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.


*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.

Comments (12)

Katie van Schaijik

#1, Oct 12, 2017 3:45pm

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.

I think this is key, and I'm coming around to the view that it's much, much substantial than we doctrinal conservatives generally realize.

We fail in our effort to convey truth, because we have more-than-a-tendency to offer it badly—when it can't be received; when our "offering" isn't appropriate, and (especially) while we're neglecting deeper truths we should be focused on, and so forth.

All too often, what we're actually "offering" isn't truth (though it's "doctrinal content" may be correct), but moralizing, self-righteousness, ignorance, boorishness.

No wonder it isn't received! Those things don't bless and welcome, they offend and alienate. 

Paul Rodden

#2, Oct 13, 2017 1:05pm

Yes, exactly.

I think both of you have recently hit on a very important theme in your recent posts.

What some people mean by 'pastoral' is a form of relativistic laxism (the 'love without truth', St Teresa Benedicta pointed out), but what you are suggesting is truly pastoral. Over the past couple of years, because 'pastoral' is so loaded with negative baggage - Modernist/Laxist/Relativist - connotations by other 'traditionalists', I have taken to talking about a 'personalist approach', and avoided the word 'pastoral' altogether.

Devra Torres

#3, Oct 13, 2017 3:31pm

Yes, Katie, though I think it's a tricky thing to try to determine whether the fault lies with the messenger or the addressee. I guess the best way to do that would be to establish a good enough relationship with the addressee that you could ask him, and he would be willing to tell you, where he thinks the problem lies. I guess we all tend to be blind to the obstacles that we ourselves are creating. I think we also have to watch out for reflexively placing the blame on whomever the ephemeral cultural climate designates as today's "bad guy." 

Devra Torres

#4, Oct 13, 2017 3:33pm

Paul, true, we might do well to retire the word "pastoral" altogether! It's very frustrating to be treated as a relativist when you try to encourage people to see persons as persons rather than instances of cultural tendencies!

Katie van Schaijik

#5, Oct 13, 2017 4:10pm

Speaking for myself, I am beginning to realize that the fault is practically always mine when it comes to trying to explain to another person that he is falling short of the objective moral law.

It's not that I do it in a particularly obnoxious manner, it's that the very fact of my doing it crosses a boundary that shouldn't be crossed, except perhaps in rare circumstances and conditions—I'm a priest in confession, say, or a sponsor in a 12-step program; or a very close friend is asking me for help and advice, or I'm a missionary in a primitive society that hasn't been catechized...

I think the vast, vast majority of cases we come across are not like this. They are not cases of a genuine ignorance or particular call. Rather, they are cases of us appointing ourselves to a position of moral superiority over another, and this—I'm coming to believe—is practically always a worse offense than the sin the other is committing. It's a log compared to a splinter. 

I know I've had to come a long way and have a long way yet to go in learning to appreciate the respect due to subjectivity.

Paul Rodden

#6, Oct 13, 2017 6:27pm


For me, discovering the objective moral law is only within their own capacity. All I can do, at best, rather than moralising, is do as Socrates, and try to be a 'midwife' of the insight. Prudence in timing (kairos) is often crucial, too.

In many cases, we can be on 'transmit mode' alone, and it's not surprising they resist.

As an apologist I know of says, 'If they get angry, I lose. If I get angry, I lose.' He doesn't mean this in the sense of win/lose as if it's a contest, but that we lose their trust if we push too hard, thinking only of our own agenda, or 'appointing ourselves to a position of moral superiority over another' (i.e., a sanctimonious know-it-all), as you put it, Katie...

Katie van Schaijik

#7, Oct 14, 2017 9:09pm

Paul, I think you are making a really important point I want to think more about. I mean about the objective moral law needing to be "discovered" by the moral subject. 

And moralizing typically interferes with the discovery, because it disrupts and complicates the moral subject's personal journey.

I had a friend in college who was 21 and dating a guy who wasn't good for her. She was working her way toward that realization, when her parents made the terrible mistake of forbidding her to date him. Now her effort to know her own mind and make her own judgement was seriously complicated by the need to assert herself against her parents' undue interference.

I think the moralizing problem is like that. 

Jules has just been reading me some great Newman quotes along these lines.

Rhett Segall

#8, Oct 15, 2017 9:58am

In "Brideshead Revisited" Rex makes  clear to his sister Julia that she and Charles are "living in sin" and that Julia knows this. Rex's by the by comment infuriates Julia but from the trajectory of the novel seems to be one of the medicinal factors God uses to call both Julia and Charles.

A close friend was having an affair with a married man. I knew she was well aware that it was wrong and I judged it best to let her intrinsic goodness and integrity have its own organic response. I said nothing about their adulterous situation and would be friendly when meeting with them. The affair ended after a few years and Barb went back to practicing her faith. But perhaps I should have said something. I judged it as you did Katie regarding the college student. But when Barb and Dan came to our house my brother was furious because he felt it was scandalous to the younger members of our family .

Maritain in his book "Existence and the Existent" has an incomparable passage on the uniqueness of conscience decisions.I do think intuition comes into play in such situations.We do our best;leave the rest to God.

Katie van Schaijik

#9, Oct 15, 2017 4:38pm

What mainly strikes me now about Brideshead Revisited is the disasters Lady Marchmain's moralizing and rigidity brought about in her family.

Gonzalo Escobedo

#10, Oct 19, 2017 8:02pm

This makes a lot of sense. On the other hand, I am trying to reconcile with a recent experience: Our pastor dedicated his homily to the subject of sexual morality, emphasizing the Church's teaching on contraception.  First, I was thrilled by his courage to address this subject, accurately presenting the doctrine of the Church. But then I was uneasy about how this was received.  What are the options for priests that have a desire to reach out in this way? In his homily, Fr. lamented that this was only the second time he addressed the issue from the pulpit. What do you think is the best way to approach the subject?

Rhett Segall

#11, Oct 20, 2017 8:21am

Gonzolo, it is the kind of subject that calls for interaction.  Perhaps it is best left for pre-cana conferences.  When I taught Christian marriage courses to catholic high school students,ages 16-17, I acknowledged that most Catholics don't agree with the Church's teachings on birth control.  However, I stressed with them that couples who are involved with natural family planning methods find that it is not only a very effective means of regulating births  but also a  way of deepening their personal intimacy.

Perhaps parishes could offer more workshops in this area which would allow for  dialog on the topic.

Katie van Schaijik

#12, Oct 20, 2017 8:26am

Personally, I think preaching is mostly about announcing Good News. It's not the place to "lay down the law." "Laying down the law" is pleasing to those who already keep the law. It's usually intimidating and shaming to those who don't. 

But that, to my mind, doesn't mean "don't touch contraception"; it means deal with it in the context of the good news about love and marriage—in a way that attracts and consoles and liberates.

JP II's Theology of the Body is a perfect model.

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