Summary of the Law (said at every Sunday Mass)

Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ saith: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, with all thy mind, and with all thy strength. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Watch Your Language, Dammit

This post was percolating in my mind for a day or so already, but what determined me to write it was an unexpected conversation over Twitter with a couple other Christian bloggers (Ryan Kuramitsu and Ben Moberg in particular). I recently reviewed Matthew Vines' God and the Gay Christian on Amazon as well as here at Mudblood Catholic, and said something in passing about Spiritual Friendship, describing them as a prominent group of orthodox gay Christians. (The word prominent may have been stretching things a bit, but prominent by our standards.) This caused a mild consternation, in that at first I was understood to be saying that gay-affirming* Christians aren't actually Christians.

Nothing could be further from my mind. I don't find debates over who is "really" a Christian to be very useful in the first instance; debates over what assertion is right, yes, but that's quite different. The ugly tendency, so frequently on display among Protestants and not infrequently among Catholics, of declaring that our intellectual opponents are "not real Christians" or "Catholics in name only" is disgusting to me, and I want no part of it. God knows His own; it is not my business to weed His garden -- I'd only muck it up. If a given belief is untrue, then that is an adequate criticism of it. Speculations about the spiritual condition of those who hold it are unnecessary as well as unseemly and, in fact, unchristian: love doth not behave itself unseemly, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil.

And who is a Christian is, in my opinion, better settled by very simple and objective tests. Have they been validly baptized? Do they profess the Apostles' Creed? Then they are Christians. Christians can still be wrong about things; Christians may not actively practice their religion, or may apostasize from it at some point; but the criteria for answering whether someone is a Christian in the first place are, in my view, questions of objective and sacramental fact, not of private judgment of someone else's standing before God.

It is the easier for me to believe this, in that I have long since discarded the essentially non-Catholic belief that only Christians go to Heaven (as well as the Calvinist belief that all Christians, at least all the ones who are "really" Christians, do go to Heaven). It is quite true that God respects the choice of those who deliberately and finally refuse Him, preferring some inferior good in His place; the technical term for these inferior goods, as experienced apart from God, is the term hell; that is what the Athanasian Creed means when it says, Whosoever will be saved: before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholick faith. Which faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled: without doubt he shall perish everlastingly. But we cannot know who has and has not deliberately and finally refused, or accepted, salvific grace, and it is none of our business. Whether a person is a Christian in about the only useful sense of the term -- that is, whether they are baptized, communicating**, and professing the faith -- is something we can know by simple observation; which is what makes the term Christian useful in the first place. And the answer to that question does matter -- for, if Christianity is true, then men ought to pursue it, because man is made for truth -- but it is a distinct question from whether a person will enjoy eternal fellowship with God.

Monsignor Ronald Knox, who was the Catholic chaplain of Oxford University from 1926 to 1939 (as well as a translator of Scripture, a detective-story author, and a correspondent of C. S. Lewis), put the matter splendidly, when discussing in particular the position of Protestants from a Catholic perspective:
[M]y own impression is that there are very few Protestants who are Protestants in bad faith. They are in good faith, so long as they remain outside the Church through invincible ignorance. That's a phrase of ours that worries people frightfully ... If you've got a tutorial at six, and your watch tells you it's half-past five, and you're pretty sure your watch is wrong, and there's a clock in the next room you know to be right -- then that ignorance of the time which makes you half an hour or so late for your tutorial is not invincible ignorance; you could have overcome it if you had taken the trouble to look at the clock in the next room. So your friend's ignorance would be vincible, if he already had a pretty shrewd idea that the Catholic position was right, but refused to read the C.T.S. tracts you offered him because he jolly well knew he was going to lose a legacy if he became a Catholic. But that's not his position; a hundred accidents of parentage, education, misconception, sentimental prejudice and so on make him so far from the Church that his conversion would seem a kind of miracle; he really knows nothing about Catholics except that you are one, which may or may not be an inducement -- very well, his ignorance is invincible. It is the kind of ignorance he could not get rid of by taking any steps which he could normally be expected to take. So he's all right.***

Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word; 
that they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us:
that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. -- John 17.20-21

Not least for such reasons as this, I consider it unconscionable to attack the sincerity of gay-affirming Christians. It is a flagrant violation of the Golden Rule; it is bad tactics and bad manners; in fact, it's slanderous. To attack a man's character is an assault on the highest and most precious part of his being, a violation of the commandment Thou shalt not kill. And I have absolutely no sympathy with people who regard such assaults as a form of flippant entertainment, or as being justified by a difference of creed.

Nor is it wise. Contempt is not a good place from which to argue intelligently. It's rather like claiming that your opponent in a sword fight is a bad swordsman as well as fighting for the wrong side: if you're wrong, you'll get cut, and frankly you'll deserve it.

I tried really hard, but I couldn't track down a postable version of the sword fight 
between Mal and Atherton Wing from Firefly. So I guess I'm just a good man.

This is one thing that has made me quite angry about several of the negative reviews I've seen of Vines' book. I disagree with him, yes; but calling him a liar, or accusing him of arguing as he does for self-serving ends, is a gross injustice and profoundly uncharitable -- if uncharity can be profound.****

And it sends a very nasty message to those outside the faith. In such a thoroughly if superficially Christianized nation, it is probably impossible actually to follow C. S. Lewis' counsel on the subject, but what he said about intra-Christian debates should be borne in mind: "Divisions among Christians are a sin and a scandal, and should never be discussed except among those who already believe that Jesus is the Son of God." Respect for our theological opponents is not only a moral obligation; it is also a good witness (though, I admit, I would hope that "It's the right thing to do" is an adequate motivation). I know both from my own heart and from some people that I've spoken with who have left the faith or remained outside of it, that the mutual hatred and spite of Christians is one of the strongest testimonies against the faith that exists. It is on account of such things that the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you, and we will be held responsible for that.

*There is no good term for this. Gay-affirming would seem to suggest that any other view of gayness is repressive or demeaning; admittedly some, uh, gay-affirming Christians believe this, but plenty don't, and it isn't woven into their theology as such -- Justin Lee is a particularly shining example on this point. Progressive is pleasingly neutral as a descriptor, but irksomely vague. Revisionist, while etymologically very apt, sounds insulting and prejudicial. Heretical is in my view strictly accurate, but it is one of those words that tends to produce more heat than light, not least because it is virtually always taken -- by both sides -- to be a moral judgment of the person, rather than an intellectual statement of belief. Side A seems to avoid pretty much all of the criticisms that could be leveled at the above terms; and so, naturally, nobody knows what it means.

**I.e. receiving holy Communion, in contradistinction from those who either willfully ignore the Sacrament or have been excommunicated for just cause. In saying this, I am recognizing communicating as one of the essential Christian duties, without commenting on the precise nature of the act outside the Catholic Church -- nor even within her, since it's not directly relevant to the subject.

***From In Soft Garments (pp. 120-121), a collection of some of the addresses Msgr. Knox gave during his chaplaincy. (C.T.S. stands for the Catholic Truth Society, an evangelistic association which still exists today.) The phrase invincible ignorance is not much in use today among Catholics, partly, I think, because of the misunderstandings that Msgr. Knox was clearing up in this very address. The Catholic Church has not, however, relinquished the claim to infallibility, or the moral and psychological theology, which the term rose out of in the first place.

****I have also been puzzled, almost to the point of offense, by how many people are rushing to point out that his arguments are not new.
"Do we care? Are we caring about that?"
Vines' arguments don't have to be new; they have to be accurate. Moreover, insofar as many of his critics have a high view of Christian tradition, it seems more than slightly ironic that they would speak of his lack of newness as though it were a fault. If he's wrong, newness will not help him, and if he's right, newness will do him no damage.


  1. Oh well said! I was typing very nearly the same thoughts (albeit far less eloquently) just to nights ago to a friend of mine re: Albert Mohler's response to Mr. Vines.

  2. Thanks for the post. Hot dang. I almost find it amusing how the church picks its fashionable sins -for which you'll go straight to hell if you died in that act- as opposed to 'natural consequences of being human.' Sometimes the rather Scripture-less assertions of thing like "suicide=hell" feel like a way of closing ranks and defending Surburbia. I wonder if being gay and having sex has been singled out as a deal breaker purely because its challenges the other accoutrements of Christian subculture -in ways that heterosexual rape and teenage sex do not.

    Oh -and out of curiosity- what do you mean by deliberately and finally refusing God? As in, are you speaking of those that have heard the Gospels, perceived its implications, and rejected it openly? Only those? It was one of the great fords of faith I foundered on before I returned to the fold.

    1. The belief of the Catholic Church, and my belief, can be stated thus:

      God is love. Man is made in the image of God, and for the end of enjoying God; therefore, man is made for love, both to be loved by God and to love Him in return. Therefore every man is in some type of relationship to God: conscious or unconscious, good or bad, improving or degrading, stable or fickle.

      Now, in order for the love between two people to be most fully and rightly love, it must be freely chosen; chosen with, so to speak, a maximum of freedom. That requires, among other things, knowledge of the facts and their implications involved in one's choice.

      So, at some point in our existence (the point that theologians call "particular judgment"), we become aware of the relationship that we are in to God, and of who and what He essentially is, and we are therefore confronted -- not so much by Divine imposition, as by the inner logic of the reality He made, including ourselves as free beings -- we are therefore confronted with: will we love God or not love Him?

      We are confronted with rehearsals of that great choice in smaller choices throughout our lives; sometimes, those smaller choices take on, in their own right, the clarity and gravity that makes them either acts of heroic virtue, or else mortal sins. But that final choice does eventually come to everyone.

      Now, because we as Catholics believe that God revealed Himself in Jesus Christ, and appointed the Church to carry on, maintain, and proclaim this self-revelation and self-gift of God, we correspondingly believe that the normal duty of man is to be a Catholic. Since Catholicism, in our view, is God's fullest mode of extending Himself to us in love, the fact that we are all in relationship to Him means, inevitably, relating ourselves to that extension of Himself; that extension being called mystically the Body of Christ, and colloquially the Catholic Church.

      But what we aren't told is how much of the historical data anybody knows, or needs to know, in order to make the kind of fundamental choice of being that is at stake here. Let us suppose an Australian aborigine (mostly because I've always liked the word aborigine) who lives and dies without ever hearing the Gospel. The same choice, to accept or reject the fact of Divine love, is presented to him as to anybody; in accepting it, he is *in fact* accepting membership in the Church, though as regards his earthly life he obviously would never have put it that way, as he didn't know there was a Church and may not even have clearly realized that there was a God. The thing is, because his will is still free, he is also still capable of rejecting that Divine love. Anybody who refuses God in that particular judgment -- to put it another way, anyone whose deepest and most free expression of their being is that they are not His, whatever else they are -- gets what they want. The fact that they did not have a great many advantages that we have, growing up in a Christianized society and so forth, will surely move God's compassion; but when compassion has done all it can, the will remains free, to return love toward God, or to return anything else toward Him -- be it hatred, indifference, or disbelief.

      Now, of those who have heard the Gospel presented to them plainly and have rejected it, it's quite natural to be worried about them, from a Catholic point of view. What is also quite natural, but, according to Catholic theology, unjustified and uncalled for, is to declare what we think their eternal fate will be. It may possibly be our place to warn them. But even then, our warning must be of the type that warns of impending disaster *if they stay the course they're on,* and we can't read the future or their hearts.

    2. Thanks for the reply! I apologize for my own untimeliness. My APs are bent on my destruction, these days.

      I think I've held a perspective quite similar to yours -though I'm not all too familiar with the concept of particular judgement. I've always imagined it rather like titration -by the numerous, small choices we make towards the light- until at one point we come to a crisis and are indeed forced to decide. Any consecutive 'drop' brings us at last into the arms of Christ. Similarly, one who hasn't and will not hear a real presentation of the Gospel will be judged by that titration -and how far they were willing to pursue the face of God in their place and time.