Christian insistence on purity and moral change
One of the grave problems in the contemporary Church is the number of men and women in leadership and teaching positions who insist it is wrong to demand that those in immoral sexual relationships change their behavior. Worse still are those who claim—or refuse to correct the claim—that sexual relationships formerly regarded by the Church as immoral are not really immoral after all. Equally at fault are those who excuse habitual sexual immorality by arguing that it is the best that those in its grip can do, as if there is a new twenty-first century limit on the power of God’s grace.
This same lament applies to the justification of any sinful pattern of behavior, but our contemporary culture has unusually severe difficulties in recognizing the horror of sexual sins, no matter how obviously destructive their personal and social consequences. Accordingly, I am emphasizing here sins like contraception within marriage, sexual relations outside of marriage, and homosexual activity, perhaps the three most often justified sins of our age.
Our difficulty in recognizing these evils both leads to and is increased by theories which distort the fundamental nature of the human person. It is wrong to pretend that such uses of our bodies are not both spiritually and naturally damaging, or to pretend that we cannot expect those who bear the name of Christian to repudiate such behavior and change their lives. It is also sad that false attitudes of alleged “sensitivity”, “understanding”, “accompaniment” and “Christian love” have become thinly disguised means of approving immoral lifestyles without expressly denying Christian moral teaching.
Moral reality is not what we would like it to be, which is so heavily influenced by the power of temptation. It is what God says it is, through Creation and Revelation. To refuse to accept what God has created and revealed is a common form of hubris today. Essentially, we make up our own religion, or at least our own values, instead of accepting the instruction of the Creator. We theorize about reality based on our own passions, refusing to admit that we are actually on a collision course with reality, a course which can only lead to significant personal damage—and not only to ourselves.
This is why speaking the truth to those ensnared by sexual sins of all kinds is an act of love, whereas approving or explaining away their sins is really a kind of hate. For evil is always a privation of the good.
The example of the early Christians
Catholics who fall into this trap of calling sexual perversion good, or perhaps approving of it as “the best one can do”, need to be reminded not only of Divine Revelation, of Church teaching, and of the natural law but also of the example given by the early gentile converts to Christianity. These converts were taught that Divine grace and the power of Christ were sufficient to overcome the sexual habits they had formed as pagans. The evangelists, apostles, and early bishops all insisted that these converts could and would successfully repudiate the sexual sins of a lifetime. Despite (or more likely partly owing to) this confidence, Christianity spread with unaccountable rapidity.
The epistles speak about this with particular clarity. Linguists note that whenever they use the term we translate now as “immorality”—which is quite often—they are condemning sexual sin, warning against those sins in our own bodies which keep us from giving ourselves wholeheartedly to God. It will do no good for us moderns to pretend, as our contemporaries do pretend, that our bodies are mere tools to be used by our true selves, or that nothing we do with our bodies can sully our true selves.
Even the briefest honest reflection on our own human experience gives the lie to theories which make the human person anything less than a unity of body and soul, whose nature can only have been given by God. And which of us is so innocent as never to have yearned to escape the cruel slavery of our passions?
We should, then, pay attention to the first Christians, who knew true liberation when they saw it. In the apostolic age, a perfect example is found in Thessalonica, as described in one of St. Paul’s letters to that community:
Finally, brethren, we beg and exhort you in the Lord Jesus, that as you learned from us how you ought to live and to please God, just as you are doing, you do so more and more. For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like heathens who do not know God; that no man transgress, and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we solemnly forewarned you. For God has not called us for uncleanness, but in holiness. Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you. [1 Thes 4:1-8]
Note that the word “sanctification” in this passage carries with it this footnote in the RSV-CE: “With special reference to the practice of purity, specially difficult to those newly converted from paganism”; and the word “immorality” carries this footnote: “i.e., sexual immorality”, as I indicated earlier.
Quite a few other passages from the New Testament could be cited. Amid all of our confusion, including our wayward desires and our reluctance to speak unpopular truths, this is what we must keep in mind: “Whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you” (1 Thes 4:8). Love demands that we teach others that wholeness and happiness depend on allowing themselves and all of their affections to be freed and transformed by the Holy Spirit.
There is room for even repeated failure in the midst of honest commitment. But there is no room for making up our own reality, no room for confusing passion with authentic human aspiration, no room for a lack of commitment to the moral teachings of Christ and His Church. Whoever disregards this, disregards God.
See also the following commentary: Why can’t the Church stop harping on purity?
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Posted by: Bveritas2322 -
Apr. 26, 2018 1:58 PM ET USA
Wonderful essay. Now can you get someone to explain this to our pope?
Posted by: james-w-anderson8230 -
Apr. 25, 2018 1:42 AM ET USA
Jesus said "Thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build my Church." I much prefer this solid rock image of the Church, than Pope Francis' moving bike image; especially since his bike appears careening down a steep road heading toward a cliff.
Posted by: [email protected] -
Apr. 24, 2018 10:02 PM ET USA
Great article. Trouble is our present Pope persists on creating chaos by his lack of clarity. If he was specific on our rigidity we could better assure that we are not on an unstable bicycle. Good luck. May the Holy Spirit be us and Mary watch over us.
Posted by: mary_conces3421 -
Apr. 24, 2018 7:10 PM ET USA
The Greek word is “porneias”—with the same root as “pornography”. How ironic to translate it as “immorality”—a word commonly —but inaccurately—used to exclusively refer to sexual sins, ignoring the fact that one can be immoral in other ways—e.g., by being a chaste embezzler. Unless, perhaps, the translators themselves acknowledge only one kind of sin. Whew. I guess self-righteousness (aka “rigidity”) is OK after all.