Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Modern Culture, the Catholic Church and Homosexuality

Culture, the Catholic Church and Homosexuality
— Where is the Ambivalence?

An article recently appeared in the Charleston, South Carolina's Post and Courier Faith and Values section entitled Gay Catholics Struggle with Ambivalent Policy. The article states that the Catholic Diocese of Charleston "laid out an ambivalent opinion” regarding a gay rights group that recently held a workshop in a local Congregational church. "The Diocese of Charleston's spokesman ... when asked about why this workshop did not take place in a local Catholic church ...described its goals as heresy. He then talked about reaching out to gay Catholics with open arms." The article raises the question whether the Church is in fact ambivalent in its views about homosexuality and if not why such a perception may exist. It is easy to see why the Church’s views would appear to be ambivalent. How can the Church condemn homosexuality and yet claim to ‘reach out’ to those who consider themselves homosexual? At best, such a claim seems ‘ambivalent;’ and at worst, hypocritical. And if not, then we must ask why modern culture thinks it is.

Why the Catholic Church Condemns Homosexuality. The Church’s position is based in an understanding of God, and an imperative which that understanding enjoins on believers, that ultimately is neither hypocritical nor ambivalent (and is certainly not malicious). Catholic anthropology (man’s understanding of his relationship with God) is founded on the revelation that God is Love. (1 Jn 4.8) Every position taken by the Church regarding human life and society has its origin in this principle. We recognize that life itself is a gift from God to be treasured and protected. We believe that the universe was created as good, and that each person on earth is a precious gift of God worthy of respect and bearing inherent dignity.

A consequence of our belief in God is that we have free will to accept God’s love and to love God, or to reject God’s love. (Love that is not free is not love but slavery.) Sin and death are corruptions of God’s creation and are not willed by God but merely permitted. They exist only as a product of the free will choice to reject God’s love. Rejecting God is rejecting the Author of Life itself and therefore is the movement and state of sin, the origin of death.

Our Lord’s sacrifice on the Cross and triumphant Resurrection overthrows the power of sin and death and offers us the opportunity to regain the immortality enjoyed in the beginning in Paradise. Christ invites us to draw closer to the God who is Love and in so doing restores that image of God within us that makes us children of God. As we draw closer to God we grow in His likeness and so receive life ever more abundantly. (Jn 10.10) We come to recognize the beauty of that life present in creation and the intricacies of its form and order.

Perceiving the order and intricate unity of nature we recognize homosexuality as sinful in that homosexual behaviors are obviously contrary to the design and purpose of the human body. This is empirically undeniable. The complementarity of the sexes manifests a physiological ‘fit’ that has no parallel in same sex intercourse, a fact often obscured in public discourse on the topic.

Thus, the Catholic Church teaches that homosexual behavior is inconsistent with Christian morality and is a grave sin; that same sex attraction is inherently disordered; that homosexual acts are physiologically harmful to the dignity the human body; and that the "gay culture" is unacceptable as a life-style “alternative” for Catholic Christians. Willful homosexual activity is a gravely disordered violation of the dignity of the human body and therefore is consequently a rejection of God. It is for this reason that homosexual activity is condemned by the Church.

Can the Church Reach Out to Homosexuals? This brings us back to the issue of the perceived ‘ambivalence’ in the Church teaching on homosexuality. How can the Church maintain that homosexuality is sinful and yet also ‘reach out’ to those who identify themselves as homosexual?

Modern culture believes that we must either "hate sin and hate the sinner" or "love sin and embrace the sinner." It prefers to "love the sin" since it conceives opposition to this view as “hating the sin and hating the sinner." It exalts diversity and equality of opinion and the supremacy of dialogue; and it believes that opinions are valid only to the extent that opposing views are admitted to have equal value. Since committing to objective truth would belie the equal value of all opinions, standing ground for one's principles is often anathema. No one must claim to have ultimate truth (Jn 18.38) because truth itself must be defined as a relative and changeable commodity.

Yet, the Church claims to uphold objective truth about God and this alone has serious consequences. But the Church also denies the simplistic dichotomy between loving the sin and the sinner versus hating the sin and the sinner. The solidarity of all humans as children of God convinces us that no one is beyond salvation. Reflection on the truth that our love for God has its origin in Him brings forth within us not only love for God but also a generous love for “our neighbor.” This is so firmly part of the Divine Mystery of God’s Love at work within us that it forms part of the “Two Great Commandments.” (Matt 22.40f)

Thus reflecting on God and following Scripture, we conclude that “God hates sin but loves the sinner.” We recall that with every act of creation “God saw that it was good.” (Gen 1.10, Wis 11.24) We distinguish between the actions of a sinner on the one hand and the sinner as a child of God on the other; and consequently, we naturally reach out to everyone as a brother or sister in Christ. The same belief in God that reveals homosexual activity to be contrary to the will of God also impels us to love and have compassion on those who experience same sex attraction.

For the Church to be true to itself and its beliefs, we must reach out to the sinner, whoever that sinner is and no matter what the sin is. It is not a matter of obedience or compulsion so much as it is the natural expression of who we are as children of God. Far from holding an ambivalent or self-contradictory position towards homosexuality, the Church is both consistent and generous in proclaiming a Truth that challenges and leads to salvation.

Modern Culture Avoids Engaging the Church in Dialogue. It is clear that many would prefer for the Church to 'adapt' to prevailing contemporary standards rather than be true to its own Faith and teachings. For the Catholic Church to continue to teach the 'hard sayings' of the Gospel provokes a confrontation with Truth many today would prefer to avoid. It violates the "I'm OK, You're OK" axiom that has been emblematic of modern secular life since the 1960’s.

The Church’s claim to speak the truth implies before all else that there just might be revealed Truth out there. Truth may have an objective reality that cannot be altered by public opinion or cultural drift. Our belief is centered on Jesus Christ who proclaims the Gospel as objectively true. Thus, the Church offends merely by continuing to proclaim the Gospel and Jesus Christ. That such a Gospel exists in itself confronts modern culture with a challenge it would prefer not to consider.

Rather than addressing what the Church actually teaches, contemporary culture instead commonly characterizes the Church as ignorant or malicious. If it engages in real dialogue about what the Church actually believes it risks discovering that its choices, opinions or behavior might be revealed to be immoral, or worse sinful. Such a dialogue might require us to think and perhaps even change! (As GK Chesterton quipped, "The Catholic Church is the only thing which saves a man from the degrading slavery of being a child of his own age.")

The Post and Courier article includes an example of how culture avoids discussing what the Church actually teaches. It notes that "slavery, racism and the discrimination of left-handed people" were "phenomena once accepted by society and people in the church" but which "changed over time." Worthy of discussion though they are, introducing slavery, racism and discrimination into the argument actually deflects attention from examining the Church’s teaching on its own merits. In the end, it is a red herring that does not address the real issue.

After forty years of the "I'm OK, You're OK" culture, we must ultimately confess that you and I aren't ok. There is sin and sickness and evil in the world; and sin does have its wages. The Gospel is a difficult spiritual path along which we all sometimes stumble. Yet, stumbling does not relieve us from the responsibility to continue the journey towards our ultimate goal. The Catholic Faith is founded on and has held fast to the Gospel for two millennia. Our Lord came, not to make God over in man's image, but to make man (male and female) to grow in the Image and Likeness of God. There is nothing ambivalent about it. The real ambivalence is in those who either do not listen clearly to what the Gospel proclaims or else who don't want to listen. As Chesterton said, "It is not that Christianity has been tried and found wanting but has been found hard and not tried.”