The Evangelical Possibilities Presented by the Victory of the Sexual Revolution
On 12 October 2014, I preached at St. Mary's, Greenville about the wider theological and pastoral context of the legal and cultural debates over same sex marriage. Here is the text of that homily:
As I explained last Sunday, the Synod of Bishops is meeting right now in Rome to discuss challenges to marriage and family life in the context of proclaiming the Gospel in our time, so it seems particularly appropriate that the Supreme Court of the United States announced last week that they would not accept appeals to several decisions by federal district courts which struck down laws against same sex marriage in five states. And by their refusal to hear those appeals, the nine Justices were declaring that the disputed decisions of the lower courts would stand, thus allowing same sex marriage to become law both in the five states which had appealed and in the other states which are included in the geographical areas of those district courts. Though isolated court battles will continue, including here in South Carolina, the legal dispute over same sex marriage in the United States has now been decided, and in that contest the traditional Christian understanding of marriage lost. What you may be surprised to learn is that I welcome this defeat, and I want to explain why.
Since I began to preach from this pulpit over thirteen years ago, I have attempted in a variety of ways to explain that we now live in what must rightly be called a post-Christian era in human history. It has been many decades, some would say centuries, since the Gospel of Jesus Christ was the primary engine for the formation of culture in the West, and now we are seeing the rapid abandonment of the Gospel as a source of law in the West. For fifty years and more the trajectory of law and culture in Europe and the United States has been away from the Christian worldview and towards a new paganism, particularly in regard to sex, marriage, reproduction and family life: no fault divorce, birth control, abortion, in vitro fertilization, surrogate motherhood, embryonic stem cell manipulation, assisted suicide, multiple remarriages, and now same sex marriage. These changes in law and custom are but a reflection of the post-Christian character of our civilization, and for most people today, Christianity is neither a life-changing nor life-giving force; it is simply a relic of a pre-modern past. And that is among the many reasons we are now witnessing the all but complete collapse of cultural Christianity.
Though it may be an unpleasant prospect to contemplate, I welcome this collapse of cultural Christianity because I believe that only when Christianity as a cultural memory is gone can Christianity as an evangelical movement return. As for Christians in the first centuries after the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, so now it is our privilege in a post-Christian culture to change human lives one at a time and then to form vibrant sub-cultures which can eventually shape entire cultures with the liberating truth of the Word of God. That is the framework of the New Evangelization and of Evangelical Catholicism, and I welcome the arrival of same sex marriage in the United States as a harbinger of the time when the boundaries between the Church and the world can be clarified, especially for us, by the disappearance of the last vestiges of cultural Christianity. In other words, Christians must let go of nostalgia for our faded Christian civilization in order to build it again.
If we can see the collapse of cultural Christianity as a great evangelical opportunity, then with joy and love we can proclaim Jesus Christ crucified and risen to the millions of people who now have only debonair nihilism to help them understand the purpose and meaning of their lives. To put it plainly: if we let the new pagans be honest pagans, then we have a new opportunity to propose to them that Jesus of Nazareth is the Son of the living God, the Way, the Truth and the Life. It’s when we ask others to live as Christians without being Christians that we set the stage for bitter conflict with those who do not share our faith, and in fidelity to her divine Lord, the Church never seeks to impose herself or her teaching on any person or society. We seek only the liberty to teach what Christ teaches, to organize our lives around that teaching, and to invite all others to accept him as Lord and Savior.
Now responsible voices in the Church will respond to me that in sketching the drama of our times in this way, I have surrendered too much, including the truths about human nature that we can know by right reason alone without the assistance of grace or by saving faith in the truth of divine revelation. I have deep respect for those who offer that criticism, many of whom are my teachers and friends, and they may be right. But abstract principles of the natural law no longer have purchase in the minds of the majority of Western people, and arguments derived from those principles are irrelevant in a culture which is running away from the God of the Bible as fast as possible and rejecting the entire project of biblical religion as hostile to human freedom and flourishing. In such a time as ours, it is imperative for the effectiveness of our evangelical witness that we begin at the beginning and ask no one to accept the conclusions of Christian faith who does not first believe the premises of that faith. Let pagans once again be pagans so that Christians can once again be Christians proclaiming Jesus Christ in a world where he is no longer or not yet known and loved.
This Wednesday is the 33rd anniversary of my night of fire, the night in which the living God took hold of my life and revealed his love to me so that in the obedience of faith I could find true freedom, the evangelical freedom of the children of God. I was then a college boy of 19, and my life changed that night when I accepted the truth of the Gospel. Most disciples of the Lord Jesus will never have such a dramatic experience of grace, but every Christian must have heard at some point in his or her life the clarion call of Christ: “The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the Gospel.” Only from the personal conviction of conversion to Jesus Christ can we find the desire and strength to live as Christians must live in every time and place. We must be a sign of contradiction. We must live as strangers in every country, including this country, because we are citizens only of the heavenly Jerusalem. We must be disciples and friends of the Word made Flesh, who calls us to be salt and light in this world, so that others may see in him God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God.
I have set aside the readings for today to speak about these things because one task of every pastor is to help his people read the signs of the times, and I believe that the arrival of same sex marriage in our nation is an important sign of our times. Yes, it is a sign of the end of the influence of cultural Christianity, but for that very reason, I believe it is also a sign of a great evangelical possibility. And to take full advantage of this opportunity, Christians must heighten the contradictions between the Church and the world so that all will see what true Christianity is and how Christians live and love.
I hope, for example, that our bishops will completely disentangle the Church from civil marriage and teach our people to visit a judge if they want the State to consider them life partners but to come to the altar if they want to receive the sacrament of Holy Matrimony and live as husbands and wives in Christ. I believe that we must equip every Christian to resist and refute the lies of the sexual revolution and find the interior freedom needed to cultivate the virtues of chastity and self-mastery, both in single life and in marriage — not in order to repress sexual desires but to integrate them into healthy personalities according to the Creator’s design for us. I also believe that in prayer, service and study we must find the courage to bear witness to Jesus Christ in every corner of our lives and in our every corner of our hearts, even when — especially when — that witness will cost us dearly. I believe that in the wasteland of debonair nihilism we have a precious and rare chance to propose the Gospel as though for the first time to people who are prosperous and healthy but whose lives are, finally, without purpose and therefore unsatisfying. But to make that proposal we must first know the Gospel, believe the Gospel, live the Gospel and be prepared to share the Gospel with others.
In short, we must all be missionaries, right here and right now. And one thing all missionaries learn to do in preparing to share the Gospel with others is always to be mindful of the human situation of those to whom we seek to give witness. In every human life there is something good, true and beautiful, and pagans search for love and want to live a good life no less than Christians. The same sex couple, for example, in asking for marriage from our courts are seeking to make the gift of self to another person which gives life meaning. Christians believe, of course, that such a gift of self can find its true meaning and purpose only when it is made in keeping with God’s plan for our lives, a plan that does not include same sex marriage, but anyone who is already seeking a way to make that gift, however confusedly, is climbing the ladder of love, whether they know it or not. And a skillful missionary will use that as a starting point to invite the seeker to climb higher, not to humiliate or demean a human person who is created in the image and likeness of God, even when he is in the grip of sin. But above all else, a good missionary will never present Christianity as a moral code or set of rules to be obeyed for the sake of some future reward; a good missionary will explain that authentic Christianity, which of course does have a moral code, is first a relationship with the crucified and risen Lord Jesus who alone can reveal our full dignity and eternal destiny and who alone can redeem us from the grave and give us a share in the glory of the one, only, living and true God.
My friends, by our Baptism we are called to invite others through our words and deeds to follow the more excellent way of divine love revealed by Jesus Christ on the Cross, but we cannot do that if we think or speak of those who do not share our faith with derision or contempt or hatred. So even as the news in the coming months is filled with smiling, newly married same sex couples on the steps of the court house, do not allow your hearts to harden. Remember, instead, that the final collapse of cultural Christianity clears the way for a new proclamation of the Gospel which is the power of God unto salvation for all who believe, and our proclamation of that Gospel begins now and always with our own continuing and ever deeper conversion to the Lord Jesus Christ.
Father Jay Scott Newman
Pastor of St. Mary’s Catholic Church
Greenville, South Carolina12 October 2014