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True Compassion for the Sexual Sinner

How can “a man who was born upside down . . . tell when he comes right way up?” On this question, writes G. K. Chesterton in Orthodoxy, does real argument about religion turn. “The primary paradox of Christianity is that the ordinary condition of man is not his sane or sensible condition; that normal itself is an abnormality,” he claims, and rightly so (Orthodoxy, ch. 9, no. 3). Chesterton explains a universal truth of the human experience: We are “born upside down” in two senses, corporeally and spiritually, the former much easier to resolve than the latter.

This is man’s “ordinary condition”: the normal or the common is “abnormal.” We are not ourselves, so to speak, and with a modest amount of humility we can admit it. In other words, every human heart, save the Sacred and Immaculate Hearts, feels its vulnerability, good intentions notwithstanding, to making moral choices that are not “right way up.”

Because Christianity can give an account of the fall from grace, it offers an explanation for the interior disharmony we feel. Yet one does not have to rely on revealed religion to acknowledge the existence of a tendency to an interior “dis-integration.” In his chariot allegory from the Phaedrus, Plato describes the tension in the soul this way: “First the charioteer of the human soul drives a pair, and secondly one of the horses is noble and of noble breed, but the other quite the opposite in breed and character. Therefore in our case the driving is necessarily difficult and troublesome” (Phaedrus 46b).

Composed about four centuries before Jesus Christ called for the transformation of heart necessary to enter the kingdom of God, the Phaedrus simply and vividly describes the malady Christians call concupiscence. In Plato’s allegory, one horse pulls in one direction and one horse pulls in the opposite one. This is the “normal” condition to which Chesterton refers and with which each of us contends. St. Paul, who, unlike his Greek counterpart, could trace this difficulty to original sin, expressed the struggle in a poignant way: “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil that I do not want is what I do” (Rom. 7:19).

By what standard right and wrong?

In framing the problem, Chesterton, Plato, and St. Paul also imply a solution, at least insofar as recognizing disorder suggests the reality of order. If our aims and actions sometimes conflict with each other, as all three men suggest, then there must be some standard by which we can understand something is not right. Such a standard reassures us that it is possible to relieve the conflict and bring harmony to intention and action.

Why do we feel betrayed when someone violates our trust, for instance, and so think or say, “That’s not right”? Why do we find the belief “All Jews are nonpersons” so deplorable, no matter one’s creed? Why do we prefer generous persons to selfish ones? Why is the last thing anyone wants to be called a “hypocrite”? Why are arrogance and hardness of heart so off-putting, including when we see them in ourselves? Why do we worry, as we are trying to fall asleep, about whether we have “done the right thing”?

Agere sequitur esse—“action follows being.” An old phrase, to be sure, but a useful one whose pedigree reaches back to another Greek philosopher (Aristotle) and to another saint (Thomas Aquinas) and whose authority does not depend on who said it but rather on how it reflects reality. We know and feel that the meaning of our moral choices is somehow connected to our “being,” to who we are, to our identity as human persons; that there is a “human” way of acting in our relationships, for example.

It is for this reason—the bond between being and action—that we are attracted in the moral realm to certain things, like honesty, and repelled by others, like hypocrisy. It is because of this bond between who we are and what we do that we want to give our choices a meaning consistent with an upright character, even as we know we must work against the danger of finding ourselves morally upside down.

Misplaced compassion

In the past decade, I have given many talks in many different venues on sexual morality, in particular on the Church’s teaching on homosexuality. I am always looking for better vocabulary and for better images to convey what supports or illuminates what we read in the Catechism of the Catholic Church in the section on the Sixth Commandment—for a method that reaches right down to the core of our humanity.

I find the phrase “the Church teaches” is ineffective in building confidence that what the Catechism portrays is authentic, helpful, and sympathetic, in the best sense, to the lives of real people. That the Church was “wrong,” in the minds of many, about Galileo, the Inquisition, and the Crusades; that some Catholic priests have been unfaithful to their promise of celibacy, causing grave injury and scandal; that the grammar of today is not one of anthropology or metaphysics; that the field of genetics continues to advance; these things are, of course, the context in which I give these talks, and they add to the challenge.

To my mind, confusion within the fold on the meaning of sex leads to misplaced compassion or sentimentality, especially with regard to homosexuality. This outlook has a certain appeal in that it acknowledges, to some degree, the good of and the need for affection, intimacy, mutual understanding, and commitment. But it makes a misstep by endorsing, or at least not opposing, same-sex unions.

Ultimately this disposition falls short of true compassion or charity precisely because it fails to see the connection between a human identity and a way of acting in the sexual realm consistent with that identity. At least as far as sex is concerned, it misses the wisdom of Chesterton, Plato, and St. Paul—that our feelings can be misdirected and so put us at cross purposes with our humanity and the goods we seek, like true intimacy and love.

Paradoxically, those who fall into the trap of misplaced compassion will likely recognize that “action follows being” when it comes to questions of justice, generosity, integrity, and the need to “do the right thing” that we all feel. But they are reluctant to apply their own logic to the virtue of chastity.

Our desire to do the right thing flows from the desire, deep within our humanity, that our lives have meaning and direction, and that our moral choices coincide with that direction. In one sense, we can say that life is a search for meaning, for reality. But unless we are prepared to accept that we will always be a puzzle to ourselves (and so never find our “right way up”), then the question about the right course of action, in any given case, lives in hope of a right answer.

So the adventure of life—far from being reducible to an endless search among different moral choices—is to discover the truth about our human identity and to shape our minds and hearts according to that truth. The only other alternative is that the interior disharmony we know is real by our own personal experience, and described so plainly by three different men in three different eras, will never be resolved, and we will suffer for it.

Identity lies in nature

Identity. Being. Nature. These may not be concepts with which we intentionally wrestle regularly, though we can never escape them. Yet they are at the center of the gospel. The most important question ever posed was about identity: “[W]ho do you say that I am?” Jesus asked (Matt. 16:15). Upon the sure and certain answer to that question does the acceptance of the preaching of Christ rest—and so, too, the life that he proposes for his disciples.

If original sin was the attempt to throw off the fatherhood of God, then the central problem of salvation history has been one of a lost or mistaken identity and the rebellion and harm that follow in its wake. If we are not really God’s children, then our lives will probably not be recognizable as such.

From the testimony of the prophets and the patriarchs, we see the misbehavior that follows from “mis-identity,” the story that comprises much of the Old Testament. “And he did evil in the sight of the Lord,” or something similar, is a common phrase among its sacred writers. The loss or rejection of man’s identity, which is also the foundation of his dignity, causes him to be vulnerable to sin, whereby he wounds his own soul (cf. Prov. 8:36).

The reason God hates sin is that it damages and even destroys the thing he loves the most: his children. Aquinas wrote, “For we do not offend God except by doing something contrary to our own good” (Summa Contra Gentiles III, 122.2). Thus God addresses man’s attempt to reject his identity, and the evil that follows upon that rejection, in two parts, and both attend to the question of our identity.

Salvation in two parts

Part one was the giving of the commandments to Moses at Mount Sinai, the center of the first covenant. The commandments are given to man to clarify for him what it means to act in a manner consistent with his identity and dignity. So each commandment embodies a virtue, which, in order, might be described this way: fidelity, reverence, service, piety, meekness, chastity, justice, veracity, purity, and temperance.

The law of God expressed in the Decalogue is the fulfillment of the law of nature. So this law cannot be a burden, an imposition on the freedom of man, because it simply and plainly reminds man of his identity, of who he is. The word virtue comes from a Latin word—virtus—that can be translated as “capacity” or “power.” The virtues are the powers of the soul that direct our actions in accordance with our being.

The word law as used here may be troubling for some, but perhaps less so if we recall that laws are necessary for communities, for relationships. Through divine revelation we know that man is made in the image of the triune God, and therefore that he is made for and fulfilled by relationships, by being a member of a community. Man is “blessedly incomplete,” says J. Budziszewski. Laws, then, ensure that two parties treat each other properly, so that enduring bonds will be formed among individuals for their mutual enrichment, bonds that can be established only on virtues like trust.

Law has a pedagogical function, to teach us how to think clearly and choose rightly, lest we hurt or offend others and so harm ourselves and spoil what we desire. In this sense, we can see that the law of God and the law of nature preserve and promote freedom and, indeed, express it. If we think back to Chesterton, Plato, and St. Paul for a moment, let alone to our own experience, we can acknowledge how necessary law is to foster the human good.

Now comes part two of God’s plan to restore man’s identity: “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17). Through his own loving surrender to the will of his Father, the Son of Man remedies the evil in the heart of man. Through grace and truth, he shows us the narrow path forward, a path that calls for poverty of spirit if one is to enter the kingdom of Heaven. (cf. Matt. 5:3).

The virtues of the Decalogue still obtain, but three more have been added, if one is to be—to be—a faithful disciple of the Master: humility, contrition, and spiritual childhood. More than just antidotes to concupiscence, these Christian virtues ennoble man and dispose him to receive the grace that will transform his identity into Christ’s.

St. Paul summarizes the gospel, the power of God, this way: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20). His words explain the phrase “Grace perfects nature.” Man’s dignity is even greater now than at the moment of creation, because of the grace of the Paschal Mystery and its consummation in the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Jesus has restored and raised our identity as “sons in the Son” (cf. Rom. 8:14-17) that we would once again enjoy “the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Rom. 8:21).

Connection between identity and action

Jesus taught us how to live a fully human life and so an intensely happy one. “These things I have spoken to you that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (John 15:11). Here is why the “Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14): to share his joy.

I do not think it forces the interpretation of Jesus’ words to look to the verse immediately prior to John 15:11 to see about what things he has just been speaking, and then connect the two verses. “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love” (John 15:10). The commandments are the things Jesus has told us will ensure that his joy will be ours. As always, he taught us by precept and by example. In his sacred humanity, Jesus kept the Father’s commandments and so abided in the Father’s love. That was the source of his joy.

It would seem, then, that there is a connection in the mind of Christ between being (or identity) and action, between joy and the commandments, between the fulfillment of our humanity and the limits of our humanity, between the answer to longing in the human heart and the virtues that the Decalogue and the gospel teach the human heart. The limits of our human nature are marked out by the virtues, because they establish the meaning of our human nature. Only by humbly and gratefully accepting these limits can we receive the joy of the Son. We are the Father’s children, and to live in accord with that identity, to harmonize our actions with our being, means that we will be “fellow heirs with Christ” (Rom. 8:17) to treasure in heaven.

Scripture on sexual sin

With these things in mind, I would like to challenge the widely held notion that Jesus did not say anything about homosexuality. Let’s first look at the well-known encounter between the Lord and the woman caught in adultery, related in chapter eight of John’s Gospel (vv. 1-11). Once her accusers depart, having failed in their attempt to position Jesus against Moses and having admitted their own sinfulness, he says to her, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and do not sin again” (v. 11).

Jesus does two things here: He shows compassion to someone in need of forgiveness, and then he calls that person to conversion of heart. The calls to compassion and conversion could be described as the two halves of the entire gospel.

God has compassion on fallen man because he knows we are vulnerable to the disorder described by Chesterton, Plato, and Paul, which is the terrible legacy of original sin. In this episode from John 8—as with and the woman in the home of Simon the Pharisee (Luke 7:37-39), the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32), the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:6-29), and the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:27-32)—the gospel highlights the special vulnerability of our fallen nature to sexual sin.

Like all aspects of our humanity, the fundamental human desire to love and be loved in a personal and intimate way has been touched by concupiscence, such that our affections can be disorderly and misdirected. Jesus offers us the remedy of grace and mercy, to which humility, contrition, and spiritual childhood open us.

But the compassion of God rises far above mere sentimentality, precisely because Christ knows the dignity inherent in our humanity. His call to compassion is complemented by his call to conversion of heart. Jesus can say to the woman caught in adultery “Do not sin again” (John 8:11) only because sin is foreign to her nature, to her identity, to her being—and grace makes possible the avoidance of sin and the growth in virtue in the highest sense: to holiness of life. Christ’s words indicate that sexual sin can be identified because a design for sexual congress can also be identified.

A broader interpretation

This episode from the Gospel makes plain Jesus’ rejection of adultery as contrary to that design and therefore contrary to our desire to love and be loved in a human way. But to understand this passage only as a rejection of adultery strictly speaking would be too narrow an interpretation. Our Lord is telling us that it is not inevitable that we will fall into sexual sin of any kind, no matter how strong the inclination. His grace will help us to grow in chastity so that the longing of the human heart for intimacy may be properly fulfilled.

In Matthew’s account, the Pharisees try once again to position Jesus against Moses, this time over the question of divorce (Matt. 19:3-9). Here, too, does Christ refer to the foundation of man’s identity as he recalls the creation account from Genesis. “Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh” (Matt. 19:4-5).

The sixth commandment—“Thou shall not commit adultery”—means “Do not violate the one-flesh unity, the sexual reproductive complementarity imbued deeply in your humanity, though your passions may strongly direct you elsewhere.” To go outside the limits—or better, the meaning—of this design (to which the male and female genitalia further testify) is to lose the joy of spousal love, the only proper sphere for sexual intimacy.

The teaching of Christ about adultery and divorce, therefore, excludes a number of other unchaste actions: masturbation, fornication, contraception—and homosexual activity. Unchastity of any kind opposes two virtues: temperance, which regulates sense pleasure according to right reason; and, equally important, the virtue of justice, which regulates relationships. In a word, to be unchaste is to be selfish in some degree, whereas chastity advances the self-giving that fulfills our nature.

Jesus’ new commandment of love expresses the fact that, like the one in whose image we are created, we are made to give ourselves in a chaste manner: “Love one another; even as I have loved you” (John 13:34). Self-giving after the heart of Christ disposes the heart for the joy of Christ.


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