Christ's teachings are hard for everybody, and most of us fail at some point; are some failures worse than others?
The actual temptations
I was in one of the ecclesial communities then, invited to a dinner with members of a conservative parish’s lay leaders. Everyone knew the parish as a bastion of orthodoxy in a liberal denomination. Its bastion-hood rested almost entirely on its rejection of the denomination’s moves to regularize homosexual acts between committed adults.
But of the actual temptations faced by the great majority of Americans and their own people, the parish was silent. People who would invoke Leviticus 18:22 and Romans 1:27 as absolute condemnations of homosexuality would relativize God’s “I hate divorce” in Malachi 2:16 and Jesus’s teaching on marriage in Matthew 19:1-12. The first allowed no exceptions, the second were “ideals” that many in a fallen world couldn’t reach, and they had to be treated pastorally and given a second (and sometimes a third) chance.
You could watch religiously serious people — good people, people I knew and admired — toggle between two very different ways of reading Scripture as they sought to blame one group and excuse another. They didn’t even notice what they were doing. Their convenient double standard left me disillusioned.
But I must admit that I was younger and harsher then, and not tempted to the double standard because I was happy to be hard on both sides. Worse, caught up in my denomination’s politics, I wrote against the homosexual but wrote little about the remarried and nothing about the single and (to use an old-fashioned word) fornicating. In other words, like almost every other active conservative, I didn’t write about chastity, except as a weapon.
Only later did I start writing that if conservatives were going to ignore the biblical teaching about marriage, they should leave the gays alone. I’m happy to have said that, but I cringe to think about what I’d earlier said far too many times.
Our own version
It would be nice to feel smug about Protestant failures, especially as I know them from the inside, but we have our own version. A “toxic double standard,” Melinda Selyms calls it.
“Except in a very small minority of hyper-Catholic communities,” she writes, “you can be twice married, sterilized and/or living with your opposite-sex partner and nobody will bat an eye. Nobody will say anything. Nobody will make uncomfortable comments in your presence. Nobody will question whether you should be involved in ministry to the youth. And you probably won’t hear anything about it from the pulpit.” To do otherwise would be to lose too many important people.
She notes that the Church’s teaching “is insanely demanding for everyone.” Few follow it always. “Which,” she continues, “is why pretty much everyone deals with the demands of Catholic sexual morality by either ignoring it, or being unaware of it, or using the ‘frequent recourse to the confessional’ method of fidelity to the teaching.”
But if you’re gay, even chastely, “the usual ways that Catholics deal with sexual desire are no longer sufficient: you must be constantly on guard against every vestige of homosexuality, and your sole purpose in life must be the crucifixion of same-sex Eros. Anything less and you’re a heretic.” We don’t even think about the straight Catholic’s sexual practices, perhaps prudently, but we tend to think overmuch about the gay Catholic’s, with an element of guilty until proven innocent.
The fancier explanation for this takes Rene Girard’s idea of the scapegoat. A simpler explanation sees that we don’t like being so nice all the time and look for someone we’re allowed to condemn. We dislike being deprived of the pleasures of righteous indignation, of riding in on the white horse and striking down the enemy. I know the almost drug-like rush you get when fighting for the good, as you see it. Gays are the designated “other” many Christians like to beat up on.
But people suffer
Like most readers, I’m old enough to have seen how much some people suffer in their marriages and how little the world knows of what goes on in some families. The husband who’s always seen saying his Rosary after daily Mass who’s never there for his family or abuses his wife. The wife who’s the soul of kindness and an angel of mercy who enjoys a string of short affairs. The man or woman who leaves the marriage, with priestly approval, to protect the children and gets condemned by everyone. Not to mention those who keep failing and take advantage of frequent recourse to the confessional.
Most of us, most of the time, when we know the real story, feel compassion for these people. That’s easy, especially as we grow older and know better our own failures — that as St. Paul says, we do what we shouldn’t and don’t do what we should. You may find chastity easy but charity hard, and sympathize with someone who finds charity easy but chastity hard.
But still, too many Christians make an exception for our homosexual brothers and sisters. This must stop.
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