Sunday, December 04, 2011

If I Think Something is Right, Does THAT FACT ALONE Make It Right?

Bishop Tobin

(Second Sunday of Advent (B): This homily was given on December 3, 2011 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Mark 1: 1-8.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Second Sunday of Advent 2011]

Our bishop, Thomas Tobin, wrote a column in the November 10 issue of the Rhode Island Catholic entitled, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell . . . Don’t Sin.”  In it he did nothing surprising: He first of all reiterated the Catholic Church’s timeless teaching on the issue of homosexuality (a teaching which is firmly rooted in Sacred Scripture and the Natural Law).  He also criticized those activists and politicians and others who are trying to force everyone in our society to accept homosexuality and the homosexual lifestyle as normal and moral.  And he challenged individual Catholics to stand up for the truth in the public square, and to do their best to help people they know who experience same sex attraction to follow the path of virtue in their lives.  He said, “If you really love someone you have an obligation to challenge their sinful ways and encourage them to follow a more virtuous path.”

In the final paragraph of the piece, he summed up his message with these words: “Members of the Church, particularly those in positions of authority—bishops, priests, deacons, catechists, and especially parents—have an obligation to understand and present what we believe about the sinful nature of homosexual acts. We have an equally important obligation to foster respect for persons with same sex attraction. We should love them, respect them, pray with them, and welcome them into our churches. But we do them a grave disservice if we do not urge them to embrace a lifestyle marked by the Christian virtues of chastity and purity.”

The following week a letter opposing the Bishop appeared in our diocesan newspaper.  It was written by a man named Henry Miller, who lives in Youngstown, Ohio.  (I’m not sure how he obtained a copy of the Rhode Island Catholic, but he did—perhaps it was the online version.)  Listen now to some of what he said:

“Now, as to whether, as the bishop suggests, we have an ’obligation to challenge their (gays’) sinful ways and encourage them to follow a more virtuous path’ I can’t imagine the bishop has actually thought this advice through.  It suggests that we be adversarial and that could lead to our being punched in the nose.  After all who are we to judge who is living a sinful life and who is not.  Not everyone who is living a homosexual life is committing a sin if he (or she) believes he is not.  This is second grade moral theology which we later learned as adults is called ‘primacy of conscience.’”

I’ll leave aside the remark about being punched in the nose.  As far as I’m concerned, that’s too ridiculous and juvenile to merit a comment.

But what about his other point—which is really the key point of his letter?  I hope and pray that you were horrified by his words here.  Listen again to what he said: “Not everyone who is living a homosexual life is committing a sin if he (or she) believes he is not.”

Say what, Mr. Miller?  I hope you’re not serious—but I’m afraid you are.  Are you telling me, sir, that if I think that something is right, that fact alone makes it right?  Are you saying that the ultimate criterion for a morally good act is whether or not I believe it’s a morally good act?

I certainly hope not, sir, because that means that anything—and I mean ANYTHING (even the worst moral evil)—can be justified.

Let me now illustrate the absurdity of Mr. Miller’s statement by replacing “homosexual activity” with a few other sins:

  • Not everyone who intentionally flies a passenger plane into a skyscraper in New York City is committing a sin if he (or she) believes he is not.
  • Not everyone who rapes is committing a sin if he (or she) believes he is not.
  • Not everyone who steals millions of dollars through a Ponzi Scheme is committing a sin if he (or she) believes he is not.
  • Not everyone who murders innocent people is committing a sin if he (or she) believes he is not.

What Mr. Miller calls the “primacy of conscience” is really the “primacy of the badly-formed conscience.”  He says this is “second grade moral theology.”  Well, if that’s true, then someone should tell Mr. Miller that he needs to go back to kindergarten and start over again with his moral theology lessons!

Of course, the really scary thing is, he’s not alone.  There are many people—and that includes many Christians!—who think this way.

And we wonder why our world is in such a mess?  This is the kind of mentality that tears families and societies and nations apart!

This is also the kind of mentality that keeps many Catholics away from Confession.

Each Advent we encounter John the Baptist, the precursor of the Messiah, who “appeared in the desert proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (as we heard a few moments ago in our gospel reading from Mark 1).  That passage goes on to say that people from the Judean countryside and from Jerusalem went to the Jordan River to be baptized by him as they “acknowledged their sins.”  It doesn’t say they acknowledged the things they “felt” were sins, or the things they “believed” were sins—as if they themselves had the power to determine what was right and what was wrong.  It simply says they acknowledged their sins—indicating that there was an objective moral standard they had somehow violated.  They didn’t determine what that standard was, God did.  It was built into the very fabric of reality as God had designed it.

Jesus came into this world to save us from our sins.  His name literally means “Savior.”  But he can only save us from our sins if we acknowledge them, as the people who went to John for baptism did.  And we need to acknowledge them as they truly are, not as we would like them to be.  That’s difficult, for sure—but it’s also liberating; because, when we repent of those sins and receive forgiveness from God for them, we can finally put them behind us—forever!

We encounter John the Baptist every Advent to remind us that there’s no better way to prepare to receive Jesus more completely into our lives at Christmas than through sincere repentance for our sins.  To assist you in that task this Advent I’ve inserted a very good and thorough examination of conscience into this weekend’s bulletin (yet another reason to take your bulletin home with you!).  On that sheet is God’s objective standard concerning right and wrong.  It’s not mine; it’s not yours; it’s not the standard of Mr. Miller, the guy who wrote the letter I read from earlier; it’s not even Bishop Tobin’s personal standard!

It’s the Lord’s—and his alone.  Which means it’s the truth that will set us free!—free from our guilt, free from our sadness, free from the eternal consequences of whatever it is we’ve done.

But it will only do that for us if we have the courage to look at our lives honestly, in light of what’s written on that sheet, and then repent, making a good confession if we need to.

For those who are interested in doing that, I will be in my confessional next Saturday at 3:30, as I am every week; and then, on the following Saturday, Fr. Giudice and I will be here for two hours, for your convenience, from 2:30 until 4:30 pm.