Saturday, July 22, 2017

Tenders of Signs

When I first read of Bp. Paprocki's decree on those in homosexual unions, I thought it was unfortunate in terms of timing and narrow focus on this particular area of morals, because people are so sensitive about this right now in our society. Harping on it seems to set the wrong tone in calling people to repentance. As an approach, it seems to more lend towards hardening people's hearts and resistance to the Gospel than helping.

Others I know think the timing is exactly right because of the mass cultural delusion of acceptance of immoral sexual behavior (and I don't just mean homosexual behavior). They are of the mind that we must repeatedly and simply restate that such behavior is immoral because they believe that without doing this, people will remain and/or become more confused about sexual morals.

They seem to believe that the call to repentance, that is, evangelization, consists in simply telling people what is sinful. Or at least this seems to be the main feature of such an approach to sharing the Gospel. They often excoriate those, especially our pastors, who do not follow this approach, while lauding those who do. "Finally, someone is speaking the truth clearly!" they exclaim.

Bp. Paprocki is both well within his rights and duties as bishop to issue his decree. He is right that he is simply and objectively applying long-standing Church teaching to a new societal situation. Within the context of an internal memo to his priests, there would be little to criticize because it's not intended as an exposition of Catholic sexual ethics but merely clarifying his diocese's treatment of a new social situation.

He explains the timing of his decree has to do with the recent acceptance of civil homosexual marriage, and our society's shifting attitudes with regards to homosexual behavior (as being a morally acceptable alternative to heterosexual sex within marriage). That is understandable.

Of course it would be naive to think that such a decree would not become public when concerning such a controversial matter, and I am sure the bishop is not that naive. I imagine he is of the persuasion I outline above, that is that more or less simply restating Catholic doctrine as applied to this new situation is our most appropriate response to the new situation. His video here seems to support this inference.

For my part, I am inclined to think that it takes all types. Some people are at the place in their journey that benefits from simple statement of truth, kind of like a shock to the system, a jostling out of one's comfort zone. Others more likely need a gentler approach. They need time and more indirect means of warming to the necessity of turning away from this or that sin that is dear to them. They need a kind hand on the shoulder, an assurance they can do it.

I think that God works through all kinds of different approaches in drawing people to himself, and the Holy Spirit can use even our human blunders to reach people's hearts.
For my part, however, I tend to think at the social, public level, it's time to err on the side of gentility. It's too easy for people to harden their hearts and simply tune out of the truth. On this matter, especially, our zeitgeist sends a reinforcing message that this tuning out is exactly the right response. "These people are just homophobic bigots," it whispers. "They're just hateful. You don't need to listen."

And so they will become or remain lost--precisely because we have reinforced this notion, that being a faithful Christian means you have to be a bigot. Who would be attracted to that? Who would want to leave behind something that they feel brings them some amount of happiness in order to become like that? No one. That's who.

Jesus almost always erred on the side of gentleness and compassion with sinners. He saved the majority of his anger and direct confrontation for the religious leaders of his day, particularly those who were very good at articulating every detail of the Law, following it to the letter, and all-too-ready to condemn those who didn't. He wasn't ever unclear about the need to repent, but his approach tended to be more indirect and aspirational--stirring desire towards God rather than scaring people away from sin. That's the approach I would rather try to emulate.

It's just not enough to simply tell people what sin is and that they are sinning. That's not even the message of the Gospel. The Gospel is the grace of God acting in our lives, ever renewing us and strengthening us. The Gospel is that God's mercy is greater than our many sins--sexual or otherwise--and that no matter how many times we screw up and fall back into them, God is always there, ready and waiting to pull us up out of the ditch, tend to our wounds, and strengthen us to continue our journey towards eternal life with Him.

Yes, we need signs telling us which road to follow, we need warnings about the dangers and drop offs, but those are just means to our One, True End. I think we need to be less worried about sign maintenance and more worried about being the helping hand that God uses to pull people out of ditches and being the person God sends to accompany them on the way. Having someone who knows the way travel with you is immeasurably more valuable, appreciated, and effective than any number of signs.