The President’s disclosure that he now accepts so-called “Gay marriage” has received a good bit of political analysis. I am no political prognosticator and this is not a political blog. But when the President invokes Christ and the “golden rule,” to justify his decision, now I think we have something to discuss on a blog like this.

We have discussed at great length the problem with homosexual “marriage” beforHERE HERE HERE, and HERE) there is no reason restate it all again. Just click through to read those sorts of articles. Further I make reference in this post to Scripture’s consistent teaching forbidding Homosexual acts. I do not set forth all the Scriptures here but you can read what I have set forth more fully here: Biblical Teaching on Homosexual Activity

In this post however lets consider the problematic appeal of the President to Jesus to affirm Gay “marriage.” Specifically Mr Obama said to ABC News:

…In the end the values that I care most deeply about and she [Michele] cares most deeply about is how we treat other people and, you know, I, you know, we are both practicing Christians and obviously this position may be considered to put us at odds with the views of others but, you know, when we think about our faith, the thing at root that we think about is, not only Christ sacrificing himself on our behalf, but it’s also the Golden Rule, you know, treat others the way you would want to be treated. And I think that’s what we try to impart to our kids and that’s what motivates me….[1]

It is a common problem today that people often present simplistic portraits of Jesus Christ to support a variety of agendas. And the portraits of Jesus are not only simplistic, they are incomplete (usually intentionally so), and fail to accept that Jesus cannot be reduced to a simple sentence or two.

I would argue this is what the President is doing here. As if to say, “Jesus, was basically a nice and affirming person, who spoke of Love,  and so beautifully and taught us to do unto to others as we would have them do to us. “Surely,” the thinking goes, “this Jesus would affirm and rejoice over two Gay people getting “married.”” It is as if this were all Jesus was or said, “Love…Do unto others”. Never mind that he had some pretty high standards when it came to sexuality (Matt 5:27-30; Matt 15:19; Mk 10:11; Rev 22:15; Rev 21:8) Never mind that he told his apostles he had other things to teach them and would send his Holy Spirit, and never mind that His Holy Spirit inspired the Epistles writers like Paul to speak clearly in the ancient Biblical tradition about the sinfulness of homosexual activity, fornication, and adultery [2]  “Never mind all that,” says the modern world, and our President, “I chose the Jesus who said only, ‘God is love, and be kind to one another.'”

And this is the textbook definition of heresy, to pick or choose. The English word derives from the Greek word hairesis, meaning to chose.

The essence of orthodoxy is in the balance [3, 4] and maintaining the tensions inherent in Jesus and the Christian message.  The essence of heresy is to pick and choose. And, as author Ross Douthat has ably demonstrated in his book Bad Religion – How we became a nation of heretics, there is a lot of heresy being peddled today. Heresy picks one, or perhaps several teachings, and emphasizes them in exclusion to other teachings which balance and complete them. And to be fair, as Douthat points out, heresy is not just a problem on the left side of the political or theological aisle. The right does it as well (e.g. prosperity gospel, easy justification for war etc).

The modern tendency on the left, from which the President speaks has been to reduce Jesus to a rather harmless hippie who went about talking about love and inclusion and healed people. Gone from this harmless and politically correct  Jesus are volumes of verses that help complete the picture: a Messiah who claimed authority in our lives, who spoke quite clearly of sin, yes even sexual sin, and who warned repeatedly of the coming judgment, and the reality not only heaven, but of hell.

But Jesus is not either of these descriptions alone, he is both. Orthodoxy is in the balance, not choosing one or the other or tipping in one direction.

In a masterful description, Ross Douthot shows the paradoxes and the necessary balances about Jesus and the faith with which true orthodoxy must wrestle and hold in tension:

Christianity is a paradoxical religion because the Jew of Nazareth is a paradoxical character. No figure in history or fiction contains as many multitudes as the New Testament’s Jesus. He’s a celibate ascetic who enjoys dining with publicans and changing water into wine at weddings. He’s an apocalyptic prophet one moment, a wise ethicist the next. He’s a fierce critic of Jewish religious law who insists that he’s actually fulfilling rather than subverting it. He preaches a reversal of every social hierarchy while deliberately avoiding explicitly political claims. He promises to set parents against children and then disallows divorce; he consorts with prostitutes while denouncing even lustful thoughts. He makes wild claims about his own relationship to God, and perhaps his own divinity, without displaying any of the usual signs of megalomania or madness. He can be egalitarian and hierarchical, gentle and impatient, extraordinarily charitable and extraordinarily judgmental. He sets impossible standards and then forgives the worst of sinners. He blesses the peacemakers and then promises that he’s brought not peace but the sword. He’s superhuman one moment; the next he’s weeping. And of course the accounts of his resurrection only heighten these paradoxes, by introducing a post-crucifixion Jesus who is somehow neither a resuscitated body nor a flitting ghost but something even stranger still—a being at once fleshly and supernatural, recognizable and transfigured, bearing the wounds of the crucifixion even as he passes easily through walls. (Kindle Edition Loc. 3005-16)

Douthat goes on to conclude:

The boast of Christian orthodoxy, as codified by the councils of the early Church and expounded in the Creeds, has always been its fidelity to the whole of Jesus…..[Where heresy says which one] Both, says orthodoxy….The goal of the great heresies, on the other hand, has often been to extract from the tensions of the gospel narratives a more consistent, streamlined, and noncontradictory Jesus. (Ibid).

Indeed a remarkable passage, even if I might quibble with a few words (e.g. the standards of Jesus moral vision are not “impossible” with grace). I would highly recommend the book and will be commenting on it some more in days ahead.

Disclaimer! – In saying the President is exemplifying heresy (i.e. pick and chose Christianity), I am alleging material heresy,  but I am not call him a heretic. It is not my role or in my competency to to declare someone a formal heretic.

But the President is clearly proclaiming a very partial and thus reconstructed Christ. The real Christ is, as Douthat ably notes, far more complicated and far less vague than the President would have us think. And there is far more to his teaching than the “Golden Rule.”

Another form of heresy common today is to pick and chose Scripture. The usual approach, especially in terms of homosexuality and sexual matters in general, is to reduce the entire New Testament to the verbal utterances of Jesus alone, a kind of “red letter” reductionism. This of course, denies the inspiration of the entire New Testament and, in effect, says that Acts, all the Epistles, and Revelation are not the Word of God, are not inspired, and may safely be ignored.

But this is heresy since we cannot pick and choose the books of the Bible, we cannot tear out pages, or cross out lines. Orthodoxy is to accept the whole of the Sacred Text, and to consider its claims with reference to the whole of Scripture and in keeping with its trajectory. For a Catholic, of course this is done in union with the Magisterium and Sacred Tradition.

Many supporters of homosexual behavior adopt this heresy by saying, “Jesus never said a word about or against Homosexuality.” True, but he also never said a word about a lot of things: drinking to excess, beating one’s wife, he never forbade ethnic humor, or said people should wear clothes, He never declared how big and how much money should be spent on the military etc, whether Government should provide welfare etc. Since Jesus did not say out of his own mouth we cannot beat our wives then it must be okay to beat them? Of course not. An argument from silence is very poor and unhelpful.

Further it is heresy to say divine revelation closed with the ascension of Jesus. Rather it continues unto the death of the last apostle. The Epistles are every bit the Word of the Lord, and authored by the Same Holy Spirit as are the Gospels. We cannot pick and choose what we like.

To be clear, the reading of Scripture is not a purely mechanistic endeavor. For example, merely pulling proof texts out of thin air, and out of context is wrong, for that too is often heresy – picking one thing, forgetting the rest.

Rather, Scripture is to be read in a way which respects the overall trajectory of the Scriptures as God leads his people through stages to Christ. Therefore certain things are operative early in Scripture (e.g. certain feasts, dietary laws and punitive measures) that later fall away or are fulfilled. Thus Passover is fulfilled and subsumed into the Eucharist, Jesus cancels dietary laws by declaring all foods clean, the application of stoning and other severe punishments are curtailed etc. But all these organic developments take place in Scripture itself, and can be observed there.

However, there ARE teachings (notably the Divine Moral Law) that remain unchanged and are continuously articulated at every stage of Biblical revelation. They do not undergo change or fall away.

Regarding sexuality, at no stage in the Old Testament all the way through to the end of the New Testament, is fornication or adultery affirmed. The same is true for homosexual acts. At no stage, anywhere in Sacred Scripture are homosexual acts or fornication, or adultery ever affirmed, nor are these acts described as anything but sinful (e.g. Leviticus 18: 22; Lev 20:13; Gen 19; 1 Corinthians 6-9; 1 Tim 1:8-11; Rom 1:19ff, inter al).

Thus orthodoxy, which holds to the whole and does not pick and choose Scripture, must in every way accept and announce that these are sinful acts, sinful enough to exclude one from the Kingdom if they are not repented of (e.g. 1 Cor 6:9).

Simply ushering in a “Jesus is love” argument cannot override texts like these. For the same Scripture which says, God is love, also contains these teachings forbidding extra-marital sex and a host of other moral teachings. The Biblical record sees no essential conflict in saying both “God is love” and “Fornication, Adultery, and Homosexual acts are sinfully wrong.” Thus neither should we have a problem. Orthodoxy says “both.”  Heresy says, “there is tension here and I am going to resolve it by picking the concept I like and excluding the other.”

The orthodox approach accepts the tension and sees a Christ who loves sinners (us) and holds them close, but who also summons us to repentance and a life that is increasingly free from sin and conformed to the truth by his grace .

I don’t know how the President will fare politically, but he has flunked theology and is, if you ask me (and even if you don’t) refashioned Jesus for his own purpose.

As for comments, I would rather not debate the whole Gay Marriage issue and/or the sinfulness of homosexuality. We’ve done that here before and the Church teaching is clear and is not going to change. I am most interested in comments that zero in on the problem of heresy – pick and choose Christianity and how it relates not only to this issue but others as well. But you decide.

144 Responses

  1. Gregory says:

    Interesting. I would never have assumed that you’d view Protestant marriages as being “sacramental.” As far as I know, most (if not all) Protestant sects don’t view marriage as a sacrament themselves, so it certainly is interesting to learn that the Roman Catholic Church would regard them as such. But it does mesh with something that I heard once before, namely that converts from other Christian churches would not necessarily have to “re-marry” in the Church. From your answer, it’s not clear to me whether or not, two (former) atheists would (if they had previously been baptized) have to have a Catholic marriage ceremony to have their union blessed by the Church. I never would have guessed that, in such a scenario, their “justice of the peace” marriage would be good enough, but if I read your response correctly, it may well be.

    • Judith says:

      I think I have the correct information, but I’m (obvs) not the last word:

      Catholics do view the marriage of two baptized Christians as a sacramental marriage, as long as other criteria are met, e.g., the two entered the marriage with the intention to contract a valid, lifelong marriage.

      (here’s a link to a quick & easy explanation:

      For two “former” atheists, if they were/are baptized Christians, their marriage is a sacramental union as well. (They could be current atheists – perhaps were baptized but do not practice nor profess any faith.)
      See this link, 3rd paragraph under the subhead “Catholic marriage requires sacramental Matrimony)

      The “justice of the peace” is neither here nor there. Strictly speaking, the man and the woman confer the sacrament upon each other when they exchange vows.

  2. Peter Wolczuk says:

    The president is taking a lot of chances in an election year but, just think of the incredible, broad and comprehensive mandate that he (and his associates) can cite if they pull it off by getting him a second term. I think that satan must be glutted with joy over the attention that is being given to so many sick attitudes at this time.
    Has anyone noticed that, although President Obama is daring enough to be in favour of so many controversial things, there doesn’t seem to be any risks on the part of himself (or his associates) on speaking against anything. Am I missing some committment or, is the Obama election team steering clear of being caught in a controversy of opposing anything?
    I wonder what he, or his front people, would have to say if it was pointed out that; while there is an endorsement of so many things; is the silence a sign that anything goes and has his backing. Probably best to first do a good search of the news to see if he has clearly spoken against anything significant. Perhaps even set the stage so that, if someone in his camp says anything harmful to his campaign and takes the fall for it, that it looks like they meant to do that to keep Obama out of it. All the controversy about religious and spiritual type issues needs a firm handle at the helm of the United States. A firm hand that doesn’t dodge making the occasional unpopular decision.
    Upon proofreading I’m sure glad that I didn’t just submit at the end of my first paragraph as I almost did but, instead, prayed for guidance. After I began putting in the rest that came to me I sure became fumble fingered and had a bit of a struggle to get that stuff through the keyboard. Things that make one go, “hmm”???

  3. […] The Problem of Selective Christianity Msgr. Charles Pope, Archdiocese of Washington Blog […]

  4. bill bannon says:

    We’re kidding ourselves. Many are doing this selective Bible citing.
    Much trouble lay ahead as leader figures within Christianity do this and receive no healthy retort by any prominent near peers.

  5. Lisa Moeller says:

    so, my story is this….i lived as a gay woman my entire adult life. i was also addicted to drugs my entire adult life. i was sexually abused as a child and that was predominantly the reason. in june of 2010, i was healed of the abuse, delivered from drugs, and my identity restored by the power of Jesus Christ. the most humbling part is that i did not reach out to Him, rather He interrupted the downward spiral i was in, and completely changed from that moment on. i was completely homosexual and was instantly heterosexual, with absolutely no effort on my part. this debunkts the whole “born this way” theory, and i plan to release all that i have learned from Him in a book i am writing entitled, “You weren’t meant to carry that” which will bring to light the truth that God has placed in my heart, which i know will lead to criticism, resentment, and persecution. but for those with eyes to see, ears to hear, and hearts that are open, it may also lead to restoration. i invite anyone who is interested in my story to friend me, and you can see photos and testimonies of God’s grace.

  6. Michael says:

    Msgr. Pope,
    I have also heard that argument that because Jesus never condemed homosexuality that it must not be a sin. However, the probable reason it was not mentioned in the Gospels is that there was no need for Jesus to mention homosexual behavior since he lived in a culture where homosexuality was universally condemed. Why lecture on a subject when everyone listening to you already agrees with what you plan to say ? I have no strong opinion one way or another, mainly because there are much more serious sins that have been routinely ignored or actively supported by leaders of the various Christian churches. The most obvious one is war. It is inconceivable that the hierarchy of any Christian denomination would ever oppose the leaders of their own country when they wage war and murder the citizens of another nation. Indeed, the most evil of sexual sins occur during war. Last week was the anniversary of the end of World War 2. It is well documented that the Red Army killed millions and raped millions of women in the Soviet conquest of Germany and Eastern Europe. There were up to 2 million abortions recorded, women who were victims of the Red Army. Now, I am not suprised at the behaviour of the Red Army. The were mostly atheists and the government and military of the Soviet Union was entirely atheist. However, there are 2 sides to every war . It is also well documented that the Axis governments and miltaries of Germany, Italy, Hungary and Romania killed 30 million and also raped millions of women. The soldiers of those countries and their armies were mainly Protestant or Catholic. The Protestant churches of Germany either supported Hitler or were silent. The Vatican never excommunicated or even denied communion to Catholic soldiers who committed these evils. Our own country invaded and waged war in Iraq. The result of that war is 100,000 dead Iraqis, 2 million refugees ( including 500,000 Christian refugees, HALF the Christian population of Iraq ). I doubt that you will ever see any eclesiastical sanctions on any Catholic politician who supported that war. Nor would any other Christian denomination do so. Gay marriage ? The world has had much more serious issues to confront in previous 100 years.

  7. Bill says:

    Dear Msgr Pope:

    I thank you for a clear and lucid explication of Catholic teaching. The sad fact we need it today shows how sick our society has become. I see the word “toxic” used to describe a society in which the President of the United States can say his little girls have inspired him to support gay marriage. I totally agree with that.

    But there is deeper problem here. In our toxic society, there is an epidemic of singleness that afflicts faithful practicing Catholics who want to get married the good old fashioned way and just can’t, no matter what they do. The Church never publicly prays for single people seeking marriage. Catholic parishes are a social wasteland for anyone who is single over age 25. Two, perhaps three generations of single people under 40 have left the Church, leaving those of us who have stayed an isolated minority, who can’t get married in the Church and, assuming we would want to, can’t get married in secular society either. Those of us over 40 are looking at a lifetime of loneliness, unless, in middle age, we do get married in some point. Then at least we will have companionship, but the possibility of biological children will be long gone. I sometimes think we would not be fighting a rear-guard action against so-called same-sex marriage if the Church had put a higher priority on fostering marriage among its members as an urgent pastoral concern rather than just a matter of individual counseling for the occasional lonely parishioner. The Catholic lay society that used to take of marriage isn’t there to do it anymore and has not been, perhaps since the 1960s.

  8. Joseph Brislane says:

    The law cannot, and will not, force your religious institutions to perform, recognize, or accept the legal union of two people. The religious convictions of any institution, however, have no place in the laws of this nation. Too often the religious right clings to the guaranteed religious freedoms of this nation, then sneer derisively when the way they have chosen is not the way of everyone they share this country with.

    Marriage, as a religious ceremony, is in no danger and under no threat. Marriage, as a legal action, is unequal and unfair as it is applied in this nation. As with many religious-based arguments against same-sex marriage, this article, though well written (except for the uncertainly of Ross Douthat’s name, and the over looking of the fact that there are numerous gospels that were omitted from the Bible, yet omission and selective application of the gospels is heresy) completely misses the point of this issue insofar as it being a legal issue.

    Allowing loving partners life benefits, insurance benefits, life decision, medical participation and access, and the certificate that legally binds them in the eyes of the law does nothing to threaten or diminish the religious ceremony or institution of holy matrimony. They are, in fact, separate, as they well should be. Allowing people to love each other and share properly in each others lives, as far as a legal issue is concerned, should have zero to do with the opinions of any religious institution (no matter how prolific) in a nation that was founded on religious freedom, and settled by those fleeing religious oppression.

    Very well written article, Mr. Pope, you are a skilled writer. But I fear that you, like so many others with your oppositional stance, are running up and down the fence barking at a dog that is not in your yard and that you have no right to assert yourselves over.

  9. Sara D says:

    Beautifully put Joe Brislane! I have nothing to add to that :)

  10. Suzanne Martin says:

    The article was discussing President Obama’s selective Christianity supported “new” view of gay marriage ( which isn’t actually new since he had a much stronger pro-gay marriage view in the 90’s as a senator). Personally, though not a Catholic, am a Christian and am most annoyed more with his reasons than his actual opinion. But being against gay marriage isn’t just about a faith perception but about other things as well that have been well explained on this website at previous times.

  11. David Simonton says:

    In postulating that one cannot “pick and choose” which scriptural passages to emphasize over others without engaging in material heresy, you effectively argue that most or all theology is a form of heresy in varying degrees.

    The President is not a Biblical literalist, which is to his credit. It is impossible to approach scripture in a way that is both literalist and intelligent. Scriptural texts are both historical and cultural artifacts, and the definition of “God-breathed” or “inspired” is a legitimate theological inquiry. That is, one does not have to dismiss the whole of the Christian texts as “not the word of God” in order to recognize that Paul, for example, was a man who lived in a time and culture, and who wrote from that perspective. Unless, of course, you are a Bible literalist, which the President is not.

    This does not make the President a heretic. It simply makes him “not a Bible literalist.” And orthodoxy, of course, tends to vary somewhat by religious tradition. Many Protestant denominations encourage congregants to approach scripture critically rather than dogmatically. That may not sit well with you, but it’s a thing that exists nonetheless.

    • Mark says:

      Define what you mean by “Biblical literalist.” Intelligent study of Scripture yields some surprising conclusions, particularly for those who approach such matters with a heavy dose of self-serving subjectivity : some Scripture was likely intended in a figurative fashion (e.g., the Creation Story), while other parts were likely intended in a very literal fashion. If you seriously study the Scripture referring to homosexual behavior, and are honest about it, it seems clear that the Scriptures require a literalist interpretation.

      • David Simonton says:

        I’m using the phrase Bible literalism to describe a category of fundamentalism that holds the Bible (usually a particular subset of the books as prescribed by a particular dogma) is literally “the word of God,” meaning God wrote it. This view exists within a spectrum of beliefs about what it means for a piece of writing to be “inspired.” Curtis Knapp may well represent what this sounds like:

        Christians who approach scripture in a radically different way may allow that the writings that comprise “the Bible” were written by mortal men who lived in a time, place and culture, and whose writings reflect that time, place and culture. These Christians often allow for the possibility that Paul, for example, may have been both “inspired” as well as fallible. They may concede that Paul probably intended his letter to the Romans in a very literal fashion, and they may additionally conclude that their religion is not primarily Pauline in nature.

        Indeed many Christians study scripture very seriously, even in the original languages. They study it historically and culturally. They wrestle with it. And many of these same Christians conclude that a careful study of Jesus’ teachings, and a sincere desire to walk in His path, reveal that they cannot apply Paul’s words lovingly to the gay and lesbian people they count among their family and friends. They conclude that their God (who is not Paul) commands them otherwise.

        Certain other Christians look at this as something other than “real” Christianity, which is a phenomenon not unique to Christianity. “Heretics!” they cry. But of course Jesus was a heretic, and history is littered with the corpses of people who believed they had cornered the market on truth.

  12. Russ says:

    This NYTimes blog post says that marriage as a sacrament has only been in effect since the 11th century.

    “…Thomas Aquinas argued that the spouses’ consent is the efficient cause of marriage and the seal of intercourse was the final cause…”

    I find myself wondering what Aquinas thought of homosexual intercourse, in the sense of “does it apply the seal of authority to a joining?”

    Maybe you, Msgr Pope should educate Mr Wills to your point of view?

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