In these same circles, how often do we speak in that way about Catholic couples on their second marriages who haven’t gotten an annulment? About couples using contraception? Not, I think, nearly as often as we speak that way about homosexual people.
The sins seem equal in the Catholic understanding and they’re a great deal more common than homosexuality and just as public. The articulation of the Catholic teaching on sexuality and marriage is needed a lot more by these people than by homosexual people. But these people are our neighbors and the people to whom we pass the peace at Mass. We work with them on the parish festival and run into them at the Lenten fish fry. We’ve heard their stories and we know how much pain they’ve suffered. We know how they came to be where they are.
In their cases, we speak gently and only when we think we will get a hearing. Many times since I’ve been a Catholic I’ve heard someone who spoke strongly when the subject was theoretical or distant suddenly start speaking with empathy when the subject was someone he knew. The most rigorous legalist finds a “pastoral” reading of the law.
Their kindness becomes them, inconsistent as it may be. Perhaps we ought to speak strongly to the people in irregular marriages, though that kind of confrontation seems properly the clergy’s job. Not everyone in ancient Israel was called to be like Elijah.
In any case, as I say, telling the truth is hard. We all tend to evade it when saying it will cost us or hurt people we care about. Instead of thrusting our fist into the air, we stuff our hands in our pockets and look at the ground.
This sounds like compromise and cowardice, and it may often be, but not always. How to speak and what to say when and to whom is a matter of discernment and discernment requires care for the person, and we care more easily for the people we know. Most of us need to work on caring for those we don’t know, the ones we find easy to condemn and order around.
Knowing well what to say requires not just an intellectual effort but growth in holiness. Our ability to tell the truth depends upon our conformity to the Lord who is the truth and also love. He’s the source of courage and tact. We could rewrite the quote this way: “In a time of original sin, being the truth is a revolutionary act.”
David Mills, former executive editor of First Things, is a senior editor of The Stream, editorial director for Ethika Politika, and columnist for several Catholic publications. His latest book is Discovering Mary.Follow him @DavidMillsWrtng.