I recently received the following message from a stranger: “So basically, the ‘orthodox Catholic’ game you all play is just that . . . a game?” It was in reference to a Catholic man with whom I am friendly, and like very much. She had apparently read on social media that this man was planning to marry another man.
My friend had never “come out” to me, and—call me old-fashioned, or call me incurious—it had never occurred to me to ask, so the wedding plans were mildly surprising. But reading the email I thought, “Yes, so? What does this woman want me to do? Should I now hate him? Am I supposed to ‘un-friend’ him (that ridiculous term) or even publicly denounce him in order to demonstrate sufficiently ‘orthodox’ Catholic bona fides for her satisfaction? Is that what she wants?”
Well, I couldn’t do that. I like this man. Every exchange I have ever had with him, in person or online has been pleasant, very kind and sweet-natured. The world needs all the pleasant, kind and sweet-natured people it can get, and I wasn’t going to give one up in order to prove myself to some scold I didn’t even know.
On the other hand, I wondered whether I should publicly wish him happy—as I certainly do. I want everyone I know to be happy in their decisions, particularly when those decisions involve love.
And yet, I did not click over to Facebook and shower his timeline with good wishes, for three rather simple reasons:
First, I will not be held hostage to an ascendant social mood toward compulsory conformity; I will not give up my own (imperfect but free) thought and reason, whether it be to anonymous e-mailers who want me to prove my faith, or to an over-emotive era that demands that I prove my love. To the former I offer the words of Christ Jesus: “Go and learn the meaning of the words, ‘I desire mercy.’”
To the latter I offer a simple truth: Real love models God. God loves us unconditionally, and accepts all we are, but not all we do.
Secondly, I do not wish to surrender to the twin tyrannies of sentimentalism and relativism that overwhelm our society; within them resides neither justice nor truth. If I must not let my dislike of a woman lead me to unfairly accuse her of error (and I certainly mustn’t) then my affection for a man must not allow me to unfairly excuse his choices, either, no matter how much I might wish to. Matthew 19:12 informs my thinking, here, supported by my belief that Christ Jesus is all-Truth.
Thirdly, I did not offer my friend public felicitations because I do not wish to be misunderstood, or to further add to the diminution of the concept of agape—the God-rooted depth of friendship that we have undervalued and left under-explored. Our pop culture portrays every first kiss as leading to a sexual tumble, and our society has largely adopted that mindset and practice. To us, it seems inconceivable that any love goes unconsummated or unconditionally approved. This makes it difficult for us to believe, or even to imagine, that sometimes God has other plans for love.
In a recent interview Mother Dolores Hart, O.S.B.—a Benedictine nun who fifty years ago was a beautiful, successful actress engaged to a handsome young man—gave a hint as to the richness and depth to be found in agape. Drawn to her abbey, she broke off the engagement:
Oh, [Don Robinson] was so upset. But he said a very unexpected thing, which was, “You know all love relationships don’t end at the altar, and I will be faithful to you in this.” Well, I thought that was a head-trip . . . I didn’t see how in the world he could do that, but in effect, fifty years later, Don did stay with me.
Robinson never married, and before his death told reporters, “We have grown together, like we would have in our marriage . . . She is my life.”
By all accounts the depth and abiding faithfulness of love between this woman and this man was true agape; a true sharing of love of the heart, mind, and spirit, all entrusted to the will of God, whatever that might be.
Part of the Catholic Church’s charge on earth is to train us in agape; it is meant to provide the foundation and—through its richly reasoned theology and liturgical and spiritual disciplines—the means by which we continually advance and grow toward a depth of wholeness that says, “I love you as God loves you, which means enough to set you free, in the hope that we will find each other again in that freedom.”
This is a great mystery, because to the world, that freedom is always supposed to mean an unimpeded “yes” to everything we want. In the divine economy, though, “yes” is the thing we discover once we have batted away the highly-burnished, distortive, self-reflecting idols we have picked up from society or created on our own, so that we may stand before something greater than we can ever imagine.
Christ Jesus said, “Let your ‘yes’ mean ‘yes’ and your ‘no’ mean ‘no,’” and warned us not to dress either answer up with rationalizations, excuses or anything that takes them out of the provenance of God. Where we find “no” is never in God, but in ourselves, and how we receive his “yes.”
Elizabeth Scalia is the author of Strange Gods: Unmasking the Idols of Everyday Life and the managing editor of the Catholic Portal at Patheos.com, where she blogs as The Anchoress. Her previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.