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By Dr. Jeff Mirus, Catholic Culture, May 21, 2018
In today’s news story about a sex abuse victim’s understanding of the personal counsel of Pope Francis (Chilean abuse victim: Pope said I should be happy as a homosexual), we have Juan Carlos Cruz quoting the pontiff as saying: “God made you like that and he loves you like that and I do not care.” I do not intend to argue that this is what Pope Francis actually said, nor to clarify what Pope Francis must have meant if he said it. We cannot know either of these things.
But I do want to use this now-famous sound bite as a teaching moment. For by themselves, these assertions easily admit of a profoundly evil understanding, one all too common in our own time. Without context and interpretation, assertions like this can stifle the awareness of the need for conversion (such as we see repeatedly in the letters of St. Paul, for example). And so they can do great harm.
In his book Why I don’t Call Myself Gay, David Mattson reports that he could not find any sort of progress or peace until he recognized that his fundamental identity was that of a beloved son of God, not a bundle of desires. We already know that Pope Francis places great emphasis on God’s love as truly constitutive of who we are as persons. We can see as well that there is a way to interpret the quotation in the previous paragraph that is absolutely true and good. Consider the following understanding:
God loves you. He has loved you into existence. He knows that you are same-sex attracted, and He permits you to feel that attraction only because this particular suffering can help you to turn ever more to Him—to grow into an ever-greater bond of love with Him. We do not know all of the causes of same-sex attraction. But we do know that God permits us all to suffer and struggle in different ways because every form of suffering, with our own precious cooperation, can help us to turn to Him, to depend on Him, to confide our lives to Him. This is a response of our own sacrificial love to God’s sacrificial love.
In relying on Him, we will enable Him to increase His Presence in our lives, in our very selves. And so God loves us even in and through whatever is broken in us, whatever needs healing, whatever needs to be perfected through grace. In the name of God’s Church, I too love you in this way, for I have God’s sacramental life within me, and all who experience this life can love as God loves. I love you in your experience of your own crosses, just as I love God in my experience of my own crosses. For it is by accepting our crosses, and embracing again and again the will of God, that we grow into union with Him, and so into eternal life.
Now that is a long restatement of a central Catholic idea which is proper to the counseling of all sinners (that is to say every one of us). But in the form reported by Juan Carlos Cruz, it is subject to a series of potentially deadly misunderstandings—misunderstandings which any good Christian will take great pains to avoid. Here they are:
God made you like that: This is true of our genuine imperfections only if we are speaking of God’s permissive will. The Jews in the Old Testament frequently speak in this way, as in “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart.” But what this means is that, after the Fall, God permits all kinds of disorders to affect us, including fairly serious physical, intellectual, psychological, and affective disorders within our human nature, challenges to our integrity as persons that we experience more or less continually.
But this does not mean that the “way we are” is a license to sin. The person who has anger management issues does not thereby have a license to fly into a rage, though his affective disorder may mitigate his guilt. The person who suffers from what we call kleptomania does not have a license to steal, though his psychological disorder may also mitigate his guilt. In the same way, the person who experiences same-sex attraction does not have a license to engage in sexual activity with a person of the same sex, although once again the disorder may mitigate the degree of guilt involved in his or her falls from grace.
When we say “God made you like that”, we must not mean that God does not regard the disorders we suffer as disorders. This expression must not be taken to mean that God creates, intends, or blesses our rage, our theft, our sexual sins.
God loves you like that: This statement is true only if we are acknowledging what should be a challenging Christian understanding of love. God always loves us in His infinite desire that we might return that love, and so draw into union with Him. But sin frustrates that love, because it directly opposes Who God is. God’s will is that we become perfect as He is perfect, fulfilling our lives in the only way we can be fulfilled, in Him.
Sadly, insofar as we refuse God’s will, we choose evil. Evil is the absence of good, and choosing it is to choose nothing over something. It is to reject love. It is to prefer our own radically proud isolation; it is to prefer the absence of God. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem,” cried Our Lord, “How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!” (Mt 23:37; Lk 13:34)
When we say “God loves you like that”, we must not imply that God actually loves “that”, if “that” includes not just our suffering and our struggles but also our sins.
And I do not care: Clearly we ought not to love someone less because that person’s particular faults are less congenial to our own personalities than some other faults would be. It is a weakness of our nature to find it easier to love people who sin in ways we do not find “so bad”, but it isn’t part of the logic of Christ to succumb to this weakness. In this sense, when it comes to loving another person, a good Catholic does not care in the least what particular habitual sins characterize that person’s life.
We are all “poor sinners”, yet we are all loved by God so much that He sacrificed His only begotten Son to free us from bondage to sin. We are supposed to be astonished by this love, and to be startled into an unguarded movement of love in return. But there is no room for complacency. Too easily does the expression “I don’t care that you are tempted by this particular sin” become an expression which is entirely different: “I don’t care if you sin”. This is grotesque. This is the word of Lucifer, the so-called Angel of Light, pretending that he knows what it means to love.
Therefore, when we say, “and I do not care”, we must not mean “I do not care if you sin”. For when we truly love anyone, their sins must fill us with unspeakable sorrow. This is the sorrow of the agony in the Garden, the sorrow of “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” It is the sorrow we are supposed to feel more than any other sorrow—the sorrow which cuts us more deeply than anything else in this weak and weary world.
Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.