Here are some thoughts on how to approach the “gay marriage” debate from my Christianity and Mass Media class. That debate can often look like us shouting “No!” and them shouting “Yes!” The Church has a better way.
Since Sunday was Feb 14, which is not only Valentine’s Day but also the feasts of Sts. Cyril and Methodius, my class last week read Pope John Paul II’s encyclical “Apostles to the Slavs.”
The lessons in that document can help us approach the “Slavs” of our day — those strangers with strange words and strange ways — who we want to reach with the message of the Gospel.
1.Leave your comfort zone.
When our heroes, Cyril and Methodius, were told to go and Christianize the Slavs, they had to leave their monastery on Mount Olympus.“For them, this task meant giving up not only a position of honor but also the contemplative life,” says Pope John Paul II. Catholics can be very comfortable on our own mountaintops.
We don’t want to deal with “those people” who are same-sex attracted. We find the subject icky, we find the sexual behavior repulsive and, truth be told, we often feel that they are a class of people we can simply write off.
Of course, to write off a class of people is to reject love and invite your own failure. Christ didn’t turn up his nose in disgust at us; nor should we at others.
Homosexual activists left their comfort zone in Massachusetts, put their stories out in the media and drummed up support.
The very fact that you see so many homosexual activists in the com-boxes of the National Catholic Register is a sign of the robustness of their cause. They are not afraid to get in among us, listen to our arguments and telling us what they think.
Are we reading them and telling them what we think?
They have an evangelical fervor. Do we?
2. Speak to them in their own language.
The Slavs complained that many preachers had come to them and insisted on speaking Greek. They didn’t know Greek. Cyril and Methodius came and not only learned their language, they learned it better than the Slavs, creating an alphabet for it.
In class, we compared an image of a Brokeback Mountain movie poster on the one hand to, on the other, a sign board outside a Catholic Church that proclaimed that “procreation is the meaning of marriage” and that “homosexuality is an abomination.”
Yes, that’s a bit unfair, but it made the point. In the first case you have something like Christ’s approach (with alarmingly different content, of course): A parable which is visually beautiful and arresting (the Wyoming mountains, I mean!). In the second case you have … words that the culture has forgotten the meanings of.
We Catholics have a high moral language that teaches important truths with clarity and depth. But the culture doesn’t speak that language. Is their language inferior? Yes. So was Slavonic to Greek.
So we need to find ways to teach those truths in a language they can actually understand. That, of course, would be their language — a language that after all does value beauty, truth and goodness, in the right doses and with the right explanation.
I suggested one way to speak the culture’s language was to find the stories (as people like Dawn Stefanowicz are already doing) of people who have overcome the dark side of the “gay scene,” who saw the superficiality and emptiness of “about half” of gay marriages (according to a San Francisco State study reported in the New York Times), and tell their stories of hope.
3. Embrace others’ lives totally.
“For this purpose they desired to become similar in every aspect to those to whom they were bringing the Gospel;” says the Pope about Cyril and Methodius. “They wished to become part of those peoples and to share their lot in everything.”
So Cyril and Methodius lived among and loved the Slavs.
How willing are we to live among and love those with same-sex attraction?
This point brought the most lively discussion from my students. They seemed to know right away that what I suggested was true: In our day, groups of people who are pro-homosexual “marriage” tend to be much more likely to be warm, welcoming and accepting of others than groups of Christian or Catholic believers. (Yes, I know there are significant exceptions; but the fact remains that in one group people feel accepted and in the other they feel judged.)
The Catholic group Courage is doing this already. Same-sex attracted people appreciate that the group isn’t like many Christian groups that stress the “ex-gay” aspects of their outreach. Courage accepts them for who they are, and helps them grow closer to Christ through chastity and other virtues without demanding they change their attitudes.
We need to learn to accept same-sex attracted people unconditionally, not disdain them until they become someone worthy of our caring.
Mother Teresa is an excellent example of this. Her approach was to live among the people she wanted to reach. She did that with her “Gift of Love” AIDS home in San Francisco. She didn’t judge the people there, she just served them, and that brought them to the faith.
4. Understand in order to be understood.
“In order to translate the truths of the Gospel into a new language,” said John Paul of Cyril and Methodius, “they had to make an effort to gain a good grasp of the interior world of those to whom they intended to proclaim the word of God in images and concepts that would sound familiar to them.”
While we’re speaking their language, we also need to understand their arguments.
The more we get where they’re coming from, the more they’ll be willing to get where we’re coming from.
The most successful evangelizing efforts always understand the other first. G.K. Chesterton made the point that St. Thomas Aquinas repeated others’ arguments better than they could formulate them. And Chesterton himself was very fair and understanding in debate.
The pro-choice movement forgot about this: They haven’t touched pro-lifers’ real arguments for years, preferring to caricature us as “anti-choice fanatics.” The pro-life movement exemplified this: We’ve been talking about real women’s real problems for a long time. That’s why we’re winning.
Now it’s time to understand the homosexual “marriage” proponents and talk to them instead of past them.
5. Meticulous fidelity to the Church.
Cyril and Methodius “did not hesitate to answer with docility the invitations to come to Rome …”
Catholics have no guarantee of our rightness or wrongness on anything. The Church, however, does. So we need to go to the sources of Catholic doctrine and follow them to a T.
Many of us have done a great job of assenting to the part of Church doctrine about the “grave depravity” of homosexual acts and the “under no circumstances can they be approved” admonition.
But if we are faithful to that alone, we are not being faithful to the Church. The Catechism goes on:
“The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.”
We can learn from Pope John Paul II himself who visited AIDS patients in San Francisco in 1987. While outside, demonstrators shouted “pope go home” and “shame, shame, shame,” inside, the Holy Father said, “God loves you all, without distinction, without limit.”
Do we agree with the Pope? If so, what’s holding us back from acting like that’s true?
6. Create new methods for your task.
“They realized that an essential condition of the success of their missionary activity was to transpose correctly Biblical notions and Greek theological concepts into a very different context of thought and historical experience,” said Pope John Paul II of our heroes. “It was a question of a new method of catechesis.”
A new method of catechesis. Again, the pro-homosexual marriage crowd is way ahead of us on this front. They have made sure characters in major movies are pro-homosexual marriage. They have preached their message with humor in sit-coms.
But we can’t do that, you say, because Hollywood is too powerful and the industry is on the other guys’ side?
Here is a question from my class’s Quick Quiz on the Cyril and Methodius reading last week:
“True or false: The saints we read about felt that they were the helpless victims of powerful opponents.”
I explained that the day’s lesson was addressing the following goal stated in our syllabus: “Know what the ‘victim mentality’ is vs. the ‘missionary’ mentality in an environment that could be hostile to one’s goals.”
The missionary mentality has been a lot more successful, historically, than the victim mentality. And we Catholics own it.
ADDENDUM: An e-mailer sent this excellent video that makes the point well: