Sexual Orientation, Religious Faith and Personal Identity

David French at National Review Online draws our attention to what he calls the “mistaken belief” that while “sexual orientation is absolutely core to a person’s identity,” religious faith

…is something else entirely — so superficial that any given person is one Vox explainer or Bill Maher monologue away from enlightenment. Yet only a few millennia of human history demonstrates that religion is core to human identity that countless people have been willing to burn rather than recant their deepest beliefs.

He asks us to consider whether or not it isn’t “also bigoted to believe that a person is incapable of expressing disagreement with a person while also treating them with dignity and respect?”

French understands that “some Christians are bigots” who

…actually do hate others and harbor malice in their hearts. But actual Christian orthodoxy — including orthodox Christian sexual morality — is anything but hateful. It expresses the beauty and intent of creation, it honors both the marriage vow and the single life, and it creates a framework for having and raising children in loving, stable homes. It recognizes that each and every person must put a restraint on their desires, orienting their lives towards the true “chief end” of man — glorifying God and enjoying him forever.

After summarizing the Golden Rule, he asks

All across America LGBT Americans live and work alongside Christians who disagree with their actions and beliefs and also treat them with dignity and respect. It’s not hard to do when you love people and seek to imitate Christ. Should these Christians be muzzled while contrary views be given free rein? Or can we actually be tolerant and realize that disagreement is not mistreatment, and love is not hate?

For at least a small, vocal minority of Americans, the answer to French’s question is clear. Yes, those who disagree with the LGBT agenda most remain silent. Ideally, they should do so voluntarily but if not they should be compelled by social pressure. If need be, they should be compelled by the force of law.

But is it really true that sexual orientation or gender identity is absolutely central to a person’s identity while a person’s religion is merely a superficial add-on?

Thinking about French’s argument, I am reminded of conversations with people about why someone might reasonably (and charitably) refuse to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple. What French has helped me understand is that many of those who found such a refusal bigoted likely thought that religious faith was superficial–something that could be put on and taken off as easily as an overcoat with the changing of the weather.

But is religious identity really like this? For some people, no doubt. For others though, religious identity is the core of who they are.

I’ve had several conversations (most notably with psychologists or other mental health professionals) who assumed my Christian faith and/or my priestly vocation were roles I played. Sincerely held roles to be sure but roles nevertheless.

Conversations with these individuals quickly turn abusive as they seek to strip away my Christian “veneer” or my clerical “role.” Or, as one clinician put it “Who is the real you behind your religion?”

What’s noteworthy for me is that these clinicians would never dare assume–much less say–about sexual orientation or gender identity what they assume about me: That Christian faith or vocational commitment obscured my identity.

Just as there are bigoted Christians, there are Christians who use the Gospel as a way to hide from others. Likewise, there are clergy who hide behind their office. For the majority, however, religious faith and vocation are at least as important as sexual orientation or gender identity are for other men and women. It would be good of both sides remembered this.

The other question raised by French’s analysis is important for our life of civil engagement. If disagreement is tantamount to hatred, then LGBTQ advocates are themselves guilty of hating Christians who hold to that tradition’s historical moral teaching.

Such mutual accusations of hatred don’t foster civil discourse or peace between different segments of the population. What it does do is encourage strife as we see our life together increasingly as a zero sum game in which one side can only win to the degree that the other side loses.


In Christ,

+Fr Gregory


Our Two Freedoms

Monday, April 02 (O.S., March 20), 2018: Great Monday; Venerable Fathers slain at the Monastery of Saint Sabbas: John, Sergius, Patrick and others († 796); New Hieromartyr Deacon Basil († 1938); Martyr Photina (Svetlana), the Samaritan Woman, her sons, and those with her († c. 66); Holy Virgin Martyrs Alexandra, Claudia, Euphrasia, Matrona, Juliania, Euthymia and Theodosia († 310); St. Nicetas the Confessor the Archbishop of Apollonias in Bithynia (9th C); Hieromartyr Euphrosynus of Blue Jay Lake, Novgorod († 1612); New Martyr Miron of Crete; St. Cuthbert, Wonderworker of Britain († 687).

Matins: Matthew 21:18-43
Sixth Hour: Ezekiel 1.1-20
Vespers: Exodus 1.1-20;
Vespers: Job 1.1-12
Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts: Matthew 24.3-35

At Matins for today we hear the following hymn:

Today let us add lamentation to lamentation!
Let our tears flow with those of Jacob, who weeps for
his celebrated and sober-minded son;
for though bodily Joseph was indeed a slave,
he preserved the freedom of his soul and was lord over
all Egypt.

Hearing this I might be tempted to think any number of things that are, at best, morally confused. At worse, I might end up of saying something that is truly evil.

The confusion is this: Because inner freedom–what the text refers to as the ‘freedom of soul’–is what matters, I might wrongly think that political or soul freedom is unimportant. “After all,” I might think (or worse, say), “even though Joseph was a slave, he ‘preserved the freedom of his soul’ and even became ‘lord over all Egypt.’”

As St Paul points out to the Church of Rome, I can’t do evil that “good may come” (3:8). The fact that, as the Apostle says a bit later, that God is able to bring good out of evil (Romans 8:28), doesn’t mean evil isn’t evil.

At the very least, evil is something I should avoid. If I can–or better, as much as I can–I should oppose evil. I should oppose evil not only in my own heart but in the world around me.

I must be faithful to the example of Jesus. When after suffering temptation in the desert, how does He begin His own ministry? Going to the synagogue he reads from the prophecy of Isaiah:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me,
Because He has anointed Me
To preach the gospel to the poor;
He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to the captives
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To set at liberty those who are oppressed;
To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord (Isaiah 61:1, 2)

Jesus begins His own ministry by opposing–and so ending–the hold that moral evil and physical suffering have on us (Luke 4:16-21).

While moral freedom is more important than political freedom, the two freedoms are not opposed. While I can have the moral freedom without political freedom, I can’t have the latter without the former.

Ideally, though, a society should have both. And, in any case, Christians are called to work for both moral and political freedom. What we can never do, is sacrifice one for the sake of the other.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

“Love is love is love” isn’t True


Didn’t realize this moment was being filmed yesterday but I’m so happy that it was. My childhood self would never have dreamed of seeing a gay kiss on TV at the Olympics but for the first time ever a kid watching at home CAN! Love is love is love.

Gus Kenworthy

To say, as Olympic skier Gus Kenworthy does, that “love is love is love” is at best morally trivial. What it actually is is wrong.

Kenworthy doesn’t mean “love” he means romantic attraction. While this is one form of love, it doesn’t exhaust, dare I say it, the diversity of love.

A mother’s love for her child is not the same as that same woman’s love for her husband. Nor is the love between siblings the same as the love between friends.

We can love our co-workers and our enemies. But, here again, this love is not the same.

That love takes different forms doesn’t degrade or minimize different loving relationship. To suggest however that love is fungible (as Kenworthy suggests) does.

To believe, as Kenworthy seems to do, that “love is love is love” is a sign of emotionally and morally immaturity.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Property Rights & Religious Freedom

The Hon. B. Theodore Bozonelis, a retired State Chief Judge, and Secretary of the Order of Saint Andrew the Apostle, Archons of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, has an essay on Public Orthodoxy that illustrates the connection between religious freedom and property rights. He writes that

Despite the world-wide recognition of the status of His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew as the spiritual leader of all Orthodox Christians, the government of Turkey will give no legal standing and status to the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the historical Holy Center of Orthodox Christianity at the Phanar, in Istanbul. The lack of legal standing and status in essence nullifies property and other fundamental civil rights in Turkey for the Ecumenical Patriarchate which precludes its full exercise of religious freedom. The Ecumenical Patriarchate cannot own in its name the churches to serve the faithful or the cemeteries to provide for their repose. Since it lacks a legal standing, the Ecumenical Patriarchate is powerless to pursue legal remedies to assert property rights or even seek to repair deteriorating property without government approval. (Read the rest here).

As events in Turkey illustrate, the absence of legally enforceable property rights is detrimental to religious freedom.  Important as they are, property rights alone are not sufficient.

Economic rights more broadly,  such as, the ability to engage in free economic exchange and to make a profit,  are also in the service of religious freedom as well as the individual’s freedom of conscience as well as a community’s freedom to assemble and act as a community.

Sometimes in our zeal to defend the poor and oppressed and to include those on the margins of society, we overlook the importance of property right and economic liberty. We don’t help the poor by curtailing the rights of the middle class or wealthy.

Instead, and let’s return to the situation of the Ecumenical Throne in Turkey, the first step in helping the poor and marginalized is to defend their economic liberty. What we should be aiming at is, as Hernando de Soto argues in The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else is to make the legal–and as importantly, cultural, changes need to secure the economic liberty and property rights of all but especially the poor.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Physicians’ Liberty at Risk?

In a recent forum for Democrats running for Wisconsin governor, the current Wisconsin superintendent of public instruction Tony Evers offered this solution to providing health care for those in urban areas; mandatory physician residencies.

“I believe the state of Wisconsin, and we can do this relatively easily, we should provide subsidies to any physician when they go into their residency that they have to serve time in an urban hospital. We need to subsidize and, in some cases, compel and direct residencies and have people in residencies for physicians.”

While I don’t want to minimize the health care needs of those in urban areas (or rural areas for that matter), compelling physicians to practice in underserved areas is simply wrong.

It also opens the door to the state compelling physicians to offer (or not offer) medical care against their best medical judgment. We’ve seen in Canada, the UK and other places that health care providers are obligated to assist in abortion or euthanasia or other services in violation of their conscience and/or best professional judgment.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Wealth & Poverty in St Luke

Recently, I posted an essay on Acton’s Transatlantic Blog reflecting on the economic implications of the Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart’s recent translation of the New Testament. After reading my essay (David Bentley Hart’s Gospel of Cass Division), a friend of mine shared observation from his seminary New Testament professor that I think helps set the context for Jesus’ comments about wealth.

During the New Testament era, keeping the various laws of ritual purity was expensive and so beyond the economic reach of all but the wealthiest members of the Jewish community. We get hints of the economic burden of the Law in several places. The first, and maybe most notably, is in Luke 2:24 where Mary and Joseph offer “A pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons” (NKJV) in thanksgiving for the birth of Jesus. Historically, this was the minimally acceptable offering under the Law and so the typical offering of the poor who couldn’t afford either a bull or a sheep.

Another notable example is the widow in Luke 21:1-4:

And He [Jesus] looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the treasury, and He saw also a certain poor widow putting in two mites. So He said, ‘Truly I say to you that this poor widow has put in more than all; for all these out of their abundance have put in offerings for God, but she out of her poverty put in all the livelihood that she had.’

The critique of the wealthy is clear. Yes, they offer great sums of money. However, they do so not because they are generous but because they are able to do so with relatively little adverse economic impact. The widow, however, has very little money and so the more extravagant gifts and sacrifice necessary for the purification of serious sins are beyond her reach. Like the Mary and Joseph, all she can offer is the bare minimum and so cannot free herself from any weightier sins.

But the wealthy? They can buy ritual purity that is beyond the reach of the poor. For the rich, forgiveness and reconciliation of even the most serious of their sins is ready to hand. But the poor remain estranged from God because of their poverty!

Knowing that reconciliation with God under the Law was conditioned by personal wealth helps us make better sense of Jesus’ comment earlier in Luke 20:46-47.

Then, in the hearing of all the people, He said to His disciples, ‘Beware of the scribes, who desire to go around in long robes, love greetings in the marketplaces, the best seats in the synagogues, and the best places at feasts, who devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense make long prayers. These will receive greater condemnation.’

The wealthy are castigated then not for being wealthy as such but for using their wealth to create and perpetuate a two-tiered religious system in which because of their poverty the poor are excluded from intimacy with God.

Compounding the injustice even further, the various sacrifices need for ritual purity had become central to the economic system surrounding the Temple. It is as a sign that He has come not simply to correct this spiritual and economic injustice but overthrow it. “Then He went into the temple and began to drive out those who bought and sold in it, saying to them, “It is written, ‘My house is a house of prayer,’ but you have made it a ‘den of thieves’” (Luke 19:45-46).

Jesus comes to replace a system in which access to God is a function of wealth. Worse, acquiring the different sacrificial offerings gas becomes the heart of what in another context would be a morally legitimate system of free exchange. In effect, merchants are making a profit from a system that imposes an economic burden on those who would be reconciled with God on a spiritual level and re-integrated into the community on a social level.

In the events leading up to the cleanings of the Temple (Luke 19:1-10), we meet a man intimately involved in the economic injustice at the heart of the Roman Empire–the tax collector Zacchaeus. Though he works for the Romans–and so has placed himself outside the Jewish community–he nevertheless has access to Jesus and so grace. For this reason Zacchaeus “the sinner” (v. 7) stands, like Jesus Himself, as “a sign of contradiction” (Luke 2:34, Douay Rheims) for those who would limit ritual purity to the wealthy and the powerful.

Aware that he has committed injustices against his fellow Jews, Zacchaeus is willing to make amends: “Look, Lord, I give half of my goods to the poor; and if I have taken anything from anyone by false accusation, I restore fourfold” (v. 8). Two things are noteworthy here.

First, Zacchaeus doesn’t offer alms (which was a requirement for all Jews) but as a sacrifice for the harm he has done. He does this outside the formal sacrificial system to the Temple.  It isn’t a Temple priest but Jesus who both receives his offering and declares the sacrifice efficacious. “Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house because he also is a son of Abraham; for the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.’”

Offering a sacrifice for sin is no longer limited to the priests in the Temple. Now, even those outside the community, those who are ritually impure (“sinners and tax collector”) are able to offer sacrifice. That Jesus, Who is not a member of the Temple priesthood, receives the sacrifice undermines the economic system that reinforces the religious authority of the wealthy. at the expense of the poor. With the coming of Jesus, the poor are no longer on the margins of Jewish society. They too have access to God and the forgiveness of their sins.

Immediately after the story of Zacchaeus, Jesus tells the parable of the talents. This serves to reinforce and extend the spiritual/economic lesson. Once again, the question is that of the right use of wealth. Troubling for critics of the free market, the moral legitimacy of profit is assumed. And yet to understand the parable as a New Testament endorsement of capitalism is an anachronistic reading of the text.

Jesus purpose in telling the story is to correct the many who wrongly “thought the kingdom of God would appear immediately.” Like the other passages in Luke, the concern is with announcing the end of an economic and spiritual system in which wealth is used to restrict the access of those on the social or economic margins of society from the Kingdom of God.

This chapter reaches a crescendo when in verses 28-40 Jesus enters Jerusalem not as a wealth King on a magnificent horse but as a poor man riding on a donkey. The symbolism isn’t lost on either the crowds or the Pharisees who “called to Him from the crowd, ‘Teacher, rebuke Your disciples'” (v. 39). Entering as He does on a donkey, “the foal of an ass” (Matthew 21:5 in Luke, “a colt”), Jesus announces a new dispensation in which the wealthy are no longer able to claim–and enforce–an exclusive right of access to God and His blessings.

Unfortunately, for all the enthusiasm with which He is greeted Jerusalem is unable to grasp the true meaning of what Jesus has accomplished.

Now as He drew near, He saw the city and wept over it, saying, “If you had known, even you, especially in this your day, the things that make for your peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. For days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment around you, surround you and close you in on every side, and level you, and your children within you, to the ground; and they will not leave in you one stone upon another, because you did not know the time of your visitation.”(Luke 19: 41-42).

The Catholic biblical scholar Raymond Brown in his commentary of the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke (The Birth of the Messiah) argues that a central message of Luke’s Gospel is that (among others) those excluded from the Jewish community because of poverty have now become the privileged witnesses to the Kingdom of God. To understand this as a proto-Marxist statement is as anachronistic as seeing the Parable of the Talents as an endorsement of the modern, free market.

Instead, Brown argues that in St Luke’s telling, economic poverty no longer excludes people from communion with God. It is this that raises, or maybe better, reveals, the dignity of the poor. They too have access to God. And just as God has done, the wealthy are obligated to extend grace to the poor. This grace isn’t limited to material assistance alone; it also must include respect. Philanthropy, no matter how generous, that fails to respect the dignity of the person falls short of what is required by God. In other words, it is unacceptable for out charity to leave the poor in undignified circumstances. Charity that keeps the poor, poor and so dependent, is unacceptable because it replicates the same economic, social and spiritual condition that Jesus came to overturn.

While good in itself, easing the burden of the poor is simply not enough. We fail the poor when we leave them poor. The reason is that wealth has a purpose: it is meant to protect human dignity, to foster human flourishing and serve the person’s growth in holiness.

Neither wealth nor the wealthy as such are condemned in the New Testament. If this were not the case, alleviating the poverty of the poor would be a sin.

What is condemned, however, is not wealth as such but (I would suggest) the willingness of the wealth (with some notable exceptions like Zacchaeus and a few others like Joseph of Arimathea in Luke and Nicodemus in John’s Gospel) to use their wealth to keep others from the Kingdom of God.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

For Consideration: Tariffs

(Cafe Hayek) Tariffs proved wonderfully attractive to those who benefitted from them. Farmers who grew wool were protected against the harsh wind of foreign competition. So were planters who grew cotton. Both thereby increased their profits. Capitalists and workers in the iron industry, as in pottery, coal, vinegar, candy, and paper production, enjoyed tariff rates that ran to 50 and 60 percent. Protected from the cruel world, such “infant industries” were enabled to grow – or perhaps only to retain their infantile ways….

In recent decades a charming and imaginary history of that outcome has been written. Its theme is that giving capitalist firms a monopoly somehow energized them.

Stanley Lebergott (1984), The Americans: An Economic Record, p. 153.

Video: Consumerism & Asceticism

Boston Fellows, “a nine-month fellowship for young professionals to cultivate the insights and spiritual habits necessary for meaningful vocation, in a cohort of peers, spiritual leaders, and professional mentors, through their local church,” made my Acton lecture on consumerism and asceticism into a video.

Thank you to Rev Kelly Madden for his kindness and willingness to make this happen!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory


An Immodest Marriage Proposal 

Both in the US and overseas (the debate in UK and in Australia are helpfully summarized here) debates about whether or not to redefine marriage to include same-sex couples has generated a great deal heat but very little analytical light. This is why I think a recent post by the Roman Catholic canon and civil lawyer Edward Peters is especially helpful (here).

He begins with a brief legal analysis of the legal and existential differences between “union” and “marriage.” While his concern is the response of the Catholic Church to changes in civil martial law, I think his observations are applicable to Orthodox Christians, Protestants and people of good will who reject recent innovations in civil marriage laws:

Ancient Christians, offered the choice between burning incense to honor the divine Augustus or dying a slow painful death, had to choose the slow painful death if they wanted to remain faithful to the true God. But suppose, instead of burning incense to honor Caesar as a god, ancient Christians could have burned incense to honor him as an emperor. Christians could have burned incense in such cases, as casually as we set ablaze waxen wicks atop a frosted cake to honor a man’s birthday, without fear of scandalizing others. No one thinks the birthday boy is God, and only if some authority begins implying that so-and-so really is a god (think North Korea), and that burning candles in his honor is to acknowledge him as a god, does the matter take on additional meaning. Here, the labels attached to the action domake a huge difference.

Likewise, saying that two persons of the same sex are in a legally-recognized union, whatever else one says about that relationship, is not tantamount to saying that those two persons are married for the simple reason that not every union—even long-term, consensual, sexually-active, economically stable, unions—is a marriage civilly or canonically.

For Peters’ observation to be codified into law, would require (in my view) that the State no longer issuing marriage licenses. Since the State does have a legitimate interest in marriage (even if there is a social debate about its nature), I think it would be better for the State simply to register marriages while remaining agnostic to the exact nature of the union.

How might this work?

First of all a couple could simply register themselves as married according to their own understanding of the institution. Let’s call this a “civil union.” While it would please everyone, this would allow the State to remain legally indifferent as the emotional and/or sexual nature of the union.

To this simple record of fact–“Person A and Person B on such and such a date contracted a civil union”–I would add the option of the couple signing a standard contract that (as Peters observes in his essay) that would spell out the conditions under which they would “share their earnings, have access to each other’s personal records, be covered under each other’s insurance, inherit a preferential portion of the other’s estate, and so on.”  Or, they could sign a contract that was in according to their own religious faith.

Or, the couple could sign a contract that reflected the teachings of their own religious faith. What might this look like?

For an Orthodox couple, this could look very much like the standard contract. To this, I suggest including (for example) conditions under which the divorce would be allowed drawn from both secular and canon law. I’ll talk about why this matters in a moment. For now

For now, though, I think the contract would, at a minimum, allow (not require) divorce for the following reasons: apostasy by one spouse, physical abuse, addiction, and the refusal by one spouse to have children.

Though stated in the negative, all of these conditions also reflect expectations that the spouses have for each other and which in the tradition of the Church are the essential building blocks of the vocation of marriage. Faith in Christ, mutual respect and affection, soberity of life and openness to new life. These are, I would hope, uncontroversial for Orthodox Christians.

While many Orthodox Christians are right upset by the recent change in marriage laws, I think the earlier change of “no-fault” divorce is at least as great a moral and pastoral challenge. In effect, civil divorce laws allow the State to insert itself into the life of Church and end a marriage for any reason or indeed no reason at all.

The same voices that (again, rightly) object to same-sex “marriage” were noticeably silent about changes in divorce laws. What should be a rare–and always tragic–event for the couple, the Church AND civil society, has become ordinary and a matter of social indifference.

Yes, as the list above suggests, there are times when divorce is necessary and the Christian tradition has always acknowledged this. However, Christians of all tradition have been so willing to see our understanding of marriage encoded, and so enforced, in civil law that we have overlooked that what Caesar gave with one hand, he took with the other.

We, and by “we” I mean all Christians though especially Orthodox Christians, have long ago accepted the idea that “marriage” is based not on the “laws of Nature and Nature’s God” but merely in human desire. And this we’ve done while simultaneously preaching a sacramental view of marriage that sees the natural vocation raised by the Holy Spirit to be a living icon of Christ’s love for the Church.

The take away for me is this.

Not that we can no longer depend on the modern secular State to support the Orthodox vision of marriage. Rather it is that we never could and never should have looked to Caesar to do for the Church what only the Church could do for herself.

As Christians–Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant–and people of good will, we need to advocate for laws that allow us at least to pursue a fuller vision of marriage. Such a vision embraces the necessary but insufficient role of mutual consent in marriage. But contemporary divorce laws reduce marriage to whim. They likewise exclude any role for of communities–religious OR secular–in supporting and sustaining marriage as well as holding married couples accountable to their mutual commitment.

Finally, n one of this obviates the role of the State in marriage.The State has a legitimate concern in marriage. While Christians of various traditions think the State has overstepped its authority in expanding the definition of marriage to include same-sex couples, this doesn’t negate the State’s role. What we need to do is what the Church has always done. We must find a way in which we can remain faithful to the Gospel even while acknowledging the State’s God-given role in human affairs.

My immodest marriage proposal, I think, might be a good first step.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Malthus Disney

Walt Disney, doing his part to limit the number of brown people in the world.

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