Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Systems of Grace

I wrote last time about how chastity is a grace, not a demand. This is a point about the Law which is frequently misunderstood, but it's all over Scripture. Psalm 119 gives us a portrait of what the Law is supposed to look like to the human heart: “Be good to your servant and I shall live, I shall observe your word. Open my eyes: I shall concentrate on the marvels of your Law. Exile though I am on earth, do not hide your commandments from me. My soul is overcome with an incessant longing for your rulings.” It goes on from there, as the psalmist rhapsodizes about how much he loves the commandments, how they have given him hope, comforted him in his suffering, kept him alive. This echoes the text of Deuteronomy where God lays out the blessings that will come to those who keep the commandments. (cf. Dt. 28:1-14) Those who do the will of God are promised that in doing it they will find joy, prosperity, increase, and life in abundance.

St. Paul develops this point in his discourses on the Law in his letter to the Galatians, but he takes this teaching in a strange new direction: “those who rely on the keeping of the Law are under a curse, since scripture says: Cursed be everyone who does not persevere in observing everything prescribed in the book of the Law. The Law will not justify anyone in the sight of God, because we are told: the righteous man finds life through faith. The Law is not even based on faith, since we are told: The man who practices these precepts finds life through practising them. Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law by being cursed for our sake, since scripture says: Cursed be everyone who is hanged on a tree.” (Gal. 3:10-13)

Untangling the point that St. Paul is making here can help us to understand what the Catechism means when it describes chastity as a “grace,” a gift. Paul's point is that there is a tendency for the faithful, whether the Jewish faithful of Paul's time, or the Catholic faithful of our own, to imagine that somehow by carrying out the precepts of the Law we are making ourselves worthy of salvation. Paul basically says that this is balderdash. It is impossible for anybody to be saved by the Law because nobody is capable of keeping its precepts: “scripture makes no exceptions when it says that sin is master everywhere.” (Gal. 3:22) The idea that if we can guarantee ourselves a place in Heaven by keeping the commandments and avoiding mortal sin is not only silly, it's dangerous. It makes the mistake of believing that human beings are capable, by their own efforts, of earning the unmerited and unmeritable grace of salvation.

So what's the point of the Law? Well, it's twofold. First, it's so that sinners will know that we are sinners. We're often a blind to how stupid and self-defeating the things that we want to do really are, and we have a bad habit of blaming other people when our bad decisions bear bad fruit. The Law lets us know that no, it's not someone else's fault, and yes, that really was a bad idea. It's a reality check that helps us not to do the same stupid thing over and over again always expecting different results. The second thing that the Law does is provide us with guidance for how to have a good and happy life. When God speaks blessings on those who keep His commandments its not because He's using a carrot-and-stick system of morality, it's because the keeping of the commandments is the means by which blessings and graces enter into our lives. The commandments are the blueprints for building up the irrigation systems by which the love of God flows into the soul and into society.

Now we come to the difficult question: if the Law is a source of blessing and joy, why do so many people experience it as a source of suffering and despair? The temptation here is to say “Those people are wicked. They have evil hearts and their desires are turned against God. They are unwilling to accept the good things that God is offering them because of their corrupt and perverse wills.” This is a bad way to look at it. The biggest reason that people experience the Law as a source of pain instead of a source of grace is that the conduits by which grace is supposed to be flowing into their lives are stopped up somewhere else along the line. This is the point that Dostoyevski makes through Father Zossima when he says “All are responsible for all.” If someone goes through the often painful process of breaking up the soil of their heart and digging irrigation ditches, and then the grace does not flow in, they will experience drought and thirst instead of receiving living water.
In the case of the homosexual community, the blessing which chastity is supposed to confer on people is the blessing of disinterested friendship. A lot of people make the mistake of believing that such friendship is somehow a degraded or lesser form of love, a consolation prize that is thrown to the gays in place of a more fulfilling, erotic love. This is not true. Genuine friendship is more fulfilling, not less fulfilling, than erotic love. Eros, desire, is naturally demanding and hungry, a point which Socrates makes in the Symposium. Even within marriage it is a very long and difficult process to transform this love into truly generous self-giving, and it is only possible because children are born to pull the couple out of themselves and out of the cycle of need and fulfilment that naturally characterizes eros. Friendship is much more generous, and much more able to fully see and appreciate the other because the vision of the beloved is not obscured by one's own desires.

This truth, however, is just a hollow platitude if there is a paucity of disinterested friends within the Christian community who are willing to make a sincere gift of self to LGBTQ converts. Too often, gays and lesbians seeking to know and experience the love Christ within our community find themselves suffering intense loneliness and abandonment – not because their hearts are pining for the forbidden fruit of gay lust, but because no one comes forward to offer them the grace of friendship which God wishes to bestow. Faced with this kind of painful isolation it is almost impossible for anyone to avoid consoling himself with temporary and disappointing pleasures. The sense of self-loathing that this tends to produce often become sufficiently overwhelming that people simply leave the Christian fold. Having been promised bread and given a stone they are wary to trust our promises again.

This is why Christ warns against laying up burdens for others without a raising a finger to lift them ourselves. Note, here, that Christ describes such burdens as “unendurable.” (cf. Luke 11:46) Without the living action of grace working through the Church in all of Her members, the Law ceases to yeild its blessings and becomes a curse. This is why preaching about the sinfulness of homosexuality is just empty, self-glorifying rhetoric unless we are willing to make the effort to build the systems of grace which will irrigate the seeds that Christ has planted in the souls of His beloved.


  1. Great post! I wish abstinence/chastity educators and coordinators would speak more to this aspect of Christian sexual ethics. "Chastity as gift" is a hermeneutic that young Christians rarely hear growing up.

  2. I'm loving this series of posts. Keep it up! :)

  3. I am always blessed by your words.God is softening my heart through your teaching. Thank you

  4. I'm certianly open to being a friend to homosexuals in the church. I'm not really sure how to go about doing that. It doesn't seem appropriate to going around after mass and start asking people if they're gay. So perhaps you might have some suggestions?

    I also wonder if it might be better to think about how we can mutually share each others burdens. I think there is something missing from our picture if we just see the homosexuals as the ones with crosses that they need help carrying. It seems to me, if we really value them in the church we might see places where they can help bare some of the burdens. Heterosexuals have crosses of their own. If a heterosexual Catholic ought to be a friend to a lonely homosexual, or to stand up to the bully that picks on the gay kid, or fight against homosexual discrimination in the work place, perhaps the homosexual Catholic can be a friend to a person with marital difficulties, or stand up for the virgin that gets picked on at school, or perhaps volunteer to cook a meal for a big family when dad loses his job. It seems to me that if we look at it this way we aren't seeing the homosexual as a merely defective member of the church needing piety and support, but one who has something to offer, a person with dignity that can uniquely contribute to the body of Christ.

    1. Amen...you've anticipated where I was going to go next :)

      p.s. w/r/t being willing to be a friend to homosexuals within the Church, don't sweat it. I'm going to talk about some of the obstacles that make it more difficult for gay folks to be included than it should be, but being open to friendship is kind of like being open to life -- it's up to God whether anything comes of that openness :)

  5. This is a very interesting point and worth exploring further. My experience with the Church is something similar, though my issue is being a second generation Australian who can't seem to break into the fabric of my society and a feeling of diaspora. I thought the Church would (should) love an accept me, and fill the need for an extended family that I feel deeply lacking. I have found them stubbornly resistant.

    At the moment I am questioning whether I am approaching the Church in the right way. Chesterton makes a point in Orthodoxy that the criticisms laid at the feet of the Church often show some kind of reverse fault in the one making the complaint. In my case, though I say the Church shows me a lack of love, I see in this accusation a fault that I seldomn give my time to my mother and sister (the last vestages of my real family in our adopted country). I could and should pour as much of my love as I can into them. And they would readily accept my affection, whereas the Church doesn't. I wonder if focussing too much on my sinfulness and wanting the Church to address my deep needs, simply turns my eyes inwards and similarly prevents God's grace to flow. It just keeps circulating around inside me around the same issues and is never released.

    I want the Church to be my nursemaid and massage my hurt. I also tend to want the Church to accept me on my terms. I have tended to want to form new groups and activities rather than join existing ones. However, there are people in the Church who would appreciate it if I joined their activities and gave them a hand. And the love that I long for from the Church might be available to me in helping others. It seems to me that the Parish is not necessarily the place for such love. It is found more in specific groups and activities where Catholics get together to help others in selfless acts. Within a Parish, people come together for varying motives. The Mass is a kind of come in and get sent out kind of thing.

    It makes me wonder if it is the same thing with gay issues in the Church. Maybe it is not so much that we ask the Church to be more open in loving gay peopleas a particular segment of the Catholic community, but we show gay people the way into the love of the Church eg. joining a group of people who perform some service for the poor, or youth etc. Isn't it true that one of the great ways to help someone is to ask them to give you a hand at some task or other. You don't labour over their sinfulness, you just use the gifts they have. In the process, there is a feeling of acceptance, a forgetfulness of the self and a trying on of more honorable robes.

    In this way, everyone is in the same boat, no matter what the sin. The only issue is whether or not Catholics actually go up to someone and say "I could really use your hand here."


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