We live in a human culture that is seriously intent on hiding from God, very often even within the Church herself. This is particularly obvious in the widespread abuse of the sexual appetite today—the eager justification of perverse sexual behaviors, the control of which lies so close to the heart of what it means to be human. Therefore, instead of the use of our procreative powers to beget children within stable families rooted in the lifelong marriage of one man and one woman, we now justify every sort of shameful behavior: Pornography, prostitution, sexual slavery, masturbation, contraception, extra-marital sex, elective divorce, serial monogamy, and sexual relations between two or more persons of the same sex, which may even be called “marriage”.
The abuse of our sexuality is not in itself surprising. Since sexual desire in the human person is generally very strong, and the legitimate uses of our sexual faculties are limited to that special familial openness to life and love which is supposed to be the defining characteristic of monogamous marital fidelity, there is ample room for temptation. Pagan cultures are generally characterized by the widespread abuses of sexuality that have been specifically prohibited by Judaism and Catholicism, and one of the neo-pagan West’s most prominent cultural markers is its deliberate indulgence in sexual temptation, a corresponding deliberate abuse of our sexuality, and an incessant deliberate rationalization of the results.
I was reminded of all this yesterday when rereading the first two chapters of St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. My commentary will follow these key extracts:
For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse; 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, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man….
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 for ever! 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.
We know that the judgment of God rightly falls upon those who do such things…. Or do you presume upon the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not know that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? [emphasis added]
I would like to make two recommendations here. First, having read the excerpts above, please stop to consider how much rationalization is required by the opinion-makers, educators, politicians, entertainers and their willing followers in our culture—all those who deliberately seek to undermine what ought to be both our natural and supernatural understanding of our own sexuality. Therefore: What are these people but worshippers of “images resembling mortal man”?
But note that the situation is really much worse, when we consider the widespread complicity of Catholic “leaders”: Too many administrators at Catholic colleges, moral theologians, pastors, priests and religious deliberately give the lie to St. Paul, and to Jesus Christ, by excusing or even encouraging easy, widespread and even systematic abuse of our sexual faculties. Instead of being configured to Jesus Christ in accordance with their vocations, do not all these even make themselves into mere “images resembling mortal man”?
Now me, I want to be an image resembling not “mortal man” but Jesus Christ. That is, I want to treasure and continually burnish within myself the image of God in which each of us was created out of infinite love—and to confirm and enhance that image by more and more putting on Christ (cf. Paul in Gal 3:27), and by ensuring that “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (cf. Paul in Gal 2:20). At times I fall short, certainly, and perhaps even often. But it is one thing for a sinner to fall short and quite another for a sinner to abuse God’s forbearance. It is also one thing for the Church to offer forgiveness and healing to repentant sinners, and quite another to pretend that God’s love means that He accepts or even approves of our sins.
Why do we assume the cliché that love means you never have to say you’re sorry? Why is there a corresponding pastoral falsehood today to the effect that, if we sincerely mean well, we have no need to change the objectively evil character of our behavior, because God understands, loves and cares for us?
The result of such misguided counsel is that we deliberately forget the most important message of Paul’s Letter for all of us, no matter what our habitual sins. We must recall also that this message is not just for those who commit the sins highlighted in the previous extracts from the Letter, even though his attention to sexual depravity is a central theme which is absolutely vital for our own time. But Paul offers also a fuller list of sins in the same chapter (Rom 1:29-31). And so, he asks, “Do you suppose, O man, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you presume upon the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience?” (Rom 2:3-4).
And this question brings us again to the rest of the verse, to what is perhaps the key indictment of too much misguided pastoral work today: “Do you not know that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?”
If we have escaped any final Divine punishment for our sins thus far, it is because God’s mercy is intended to prompt in us contrition and a change of heart. Fools say in in their hearts that there is no God (Ps 14:1), or that God does not see (Ps 94:7; Ps 10:11), or that the only thing we need to know about God is that He loves us. But according to Divine Revelation itself, the lesson we are supposed to draw from God’s forbearance is that He wants each and every one of us to repent, so that through our repentance and good will we can take advantage of His help to amend our lives.
How can Church leaders tolerate the failure to preach repentance in so many teachers, administrators, spiritual guides, and confessors in her institutions throughout the world? And why do the blind guides nearly always fudge and hedge precisely concerning whatever sins the dominant culture overwhelmingly approves, while enthusiastically condemning whatever the dominant culture abhors? Is it not because they have “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man” (again Rom 1:23)? Is it possible that even some who make a point of bearing the Catholic name do not yet realize that “God’s kindness is meant to lead [them] to repentance?”
These are all extraordinarily important questions—but we must also remember that St. Paul means them in some sense for every one of us. Some get annoyed that I tend to turn the tables on both myself and any approving readers (or, more accurately, I simply adjust the table cloth a little so that none of us loses his place at the table), but it is dangerous to speak only of the sins of others, as all the saints have tried to make clear. Has not each of us at some time or other, in ways either large or small, ignored this fundamental need for repentance? Without any lessening of our quest for authentic renewal in the Church, must not our own repentance and conversion be in some sense continuously renewed?
This is the only antidote I know for spiritual complacency—which is precisely the issue. Real self-examination is never an excuse to do nothing; rather, it gives each of us a reason to pray even more for the light to know God’s will and the courage to do it. For as St. Paul reminds each and every one of us, including himself, in the very next chapter: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:23).
But that does not mean we may not notice how widespread throughout our Church is this exchange of the vision of God for “images resembling mortal men”. That does not mean we may not pray and work for the elimination of blind guides. That does not mean we need to be silent as they lead our brothers and sisters into the pit.
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