Christians are always, in a sense, outsiders. We have the joy and privilege to be a leaven for good in society. That’s an exhilarating vocation. It means working for as much justice and virtue in human affairs as we can. We have a special obligation to serve the weak and the poor, and to treat even those who hate us with love.
But while we’re in the world and for the world, we’re never finally of the world. And we need to understand what that means.
Writing in the mid-first century to “all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints” — and despite the dangers and frustrations he himself faced — St. Paul said, “I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek, for in it the righteousness of God is revealed …” (Rom 1:7, 16-17).
Paul’s Letter to the Romans became a key text of the New Testament. The Church has always revered it as part of the inspired Word of God and incorporated it into her thought and practice. The books of Scripture, even when they’re morally demanding, are not shackles. They’re part of God’s story of love for humanity. They’re guide rails that lead us to real dignity and salvation.
That’s a good thing. Much of human history – far too much — is a record of our species’ capacity for self-harm. The Word of God is an expression of his mercy. It helps us to become the people of integrity God created us to be. As Paul reminds us, we’re “called to be saints.”
Sometimes Scripture’s lessons toward that end can be hard. But God cannot lie. His Word always speaks the truth. And the truth, as Jesus tells us in the Gospel, makes us free. This is why Christians must never be ashamed of God’s Word – even when it’s inconvenient.
Which brings us to the heart of my comments this week.
In Romans 1:21-27, speaking of the men and women of his time “who by their wickedness suppress the truth,” Paul wrote:
“… for although they knew God they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools….
“Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.
“For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. Their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural, and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in their own persons the due penalty for their error.”
If reading that passage makes us uneasy, it should. Many of Paul’s Roman listeners had the same response. Jesus didn’t come to affirm us in our sins and destructive behaviors – whatever they might be — but to redeem us. Paul’s message was as resented in some quarters then as it is now. In an age of sexual confusion and disorder, calls to chastity are not just unwelcome. They’re despised. But that doesn’t diminish the truth of the words Paul wrote, or their urgency for our own time.
What we do with our bodies matters. Sex is linked intimately to human identity and purpose. If our lives have no higher meaning than what we invent for ourselves, then sex is just another kind of modeling clay. We can shape it any way we please. But if our lives do have a higher purpose – and as Christians, we find that purpose in the Word of God — then so does our sexuality.
Acting in ways that violate that purpose becomes a form of self-abuse; and not just self-abuse, but a source of confusion and suffering for the wider culture. The fact that an individual’s body might incline him or her to one sort of damaging sexual behavior, or to another very different sort, doesn’t change this.
This can be a difficult teaching. It’s easy to see why so many people try to finesse or soften or ignore Paul’s words. In a culture of conflict, accommodation is always the least painful path. But it leads nowhere. It inspires no one. “Fitting in” to a society of deeply dysfunctional sexuality results in the ruin that we see in so many other dying Christian communities.
In his recent book “Building a Bridge” (HarperOne), Father James Martin, S.J., calls the Church to a spirit of respect, compassion and sensitivity in dealing with persons with same-sex attraction. This is good advice. It makes obvious sense. He asks the same spirit from persons in the LGBT community when dealing with the Church. Father Martin is a man whose work I often admire. “Building a Bridge,” though brief, is written with skill and good will.
But what the text regrettably lacks is an engagement with the substance of what divides faithful Christians from those who see no sin in active same-sex relationships. The Church is not simply about unity – as valuable as that is – but about unity in God’s love rooted in truth.
If the Letter to the Romans is true, then persons in unchaste relationships (whether homosexual or heterosexual) need conversion, not merely affirmation. If the Letter to the Romans is false, then Christian teaching is not only wrong but a wicked lie. Dealing with this frankly is the only way an honest discussion can be had.
And that honesty is what makes another recent book – “Why I Don’t Call Myself Gay” by Daniel Mattson (Ignatius) – so extraordinarily moving and powerful. As Cardinal Robert Sarah writes in the Foreword, Mattson’s candor about his own homosexuality, his struggles and failures, and his gradual transformation in Jesus Christ “bears witness to the mercy and goodness of God, to the efficacy of his grace, and to the veracity of the teachings of his Church.”
In the words of Daniel Mattson himself:
“We cannot remain reluctant to speak about the beauty of the Church’s teaching on sexuality and sexual identity for fear that it will appear ‘unloving,’ ‘irrational,’ or ‘unreal.’ We need to love the world enough to speak about the Christian vision of sexual reality, confident that God’s creation of man as male and female is truly part of the Gospel of Jesus Christ we are called to proclaim to a lost and confused world.
“We need to be a light for the world and speak passionately about the richness of the Church’s understanding of human sexuality. We can’t place the Good News of the Church’s teaching on human sexuality under a bushel any longer, for the world desperately needs the truth we have (p. 123).”
Spoken from experience. Spoken from the heart. No one could name the truth more clearly.