Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Catholic revisionism

The news of the Orlando shootings really upset me.  You kind of get used to mass shootings, in a way; you learn not to let them get to you and to get off the internet for a few days so you don't have to read about them.  But this one was extra upsetting because it targeted a group that I know gets targeted a lot.  And that must feel really scary to people who are gay and wondering if they are safe.

At first I was worried about the reactions from my Catholic friends.  In the past, I've shared things about violence against gays and gotten shrugs, or worse, statements that the victims brought it upon themselves and don't deserve protection because they are living a sinful lifestyle.  I thought maybe the whole thing would be ignored, erased, or even approved of.  And it was a huge relief that this did not happen.  My friends were quick to condemn the shooter and empathize with the victims.  And this is encouraging.  Regardless of my friends' opinions about homosexuality, they care about the individuals involved.  That speaks to how much I've pared down my friendlist, or how much society has changed, or just how uniquely upsetting this tragedy was, but whatever it is, it's good news.

However, what was a little less encouraging was the defensiveness.  Catholics announcing that they condemn all violence, OF COURSE, and always have, OF COURSE, and while Islam is a religion that naturally leads one to shoot up gay nightclubs, Catholics NEVER EVER would because it's a teaching of the Church that they should be tolerant of gay people and treat them with respect.

And what I wanted to say was, yes, that's true, the Catholic Church now teaches that gay people should be treated with respect.  But that is a new teaching.  In the past, Catholic nations punished homosexuality with the death penalty, just as many Muslim nations do today, and the hierarchy appears to have had no criticism for that.

Here are two articles on Wikipedia which testify to what I've said.  Legal violence against gay people has been pretty universal starting with the acceptance of Christianity by the Roman empire till the 19th century.  Sometimes the Church specifically argued in favor of the death penalty, such as at the Council of Paris in A.D. 829; at other times it simply said nothing and let the executions proceed under Catholic secular governments.

I will admit that this is not a case of the Church changing infallible teaching.  It never definitively or universally taught that gay people should be put to death -- although, of course, it is perfectly scriptural.  Leviticus 20:13 reads,"If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads."  So it's no wonder that Christian countries have assumed that this was a good thing to do -- why would God have commanded it if it weren't?

But to revise the entire history and claim that Catholics would never and have never used their religion as a justification to kill gay people is simply false.  Or that Catholicism has always taught that gay people should be treated with respect and tolerance.  It does now, and I'm glad it does now, but it did not invent the idea of tolerance.  It was very late to get on board -- so far as I can see, the first ever condemnation of violence against gay persons was in 1986, the year I was born.

This of course is relevant to the question that's troubled me so much in the past -- if God were inspiring the Church, so much that he carefully spelled out how many natures Jesus has and whether the persons of the Trinity are equal, why did he not bother to say, "Don't burn gay people alive"?  Is it because he didn't really care that much about them?  Or is it because he really is not that involved in what the Church does?  I don't blame the medievals for being people of their time.  But that is clearly all they were -- not people with extra enlightenment coming from their divinely-inspired faith.

Some people I know acknowledge and accept the Church's tradition and maintain that in a truly Catholic society, we would still be putting gays to death.  It must be a good thing to do, because the Church once did it, and because it's in the Bible.  So they say it has something to do with divine justice, or avoiding the corruption of others.  I can't go that route, though I admit it's logical.  But the fact that people can, and that they can justify it with reference to scripture and tradition, shows that, like Islam, Catholicism can be used to excuse violence against gay people.  Hate crimes against gays are sadly common, and some of them are carried out by Christians.

Islam, of course, has its own controversies.  Some people use it to justify violence, but there are 1.6 billion Muslims and most of them don't actually do anything violent.  In part it's because, like many Catholics, they listen to their own conscience first, before their religion.  And in part it's because some of them see their religion as a whole picture in which love and mercy are at the center, just as Catholics do.  So I'm not going to say religion is bad, that it's the enemy here and everyone whose religion contains some justification for killing gay people is evil.  Rather, we should remember that different threads of the same religion can be wildly different, but the love-and-mercy types are doing good and should be encouraged.  At the same time, let's not lie or attempt to revise history: religion, including Catholicism, has been a justification for violence throughout human history.  Believe responsibly.

8 comments:

Belfry Bat said...

I do wish you'd called this post "Catholics' revisionism" rather than "Catholic"...

While opinions on what to do in response to public crimes do change (and, as Catholic I also have to acknowledge that public celebration of sodomy is a public crime), there's never been ambiguity in Catholicism about private vengeance: retribution belongs to just and properly-constituted authority, not to individuals. And I'm also going to repeat that Leviticus is the law given to the keepers of the Law: the Levites were the executive arm of the law constituted for Israel wandering in Sinai (where they couldn't build temples or jails). It wasn't there for you the private citizen to use or invoke, it was for the judges to interpret and to apply.

Sheila said...

I understand the difference of course between vigilante killings of gay people and government killings of gay people. I think both are BAD, of course.

Muslims make the same argument, when the "bad parts" of the Quran are brought up. They say that all those laws only kick in in a caliphate, and there isn't a caliphate so it's all moot. But of course that raises the problem of what happens if someone actually goes and sets up a caliphate, which is what ISIS claims to be. In the same way, if you were to tell me that in a properly ordered Catholic state, gays would be put to death, my takeaway would be that I should do everything within my power to make sure a Catholic state never comes about.

Belfry Bat said...

So, now that we have the difference between law and executive, shall we review the distinction between temptation and act? Because the expression "gay people" is dangerously ambiguous within a topic where minute precision is required. Used to mean people with a particular unusual affect, there's no reason to kill anyone. Used, even, to mean people who got caught up in an unexpected passion once, I'm inclined to be forgiving (and it pretty much completely doesn't concern me anyway). But habitual delectation and public celebration of mutual abuse, I'm sure you can see, is a different matter from one of feeling dizzy at the thought of a particular fellow fellow.

Some people do find an excitement and a "release" in being punched or whipped; that doesn't mean we'll feel happy for them, or affirm them in their relationships, when they show up with blacked eyes or bandages that need changing. We must sincerely lament last sunday's victims; in many of their surviving friends, though, we do not see their older wounds because where they are bleeding, where they are submitting eachother to chronic infection, is ordinarily covered, in public.

No, I don't think capital punishment will help them, and there isn't any point of doctrine contrary; and, more, I think there are better helps available, if ever they are wanted. Whether any authority on Earth will agree with me... I've no idea. But the point remains: things-Catholics-have-done and Catholic-Tradition are different.

I'm pretty sure, for other things, that the questions of properly-constituted authority vs. the existence or sway of a Caliphate are independent. Everything I've heard tells against the ability of anyone who would today use the quran as a kind of law to actually exercise his reason in the matter. In other words, there is no sensible comparison between living traditions of interpreting the quran with the living Catholic tradition of interpreting our Scriptures.

Sheila said...

Do you have any evidence for your last paragraph other than "everything you've heard"? It seems the Catholic idea of scripture + tradition is similar to those Muslims who follow Quran + hadith. I've actually spent some time reading Muslim forums (I must have been REALLY bored) and it struck me how very similar their way of talking was to Catholics -- exchanging quotations, trying to come up with rational reasons why God would command such-and-such, citing famous teachers. It seems irrational to *you,* because they accept different first principles on faith than you do, but it doesn't really seem that different to me. Stricter, perhaps.

Belfry Bat said...

Since you cite some muslims you know, I'll mention that I went to school with a muslim family, whose mother was in the provincial legislature, who spoke vehemently against allowing any shred of sharia being applied in provincial courts. But, again things-some-muslims-do isn't necessarily Islam.

But again no, the first-principles aren't what seem irational to me; that is, some folk have been given this text by their parents, and to trust it is as reasonable as trusting them in anything... though I'm amused at the number of times the quran apparently goes out of its way to say the Catholic Church have got some idea wrong, and also how it attributes to us a heresy against the Trinity. Also amused that the authority internally claimed by the quran is basically the same authority internally claimed by the Book of Mormon.

A couple of things that are irrational: the first is not a principle (it comes before and after the principles), is expressed as the admonition "without asking". Faith that asks is false, it is said --- a longer expression of it is "once [the quran] has been accepted, reason must cease to operate".

The other irrational thing is the kind of Voluntarism that islam has been stuck with since ... not quite sure when; its slogan is "God is not bound", as in: not even God's word is free from God's own contradiction.

But anyways, the really unfortunate thing is that trying to apply human reason to God's words and acts will eventually be condemned (in the overwhelmingly predominant tradition) as shrq, because human reason is (apparently) a creature, and we must not compare God to creatures.

My sources on these points are public writings and lectures, mostly of Robert Reilley (though I don't trust myself to count "l"s or "e"s), but Dr. Marshner provided some more history.

Sheila said...

I don't actually know any Muslims. ;) I just read them on the internet.

But I get annoyed by the way non-Muslims seem willing to declare what "real Islam" is. What IS any religion other than the things the members do and believe? Each has its source texts, sure, but religions vary in how seriously they take those. And of course Islam has its denominations just like Christianity has. So I don't think you really could say "this is the Muslim opinion on X" or "this is what real Islam is." I mean, I could dig up a teaching of some cleric in the fourth century and say, "See, Catholics believe X!" And you could quite rightly say, "But Catholics today don't believe X, and according to my understanding of which things count as Catholic doctrine or not, we don't have to." But of course you would maintain that you, not I, would be the judge of what counts as Catholic doctrine and what doesn't.

I do know that the theology behind Islam is voluntarist, but I think that Catholics tend to lean this way a little bit too. Sure, they will say that God is rational, consistent, and so on, but if I pull out some bit of inconsistency, they simply say that it isn't *really* inconsistent. It doesn't trouble them at all. Or if God does something that would obviously be evil by any human standard, they simply say that God isn't bound by our standards. So in the end it doesn't make a whole lot of difference; Catholics, like Muslims, are perfectly okay with God demanding what cannot be understood. I hear that a Muslim would have to kill a child if God told him to, but ... I mean ... Abraham, you know? So what's the real difference here?

Belfry Bat said...

Who, me? "The judge"? Goodness no; why would you say that? Someone else has already done the judging for me, and I'm left with logic and pattern-matching. So, e.g., it's not coming from me when I mention that voluntarism isn't Catholic (indeed, it's unreasonable), whatever tendency you've noticed among the American Catholics you live amongst or the bloggy Catholics you read. Maybe they need you to remind them?

Funny thing: Abraham, after he agreed, didn't stop listening. (and after that, the Saints have plenty to say as caution about private revelation).

And you'll notice there is (guess what!) a difference between someone saying some two things are consistent vs. them being consistent; and especially, whenever you've mentioned a particular tension in Scripture I've tried to suggest readings of them (both credible and consonant with tradition) where consistency is easy to see.

Sheila said...

....I think it's only easy to see if you already believe it.

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