Saturday, August 4, 2012

Some things I believe

If you're like me, you probably can't get away from talking about homosexuality lately.  It's always up on Facebook, and I'm in several debates on the topic.  Of course, as a Catholic, I believe the only acceptable use of the sexual faculty is within marriage and ordered to create life (even if, by no fault of the spouses, it cannot create life at the moment), and so I consider homosexual activity to be sinful.  That's not the subject of the debates, though.  I don't think people really mind so much that I have this belief, because it is part of my religion and there's nothing hateful about it; I simply think that certain actions are morally wrong and will separate you from God.

No, the debates are about how much discrimination against gays is too much. [My answer, "any discrimination at all," is straight from the Catechism, and yet people are shocked that I believe this.]  I find myself feeling very depressed.  Most of my friends are Catholic.  So when an issue comes up, I sort of expect that we will band together and all agree ... but what happens more often is that I'm saddened at how little we agree.  I do believe some things are up for debate, so of course there is room for disagreement.  But in other things, like the law of charity, it seems pretty cut and dried to me.  And worst of all, when I voice my opinion on something I truly believe is true and supported by Catholic teaching, I am sometimes told that I'm not Catholic at all.

So I decided to compile a list of some things I believe.  Some of these are unpopular among conservative Catholics.  Some of them are condemned as heresy by conservative Catholics, though they're not able to explain to me how that is.  Here goes.

1.  I believe that the supreme law is the law of charity.  If the only thing you get out of the Bible is "Love one another as I have loved you," you've gotten pretty far.  But if you get everything else out of the Bible BUT that one sentence, you're a gong clashing in the wilderness.  It's all just empty talk.  Believe everything else Jesus said and the Church teaches -- but if you think another doctrine contradicts the law of charity, you are understanding it wrong.  God never tells us that there are some people we can't love, or some excuses for not loving.

2.  I believe that charity is shown in actions, or it doesn't exist.  Charity is not a vague feeling of well-being toward all humanity.  If I see my brother shivering and starving, and say to him "Be warm and well-dressed," I am a hypocrite.  And if I spend my time judging others and excluding them based on my judgments, rather than worrying about the plank in my own eye, I'm being a lot more like the Pharisees than like Christ.

3.  I believe love drives me to seek the salvation of others.  There's nothing better than to see a sinner leave his sin and come to God.

4.  However, I believe that I cannot force the salvation of others.  If they don't want to leave their sin and come to God, there's nothing I can do but hope, pray, and stay close to them to give a good example and be there for them if they change their mind.  Trying to coerce someone through law, or punishing them with some form of discrimination until they change their mind, is wrong.

5.  Meanwhile I am aware that I'm a sinner too, and just because my sins are secret doesn't mean they aren't just as bad.  I know what it feels like to be attached to a specific sin.  Maybe you convince yourself it isn't sinful, or else you know it's bad but think you can't stop it.  And I know that there's never been anything someone else could do to free me from that sin.  I had to make that journey on my own.  Having people around rooting for me helped.  Having people judge, criticize, or exclude me didn't.

6.  I don't believe the state should legislate morality.  Morality is here defined as the law of God, rather than something people could arrive at purely through their own reason.  I believe the state's job is to protect the rights of individuals.  Laws should forbid actions which harm others.  Actions which don't harm others (smoking in one's own home, keeping a garden in your front yard, not wearing a seatbelt) should not be the province of law.  These things might be sins, but if so they are for God to punish.  Or they might be foolish, in which case they come with their own consequences.  But law exists to allow us to get along with one another, not to achieve perfect virtue.  Virtue is up to us and our churches.

(This is a controversial view for a Catholic to hold.  Many conservative Catholics disagree with me.  I admit that the view that the state must legislate morality, or that the separation between church and state is a mistake, is a common view of the Catholic hierarchy over the centuries.  But I don't believe it is actual infallible doctrine.  I am willing to change my mind if it is ever declared so, but for the present I believe I am free to think as I do without committing heresy.)

7.  I believe marriage is prior to the state and can't be controlled by the state.  I don't believe the state can give two men the right to marry any more than it can take away my right to marry a man, because marriage is something that human beings have done long before there was a state to control it.  Give that power to the state, and marriage becomes a privilege and not a right, one that it has the power to deny you because of race or any other reason.  I believe that marriage is a lifelong sacramental covenant between a man and a woman entered into before God for the purpose of sanctification and procreation ... but I do not believe the state should be hunting down anyone who makes a contract with another person that doesn't follow my definition.

8.  I believe that it is, and has always been, the role of the Church to stand up for the marginalized: the poor, the weak, the minority ... anyone who is the victim of oppression or discrimination.  I hate hearing conservative Catholics mock the poor, or make jokes about minorities, or support killing this or that group that is different from us.  That may be conservative, but it isn't Catholic.

9.  I believe that it is more important to be Catholic than conservative.  My faith shapes my political and social choices.  On the other hand, I believe that a Catholic may subscribe to a number of different political affiliations, since we do not all understand our faith in the same way.

10.  On that note, I believe that the Church leaves a great many things open to our own discernment.  There are relatively few teachings that we must believe.  Not everything that comes out of a Pope's mouth (or St. Thomas Aquinas's mouth) is dogma.  Was it said by a Pope (or council in union with the Pope), speaking in his official capacity, to the whole Church, on a matter of faith and morals, proposing something for belief?  No?  Then it isn't infallible.

11.  Jesus revealed everything we needed to know during his time on earth.  This is called the Deposit of Faith.  But we unpack it a little at a time.  I believe we are still unpacking some beautiful ideas about equality (of the sexes, for instance), about politics, about freedom of conscience, and so forth.  Many beliefs held by Catholics throughout the Middle Ages (like the subjection of women, or the favoring of monarchy) were never Church teaching, but rather the beliefs common in that age which they used scripture to defend.  But the seeds of a much more Christian view were there all along.  I mean, look how Christ treated women, and how he exalted his mother.  (I don't mean that women should be priests, but I do mean that we are equal and that this hasn't always been recognized.)  On that topic, Vatican II has some really neat stuff.  I don't think we've unpacked all the goodies from Vatican II either.  Instead some grabbed "English in the Mass" and pulled out their guitars, while others heard the words "English in the Mass" and became Eastern Orthodox.  Words like "religious freedom" didn't get nearly so much coverage, but they're a really big deal.

12.  If it can be possible to be a liberal orthodox Catholic -- that is, someone who accepts every single infallible teaching of the Catholic Church AND believes in feminism, fighting discrimination, the preferential option for the poor, care for the environment, and world peace -- I'm it.

13.  I am Catholic because I believe that Christ founded the Church and that the whole truth can only be found within it.  I research and investigate the doctrines of the Church and check them against my reason.  I do not believe God asks me to check my reason at the door.  I believe he made me with a brain so that I can know him, and through knowing him, love him more fully.  I am not Catholic because I agree with everything the bishops do, or my priest does, or my fellow parishioners do.  I am most certainly not Catholic because it gives me warm fuzzies ... it hasn't done that in a long time.  But I believe it is true, and so I stick with it.

So what do you think?  Am I a heretic for all this?  Or, if you're non-Catholic, is this what you thought Catholics believed?  I'm afraid a very narrow view of what Catholics believe is being broadcast lately, and I don't like it.  Who would want to be Catholic if we're all a bunch of hypocritical judgmental Pharisees?  But we're not, and I don't believe our religion teaches us to be.

(For more on the topic of homosexuality in particular, read John's blog post.  I would stand behind everything he said in this post.)


some guy on the street said...

I think most of this is pretty sensible; where I really feel some difficulty, it is that I don't understand what you mean.

When you say you don't think the state should "legislate morality", what is the state doing when it "protects the rights of individuals"? That is, what are these rights if they are not somehow a reflection of true morality, and how does the state protect them without legislation?

For instance, I would agree that the state ought never make a law commanding idolatry, just as the state ought never make a law forbidding blood transfusions (say); and furthermore I believe that if a state put such a thing on its books, then it'd be perfectly good to ignore such a developement. On the other hand, legislation to order well the redress of some particular moral harm, I think, can be done sensibly --- e.g., it's better to arrest and try and imprison fraudsters rather than let victims seek vengeance on their own.

So, maybe we can disagree on my second paragraph, or maybe your meaning is something quite different.

(I do have a mostly-unrelated question tangential to another point, but it can wait.)

Sheila said...

I think we are disagreeing on definitions rather than realities. For instance, anywhere there is a "victim," someone has infringed on another's rights. That is an ethical concern, but not a moral one. My division is basically that moral laws are based on revelation or a specific religious belief, whereas ethical laws are based on a purely rational rule of "don't harm others." So fraud, murder, theft, damage of property, etc., could all be banned by law, but divorce or skipping Mass on Sundays couldn't be. I don't believe it is right for the government to ban homosexuality, for instance, although I do believe it is wrong. Since it does not infringe on the rights of others, it isn't within the state's purview. However, the state can definitely ban rape or pedophilia since another person is harmed. And though divorce should not be banned, there should be provision made for making restitution to parties harmed by it ... for instance, alimony to a spouse who has not worked for a paycheck and is left in poverty due to the divorce.

I'd love to hear your mostly-unrelated question!

Amy said...

Just wanted to comment that I definitely agree with a lot that you have written here. And number 12 describes me as well, and it can sometimes feel like a pretty lonely club! I always enjoy reading your posts about these sorts of issues.

petrus said...

I'm with some guy questioning #6. Ethics can and should be based on morality. It sounds like you don't want to base law on revelation, but on reason, which is different than ethics, not morality. There's a Christian ethics (derived from Christian principles) as well as a common morality, or a morality shared by most persons. Morality forbids many of the same things that a healthy ethics forbids (and there are many types of ethics, some healthier (leading to the full development of human persons) than others). Do no harm is a very popular modern ethos, but can neglect weaker persons. It's uncontroverted divorce hurts people. Does the money really make up for that? What about adultery? Do you want to go back to legislating against adultery, since that leaves a spouse badly hurt? But it's also based on morality.
As to #12, it's great to embrace as many facets of the Church as possible. Most people find some that resonate most, and reflect those, and that's what makes the great symphony that is the Church. But it's also clear that some rights are more fundamental than others, and so some causes are also more important than others. We only have a limited amount of time to dedicate to causes, so do you choose to help the unborn by offering their mother's material and moral support or to protest animal euthenasia by burning down hunters' houses? When a politician accepts that some unborn babies are more worthy of life than others, I don't care how many other positions he supports, I can't support him. When the weakest and most innocent are expendable to a person, that person doesn't value others as persons, but based on some other valuation or ethics. and that's just not reasonable.

some guy on the street said...

Well, Peter, I'm content to accept that above Sheila was trying to use "ethics" interchangeably with "natural law", and "morality" with "Revealed Divine law"; the distinction is well worth while, and our disagreement thus-far is over choice of names, albeit names with prior-established uses.

Without precisely disagreeing, I'm inclined, with you Peter, to worry about relying on the (perfectly valid) precept "do no harm", or the more-precise "choose no harm"; but where I see difficulty isn't the narrowness of the precept, but in the modern sense of harm; there seems to be a popular notion that whatever a person freely chooses to suffer is somehow free from harm. In this, as in other ways, there are plenty of acts I would recognize as necessarily a choice of harm which many today would not.

For instance, there is the recurring example of sodomy: without unnecessary details, the act itself does physical harm to both involved, even neglecting risks of infection. However, at the same time I would oppose a law against the act itself, simply because any such law would necessarily obtrude upon the private homes of free persons, or rely on unjust presumptions, or rely on the uncorroborable testimony of one of the people involved: that is, to enact such a law would be to choose harms.

Similarly, I have a slightly different view on divorce (admittedly academic: my family is beautifully happy and I'm a born single) because there ought to be some recourse for redress of evils committed under the shield of domesticity; at the same time, I'm simply appalled by the now commonplace abuse of what used to be exactly that recourse, to avoid boredom or to assuage willful distraction.

Sheila said...

Petrus, I hope I haven't given you to understand that I am anything other than prolife. The #1 dealbreaker for me for any politician is if he supports abortion in any way. On the other hand, I have other dealbreakers too. A very pro-war candidate isn't likely to get a vote for me, either. I refuse to violate my conscience for any politician.

As far as the ethics vs. morals / natural law vs. revealed law thing, perhaps my terminology is not right. I can see I should probably write a whole other post about the limits of government. Overall I believe any action that infringes another's rights may be forbidden by law, but any action that does not infringe on another's rights should not be. But that begs the question, what rights do we have?

S.g.o.t.s., I agree with you about sodomy. On the one hand, since it does not harm anyone but those committing it, I feel any "punishment" should be left up to God. On the other, there is no way to enforce a law like that without the issues you mention, and I am opposed to unenforceable laws remaining on the books (because they encourage contempt for law).

With divorce, it's a huge problem for sure. But law can't fix that. We can't force people to remain together who don't want to be together, and of course there are cases where they SHOULD not be together (abuse, etc.). I think the solution here is just not a governmental one. To solve the problem of divorce, you're just going to have to spread the word about what marriage really is and should be, so that people know it BEFORE choosing a life partner. And I'm afraid you're going to have to convince people to stop having premarital sex and cohabiting while you're at it. Oh, and teach them to have the maturity and selflessness to put someone else's needs before their own. Heck, you may as well just get them to heaven while you're at it. You know? It's not an easy-fix solution like passing a law is, but these things stand a chance at making a real difference. In the Philippines (I learned from Enbrethiliel) divorce and remarriage are illegal but people do it all the time. Whereas traditional Catholics have it available in America, but they do it rarely because they don't believe in it.

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