Scripture is a prophetic interpretation of reality. That is, it tells us what is really going on from the perspective of the Lord of History. As an inspired text it traces out not only the current of the times, but also the trajectory, the end to which things tend. It is of course important for us to read Scripture with the Church and exercise the care the Church would have us show and, at the end of the day, to submit our understanding to the rule of faith and the context of Sacred Tradition.
With those parameters in mind, I would like to consider Romans 1, wherein St. Paul describes the grave condition of the Greco-Roman culture of his day. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit he prophetically interpreted those times of the First Century AD. And, though the text speaks specifically to those times, it is easily evident that our current times are becoming almost identical to what St. Paul and the Holy Spirit described.
St. Paul saw a once noble culture that was in grave crisis and was in the process of being plowed under by God for its willful suppression of the truth.
Let’s take a look at the details of this prophetic interpretation of those days and apply it to our own. The text opens without any niceties, and words reach us almost like lead pellets.
I. The Root of the Ruin – The text says, The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness.
As the curtain draws back, we not eased into the scene at all. We are confronted at once with the glaring lights of judgment and the woeful word: “wrath.” And note that the wrath of God is called here a revelation. That is to say it is a word of truth that revels, and prophetically interprets reality for us. The wrath is the revelation!
Quite astonishing really and directly contrary to our modern tendency to see God only as the “affirmer in chief;” whose love for us in understood only in sentimental terms, never in terms of a strong love that insists for us what is right and true, and what is ultimately what we need, not just what we want.
And what is the “wrath of God?” The wrath of God is our experience of the total incompatibility of unrepented sin before the holiness of God. The unrepentant sinner cannot endure the presence, and the holiness of God, There is for such a one wailing and grinding of teeth, anger and even rage when confronted by the existence of God and the demands of His justice and holiness. God’s wrath does not mean in some simplistic sense that God is “mad” as if being emotionally worked up to fury. God is not moody and unstable. God is not subject to temper tantrums like we are. Rather this, God is holy, and the unrepentant sinner cannot endure his holiness, but experiences it as wrath.
To the degree that God’s wrath is in Him, it is his passion to set things right. God is patient and will wait and work to draw us to repentance. But his justice and truth cannot forever tarry, and when judgment sets in on a person or culture, a civilization or epoch, his holiness and justice are reveled as wrath to the unrepentant, be it an individual or a culture.
And what was the central sin of St. Paul’s day, and our own too? Simply stated in the verse, THE sin of Romans 1 is this, (and it is the sin that leads to every other problem): they suppress the truth by their wickedness.
Note this well, those who seek to remain in their wickedness suppress the truth. It was the problem in St. Paul’s day and also in ours. On account of wickedness, and a desire to persist in sin, many suppress the truth. The catechism of the Catholic Church warns,
Yes, on account of a desire to cling to their sin and to justify themselves, people in Paul’s day and now as well suppress the truth. And while this human tendency has always existed, it has taken on a widespread and collective tendency in our own times, as it did in St. Paul’s age. There is an increasing and widespread tendency for people of our own time in the decadent West to go on calling good, or no big deal what God calls sinful.
As such we suppress the truth and now, as then, the wrath of God is being revealed. We shall see just how his wrath is revealed in a moment. But the text makes it clear, on account of the sin of the repeated, collective and obstinate suppression of the truth, God’s wrath is being revealed on the culture of the decadent West.
II. Revelation that is Refused – The text goes on to say, and since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. – (Romans 1:19-20)
Note well that God the Holy Spirit and St. Paul attest that the suppression of the truth is willful. We are not dealing with simple ignorance here. And while it is true that the Pagan people of St. Paul’s day did not have the Scriptures, nevertheless, they are “without excuse.” Why? Because they had the revelation of creation. Creation reveals God, and speaks not only to His existence, but also to his attributes, to his justice and to his his power, his will and the good order He instills in what he has made and thus expects of us.
All of this makes even those raised outside the context of faith, whether in the First Century or own day, to be “without excuse.”
The Catechism also couches our responsibility to discover and live the truth as rooted in the existence of something called the conscience:
Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at the right moment. . . . For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God. . . . His conscience is man’s most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths….It bears witness to the authority of truth in reference to the supreme Good to which the human person is drawn, and it welcomes the commandments….[Conscience] is a messenger of him, who, both in nature and in grace, speaks to us behind a veil, and teaches and rules us by his representatives. Conscience is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ. (Catechism of the Catholic Church #s 1776-1778).
Again, and therefore, because of the witness and revelation of the Created order, and on account of the conscience present and operative in all who have attained the use of reason, those who suppress the truth are without excuse for this suppression. They are suppressing what, deep down, they know.
It has been my experience for 25 years as a pastor working with sinners (and not being without sin myself) that those I must confront about their sin, know, deep down, what they are doing. They may have suppressed the still small voice of God, and they may have sought to keep His voice at bay by layers of stinking thinking. They have also collect false teachers to confirm them in their sin and permitted many deceivers to tickle their ears. But, deep down they know what they do is wrong and, at the end of the day, they are without excuse.
Some degree of the lack of due discretion may ameliorate the severity of their culpability, but ultimately they are without excuse for the suppressing of the truth. There is a revelation of creation (and for many today, also the Word of God which has been preached and heard by most).
But many today, as in Paul’s time refuse revelation, doing so willfully and to justify wickedness, they are without excuse.
III. The Result in the Ranks – The Text says, For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but became vain in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles. (Romans 1:21-23)
This should seem very familiar. As in St. Paul’s Day, but even more so in ours, a prideful culture has set aside God, whether through explicit atheism and militant secularism, or through neglect and willful tepidity. God has been escorted to the margins of our proud anthropocentric culture. His wisdom has been forcibly removed from our schools, and the public square. His image and any reminders of him are increasing removed by force of law. And many too mock His holy Name and mention His truth only to ridicule and scorn it as a remnant from the “dark ages.”
Faith and the magnificent deposit of knowledge and culture that has come with it, has been scoffed at as a relic from times less enlightened and scientific than our our own “brilliant” and enlightened times.
Our disdainful culture has become a sort of iconoclastic anti-culture which has systematically put into the shredder every vestige of Godly wisdom it can. The traditional family, human sexuality, chastity, self control, moderation and almost every other virtue have been scorned and willfully smashed by many iconoclasts of this time. To them everything of this sort must go.
And as a prophetic interpretation of reality, the Scripture from Romans describes the result of suppressing the truth and refusing to acknowledge and glorify God. The text says, they became vain in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools.
Yes there is a powerful darkening effect that comes from suppressing the truth and refusing the wisdom and revelation of God. While claiming to be so wise, so smart and advanced, we have, collectively speaking become foolish, and vain, as our intellects grow dimer and darker by the day. Our concern for vain, foolish, passing and silly things knows little bounds today. And yet the things that really do matter, death, judgment, heaven and hell, are almost never attended to. We run after foolish things but cannot even exercise moderate self control. Our debt knows no bounds but we cannot stop spending. We cannot make or keep commitments, addictions are increasingly serious and widespread, and all most basic indicators indicate grave problems: graduation rates, SAT scores, teenage pregnancy, STDs, abortion rates, AIDs, Divorce rates, cohabitation rates. All the numbers that should be up are down, and the numbers that should be down are up.
Claiming to be so wise and smart, we have become collectively foolish and even our capacity to think clearly of solutions and have intelligent and meaningful conversations becomes increasingly impossible, since we cannot agree on even basic points. We simply talk past each other and live in separate little stovepipes, in smaller and increasingly self defined worlds.
And if you think the line about idolatry doesn’t apply today, don’t kid yourself. People are into stones and rocks, and all sorts of strange syncretistic combinations of religions, to include the occult. This is the age of the “designer God” wherein people no longer tolerate the revealed God of the Scriptures, but recast, reinvent, and remake a God of their own understanding, who just so happens to agree with everything they think. Yes, idolatry is alive and well in age of a designer God, a personal sort of hand carved idol that can be invoked over an against the true God of the Scriptures.
And for all this people today congratulate themselves for being tolerant, open-minded, non-judgemental and so forth. It is hard not see that our senseless minds have become very dark, our thoughts vain, and our behavior foolish.
Our culture is in the very grave condition that this Scripture, this prophetic interpretation of reality describes. There is much for which we are rightfully concerned.
And yet, tragically , the darkness, foolishness, idolatry and vanity get even worse. We must read on.
IV. The Revelation of the Wrath – The text says, Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error. (Rom 1: 24-27)
And here the “wrath” is revealed. The text simply says, “God gave them over to their sinful desires.” This is the wrath, this is the revelation of the total incompatibility of unrepented sin before the holiness of God and the holiness to which we are summoned.
In effect, God says, “OK, if you want sin and rebellion, you can have it. It is all yours. I will now allow you to experience the full consequences of your sinful rebellion. You will now feel the full fury of your own sinful choices.” Yes, God gave them over to their sinful desires….
And as a prophetic interpretation of reality, it seems conclusive that God has also given us over in a similar way to our sinful desires.
And note the first and most prominent effect of this being given over to sinful desires: sexual confusion of a colossal degree. The text describes sexual impurity, the degradation of their bodies, shameful lusts and the shameful acts of homosexual perversion that is condoned and celebrated. The text also speaks of bodily penalties for such action, probably disease and other deleterious effects that come from doing what is unnatural and using the body for purposes for which it is not designed.
Welcome to the 21st Century decaying West.
Many misunderstand what Romans 1 is saying and point to this text to warn us that God will punish us for our condoning and celebrating of homosexual acts. But Romans 1 does not say God will punish for this. Romans 1 says that the widespread condoning and celebrating of homosexual acts IS God’s punishment, it is the revelation of wrath. It is the first and chief indication that God has given us over to our stubborn sinfulness and to our lust.
Now, let us be careful to distinguish here. The text does not say that homosexuals are per se being punished. For some may mysteriously have this orientation but live chastely. But rather the text is saying we are all being punished.
Why? For over 60 years now the decadent West has celebrated promiscuity, pornography, fornication, cohabitation, contraception, and even to some extent adultery. The resulting carnage of abortion, STDs, AIDs, single motherhood, absent fathers, poverty, and all sorts of hideous and heinous effects on our children has not been enough to bring us to our senses. Our lusts have become wilder and more and more debased.
In contraception we severed the connections between sex, procreation, and marriage. Our senseless minds have become darkened. Sex was reduced to two adults doing what they pleased in order to have fun or “share love (lust).” This opened the door to increasingly debased sexual expression and irresponsibility.
Enter the homosexual community and its demands for acceptance. And the wider culture, now debased, darkened, and deeply confused, cannot comprehend what is frankly obvious, that homosexual acts are wholly contrary to nature. The very design of the body, of the actual body parts shouts against it. But the wider culture, already deeply immersed in its own unnatural confusions about sex via contraception, and an increasing and steady diet by many of highly debased pornography that celebrates both oral and anal sex among heterosexuals, had no answer to the challenge.
We have gone out of our collective mind, our senseless minds are darkened, confused, foolish, and debased. This is wrath, this is what it means to be given over to our sinful desires. This is what happens when God finally has to say to a culture, “If you want sin, you have it, until it comes out of your ears.”
How many tens of millions of aborted babies have been sacrificed to our wild lusts, how high have the other body counts of pain effects gone: children in poverty, without fathers, in confused and broken homes, divorce, STDs, deaths by AIDs. In none of this have we repented.
But in all of it the wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness. Notice again, homosexuals are not being singled out, the wrath is against ALL godlessness and wickedness of all who suppress the truth. And when even our lustful carnage has not been enough to bring us to our senses, God finally says, enough, and gives us over to our own sinful desires to feel their full effect. We have become so collectively foolish and vain in our thinking and darkened in our intellect that we now as a culture “celebrate” homosexual acts which Scripture rightly calls disordered (paraphysin = “contrary to nature” and is the word St. Paul uses in this passage to assess homosexual acts). Scripture also speaks of these sorts of acts as acts of grave depravity that cry to heaven for vengeance.
But, as the text says, Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them (verse 32). This is darkness, this is wrath.
This is what it means to be given over to our sins, a deeply darkened mind. The celebration of homosexual acts IS God’s punishment and demonstrates, according to the text that God has given us over.
V. The Revolution that Results – The text says, Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy. (Romans 1:28-31)
The text states clearly and in very familiar terms the truth that when sex, and marriage and family go into the cultural shredder, and enormous number of social ills are set loose.
This is because children are no longer properly formed. The term “bastard” in its figurative term refers to an incorrigible person, and its more literal meaning is some one who has no father. Both senses are related. And this text says in effect that every starts to act like bastards.
Children raised in large numbers, outside the best setting of a father and a mother in a stable traditional family, is a recipe for the social disaster described in these verses. I will not comment on them any further. They speak well for themselves and well describe our current struggle. Here too is the wrath revealed and the giving over to our sin that God seems to have permitted .
VI. The Refusal to Repent – Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them. (Romans 1:32)
Here too is the mystery of our iniquity, of our stubborn refusal to repent, no matter how high the body count, how clear the evidence. Let us pray we will still come to our senses. But if not, God has a record of allowing civilizations to come and go, nations to rise and fall. If we do not love life we do not have to have it. If we want lies rather than truth, we can have them and feel their full effects.
But somewhere God is saying,
When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command locusts to devour the land or send a plague among my people, if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land. Now my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to the prayers offered in this place. (2 Chron 7:14-15)