We were talking about something we had seen in the news and, in connection with the coverage, my friend expressed his agreement with a behavior that both Judaism and Christianity has always recognized as a sin. (No need for me to name the behavior, other than to say it is in the sexual/procreative sphere. There are an increasing number of troubling behaviors being celebrated in our culture; and the point I seek to make is applicable to all.) Because both of us are Catholic - and knowing that my friend attends Mass each week - I asked him how he could reconcile that with what God had said on the matter. I mean, Scripture clearly says that this specific behavior is a gravely serious sin. His response really troubled me - "I simply don't believe that. The God I believe in wouldn't say that."
"Whoa!" (mentally, in my best Joey Lawrence voice). My friend, I realized, had fallen prey to not just moral relativism, but - subconsciously, to be sure - idol worship. Instead of worshiping God as He is (as He revealed Himself to Israel and the Church), he had substituted his own idea of God. Now, before we go condemning my friend, we have to admit that each of us has been guilty of that at some point in our lives (and maybe we are right now...Catholic social teaching is challenging and seems to have elements that rub people of all political persuasions the wrong way). Often times, it is simply because of lack of knowledge. God's revelation of Himself and His will often have not been adequately proclaimed to us and so, we fill that void with our own notions. What we do after being presented with the Truth, however, is decisive for our life with God.
"But you realize," I continued, "there's only one God...I don't have my God and you have yours. He exists, objectively; and His stance on what behaviors are, in themselves, sinful doesn't change depending upon what you or I think. When God reveals His mind to us - and that's what we have in Scripture - we have an obligation to live it out."
"Yeah, but we Catholics aren't fundamentalists," my friend answered; "We interpret the Bible."
"You are correct," I said, "that we aren't fundamentalists, but by that we mean that when we read Scripture, we pay attention to what type of literature we are reading - history, poetry, apocalyptic, etc. - to understand what the author truly meant to say. Poetry expresses the truth differently than a book of history. Genesis, for example, tells about the creation of humanity in symbolic language; it is not making scientific claims. But, once we understand the genre, and understand what God and the writer of Scripture meant to teach then we are absolutely bound to it. So, when St. Paul was inspired to write a pastoral letter and label [this behavior] a sin, telling his readers that it could separate them from God for eternity, that is God's word to us; and we really are obligated to obey it."
"But [this behavior] really has to do with two people expressing their love for each other, and isn't that what God is all about?"
"That's just it," I tried to explain. "God is love. He is true love, and He is trying to teach us how to love. If He says that something is sinful, then be assured that how ever loving we might mistakenly feel it is, it is not so in reality. We want to see things as they really are, not as we imagine them to be. God only has our best interests at heart." My friend wasn't able to bring himself to reconsider his stance on this particular issue, at least not at that moment. But we remain close friends, and that tells me that he was willing to listen...and that's a wonderful first step!
As I reflected on that conversation a few more thoughts occurred to me:
- These false images of God that we construct are violations of the First Commandment. They truly are acts of idolatry. Those who try to "interpret" away the portion of God's revelation recorded in Scripture frequently appeal to the "spirit" vs. the "letter" of the law. Well, this is the spirit of the First Commandment! Any time we construct an image (silver, gold, or mental) and bow down to it (by giving it our obedience), we give worship to a false god and commit idolatry
- The prophet Isaiah said some scathing things about worshiping idols:
- "You [idols], indeed, are nothing and your work is nothing at all; whoever chooses you is an abomination." (Is. 41:24)
- No, [idols] are all a delusion; their works are nothing; their images are empty wind." (Is. 41:29)
- "All who make idols are nothing, and the things they delight in do not profit; their witnesses neither see nor know. And so they will be put to shame." (Is. 44:9)
- The idea that Jesus did away with the "harsh" requirements of the Mosaic Law, and in effect rubber stamped any behavior we deem to be loving is absolute rubbish. Jesus said that He did not come to abolish Israel's law and prophets, but to bring the to fulfillment, or completion (Mt. 5: 17). And if we look at how Jesus went about turning people from the letter of the law to its "spirit," we will quickly discover that the spirit of the law is a hundred times more demanding than the letter! (Thank goodness for baptismal regeneration and the gift of the Spirit to make it possible!) Just look four verses after it speaks of Him bringing the law to fulfillment:
- "You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hellof fire." (Mt. 5:21-22)
- “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart." (Mt. 5:27)
- “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other..." (Mt. 5:38)