Authority and vulnerability

Authority and vulnerability

In defending the traditional understanding of marriage, I’m acutely aware that I might come across as homophobic. That some people might think I’m intolerant or bigoted doesn’t bother me. That some people might be hurt or offended by my words bothers me a lot.

In my post on same-sex marriage one of my friends recalls Raimond Gaita’s analysis of bigotry. Gaita astutely observes that although bigotry is popularly associated with hatred, hatred is not necessary. For example, a racist needn’t hate people of other races — he can deny the common humanity of other races with the best will in the world.

In the same way, we can easily imagine a homophobe who does not hate or fear gay people, but who is nonetheless blind to, and denies, their common humanity.

Now I am utterly convinced that one can defend traditional marriage without denying one’s common humanity with men who want to marry men and women who want to marry women. But I’m also conscious that many of those men and women feel besieged and even persecuted by their adversaries in this debate. When the Church — the Mystical Body of Christ authorised to proclaim the Gospel — is seen to be such an adversary, we have a problem.

I tend to see good and devout Catholics — myself included — as the modern-day counterpart to the Pharisees. (Bear in mind, the Pharisees weren’t all bad. Nicodemus assisted with the burial of Jesus. And Paul becomes the greatest evangelist in Church history.)

It’s no coincidence, I think, that our Lord so strongly condemned the Pharisees. In the first place, as good and devout Jews, they should have been his natural constituents, but their hearts were hardened. But in the second place, our Lord must have intuited that in centuries to come, his most devoted followers would be prey to the same Pharisaical spirit.

The Lord has given the Church — and by that I mean us —the authority to proclaim his saving Word. This is an authority we dare not abuse in the way the Pharisees abused theirs.

The word “authority” becomes from the Latin augere — “to grow.” Authority is often used for the honour and privilege of those who exercise it. But this is an abuse. Authority is intended to help other people grow.

We’ve seen how our Lord exercised his authority in his treatment of the woman caught in adultery. While the Pharisees figuratively towered over the accused from the moral heights, he literally stooped down to the ground. From this position of vulnerability, he addressed the powerful: the accusing crowd.

They had separated themselves from the woman. They had exercised their authority in way that heightened their own dignity but which diminished the accused. They had isolated her. In contrast to that, Jesus points out what they all have in common: “Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone.”

As the Pharisees move off, Jesus remains bent over. The accused woman is still vulnerable. So he keeps his position, which is more vulnerable still. It’s only when he is alone with the woman that he straightens up and meets her face to face.

I think in the washing of the feet, Jesus taught his disciples do the same. And by that, I mean he taught his apostles and you and me. This is what I was thinking tonight, while I washed the feet of parishioners.

As Jean Vanier observed, our Lord is asking us to exercise our authority “from below.” Like the authority a child has over a mother, or a friend over a friend. To exercise authority in a way which leaves us vulnerable to others. Open to them.

I’m not suggesting that the Church is pharisaical in its defence of marriage. I totally reject the suggestion that it’s pharisaical to condemn sinful behaviour. But we all know it’s a very fine line between condemning the sin, and condemning the sinner. And when we’re in the business of evangelising (which we are), perception is as important as intention.

We must remember the washing of the disciples’ feet whenever we engage in the cultural battles of our time. That’s not easy when we face off militant opponents, be they atheists or feminists or queer theorists. It’s natural to fight fire with fire. Nonetheless, Jesus asks us to meet the vulnerable (for they are vulnerable) by assuming a position which is even more vulnerable. And to greet them on equal terms only after we have built them up.

The authority Christ gives us should help others to grow.

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