In seeking to be holy, we are setting ourselves apart for God to be the greatest focus of our lives. If we choose something over or instead of God, we are effectively behaving like an idolator. Why? Because, as Jesus taught us:
34 When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35 and one of them [a scholar of the law]* tested him by asking, 36 “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 37 He said to him,* “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. 38 This is the greatest and the first commandment. 39 The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.” (Matthew 24:34-40)
These two things are inseparable in the eyes of God. If we are to love God, we cannot neglect the commandments He has given us. We cannot put in opposition His commands that say that certain things are evil with the command that we love our neighbor. This gives us two obligations to watch out for:
- We cannot ignore the obligations that God gives us because of a false compassion for our neighbor.
- We cannot mistreat others in the name of following the obligations of God.
These two things have sometimes been done. I think that in the present, many people seem to ignore the first obligation. In the past, some have ignored the second.
We cannot ignore the obligations that God gives us because of a false compassion for our neighbor.
One of the problems in modern society is we confuse doing right with “being nice.” We feel pity for someone being obligated to do something or refrain from doing something, when we see that obligation as being an inconvenience of some kind. This is how most of the arguments supporting abortion or “same sex marriage” tend to work. An appeal is made to the plight of the woman who does not want to be pregnant, or the person with same-sex attraction being doomed to live life alone. Now, yes a woman who did not plan to be pregnant may have to undergo changes and hardships. Yes a person with same-sex attraction can suffer terrible loneliness from not having a lifelong companion (Genesis 2:18).
However, even though those hardships are real, we can never alleviate them by breaking the commandments of God. When it comes to that sort of a conflict, then we must serve God. It’s not that we have a low opinion for the people—putting rules ahead of people (as the popular charge goes). It’s a case of God giving us teachings that are for our good, not His good.
We need to think about it this way: Sin is not a violation of human rules. It is something that hinders or even kills our relationship with God. It is something we need to be redeemed from. Our Lord Jesus thought that sin was something so serious that He chose to die for us to save us from it. So, God telling us not to sin is not an arbitrary rule that we can disregard. In fact, if we do freely choose to sin, we are making a mockery out of Jesus’ death on a cross.
We cannot mistreat others in the name of following the obligations of God
Of course, we have to remember that Jesus died for all of us (John 3:16-17)—including the people who commit the sins we find abhorrent. So we are not allowed to write off the sinner as not being worth the effort. We have the parable for the Shepherd and the Lost Sheep (Luke 15:1-7). When we reach out to the sinner, we can’t behave in a way that drives them away. That’s the major thrust of Pope Francis’ emphasis on mercy.
Because sometimes it is true that Catholics have not done well in showing that mercy. People like to point out the Spanish Inquisition and, while the claims are exaggerated to a ridiculous degree, the fact remains that this is not something that is in keeping with the teaching of Christ. This was the point of the apologies made by St. John Paul II in March 12, 2000. There were times when some Catholics were more interested in punishing the guilty than redeeming them. There are also lesser cases where individual Catholics have used harsh rhetoric in defending the faith and in debate with those who disagree with them.
These things need to be avoided. If we behave in a hostile matter, it becomes difficult to show the reasons that the Church teaching is not one of hatred or rigidness. The teachings of God become confused with political views and are thus rejected.
The trick, however, is the fact that some people try to prey on our fear of being like the Pharisee by making any application of Church teaching sound like a denial of mercy. Saying something is a sin and the person who commits that sin is endangering their soul is not hatred. It is the earnest warning of someone who does not want to see the person wind up in hell. If the Church hated the sinner, they simply would not bother to preach at all and enjoy the thought of the sinner in hell. But God does not want us to do this. He wants us to warn the sinner (see Ezekiel 3:18).
The point remains that one cannot separate love of God with love of neighbor. But one has to keep the love of God and what is truly the love of neighbor. When it comes to love of God, we love Him by keeping His commandments (John 14:15). When it comes to loving our neighbor, it excludes acting in a way which goes against God. Once we put something ahead of God, we have an idol. Whether that idol is a literal golden calf, or a cause like “choice,” or a behavior like sodomy, we prefer that over God and refuse to obey God. Maybe we persuade ourselves that God doesn’t really care about His own teaching, but remember what I pointed out about what God did about sin. He gave His only son (John 3:16) to die to break the bonds of sin. Do you really think that God will not exact justice from the person who dies unrepentant?
We need to destroy our idols, otherwise they will lead to our destruction. That’s not a statement of hatred, but a statement of compassion and love.