I had the good fortune of attending a private Christian university on the West Coast for two years. It’s a fairly well-known school that goes by the name Biola — an acronym turned name that once stood for the Bible Institute Of Los Angeles. As the name suggests it is an evangelical Christian college with fundamentalist roots. In fact, the latest issue of Biola magazine is about the famed Fundamentals series, from which fundamentalist Christians derive their moniker, and the school’s connection to its creation.
As I am a convert to Catholicism from the broadly circumscribed world of Protestant Evangelicalism, it might surprise some that I consider my years at Biola to have been auspicious. However, I cherish the years that I spent in the community of wonderful Christians at that school. — I met my wife there too, so that’s a big positive. — And one of the greatest facets of my time there was the dorm-life.
For many people, the thought of dorm-life does not conjure up images of theological discussions and philosophical debates, but that’s what life in Hart Hall was. I wouldn’t deny that the guys of my floor could be less than gentlemen at times, but the camaraderie fostered by play contributed to more meaningful dialogue. And that dialogue could hardly have been more meaningful.
One dormmate in particular taught me a couple of invaluable lessons, and the recent remarks of Pope Francis and the recent synod’s working document’s words concerning the Church’s need to welcome homosexuals reminded me of one of those lessons. It was a lesson about sin and ignorance.
The Temptation-Sin Disconnect
My dormmate’s name was Elmo. He was the oldest student in the dorms, a former firefighter in a branch of the armed forces, and a good, black southern gentleman. Elmo had a keen mind and a knack for identifying inconsistencies. His skill helped him to see how we (the “we” of that group: Evangelical Christians) were doing an awfully bad job of relating to people within and without who were attracted to members of the same sex.
The operative word there is “attracted.” See, Elmo was living in a hall full of guys whose attraction to the opposite sex was fairly obvious. There were dozens of unmarried men in that hall who were living with a relatively indiscriminate sexual desire for women. This is, of course, the norm for college-aged men. Any individual guy would, of course, find some women less appealing than others, but that reality did nothing to mitigate the fact that these guys were predisposed to fornicate. — Lest this be misunderstood, I am testifying only to inclinations, not to actions.
Fornication is simply sexual relations between people who are not one another’s spouse. The idea that these guys, myself included, were all predisposed to fornication could be expressed in terms of temptation: heterosexual guys are tempted in their sexual appetite by the opposite sex. Similarly, homosexual guys are tempted in their sexual appetite by the same sex. Both are suffering from disordered passions. So what makes the former group better than the latter? Nothing. Sin is sin, and temptation is not sin. And no matter what concept may be formed in one’s mind, “homosexual” does not necessarily indicate that an individual is engaging in homo-sex (not perjorative).
In neither case is the object of the temptation suitable — that is what makes it temptation. The only proper object for a person’s sexual appetite is that person’s spouse. At this point, some might be wishing to interject about nature and sexual compatibility. Those are important ideas, to be sure, but they are mostly irrelevant to this discussion. They are irrelevant because similar to how all men are unsuitable objects for a man’s sexual appetite, so are all women unsuitable objects for a man’s sexual appetite, with but one single exception for the married man.
This is not gainsaying the Catholic Church’s teaching on the difference between fornication and sodomy. This is, rather, an important topic for establishing humility and understanding. The person who holds in greater contempt those who are tempted by one object over another betrays his ignorance. Temptation has never condemned a man, and it never will. Did Matthew record that those are goats who are tempted not to give drink to the thirsty? No, it is not temptation that condemns a man; it is his own actions.
Sin Means Separation
And if we look again at Matthew’s words, I believe that the giving of drink is indicative of more than simply providing for the temporal needs of the impoverished. It is a pastoral imperative incumbent upon all of the faithful to help the disenfranchised. St. James indicated this when he wrote that, “True religion before God the Father is this: to care for the widow and orphan in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” Who could possibly contend that in the Church today those whose sexual temptation centers on the same sex are anything but disenfranchised.
Perhaps you have heard of Abby Johnson, a wonderful woman who left her job at Planned Parenthood a few years ago when she began her blessed journey to the Catholic faith. One of Abby’s efforts is something called And Then There Were None, an attempt to reach out to men and women who are in the position she once occupied, working at abortion houses. One of the most important messages that Abby spreads in her mission is the need for the faithful to choose words and postures that are welcoming. As a practical concern, those who have had abortions and those who have worked in the abortion world have a hard time getting past the mental block erected by angry and spiteful rhetoric from the pro-life side. Yes, zeal for justice and the preservation of innocent human life is good, but without knowledge, even zeal is not good (Pr 19:2).
Could you imagine what it would be like to feel a new sense of guilt and remorse for your part in an abortion, and then to step into a room of people speaking in the harshest of terms about you? I imagine it would be similar to how a first-century Jewish tax-collector felt when he approached the Temple. One of those interesting things in the four gospels that we often overlook is the absence of Jesus ever reproaching the outsiders. Instead, Christ reserved his ridicule for the pious people who were comfortable with the separation between themselves and sinners.
This concern for the outcast is really a question of pastoral concern. How does the Gospel reach any segment of society? Only by the members of the Body of Christ going to them with a welcoming word and the open hand of friendship. And as much as Pope Francis’ words are indicative of a renewed attention to this truth as it pertains to homosexuals, the idea is old hat for Catholics.
One of my dormmates at Biola was a guy named Ben. His then-girlfriend-now-wife, Kate, was also a Biola student, and she now has a documentary film coming out called Kidnapped for Christ. The film is about a “forced rehabilitation center” for kids with homosexual attractions. These “rehabilitation” centers are truly something awful, an example of consequentialism at its worst. They are also something that the Church has never endorsed, but often condemned.
And this is how sin and ignorance “turned me Catholic.” The Church knows what is sin and what is not, and she never changes her teaching in that regard. Thanks to Biola and Elmo, I discovered a better understanding of sin and temptation, of ignorance and humility. At Biola, I became better acquainted with reason. So, when I later became better acquainted with Catholic doctrines, I found a correspondence that was missing elsewhere. I’m Catholic because the Church teaches rationally, and Biblically, that the homosexual has the same dignity and worth as any other person. The Church is the fullest presence of Christ in the world, actively pursuing friendship with sinners. So, don’t be surprised when the Vicar of Christ condemns efforts to welcome only the “pure,” but instead himself extends a hand to the “unclean.” And if you don’t recognize the responses that he is getting, glance at the four gospels; we’re all in there, and I pray we all have the courage to join him at table with the prostitutes and tax collectors.
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