“Homophobia is a sin.” – The Very Rev. Gary Hall (Dean of the Episcopal Washington National Cathedral), Sermon on 10/6/2013
Last Sunday, The Very Rev. Gary Hall preached a sermon entitled “The Final Barrier”. The sermon suffers from a severe anemia of logic, and fails to appeal to anything but base sentimentality. Nonetheless we should not ignore it, because it is a warning of what approaches: the further redefinition of sin.
I do not wish to revisit the issue of homosexuality itself. Instead, this article concerns the question that naturally proceeds from a declaration that homosexual activity is not a sin.
If Dean Hall is correct that same-sex activity is “good”, and any orientation is “good”, simply “…because that is the way God has made you”, then what do we say about people who do not affirm what is now “good”? What can be said about faithful Christians who honor what Scripture and Tradition teaches regarding God’s plan for human sexuality? Are they guilty of sin?
What is Sin?
The Church teaches that “Sin is an offense against God: ‘Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done that which is evil in your sight.’ Sin sets itself against God’s love for us and turns our hearts away from it. Like the first sin, it is disobedience, a revolt against God through the will to become ‘like gods,’ knowing and determining good and evil. Sin is thus ‘love of oneself even to contempt of God.’ In this proud self-exaltation, sin is diametrically opposed to the obedience of Jesus, which achieves our salvation.” (CCC 1850).
In his sermon, Dean Hall said, “We must now have the courage to take the final step and call homophobia and heterosexism what they are. They are sin. Homophobia is a sin. Heterosexism is a sin.”
Before looking at the merits of this assertion, I point out that such a statement isn’t really courageous at all. It is an attempt to transfer the “last acceptable prejudice” from one group to another. It also implies that only certain groups should be free to live without judgment or condemnation.
Dean Hall also fails to appreciate the irony of an attempt to silence moral ground objections to homosexual activity – because such objections are not, and never have been considered homophobia – but that point is lost somewhere in the mess of his unsupported conclusions about sin.
The sermon is one of the more brazen and misanthropic statements against Traditional Christianity as regards homosexuality, because it not only adopts the premise that homosexual activity is good, but also that opposition to it is what is actually sinful. Dean Hall employs the term “homophobia” as a slur, but fails to do any of the heavy lifting required to actually prove his points.
The Disregarded Paradox
Dean Hall’s argument begins to unravel with the definition of homophobia itself, which is the “irrational hatred or fear of homosexuals or homosexuality”. (Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Third Ed. (1997)). Homophobia is irrational hatred or fear, “irrational” meaning “contrary to reason; senseless, unreasonable, absurd.” (Id.). In wrapping everything conveniently (but also fallaciously) together, Dean Hall attempts to use homophobia to describe something that is not only irrational, but also sinful.
The problem is that this isn’t even possible: something cannot both be sinful and also irrational, because sin “is an offense against reason, truth and right conscience; it is failure in genuine love for God and neighbor caused by a perverse attachment to certain goods. It wounds the nature of man and injures human solidarity. It has been defined as “an utterance, deed, or a desire contrary to the eternal law.” (CCC 1849). Something against the eternal law must take the law into account; all is inherently irrational without such a reference.
St. Thomas Aquinas states that “sin is nothing else than a bad human act.” (Summa Theologica, 71:6). A bad human act is voluntary, as being “elicited by the will” or “as being commanded by the will”. An act is not sufficiently voluntary, as St. Thomas might say, unless the will permits it, or put another way, unless at least a measure of reason is attached. A sin is not a sin unless one is aware that the action is sinful and one chooses to do the sin anyway. God gives us our reason precisely so that we might freely “choose the good.”
To the extent that homophobia is based on irrationality, Dean Hall defeats his own argument by trying to have it both ways when he argues that homophobia is also a sin, because irrationality means that what is lacking in the bad act is the knowledge and intent necessary for it to be sin.
Also, to the extent that homophobia is intended as something pejorative in the sermon, the inference is that the term also encompasses moral ground objections to homosexuality and homosexual activity which can be lumped together with “homophobia”, as evidenced by the statement that “Shaming people for whom they love is a sin.” This suggests that whenever one is made to feel ashamed “for whom they love”, this is somehow an act of homophobia, which should rightly be condemned as both irrational and absurd. But if this is so, then it is equally absurd and illogical to also condemn it as a sin.
Perhaps this distinction does not matter to anyone but me. I certainly do not defend homophobia. I am opposed to irrationality and I am opposed to homophobia. But I am sure that some readers will paint my arguments with the same brush that Dean Hall uses. A threat to good discourse is to apply labels that are not appropriate. In making his claims, Dean Hall uses the term homophobia in such a way that it includes and shames Traditional Christians, not for “whom they love,” but for what they earnestly believe.
We are Called to Love our Neighbors
Hatred of anything but sin should find no quarter in the life of a Christian. We are called to love one another. There can be no hatred directed to our fellow humans. The whole of Church teaching reflects this; she tells us that “There are many passions. The most fundamental passion is love, aroused by the attraction of the good. Love causes a desire for the absent good and the hope of obtaining it; this movement finds completion in the pleasure and joy of the good possessed.” (CCC 1765).
Love – good – hope – and joy – all go together. To the extent that Love is authentic, the others will be too. In loving one another, what we do is to “…will the good of another.” (CCC 1766). This is supported by Aquinas and Augustine both. (Summa Theologica, 26:4). All other affections, says the Church, “…have their source in this first movement of the human heart toward the good. Only the good can be loved.” (CCC 1766).
It is sufficient here to rely upon the Church’s rational reasoning: that if love is to will the good of another person, and the highest and best good for another person is Heaven, then that same hope of the good requires an expression of authentic love which calls the sinner away from what may prevent entry to Heaven. If only the good can be loved, then Dean Hall also enters into serious error and a number of dubious presumptions about what things like “good” or “love” actually mean, but that’s a topic for another article.
There is an oft-repeated accusation against the Church’s teachings on homosexuality: that they are homophobic, just as the Church’s teachings on contraception and abortion are misogynistic. Neither accusation is true, of course, and long before the debate over homosexuality was the moral issue du jour, Ven. Fulton Sheen said that people only hate what they think the Church teaches.
I pray that the venerable archbishop’s words ring true in this particular context too. Otherwise, love — in addition to sin — lacks a common meaning among the people invoking Jesus’ name. Without these common reference points, we can see that society has fallen into a neo-paganism, and even many Christians will take the bait and share the new definitions of secular culture.
Dean Hall’s sermon lacks sound theological basis. His definitions of love and sin are manufactured. His conclusions are not supported in Scripture and Tradition. Which begs the question of where he believes Truth comes from. God’s definitions are the only ones that really matter. In the end, we will all be judged by the way that we loved, and little else.