "Crumbs from the Communion Table," as an excellent statement of some themes related to the concerns of my last post, dealing specifically with the difficulties that can face Christian gays. Though I disagree with his theology, I admire Mr. Lee intensely, and he writes clearly and cogently.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Thoughts on Gay Marriage, Part Four: Speaking the Truth in Love

So we've looked at the theoretical dimensions (Parts One and Two) and gotten into some of the practical side (Three). A major concern remains unaddressed: how do we interact with gays and lesbians who dissent from the traditional view of sexual morality, especially if they're partnered?

It is tempting to answer, "Why, the same way you deal with an agnostic, or someone who's sleeping with their fiance, or someone on the opposite side of the political spectrum from you." The fundamental problem should not be "How do I deal with this person who's a sinner?" because everybody is a sinner (okay, except Jesus and Mary, but they were cheating), and because -- as that list of alternatives implies -- the problem isn't as simple as people being sinners. Nor, despite the volumes of rhetoric thrown back and forth in the kulturkampf, is there much Scriptural ground for thinking of homosexuality as a uniquely bad thing. A departure from the fullness of the Catholic tradition, yes; but so is gossip, and refusing to give to the poor, and congratulating ourselves on the ways in which we're better than others. (This last sin being, paradoxically, more dangerous in exact proportion as we have more to be proud of.)

But I don't answer in quite those terms. To begin with, I think we need to think of every person as a person first: that is, as a living icon of Christ. One of the worst aspects of the Christian response to the gay rights movement has been to turn the queer movement into the enemy, and to turn gay Christians into mascots, instead of thinking of them primarily as human beings in the painful, lovely, and bewildering straits that we call life.

To take a concrete example, let's say you have invited a lesbian friend over for your family's Thanksgiving, and she wants to bring her wife along. A lot of Catholics would respond that a request to bring her partner should be refused, with the explanation that we can't approve of homosexual relationships. Others would say that bringing the partner is fine, so long as they will present themselves as simply friends, to set a good example for the children. That's understandable, right?

Okay; now try that same strategy with a friend who is divorced and remarried. Are you still friends?

People toss around accusations of homophobia against Christians and against the Church, and some of that is merely ornery, but much of it is just true. How many people would even consider treating a friend who was divorced and remarried in this fashion -- even though that is just as contrary to the teaching of the Church? That is a double standard, plain and simple. Or what about the question of whether people pretending to be something they are not is, in fact, a good example for children?

There is nothing Christlike about that kind of behavior. Indeed, it is the diametric opposite of what Christ did -- and it is precisely what the Pharisees did. Their charge against Him was that He was a companion of drunks, gougers, and whores. The Pharisees were the respectable ones. They were the ones who were scandalized by the company God kept when He came to earth -- or, as St. Thomas put it, the ones who scandalized themselves; the thrifty and scholarly observers of the Torah. The scandalous company kept by Christ doesn't seem to have been unduly confirmed in its manner of life by His presence: the political semi-criminals, the dabblers in witchcraft, the men who abandoned Him when He needed them the most. These, He called His friends.

I have read or spoken with a lot of homosexuals who have converted, or considered apostasizing but chosen not to*, or returned to the faith after a season of wandering; and to some who have abandoned their faith and not returned. Zero of those who became or remained believers did so as a result of having it made plain to them that they and those whom they loved were at best second-class citizens to Christians -- as for those who left, it was consistently a (though not always the) decisive factor. Melinda Selmys put it with biting clarity on her blog:

"This is a category of question that I've seen a lot of times, and it basically rests on the assumption that if we agree to do everyday normal things in the presence of people who are in gay relationships, that we are somehow sanctioning their relationships. The corollary is the belief that by refusing to participate, we send a clear message about the morality of same-sex relationships and we witness to the truth about homosexuality. When we refuse to get involved in the lives of LGBTQ people, we do send a very clear message, but the message has nothing to do with the truth. We send the message that we are bigoted homophobes who think that gays are icky. We send the message that Catholics don't want anything to do with those nasty fags, and that we're afraid that our children will catch homosexuality like a disease if they're brought into even the most casual contact with gay couples. We send a message that we really care a lot about hating the sin, but that we're not even willing to eat at the same table as the sinner."

So how do you interact with gay married couples? Be their friends. That is, if you would be their friends anyway, based on some common interest or experience; the way you're friends with anybody else. Purely missionary friendships, in my experience, show their inauthenticity pretty rapidly, and tend to cease to be reciprocated once it is shown. In the context of a mutually invested and respectful friendship, questions may arise; you can answer them when they are asked. As for the rest, if your life does not make your beliefs credible, your philosophy probably won't either. Gay couples need salvation -- but only in the same sense that you and I do.

*Me, for instance.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Thoughts on Gay Marriage, Part Three: Deus Caritas Est

So! Having discussed the theoretical dimension in Part One and Part Two, how about something practical? There are two practical questions to be considered: first, how to draw the hearts of our society back to marriage; second, how to relate to gay men and lesbians who are (in law) married.

The first depends partly upon the second, but we'll get to that. Now, the first answer to the question of how we can convert the heart of our culture, is that we can't. God can do it, and we can offer ourselves as His instruments; but if we approach it as a victory that we are aiming for, we will probably lose, and (more importantly) even if we win, the victory is likelier to corrupt us than bless us. For the more we think of it as a victory, and the more we think of ourselves as victors, the more our eyes turn inward, to look upon ourselves rather than our Savior. And the more we think of ourselves and of our victory, the more, too, we are disposed to trample and disgrace those against whom our victory was won. This is not just theoretical moralizing; its hideous truth is a fact of Christian history. "No, somehow we must be saved together."

Which means that, as far as our own duties are concerned, the first thing is -- what the first thing always is: trust in God, expressed and nourished through prayer and the life of the sacraments. These are the means whereby we lay ourselves open to the supernatural operation of the Holy Ghost, "who broods over this bent world / With warm breast, and with ah! bright wings." If we do not offer ourselves as victims of divine Love, then whatever else happens, it won't matter. And if we do, then whatever else happens, it will be to us a sacrament of that Love.

The second thing is ourselves to recover an authentic attitude toward marriage and toward the different kinds of love -- something which commanded our Pontiff Emeritus' attention in his first encyclical. This means taking marriage out of the center of our lives, hopes, and affections, and putting God there, as having probably the better claim. It means making a distinction (in thought, speech, and practice) between eros as a potent and beautiful experience, and the deliberate decision to build a life with someone, this latter being part of what marriage is with or without eros. And it means opening every decision we make, every institution we are a part of, and every relation we have to every person, to the movement of love-in-grace.

Other than that, I think the chief thing is for each of us to discern our own vocation (marriage, lay celibacy, priesthood, or consecration to a religious order) and live it to the hilt. Being ready to answer when we are asked what we believe is important; sometimes -- though less often than zealous and talkative Christians are apt to feel -- initiating a conversation on the subject is the thing to do; but every intellectual defense will ring hollow without a life lived as a sacrament of the grace of God. And by grace here I do not simply mean mercy: I give the word its full, Catholic force, as a participation in the supernatural life of the Trinity. If we wish to display that the natural and supernatural meanings of marriage are really true, then we need to show in our own persons, our own bodies, that they do what we say they do. And this is displayed not only in marriages lived in fidelity, fertility, and charity; it is also manifested in celibacy, not only priestly and monastic celibacy but that of laymen. A celibate life, lived in the grace of Christ and the communion of fellow believers, can be a vivid sign of the holiness and significance of the flesh, necessary prerequisites for any thoroughly Christian approach to marriage.

On this point in particular there is some room for improvement. When I was an evangelical, I found that, with a very few exceptions, I would be positively opposed and discouraged if I made bold to talk about being celibate. This trend is not universal, but it is common (especially in America, I gather); it is also radically unbiblical. Justin Lee pointed out in his excellent book,* Torn, that many churches have no tools at all for making celibate Christians either feel welcome or figure out how on earth they are supposed to conduct their lives: "American culture tends to obsess over romantic relationships -- just turn on the radio, watch TV, or go to the movies for proof -- and people who make it to midlife without having married must face the perception that something is 'wrong' with them. The church has the power to be a family to single people and to give them a place to feel fully welcomed and included. All too often, we fail to do that. Even when churches offer special classes or programs for single adults, many of them only consist of some combination of general Bible knowledge and teachings designed to prepare people for meeting their future spouse; few of them adequately address the unique needs of single people as single people." (Torn, p. 239)

In other words, don't be this guy:

The Catholic Church has a tradition of celibacy far stronger than that of most Protestant bodies; indeed, that is one of the things that drew me across the Tiber. But its devices are aimed primarily at priests and members of religious orders; celibates who do not find themselves called to these specialized vocations can find themselves feeling that they are neither beast nor bird, like the hapless bat in Aesop. Moreover, as a (heterosexual) female friend of mine said to me, the kulturkampf can make the Church seem almost like a commercial for marriage at times, exacerbating the difficulties that already attend a vocation to celibacy with a feeling of isolation and strangeness. I don't know that we need more in the way of structures to support single believers; what is really needed is clear teaching about the whys, hows, and whats of celibacy outside the priestly and religious paradigms, together with integration into the whole community of faith: married, priestly, religious, and lay celibate. Support for celibate Christians, both in pursuing their vocations, and in seeing that they are embraced and held up by the community around them, is vital. And the word community, remember, means that you and I should do something, not that other people should do something.

I had originally thought I'd be able to deal with the second practical consideration after a concise treatment of re-evangelizing our culture about marriage, but the giant wound of how Catholics interact with queer people is proving more difficult to dress than I'd given it credit. Once again, I defer it to my next.

*Some Christians may be puzzled or discomfited that I describe this book as excellent, when it defends and promotes a view of homosexuality that is categorically discountenanced by the Catholic Church. I see no more difficulty about this than about my deep love for C. S. Lewis and Charles Williams, who even at their most Anglo-Catholic dissented from the doctrine of the papacy, which I on the contrary treasure. Few things have so degraded the quality of intellectual discourse in our culture as the false idea that one must despise things merely because one disagrees with them -- a point, coincidentally, made in rather different language by Justin Lee in his book.