Collect for Candlemas

Almighty and ever-living God, we humbly beseech thy majesty: that, as thine Only-Begotten Son was this day presented in the temple in the substance of our flesh; so we may be presented unto thee with pure and clean hearts, by the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

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."


  1. I think your commenter who described repentance hit on the crux of the matter: repentance means putting God first, even if we do not understand His desires for us or perceive them as unfair. I don't think it's so much a matter of honesty, as you say, but more a matter of understanding. Most feel nowadays that if we follow a rule we believe is from God but which we do not understand that we are being dishonest. In fact we may actually be exhibiting a humility which was expected in the middle ages but is disdained today. We're not judged by our understanding, but by our obedience. Better to understand, yes. But given a choice between the two...

    I was told by an apologist at Catholic Answers that the traditional Catholic theological opinion is that people really cannot be completely ignorant of the fact that homosexual sex acts are wrong. I took issue with this, until I had a conversation with a fellow traveler on the SSA highway, wherein I told him I never thought homosexual sex was wrong until I accepted Christ and the authority of what I decided was His Catholic Church. So I agreed at that time that since it was faith-based, how could I expect people without faith to know it was wrong.

    My friend seemed surprised. He asked me "you NEVER thought homosexual sex was wrong?" - No, I responded.

    "Not even the first time?"

    That surprised me. I had totally forgotten my first time. But there was a definite indication in my spirit that I had done wrong my first time. It is amazing how quickly that feeling went away however when I decided to continue the action anyway. I do not know how common this is in the experience of others. But some close friends have told me they had similar experiences.

    Going the route of the "honest seeker" means one must be honest and must seek diligently. I believe that very few people who really do that persist in homosexual behavior without some degree of culpability. My opinion of course! for what it's worth.

    Obviously there is a lot of uncertainty in determining whether or not other people are really in mortal sin or in "invincible ignorance". It is a God call. But I believe the Catholic faith gives us sufficient assurance that we can be confident that homosexual behavior is always displeasing to God, and for that reason always objectively wrong for any friend of ours who may be engaging in it. I liken it to watching a friend play russian roulette. And since it is not a small matter like stealing a ballpoint pen, but considered gravely immoral, it is perhaps more prudent than you say in your blog post to err on the side of "judgmental", even if the friendship suffers or we are perceived as unChrist-like, and if that happens to pour out our sincere love and concern in confident prayer to our God Who loves our friends more than we can ever hope to, to see how He will touch them and instruct them. If they are not seeking to do His will, perhaps He will call them in a way that is appealing or even irresistible to them...

    I feel it is important, for me in my personal situation, not to "mess up God's work" by giving the impression that homosexual actions any friend may be engaged in are ok. I mean as you say there are obviously various situations and we cannot go around always making the first move and condemning everyone we meet. Sometimes silence suffices. Everybody's individual situation and style is different and I do not dictate to others how they should live. I just remember how when I was in the gay life I simply did not allow anybody who was not gay-positive to gain any intimacy with me as a friend unless and until they accepted my homosexuality. I was very uncompromising, and I suspect this is still a common attitude among gay people. I think this might be a point that God has to make to the person. Sometimes homosexual friends actually seek you out later, after they have felt a call and decided to pursue God.

    Just another perspective. God bless!