The Personalist Project

                       

Fr. James Martin contends that the "sexual relations between people of the same sex are impermissible" teaching has, to all appearances, never been "received" by the people it's addressed to.

He has a point--a seemingly obvious one. Or does he?

Catholic Digest columnist Matt Archbold has quipped in response: 

Based on the murder rates all around the world, can one assume that the Church's teaching about killing has not been "received" and is therefore non-binding?

He has a point, too.

Or he might. It all hinges on what "received" really means.

And that's what I want to think about today. Regarding Fr. Martin himself, just a couple things: No, he hasn't called Church teaching non-binding (not in so many words, not as far as I know), and yes, he does admit that some few of the people affected directly by the teaching do accept it. I'll leave further commentary on Fr. Martin's ideas to people who have read his recent book, Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion and Sensitivity. 

But it is worth considering what it means for a teaching to be "received." Let's begin with a few possibilities:

  • Does it just mean people are failing to live by it because they find it too difficult? Is it merely that, as Chesterton once quipped about the Christian ideal, it "has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried"?
  • Does it mean that a teaching has been just plain rejected--that its "target audience" has just plain refused to live according to it?
  • Does it mean that a teaching was never promulgated, or that people are ignorant of it? If someone were living on a desert island and had never heard of Christianity, would we say he has failed to "receive" it?

I don't think any of these capture it. But what then? 

One thing it could mean is to see the truth clearly, embrace it, internalize it, walk in it, and make it your own. This is something that goes beyond knowing of it and consenting not to violate it. It's possible to be familiar with a teaching but not have received it. It's possible, too, to abide by the truth--to refrain from violating it--but still not have received it.

How can we help people receive the truth? How can we facilitate their going beyond hearing about true teachings and even beyond staying within their bounds? In fact, giving people a chance to receive them doesn't have to be that complicated. Maybe it comes down to speaking the truth in love.

IAs Warren W. Wiersbe says,

Truth without love is brutality, and love without truth is hypocrisy.

Or, better, here's Edith Stein:

Do not accept anything as truth that lacks love and do not accept anything as love that lacks truth. 

Expressing an objectively true teaching without any regard for the subjectivity of the person addressed is "truth without love." Focussing on the subjectivity of the addressee to the point of indifference to objective reality is "love without truth." Or, to speak more exactly, neither is itself without the other.

Speaking the truth in love, though, means more than expressing it in an affectionate or respectful manner. It entails expressing it in the context of a loving interpersonal connection. If your attempt to get this truth into somebody's head is the extent of your relationship with him, you're not only disrespecting him--you're also highly likely to fail.*

So Fr. Martin is right if he means that maybe some obstacle has prevented the "LGBT community's" reception of Church teaching. It's not sufficient to announce that the Church, or God, prohibits such-and-such if something in your addressee's life experience is preventing him from hearing what you're saying--or if the message is tainted by your own bad example or conceit or manipulative approach or indifference.

And Matt is right that we shouldn't fall for the cop-out of abandoning the truth every time it turns out to be unpopular or hard.

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*Of course this doesn't mean you can never address people en masse. Writing an article can bring somebody nearer to receiving a truth, even if author and reader never meet in person. You can't sidestep one-on-one communication, but truth can also be served in a public forum.

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