I got in a Facebook debate the other day. It was on this article and whether it's okay to treat gay people "as if their lifestyle is acceptable." Namely, going to a Thanksgiving dinner at which a gay couple might be present.
My first issue with the phrasing I quoted is that there isn't a special way I treat people when I approve of their choices. I just treat people like people. Most people have at least something about them I don't like, but I focus on the good. If we're close, I might mention the other things: "I worry about how much you drink," or, "You have spinach in your teeth."
An acquaintance of mine said that this attitude is "compromising my principles." When I said something about Christian charity, he said he didn't see the difference between charity and compromise, and we have to "hold the line" against the onslaught of evil.
This is the sort of thing that comes up for me all the time. If I say we should be nice to this or that public sinner, I'm accused of getting in bed with the devil and being personally responsible for the downfall of humanity. Whereas I think that whenever I treat a person with charity -- any person, good, bad, or indifferent -- I am acting 100% in accord with my principles. Because principle #1 for a Catholic is charity, right? That doesn't include changing my mind about my morals, but simply being kind rather than shunning.
My interlocutor brought up that I have kids and said, "Well, if one of your kids misbehaves, you don't just hug them and tell them they're wonderful, do you?"
Cough cough. I directed the conversation away from my parenting because I was sure this guy would judge me for the "slacker" parent I am. But on second thought, that was a mistake. Being a mother actually gives me a lot of insight into how people work, and it's made me a much kinder and more merciful person overall. (It's funny, because he said I couldn't understand the spiritual battle because I'm not a Marine. I just got mad, but I should have pointed out that motherhood is, on the spiritual level, a pretty amazing vocation which teaches you a lot.)
You see, I'm not merciful and kind to my children because I don't care how they behave, or because I think it's okay for them to act however they like. If I were, I'd definitely go along with the "running into traffic" argument: "Well, you can be carefree about most stuff, but if they run into traffic, they're getting a spanking. You have to keep your kids safe."
Would I spank my children to keep them from being run over by a car? You bet I would. Is spanking my children actually going to keep them from being run over by a car? I don't think so.
You see, if my kids are on the edge of the street, heading for an oncoming car, and I stomp up to them shrieking "You're gonna catch it!" what do you suppose they're going to do? If they glance over their shoulder and see me, and know that I'm going to give them a spanking when I catch them, what direction are they going to run?
It's happened many times that my kids are heading for something dangerous, and I cry, "No! Dangerous! Come here!" My children know I wouldn't hit them. They know they are in for hugs and not spankings. They also have a trusting relationship with me and know I want to keep them safe and that I don't lie. So when I hold out my arms to Michael, or shout "Dangerous!" to Marko, they come running. They come because they trust me.
That relationship takes a lot of building up and a lot of work. It takes humility and patience and forgiveness. It would be easier to go the authoritarian route, but it would be less effective. Sooner or later, at two or at twenty, my kids would realize that I can't make them do what they don't want to do, and they will do everything I told them not to do.
Is it so hard to think of doing the same thing with people who are considered "sinners"? (Because, guess what: we are all sinners, so if we avoided sinners we'd be pretty darn lonely.) Yes, I very much want people to abandon whatever sins they have and become Catholic. But what is the more likely approach -- to walk up to someone and say, "You're going to hell," or to walk alongside them in life and show them how rich our faith can be?
When it comes down to it, we don't live the moral life because we're afraid of punishment or because we've reasoned it out from the natural law. That might get you a little way, but when you want to sin badly enough, those arguments just don't hold water. What keeps you on the straight and narrow when all else fails is that you know that God loves you, that he is trustworthy, that he knows what's best. You have the kind of trusting relationship with him that makes you able to give up even your most beloved sins, because you'd rather be close to God than anything else in the world.
People who live as if they don't know God .... probably don't know God. The odds are good that they really don't know what God is like. I keep being told, "Oh, the Bible is everywhere, there's no excuse." But which of us really was taught about God, his love, his forgiveness? Weren't most of us taught about Jerk-God instead? No matter how people try to explain, there's always this confusion, mixing God up with this mean nun or that harsh principal or the parent we never got along with. So many of us are profoundly hurt, having never been shown the kind of unconditional love that God has for us. If no one has ever loved you that way, how could you imagine what it's like?
There is only one way. There has only ever been one way. And that is for those who do know God to show forth that kind of unconditional love wherever we go. Charity is the earmark, the character, the membership card of the Christian. Without it, we're worse than useless. We drive people away from God, the one person who could heal them, because we are the only image they have of God, and we're jerks.