Thursday, April 7, 2011

Cohabitation versus conforming to Christ

In a clear contender for the Spinal Crosier Award of 2011, Archbishop Michael Sheehan of Santa Fe has issued a pastoral letter to his see, “Pastoral Care of Couples Who Are Cohabiting”.

In the letter, Abp. Sheehan forbids couples who are not married in the Church yet living together to receive the sacraments until their situations are regularized, as well as from acting as Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion and as godparents. Even more remarkably, he instructs pastors to “preach on the gravity of sin and its evil consequences, the 6th and 9th Commandments of God, and the sacramental nature and meaning of Christian marriage”, and insists that “Our catechetical programs in our parishes—children, youth, and adult—must clearly and repeatedly teach these truths.”

Of course, we’ve already gotten a whine from the Fishwrap. In a comment hysterically titled “Sheehan’s threats to cohabiting couples”, Heidi Schlumpf (I’m not making this up; I swear that’s her name) sneers, “It seems Sheehan has no real interest in persuading or teaching, but rather only punishing those who disagree with him. Oh, and making those who already agree with him happy for ‘laying down the law.’” Father John Zuhlsdorf rightfully diagnosed Schlumpf’s complaint: “Bishops who talk clearly and straight, even when they are right … are mean.  They are mean old mean meanies.”

But my purpose here is not to take her argument apart; I leave that to Fr. Z and LarryD of Acts of the Apostasy. Rather, I’d like to compare it with a post recently written by Melinda Selmys of Sexual Authenticity, “God Made Me This Way”.

Selmys is a wife and mother who at one time was a secularist lesbian; her story, as well as the basis of her writing ministry, is fully explained in her book Sexual Authenticity. (If you’d like to buy me a copy while you’re at it, it’s on my Amazon wish list under “Tony Layne”.)

“God made me this way” is a little bit different from “I was born this way”. Both hold that same-sex attraction is innate and irreformable; but where the “born this way” argument tries to exploit the current social perception that “natural = good”, the “God made me gay” argues the moral legitimacy of gay sex from the premise “God would not give a desire and then prohibit me from fulfilling it.”

Selmys responds, in effect, yes He would. The premise as stated “is untrue even when both the desire and the fulfillment of that desire are unquestionably morally licit.”

This is one of the central truths at the heart of the Passion. Christ kneels down in Gethsemane, and He asks God for permission to cling to life. The body does not wish to die, human life is a good thing, it is a gift unquestionably given by God, and Jesus, as a man, wants to hold on to it. He asks that the cup of suffering and death be removed—and then adds the most profound statement of Christian faith, “But not my will, but thine be done.”
God does not give permission. He sends His own only begotten Son out to die on the Cross. He says, “No,” and Christ assents to that no, and in assenting, in setting aside His legitimate desires, brings about the salvation of the world.
“If you don’t believe that God would ever demand profound suffering and privation of human beings,” Selmys argues, “you must become an atheist.” (But see my post on why God allows suffering.) In a world full of starvation, war, natural disasters and utter poverty, “the denial of the ability to enjoy sexual love doesn’t even make the grade on the list of grievous trials which human beings are called to endure.”

(From my own experience, I can tell you that privation of sex is nowhere near as bad as having to sell your blood plasma twice a week for food money. I have a scar on the inside of my left elbow; it reminds me that “God will not look you over for medals, degrees or diplomas, but for scars.”)

What Abp. Sheehan demands of cohabiting heterosexual couples is no less than what the Church demands of practicing homosexuals: conformance to the will of God. When he says, “First of all, we ourselves must be firmly rooted in the Gospel teaching that, when it comes to sexual union, there are only two lifestyles acceptable to Jesus Christ for His disciples: a single life of chastity, or the union of man and woman in the Sacrament of Matrimony,” this  isn’t his own opinion he’s giving; consult the Catechism of the Catholic Church on offenses against the dignity of marriage, as well as Canon 1085.

If we can say with any truth that Abp. Sheehan is “punishing” people, it’s not for the small-minded reason Schlumpf attributes to him. A person who receives Communion while in the state of mortal sin compounds it with another sin—sacrilege, especially those who act as EMHCs, as they directly handle the consecrated Hosts.

Moreover, the point of excommunication—which is what we’re talking about—is to prompt people to reform their lives and conform themselves to Christ. If people don’t want to be bothered to do things properly because they “know better than some old bachelor who’s never had sex”, that’s their problem … in the most literal sense possible.

Others may mockingly wonder, “Doesn’t he have more important things to do?” My answer is, no. The first job of a bishop, as successor of the apostles, is to preach the gospel message, to teach people to observe all that Jesus commanded (Mt 28:20).

People such as Schlumpf continually look for ways to rewrite the gospel message so they’re not inconvenienced. Fortunately, we also have people like Selmys who, recognizing the eternal Love behind the demanding rules, change their lives willingly, even if doing so causes some suffering. For our present suffering is as nothing compared with our future glory in Christ (Rom 8:18).


  1. One of my best receptions of the Sacrament of Reconciliation involved a five minute ass chewing by the priest (THAT is why screens were invented!). At the end he apologized for the lack of diplomacy. My response was, "Father I didn't come here for diplomacy." It actually felt refreshing to get called on the crap I'd been doing.

    Moral of the story: Butt chewings aren't a bad thing. THAT one kept me on the straight and narrow for some months!

  2. Wow, Subvet! I've had priests chew me out ... but that was at a Jesuit high school and for slacking off, not in the confessional! Was he a Navy chaplain or a civilian?

  3. It was at a church in downtown Dallas, right before a prolife vigil at Presbyterian Hospital of Dallas. I don't recall the name of the church but they had a Saturday morning Latin Mass prior to the vigil. The priest accompanied us to it and had a bullhorn for leading prayer. This all happened a little over a year ago during the Susan Komen "Race For The Cure".


Anyone can leave a comment. Keep it clean; keep it polite! (As a rule, I automatically delete comments that use non-Roman alphabets,i.e. Greek, Chinese, Cyrillic, etc.) WARNING: If you include more than one link in your comment, it's likely the comment will end up in my spam folder!