“Go, and sin no more…”
A call for renewal of the Catholic Church in response to the recent statements on homosexual relationships by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
There is a peculiar story in the Gospels about a possessed man who beats himself with stones (Mark 5:1-20). The way he treats himself turns out to be, among other things, an imitation of the way his fellow townsmen treat him. He lives in the tombs. It is clear that he is dead to his community. When your community condemns you and deems you worthless, it is very likely that you will no longer respect yourself either.
The flip side of the man’s lack of self-love consists of multiple personalities taking hold of him. They are born out of a desperate search for appreciation. However, nothing works. None of the identities seem to appeal to others. An anxious desire for social recognition thus achieves the opposite of what it sets out to do: those who are captivated by it do not “win the world,” but rather become more and more isolated (Mark 8:35-36).
The Gospel relates that the possessed man finds himself in this state of self-denial until he meets Jesus. Jesus frees the man from a herd mentality that determines what is (not) valuable. Jesus offers him the confidence, in defiance of that mentality, to value himself again. The love embodied by Jesus enables the man to love himself.
Jesus also gives the key to unleashing that love in all kinds of situations (Mark 12:30-31): “Love God and your neighbor as yourself.” As a Jew, Jesus knows that the first part of that double commandment actually implies a radical prohibition. “Love God,” the first and most important of the ten commandments, means as much as “do not deify anything” (Exodus 20:4-5a) or, in non-religious language, “do not absolutize anything.”
At first glance, human identity is determined by an interplay between biological and cultural factors – in short, by nature and nurture. Jesus, however, asserts that we are not entirely dependent on biological impulses and cultural norms. In his view, we are also “children of God.” By this he means: children of a love that is not bound by transient natural or cultural criteria.
Understanding human identity in that way truly has emancipatory implications. For instance, the well-known Dutch brain researcher Dick Swaab points to a biological predisposition for pedophilia, but that does not mean that pedo-sexual acts should be permissible, even if some cultural contexts allow them. The encounter with the other always also is an encounter with a reality that is different from what appears from the perspective of one’s own inclination or cultural imagination. In that sense, the other calls for a love that frees people from what they “must” do according to bodily impulses and from what they “may” do according to social norms.
To love the other is to love a reality beyond natural needs or culturally determined desires. Paradoxically, people who surrender themselves to that love become free and thus find themselves. A pedophile priest who goes against his inclination to approach children sexually is no longer subject to destructive affective dynamics in which he also loses himself. The same applies to an alcoholic who allows himself to be treated out of care for his loved ones, despite, perhaps, a culture of tolerance regarding alcohol consumption in his work environment. Moreover, a society must protect the most vulnerable from harming themselves. That responsibility goes from compulsory admissions to regulations on sexuality. After all, even if a child allegedly consents to sexual acts by an adult, that consent is more than likely related to manipulations on the part of the adult. Legislation on euthanasia concerning minors should also be subject to great caution for similar reasons.
In short, love for the other as other undermines the absolutization of any bodily inclination or culturally and historically determined norm. The one who loves also discovers himself as “different from (or ‘other than’) the total sum of genetics and education.” What truly animates a human being transcends what is visible and measurable. The Judeo-Christian tradition calls this transcendence “God.”
In the Gospels, Jesus continually makes room for that liberating transcendence and the greater sense of reality that comes with it. This is evident, among other things, in the well-known story of his encounter with an adulterous woman (John 8:1-11). An enraged crowd asks Jesus if that woman should be stoned to death – as she should according to time-honored laws and customs. Jesus replies, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” That is a brilliant reply. Jesus does not simply sacrifice the existing order to set his own laws, like many power-hungry people before and after him. On the contrary, he reorients the existing rules toward a dynamic of love that wants “authentic life” instead of victims.
Whoever throws a stone after those words of Jesus would implicitly claim of himself to be perfect. That person would thus deify himself, and that is a violation of the most important commandment in the Jewish tradition. Jesus reminds the bystanders “to love God,” which means “to stop deifying” themselves and their cultural identity. In the end, none of the bystanders condemns the woman. A more realistic view of one’s own weaknesses and shortcomings, and the accompanying greater self-love, apparently lead to giving others breathing room. If you do not deify yourself, you can indeed “love your neighbor as yourself.”
At the end, Jesus says to the woman, “Neither do I condemn you. Go now and leave your life of sin.” The question is what exactly is meant by “sin” in this context. The story of the possessed man who stones himself leaves no doubt in that regard. Because that man imitates the negative view of those around him, he is unable to love himself. As a result, he is no blessing to others either. So the “sin” in this case is the absolutization of social norms and the lack of self-love and love for others that result from it. Jesus frees the man from that type of evil and gives him the confidence to love himself again.
In the case of the adulterous woman, Jesus first of all frees the bystanders from their sin. Their “sin” really is an absolutization of their patriarchal cultural norms. As Jesus liberates the bystanders from their old ways, a woman who has been given in marriage receives more freedom as well. It is very well possible that her own husband treats her badly, while the other man treats her with respect. “Living in sin” would then mean: re-submitting yourself to the cultural norms your spouse uses to exert power over you. “To sin no more,” by contrast, would mean: to seek the presence of the beloved one who does respect you, and to become a blessing for others as a consequence of a regained self-respect. The adulteress no longer has to condemn herself, especially since Jesus has also converted those around her to the love that does not condemn her. In short, “go now, and sin no more…” means, in this context, “Just go for the situation in which you can respect yourself.”
If the Roman Catholic Church wants to imitate Jesus as he is known from the Gospels, it must be careful not to deify itself. It must not absolutize its own teaching. The Church and its historically developed laws are not themselves God. Nor is the Bible itself God. Church and Bible are, at their best, paths to the liberating love that is embodied by Jesus. Because of that embodiment, he is called the Christ. That is also why his followers speak of themselves as “Christians” (and not, for example, as “Biblians”).
The recent statements of the Catholic Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith regarding homosexual relationships as so-called “sinful,” again raise the question where exactly the “sin” is located. “Loving God” according to the double commandment is also done “with all your mind.” Therefore, when the Congregation appeals to the Bible, it must do so in a contextual way, if not historical-critical. Contextual readings of the Bible, by the way, belong to the tradition of the Church itself. As it turns out, the Bible condemns homosexual relationships for the same reason that it condemns heterosexual relationships: it always concerns sexual relationships that are said to threaten human integrity. Rape within (arranged) marriages is an example thereof. In that case, a divorce is appropriate, perhaps even more so if it goes against a patriarchal culture that sustains violent dynamics in marriages.
A culturally determined moral view that condemns homosexual relationships as sinful (such as the one recently expressed by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) is also a breeding ground for discrimination and violence – even of self-directed violence. In this case, “sin” is thus situated at the level of the view that condemns homosexual relationships. That view goes against a dynamic of love that wants people to be fully alive. It leads to “death” – oppression of oneself and others. See 1 John 3:14: “Anyone who does not love remains in death,” like the possessed man who lives in the tombs (see higher). In short, it is a sin to call homosexual relationships sinful.
An ethic that prompts people to “stone” themselves and prevents them from respecting themselves, must be severely criticized. Especially if a community wants to remain faithful to its calling to imitate the love embodied by Christ. In the Bible, nothing is called God except that love (1 John 4:8). It is so radical that it is the measure of every culturally and historically determined standard for shaping human relationships. It claims that “rules are made for man and not vice versa” (Mark 2:27). Thus, although love must concretize itself through rules and norms, it is not itself bound by those rules. In that sense, it considers relative every transitory cultural arrangement.
Hence, according to Jesus, in the imperishable life-giving dimension of love “people neither marry nor are given in marriage” (Mark 12:25). In the same vein, Paul points to the relativity of the customs by which one community demarcates itself from another. Love, embodied by Christ, makes all humans one people and breaks down cultural boundaries (Galatians 5:6), “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” In Christ, Paul sees a love at work that recalibrates the whole of creation and which challenges all social boundaries that arise from power games – both within and between communities (Colossians 3:10-11): “Put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.”