Jesus, Nuns, and the Margins of Society

I recently commented on the foolishness of reading misogyny into the Vatican criticism of Margaret Farley’s defense of homosexuality, masturbation, and divorce. The Vatican having age-old positions on these questions, Farley’s sex would have no bearing on their judgment. It is a smokescreen–intended or not–to try to throw sexism into an issue that has been decided for centuries just because the present dissenters happen to be women.

In the article I linked to, the writer referenced critics but made little attempt to name them. Since posting, critics have been coming out of the proverbial woodwork to defend Farley and other nuns against Vatican censure. One prominent monastic, Sister Simone Campbell of the lobbying group NETWORK, went on to Stephen Colbert’s show last night in order to say her piece with Colbert as her farcical foil. During the course of their discussion, Colbert asked her to admit that she wasn’t socially conservative enough. She responded:

Actually, what I’ll admit is that we’re faithful to the Gospel. We work every day to live as Jesus did in relationship with people at the margins of our society. That’s all we do.

Colbert retorted, tongue firmly in cheek, that it was unfair to play the Jesus card and that he couldn’t debate the Bible with a nun. Luckily I have no such compunctions. What Sister Campbell claims to be doing is the Gospel. There really can be no argument about that. Jesus did live his daily life among the socially marginal, forming relationships and working for their benefit. Unfortunately, her contention that this is “all we do” is misleading. The Vatican is not complaining that the nuns are ministering to or forming relationships with homosexuals, divorcees, and other arguably marginal groups. The problem is that they are endorsing morally marginal behaviors.

It is necessary to remember Jesus’ stated motivation for being among sinners: it’s the sick who need a doctor. Jesus solution to morally marginal behavior was not to expand what was morally permissible but to rehabilitate sinners (a grace of which we are all recipients). When Christ steps in to defend the woman caught in adultery, apocryphal though the story may be, he does tell her “neither do I condemn you” but he concludes with the admonition “go and sin no more.” It is critical in this discussion to realize that keeping the commands of love and forgiveness do not translate into a fluid morality.

That’s the fundamental problem when people–take Carrie Underwood for example–try to say that their Christianity made them endorse homosexuality. It is possible, because people have done it, to make a number of reasoned (though I think fatally flawed) arguments that homosexuality is consistent with the Scriptures and the broader Christian ethos, though obviously not with the traditional testimony of the church universal. Stating matter-of-factly, however, that God wants everyone to love everyone ergo gay marriage is moral misunderstands love just as much as Sister Campbell misunderstands relationship. The question of whether or not gay marriage is morally permissible is distinct from whether or not we should love homosexuals or establish relationships with them.

I, of course, have opinions on both issues which coincide neither with Sister Campbell nor Stephen Colbert’s caricatured conservative. But those aren’t really the point. The point is that the unthinking appeal to Jesus and the Gospel like a political slogan by both sides is shameful and, more importantly, unproductive. Jesus does not belong to a modern political party–just like he didn’t belong to an ancient political faction–and the suggestion that Christianity endorses political positions is repugnant. At the very least, however, we should realize that God does not recognize the lines that we draw. Social liberals and social conservatives need to realize that they can both be Christians–flawed, finite, wrong more often than they’re not Christians. When the Vatican says to its ecclesiastical subordinates, “You’re not teaching what we believe” that is not sexism and it is not infidelity to the Gospel. It is a statement of fact. Meanwhile, when Sister Campbell says “We’re faithful to the Gospel…that’s all we do” it has all the grandiosity characteristic of self-delusion and unintentional falsehood.

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