The first reading from Mass for Tuesday of the 28th week of the year is rich in meaning for us today. Scripture is a prophetic interpretation of reality, showing us what is really going on from the perspective of the Lord of History. It describes not only the current of the times but the end to which it is tending. It is important for us to read Scripture carefully with the Church and 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 this passage from Romans, in which St. Paul describes the grave condition of Greco-Roman culture in the 1st century. Although he was, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, prophetically interpreting that age, it is clear that the situation today is frighteningly similar.
St. Paul saw a once-noble culture in crisis, 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 and apply it to our own times.
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 light of judgment and the frightening word “wrath.” Note that the wrath of God is being “revealed”; His wrath is the revelation!
This is directly contrary to the modern tendency to view God as an “affirmer in chief” whose love for us is a sentimental one rather than a true love that insists on what is right, on what we need rather than what we want.
What exactly is the wrath of God? It is our experience of the total incompatibility of unrepented sin before His holiness. The unrepentant sinner cannot endure the presence and the holiness of God. For him, there is wailing, grinding of teeth, anger, and even rage when confronted by God and the demands of His justice and holiness. God is not simply “angry,” as if emotionally worked up into a fury. He is not moody or unstable. He does not have temper tantrums the way we do. Rather, it is that God is holy, and the unrepentant sinner cannot endure His holiness, experiencing it as “wrath.”
To the degree that God’s wrath is in Him, it is His passion to set things right. He 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 an unrepentant person, culture, civilization, or age, His holiness and justice are revealed as wrath.
What was the central sin of St. Paul’s day (and is that of our own today)? It is the sin that leads to every other problem: they suppress the truth by their wickedness.
On account of wickedness and a desire to persist in sin, many suppress the truth. The Catechism of the Catholic Church warns,
by the impact of the senses and the imagination, but also by disordered appetites which are the consequences of original sin … 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).
Similarly, St. Paul told St. Timothy,
… 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).
And Isaiah described,
They say to the seers, “See no more visions” and to the prophets, “Give us no more visions of what is right. Tell us pleasant things, prophesy illusions…” (Isaiah 30:10).
The desire to cling to sin and to justify one’s behavior leads people to suppress the truth. While this human tendency has always existed, it has become widespread and collective today, just as it did in St. Paul’s age. There seems to be an increasing tendency for people of our own time in the decadent West to call “good” or “no big deal” what God calls sinful.
The text makes clear that on account of the repeated, collective, and obstinate suppression of the truth, God’s wrath is revealed. This is true both in St. Paul’s day and today in the decadent West.
II. The Revelation that is Refused – The text goes on to say, 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.
God the Holy Spirit and St. Paul attest that the suppression of the truth is willful. It is not merely ignorance. Even though the pagans of St. Paul’s day did not have the Scriptures, they are “without excuse.” Why? Because they had the revelation of creation, which reveals God. It speaks not only to His existence but to His attributes, His justice, His power, His will, and to the good order He instilled in what He made 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 states that the responsibility to discover and live the truth is rooted in 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 # 1776-1778).
Because of the witness and revelation of the created order and on account of the conscience in all who have attained the use of reason, those who suppress the truth are without excuse.
It has been my experience as a pastor working with sinners and as a sinner myself, that people realize, deep down, they are doing. They may have tried to suppress the still, quiet voice of God. They may have tried to keep His voice at bay with layers of rationalization. inking. They have collected false teachers to confirm them in their sin. They may have permitted deceivers to tickle their ears. Deep inside, though, they know that what they are doing is wrong. They are without excuse. Not only is there the revelation of creation, but for many there is also the Word of God, which they have heard in various ways.
To justify their wickedness, many today, like those in St. Paul’s time, willfully refuse revelation. 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 sound very familiar. In St. Paul’s day, and even more so in ours, a prideful culture set aside God through atheism and secularism or through neglect and tepidity. God has been escorted to the margins of our proud, anthropocentric culture. His wisdom has been forcibly removed from our schools and from the public square. His image as well as references to Him are increasingly being removed by force of law. Many mock His Holy Name, His truth, and our faith.
Faith, and the magnificent deposit of knowledge and culture that has come with it, is denigrated as a relic from ancient, unenlightened, unscientific 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, chastity, self-control, moderation, and most virtues have been scorned and willfully smashed by the iconoclasts of our time. To them, everything of this sort must be destroyed.
As a prophetic interpretation of reality, the passage 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.
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, intelligent, and advanced, we have become foolish. Our intellects grow dimmer and darker by the day. Our interest in passing and frivolous things is intensifying, while we rarely attend to the things that really do matter: death, judgment, Heaven and Hell. We have difficulty exercising even a modest amount of self-control. We cannot make or keep commitments. Addiction is widespread and becoming ever more serious. The most basic indicators indicate grave problems: graduation, teenage pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, abortion, divorce, cohabitation. The rates that should be going up are going down, and the ones that should be going down are going up.
Even our ability to think clearly and have intelligent, meaningful conversations has decreased. We cannot agree on even the most basic points. We talk past one other and live in our own bubbles, which are increasingly self-defined.
Even the part of the passage about idolatry (… images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles) applies today. People are into stones and all sorts of strange combinations of religions, including the occult. This is the age of the “designer God.” People no longer tolerate the revealed God of the Scriptures. Rather, they recast, reinvent, and remake Him into a “God of their own understanding,” who just so happens to agree with everything they think.
Many 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 today is in the grave condition that this Scripture, this prophetic interpretation of reality, describes. There is much about which to be 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).
Here the “wrath” is revealed. The text says, God gave them over to their sinful desires. This is the wrath, 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, “If you want sin and rebellion, you can have it, but I will let you experience the consequences. You will feel the full fury of your own sinful choices.” Yes, God gave them over to their sinful desires.
It seems obvious that God has also given us over to our sinful desires.
Note that the first and most prominent effect of being given over to sinful desires is sexual confusion. The text describes sexual impurity, the degradation of their bodies through shameful lusts and shameful acts of homosexual perversion. It also speaks of bodily penalties for such action, probably disease and other deleterious effects that result from doing what is unnatural, from using the body in ways for which it was not designed.
Welcome to the decaying West in the 21st century.
Many misunderstand this passage, interpreting it as saying that God will punish us for engaging in, condoning, and celebrating homosexual acts. But the text does not say that God will punish us, it says that the widespread behavior is God’s punishment; it is the revelation of His wrath.
Let us be careful to make an important distinction. The text does not say that only those with same-sex attraction are punished (and in fact some may have this orientation but live chastely). Rather, the text says that we are all punished.
Why? For decades, the West has celebrated promiscuity, pornography, fornication, cohabitation, contraception, and even to some extent adultery. The resulting carnage of abortion, STDs, AIDS, broken families, single mothers/absent fathers, and the effects of these on our children, has not been enough to bring us to our senses. Our lusts have become wilder and more and more debased.
Through contraception, we severed the connection between sex and procreation. Sex has been reduced to adults doing what they want in order to have fun, feel pleasure, or “share love (lust).” This has opened the door to increasingly debased sexual expression and to irresponsibility.
Then came the rise of the homosexual community and its demands for acceptance and celebration. Our wider culture, now debased, darkened, and deeply confused, cannot comprehend what is obvious: homosexual acts are wholly contrary to nature. The very design of the body shouts against it. Deeply immersed in its own confusions about sex via contraception, increasingly depraved pornography, and the celebration of oral and anal sex among heterosexuals, our culture has no answer to the challenge.
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 says, “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 lusts? How many children have experienced the pain of living without both parents? How many have died from AIDS? How many have lived with STDs? Yet we have not repented.
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 that homosexuals are not being singled out; the wrath is against the godlessness and wickedness of all who suppress the truth. When even the carnage has not been enough to bring us to our senses, God finally gives us over to our own sinful desires to feel their full effect. We have become so collectively foolish, vain in our thinking, and darkened in our intellect, that we now as a culture “celebrate” homosexual acts, which Scripture rightly calls disordered. (Paraphysin, which means “contrary to nature” is the word St. Paul uses in this passage to describe homosexual acts.) Scripture also speaks of homosexual acts as crying out to heaven for vengeance.
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.
When proper understanding of sexuality, marriage, and family go into the cultural shredder, countless social ills are set loose.
This is because children are no longer properly formed. The term “bastard” is often used to refer to a despicable person, but its more strict meaning is someone born of parents not married to each other. Both senses are related. This text says, in effect, that people start to act like bastards.
Large numbers of children raised without their mother and father in a stable marriage is a recipe for the social disaster described in these verses. It is another way in which wrath is revealed, in which God seems to have given us over to our sin.
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.
Here, too, is the mystery of our iniquity, of our stubborn refusal to repent no matter how high the cost or how clear the evidence. Let us pray that we will still 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, but we will feel their full effects.
Remember that God said,
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).
Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: A Prophetic Interpretation of Reality for Our Times?