Collect

Collect for Purity (said at the beginning of every Mass)

Almighty God, unto whom all hearts be open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid: cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love thee, and worthily magnify thy holy name; through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Compassion-Coäggression

Telling a Suffolk College employee No today when she asked if she could pray for me felt freeing. Now, I spend most of my day talking privately in my head to God, so it’s not like I’m anti-Christian or anti-prayer. But so many times in my life prayer has been used as spiritual manipulation. It’s one element among many that makes communal faith difficult to navigate. I refuse to give up my power to straight Christians. I refuse to be someone who needs condescension from caring Christians to belong.


—Abel Potter [1]

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Compassion is power. That, I think, is why it is so frequently resented.

Both evil and good qualities can hamstring Christian witness and kindness. Evil—in the forms of rudeness, judgmentalism, scandalous behavior, and whatever else—does so in a fairly straightforward way. But even good qualities can inhibit evangelism, more subtly; and Christians are not always to blame for this, but at any rate we can’t do anything (except pray) for the flaws of others, and flaws of our own we can and should work on.

The assertion that good behavior can be bad evangelism may seem paradoxical: yet paradox or not, it is as old as Christianity. Christ commanded his disciples quite definitely to do whatever the Pharisees said, on the ground that they sat in Moses’ seat. Charles Williams offers a key to the mystery:
The hypothesis was that there was operative within the Church the sacred and eternal reconciliation of all things, which the Church did not and could not deserve. The Church (it was early decided) was not an organization of sinless men but of sinful, not a union of adepts but of less than neophytes, not of illuminati but of those that sat in darkness. Nevertheless, it carried within it an energy not its own, and it knew what it believed about that energy. …

But this was not sufficient; there had to be a new self to go on the new way. … There are always three degrees of consciousness, all infinitely divisible: (i) the old self on the old way; (ii) the old self on the new way; (iii) the new self on the new way. The second group is the largest, at all times and in all places. It is the frequent result of romantic love. It forms, at any one moment, the greatest part of the visibility of the Church, and, at most moments, practically all of oneself that one can know, for the new self does not know itself. … [The old self on the new way] transfers its activities from itself as a center to its belief as a center. It uses its angers on behalf of its religion or its morals, and its greed, and its fear, and its pride. It operates on behalf of its notion of God as it originally operated on behalf of itself. [2]
The problem with the old self on the new way being that the gospel is not about improved behavior, but about a fundamental change in one’s being. Or, to use the word preferred by the Gospels, a change in life. And no amount of good behavior adds up to a fundamental change in being; that is why salvation is by grace, by the gratuitous infusion of the life of the Trinity, whose operations are invisible and do not come by obedience to the law, however good the law remains.

The phrase passive-aggressive is familiar enough, signifying a resentment and resistance that refuses to express itself in a direct, honest mode. The particular vice—or, more clearly, the particular damaging virtue—that I wish to address is what I dub compassion-coäggression. I believe it’s one of the chief temptations of compassion, precisely because compassion is power.

Compassion, i.e. love directed specifically toward those who are enduring some evil, is a very good thing. Where it gets ticklish is in the diversity of evils that people endure. Compassion for pain and suffering is fairly straightforward, and aims to alleviate it, by removing the source of the pain or at least accompanying the sufferer. Compassion for intellectual and moral evils, however, requires a degree of mutual coöperation in its activity, that the simpler forms of compassion need not involve; it is more susceptible to the various lusts for superiority. Even without (immediately) ceasing to be sincerely loving, compassion easily embraces an admixture of self-righteousness, preachiness, condescension—in a word, the desire to control—that is incompatible with love in the end. And control means enjoying something as an extension of oneself.

Christians have shown this ambivalent love for others throughout history; the story of European colonists evangelizing the Americas and Africa, for instance, reads like a nightmare. But Christian-LGBT relations are the example I know best, and a very pertinent one in contemporary culture, so I will use it as a basis for analyzing compassion-coäggression, and leave to you, gentle reader, to apply the pattern to others areas.

The rise of the gay rights movement, lying in the expansion of liberal, revolutionary, and utilitarian ideas of how society and the state should work, has naturally met with a cold reception among most Catholics. Here in North America, and in some other parts of the world, things are less frosty; but a glance at the Church’s support [3] for severely homophobic policies in parts of Africa shows how cruel Catholic responses to LGBT people can be. Yet there in the Catechism, plain as day, is the exhortation to treat LGBTs with respect, compassion, and sensitivity, and to avoid every sign of unjust discrimination. Are this commands simply being ignored?

Yes; and no. Yes, in the sense that anything worth calling respect, compassion, sensitivity, or avoiding discrimination seems markedly absent from the words of men like Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz, who referred to homosexuality as ‘a perversion that is repulsive to normal human beings.’ Or Cardinal John Onaiyekan, who applauded a Nigerian bill placing further restrictions on LGBT freedoms, when same-sex intimacy was already illegal throughout the country and punishable by death in some parts of it. Or the illustrious Cardinal Robert Sarah, who compared ‘Western homosexuality’ to Nazism in its hostility to the Church. Or Archbishop Lewis Zeigler, who suggested that the outbreak of Ebola in his country might in part be divine punishment for homosexual behavior.

But no, in the sense that any amount of spiritual love can be practiced toward somebody who’s in the wrong, that doesn’t involve protecting them from any kind of harm. It would, of course, be outrageous and ridiculous to claim that any punishment is suitable for any offense; but without a definitive teaching from the Church on what respect, compassion, sensitivity, and unjust discrimination mean, there are several worlds of room in which to argue that there’s nothing respectful or compassionate about letting people sin, or that sensitivity can’t restrain us from speaking the truth, or that the prohibition on unjust discrimination doesn’t address the question of whether there’s such a thing as just discrimination.

And the problem with this kind of hypocrisy is, to the mind that is formed by it, it is completely plausible. Hypocrites are frequently not conscious frauds. The lie runs far deeper.
Jesus entered again into the synagogue; and there was a man there which had a withered hand. And they watched him, whether he would heal him on the sabbath day; that they might accuse him. And he saith unto the man, that had the withered hand, Stand forth. And he saith unto them, Is it lawful to do good on the sabbath days, or to do evil? to save life, or to kill? But they held their peace. And when he had looked round about on them with anger, being grieved for the hardness of their hearts, he saith unto the man, Stretch forth thine hand. And he stretched it out: and his hand was restored as whole as the other. And the Pharisees went forth, and straightway took counsel with the Herodians against him, how they might destroy him. [4]
If the Catholic doctrine of chastity is to have the slightest credibility with those outside the Church—still more importantly, if Catholics have the slightest desire to love queer people not with words or tongue, but with deeds and in truth—then the rights and dignity of LGBT people must, must, be pushed to the forefront: both in the hearts of those who state that doctrine, and in what they say in stating it. Otherwise, all such statements do is provide a veneer of compassion that conceals and rationalizes brutality.

The silent complicity of many Catholics in homophobic discrimination and even violence, whether here or abroad, is partly due to ignorance. How many people follow which bishops have made what statements on which legal proposals in sub-Saharan Africa? And of course, if you aren’t queer yourself or don’t travel in substantially queer circles, it’s easy to miss a lot of things that we take for granted. Even supposing that you live a life of unimpeachable chastity (you do, don’t you? the Catholic requirements are the same for everybody, it isn’t like it’s unfair), if you are a heterosexual and mostly know others who profess heterosexuality, you don’t need to decide whether to come out. You don’t get lectured about identifying with Christ if you say I’m straight. You don’t risk getting kicked out of the house by your parents and forbidden to be along with your siblings, as happened to a schoolmate of mine last month. You don’t have to deal with Catholic clerics and administrators saying they love straight people with one breath, and explaining that that’s consistent with firing them in the next. Which, in all seriousness, good for you. Because this stuff sucks.

But the silent complicity needs to end, through greater light and greater love. Ignorance is (or can be) an innocent thing, but it’s not a good thing; it is, among other dangerous possibilities, a favorite tool of the tyrant. [5] And not all of this complicity is innocent, nor is it all silent. Complacency, bigotry, fear, and malice form part of it too. Fessing up to that complicity is needed from Catholics, and apologies, too. Better information about LGBT people is needed, information gleaned from sources other than NARTH pamphlets and decades-expired studies. A clearer grasp of Catholic teaching is needed, one that classifies sins according to their real gravity and accents what Scripture and the Catechism actually accent. And above all, what is needed is a deeper love of our neighbor. We’re here, we’re queer: look at us, talk to us, show with your actions that you care about us.

At the evening of life, said St John of the Cross, we will be judged on our love. We’re here. Love.

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[1] His name and the name of the academic institution in question have been altered.
[2] He Came Down From Heaven, pp. 118-119.
[3] When I speak here of the Church’s support, I am speaking of the endorsement of local Catholics and their hierarchs. The Vatican itself very rarely comments on the laws of particular countries.
[4] Mark 3.1-6.
[5] I’m not calling the Catholic Church a tyrant here. I am much more afraid of the state, that being the body which imposes civil and criminal laws—like sodomy laws, for example.

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