Our readings today all have to do with what it means to be a prophet. In our first reading we find the prophet Ezekiel, called by God and inspired by the Holy Spirit, to call on the rebellious people of Israel, who have lost their way and gone to worship other gods, to return with their whole hearts to the true God. In our Gospel reading we find Jesus preaching at his home synagogue in Nazareth, where the people are astonished that he dares to speak with authority about the Scriptures. Jesus replies to them with the famous dictum: “A prophet is not without honor except in his native place.”
The mission of the prophet, which is the mission of every single baptized Christian, is to speak the truth, in season and out of season. What Ezekiel’s life shows us, what Jesus shows us, is that the rebellious house of Israel is rarely glad to hear what the prophet has to say. Prophets don’t make a lot of friends, and the only throne that people ever put Jesus on for all his talk of loving one’s enemies was the one they nailed him to on Good Friday.
But prophets speak the truth anyway, because they have been seized by the Spirit of God. Their message is not their own. It comes from an authority outside of themselves that they do not control. Prophets don’t tell people their opinions, they proclaim God’s message to his people.
I’ve been thinking and praying a lot about what to say this weekend. Our country celebrates its 239th birthday this year, and although she has had her share of struggles and falls throughout those years, God has blessed the United States with a long tradition of ensuring freedom and justice for all people who have come to call her home.
Regardless of your opinion of the Supreme Court ruling late last week on same-sex marriage, I believe that it should give us all pause to think and reflect on exactly what “freedom and justice” really mean, and what they have come to mean for many people in recent decades. I realize that this issue, in all likelihood, touches very close to home, either in your own life or in the life of someone you love. That is why, before I point out what I believe to be some of the mistaken, even dangerous conclusions contained in the 103 page Supreme Court decision, there are two important points that I must mention first.
The first is that the Catholic Church does not teach that homosexual persons are sinful. The truth is that there is really no such thing as a “sinful person”, only “sinful actions”. People who commit sinful actions are known as “sinners”, and I am the first among them. My job as a priest and as a Christian is not to judge sinners, but to forgive them and to love them. Although many members of the Church may have judged homosexual persons, or even hated or feared them, the Church herself does not judge them, nor does it condemn them. The Catechism puts it this way: “[People with same sex attraction] must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.” (2358)
The second point is this: We believe that the meaning of marriage is written into our bodies. Sexual difference is not an arbitrary feature like where we were born or what color hair we have. It is essential to who we are, how we give and receive love, and how new life is born out of that love. Marriage is and has always been the conjugal friendship of a man and woman who make a lifelong commitment to one another and to the children that God gives them as the fruit of their relationship. This marriage existed long before there was such a thing as the Supreme Court. It even existed before the Catholic Church. We have no power to change the meaning of marriage any more than we have the power to change the laws of gravity, however much we may feel it is just or compassionate to do so.
I believe that is possible to believe both of those things at the same time. I believe that we Catholics can speak with love about a teaching that has caused many to feel wounded, ostracized, and excluded. I believe that I am not a bigot, even though I believe a truth about marriage that the Supreme Court claims denies certain people a fundamental human right; a truth that allegedly “disparage[s] their choices and diminish[es] their personhood.” (19)
I remember when I was six years old, my mother became pregnant with my little sister. Until that point I had always been the youngest, and it had never occurred to me to ask where babies came from. Now I was curious, so I asked my mom. To this day I remember her response: “After two people get married, the woman starts to get pregnant and have babies.” I asked her, “So before they get married, the woman can’t get pregnant?” She said, “No, because then the baby wouldn’t have a dad.”
Maybe it sounds quaint and outdated, but I’m honestly amazed how long I was satisfied with that answer. To me the connection between marriage, children, and family was absolutely clear, because I saw it all around me. Families were made of a mom and a dad, and whatever children God chose to give them. That view of the family has changed.
Now I don’t mean to disparage in any way the many single parents who struggle and work heroically so that their children can have what they need to succeed and move forward in life. Nor do I want to demean the many same-sex couples who provide a loving home for their children. As a matter of fact, one of the petitioners in the Supreme Court case was a female couple from Michigan who had adopted several special needs children who were abandoned at the hospital where they work. They want to get married so their children have the security and stability of belonging to two married parents. These are good people. There is no doubt about that. But that doesn’t change the fact that what used to be clear to everyone – that marriage is first and foremost about creating and caring for a family – is no longer clear.
The best evidence of this is Justice Anthony Kennedy’s own majority opinion. In it he gives us the modern vision of marriage. He says, “From their beginning to their most recent page, the annals of human history reveal the transcendent importance of marriage. The lifelong union of a man and a woman always has promised nobility and dignity to all persons, without regard to their station in life. … Its dynamic allows two people to find a life that could not be found alone, for a marriage becomes greater than just the two persons. Rising from the most basic human needs, marriage is essential to our most profound hopes and aspirations.” (3)
Later on he quotes the Supreme Court of Massachussets, which said, ““[Marriage] fulfils yearnings for security, safe haven, and connection…and the decision whether and whom to marry is among life’s momentous acts of self-definition.” (13)
As far as I can see, there are two major problems with Justice Kennedy’s argument, which is not so much legal as it is philosophical and theological. The first problem is that marriage is not at all about satisfying our “basic human needs”, nor is it “essential to our most profound hopes and aspirations.” If it were, us priests would be in big trouble, as would the roughly 100 million unmarried adults in this country. And ask anyone who has been married for over five years, particularly if they have children, if marriage is satisfying their needs. I would venture to guess that most would tell you that marriage has done just the opposite. It has forced them to sacrifice their needs in order to satisfy the needs of others. Marriage is not, as the Supreme Court claims, about “self-definition”; it is about self-donation.
But the truly dangerous conclusion of Justice Kennedy’s argument isn’t just this enshrinement of the me-centered worldview. It is what he says just before. “The lifelong union of a man and a woman always has promised nobility and dignity to all persons.” According to Kennedy, we unmarried people are not only failing to have our most basic human needs met; not only are our most profound hopes and aspirations being thwarted; but we are actually being denied our dignity. Now I am not a lawyer or a politician, but as far as I know, this is the first time the government of our country has ever claimed it had the power to give a person dignity. As a matter of fact, the Declaration of Independence, and the Biblical Christianity that was its foundation, claimed that dignity was something that was given to us by our Creator. Human dignity can be violated or disrespected, but it can never be taken away. No government, no institution, no person on the face of the planet has the power to give or take away the dignity of a person who has been made in the image and likeness of God.
This is ultimately why we need prophets perhaps now more than ever. The Catholic Church will not change its teaching on the fundamental meaning and purpose of marriage. But the Supreme Court of the United States alleges that that teaching denies a large number of our brothers and sisters a basic human right. According to Justice Kennedy, in holding that marriage is the lifelong union of a man and a woman, a husband and a wife, a mother and a father, the Catholic Church denies certain people their dignity.
It’s a lie. Don’t believe it.
I’ll tell you the truth. This is God’s message, which he sent to us through his only Son and that he continues to speak to us through his Church. Every person – married, single, gay, straight, man, woman, child, black, white, priest, deacon, layperson, citizen, undocumented, disabled, elderly – You have dignity. You are loved. You are welcome here. You are not alone.
The reason we need prophets right now is that there are people suffering, and they are being offered false hope. The Supreme Court, and the millions who support its decision, are asking marriage to do something it’s completely incapable of doing. One of the most astounding claims that Justice Kennedy makes in his decision is that “Marriage responds to the universal fear that a lonely person might call out only to find no one there.” (14) I’m telling you that this is not true. Ask the widow who is spending her first Christmas without her husband if marriage has taken away her loneliness. Marriage cannot do this, because marriage is not a person. Marriage is not a solution to a problem. The only real answer to the universal fear that we are alone in the world is Jesus Christ.
Marriage is a great good, perhaps one of the greatest goods, but it cannot keep a lonely person company. It cannot cut through the silence of grief and loss to give our souls peace. It cannot comfort the widow and the orphan. It cannot restore our dignity. It cannot even cure the wounds inflicted by years of hatred and mistreatment, often caused by those closest to us, simply because of who we love. Only Jesus can do these things, and only if we trust in Him. Only if we stop trying sum up a person’s identity with an unending series of letters, and instead live in to our identity as sons and daughters of God; only if we stop offering vain hopes of government-regulated “dignity” and accept the true dignity we receive as God’s beloved children; only if we repent of our own sinfulness and stop judging the sins of other people, will we receive the healing and unity our country desperately needs. Amen.