Thursday, January 15, 2015

No Condemnation in Christ, Part 4: Conquerors With God

Throw on some armor and saddle up!

Here we are, in the final piece on Romans 8; we've been exploring the ways this chapter speaks mercy and grace to sinners.  In the last post, we looked at the fact that not only are we Christians forgiven in Christ, we actually have a glorious destiny.  Now we're going to look more into this amazing reality.  

"We know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to His purpose.  For those He foreknew He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, so that He might be the Firstborn among many brothers.  And those He predestined He also called; and those He called He also justified; and those He justified He also glorified."
Romans 8: 28-30
Those who serve God are chosen.  God, Who lives outside of time, was able to determine, even "before" the beginning of time (He "foreknew"), those who would choose to love Him, and from His eternal vantage point He made it their destiny to be glorified.  This doesn't mean that we must be perfect and sinless in order to be counted in that number.  If we love God, which to be sure does include a desire to please and serve Him, then even though we stumble and fall, He justifies us.  

Our enemy, the devil, will continue to oppose us throughout all of our Earthly lives.  He and his minions will tempt us to do that which displeases God, and will always try to tear us away from our glorious destiny.  We can't give up the fight, for we know from other scriptures that only "those who endure until the end" shall be saved.  So we can't take our destiny as being "secure no matter what," because certainly God's foreknowledge, by which He has destined us, was a foreknowledge not of those who would love Him only for a time, but for those who would love Him through to the end.  However, we can rest assured that, so long as we do love God, and keep holding on, Satan cannot win:
"What then shall we say to this?  If God is for us, who can be against us?  He Who did not spare His own Son but handed Him over for us all, how will He not also give us everything else along with Him?  Who will bring a charge against God's chosen ones?  It is God who acquits us.  Who will condemn?  It is Christ Jesus Who died, rather, was raised, Who also is at the right hand of God, Who indeed intercedes for us.  What will separate us from the love of Christ?  Will anguish, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or the sword?  As it is written:
'For Your sake we are being slain all the day; we are looked upon as sheep to be slaughtered.'
No, in all these things we conquer overwhelmingly through Him Who loved us." 
Romans 8: 31-37

No matter what sort of weapons the enemy uses against us, so long as we cling to our Lord, the evil one can't stand against us.  He may win battles, and we may find ourselves cast down into the pit.  But we will always rise again, our rising modeled on the rising of Christ, the Firstborn.  If we are "looked upon as sheep to be slaughtered," then we will also rise again just like the Lamb Who was slaughtered.  This doesn't only apply to our physical rising after our bodily deaths--many of which have indeed come at the hands of enemies of the Faith--but also to our spiritual rising whenever our souls have died, temporarily, through sin.

Satan cannot keep us down, the grave of sin cannot contain us when we trust in God, Who will raise us from the dead.  We rise, time and again, to glory, by the Grace of God whenever we repent and avail ourselves of His forgiving power through repentance and confession.  No power in the universe could stand in the way:

"For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." 
Romans 8: 38-39

That is the beautiful truth, and the reason that even Satan himself, despite his deviousness and his power, can't deprive us of our rights as children of God.  For God is infinitely more powerful than even the most magnificent or potent of creatures, including the prince of darkness.  This same God, Whose power knows no bounds, loves us, and it is His unfailing will that we should be with Him forever, that we should reign with Him, if we simply love Him.  That's the consolation and the hope we have.  That's why, no matter how bleak things look, no matter how often we fall into the snare of the enemy and find ourselves discouraged, we have the guarantee that, so long as we are willing to keep up the good fight, we will prevail.  God never fails.

And that is truly good news for a sinner such as I.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

No Condemnation in Christ, Part 3: People of Hope

Continuing our series on Romans 8, an awesome chapter of scripture devoted to the mercy of Christ, we've already talked about the difference between the "flesh" and the "spirit," and how, even though we live with the consequences and temptations of being in the flesh, by God's Grace our primary existence, and even that of our bodies themselves, can be in the Spirit, God's spirit which "will give life to [our] mortal bodies also."  This is how, even though we are weak, prone to sin, we are still heirs to God's kingdom, and still have hope of living "in the Spirit" each moment.

The fact of the matter is that those who are in Christ are destined for glorious ends; and this means all of the temptation and shame we endure in this life, so long as we hold to Christ and strive to do His will, will not be the last word:

"I consider that the sufferings of this present time are as nothing compared with the glory revealed for us.  For creation awaits with eager expectation the revelation of the children of God; for creation was made subject to futility, not of its own accord but because of the One Who subjected it, in hope that creation itself would be set free from slavery to corruption and share in the glorious freedom of the children of God.  We know that all creation is groaning in labor pains even until now; and not only that, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, we also groan within ourselves as we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.  For in hope we were saved."
-Romans 8: 18-24
We who live here on Earth may cry out desperately, echoing St. Paul as we shout:  "Miserable man that I am!  Who will deliver me from this mortal body?"  We, marred by addictions, seemingly imprisoned by the vices we have accumulated throughout our lives, may easily believe that Satan is winning the battle for our souls.  But St. Paul has written that the sufferings of this life will be nothing in light of the glory we will know.  And what greater suffering is there than the temptation to despair, planted in us by our constant failures?  What greater suffering, for one who cares about God, can there be on this side of eternity than the fear that we fail Him in so many ways?  This suffering too, then, will be "as nothing" compared to the reward.

Sort of like how the "suffering" of resisting having dessert for every
meal is "nothing" compared to the health benefits of--oh who am
I kidding, the jury's still out on that one.

The sadness we feel, the frustration at our own sins and wicked habits, those vices to which we fall again and again despite wanting to please God, those terrible feelings are our "groaning within ourselves as we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies."  We know that we were made for something better.  We long to be better, because it's our destiny.  That's good news, when we consider what it means!  If our inner sorrow and suffering over our shortcomings are not a sign that we are irredeemable, but rather a sign that we are simply longing for our destiny of being clean, then that means--because it's our destiny--we will be clean.  Not merely in the sense of being redeemed in spite of our faults (so long as we repent when we fall), but in the sense that one day, when all is fulfilled, we will have no faults.  Our discontent with the way things are is a good sign that things are not supposed to be this way, and so, because God is good and will prevail, will not always be this way.

It's easy, even so, to give into despair.  We might wonder why, if our destiny is so bright, do we not have more assurance of it?  Why can't we have a real glimpse at the future, so that we will know that our destiny is glorious?  Paul has answered that question for us:

"Now hope that sees for itself is not hope.  For who hopes for what one sees?  But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait with endurance."
Romans 8: 24-25
God has called us, as testified elsewhere in Scripture, to possess the virtue of hope.  And hope cannot be nurtured where one has already seen the outcome.  You can't hope for a good thing that you know is a foregone conclusion, because there's no need for hope.  Hope builds us, strengthens us, makes us brave.  It's easy to be strong and bold when you know things are okay, so it's not even true strength.  Since we are molded and formed in hope, however, we have a chance to truly grow and become strong, to learn true endurance. 

And endurance is how you become a kung fu master!
(That's relevant because kung fu is always relevant)

That's why even when it comes to the goodness and right action bestowed on us by Grace, we have to believe in these things through faith, not sight.  Because that goodness to which we are heirs, which we have already inherited to some extent with our baptism and for as long as we walk with God, is not always something tangible, that we can see.  That's because it's not from us, it's not something that's readily measurable that we can see ourselves doing.  See more from Paul:

"In the same way, the Spirit too comes to the aid of our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit itself intercedes with inexpressible groanings.  And the one Who searches hearts knows what is the intention of the Spirit, because it intercedes for the Holy Ones according to God's will."
Romans 8: 26-27
Even our deepest prayers are "inexpressible," and are prayed for us by the Spirit.  But that's something that we can only believe by faith and hope, because by virtue of being inexpressible, there's no way we can comprehend or observe it in the way that we would be able to observe human words.  It's the same, I believe for much of the goodness that is being worked in us, in spite of our imperfections:  They are worked in us by the Spirit, and while it's true that there will be tangible and observable fruits--for "by their fruits you shall know them"--it's just as true that many of the workings of the Spirit are invisible, unseen, and "inexpressible."  So we can only hold on by having faith that, as long as we love God, there is goodness and glory in our destinies, and that we are redeemed, even when it seems very hard to see it.

We are people of hope.  And to be a person of hope is to believe in and anticipate the unseen.  Shouldn't we apply that, also, to the "unseen" ways in which God is preparing us, even now, for glory?  The answer, I hope, is clear.

Note:  One more entry in this series remains.  I hope you'll join me for the upcoming conclusion!

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

No Condemnation in Christ, Part 2: Life in the Spirit

In my last post, I began a series on Romans, Chapter 8, a chapter about our redemption in Christ, full of rich messages that, in Christ, we are not condemned:
"Hence, now there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.  For the law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus has freed you from the law of sin and death.  For what the law, weakened by the flesh, was powerless to do, this God has done:  by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for the sake of sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, so that the righteous decree of the law might be fulfilled in us, who live not according to the flesh but according to the spirit."   
-Romans 8: 1-4  
It's interesting that Paul says, "so that the righteous decree of the law might be fulfilled in us."  This sounds like an echo of Christ's own words, "Do not think I have come to abolish the Law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish, but to fulfill."  This is an important parallel.  So many people, especially among our separated brethren,  misread Paul's passages on mercy to suggest exactly the opposite of Christ's words:  That Jesus did come to do away with the Law.  Some even go so far as to suggest that this means Christians, once "saved," can never be "unsaved" no matter what they do, nor how far they may seem to have turned away from God afterward.  Not so, neither according to Jesus nor to Paul.  Instead, Jesus fulfills the Law.  And since Christ lives in us, that means that, as Paul says, the Law is fulfilled in us.

 But how is it, then, that we witness our own sins, and the sins of other Christians, everyday?  If the Law has not been abolished, how can we be called righteous when we clearly violate that Law?  Much less how can we say that it is fulfilled in us?!  Let's read more of what Paul has to say:
"For those who live according to the flesh are concerned with the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the spirit with the things of the spirit.  The concern of the flesh is death, but the concern of the spirit is life and peace  For the concern of the flesh is hostility toward God; it does not submit to the law of God, nor can it; and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.  But you are not in the flesh; on the contrary, you are in the spirit, if only the Spirit of God dwells in you.  Whoever does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to Him.  But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the spirit is alive because of righteousness.  If the Spirit of the One Who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, the one Who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also, through His Spirit that dwells in you.  Consequently, brothers, we are not debtors to the flesh, to live according to the flesh.  For if you live according to the flesh, you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live." 
-Romans 8: 5-13
It seems that Paul's answer to the conundrum is that we live, in some sense, a dual existence.  We live in the flesh, which though made by God (and thus, as the Church teaches, not inherently evil) is tainted by Original Sin and, even after that sin has been washed away, scarred by its effects, something known to Catholics as "concupiscence," the tendency to sin and to find it easier to commit sin than to resist it.  Yet once we enter into Christ, our living in this flesh becomes, as it were, circumstantial.  We still occupy these flawed and tarnished bodies, but our primary existence is in "the Spirit," that is the Spirit of God, of Christ.  And I would argue that once we are in Christ even our bodies, although they bear the marks and tendencies of sin, find their truest identities in the anticipation of what they will one day become:  Transformed, glorified by this same Spirit in which we live, as Christ's body was glorified after His Resurrection ("the one Who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also").

That is why we now live without condemnation; now this new state of being does require that we "put to death the deeds of the body."  And how do we do that?  One, by being concerned "with the things of the spirit," by striving to walk in God's ways, and by that "righteous decree of the law" mentioned earlier.  Two, by repentance--including, when required by the Church, sacramental confession--when we sin, by which time and again we "put to death," by the Spirit, the deeds which we have done in the body.  When we confess to God and, when our sins are mortal, in the presence of His priests, God's Spirit literally puts our sins to death, and so they have no hold on us.  If we lived only on our own power, in our own flesh, it would be impossible to please God, especially once we had violated His Law in even the smallest way.  But because we live in Christ, and by His Spirit, then when we sin we are only one true repentance away and, at worst, even if we have committed the most heinous of sins, one sacramental confession away from being restored to that righteousness which is in Christ, so that the Law is fulfilled in us despite our faults.  Penance, purgatory, and all the rest is, as they say, "details:" Important details, but none of which stand between us and life in the Spirit; when we live repentant in Christ, we are already there.
"For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the sons of God.  For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you received a spirit of adoption, through which we cry 'Abba, Father!'  The Spirit itself bears witness with our spirit that we are sons of God, and if sons, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if only we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him." 
- Romans 8: 14-17
We are not slaves, that we should live in constant fear that, because of our unworthiness, we are only ever a hair's breadth from the wrath of our Master.  Instead, just as Christ called the Apostles, and us by extension, no longer slaves but His friends, so too does God call us no longer slaves but His sons--a word that, in scriptural theology, applies to both male and female equally, for it implies not our biological gender but our rightful heirship--and sons walk in the security and righteousness of their Father.  In our case, if we are willing to embrace the suffering that comes with "putting to death the deeds of the body," we are heirs of that same righteousness and peace which are the inheritance of Christ.  Let us walk in that peace with great consolation.

Note:  That's not all!  Before this series is over, we will have covered the entire chapter.  So stay tuned for future posts in the series!

Monday, December 1, 2014

No Condemnation In Christ, Part 1: Introduction

As a person who struggles with same-sex attraction, and who has had my share of faults related to that struggle, guilt comes easily to me.  I don't mean contrition, the good sort of sorrow over one's sins.  No, I mean a deep sense of shame, of feeling as though I am somehow the lowest of the low.  I have stumbled across those, for example, who actually believe that homosexual sins should be punishable by death, while "conveniently" insisting that other sins--namely, the sort of sins "normal" people (read:  People like themselves) might commit--are somehow different, and are God's alone to deal with.

Recently, I watched a video by a guy who quoted 1 Timothy 1:8-11, which does indeed mention homosexual sin in the same context as murderers and kidnappers.  The guy used this to justify punishing homosexual faults with the same severity, by law, as one would punish those others.  In fact, as I read his Facebook page, I saw indications that he wasn't opposed to the death penalty for homosexuality.  He actually used the inclusion of kidnappers and murderers in these same verses to insist that the verses don't simply condemn all sin equally, because after all we don't let kidnappers and murderers go without severe temporal punishment; so why, he asked, should those who commit homosexual acts "get a pass?"  He conveniently glossed over the fact that this same passage mentions those who are "sinful" in general terms, and mentions those who are guilty of "whatever else is opposed to sound teaching," which would pretty much include all sin.  So the irony is that the very passage he used to say that homosexual sins are more deserving of human punishment--apparently up to and including the death penalty--than other sins, also mentions sin in general.  So if the inclusion of homosexual sins in this passage, alongside murder and kidnappers, is proof that homosexual sins should be dealt with just as harshly as those by man's laws, then so must anything sinful, anything which is "opposed to sound teaching."

There's a saying about this somewhere...

The tendency of Pharisaical types to single out my sins as being somehow so much "worse" than their own wreaks several orders of havoc on me, especially when some go so far as to suggest that people who commit my sins ought to be killed, in contrast to other sinners who do indeed evidently "get a pass" on such a grim fate.  It causes me to feel that, because I'm unlucky enough to struggle with a more "taboo" sin, God condemns me more harshly than He condemns others.  Yet I admit it:  I do deserve death for my sins.  My sins are a stench to God's nose, a deep affront to Him.  In a society where there was perfect justice, not tempered by mercy, I would and should be put to a painful and horrible death for the misdeeds I've committed.  Not only my sexual sins; my lies, my gluttony, my selfishness, my lashing out in anger.  From the least to the greatest, these are all atrocities.

After all, even the slightest sin of mine, or anyone else, contributes to the pain and suffering of Christ as He was tormented and killed, so in a way every sin is an act of sadistic violence against God the Son, and therefore on level with (and beyond!) the despicable deeds of someone who kidnapped and tortured someone before killing them.  Because that's what all sin in the past, present, and future has actually done to Jesus .  That's precisely why no one who has ever sinned has the right to look down on any other sinner, no matter how "vile" the other sinner's deeds may seem.  So some part of me, when I encounter Pharisaic rhetoric, thinks I should simply admit that they're right.  The fact that they don't recognize the depravity of their own sins is their own tragedy, their own blindness, but their condemnation of me, at least, is perfectly justified.  And where it relates to my same sex attraction and related failures, that fills me time and again with a deep sense of shame that I can barely contain.  And actually--although this is the topic for a different post--I don't necessarily oppose the idea of a government where my sins would be criminalized, if this criminalization was tempered by mercy and compassion (which, as you might have guessed, certainly rules out Mr. Pharisee's longing for putting us to death!), for I know within me, at least intellectually, that the way I have sinned against God, nature, and the dignity of masculinity is nothing short of criminal.

That's why I thank God, though, that in Christ I am not the sum total of my sins.  In Christ I am redeemed, so that "if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me."  Repentance is necessary, yes.  Penance is necessary, yes.  And it might even be just for my fellow man to punish me for my sins, if it's for the good of society.  I would even give my very life to return to a Christian society, so maybe accepting some law against my own behavior would be a way for me to put my money where my mouth is.  But even if it came to that, I am not irredeemably corrupted when I sin, because in Jesus Christ there is no sin that puts me beyond redemption, so long as I do not give up the good fight.  Some sins may rightly put me on the path to punishment at the hands of men, but they do not rob me of the ability, in Christ, to be redeemed.

The eighth chapter of St. Paul's letter to the Romans has many beautiful reflections on this reality.  So consider this post an introduction to a series of posts that are going to reflect on that chapter, in sections.  I'm actually not alone in this project:  Both I and my friend and fellow blogger Daniel, at the blog Mercy Street, have conspired to tackle this series together.  You can read his own first post on the series here.  For now, suffice to say that, as the first verse of the chapter says, "there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus."  While that doesn't mean that we can "sin it up" without repenting, it does mean that we are delivered from being irrecoverably broken by our sins.  And that's pretty good reason to feel worth something, not because of my own worthiness, but because of the worth Christ has given me.  By His Grace, I am not so rotten or despicable after all, even though without His Grace I would most certainly be.

I hope you'll join me, dear reader, as I plunge further into this beautiful chapter in future posts.

Monday, November 24, 2014

An Envy of Vice?!

I often find myself torn between two opposite types of envy.  The first type is obvious:  I envy saints, those whose holiness seems to radiate and pour forth into the lives of all whom they touch, especially those whose faith is so strong that Christ grants miracles through their prayers.  What a powerful witness!  But then there's the second type:  I envy the sinful, those whose lives have been weathered through the harsh effects of misdeed, those who have more "worldly" experiences than I do.

The first type of envy is bad because, well, it's envy.  But at least it makes sense.  As a Christian, I am supposed to desire the greatest of gifts, and the saints often exemplify those.  The second type, however, is just bizarre.  To be clear, though, I don't think I tend so much to envy unrepentant sinners, but those who have either changed or who are trying to live right.  For example, I wouldn't envy the common Hollywood celebrity, who proudly sins without admitting that it's even wrong.  But if I had come to personally know my patron saint, St. Augustine, during his lifetime, I might have somehow envied some of his past vices that I haven't shared, such as his past transgressions with women.

I suspect that, in some sense, it's because of my unhealthy fascination with being experienced and world-wise, especially as a man.  In fact, this would explain why I'm not typically envious of religious believers with pasts that are not so much affirmed by the majority of the world.  I would not envy a man who told me he had once been a transsexual--even though that's culturally acceptable, it's not popular enough, not something that the common man in our culture struggles with.  The same would go for sinful tendencies that are still illegal and/or taboo among the typical  man in our culture.  I'm not as fascinated by those.  In some sense, my own dissatisfaction with my own cross, same-sex attraction, is partly for the shallow reason that it's something only a small percentage of men could relate to directly, so I don't feel like it makes me "one of the guys."  If I confided my failures in this arena to the average guy, I don't think he could sympathetically say "I've been there too, man."

But, going back to St. Augustine as an example, to have had trouble with chastity when it comes to women is an experience to which many men will relate, if not a great majority, religious and non-religious alike.  In some sense, then, this one area where I have been largely pristine (my wife is indeed the one and only woman with whom I've had physical sexual contact) can oddly make me feel isolated from the world of my fellow men.

I want to make it clear that I am very, very glad of my victories in chastity regarding women. Sometimes--and this isn't a good thing--I'm inordinately proud of it, want to shout it from the rooftops and brag about it, to say:  "Look, as much as I've messed up, sexually, here's one thing that at least I've done right!"  And I have no interest in ever physically being with any other woman besides my wife, to the point that I'm not even sure I would want to remarry if, Heaven forbid, I were widowed, let alone have any illicit relationship with a woman!  And this whole "sexual immorality with women" thing is just one example of what I'm talking about.

My point is that when it comes to experiences, in general, where the majority of my fellow men have transgressed and I have not, it may make me feel special, but it also makes me feel isolated somehow.  If most men have gotten drunk, then even though I have no personal interest in getting drunk at all, I will feel a pang of regret that I can't relate to them when they confide or admit their regrets to me.  I've never been there.  And perhaps, if getting drunk at least once is that common, I would feel like those men are somehow better equipped to relate to our culture than I.  Another one in our culture, even among religious types, is temporary rebellion against the more traditional values of one's parents, whether openly or quietly.  Most people have gone through that kind of phase, most especially during the teenage years.  I never really did.  I've messed up a lot, but never in a manner that seemed overly defiant, nor covertly dismissive of my parents' values.

So I fret that, in some sense, I'm "missing" something that others have.  At heart, I think that's what it's all about.  I'm always afraid of "missing out" on something, of being unable to relate to others.  My drive to know what it's like to be my fellow man can often leave me insecure about any differences between him and me, even differences where ostensibly I'm at an advantage.  This has led, in the past, to an incredibly uncomfortable tension, where I want to maintain the moral high ground but at the same time don't want to feel so "cut off" from relating to the vices common to my fellow men, and so I've been reduced to tears as, honestly, I didn't know what I wanted.

The solution?  Well, I can't prescribe my own solution, but I think it's obvious.  I must put my eyes on Christ.  He, by Himself, is a majority when set against others.  I must wish to rise above my own faults and failures, by His Grace, let alone those faults and failures I've been blessed to evade, so that I can be more like Him.  He should be the One to Whom I am obsessed with resemblance, to Whose experiences I wish desperately to relate.  The saints eventually reached a place in life where they wanted to share in Jesus' life, wanted to know what it was like to live in His shoes, rather than in the shoes of my fellow mortals.

We all have vices we must rise above.  It wouldn't be good for anyone to envy me of my vices, no matter how they simply wanted to know what it was like to be me, even if my vices were more "in vogue."  So it's also not good for me to envy the vices of others, no matter how much it may mean they have something "in common" with the majority of my cultural peers when I don't.  I should never look down on anyone else for their vices, because I have vices of my own that are not the least bit better.  But nor should I ever feel like I'm "missing out" on anything because of the absence of their vices in my own life.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Who Killed Marriage and Sexual Morality? We Did...

In our current cultural climate, the latest battle about marriage has been a high-profile one:  You'd have to be living under a rock, if you're a citizen of most nations in the modern west, to not know that there is an agenda afoot to say that marriage must be redefined so as to include two people of the same gender.  Conservative Christians everywhere are rightly alarmed by this turn of events, as both Scripture and the Church teach that sexual relationships outside of marriage, between one man and one woman, are sinful. Yet the problem started long ago, perhaps even more long ago than many of my brothers and sisters in faith may realize.

Civil marriage has long been a joke, compared to what it once was.  Now, I must say immediately that as a Catholic, I concede to the wisdom of the Church's tradition (small "t," meaning it's time tested wisdom but not something that's an infallible Dogma) that civil marriage is important to society.  I therefore reject the libertarian notion than society would be just fine if marriage were left solely to private ceremonies and to churches, without any state involvement.  However, at the same time I recognize that civil marriage, as it exists in my society today, is a pale shadow of the institution that the Church extols as being desirable for society.

We must consider what the purpose of civil marriage is.  It's absurd, beyond all reason, to suggest that civil marriage is about romance or feelings of love.  The governments of the world did not originally conceive of giving married couples special status or tax benefits for the sake of honoring their proclamations of love.  If that's all marriage was about, the libertarians would be perfectly right:  It would be ridiculous for the government to get involved.

Like a state-sanctioned valentines day card.
Only a lot more expensive!
Besides protecting people from violence, robbery, etc., and maintaining a system of justice and order, governments also serve a function of supporting an atmosphere most conducive to a thriving society.  So if the government has any role in marriage, it would only be toward those ends.  It's clear, with even passing thought, that family is the basic building block of society.  Family is a natural example of order and community:  A father, a mother, and children, with children being under the authority of the parents if they are to thrive and grow.  From there, we have extended family, who have always thrived best--historically--if they worked together with the other "nuclear" families, in mutually beneficial relationships.  In this way, family is a society, and it's the only one that would occur in nature, without needing an artificial structure.  So it makes sense that, if the government has any stock in sanctioning marriage, it's for the preservation and promotion of family.

How, though, might civil marriage do that?  Well, for one thing civil marriage would have to promote family somehow, namely by promoting procreation.  But in order to do this, there must be more than just the sanctioning of sex.  Men and women have never, throughout history, needed any incentive to have sex with each other, and until recently, that meant that procreation was pretty well assured.  But procreation by itself does not a family unit make.  In order for there to be a family, at least in the sense of being the basic building block of society, then those who come together to make children must stay together and be with those children.  So in order for a government to have any real reason to be involved in marriage, civil marriage must in some sense enforce that togetherness, but if it's going to do that, it must also be an attractive enough prospect that people would want to engage in it, when they could just "shack up" and have the freedom to leave whenever they want.  So we find that the purpose of civil marriage is first to offer some sort of reward--or ease--to make people want to enter into it, and then to enforce the longevity of that relationship somehow, to hold the man and woman to the agreement they've made.

The obvious way that modern civil marriage has managed to make itself meaningless is no-fault divorce.  Sure, the government still makes civil marriage attractive by offering benefits and tax breaks, along with special rights that spouses have to one another.  These things attract people to marriage.  However, there's no longer any enforcement to hold the marriage together once it's entered.  If the going gets tough, either spouse is free to file for a divorce, which will be granted, for absolutely no reason whatsoever.  There need be no serious problem.  It could be as simple as "I just don't love my spouse" or "I've fallen in love with someone else."  The irony here is that now, the government is indeed giving people incentive to come together in a relationship that will possibly create children (more on that, very soon in this post), but then these people are free to go their separate ways at any time, for any reason, destroying the stable and basic "society"--the family--into which those children were born.  As long as divorce can be so easily and certainly obtained, civil marriage isn't doing its job of safeguarding the basic building block of society, and those who suggest that there's no point to civil marriage have good reason to think so, and it's also understandable why some think civil marriage is such a joke that accepting state-sanctioned gay "marriage" couldn't really do it anymore harm.

Not really much more you can do to it...

Yet there's a more fundamental error, and a more popular one.  You see, at least many Christians can recognize that divorce is wrong.  Perhaps they don't believe this strongly enough to clamor for the abolition of no-fault divorce--though they should--but at least they often enough believe it on some level, at least among those who take the Bible seriously at all.  But the more fundamental mockery of marriage is one that only a very select group of Christians, aside from Catholics or Orthodox (and sadly, even many so-called Catholics miss this fact) oppose.  This mockery is the belief that marriage and procreation do not go hand in hand.  That is, that it's acceptable to get married with little or no intention of having children.  It's a belief that followed, naturally enough, on the heels of our modern world's acceptance of birth control, whether by pill, barrier, or finishing the sex act in some unnatural way.  The fact is, I have met few people, if any, who support birth control as morally acceptable yet who believe that it is the moral duty of any fertile married couple to have at least some children.  It seems to me that, without fail, those who accept contraception as morally permissible also believe that it can be acceptable for someone to get married while having no intention or openness to having children at all.  If Christian, these types admit that children should only be had within marriage, but they do not tend to concede that marriage should only be entered if there is an intention--if naturally possible and without significant health risks--to have children.

The problem with this, and the way that it relates to gay "marriage" today, is that it squarely undermines one of the basic purposes of civil marriage at all, not to mention the point of sex (and therefore of marriage, period, civil or otherwise).  Even if no-fault divorce were banished tomorrow, marriage is still a nonsensical institution if it does not require some intention to have children.  Consider, the evil of no-fault divorce is that it allows couples to break up the families they may create.  If, however, procreation is not considered a normative duty of marriage, then it's hypothetically acceptable for every married couple to deliberately refrain from creating a family in the first place.  After all, the government has no interest in safeguarding a private two-person relationship, in and of itself.

The gay "marriage" activists really won their battle the moment that people--sadly most Christians among them--began to accept that having children isn't a mandatory duty of marriage.  Because if being open to procreation isn't inherent to marriage, then here is no reason to restrict it to men and women, who are made special only by virtue of the fact that, in nature, they can make children.  In fact, the gay agenda won the moral debate, as well, against most of their conservatively religious opponents, when those same opponents--decades ago--accepted contraceptives in any circumstance at all.  After all, unless God is incredibly arbitrary, then it's nonsense to suggest that He frowns on two men (let's even suppose they're "married) having sex together, yet accepts it when a husband and wife have sex together despite that this husband and wife--through use of contraception--are essentially doing the exact same thing that the gay couple is doing:  Having sex that is strictly for pleasure and emotional closeness, with no possibility (at least, that's the hope of the contracepting couple) of leading to children.  If God opposes sex between two men or two women, then logic dictates that it has nothing to do with the shapes of their bodies being "wrong", and everything to do with the fact that their sex act is a deviation from the natural law, in which sex is ordered toward making children.  But sex with a condom, or sex "on the pill", or other forms of sex that unnaturally thwart procreation, are just as much a deviation from that law as sex between two people of the same gender.

So when gay people demand that the state sanction their marriages, or insist that gay sex is not a sin, they have a point in the face of the hypocrisy that would suggest that unnaturally sterilized sex between a man and a woman is okay, but sex between two men--due to its own inherent sterility--is not.  God sees no difference between the two.  God does not forbid "gay" sex and allow "straight" sex because of the shape of the body parts involved, or because one set of parts "fits" together better; that would be incredibly circumstantial and shallow, especially since it involves what is and isn't sin, which is deadly to the soul.  If it were just a matter of which parts fit together better, it would be like telling someone he was endangering his immortal soul for daring to wear stripes with plaid.  No, if God forbids "gay" sex, it stands to reason that it's because it is inherently sterile by its very nature.  Christians always believed this, until the last century or so.  But if that's the reason, then it makes no sense to say that God condemns homosexual sex due to being so unnatural, but to then accept the similarly unnatural act of sex with contraceptives.

Repent of your abominably mismatched fashion sense,
or be cast into the Lake of Fire!
So ultimately, if we want to defend not only traditional Christian ideas of marriage, but also traditional Christian ideas of sexuality, we're going to have to look farther back than the fight over homosexuality.  The erosion of marriage and sexuality began long ago, and many Christians have gladly followed the philosophy where it all started (acceptance of contraception), and a great number have even accepted the evil that farther eroded them (no-fault divorce).  As long as these things are accepted in Christian circles, we will never have real credibility when opposing this newest affront to sexual holiness and the true meaning of marriage.

Monday, November 10, 2014

A Quiver Full of Noisy, Crying, Bickering Arrows

Note:  Do not let the title of this post, nor the related reference, mislead you into thinking I'm a member of the "Quiverfull" movement.  I do not subscribe to the idea that every couple is called to have as many children as physically possible, nor do I subscribe to many beliefs peripherally associated with the movement.

 I have always wanted a big family.  While it's true that Catholicism condemns the use of contraceptives (including contraceptive methods of completing the sexual act) as grave sin, that's not the reason behind my wanting a big family, as if I actually only wanted a kid or two if not for my religion.  For one thing, to explain to those of you who don't know the Catholic teaching, the Church allows Natural Family Planning, a selection of methods of determining when the wife is fertile or not, so that IF there is *serious reason to avoid having children at a given time the couple can simply refrain from sexual contact during the wife's fertile phase each month (or for some couples, the phases immediately surrounding it).  So my desire for a big family is not due to some mandate that I simply should have one, as there are many Catholics who may well have serious enough reasons that they aren't called to that.

For another thing, I've wanted a big family since long before my conversion to Catholicism.  I had barely entered puberty, really, when I first started dreaming of having a family of six children.  In hindsight, my dream was small compared to some families I've seen, but certainly large by the standards of our prevailing culture, with its "ideal" prescription of precisely 2.5 children per household.

It's hard, though, to depict child #2.5 in a visual.

Over the weekend, my wife and I visited my best friend and his family.  He lives two states away, and it was actually the first time we'd met in person, despite being friends for a year and a half, and close friends for quite a big portion of that.  He and his wife have five children, all of the age of eight (though close to nine) and under.  Incidentally, the couple are young enough to have more, if they find themselves called to it.  For now, though, their hands are rather full already, and it was easy to see why.  Their children were, down to the last of them, incredibly sweet and respectful toward us, but they were not--just as my friend had warned me--low energy children, by any stretch of the imagination.

The room was always abuzz with noise and activity.  Children got into arguments, hit each other, cried, screamed, yelled, chased each other, tried to get into things they weren't allowed to do, had to be called on multiple times and sometimes physically made to cease whatever they were doing, and more.  Now, these friends are incredibly skilled parents, so each solitary instance of chaos--at least, if the chaos had mischievous or disobedient causes--was almost immediately taken care of by them, and in general the children ultimately humbled themselves before their parents with impressive consistency (another testament to these friends' parenting).  But energetic children can have short attention spans, so before long something new--often different, to the kids' credit, from whatever they'd just been told not to do or had been disciplined for doing--would come up, and the parents, already travel-weary from the long drive to the hotel where we were all staying, had to be on top of it all over again.

Several times, both my wife--intimidated as she was by the scene--and my best friend's wife would turn to me and jokingly (sometimes maybe only half-jokingly!) ask whether I was yet scared out of my own ambitions toward having a big family.  My answer each time was, without hesitation, "No."  Their resolution, of course, was to "try harder."  Because my wife's a total dear that way.

"Hey, his dreams are still alive.
We're gonna need a backup plan."

Be all that as it may, I'm still quite set on having a big family, if God and my wife are willing.  In fact, seeing the beautiful family of our friends has only made me want such a family even more than before, because where there was chaos and stress there was also great life and vibrancy.  Children argued, but they also showed affection and love to each other.  The rooms that rang with their shouts also rang with their laughter and joy.  Tears were quickly forgotten and made way for simple pleasures and forgiveness.  Where tension sometimes arose, it was surpassed by times of amazing sweetness.  It was painfully obvious to me that dealing with so many children had to be rough at times, but there were so many diamonds in that particular rough that one would be a fool to think of trading it in for a smoother, but poorer, lot.

There's a passage in the book of Psalms:
"Children too are a gift from the LORD, the fruit of the womb, a reward.  Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the children born in one's youth.  Blessed are they whose quivers are full.  They will never be shamed contending with foes at the gate." -Psalm 127: 3-5
 That is the gift that our friends have.  And one day, when the chaos of having young children has passed, the blessing of having that many children, or perhaps even more, will still be there, remaining long after the last child has become a responsible and more self-sufficient adult.  Yes, there are different worries and stresses that come with adult children, but the particular madness of child-rearing, the sleepless nights, the constant need for correction, the ever-present chaos and continuous work that goes into imposing order on a group of children, all of these things are temporary compared to the lifelong--and indeed eternal--treasure of having played a role in the creation of so many precious souls.  And if one is quite blessed, one will know such love from and for those souls that all the hardship and travail of their formative years seem to be nothing when compared to the reward.

As the father of two children under the age of two, I know that in the short term and in the present, it can seem that it's not worth it at all.  There are times, in our own chaos, that I sincerely believe I'd be happier without any children, when I absolutely hate being a father.  So I can only imagine it's far harder with more children, at least depending on their ages (especially, I'm told, the age of the eldest).  However, when I look at how lasting the blessings are, and how ultimately temporary this part is, I know what I want:  When my children are all grown, the last diaper changed and the last teenage hormonal phase outgrown (well, okay, tentatively outgrown), I know I will never regret having had "too many," but--at least and especially if by choice--I know for a fact that I would regret having too few.

A large family is a blessing, and one that indeed God does not give to everyone.  My wife and I are always aware that, due to certain fertility issues that are inherent to her family, we may not reach that goal.  And even if we have a somewhat large family, its size may still fall somewhat short of my old dream, and the thought of surpassing the number from that dream is barely more than an outright pipe dream.  We will learn to deal with that cross of deprivation, should we come to bear it, with faith and trust, seeing the admitted bright sides of having a smaller family if it comes to that, but none of that negates that a full house is a blessed one.

*Note:  "Serious reason" to avoid having [more] children, in the Catholic Church, is not something to be decided on lightly.  It must certainly be more serious than "I just don't want another child right now," and even more serious than the other "reasonable" standby in our materialistic, career-driven culture of "But I'm too poor to send each kid off to College!" In terms of mental and emotional reservations, there should probably be solid reason to believe that one literally cannot cope with having more children or that one seriously cannot provide for each child psychologically, emotionally, and/or spiritually if there were another added to the family.  Though it's not mandatory, these things are best determined with a spiritual director or a trusted expert at judging these things, or at the very least an outside objective party, because it's easy for us to deceive ourselves into taking the "easier" path when it's not necessarily warranted.  Reasons of physical health, it should be noted, are also perfectly valid reasons to use Natural Family Planning to avoid another pregnancy, obviously including those cases where the wife's body probably could hardly handle another pregnancy.