Friday, May 25, 2007

Do What You Can - God Understands

Mitchell, once again.

Apropos of the expected Rainbow Sash hubbub on Pentecost Sunday, I was struck by the following from the June/July issue of First Things. In it, Fr. Neuhaus quotes David Gelernter, professor of computer science at Yale University.

Gelernter is probably best known for surviving an attack by the Unibomber (about which he wrote in the excellent Drawing Life), and his marvelous book on the 1939 New York World’s Fair, 1939: The Lost World of the Fair. He’s also a noted writer and critic on culture and society.

In this month’s First Things, Gelernter is writing of the recent decision by the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) of New York to accept gay students for the rabbinate. While the excerpt below refers to Judaism and the rabbinate, I think the logic involved regarding the view of homosexuality is particularly appropriate when considering the question of homosexuality and the Catholic Church, as well as serving as a prime example of how Catholicism grew out of Judaism. (It also serves as a pretty good defense of the all-male priesthood, but that’s a topic for another time.) Gelernter’s words and Fr. Neuhaus’ commentary:

Gelernter, who is writing a book in Jewish theology, does not want to read gays or lesbians (women were admitted to the rabbinate a few years ago) out of Judaism, but he notes that not every Jew is qualified to be a rabbi.”‘Do what you can – God understands.’ That is Judaism’s view – the view of normative, rabbinic, ‘orthodox’ Judaism. But consider the case of a Jew who openly refuses to keep kosher, and loves ham sandwiches. In this respect he is not a good Jew – but he might be a good human being … A rabbi is a teacher and must do his best to show us how a Jew should live. We don’t expect our rabbis to be perfect, but we do expect them to do their best to show the way. A rabbi is like an officer in the Israeli army – he is expected to lead his men into battle and to say, ‘Follow me!’” The openly gay rabbinical candidate, writes Gelernter, is saying, “I have an urge to commit homosexual acts, which I can’t or won’t suppress.” Like a married candidate who says the same about his urge to commit adultery, such a student should be told to “find another line of work.” In the Talmud, writes Gelernter, there are only three sins for which a Jew must be prepared to pay the price of martyrdom rather than commit: idolatry, murder, and illicit sexual relations. In view of the decision of JTS, says Gelernter, “we learn, at last, what it is to live in a world where nothing is sacred.” It is perhaps more accurate to say that we live in a world where, for many Jews and non-Jews, nothing is more sacred than the expression of one’s “authentic self” as defined by one’s chosen identity and desires, including sexual desires. Which, of course, abrogates both the prohibition of illicit sexual relations and of idolatry, in this case the idolatry of the authentic self.

The point, it seems to me, is twofold: 1) it is a reinforcement of the “love the sinner, not the sin” motto that we are all familiar with; and 2) it shows that there are, in fact, things that are to be considered privileges and not rights, and that furthermore there are good reasons why such privileges are not available simply for the asking.

“In this respect he is not a good Jew – but he might be a good human being.” Could we not say that about our brethren who do not follow Catholic teachings? They may be good human beings, all in all – and God will not ignore this. Nonetheless, they are not “good” Catholics in the sense that, by their choice, they do not live by the teachings of the Catholic Church. This is not something that can be ignored, or simply wished away. For teachings, for beliefs, for standards – for truth – to mean anything, there have to be consequences. Life is full of them – the consequences of breaking the law, of eating too much, of original sin. Maybe some of them are fair, some not – but the consequences are real nonetheless.

“We don’t expect our rabbis to be perfect, but we do expect them to do their best to show the way.” Such is the way of the Christian witness, the calling to show others the way to leading a Christian life. This is a profound responsibility, and its greatest potential for impact on others comes from how the Christian life is lived in view of others – in other words, publicly. None of us are perfect, but our best efforts are required.

In showing others the way, we reflect not only on ourselves, but on that which we profess to believe. And therefore the question comes down to this: do we believe the teachings of the Catholic Church or not? And can we truthfully say that our behavior – private as well as public – coincides with, reflects, that belief? Again to quote a familiar saying, if we were accused of being orthodox Catholics, would there exist the evidence to convict us?

And so sometimes the consequences are unhappy ones, and it becomes an unhappy duty to comment on them. It should always be done with charity rather than righteousness – and, yes, even a little sadness. But on the other hand, are we really so arrogant as to suppose God is incapable of understanding us without resort to means of human measurements? As in, "I must be allowed to do x in order to reach true fulfillment, to realize my ultimate potential." Realized in the eyes of others, perhaps, but God surely is capable of deeper understanding than that. "Do what you can - God understands."

We are all called to our vocations to display our gifts, to assume our roles, to do our work, to show others the way. Each of those vocations is unique, all equally borne of dignity from God, as is anything which He creates. And while they are all equally dignified, they are not all for everyone. Sometimes by circumstance – and sometimes by choice.
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