Rodney Howsare: The Apostle Paul and the Liberating Nature of Truth: A Meditation on the True Meaning of Christian "Inclusion".

February 17, 2023
Crisis in the Church
The false notion of inclusion exposed

A wonderful guest essay by my former colleague at DeSales University, Dr. Rodney Howsare. A brilliant analysis of Saint Paul and the proper notion of inclusion.

The Apostle Paul and the Liberating Nature of Truth

Dr. Rodney Howsare

Upon a recent re-read of Paul’s letter to the Galatians, I was struck again by the urgency of Paul’s tone. On the one hand, it is clear that Paul is filled with what can only be called a motherly love for those to whom he gave birth in the faith and fed with the milk of the Gospel. On the other hand, his anger towards the so-called circumcision party and the fact that the Galatians have allowed themselves to be “bewitched” by them is equally fierce. At first glance, this could appear as a contradiction, especially if we have a one-sided view of the nature of love, or if we divorce love from truth. Pope Benedict XVI addressed just this divorce in Caritas in Veritate. Paul exhibits their unity-in-tension in his letter. On the one hand, “My little children, of whom I am in labor again, until Christ be formed in you,” and on the other, “And I testify again to every man circumcising himself that he is bound to keep the whole law. You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law: you are fallen from grace.” This balancing act is necessary because only truth can set the Galatians free from various bondages: e.g., to the entire Jewish law or to their former pagan practices.

It is important to keep in mind that this letter was written in the aftermath of the Jerusalem Council, to which Paul refers. Paul and Barnabas went to Jerusalem to settle the matter of whether new Gentile converts would have to be circumcised and keep kosher diet. After what I suspect was a difficult series of discussions—the matter, after all, is a complex one—it was decided that these things would not be required of the Gentiles. When the decision was announced, James says, “We and the Holy Spirit” have decided…. But we are also told that two things would be required of Gentile converts: that they avoid meat sacrificed to idols and the they abstain from “porneia.” This latter word is a catch-all Greek word that translates a variety of Hebrew words in the Septuagint. It can refer to prostitution, secular or cultic, to adultery in general, to ritual orgies, etc. It is sometimes translated into English, therefore, with the catch-all, “sexual immorality.”

In the light of recent comments by a certain representatives of the “synodal way” about the relative non-centrality or even non-binding nature of the Church’s teachings on sex, these two injunctions may seem strange. Of all of the things they could have told the Gentiles to avoid, just these two are mentioned. Furthermore, throughout the Old and New Testament sexual sins are never considered an isolated or marginal matter. The notion that sexuality is a purely private matter of little consequence is, in fact, a thoroughly modern one, or, perhaps more accurately, a neo-pagan one. Conversely, the two injunctions to Gentile converts—regarding idolatry and porneia—find a firm basis in the Ten Commandments and are often found connected in lists of serious sins. Why?

When Abram is called away from his people and told to follow God along a new path, that path would trend away from polytheism and towards monotheism. Not coincidentally, it would also trend away from polygamy to monogamy. To make a long story really short, polygamy in sexual practice betrays a direct relation to and even provides a sort of sacramental representation of polytheism in religious practice. If the gods behave this way, then why shouldn’t we? And perhaps even our sexual promiscuity might incline the gods themselves to such activity and thereby bless us and replenish the earth. This is how orgies could become a part of religious rituals. When Moses came down from Sanai with the Ten Commandments (commandments which include, “Thou shalt have no other gods” and, “Thou shalt not commit adultery”), he found the Israelites doing both, as the text from Exodus, “The people rose up to play,” insinuates. It is not uninteresting, furthermore, that Paul invokes this very text in his Corinthian correspondence (1 Cor. 10: 6-8) in the face of the “sexual immorality” (porneuomen) of some of the members of the Corinthian church.

But let’s return to Galatians. In the background of the problem, and serving as a foundation as to why Gentiles don’t have to get circumcised, but do have to adhere to the high sexual morality of the Jews, lies Paul’s rather complex theology of the law. It should be remembered that in Paul’s theology, the Old Testament law serves as a pedagogue. That is, it serves the purposes of God in the life of Israel until the coming of Christ. Israel was called by God to separate themselves from their pagan neighbors in order to be a light to them. The law served a function in this in two ways. First, in terms of behavior it tried to create a civilization of love in the midst of civilizations of violence and power (Augustine’s libido dominandi). The first tablet of the law told the Israelites how to love God; the second, how to love their neighbors. But there were further aspects of the law that served as external symbols of Israel’s difference from the surrounding nations (“Gentiles”= “ethnoi”= “nations”): circumcision, kosher diet and table fellowship laws were all a part of this.

Neither of these two aspects of the Law would go unchanged with the coming of Christ. The Ten Commandments would now be written “not on tablets of stone,” but “on human hearts,” meaning that they would be interiorized and intensified. “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees, you will not inherit the Kingdom,” Jesus tells us. Now, lust becomes adultery in the heart and hate becomes murder in the heart. Paul, therefore, expects moral purity—and this often centers on areas of human sexuality—from his Gentile converts, even if he exempts them from what is sometimes called the ceremonial law. Grace, that is, does not lighten up on the requirements of the Ten Commandments, it intensifies them. Yet, those aspects of the law that only served to remind Israel of their separation from “the nations” would no longer be required because Christ’s death and resurrection “broke down the wall” separating the Jews from the nations.

This, alas, is not the whole story. In a way that is analogous to Israel being called out of the nations for the sake of the nations, so the Church of Jews and Gentiles is called out of the world (the word that captures this is “ecclesia”) for the sake of the world. Such separation, however, is not a physical separation marked by circumcision and dietary restrictions, it is what we could call a theological and moral separation marked by a fidelity to the law of Christ, the law of loving God and loving our neighbors (and even enemies). The intensified and interiorized Ten Commandments play a central role in this, which is why the Jerusalem Council enjoins the Gentiles to a new fidelity to God (no idolatry!) and a new fidelity to his commands (no adultery/sexual immorality, among other things, of course).

Notice, however, that this difference is not merely internal! If it doesn’t require circumcision and kosher diet, it does demand a difference in bodily practices. Going to a pagan festival may seem innocent enough until we remember what the festival is for: i.e., worshipping pagan gods. And still visiting prostitutes (as the Corinthians were doing) may seem innocent enough until we remember that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit. In Judeo-Christian sexual morality, sexual sins are never just sexual sins; they are first and foremost sins against God (“Against you and you only have I sinned,” confesses David after committing adultery with Bathsheba; “Shall I therefore take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute?” asks Paul to the Corinthians).

In Paul’s Gospel then, we do not get an interiorized view of grace which replaces an externalist view of the law. Rather, the law which has been internalized by grace now must be manifested externally in the behavior (and even appearance!) of the newly converted Gentiles, who have been called out of the world for the sake of the world. It’s not simply bizarre, then, that Paul extends this, in his Corinthian correspondence, even to matters as seemingly trivial as hair length and style of dress. Historians tell us that Corinth was a notoriously promiscuous port city where all manner of prostitution was found. Some male prostitutes apparently wore long hair and dressed like women to attract certain clients, while some women prostitutes wore short hair and dressed like man to attract those with, well, different tastes. So, Paul enjoins the Corinthian men and women when they gather together to separate themselves from this, even at the level of appearance, in order to manifest externally what has changed internally.

So much for the importance of sexual morality in the Old and New Testaments. There is a final aspect of Paul’s letter to the Galatians that is especially relevant to current in-Church debates. Recall that the issues addressed in the letter involve the decision of the earliest apostles, forerunners of our popes and bishops, regarding the question of circumcision. Notice that the matter involved intense dialogue and ongoing disagreement. Years after the decision at Jerusalem, Paul is still running into opposition in his churches. The way in which the Jerusalem Council and, subsequently, Paul dealt with these matters will become paradigmatic for the Church throughout history. They show us the normative way in which the Church includes and dialogues.

On the one hand, the Church is more inclusive than historic Israel, which is precisely why the Church abolishes those aspects of the Jewish law which were designed simply to keep Israel apart. On the other hand, the Church’s inclusion would be an inclusion in truth and therefore involved a genuine unity. The unity of the early Church is often captured in the book of Acts by the phrase, “They were of one mind.” Of course, there was room for difference and varying emphases, as can be seen by the symphony of Gospels and Letters found in the New Testament. Paul’s style and emphases are by no means identical to those of John or James. The same can be said of Matthew vis-à-vis Luke. Nevertheless, on matters which touched the heart of the faith, clear lines were drawn, and some behaviors and some ideas were understood to place one outside of the faith. Paul says that the people who were bewitching the Galatians were preaching another Gospel, and that those who believed in that Gospel were cut off from Christ. And Paul is not afraid repeatedly to list sexual sinners as among those who will not inherit the Kingdom of God.

The dialogue which preceded the decision of the Jerusalem Council, furthermore, led to the firm closing of one particular answer: namely, that Gentiles would be held accountable to the ceremonial law. After this decision, Paul’s posture in the face of this view was no longer openness to the possibility that his opponents were right. His voice was now in the mode of proclamation and even anathemas! This doesn’t mean that he simply bullied, so to speak, those Galatians who were being duped by his opponents. The letters to the Galatians and Romans contain sustained and complex arguments. Perhaps only Paul, among the early apostles, was capable of backing up the decision of the Council with this level of argumentation. So, there is still dialogue, but it is within the context of a decision made not just by human beings, but also by the Holy Spirit.

All of this is highly relevant to the current situation of the Catholic Church and the debates surrounding the Synod and synodality. It seems that Pope Francis’s recent comments to the German Bishops have made clear that he doesn’t see the Synod as a revisitation of established Church teachings. And it’s possible that Cardinal McElroy’s recent essay in Americaresponds by saying that the Church’s teachings on sex are either not central or not fixed or both. Finally, I will admit to scratching my head at points when I compare Pope Francis’s words with his actions. While he doesn’t seem to think the issue of women’s ordination or homosexual sex is still up for grabs, the people he is appointing to key positions in the synodal process seem very much to think so. This would be a bit like Peter, after the Jerusalem Council and after Paul’s struggles with his congregations, calling a Synod on the question of circumcision and stacking it with members of the circumcision party, and perhaps doing so in the name of “dialogue.”

To return to our current situation though, it seems to me that those who are openly calling for a re-visitation of these seemingly settled matters are moving in a direction decidedly against the example of Paul. First of all, as we have seen, for Paul conformity with the sexual practices of paganism was a sign of conformity with paganism, period. For Paul, sexual sins are never merely sexual because they are also personal, communal and spiritual. That is, they are the acts of human beings who have been crucified to their old selves and made one with Christ. Secondly, failure to act in a manner different from “the world” meant that Christians could be in no position to act as a light or salt in that world. Paul’s theology of “the world,” that is, is also complex. The Church is at once called out from it and told not “to be conformed” to it, and yet the Church is told to love it and seek its conversion. We are back to an apparent contradiction: How can one love the world and yet not wish to be conformed to it? How can one love the world and yet condemn its theology and morals? For Paul, whether we like it or not, we are told to do both and to do both fiercely. We’re not allowed to opt for one or the other.

But this leads us to a final question. Are the Church’s teachings on sex so central that we need to broadcast them to a world that is clearly on a different page? This is at once a theological and pastoral question. If sexual matters are easily isolable from other matters, the answer seems to be an obvious, No! But if what I’ve been arguing above is true, they are not easily isolable and are, in fact, an external expression of something much deeper: with them comes a view of the human being, a view of the body, a view of nature, a view of freedom, a view of authority, and, ultimately, a view of God. The polytheism of the pagans was not incidental to their polygamy.

It is not uninteresting at this point to think a bit about the Protestant mainline. Beginning at least in the 1950’s, mainline Protestant churches began to conform their teachings on human sexuality to the surrounding, Western culture. This began with artificial contraception, moved to leniency towards divorce and remarriage, pre-marital and extra-marital sex, moved to the endorsement of homosexual sex, moved to embracing modern gender theories, and so on and so on. But notice that this change in sexual ethics didn’t stop at sexual ethics. With the mentality that allows for this “liberality” in sexual matters comes also a change in all manner of doctrinal matters: the notion that Jesus Christ is the unique mediator of salvation gives way to a theology of religious pluralism; the notion that Jesus Christ is uniquely God and man gives way to a variety of “low” christologies (more pluralism); the notion that Scripture is the infallible Word of God gives way to a heavy handed historical-critical method which chooses which passages are still relevant for “today” and which aren’t; the notion that salvation consists in being liberated from sin by the salvific death and resurrection of Jesus Christ gives way to a reduction of salvation to liberation from various sorts of political oppression and social marginalization; etc. All of this, by the way, happened (and is happening) very gradually and always in the name of “dialogue” and “inclusivity.” But once the changes become official, the dialogue stops and many are excluded, at least de facto if not de jure.

This might be a good place to say that the more classical positions which were rejected in favor of more “liberal” ones were actually quite capable of making room for the partial truth of the latter. That Christ is the unique mediator of salvation, for instance, does not mean that salvation can only be found in the official precincts of the Church. That salvation first entails our liberation from sin does not mean that it does not also entail liberation from various political and social oppressions and marginalizations. That Scripture is the Word of God does not entail that we cannot read it historically-critically. That homosexual sex acts are sinful does not entail that persons with a homosexual inclination should be shunned on singled out for special reproach. “Let him without sin cast the first stone!” What is interesting is that the converse does not hold. If, for instance, all religions are equally valid vehicles of salvation, then Jesus Christ is most certainly not the unique mediator of salvation. Which leads to the surprising conclusion that orthodoxy is not only better at being orthodox than is liberal Christianity, it is also better at being liberal. It is orthodoxy that is more genuinely inclusive.

The point of bringing up Liberal Protestantism is not to say that a sociological fact—mainline Protestant communities have, in fact, gone down these routes—proves where progressive Catholicism will go. What it does do, however, is serve as an illustration of a theological truth: that once a group gives priority in their thought to a classically liberal framing of various questions, that thought will inevitably lead in a particular direction, for liberalism is designed to move in one direction only: towards ever greater emancipation from the strictures of truth, nature, tradition, authority, prejudice, etc. This reaches a crescendo in modern queer theory, which barely gets done making one transgression a non-transgression when it must begin looking for another. I once heard a guy ask a crowd to play “queer theory and pedophilia Jeopardy” with him: Question: Which prominent queer theorist unequivocally condemns pedophilia? Answer: Who is no one?

But the example of mainline Protestantism also takes us back to the Apostle Paul. Paul’s teaching at the very least implies that conforming to the world in matters of sex entails conforming to the world, period. And this is exactly what has happened in the Protestant mainline. There is not just conformity with National Public Radio in matters of sex. There is conformity with National Public Radio, period. My hope is that this will not be lost on the leaders of the Catholic Church as she progresses along the synodal path.

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