We continue to read from the Letter to the Romans in daily Mass. 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. An inspired text, it traces out not only the current time, but also the trajectory, the end to which things tend. It is of course important for us to read Scripture with the Church, and exercising care, 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 the times of the first century A.D. Although the text speaks specifically to those times, it is clear that our modern times are becoming nearly identical to what was described.
St. Paul saw a once-noble culture in grave crisis; it 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 the words rain down on 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 fearsome word “wrath.” Note that the wrath of God is called a revelation. That is to say, it is a word of truth that reveals and prophetically interprets reality for us. The wrath is the revelation!
It’s quite astonishing, really. It directly contradicts to our modern tendency to see God only as the “affirmer in chief,” whose love for us is understood only in sentimental terms, never in terms of a strong love that insists on what is right and true, on what we need rather than what we want.
What is the wrath of God? It is our experience of the total incompatibility of unrepented sin before the holiness of God. The unrepentant sinner cannot endure His presence, His holiness. For such a one, there is 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 that He is in some simplistic sense angry, emotionally worked up. God is not moody or unstable. He is not subject to temper tantrums as we are. Rather, it is that God is holy and the unrepentant sinner cannot endure His holiness; the sinner 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. When judgment sets in on a person, culture, civilization, or epoch, His holiness and justice are revealed as wrath to the unrepentant.
What was the central sin of St. Paul’s (and our own) time? They suppress the truth by their wickedness (Romans 1:18). It is the sin that leads to every other problem.
Note this well: those who seek to remain in their wickedness suppress the truth. On account of wickedness and a desire to persist in sin, many suppress the truth. The catechism of the Catholic Church warns,
The human mind … is hampered in the attaining of such truths, not only by the impact of the senses and the imagination, but also by disordered appetites which are the consequences of original sin. So it happens that men in such matters easily persuade themselves that what they would not like to be true is false or at least doubtful (Catechism of the Catholic Church # 37).
St. Paul wrote this to St. Timothy:
For the time will come when people will not tolerate sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear (2 Tim 4:3).
Isaiah described this:
They say to the seers, “See no more visions”; to the prophets, “Give us no more visions of what is right; tell us pleasant things, prophesy illusions” (Isaiah 30:10).
Yes, on account of a desire to cling to their sin and to justify themselves, people suppress the truth. While this human tendency has always existed, there is a 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.
When we do this, we suppress the truth. Now, as then, the wrath of God is being revealed. On account of the sin of repeated, collective, obstinate suppression of the truth, God’s wrath is being revealed on the culture of the decadent West.
II. The 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 that God the Holy Spirit and St. Paul attest that the suppression of the truth is willful; it is not merely ignorance. While the pagans of St. Paul’s day did not have the Scriptures, they are still “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 power, to His will and the good order He instills in us and thus expects of us.
All of this means that even those raised outside the context of faith, whether in the first century or today, are “without excuse.”
The Catechism also couches our responsibility to discover and live the truth 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. … Moral conscience … 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 (CCC #1776-1778).
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. They are suppressing what they know to be true.
It has been my experience in my many years as a pastor working with sinners (and as a sinner myself) that those I must confront about sin know full well what they are doing. They may have suppressed the still, small voice of God; they may have sought to keep His voice at bay with layers of rationalization; they may have also collect false teachers to confirm them in their sin and permitted many deceivers to tickle their ears. Deep down, though, they know that what they do is wrong. At the end of the day they are without excuse.
Some lack of due discretion may ameliorate the severity of their culpability, but ultimately they are without excuse for suppressing the truth.
So there is also the revelation of creation, the Word of God (which has been heard by most people today), and the conscience. Many people today, as in St. Paul’s time, refuse revelation. They do so willfully in order 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. In St. Paul’s day, and 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. Today, God has been pushed to the margins of our proud, anthropocentric culture. His wisdom has been forcibly removed from our schools and from the public square. His image and any reminders of Him are increasingly being removed by force of law. Many people even mock His Holy Name, mentioning His truth only to scorn it as a vestige of 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 scientific than our own much more “enlightened” age.
Our disdainful culture has become a sort of iconoclastic “anti-culture,” which has systematically put into the shredder every bit of Godly wisdom it can. The traditional family, human sexuality, chastity, self-control, moderation, and nearly all other virtues have been scorned and willfully smashed by the iconoclasts of our time. To them, everything of this sort must go.
As a prophetic interpretation of reality, the Scripture from Romans describes the result of suppressing the truth and refusing to acknowledge and glorify God: … they became vain in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools (Romans 1:21).
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, smart, advanced, we have collectively speaking become foolish and vain; our intellects grow darker by the day. Our concern for vain, foolish, passing things knows little bounds today. Yet the things that really do matter: death, judgment, Heaven, and Hell, are almost never attended to. We run after foolish things but cannot seem to exercise the least bit of self-control. Our debts continue to grow but we cannot curb our spending. We cannot make or keep commitments. Addiction is increasingly widespread. All of the most basic indicators indicate that we have grave problems: graduation rates, SAT scores, teenage pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, abortion rates, divorce rates, cohabitation rates. The numbers that should be going up are down and the numbers that should be going down are up.
Although we claim to be so wise and smart today, we have become collectively foolish. Even our ability to think of solutions and to have intelligent conversations has decreased, since we cannot seem to agree on even the most basic points. We simply talk past one other, living in our own smaller and increasingly self-defined worlds.
If you think that the line about idolatry doesn’t apply today, you’re kidding yourself. People are fascinated by stones and rocks, and by all sorts of syncretistic combinations of religions, including the occult. This is the age of the “designer God,” when people no longer tolerate the revealed God of the Scriptures, but believe instead in a reinvented one—who just so happens to agree with everything they think. Yes, idolatry is alive and well in this age of the personal sort of hand-carved idol that can be invoked over and against the true God of the Scriptures.
And people today congratulate themselves for being tolerant, open-minded, and non-judgmental! It is hard not see that our senseless minds have become 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 should be rightfully concerned.
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).
In this passage 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 is saying, if you want sin and rebellion, you can have it. It’s all yours. You’ll experience the full consequences of your sinful rebellion, the full fury of your own sinful choices. Yes, God gave them over to their sinful desires.
It seems that God has also given us over in a similar way to our sinful desires today.
Note that the first and most prominent effect is sexual confusion. The text describes sexual impurity, the degradation of their bodies, shameful lusts, and the shameful acts of homosexual relations. The text also speaks of “due” penalty for such actions, probably disease and other deleterious effects that result from 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. They point to this text as a warning that God will punish us for condoning and celebrating homosexual acts. But Romans 1 does not say that God will punish us for this; it 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 lusts.
Let us be careful to make a distinction here. The text does not say that homosexuals are being punished; some may mysteriously have this orientation but live chastely. Rather, it is saying that 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 emotionally damaged children does not seem to have been enough to bring us to our senses. Our lusts have only become wilder and more debased.
Through the use of contraception, we severed the connection between sex, procreation, and marriage. Sex has been reduced to two adults doing what they please in order to have fun or share love (really, lust). This has opened the door to increasingly debased sexual expression and to irresponsibility.
Enter the homosexual community and its demands for acceptance. The wider culture, now debased, darkened, and deeply confused, cannot comprehend the obvious: that homosexual acts are contrary to nature. The very design of the body shouts against it. But the wider culture, already deeply immersed in its own confusion about sex and now an increasing diet of ever-baser pornography that celebrates both oral and anal sex among heterosexuals, has had no answer to the challenge.
We have gone out of our minds. 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 can have it—until it comes out of your ears!
How many tens of millions of babies have been aborted, sacrificed to our wild lusts? How deep has been the pain caused by rampant divorce, cohabitation, adultery, and STDs? Yet none of this has caused us to repent.
In all of this, 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 the godlessness and wickedness of those who suppress the truth. When even the 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 effects. We have become so collectively foolish and vain in our thinking and darkened in our intellect that as a culture we now “celebrate” homosexual acts, which Scripture rightly calls disordered. (The word St. Paul uses in this passage to describe homosexual acts is paraphysin, meaning “contrary to nature.”) Elsewhere, Scripture speaks of these 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 (Romans 1:32). This is darkness; this is wrath.
This is the result of being given over to our sins: a deeply darkened mind. The celebration of homosexual acts is God’s punishment and it demonstrates that He 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, marriage, and family go into the shredder, an enormous number of social ills are set loose.
This is because children are no longer properly formed. The word “bastard” in its common informal usage refers to a despicable person, but its more “technical” definition is an illegitimate child. Both senses are related. This text says, in effect, that when God gives us over to our sinful desires, we start to act like bastards.
Large numbers of children raised 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 for themselves.
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 cost, how clear the evidence. Let us pray we will come to our senses. 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 we will feel their full effects.
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).