Rules for the sake of Rules, or Law for the sake of Love?
“Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them. For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” Mt 5:15-17
It is no secret that we live in a time in which rules – particularly those that govern the morality of our intimate lives – are treated with suspicion at best, and almost always with resistance. According to the modern narrative, those who strictly abide by rules are often characterized as persons who value uniformity over diversity, repression over feeling, and arbitrary standards of behavior over personal freedom.
However, human experience consistently breaks through the façade of this narrative (the roots of which are as old as Original Sin). Christian chastity – which is often rejected as an arbitrary “rule” – is a virtue whereby we live out our sexuality in an integrated way in order to enrich our relationship to God and others. The practice of this virtue means that we – as persons with intrinsic dignity – should neither use nor be used for pleasure or personal gain. In the absence of chastity, therefore, we necessarily become susceptible to being treated as sexual objects, and doing the same to other persons. Nowhere is this reality more apparent than in the context of the #MeToo and similar movements which have arisen in recent months against sexual harassment and assaults.
The scores of victims who have come forward since late 2017, with reports of sexual encounters ranging from the inconsiderate to the predatory and criminal, have prompted men and women to revisit contemporary rules of conduct when it comes to sexual intimacy, and to take a hard look at what has allowed such violations to become so commonplace.
Nonetheless, amid the many valuable conversations that are happening within the #MeToo movement, it remains to be seen whether some of the cultural practices which once helped to protect persons from being violated will come back into vogue. In any event, we are still a ways off from a revival in the appreciation of Christian chastity, based on how often the Catholic Church’s teaching on sexual morality is misunderstood.
For many, the Church’s teachings on marriage, chastity, homosexuality, and other areas of life seem to come at odds with the message of Jesus, which is rooted in love and mercy. Critics of the Church’s “rules” with regard to these matters often will cite the Gospel’s examples of the Pharisees and Sadducees, whose strict and hypocritical adherence to the law prompted Christ to refer to them as “whitewashed sepulchers” and a “brood of vipers.”
What can we take from the example of Christ, who regularly condemned legalistic interpretations of the law? The law of the Church binds Christians to a commitment to live chastely at all times, to reserve sexual intimacy for marriage with someone of the opposite sex, and to respect the gender into which we were biologically born. Yet, there are some persons who find it difficult or impossible to envision a healthy and fulfilling marriage with someone of the opposite sex. There are others who truly feel that they were born with the physiology of the wrong gender, and must therefore alter the sexual traits of their body in order to experience wholeness. If we are calling these persons to live according to Church teaching – persons who have not chosen same-sex attractions (SSA) or gender dysphoria – are we not asking too much of them for the sake of following the rules? To put it in another way, are we not guilty of the very thing which Christ condemned in the Pharisees and Sadducees?
First, it was not adherence to the law per se which Jesus condemned, but love of the law for its own sake, wherein the Pharisees and Sadducees failed to see the law in its proper context within the salvation history that was unfolding before them in the person of Christ. Even today, this misplaced love for the law is a danger that any of us can fall into, including those in authority. When we adhere to the Church’s teachings without the eyes of faith, we risk becoming blind to the true needs of the people in our care.
How, then, do we understand God’s law? Often, especially in the context of religion, Church teaching is perceived in terms of strict rules which stifle individuality and free will – not to mention the right to love who we wish to. However, the fruits of the law of the Church, properly lived out and understood, is very different from this perception.
The truth of the matter is that, by watering down or ignoring the Church’s teachings with regard to human sexuality, we are in fact denying the people in our care the means of living with true happiness and freedom.
One example of this is clearly articulated by the executive director of Courage International, Fr. Philip Bochanski, who speaks about priests who tell persons living with SSA: “Don’t worry. God made you this way. Now go and find a partner who loves you.” This may sound like the compassionate approach on the surface, but those who give this advice are ignorant of the devastating consequences on the person. We all have a desire for love; what happens when we seek sexual intimacy in someone with whom such intimacy is impossible? “I was told that God made me this way, yet I’m unhappy. What is wrong with me?”
That said, the teachings of the Church are not just about avoiding unhappiness; at their core, they are about love.
Unlike those who are inclined towards legalism, persons who follow the Church’s teachings with authenticity do not fit the rigid and conformist stereotype of someone who follows rules for their own sake. In fact, you would be hard pressed to find any group of men and women in human history who were more unique, radical, or revolutionary than the saints. Normally, such a description is applied to rule-breakers who defied convention and proudly disobeyed authority. Yet, whenever the saints spoke of the law – specifically, obedience to the law of God, the Church, or even their religious superiors – they did so with the language of a lover:
“One of the greatest graces for which I feel myself indebted to Our Lord is that His Divine Majesty has given me the desire to be obedient; for in this virtue I find most consolation and contentment, it being that which Our Lord recommended by His own example more than any other, and on this account I desire to possess it more than anything else in the world.” – Saint Teresa of Avila
“Obedience is a consecration of the heart, chastity of the body, and poverty of all worldly goods to the Love and Service of God. Blessed indeed are the obedient, for God will never permit them to go astray.” – Saint Francis De Sales
“By the other virtues, we offer God what we possess; but by obedience, we offer ourselves to Him. They who obey are conquerors, because by submitting themselves to obedience they triumph over the Angels, who fell through disobedience.” – Pope Saint Gregory the Great
The saints did not value obedience to the law for its own sake. They did so out of a desire to become close to the One they loved most. These men and women (sometimes boys and girls) understood that we are each uniquely made in God’s image and likeness, and that God’s law – made available to us through the Church – is our guide to growing close to our Beloved by becoming who we truly are. Rather than something which restricts our ability to love, for the saints, obedience to the law is in fact a labor of love.
In following Christ’s example, it is imperative that those who minister to persons who experience SSA apply the Church’s teachings in a spirit of the utmost compassion. They must be willing to listen to their unique stories, meet them where they are at as much as possible, and accompany them in their journey towards a deeper relationship with Christ. At the same time, we do a disservice to the men and women in our care if we water down the teachings of the Church. Persons living with SSA are deeply sensitive to the need to know their identity and to be loved; they deserve a pastoral care that is honest about how they can grow in holiness and authentic happiness so that they can discover who they truly are.
Ann Schneible is the communications director for Courage International. Before taking the position in 2017, she worked as a Rome correspondent for ZENIT and Catholic News Agency/EWTN, a collaborator with Vatican Radio, and a translator for L’Osservatore Romano. She has an STL in Institutional Church Communications from the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome.