Charity and chastity

In his recent Apostolic Exhortation (which I’m in the process of reading), the Pope spends page after page exhorting us all — lay and clerical alike — to be kind, charitable, compassionate, merciful. He positively harps on it, with relentless persistence. He seems to have faith that exhorting us to be compassionate will bear fruit.

I wonder what would happen if he spent 264 pages exhorting and harping on us, with relentless persistence, to be chaste?

It may not work. I admit that. But is it less likely to work than his exhortations to be kind? If we’re capable of charity, has he no faith that we’re also capable of chastity?

[For those who don’t know, the Apostolic Exhortation is about marriage and family, and is controversial in that it seems to open the door to divorced and remarried couples being allowed to receive Communion despite living in situations involving sexual immorality.]

Compassion, Law and Righteousness

[The following was originally part of another post, but I wanted to post it separately for ease of finding and referring to it in the future.]

Some argue that Jesus made compassion more important than adherence and obedience to religious dogma or morals, therefore he would allow, for example, gay marriage, or divorce and re-marriage, rather than let people suffer the pain of being forbidden to marry, receive Communion, etc.

I would agree that Jesus considered compassion more important than observance of the Law – that is, the Law of Moses or the Mosaic Law – but not more important than righteousness.

His specific criticism of the religious authorities was that they would bend over backwards to make sure the letter of the law was fulfilled in every particular, while acting in a manner exhibiting indifference to the demands of righteousness and compassion. Thus, the scribes and Pharisees would neglect the care of their aged parents by claiming that their money was “corban”, or consecrated to God, and therefore not available to them. In this way they put on a show of obeying the Law, while disobeying the direct commandment to honor their fathers and mothers. (Mk. 7:1-13.)

The way the subject arose was that the scribes and Pharisees were criticizing Jesus’ disciples for not washing their hands before eating. This really ticks Jesus off and he lets them have it for honoring God with their lips while their hearts are far from him, and “teaching as doctrines the precepts of men” (Mk. 7:7).

Jesus never condemns obedience to the Law, but he hates it when people obey the Law while neglecting moral righteousness. The Law is not about righteousness per se, but about ritual cleanness and uncleanness. It’s about what you have to do in order to participate in the sacrificial and other religious rituals prescribed under the Law. It’s wrong to disobey these things because God commanded the Israelites to carry them out. But it’s wrong for that reason alone, and not because of any unrighteousness inherent in, for example, eating the meat of animals with cloven hoofs, or touching a dead body.

Jesus’ message is that he’s more concerned about things that are inherently righteous or unrighteous, than about ritual cleanness or uncleanness. Thus, it’s far more important to feed the hungry and care for widows and orphans than to wash your hands before eating. A good Jew should do both, but to do the latter while neglecting the former is, for him, the height of hypocrisy.

The story of the woman caught in adultery (Jn. 8:1-11) again provides a point of illustration:

“The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst they said to him, ‘Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such. What do you say about her?’”

Jesus, of course, says that the one who is without sin should cast the first stone. Do we not, then, have it straight from Jesus’ mouth: Sexual sins don’t matter since we’re all sinners anyway? Doesn’t this show that the real sin is persecuting those who commit sexual sins?

But look at how the story ends:

“Jesus looked up and said to her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ She said, ‘No one, Lord.’ And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you; go, and do not sin again.’”

Jesus’ command “do not sin again” has two implications: First, that her sin was really a sin; and second, that she must stop it.

What, then, is the lesson of the story? I would suggest that one lesson is that, again, righteousness is more important than adherence to the Law.

Note that the scribes and Pharisees say to Jesus, “[I]n the law Moses commanded us to stone such.” They’re eager to comply with the letter of the Law, like good Jews. But do they care about righteousness? Jesus thinks not. Therefore he tests them: “Oh, you care about righteousness, do you? In that case, let whoever is righteous among you cast the first stone.” When he puts it that way, they fail the test. If they really cared about righteousness, wouldn’t at least one of them be righteous himself, and therefore worthy of casting a stone? They were all eager to stone someone for a violation of the Law, but all admitted that they were no more righteous than she was.

Whereas Jesus’ actions do serve the cause of righteousness. In what way? By telling the woman, “Sin no more. I don’t condemn you [to death], but you must repent of your sins. You cannot keep behaving unrighteously.” He has compassion towards her by sparing her from stoning, but only so that he can bring her to repentance. Thus, both his compassion and his reproof serve the cause of righteousness. If she had died, the cause of righteousness would not have been advanced; but by saving her life, he is able to encourage her not to continue in unrighteousness, but to act righteously thenceforth.

Note, therefore, that adherence to the Mosaic Law is the thing above which Jesus is elevating compassion. And it’s not compassion per se that he is elevating, but righteousness generally. Jesus hates it when people are sticklers for complying with the letter of the Law, while being indifferent to righteousness. How much more horrified would he be at the idea of jettisoning righteousness altogether for the sake of compassion?

Indeed, it’s a mistake to believe that Jesus would consider it compassionate to leave sin uncorrected. Sins are what he has come to save us from. What is compassionate about abandoning someone to his sins without trying to correct him?

“I tell you, … unless you repent you will all likewise perish.” Lk. 13:5. Why would he want us to perish?

“[After healing a lame man], Jesus found him in the temple, and said to him, ‘See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse befall you.’” Jn. 5:14. Why would he want something worse to befall us?

“Jesus answered them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, every one who commits sin is a slave to sin.’” Jn. 8:34. Why would he want us to be slaves to sin?

“Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” Lk. 15:7.

Cruel to be merciful

[Warning: This post contains explicit language regarding sexual sin. Also the BS word.]

The efforts of modernists I think have a good intent: To make life easier for people, to ease their guilt and relieve them of difficult moral dilemmas, and to have fewer grounds upon which people may judge and condemn others. This is done by making it less clear that things are wrong; we must consider the “reality” of people’s lives today and not be pharisaical in holding them to strict standards. In short, blur the distinction between right and wrong, so that more things are believed to fall on the “right” side of the divide than would otherwise be the case.

But making it harder to define things as wrong, also makes it harder to define them as right. By making it easier to do what before was considered sinful, you also make it harder to do what before was considered righteous. By eliminating mortal sin, you also eliminate moral heroism. You eliminate the need for Christians, in considering whether to take the more difficult moral path, to “die to self”, which Jesus says we must do if we are to be his disciples (Mt. 16:24).

I have no delusions that the more tradition-minded Church of the 1950s and earlier was morally pure. There has always been a spectrum of observance of the moral law, from the overly scrupulous to the outright evil, with varying degrees of obedience and laxity in between. But at least people could tell where they fell on the spectrum, if they ever wanted to know, by having moral boundaries clearly delineated.

This has partly to do with an experience of my own. In my 20s (and earlier), when I was a new “revert” (baptized as a baby but not raised in the faith), I was suffering from addiction to the “solitary sin” so common to young men (long before Internet porn!). Being a relatively new Christian and wanting desperately to please God, in gratitude for the gift of faith that he had given me, I strove against my sin as best I knew how, and went to confession often. The priests in the confessional were very patient and comforting towards me, assuring me that it was only human to struggle with this sin, and not to give up nor view myself as a failure as a Christian. At one point I asked a priest in confession whether I needed to abstain from Communion after having committed this sin, but before going to confession. His response was that “this kind of sin is 90% natural and only about 10% sinful, so no, I would not stay away from Communion.”

Again very comforting, but what was I to do? Was this an acceptable permanent state for a Catholic? Committing sexual sin on a regular basis, yet receiving absolution for free, upon request, with no demands or requirements to change my behavior, and with full access to the sacraments?

But one day I went to a different church for confession and got a different message: Masturbation is a mortal sin, and one must not receive Communion until it has been absolved. Receiving Communion in a state of mortal sin is a serious sacrilege, compounding the original sin. Continuing in this course of conduct will imperil your soul.

Tough words! They hit me like a ton of bricks. But guess what? After that day, I went six months without falling into my formerly habitual sin. And when I did fall, I immediately confessed it and abstained for another six months. Some might say I was enslaved by fear. But on the contrary, I felt liberated. And what was it that had set me free? One priest giving me the truth, straight up with no bullshit. If what he said was true, then this gave me something to put on the other side of the scale when weighing whether to give in to temptation: What’s more important to me? This momentary pleasure, or being able to receive Christ in the Eucharist on a regular basis, with a clear conscience?

Refusing to draw clear lines leaves people to wallow in their sins, when they themselves might be sick of wallowing and might well choose to stop wallowing, if only they could see their wallowing for what it is. I don’t judge those who know better and yet choose to wallow. It’s between them and God, and my nagging isn’t going to change their hearts. But I’m convinced that far more numerous souls fall into the pit and remain there, because its boundaries are no longer clearly marked. There might be more moral heroes out there, except that moral heroism, in the form of giving up the pleasures one loves and is naturally inclined to, is considered foolish and outdated, i.e. pharisaical; or at the very least is considered unnecessary since all sins can be excused on one ground or another and no one can really commit a mortal sin with full deliberation and consent of the will. After all, it’s the Year of Mercy.

Of shunning and forgiveness

In my Latin-English missal from 1956, the Gospel for today is Matthew 18:15-22:

If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.”

Gospel for Tuesday of the Third Week of Lent, The New Roman Missal (Fr. Lasance), 1956.

In the new Missal, the Gospel for today begins with verse 21 and goes through verse 35, in order to associate the idea of forgiving your brother 490 times with the parable of the unforgiving servant (“‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you besought me; and should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’”). Which makes sense.

But I very much like the combination of confronting your brother with his sin, and having nothing more to do with him if he refuses to listen not only to you, but even to the Church; with forgiving your brother virtually an unlimited number of times. The fact that Jesus addresses these two issues one right after another, is a good underscore to the fact that there is no conflict between the two: Don’t tolerate unrepented sin in the Church, but also be ready to forgive sin at the drop of a hat.

The Church welcomes sinners, not because it tolerates sin, but for the purpose of bringing them to repentance. According to Jesus those who refuse to repent should be to us “as a Gentile and a tax collector”. But those who do repent, like the Prodigal Son should be welcomed back with open arms, not once, not twice, but as many times as they choose to return.

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Don’t forget to repent!

I realized recently that a big hole in the liberal Christian conception of the Gospel concerns the need for repentance. They imagine there is no such need. When I made the statement, which I took to be non-controversial, that Jesus dined with sinners for the purpose of bringing them to repentance, someone went so far as to say that I was preaching some other Gospel than the one he believed in.

I would love to write a long dissertation on the concept of repentance and its place in the Gospel, but alas time is scarce. So I thought I would just toss something off whenever I come across something that’s apropos.

In my daily Bible reading I came across the following:

The foreigner who has given his allegiance to the LORD must not say,
‘The LORD will exclude me from his people.’
The eunuch must not say,
‘I am naught but a barren tree.’
These are the words of the LORD:
The eunuchs who keep my sabbaths,
who choose to do my will
and hold fast to my covenant,
will receive from me something better than sons and daughters,
a memorial and a name in my own house and within my walls;
I shall give them everlasting renown,
an imperishable name.

So too with the foreigners who give their allegiance to me,
to minister to me and love my name
and become my servants,
all who keep the sabbath unprofaned
and hold fast to my covenant:
these I shall bring to my holy hill
and give them joy in my house of prayer.
Their offerings and sacrifices
will be acceptable on my altar;
for my house will be called
a house of prayer for all nations.

Isaiah 56:3-7.

Those who will receive joy on the Lord’s holy hill, are those who do his will, keep the sabbath and hold fast to his covenant.

“Cry loudly, do not hold back;
Raise your voice like a trumpet,
And declare to My people their transgression
And to the house of Jacob their sins.
“Yet they seek Me day by day and delight to know My ways,
As a nation that has done righteousness
And has not forsaken the ordinance of their God.
They ask Me for just decisions,
They delight in the nearness of God.
‘Why have we fasted and You do not see?
Why have we humbled ourselves and You do not [a]notice?’
Behold, on the day of your fast you find your desire,
And drive hard all your workers.

“If because of the sabbath, you turn your foot
From doing your own pleasure on My holy day,
And call the sabbath a delight, the holy day of the Lord honorable,
And honor it, desisting from your own ways,
From seeking your own pleasure
And speaking your own word,
Then you will take delight in the Lord,
And I will make you ride on the heights of the earth;
And I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father,
For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

Isaiah 58:1-3, 13-14.

First they ask, Why does the Lord not hear us? And his answer: Because you seek your own pleasure rather than doing what I command. If you desist from seeking your own pleasure and speaking your own word on my holy sabbath, then you will enjoy the Lord’s favor.

Basic stuff, but apparently it needs to be said.