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.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Is There a Third Way?

Last month, Reverend Danny Cortez of the Southern Baptist Convention suggested, in the wake of his own change of views regarding homosexuality, that neither unanimous rejection nor unanimous approval was necessary on the issue -- he spoke in favor of a "third way," that of allowing Christians to conscientiously differ on the subject.* Other Baptist leaders, such as Albert Mohler, decried both Cortez's views and the suggested compromise. Plenty of Christians on both sides of the debate have objected equally.

I think the word compromise has come to have a very unfairly dirty reputation. So has the thing it represents. One thing I didn't know about Catholic culture until years after I had converted, was how fractious Catholics can be over liturgical differences -- not just the sort of differences that look insignificant to outsiders but are in fact theologically important (like whether or not to allow laymen to take the Chalice for themselves instead of having it ministered to them), but over things that are really and truly insignificant (like whether to say Holy Spirit or Holy Ghost).** The intrusive arrogance of many Roman Rite Catholics toward the Catholic Churches of the east, whose history and usage is very different from our own in some respects (such as the ordination of married men to the priesthood), is particularly reprehensible. Of course, it isn't a specifically Catholic problem by any means: not to be unkind, but the continual splintering of Protestant communions speaks for itself in my opinion. And for that matter, it isn't even a specifically religious problem -- look at the insane political polarization in this country, despite the fact that, when set against the actual political possibilities that history affords us examples of, there are fewer differences between Democrats and Republicans than between, say, a labrador and a golden retriever. I am all for a spirit of compromise, or, if the word expresses the idea more clearly, a spirit of generosity. Also, all for labradors.

See how much better this is than combox wars over gun control?

And indeed, one of my basic desires in starting Mudblood Catholic in the first place was, without compromising my convictions, to act as a sort of diplomat-interpreter in the kulturkampf between Christendom and glistendom -- to try and achieve, not agreement necessarily, but a greater understanding and rapport between queer culture and Christians, especially Catholics. I think this is worthwhile, partly because, as one of the wounded of that culture war, I'd very much like to not be shot any more, please; moreover, I think that people being kind and respectful to one another is an end worth pursuing in itself, and an end that is much more easily attained when they comprehend one another than when they don't. Above both of these is the fact that, owing to faults on both sides, there are plenty of gays who have repressed their faith, and plenty of Christians who have repressed their sexuality, because they think (I believe, falsely) that the two cannot be maintained together, and therefore choose to renounce something that was precious to them in the name of maintaing something they cannot bear to give up. That kind of false dichotomy is agonizing and destructive, and I think that some good sense, imagination, and generosity -- in a word, some compromise -- would prevent a lot of people from tearing themselves in two.***

Here, though, I have to say that I think the compromise proposed by Rev. Cortez is -- how shall I put it? -- stupid.

Compromise over mere matters of taste, or over differences that are purely cultural (e.g., slurping is rude in the West but complimentary in the Orient), is not only acceptable but positively good. Compromise over matters of principle is bad. Because of course, in the former case, the compromise is an expression of a principle, the principle of respect and kindness towards others, and recognizing that what we happen to be used to or to like is not the same thing as what is morally right. That kind of compromise is a courtesy; compromising over right and wrong is, well, wrong, and in my opinion generally proves to be discourteous as well.

For this is no mere matter of cultural differences. If, in the eyes of God, gay sex is morally equivalent to straight sex, then gay unions should be approved by all Christians everywhere, without reservation or apology. A given individual, based on a personal call to celibacy, might of course choose to abstain from them, but that's quite different from saying that they are wrong. If the progressivist stance on homosexuality is right, then allowing for two opinions on the subject is kind of like allowing for two opinions on whether racism is okay: no, it doesn't determine whether you're a Christian or not, but we kind of need a higher bar for what is acceptable than that.

A bar about this high, for instance.

And if, by contrast, the teaching of the Catholic Church in particular and of Christendom throughout history generally is true, then engaging in a gay union isn't just a faux pas, like using the salad fork to eat a steak. It is something that God has told us not to engage in because it is bad for us. Not arbitrarily, but objectively.**** Making pastoral allowances might still be acceptable for difficult cases, but that's quite different from saying that the standard itself is the problem. If the traditional stance on homosexuality is right, then allowing for two opinions on the subject is kind of like allowing for two opinions on whether polygamy is okay: no, it doesn't determine whether God loves you or not, but we kind of need a higher bar for what is acceptable than that.

A bar about, eh, you get the idea.

In a situation like this, I have more respect for my opposite numbers in the debate -- men like Ben Moberg, Justin Lee, Andrew Sullivan, or Matthew Vines -- than I have for the kind of compromise represented by Cortez and those like him. For that matter, I have considerably more respect for Dan Savage than I do for that. For the progressivist idea is at least an idea. The "third way" suggestion is not an idea, but a refusal to have an idea; it is a declaration that this issue, in which the happiness and holiness of millions of human beings hangs in the balance, is insignificant enough to dismiss without giving it a real answer. Frankly, I find that dishonest and cowardly. Either way, it is a disservice to people who need, deserve, and were made for the truth; and I have no respect for that.

That's not to say that everybody has to have a belief from which they will never ever swerve and they must arrive at it right this instant. Going from one view to another is perfectly acceptable as long as it's done honestly; indeed, if it is both done honestly and involves coming to a view that is in fact more correct, it is called "becoming wiser." But refusing to admit the importance of the issue means refusing even the possibility of wisdom -- it removes the terms under which progress can be made. Changing direction may or may not get you closer to your goal, but declaring that every direction is an equally valid way of getting to your goal is more or less bound to get you lost, and frustrated. (Trust me, I live in Baltimore.)

TL;DR: Nut up and have an opinion. Gabriel out.

Maybe I'm being harsh, but in my defense I added this to my movie library recently. Been
re-watching the tragically snuffed splendor that is Todd and the Book of Pure Evil, too.

*This should not be confused with the video titled The Third Way, which deals specifically with the Catholic approach to the question, and in which the excellent people Melinda Selmys and Joseph Prever appear. Of that video I have very mixed feelings -- which is not code for "I hate it," it really does mean simply "mixed feelings" -- but there is no time or space to do that justice in a footnote.

**Holy Ghost is better. #anglicanusenerd

***As a Catholic Christian, I think it infinitely more important that a person remain or become a Christian than that they identify with their sexuality. Nonetheless, repressing sexuality is in my view never a good thing: learning to restrain sexual desires is just part of being a grown-up, but repressing them -- i.e., insisting that they aren't there or aren't an important part of you -- is unhealthy, and in fact makes it more difficult to deal with them, because of the element of dishonesty and resulting ignorance about yourself that repression entails.

***This doctrine is not the same as the claims, made by some people who profess it, about exactly why it is bad for us, a why that I for one do not claim to know. Some people do claim to know, and I think there are some explanations that seem more illuminating than others; but I have yet to come across an explanation that I find totally satisfactory. I therefore accept, as a matter of faith, that homosexuality is wrong, without necessarily knowing why -- just as many Christians, perhaps most, accept that Christ was born of a Virgin without necessarily knowing why, and indeed the full reasons why may not be knowable.


  1. OK I think you might have oversimplified here. I haven't read much of this guy's statement but if have read (and met and respect) one of his sources on this one. Ken Wilson argues for a third way in his book "A Letter to my Congregation" not on the ground of "who knows" but on the grounds that people of good faith, following God, interpret the Bible differently and that in such a situation St. Paul's (see what I did there) "weaker brother/stronger brother" model ought to apply to the situation.

    1. Well, my phrasing may have been too broad; I hadn't meant to imply that Cortez's position (or that of third way advocates generally) was one of mere know-nothing-ism; but ultimately I don't think the weaker brother principle applicable here. In matters objectively indifferent, certainly -- and one of the reasons I believe we need the Church's authority to define is to establish for certain when something is objectively indifferent. And certainly, people of good will may sincerely differ about the content of right and wrong, up to a point.

      But what's being proposed here, whether as a form of agnosticism or as an appeal to the weaker brother principle, is in my opinion not only unworkable but offensive. Unworkable, because the notion is that a single communion, not just Christians in general, should regard this as a matter of indifference or at the least as something which needs no united teaching, but this affects our whole doctrine of sexuality and human dignity: if the one side is true, then allowing believers to condemn gay unions is exactly as bad and unchristian as allowing them to condemn straight unions; if the other, then allowing believers to approve of gay unions is surrendering a basic element of God's plan for sex. Neither side need accuse the other of ceasing to be Christians, certainly, but I don't believe that spiritual and sacramental communion can really be maintained between such opposing viewpoints. The (in my opinion) offensiveness of treating this as a weaker brother question springs from the fact that, in either direction, it involves allowing the weaker brethren not merely to ask others to make concessions to a scruple, but to actively alter their beliefs about humanity and about Scripture. Reducing its importance in that fashion seems to me indefensible from either perspective: it either insults the dignity of gay people, or insults the integrity of revelation. I hope I am not being too harsh or too simplistic, but that is how I see it.

    2. So this raises some really important issues about the weaker brother principle: Wouldn't the abstainers in Rome have made prettying the same point you are making? It seems to me that the weaker brothers never see themselves as weaker brothers, if they did they would hangs their position and adopt the "stronger brother" position. I suspect that the implication Paul meant to leave is that we have to live in the tension of the fact that we are likely weaker brothers in situations where we think the issue is both clear and important. (Idolatry was certainly no laughing matter or even an issue of apparent moral indifference). I think the principle means that we are to extend fellowship and communion to any who call on Jesus as Lord even when they are unrepentantly (but in their own good conscience) engaged in what we take to be very serious sin or heresy -purposeful distinction coming from a Protestant-. How else could the weaker brother principle ever make sense?
      Re you first point in the reply (excuse me for responding backwards) it seems relevant that Cortez is a Protestant and therefore utterly lacking in a Church to provide boundaries for what is and is not out of court.

    3. Sorry, quick follow up re: if side A is correct then we should all be Marthew Vines-ing. I think this is true for individuals but since the stronger brother has a responsibility not to pressure the weaker to violate conscience, Paul seems to say that letting people avoid a freedom they cannot reconcile to is the way to go. Not sure I understand it either; but could one not construct a parallel case wherein meat eaters are unable to aleviate the hunger of abstainer brethren because they are require to respect their concience over their physical good. OK I think sexuality and intimacy are of deeper importance since starvation was probably not in the cards but the principal should still apply so long as conscience is of greater concern.... ? Tell me if this is insensitive.

    4. I am not certain I follow your second paragraph, so I am unable to tell you whether it's insensitive. Knowing you, I'd say probably not, but if you'd oblige me by saying it another way, I would be, um, obliged.

      It is of course relevant that Cortez is a Protestant; however, even in my Presbyterian days, I would have insisted that, at the very least, a given denomination ought to have a united view on questions of this importance. This would not need to result in denominations condemning one another (though of course it might and, under certain cultural circumstances, probably would), but it would mean each denomination having a clear understanding of itself: its own views and character. Even as a Catholic, I regard such solidity on the part of Protestants as a strength, not a weakness.

      The problem I have with the weaker brother principle as you're setting it forth is that I don't see how it can be distinguished, in practice, from refusing to take any moral stands at all. What is to prevent any and every moral dispute being relegated to this status? -- for every one of them is characterized by a rigorous ("weaker") side versus a generous ("stronger") side. (Certainly we should respect other men's consciences -- but, to adapt Mencken, I personally think we need only respect them in the same sense that we respect other men's theories that their wives are beautiful and their children smart.) That is why I think that the very phenomenon of the weaker brother principle implicitly reinforces the need for an ongoing authority with the power to define. Without that, I think the weaker brother principle ultimately devolves into a useless relativism.

    5. Sorry about that, I had been typing on my phone - always a bad idea. Here are my thoughts on the waker brother stronger brother principle laid out for a blog post I have not yet decided to post:
      There have been quite a few responses to ALTMC by Ken Wilson and so far I have found that they fall rather conveniently into three categories: Those who agree with him, those who disagree with the hermeneutics he uses to come to his side A (God blesses gay marriage and gay sex within the context of a gay marriage) position, and those who disagree with his interpretation of the “Weaker and Stronger Brother” principle in Romans 14. I suspect there are probably other reactions but those I have read so far have all fit this breakdown.
      I want to address the third category here. Not to put too fine a point on it, these responses have all begged the question and I believe that they have made this mistake because they have failed to grasp the (admittedly scary) implications of the weaker and stronger brother principle from the start. * geek rant - to “beg the question” is a specific logical fallacy in which one argues using their conclusion as a premise, it is often also referred to as circular reasoning; “begging the question” is NOT “raising a question” or “bringing up a question” - end rant.
      My contention (and I suspect Ken Wilson would agree with me) is that people have failed to grasp the fact that the weaker and stronger brother principle is meaningless unless we accept that there must be situations in which we are the weaker brother. The great majority of arguments rejecting Wilson’s view begin by saying that homosexuality is a clear-cut moral issue with strong, unambiguous, biblical support. They then go on to argue that Paul was only talking about debatable matters of opinion when he outlined the weaker and stronger brother principle and that since the issue of homosexuality is a clear-cut moral issue with strong, unambiguous, biblical support, it does not fall under the weaker and stronger brother principle.
      The problem with this position is that if it is held, it would lead to a situation in which nobody ever saw themselves as the weaker brother; after all, people hold strict and uncompromising positions specifically because they believe their position to be strong, unambiguous and (when it is an issue of Christian theology or praxis) holding biblical support. You will see this quite easily if you ask yourself to identify the areas in which you are, in fact, the weaker brother. If Paul’s command in Romans is meant to have any relevance today then surely there must be some area in which you are…. Of course it is incredibly easy to identify weaker brothers all around you (tobacco, alchohol, or even pot use come to mind) but if you think about it for a few seconds you will see that in those areas, the “weaker brothers” don’t see themselves as “weaker brothers” but as those holding to clear-cut moral issues with strong, unambiguous, biblical support - and they think you are sinning if you engage in these activities.
      So what is to be done? I suspect that Paul is telling us that we must go through life being humble enough to admit that there is at least a possibility that in any of our firmly held beliefs (outside of the basics of the gospel) we may, in fact, be the weaker brother. I also believe that this means that Christian unity is more important to Jesus than good orthodoxy or even orthopraxy. After all, if Paul is followed here it will mean that occasionally we treat people who are actually sinning as though they were actually stronger brothers. Is our faith up to that challenge? I think it has to be.

    6. I'm sorry to have taken so long to get back to you. Here are my thoughts.

      I admit I have to take issue with the assertion that weaker brothers will never consider themselves to be such. My own practice of Catholicism, while by no means exemplary, does involve certain tendencies and even scruples that I readily recognize as "weaker brother" phenomena -- my insistence on maintaining the custom of abstaining from meat on Fridays is a good example, despite the fact that outside of Lent this is now optional (although some form of penance is to be done on Fridays regardless); likewise my stubbornness about observing the Sunday Sabbath. However, this is a mere quibble: I don't think it greatly affects your argument.

      For of course you are quite right that weaker brethren don't, as a rule, think of themselves as such. And the weaker brother principle is most certainly meant to be a way of reconciling people with differing emphases and even, to a point, differing convictions, in a communion that is truly catholic.

      There's a catch, though. In asserting the right of men to follow their personal convictions in certain matters (for we know quite well from other of his writings that there were many matters he decidedly did not leave to personal conviction), St. Paul was saying, with the authority of an apostle, that these things were objectively irrelevant -- in other words, he was taking a side, even while insisting that space had to be made for those who didn't feel comfortable on that side. And in doing so, he was telling the weaker brethren that they were wrong, if and to the extent that they argued that these things were objectively sins. The decision that the difference is not important is precisely a theological decision about the morality and gravity of the question.

      And the thing is, St. Paul had the apostolic authority to deliver such a decision. I don't believe we can do without such authority (which is why I became a Catholic in the first place), because when questions like that of homosexuality confront us, I don't find the weaker brother principle a remotely satisfying answer. I'm not specially concerned to foist Catholic practice onto non-Catholics; but if I were Side A, I can't imagine how betrayed I would feel by a church that permitted people to attack my marriage as living in a state of impenitent sin ("do not let what is good be spoken of as evil"); and if I were wrong about being Side B, I know exactly how betrayed I would feel by a church that allowed me to be deceived into a celibate life that I have neither skill nor enthusiasm in pursuing ("you bind up heavy burdens and will not lift a finger to move them"). Eating or not eating meat sacrificed to idols is, to my mind, in an insupportably different category from the question of natural happiness as found in marital relationships. I need and want -- I believe that we all need, and that most of us want -- an authority that gives a definite answer, on the basis of the conviction that it has the right and indeed the obligation to do so.

      As to the idea that unity is more important than right doctrine or right practice, I simply cannot make sense of such a notion. What follows may be based on a misprision of what you were saying, and if so, I earnestly beg correction, but -- unity consisting in what? If neither truth nor love (which, after all, are what orthodoxy and orthopraxy mean) are the things we're united for, then frankly, unity can go to the devil. And if Jesus cannot, or at any rate won't, reliably tell us what truth and love consist in, then He's not the Husband I left my boyfriend for.

  2. I was actually surprised to read this here. You're usually such a "big tent" guy.

    Right and wrong vs ecclesial communion are two different things. Maybe not for Catholics. But just look at the Anglicans.

    Some of the Anglo-Catholics who don't accept women bishops are staying in the C of E! They'll be able to put their parishes under a male-line bishop and life goes on.

    Yes, they'll be staying believing that everyone else's sacraments are invalid or whatever. But what does breaking communion do? Leaving wouldn't get the others to change nor make their sacraments valid somehow.

    Likewise, the liberal side might think the conservatives are sexist bigots. Well, but that's on their conscience. Driving them away (by excommunication or refusing to accommodate) wouldn't end their alleged what's the point?

    You don't need a united institutional front. One group can take one political or pastoral approach, the other the opposite. It's unclear what church membership or communion on Sunday have to do with it.

    It's only the Catholic Church and it's claims of infallibility that make tolerating two sides incoherent.

    Everyone else seems to realize that the notion of a "duty to speak out or anathemize" doesn't make sense in a context where the wrong party won't be swayed by the excommunication and so it will be pointless other than from a "keeping ourselves doctrinally pure" perspective.

    You say "If, in the eyes of God, gay sex is morally equivalent to straight sex, then gay unions should be approved by all Christians everywhere, without reservation or apology"...and that might be so, but "should" isn't how the real world works. Is does not equal ought. And so a person may believe deeply that equality is a huge imperative of justice and fight for it passionately. But what does that have to do with excommunicating anyone who disagrees? It won't make them conform, probably, it'll just burn a bridge uselessly. Yes you might believe the other sides stance is morally horrible or dangerous...but if there isn't a good chance it will cause them to change...what does cutting them off have anything to do with it? Because someone holds bad ideas they're tainted as a person?

    Not all churches see themselves as primarily communions of doctrinal agreement. Yours might, but that's not the primary grounds of communion or membership for all churches.

    1. Forgive my long-winded reply, but you have raised some extremely important subjects, and I'd like to try and cram a halfway decent response into the combox.

      I'm aware, naturally, that not every Christian community defines itself according to what it believes; but that's a large part of why I joined the Catholic Church rather than any other. If I may put it this way, I tend to be "big tent" because I believe that the Tent that God designed is, in point of fact, big -- not because big tents are nicer than small ones, which is sometimes true and sometimes not. It may be true to say that it is only the Catholic Church's claim to infallibility (and comparable claims, such as those made by the Orthodox) that makes tolerating doctrinal contradictions unacceptable, but, being a Catholic, I must admit that I am not greatly moved by this fact, and that it was precisely the hunger for definite answers that moved me to consider the claims of Catholicism. I think Chesterton was perfectly right when he pointed out that, if progress is to be made, it must be towards a fixed point, not a changing one. He used the example of a man trying to paint all the world blue: he might make very slow progress if he painted something blue every day, but if he changed his favorite color every day, he'd make no progress at all.

      As for what insistence on definite answers does, you are quite right that such insistence does not, by itself, change anyone's mind. However, I don't feel that this is a compelling argument. The Church is a community that has a purpose and a definite character: this is impressed upon us in every book of the New Testament. The purpose is the commands of Christ; the definite character is the Person of Christ. Every doctrinal dispute and definition is, in the last resort, a decision about what those commands mean and what that Person consists in. The refusal of the Anglican Communion to make such definitions is in my opinion a weakness, not a strength -- the fact that it is united in name does not effect a real unity of spirit, which I think can be seen in the increasing fragmentation and inconsistency between Anglican churches. I for one could not manage even to be interested in an institution in which such formlessness was not only tolerated but the desideratum, let alone placing my trust in such a thing.

    2. It doesn't follow from this that those who do are bad people. A very good person may be mistaken about any number of things, and may be a much better person than someone who happens to be right. But, if the spiritual world is real, then what we think about it matters, because if we think things about it that are not true, we won't be properly equipped to deal with it -- for much the same reasons that if someone thought, for instance, that Mount Everest was a fairly easy, warm climb, they would probably get themselves injured or worse in attempting it. That's not to say that someone who was grossly underequipped, untrained, or completely mistaken about the nature of Mount Everest might not make it up; might not display greater natural talent at mountaineering than a professional; might not even, now and then, make it up faster than an equipped, trained climber. But none of that is a sound argument against good equipment and good training.

      Why some Anglo-Catholics are remaining in the Church of England, I can't be certain; but regarding sacraments administered by female bishops as invalid is not, to someone like me, an "or whatever" sort of question. It goes right to the heart of what the Church is and what she is for. The sacraments, in our belief, are the means by which God makes Himself personally present; if those means are invalidated then He is not there, objectively, and they will correspondingly not have the effects that we depend on them for. This belief does not make the difference between a good person and a bad person, but it does make the difference between, for example, worshipping God and worshipping a piece of bread and a cup of wine, or between receiving the Holy Ghost into oneself and just having some oil smeared on your forehead.

      It's quite true that "should" is not how the World works. I view this as an excellent reason not to join its side. Indeed, to my mind, part of the point of having a Church is to have a place where Should is enthroned in preference to Is -- realizing that this will not be possible, admitting that there will always be shortcomings, but defying the possible in the name of the ideal; or, in theological language, "Not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh, but by the taking of the manhood into God." I don't believe anything shy of that can give the human race lasting satisfaction, which I judge to be the case from the perennial return to idealism that we can trace throughout history: if pragmatism could be final, I feel we would have settled for it by now.