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Why Pope Francis and the Catholic Church has more in common with Phil Robertson than with Robertson’s elitist critics

[Editor's note: The following piece specifically addresses remarks made by Phil Robertson about homosexuality and marriage. Any positive remarks about those statements should not in any way be construed as an endorsement of Robertson's views on other matters, especially those not addressed at all in Mr. Maguire's essay.)

Two weeks ago, on the Second Sunday of Advent, John the Baptist was identified in the Gospel reading as, “the voice of one crying in the wilderness” (Mt 3:3).

This week we heard another voice “crying in the wilderness”—except this time his name is Phil Robertson, and the wilderness he’s crying from is the backwoods of West Monroe, Louisiana.

How can we account, though, for the vitriol leveled against Robertson by our cultural elites, the mainstream media and LGBT interest groups? Perhaps in the same way we understand the contempt with which the reigning powers of his day responded to John the Baptist: namely, they wanted to rationalize their sin and “call evil good and good evil” (Isa 5:20).

The prophetic message of John the Baptist was as blunt as it was clear: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” (Mt 5:2). And the language he used may very well sound as coarse and offensive to modern ears as the words of the Duck Dynasty patriarch:

You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? . . . [Jesus’] winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire (Mt 3:7-12).

John the Baptist was certainly unafraid to speak truth to power—even if that meant speaking the truth about sexual morality. And for this, he was beheaded (Mt 14:1-12).

Today’s cultural elites aren’t threatening Phil Robertson with beheading, but they are threatening to remove his voice from the public sphere as best they can.

In fact, A&E network officials suspended Phil “from filming indefinitely” only a day after GQ published his remarks concerning homosexuality—remarks which his family readily acknowledged as coarse.

This punitive action came in the wake of pressure exerted by LGBT interest groups like GLAAD, who were only too glad to exact their pound of flesh:

Phil and his family claim to be Christian, but Phil’s lies about an entire community fly in the face of what true Christians believe. . . . Phil’s decision to push vile and extreme stereotypes is a stain on A&E and his sponsors who now need to reexamine their ties to someone with such public disdain for LGBT people and families.

It comes as no real surprise that many of our culture’s reigning elite find Robertson’s comments so deeply offensive, even “vile” and “extreme.” What does come as a surprise, however, is that they should on one hand revile Robertson, but on the other laud Pope Francis—indeed, going so far as to name him Person of the Year (The Advocate and Time Magazine).

Yet, for all this, Pope Francis and Phil Robertson are not really so far apart in their assessment of the sinfulness of homosexual behavior and the appropriate Christian response to homosexual persons. Indeed, Pope Francis has more in common with Robertson than with Robertson’s critics: who claim it is vile to call homosexual behavior a sin and bigoted to oppose redefining marriage.

On the push to redefine marriage and blur the distinction between good and evil:

Abp. Jorge Mario Bergoglio (in 2010): “It is not a simple political fight; but rather an attempt to destroy the plan of God. It is not about a mere legislative project . . . but, rather, it is a ‘move’ by the father of lies [i.e., Satan], who intends to confuse and trick the children of God.”

Phil Robertson: “Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. . . . Don’t be deceived. Neither the adulterers, the idolaters, the male prostitutes, the homosexual offenders . . . ; they won’t inherit the kingdom of God [paraphrasing 1 Cor 6:9-10]. Don’t deceive yourself. It’s not right.”

On not judging homosexual persons:

Pope Francis: “If a homosexual person is of good will and is in search of God, I am no one to judge. . . . A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality. I replied with another question: ‘Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?’ In life, God accompanies persons, and we must accompany them . . . with mercy.”

Phil Robertson: “We never, ever judge someone on who’s going to heaven, hell. That’s the Almighty’s job. We just love ‘em, give ‘em the good news about Jesus—whether they’re homosexuals, drunks, terrorists. We let God sort ‘em out later, you see what I’m saying?”

As a Catholic, I cannot fully endorse Robertson’s comments. For example, he seems to think the homosexual inclination is itself sinful and is freely chosen. The Church, however, offers a more accurate teaching on these issues.

On the proper moral evaluation of homosexuality: "An overly benign interpretation [has been] given to the homosexual condition itself, some going so far as to call it neutral, or even good. Although the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin, it is a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil; and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder." (Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons, 3)

On whether the homosexual inclination is freely chosen: “Its psychological genesis remains largely unexplained. . . . The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial." (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1257-58)

It would be wrong-headed to be overly critical of Robertson’s statements, though. After all, while he enjoys the benefit of Scripture, as a non-Catholic he doesn’t enjoy the benefit of the Magisterium to properly interpret Scripture.

This makes it all the more surprising that Robertson makes an observation that is strikingly similar to an observation made by Pope Pius XII—one that both John Paul II and Benedict XVI were fond of citing.

Phil Robertson: “Everything is blurred on what’s right and what’s wrong. . . . Sin becomes fine.”

Pope Pius XII: “The greatest sin in the world today is that men have begun to lose the sense of sin.”

We have perhaps now touched on the neuralgic issue in the Duck Dynasty controversy. Robertson’s critics do not so much object to his remarks about homosexuality, but more precisely they object to God’s remarks about homosexuality as found in his Word, that is, in Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition.

Many, if not most, of our cultural elites have rejected Isaiah’s warning: “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!” (Is 5:20).

And it is here we discover the tragic consequences that necessarily flow from accepting the invitation to adopt a false compassion—a perverted form of compassion that would require us to condone homosexual behavior and the redefinition of marriage. To accept this invitation is, however, to accept the invitation to blaspheme against the Holy Spirit, the only sin Jesus identifies as unforgivable (cf. Lk 12:10).

John Paul II’s teaching on the “unforgivable sin” is worth quoting at some length:

If Jesus says that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit cannot be forgiven either in this life or in the next, it is because this ‘non-forgiveness’ is linked, as to its cause, to ‘non-repentance,’ in other words to the radical refusal to be converted.

Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, then, is the sin committed by the person who claims to have a ‘right’ to persist in evil—in any sin at all—and who thus rejects Redemption. One closes oneself up in sin, thus making impossible one's conversion, and consequently the remission of sins. . . . This is a state of spiritual ruin, because blasphemy against the Holy Spirit does not allow one to escape from one's self-imposed imprisonment and open oneself to the divine sources of the purification of consciences and of the remission of sins. (Dominum et Vivificantem, 46)

This is why the Holy Spirit’s mission to “convince the world concerning sin” (Jn 16:9) is the highest expression of genuine compassion and mercy. The Holy Spirit’s mission does not have as its purpose a negative, heavy-handed condemnation of the world. Rather, this convincing the world concerning sin has the purpose of restoring the human person’s dignity by restoring our relationship with the Father.

It is only when we realize the true evil of sin—when we recognize the damage sin does to us and to our relationship with the Father—that we can turn back to him in a spirit of repentance. We cannot do this, however, if we continue to rationalize our sins and refuse to call sin by its proper name.

The Holy Spirit's mission to “convince the world concerning sin” is thus a positive mission; one that invites us back home. When we are convinced of sin, like the Prodigal Son, we will accept this invitation and experience the embrace of a loving Father who restores our dignity by restoring our sonship. And, it is only when our dignity and our sonship has been restored that we can experience the true freedom and liberation that comes as a fruit of our filial relationship with God.

As the reaction to Robertson’s comments on homosexuality demonstrates, our present cultural powers that be would have us not only rationalize sin, but go the further step of giving sin a different name: calling “evil good and good evil.” This would, however, block us from seeking forgiveness and reconciliation.

We must, therefore, turn away from these powers and towards the Holy Spirit’s power—even when his message concerning sin is communicated through the “coarse” words of a self-described backwoods white trash Louisiana redneck. There is nothing less at stake, ultimately, than the salvation of the world.

 
About the Author
Bill Maguire
Bill Maguire earned his Masters in Theological Studies from the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Washington, D.C. He served for two years as the managing editor of Communio: International Catholic Review and has worked with youth and youth adults in various capacities: youth minister, campus minister, adjunct professor of theology. Bill currently lives in Naples, FL and serves as the Director of Youth Ministry at a local parish.
 
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