Friday, May 27, 2011

Where Have All the Firebrands Gone?

It's been a while since I've blogged -- mostly a result of internet malfunctions and a total lack of energy caused by late pregnancy. I'm due to give birth in two days, so any prayers that you can throw my way would be very much appreciated. As a note, I know that Gerard Majella is the saint most popularly invoked by mothers-to-be in the present age, but St. Margaret of Antioch is my personal favourite pregnancy saint. She got the gig because she is supposed to have been swallowed by a dragon, and to have burst forth from its stomach after making the sign of the cross while she was in prison preparing for her martyrdom. Seriously cool.
I've just been reading through all of the comments that have been left on various posts of late -- as I noted, my internet access has been really spotty over the past month, so this is the first time I've been able to actually look at my blog. The comment that caught my eye was the one in which there is an extensive quotation from St. Peter Damien on homosexuality. Needless to say, the quotation (written in the High Middle Ages) is not in the gentlest of all possible veins... So I thought that I would try to deal with the question of why it is that I would counsel a much less abrasive tone, when so many of the Saints of earlier ages wrote so much really scathing vitriol against the Vice of Sodom.
I think the first thing to note is that the Vatican itself has undergone a serious change of tone over the past hundred years or so. Older encyclicals almost read as nothing more than a series of condemnations: "Let him be anathema who holds that..." whereas obviously the modern encyclical is written in that highly polished, extremely charitable if slightly technical dialect that we all know and love as Vaticanese. Why the change?
One reason is that there is a difference of audience. The Church prior to Vatican II was writing primarily for an audience of Bishops. An encyclical letter was one that was circulated throughout the higher levels of the Church's hierarchy. They weren't read and commented on by a popular mass media, and they couldn't be easily downloaded on-line by any curious lay-person. The papal writers were basically giving orders about matters of doctrine to their subordinates, which meant that they could simply say "This bad, this good," and expect to be obeyed.
This leads us to the second, and wider, difference: the expectation of obedience. You can speak very differently, and it is appropriate to speak very differently, to a group of people who acknowledge themselves to be under your authority than you can to a group of people who feel that they have the right to independently evaluate and weigh your claims. General Patton was an extremely popular and effective speaker when he was addressing his troops -- and a spectacular public embarrassment when he was addressing anyone else. When St. Peter Damien wrote his book, he could assume that he was writing for an audience of people who already a) believed in God, b) acknowledged the authority of scripture, c) believed in the existence of sin, and d) respected the authority of the Church. A harsh dressing down from a respected authority figure can sometimes be enough to change someone's heart; a harsh dressing down from someone who has no authority in the eyes of the audience will only provoke hardness of heart.
Thirdly, I think it's worth noting that the standards of etiquette in public discourse have changed. This is an important consideration, because I think we have to understand that cultural context changes how much a person is likely to be hurt by things that are said to them. For example, the average person living in this culture will not care at all if you throw around the most vulgar and indecent terms in their presence. The "F" word is not even a bad word in a lot of contexts (in Canada it's a form of verbal punctuation...). People call each other "mofo" as a term of endearment. These words, which would have been sufficient cause for people to start talking about shooting each other in a gentlemanly manner in order to obtain satisfaction several centuries ago, mean nothing. People are totally desensitized to them, and you have to get really, really obscene and filthy before you'll hurt someone's feelings with a swear word. On the other hand, people are extremely over-sensitized to language that seems "judgmental" or "intolerant." Obviously, in the eleventh century the situation was very different. People were used to have anathemas fulminated at them, they were accustomed to vitriol being poured out on their heads by clerical firebrands, and they had a taste for the sort of spiritual highs and lows that get produced by hellfire preaching. Instead of being a scandal, this sort of over-the-top writing about the filthiness of sin was expected -- and it was popular. People liked grisly momento mori, they liked paintings of the Last Judgment, and they liked graphic descriptions of the ruin which sin wreaks on souls. The Saints of the time could offer fraternal correction in as high-handed and fiery a manner as they wanted, and that was perfectly culturally appropriate.
It's not appropriate now. Yes, the truth has to be told, but it has to be told in charity -- and that charity has to correspond to the actual needs and condition of the human heart that is being addressed, not to an abstract "love" which considers all presentations of truth to be "charitable" because the truth is always good for the human person. The truth is always good for the human person, but it can only reach the heart of the person if it is spoken to them in a way that demonstrates understanding and compassion for their situation. And when it comes to homosexuality, that situation has changed a lot since St. Peter Damien was alive.