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.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Five Quick Takes


I got to spend this past weekend up in Worcester, Massachusetts, with my friend Joseph Prever, erstwhile author of the outstanding Steve Gershom blog. We met two or three years ago through reading each others' work and, more importantly, a shared love of Strong Bad.

He has gone into a sort of retirement from blogging, though he is currently working on the possibility of getting a Courage chapter started in Worcester. He is also making some nifty electronica, complete with YouTube channel.

While I was up there, we went out to visit Plymouth, which I'd never been to before (actually I'd never been anywhere in Massachusetts before). My mother is distantly descended from the Mayflower Pilgrims -- though, come to think of it, is anybody today closely descended from them? -- and specifically from Elder William Brewster, their pastor. I sometimes amuse myself with wondering what he would think of me -- and I suspect that, out of being Catholic, gay, a pacifist, and an anarchist, he'd probably object most strongly to the first, given that he and his left the Church of England and indeed the country of England because it was too papist. I'd hoped to find the old Brewster house if it were still standing; as far as we could tell, it wasn't, but we did manage to find Plymouth Rock, which turned out to be a lot more difficult than we anticipated, because apparently most people don't choose to visit Plymouth or its rock in the horrible January freeze, so a lot of the tourist stuff was shut down.

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Speaking of gay Christian authors, there's been some good stuff lately. Eve Tushnet (who is going to be talking about her new book, Gay and Catholic, at the Catholic Information Center in DC tomorrow night at 6) posted this piece on her ever-excellent Patheos blog, of which the following is a selection:
I did a long, fascinating interview ... in which the interviewer is a secular progressive. He found aspects of my book intriguing, but at one point he said, "Look, I need to push back on you a bit here. You talk a lot about the need for churches to change and become more accepting and welcoming of gay people. And you want to reduce stigma against not only gay people, but same-sex affection ... But can you really reconcile reduction of stigma with upholding Catholic morality? ..." 
... Jesus attempted this same trick. He made the prohibitions on lust more strict, and yet welcomed and succored prostitutes and adulteresses. 
Part of how He squared this circle was by prohibiting judgment. Spending your time imagining what those hand-holding guys might be doing is itself immoral. Acting to stigmatize and humiliate them is itself immoral. This obviously makes building a nice Christian society really hard. The tools of shame and social pressures which all societies use to maintain their boundaries suddenly become moral problems, not solutions.
It's extremely hard to bring together an elevated and exacting moral idealism, such as Christianity demands, with grace, humility, and patience attitude for those who don't live up to that idealism, such as Christianity demands. To adapt a phrase from Charles Williams, it's really hard to combine sanctity with sanity: one of the things that made the saints saintly being that they perceived the difficulty of the problem, and solved it correctly.

There is also this piece from Seth Crocker, author of Building Bridges in War Zones, dealing a little with his own coming out experience -- not so much to others, as to himself -- and interactions with ex-gay thought. I've read a hundred stories like it, but he's a good writer, and I was touched by it all over again when I read it.

And Melinda Selmys posted this at Spiritual Friendship a couple of weeks ago, dealing with the saddening and media-prominent suicide of Leelah Alcorn, a transgender teenager. I don't at all know where to stand on trans issues; and I am the more reluctant to form an opinion, between the (so far) silence of the Church on the subject and the fact that, not being trans myself, there will always be a sense in which I don't know what I'm talking about and a sense in which I don't have to deal with the consequences of anything I think. But I do think that compassion, and still more respect, for trans people in our society is seriously lacking, and that wants correcting regardless of what doctrine of gender and body we espouse. A clearer knowledge of trans issues, and most especially listening to what trans people have to say about themselves, is to my mind a vital first step in this.

With a curious persistence and frequency, I've been meeting more transgender and otherwise genderqueer people lately, and I want to do more learning, praying, and thinking about these issues. For now, I'm content to state my ignorance frankly (since "The conviction of wisdom is the plague of man"), and to wait for greater light.

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Ongoing apologies to my Patreon sponsors, for whom I think I've posted one reward so far? Which means I owe you, like, three? I feel really bad. I'll try to do ... something. I don't even know what.

Also, thank you to my Patreon sponsors! I'm touched by the support you guys give me, especially since blogging has turned out to be suspiciously similar to working on a few occasions, with the exception that jobs have an inscrutable tendency to make you put on pants.

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I participated, almost three months ago now, in a -- well, I don't know what to call it. Forum? Discussion ... community? A something. Anyway, it's called Oriented to Love and it's extremely difficult to explain in words what goes on there (though Sarah of A Queer Calling, whom I rode up with, did a good job of it here.) It was a group of twelve Christians, no two people having the same combination of theological views, sexual orientation, and relationship status. Though there were one or two things that made me uncomfortable, none of them had anything to do with interacting with people I disagreed with. The amount of respect and even affection that we displayed to one another, as almost total strangers, was startling and beautiful to me. I've thought about writing a post about it, although I can't think of much to say except "I liked this, it was super cool!" which is hard to make into blog post length unless you start messing with the font size. It is worth noting that it's an ongoing event; they have two or three a year, so at any given moment they're probably accepting applications.

The thing that was, I think, so powerful about it was not simply that we weren't concerned to persuade one another of our views. The mere absence of theology, or of anything (other than sin), doesn't in my opinion possess that kind of power; and it must be said, too, that no Christian life could be conducted without a modicum of theology, because applying one's intelligence to life is part of what makes you keep being alive -- as much in the spiritual realm as anywhere else -- and, in the last resort, is all theology means.

But I digress. I think the thing that was so powerful there was that each one of us was concerned with a rather different problem, which I think could be fairly summed up as follows: From where I am, how can I best love and understand people who aren't where I am? And, insofar as the Body of Christ (to say nothing of the Church and the World) interacts primarily with people who are different, there's a sense in which I think what we were doing was opening ourselves to one of the basic and elemental modes in which supernatural love has to exist.

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I've been rereading Introduction to Christianity by Pope Benedict XVI, and his brilliance is just magnificent. I've been lingering particularly over his treatment of the Trinity, which he illuminates with a wisdom whose like I've never seen. It's also reminded me how funny it is that people think of him as this brutal Grand Inquisitor type, when he has things like this to say:
Every one of the main basic concepts in the doctrine of the Trinity was condemned at one time or another; they were all adopted only after the frustration of a condemnation; they are all accepted only inasmuch as they are at the same time branded as unusable ... 
[E]very heresy is at the same time a cipher for an abiding truth, a cipher we must now preserve with other simultaneously valid statements, separated from which it produces a false impression. In other words, all these statements are not so much gravestones as the bricks of a cathedral, which are, of course, only useful when they do not remain alone but are inserted into something bigger, just as even the positively accepted formulas are valid only if they are at the same time aware of their own inadequacy. 
... The physicist is becoming increasingly aware today [in 1969] that we cannot embrace given realities -- the structure of light, for example ... -- in one form of experiment and so in one form of statement; that, on the contrary, from different sides we glimpse different aspects, which cannot be traced back to each other. We have to take the two together -- say, the structure of particle and wave -- without being able to find a comprehensive explanation ... 
[I]t remains an exciting simile for the actualitas divina, for the fact that God is absolutely "in act" [and not "in potency"], and for the idea that the densest being -- God -- can subsist only in a multitude of relations [i.e., the Trinity], which are not substances but simply "waves," and therein form a perfect unity and also fullness of being. 
-- Pp. 172-175
This is only a small glimpse of His Holiness' genius. And it is of course no threat to orthodoxy -- not because he was the Pope (which, when he wrote this book, he wasn't), but because orthodoxy, while mistress of its own sphere, has nevertheless a finite sphere; she expresses the truth as best as it can be expressed in terms of the human mind, and admitting the intrinsic limitations of that mind is therefore no insult to her. It is the perennial problem of how we can know anything without knowing everything: regarding which the Catholic Church has always steadfastly maintained that we, and even she, do not know everything, but nevertheless she and we can and do know something. I don't think it's entirely a coincidence that Pope Benedict has a longstanding interest in the work of Dante, since the point of the Divine Comedy is very largely that Beatrice was not God, but that she was Beatrice; that she was not everything, but she was something.

"Then you are Somebody, sir?"
"I am."


  1. Regarding trans issues in Take II, I agree with your position wholeheartedly. My exposure to Catholics and transgenderism (is that a word?) is limited to one blog. Regardless, your points about being respectful even if not quite knowing what else to do, and about realizing that non-trans people's opinions about transgenderism don't have consequences for the people themselves, are spot-on. The only comment I ever have on the subject is that the idea that "God made a mistake" by putting someone in the wrong body doesn't seem to square with what I know about God. Any god that makes mistakes is not a very good god.

    1. A fair enough point. The catch in it is that, produced to its extreme, it would bind us to believe that everything that exists and happens is entirely good exactly as it is -- which would make a nonsense out of Christianity, and even out of the idea of goodness.

      The reply to this, of course, is that we live in a fallen world: for reasons best known to Himself, God does not impose either goodness or completeness upon creation; He made all things good, and with an innate tendency to grow towards completion, but neither imperfection nor active evil have been prevented from existing. And, while there may be one, I personally don't know of any convincing argument for why this should apply to the sex of our bodies as much as anything else.

      More compelling still is the phenomenon of intersex people. They're not common, but they exist: people who, not just psychologically or stylistically, but biologically, exhibit traits of both sexes, sometimes (though not always) even possessing more than one set of genitals. Which suggests that, if we do maintain that God does not make mistakes, we must either concede that the Fall has affected the linkage between body and spirit even to the extent of interfering with the apparent simplicity of gender, or that there are things *other than* men and women in the human race. Or, possibly, both.

      The first possibility seems to me to be really quite normal and natural for a Catholic, since it squares with everything from poor eyesight to homosexuality to having a sixth finger; but, if this is true, I don't (right now) see any reason why, on those premises, it wouldn't be possible for a soul to get the wrong kind of body. I'm not sure what to make of the other possibility, though it does appear at first blush to be incompatible with Genesis 1 and 2.

  2. It seems to me that it's a good thing the Church hasn't yet said anything definitive about transgenderism. The subject is too new and needs to be discussed and thought through. It is only fairly recently that I came to realize that sex change operations aren't the only way people seek to deal with it. There are those who plausibly argue that such surgery is, at best, unnecessary from a biological standpoint and, at worse, mutilation. But then, what of other cosmetic surgeries?

    In response to Melinda Selmys' quoting of the line, "God doesn't make mistakes," I suggested that it means that the transgendered have the right body. But I think the line is very dangerous because it leaves aside the question of the extent to which whatever we're talking about is God's direct creation and the extent to which it is part of the fallenness of creation in its present state — whether we're talking about body, orientation, or any other aspect of ourselves.

    We need to distinguish between what is morally necessary and what is societal custom which can be morally set aside. Even if being transgender is a "disorder" similar to homosexual orientation, that doesn't mean that it is necessary to change it, or even to try. But, as with homosexual orientation, acceptance with respect, compassion, and understanding seems to be called for.