Reflections on a private matter, turned public, at a suburban church
This is a difficult column to write… but it’s an issue that’s been so twisted by the media and the pop culture, it calls out for correction, so, as a moderate libertarian and imperfect Christian, I will give it a try.
Let’s begin with alcohol. Some will say that occasionally consuming any alcoholic beverage is a sin (I completely disagree with them). Others will say that consuming it regularly is a sin (I disagree with them too, as I find alcohol in moderation to be perfectly fine. A glass of wine or beer with dinner is usually healthy and tasty, as long as it doesn’t become addictive).
But here’s a point on which everyone will agree: getting falling-down drunk every night, blowing the family’s money on booze and endangering the public with drunk driving, is most definitely a sin. The reckless endangerment of others’ lives and livelihood, knowingly, intentionally, for your own fleeting pleasure, is the kind of hedonism recognized by everyone from MADD to our churches to our legal codes as a sin.
Worse still, imagine someone advocating such behavior.
Could that happen? The producers of wine, beer, and spirits advertise their products for use in the first two scenarios. They don’t advocate drinking to extreme excess, endangering the family budget and the commuting public. If anyone blatantly advocated such behavior – as college fraternities sometimes do – it would bring severe and uniform public disapproval upon them.
Even though some in the public may drink occasionally, even though some may even get drunk occasionally, they HAVE to admit – publicly, when asked – that the overindulgence is wrong, and that the fraternity is wrong for advocating such irresponsibility and abuse. Fraternities actually get delisted – tossed off campus – for such behavior… not for the fact that a member or two gets falling-down drunk too often, but for having besmirched the college’s reputation and endangering the trust that students’ parents had in the college, by blatantly advocating such irresponsibility.
Fast and Furious 110
Similarly, imagine a driver with a sports car. Well trained and properly licensed and insured, following the rules of the road, there’s no problem. Some would argue that he should never exceed the speed limit at all; others would say the limits are two low, and five miles over won’t raise anyone’s eyebrows.
Many of us may occasionally speed ourselves, but if asked, we must agree that real irresponsibility on the road endangers an innocent public. And what if a driver chooses to routinely zip down the road at 100 or 120 or 140 mph, and starts advocating it on facebook and in the press, cheering the fact that he got away with a hundred miles at 100 mph today, blatantly encouraging a public uprising against “draconian” traffic laws, proudly boasting that he’s been getting away with such speeding for years, and encouraging others to follow in his “treadmarks”? What then?
Even a driver who himself has been known to get an occasional speeding ticket – even a driver who has a bit of a lead foot and has perhaps battled the temptation for years – must join in the chorus of righteous opposition, pointing out that this loudmouth speeder has gone too far, not just in his irresponsible driving, but also in advocating that others do it too. Instead of accepting the fact when caught, the speeder publicly championed the sin, and thus has broken the social contract under which we all must live.
It’s not hypocrisy for other imperfect souls to call him out for his action. In fact, it IS consistency for them, even the occasional speeder. Because when the speeder speeds to excess, or when the drinker gets falling-down drunk, he knows he has violated the social compact and must hang his head in apology. He must not publicly advocate for such sin. He must stay publicly on the path of endorsement of what is right.
Leading the Little Ones Astray
The Evangelists tell a story about a time that the Lord was talking with both adults and children. Gathering the children near, he gave a stark warning to the adults in the room:
…”but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.” (Matthew, 18:6)
Christ is a teacher, and during his three-year ministry on earth, He made distinctions all the time, sometimes rather stark ones. The public had gotten used to the Lord forgiving tax collectors, adulterers, thieves, and the fallen-away; but just when they were accustomed to thinking that just about anything could be forgiven, He shocked them with this statement.
Christ didn’t put up with future sin, but He forgave past sins, and advocated leading by example. He would show the right way, and his apostles too would demonstrate the right way, hoping that as role models they could turn their audiences away from sin and into the light. He regularly forgave a sinner and then ended the speech with such words as “but from now on, avoid this sin.”
The message was clear: doing wrong can be forgiven, but advocating that others do wrong – through false teaching, through active endorsement of sinfulness – is another thing entirely, and a much more grievous sin than most. If you do wrong yourself, that may just be “between you and your God,” as the saying goes. But leading others astray is a crime with legs, a transgression that tears at the fabric of society, and must be treated differently.
If people in positions of authority – say, local civic leaders, or pop culture icons, or religious leaders, or government – start endorsing a sin, then they have crossed the line from tolerance (which Christ favored) to endorsement (which Christ condemned to the point of saying they would be better off drowned for doing so!). The distinction between these two approaches appears to be lost on today’s society, and this error must be corrected. As another saying goes: “Liberty is not license.”
A Libertarian’s Quandary
I cannot speak for other peoples; I only pretend to know the American character.
The American character, born in the colonial era, forged in the War of Independence, is both Judeo-Christian and libertarian.
This confuses many, because so many cannot distinguish between libertarian and libertine. But there is no real contradiction here; the American character is one that supports a Judeo-Christian culture where morality is not forced by government, but is a willful choice by a good-hearted people. The Founding Fathers, for the most part, wanted us all to be good Judeo-Christians without specifying a denomination or giving any level of government the power to force it (yes, Patrick Henry and Thomas Paine would have disagreed slightly, but they were exceptions to the rule).
They recognized that the only way that our national experiment – a representative republic on a grand scale – could possibly succeed would be if our nation were culturally committed to what came to be known as “the Protestant work ethic” – a culturally conservative, Judeo-Christian environment, without government either managing or pushing, but being supportive of that independent cultural ethos.
We would not be a nation that forced people to go to temple on Friday night or to church on Sunday morning. We would not be a nation that banned meat on Fridays, or banned pork all the time, just because a denomination or two forbade it.
Our Founders recognized that for a religion’s dictates to have value, they must be willfully chosen by the people, not enforced by government. There’s no great sacrifice, for example, in passing up ham or beef if none is available for purchase anyway. Government’s hands-off policy in these areas actually supports the religious value of such denominational traditions.
But we would also never be a nation whose government intentionally sabotaged a proper religion. Our Founders would not have endorsed a government rule that closed down the temples or churches so we couldn’t attend, or that forced people to eat pork or beef by law, in contradiction to their denominations’ teachings. Government must support religious observance without enforcing it. That’s the deal our Founders established in building this country, and when we honored this deal, we did pretty well.
The Catholic Church and Gay Rights
Pope Francis I irritated many by saying that the Catholic Church should not just be thought of as a “voice of No” in opposition to abortion and homosexuality. He believes that the total message of his church has been lost in the shadows of these two crusades, dominant as they have been in recent decades. He reminds us that there are many sins, and singling out these two at the expense of all others is a mistake… and he reminds us too that our overall message should be of love; focusing too much on two specific sins is counterproductive to the extreme.
The Church needs to be tolerant and lead by example, without ever bending so far as to go from tolerance (in the hope of earning converts by example) to endorsement (in which we would share the liability for the sin).
So it is that the Catholic Church has tried to walk a difficult line – rather successfully, I think, for the most part, particularly on the handling of the “gay rights” movement. Catholic churches and schools have employed the occasional teacher, priest, music minister or other employee, who just might happen to be gay, while staying publicly true to church teachings.
We don’t expect any employee to be perfect. We wouldn’t fire a teacher for drinking to excess as long as he doesn’t do it at work or encourage his students to do it. We wouldn’t fire a priest for getting a speeding ticket, as long as he doesn’t do it when driving the school bus to a field trip, endangering the students. We wouldn’t fire a straight employee for having an affair (how would we know?), so we wouldn’t fire a gay employee for it either. It’s only if the person chose to make a sin public – unashamedly, or even with pride! – that the Church would be forced to take action.
There’s a story in the news about a music minister at a suburban Catholic church who had to be fired this week. He pleads that his pastor knew he was gay, his parish knew he was gay. Everyone knew he was gay… but now, after seventeen years, he’s been fired for it, and he believes it’s a wrongful termination.
There are parishioners, newspapermen, and readers alike who don’t understand the issue and are therefore furious. But something important changed, and it wasn’t the Church that changed it:
The music minister got engaged to be married to his boyfriend, and announced it, quite publicly, on his Facebook page.
Yes, the church may have been happy with his service as a music minister. Perhaps he could have continued another seventeen years. But the Church didn’t change its stance; he did. He forced their hand. By announcing that he was proudly out of step with the teaching of the Church he served, he took it for granted that the Church would happily make the move from tolerance to endorsement… yes, the endorsement of something that the Church considers to be a grievous sin. That they simply could not do.
Now, whether you agree with the Church on the question of homosexuality or not isn’t the issue. The press would like it to be… the pop culture would like it to be… but it’s not. Consider:
- The situation would be the same if the person was an employee who’d gone from being a suspected tippler to being a routinely embarrassing public drunk at school functions.
- Or if the person had gone from not making it to Mass on Sundays to vocally making fun of people who do.
- Or if the person had gone from being suspected of gambling too much to losing his family’s house at the track on Derby Day.
- Or if a person had gone from being a childless single woman to announcing a pregnancy and a moving-in date with her boyfriend, without any plan to marry him, just to blatantly shack up.
These too are things that the Catholic Church considers sins, no matter whether you or I do or not. An employee of a church or school is – must be! – a role model to all parishioners and students, even to the community. The church or school cannot allow its message, already under so much assault by the pop culture, the press, and the government, to be undermined even by its own employees.
Such actions therefore force the hand of the Church; it must defend its policies by terminating employees who will no longer be the role models the Church needs.
Again, tolerating a failing is one thing; endorsing it is another. When you keep a failing private, you can hope for tolerance (your employer can continue to hope it’s a weakness that you’ll conquer or outgrow). But when one chooses to make that failing public – again, whether we agree that it’s a failing or not is immaterial; the Church thinks so, and the employee knew it – then one has to take the consequences of tearing that rift.
Earning the Millstone
In recent decades, the United States has moved further and further away from the Founders’ vision. Rather than supporting religion in general as the Constitution requires (just without showing favoritism to any specific denomination), the government undermines religion by trying to force churches and church-run entities (like schools, clinics, adoption agencies, and hospitals) to conform with the libertine trends of the age.
Not only does government now allow abortion, government tries to force the religious hospital to provide it. Not only does government now allow unmarried couples to adopt a baby, they want to force religious adoption agencies to manage and approve such adoptions. And most shocking, not only does government now want to redefine marriage as being something other than one man and one woman, they want to force churches to perform ceremonies in complete contradiction to their church doctrines.
The problem of so-called gay marriage was predicted to be one of the most severe of these changes, and so it has turned out to be. Perhaps we won’t know for sure until we reach those Pearly Gates whether we’re right in our every interpretation of the Good Book… but what we do know for sure – because the Good Lord said it – is that if we know what’s right, and we pass laws endorsing what’s wrong, thus giving generations to come the idea that a violation is okay, then we are guilty of a grievous sin indeed.
Note that it is government – big, encroaching, modern government – that put this church employee in the spotlight. If government had not created a provision for “gay marriage,” this employee would not have had the opportunity to become a scandal in his parish.
From a libertarian perspective, all were better off before. The government stayed out of it, the employee did what he wanted, making a choice that was between himself and his God, and the parish could enjoy his contribution as a fine music minister while demonstrating Christian tolerance.
But the statism of modern America changed all that, providing an opportunity to publicize the issue, forcing a confrontation, resulting in the Church having no choice but to stand on principle. Don’t be angry at the church for being Catholic; don’t even be angry at the employee for being gay (always remember the Christian admonition to hate the sin, but love the sinner).
But there is indeed one villain at whom to direct our anger: at the modern overgrown state, an entity that relishes in every opportunity to hinder the causes of western civilization, Judeo-Christian culture, and morality in general. The state has chosen to define what is moral, and will confiscate our funds to finance it all. Gone are the days of personal responsibility, personal sacrifice, personal generosity. Welcome to the age when government is the source and distributor of all largess, and all we do as serfs is stand up in our stalls to be bled and harvested for the welfare state.
The leviathan has long since proven to be a poor guardian, a poor provider, and a poor administrator. Now that it has taken on the helm of the definer of cultural mores, it has proven a dangerous failure there as well.
Copyright 2014 John F. Di Leo
John F. Di Leo is an international trade compliance trainer and consultant. He is no theologian, and honestly admits to his own imperfections as a Christian. He is here merely speaking for himself as a journalist and as an American, in defense of the Church and of Western Civilization, in recognition of a war being waged by the media, the pop culture, and many in the political class and educational establishment as well.
Permission is hereby granted to forward freely, provided it is uncut and the IR URL and byline are included.