Saturday, October 31, 2015

"Apologize and Then Keep Quiet Forever"

Recently the news has been full of the story of a Roman Catholic monsignor, Krzysztof Charamsa of Poland, the Adjunct Secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith of the Roman Catholic Church (shown in the photo with his boyfriend).  The Reverend Charamsa was a former Vatican official, and he was stripped of his post recently after he publicly acknowledged that he was gay and also in a gay relationship with another man.  He has written the Pope a long and heart-felt letter (some might describe it more as “histrionic” than “heart-felt”), denouncing the Roman Catholic Church as “violent”, “fanatical”, “incapable of dialogue with humanity”, “inhuman, insensitive, unjust and violent”, “Pharisaical and hypocritical, locked into its cold and inhuman doctrine without mercy or charity, a homophobic Church that knows only how to hate”.  He also declared that the Church was also a “particularly hateful Church, which is presently led by pastors without hearts or brains”.  In his letter he also denounced the Church’s official pronouncements on the issue of homosexuality as “violent and offensive”, “obscene”, and its clergy as “violently homophobic”.  There is more, but you get the idea.  His favourite word is “violent”, used eight times.  (The full text can be read here.)  In the penultimate paragraph (before he ends by saying of course that he will pray for the Pope and will do everything he can “to help homosexual people wake the Catholic Church from its inhuman sleep, which by now has reached bestial limits of intolerability”), he says that the Church must “apologize and then keep quiet forever”.  Presumably such imposed silence also means that the Church must forget about its previously noble “dialogue with humanity”. 
            Apart from the fury, hatred, and the violence of the language, it is an extraordinary letter.  Some have suggested that the fury and violence is evidence that the man is in pain.  He is certainly upset about being stripped of his job at the Vatican because he has a gay boyfriend.  But it is not so much a personal letter as a long and angry slamming of the office door on the way out after being given the papal pink slip.   Despite his characterization of the Roman Catholic Church as “incapable of dialogue”, it seems clear that he himself is not in the mood for much dialogue.  He asks from his church not dialogue, but simple capitulation to his own gay agenda and ideology—that is why his final demand is that the Church apologize and then shut up forever.  I understand the nature of such demands.  When it occurs in the school-yard, it is called “bullying”—though in this case the muscle is provided by not by violent shoving or hitting the other party with your lunch-box, but by violent language and self-righteous rhetoric.   And, like I did in the school-yard when faced with such demands as a child, I decline to get into it with him.  I would rather just walk away and eat my lunch safely and quietly somewhere else.
            However, if I did choose to reply, I might say the following, for after all, Monsignor Charamsa has not simply written a personal letter, but issued a kind of public manifesto, and it is to the public manifesto that one can reply.  Manifestos invite reply; that is the point of a manifesto.
            In my reply, I would first of all say that the traditional Christian Church, be it Roman Catholic or Orthodox, should not heed impassioned demands that it shut up and say nothing when its central teachings are trampled, denied, and distorted.  The Church has a divine duty to proclaim the truth to whoever wants to listen, and especially to its own members.  St. Paul did not “keep quiet forever” about the false Christology proclaimed by the early Gnostics, or about the supposed necessity of circumcision demanded by the early Judaizers.  It is true that both the Gnostics and the Judaizers would have been happier if he did, but such silence would have been spiritually criminal and a betrayal of Christ.  Of course the World will not like it when opposed by the Church.  No one likes being opposed and contradicted.  It can be very irritating and infuriating.  But being an adult involves being committed to non-violent dialogue when such disagreements occur, not screaming at the other party because they dare to contradict.  It is easy to have a tantrum and to scream “shut up!”.  It is harder to be an adult and go on debating calmly.  No doubt the child having the tantrum is “in pain”.  But such pain is no excuse for the tantrum.
            Secondly, merely pronouncing that something is sinful is not of itself an act of violence, hatred, marginalization, stigmatization, or any of the other things of which the Reverend Charamsa accuses us.  Saying that abortion is morally sinful, though irritating to abortionists and those using their services, does not “marginalize” those who abort.  Rather it is simply declaring what forms of behaviour are compatible with a profession of the Christian Faith and which are not, and acting accordingly.  If one chooses to abort one’s child, one cannot then claim that the Church somehow marginalizes you and tramples on you because it says you should not have done it and calls you to repentance.  The Monsignor assumes with proving that homosexual activity is okay, and then becomes furious when the Church says that it is not.  But he is the one who chose to engage in activities which placed him outside the bounds of the Church.  If the teaching of Christ and His apostles about marriage and sexuality is true, what else can the Church do?
            Finally we note the inherent absurdity of Monsignor’s position.  The Church which he voluntarily joined, accepted ordination and promotion and money from, and remained in for all his forty-three years is one which has always declared that 1. homosexual acts are sinful, and 2. its clergy must remain celibate.  This cannot have been a surprise to Charamsa.  It is not as if the Catholic Church up until yesterday said that homosexual acts were just fine and that its clergy could be sexually active if they wanted to.  Why the indignation now?  That is like joining a group of committed vegetarians and then fulminating against them because they expel you from the group because you keep eating steak and saying that vegetarianism is too narrow.  One may eat all the steak one likes, but then one cannot expect the group promoting vegetarianism to welcome you in the group as one of its leaders.  It is difficult not to conclude that the real offense in the Monsignor’s eyes was not so much the position of the Catholic Church on homosexuality as the fact that their fired him for having a boyfriend.  One may continue to debate the issue of homosexuality and the teaching of the Church if one likes, but let us at least be consistent.  The issue here about Charamsa is not just that of his homosexuality, but of his basic integrity. 

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

A Poor Man Named Lazarus

 Our Lord’s parable of Lazarus and the rich man is unique among the parables, for in this parable alone one of the characters has a name.  The parable begins, “There was a rich man, who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day.  And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus”.   Compare how the parable of the Prodigal Son begins:  “There was a man who had two sons”.  One might ask, “What were their names?  What was the father’s name?  Where did they live?”  It doesn’t matter; all that mattered were their actions.  In all the Lord’s parables the characters are nameless—the prodigal son and his father, the sower who went out to sow, the man who sowed good seed in his field, but whose enemy came by night and sowed tares in it—none of these characters have names.  We ask therefore:  why is the poor man in our parable given a name?  The name “Lazarus” of course is from the Hebrew “Eleazar”, meaning “God helps”, but this doesn’t explain why he alone is named in all the parables—especially, one might say, since God clearly did not help him during his life, but left him to die by the gate of the rich man. 
            I suggest that the poor name is given a name to reveal the magnitude of the rich’s man’s sin.  For consider it:  the rich man left a man suffering outside his very gate whom he knew by name.  The poor man was not just another anonymous and nameless beggar in the street, someone whom the rich man quickly passed by and who then vanished from his consciousness.  The rich man was on a first-name basis with the poor man.  And yet despite this, he still did little or nothing to help him.  Every day the rich man feasted sumptuously, and then wiped his mouth and hands with bread (the ancient equivalent of a napkin), throwing aside the scraps.  (These were the kind of crumbs falling from the table which the Canaanite woman mentioned in Matthew 15:27.)  The poor man was so hungry that he would’ve been grateful even for these, but there is no hint in the parable that he ever was given them.  Rather, the rich man finished his sumptuous meal, adjusted his purple and fine linen, walked past Lazarus lying at his gate and went on with his sumptuous life.  He may or may not have greeted Lazarus as he passed by; but it is clear that he never gave him alms or brought him past his gate to enjoy food from his table.  Instead he let him die at the edge of his property.
            A look at the rich man after he himself died reveals that he was something of a slow learner, and that death produced no real change in his heart.  To his perplexity, after what was doubtless a great and splendid funeral where his friends declared how wonderful he was, the formerly rich man finds himself engulfed in flame in the next world, and more perplexing still, sees Lazarus far away, feasting at the head table lying in the bosom of no less a celebrity than Abraham himself (the ancient Jews reclined at such feasts, so that one literally reclined on the bosom of the diner feasting next to one; compare John lying on Jesus’ bosom in John 13:23).  But does the rich man repent?  Does he apologize to Lazarus for his appalling neglect and ask his forgiveness?  Does he congratulate Lazarus on his current blessedness?  No, none of this.  In fact, he doesn’t speak to Lazarus at all—instead, he speaks to Abraham.  And, showing how hard and unrepentant his heart still is, asks Abraham to send Lazarus far from the festal table to minister to him.  The request is stunning—the rich man requests that Lazarus cease feasting, traverse the long way across the chasm, brave the fire, all to do a service for the man who let him starve and die at his gate, and in all this he still doesn’t even speak to Lazarus!  The rich man apparently assumes that Abraham will send Lazarus to do the job as if Lazarus were just a lackey or a slave.  Not surprisingly, Abraham demurs.  And even then the rich man asks that Abraham send Lazarus from the table to visit his brothers and to do a service for them—still saying nothing to Lazarus.  The rich man is a slow learner indeed.
            What is the lesson for us?  Our Lord tells the parable not to give us an inside peak behind the scenes at the next life, but to give us an urgently needed lesson for this one.  The rich man’s sins and punishment show what happens when we store up our treasure and use it all for ourselves, ignoring the plight of the poor at our gate.  Placing the parable in the wider context of Luke’s Gospel allows us to see the central point:  You cannot serve God and Mammon (Luke 16:13), however much the Pharisees who were lovers of money (v. 14) or the American Dream say otherwise.
            We need to remember this parable the next time we visit the mall and encounter someone asking for the morsels that fall from our festal table (or “spare change”, as it is called in our culture).  It is true that they may possibly use those morsels in ways that are less than helpful to them, but of course we also use our resources in ways less than helpful to us.  We remember here the words of C.S. Lewis when he was rebuked by a friend for giving spare change to a beggar.  “He’ll just use it for ale”, said his friend.  Lewis paused and responded, “But if I kept it, that’s what I would use it for.”  We give our morsels to the poor not just to help them, but to help ourselves transcend our insular selfishness and remember our essential solidarity with the poor.  It is as Solomon said:  “The rich and poor have this in common:  the Lord made them all” (Proverbs 22:2).  We too easily rush past the poor man, not realizing he is our own flesh and blood, one of our own family.  The question, “Could you spare some change?” should remind us of another question:  “If anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, and yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” (1 John 3:17)  We may think that we know nothing about the man or woman accosting us in the parking lots of our nation and asking for our help.  But we do know something about him—we know his name.  His name is Lazarus.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Moving the Boundary Marker

           Part of the Law of Moses forbids moving the boundary marker.  It reads, “In the inheritance which you will hold in the land that the Lord your God gives you to possess, you shall not move your neighbour’s boundary marker which men of old have set” (Deuteronomy 19:14).  Moving the marker was a serious matter—so serious in fact that it was subject to a terrible curse in the corporate liturgy set out later in that Book:  “Cursed be he moves his neighbour’s landmark”.  And all the people shall say, ‘Amen!’” (27:7).  This law also found an echo in one of the proverbs of Solomon:  “Move not the ancient landmark which your fathers have set” (Proverbs 22:28).
            What was deal with moving a neighbour’s boundary landmark?  Those landmarks were stones set up to determine the boundaries of a neighbour’s property, and rich people wanting to expand their land at the expense of their poorer neighbours would surreptitiously move the landmark and redefine the boundaries which were previously set, thereby stealing their neighbour’s property.  Because the act was hard to prove (for who could say where the stone originally stood?) the crime was often done with impunity—hence the terrible curse pronounced upon it.  The one whose land was taken might not be able to obtain justice, but God saw where the landmark once stood, and He would avenge.
            The Fathers regarded the Law as not simply an ancient document dealing exclusively with agricultural matters, but also as spiritual text, dealing with matters of the Kingdom.  Thus St. Paul interpreted the law about not muzzling an ox while it threshed, but allowing it to eat while it worked, as not only applicable to oxen, but also to workers for the Kingdom:  “Is it for oxen that God is concerned?  Does He not speak entirely for our sake? (1 Corinthians 9:8f).  In the same way, the Fathers also interpreted the Law’s proscription against moving the ancient landmark which the fathers had set as forbidding theological innovation.  In his second Defense Against Those who Attack the Divine Images, St. John of Damascus applied that very law to the situation of his own day, saying, “do not be an innovator, ‘moving the age-old boundaries set up by your fathers’” (chapter 15).  John knew that in the apostolic Tradition the Church possessed the authoritative divine teaching, which defined the spiritual boundaries of things such as Christology, icons, and idols—and, more importantly for us today, gender.
            Every age has its own errors, and in every age therefore the Church faces a different set of challenges, distortions, and lies.  In the fourth century the Church faced distortions about the nature of Christ, as heretics such as Arius sought to move the ancient landmarks set by the Fathers and proclaim a counterfeit Christology.  In the days of St. John of Damascus, the Church faced the distortions and errors of the iconoclasts, as they sought to move the ancient boundaries once set regarding the legitimacy of Christian art depicting Jesus. 
Today the ancient boundaries are being moved again, and the stakes in this contest are every bit as high as in the previous ones.  Today voices are raised calling for the moving of the landmarks regarding the nature of gender and sexuality.  In the original boundary marker, we were taught that gender was binary and divinely-given, an irrevocable gift from the hand of God.  God made them male and female, and from this difference and complementarity family arose as God continued to create the human race.  Gender difference and binary sexuality were absolutely basic to human nature.  Certain rare medical conditions such as hermaphroditism aside, one’s sexual anatomy indicated one’s gender, which brought with it in turn the role one would play in the creation of family and in society.  Occasionally of course psychological abnormalities might be found in young children, so that a young boy might feel that he was actually a girl, but these cases were recognized as the anomalies they were.  The label for such a pathology in the traditional Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (“DSM” for short) was “gender dysphoria”.
As the homosexual community continues to press for radical redefinition of sexuality (i.e. as it continues to move the boundary landmarks further and further), the given nature of gender itself has now come under attack.  At first that community simply asserted that homosexual practices were legitimate and morally equivalent to heterosexual ones.  (Yet note even here the subtle change:  before now the latter were simply regarded as normal and normative; by insisting on the further label “heterosexual” the homosexual community prepared the way for legitimizing homosexuality.)  Then came a further development, where a person could legitimately be both homosexual and heterosexual, engaging in sex with both males and females.  Now we see a further erosion, for the concept of male and female as binary realities itself is being challenged.  And again we observe the same sanitation of language:  such pathology and confusion is now celebrated under the new term “gender creative”.  If a child or adult declares that they are a certain gender, well then they are, anatomy notwithstanding.  Gender becomes a subjective choice, like a preference for one type of food or music over another.  And  such a choice now becomes a “right”—one enforced with all the draconian apparatus of the law.  This is not so much moving the landmark stone as it is throwing it away completely.
Note too that it involves the tyranny of one community’s choices over the majority.  If, for example, little Stan now feels he is actually Suzy, Stan now is allowed to use the girls’ washroom at school, and if the girls feel uncomfortable with sharing their washroom with a boy, their discomfort (and with it, their rights) are simply over-ruled.  The same goes with the use of the gymnasium change-room.  Perhaps change-rooms in schools today are halls of privacy and modesty, but it was otherwise in my day, when anyone sharing a change-room could survey the anatomy of the others using it.  And even if some arrangements are available for some privacy there, who is to say how much privacy one needs?  Should the girls showering in the change-room who feel reluctance to do so when Stan is sharing the facilities with them simply be forced to stifle themselves? 
Current cultural trends are more and more insisting on such stifling (backed up of course by a generous dose of school-administered propaganda), but children are not always as easily stifled as all that—hence the propaganda.  At the very least the ones doing the stifling should have the honesty to admit that the current rulings enforce the submission of one group (those who feel discomfort with such common arrangements) to another (the homosexual community pushing for gender re-definition).   The tyranny of those insisting on the redefinition is masked when the re-definition is heralded as giving to the trans-gender child its “rights”.  Framing the debate in terms of rights in fact pre-determines the outcome in favour of those pushing for re-definition.  No one wants to deny anyone their rights.  But declaring that access to gender-specific facilities is a right presupposes that gender is not in fact binary.  And that has not yet been proven, though it is increasingly widely declared. 
Ultimately it is not about the individual feelings, discomfort, or rights of any one person or group, but the larger and long-term question about what gender will mean for our culture in the coming generations.  Gender is the factory from which healthy family and personhood are manufactured, and if we drastically alter the factory’s machinery the product will be correspondingly altered as well, and in ways that we cannot yet foresee, and this will in turn produce difficulties hitherto unimagined.  Compared with such changes and challenges, the discomfort of a single child when faced with using the “wrong” washroom pales into insignificance.   
The question for Christians is this:  is the apostolic Tradition which the Church has received authoritative, or not?  Have we the authority to move the ancient boundary landmark which our fathers have set?  Shouting that we now longer live in a binary world is not helpful, but is simply a form of bullying.  It is true, of course, that we no longer live in a binary word, but for Christians, it is also irrelevant, for we also no longer live in a world which values the life of the unborn.  The world is no longer binary, just as it no longer refuses to murder babies in utero.  In other words, the World is still the World, and as such it refuses to abide by God’s Law.  This is hardly surprising.  The question about gender still needs to be dealt with.  Scripture, the canons, the Liturgy, the experience of the saints, and in fact the totality of our Tradition assert emphatically that gender is indeed binary.  For us, the rock remains.  And as the old liturgy in the Book of Deuteronomy reminds us, we move it at our peril.