Saturday, October 15, 2011

11-10-02: 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Twenty Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

Isaiah 5:1-7 / Psalm 80 / Philippians 4:6-9 / Matthew 21:33-43

I know it sounds shallow but I think one of the reasons I became a priest was seeing, as a boy, the old 1944 black and white flick, The Keys of the Kingdom. In one scene an old Father Chisholm (Gregory Peck) is reflecting on his many years of missionary work in early twentieth century China and now, back in Scotland, he’s being evaluated by a representative of the local bishop about some seeming unorthodox things he’s said from the pulpit. The fastidious Monsignor (Cedric Hardwicke) quotes from his little black book that Fr. Chisholm preached one Sunday that some of his best friends in China were atheists and Confucianists. To which the priest replies: I think some were closer to God than I.

In 1984 when Pope John Paul II made his first pastoral visit to Korea to canonize 103 Korean martyrs he made the extraordinary statement in one of his homilies that Koreans were inheritors of a high culture. The culture to which he was referring was, and is, the most Confucian culture in the world. Note the pope was not identifying the Christian elements within Korean culture, but the pagan ones – those values and virtues that led the pope to identify it as “high”; the virtues that would make a young Father Chisholm, sent to convert the pagans to Catholicism, to see that some virtues were innately good, transcending one’s particular religion or lack of it.

St. Paul eloquently attests to the same insight in his Letter to the Philippians when he encourages the local church to recognize the divine presence, that is, the tangible experience of God, in whatever is honorable and just, lovely and true – whether that whatever is found in a Christian context or not. This has always been the prejudice of a Catholic view of the world: culture and nature are already engraced, prior to their encounter with the gospel, because the same Word that is the gospel is that through which creation came into being.

Some would claim that same-sex unions and, especially, the efforts to legally call those unions marriage are symbolic of a resurgence of a neo-paganism in western culture. It is no secret that many Catholic bishops have made strong efforts to derail attempts by state legislatures to enact same-sex marriage laws. Some have gone so far as to compare these laws to Roe v. Wade; permitting same-sex marriage, they seem to be saying, is equivalent to legalizing abortion-on-demand. Mark my words that this type of tactic will not only not prevent such laws from being enacted but will trivialize the effort to limit abortion-on-demand.

Claiming that marriage has been deigned by God to be the same always and everywhere (between one man and one woman) is stretching the truth more than a bit. Understood in that succinct definition, for example, is the prohibition against incest. Yet, if you hold to the belief that humanity descended from one set of parents, how could we have got here save but by incest – at least, initially. And you don’t have to be a Mormon to acknowledge that polygamy was the norm for quite a long time before it fell into disfavor. Not to mention that the Church has adjusted and readjusted marriage law down the centuries making substantial distinctions between sacramental and non-sacramental marriages. Try and explain why a Catholic can validly marry a Jew in the local catering hall but, if two Catholics do so, it‘s invalid – the marriage doesn’t exist.

The bishops are quite right to assume most people don’t really care about such canonical distinctions; most people are more concerned about doing what is right and just. Even those opposed to same-sex marriage on religious grounds will acknowledge that there is something unjust about denying benefits and familial access to same-sex partners. The bishops, once again concentrating on the sex rather than the relationship, seem blind to this concern that is slowly but surely winning over the majority of Americans.

Same-sex marriage may be understood as symbolic of a resurgence of neo-paganism in a post-Christian culture; not so different a milieu, perhaps, than the one St. Paul faced in writing to the Philippians, themselves dominated by the classical pagan culture of antiquity. His exhortation, nevertheless, to recognize whatever is just and honorable – no matter where it’s found, remains as valid today as it was then: it’s our Catholic duty.

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