On the Monday after the Orlando bloodbath, I read in Crux Edward Beck’s scripted recollection of the homily he delivered in church the previous morning. The two did not quite square. Between the spoken address and the published account, something crucial was omitted and something ugly added.
Fr. Beck is a visiting Passionist priest who says the noon Mass at my parish every Sunday. He is also a public figure, a high-profile, on-air spokesman for things Catholic—particularly in relation to homosexuality—for CNN and the major networks. An author and playwright, he is a well-connected, influential communications maven.
Beck opened his homily with mention of our having woken up that morning to news of the terrible violence in Florida. That brief, vague reference to the day’s headline was the sum of it. Orlando was not named. The gay disco went unmentioned. Admittedly, Fr.Beck was taking for granted that the congregation was up on the news. Nevertheless, the word terrorism was not spoken, Islam never broached.
For Beck’s purposes, the killings were an up-to-the-minute hook on which to hang one more hosanna to love-and-mercy, a soothing conceit stripped of nuance or qualification. Its ultimate aim is support for Fr. Beck’s self-appointed mission: the normalizing—not to say promoting—of homosexuality. Islamic terror is an unmentionable side note. After all, as Fr. Beck intoned, none of us knows what we might be capable of if we were “pushed to extremes.” (Besides, as he tweeted afterwards: “Easy access to guns/weapons is sickening and wrong #Orlando.”) The best we can do is love.
“Love, and do as you please,” crooned Fr. Beck, [mis-] quoting St. Augustine.
It was his closing line, a favorite one he has delivered before, and always in the tailwind of the pope’s “Who am I to judge?”
Why the brackets around the prefix mis? Is that not an accurate quote? Yes, it is. Pulled from context, however, the isolated exhortation distorts Augustine’s intent. It suggests the opposite of the rigor Augustine described in his famous sermon on love (more below).
Sunday’s first reading had been the story of King David’s confession of guilt to the prophet Nathan: “I have sinned against the LORD.” Did not David and Bathsheba love and do as they pleased, leaving loyal Uriah to pay the price for it? Fr. Beck failed to notice.
Next came the Lucan gospel of the sinful woman who lavishes Jesus’ feet with pricey oils—trade tools of a harlot—and bathes them with her tears. Both stories hinge on the interdependence of contrition and forgiveness. True repentance seeks absolution; the mercy of absolution is a response to repentance. Thus, the refrain of the responsorial psalm that accompanied the first reading: “LORD, forgive the wrong that I have done.”
But contrition was not the point to Edward Beck. He has an axe to grind. The grate and scrape of it was all over his next-day essay in Crux: “A Wake-up Call to Ensure Faith Isn’t Hijacked.” The piece opened with breathtaking denial of the nature of Islam and the Koran’s theological imperative to violence:
Neither Catholic nor Islamic teaching in any way justifies violence against a group of people. However, Orlando is a reminder that believers of all sorts are called to be vigilant in assuring that the edicts of our traditions are never hijacked as apologia for nefarious ends.
In other words, we are all bloody-minded, all potential terrorists. Islam has no distinguishing impulse to violence.
Set aside for now Beck’s disdain for parishioners (who “lumbered” into church), one of them a censorious matron who implied that “bad things happen to bad people.” (Was she an invention, a storyteller’s device useful to the Crux recap?) Ignore his implicit assertion of moral relativism: “Islamic and Catholic teaching on homosexuality are not dissimilar.” Instead, stay with the archives of Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI). On March 10, 2015, MEMRI examined the Islamic campaign against homosexuals:
According to majority interpretations of Islamic shari’a law, homosexuality is indeed punishable by death; this has been clearly stated by well-known and highly influential Sunni Muslim authorities, sheikhs, professors, and Muslim Brotherhood leaders. These have included leading Sunni authority and head of the International Union of Muslim Scholars Sheikh Yousuf Al-Qaradhawi; highly influential Kuwaiti Islamic preacher and Muslim Brotherhood leader Tareq Al-Suweidan; Saudi cleric and Islamic University professor ‘Abd Al-Qader Shiba Al-Hamad; and many others. …
Note the term majority interpretations. MEMRI is speaking of conventional Islam, not a fringe variant that pirated the religion from its moorings:
These statements and teachings regarding the death penalty for homosexuality appear in Muslim school curricula, on mainstream television, and in mosque sermons across the Arab and Muslim world, and are also expressed by Muslim authorities in the West. … Recent examples of executions of homosexuals by Al-Qaeda and ISIS using these [traditional] methods of stoning to death, throwing off high buildings, and shooting are documented in this report; it should also be noted that ISIS has continued to use U.S. social media, particularly Twitter, to disseminate to its supporters online images of its executions of homosexuals.
To date, there has been very little discussion in the Arab media about these executions, and there has been no significant Arab or Muslim religious or political leader who has denounced them.
None of this can dispel willed ignorance. Seemingly driven more by self-regard than the gospel, Fr. Beck is on the qui vive to defend his own sexual identity. Without directly naming it, he has alluded to his homosexuality in several sermons. (“Before Francis, I did not feel welcome in the Church.”)
The admiring congregation has no doubt about what he means.
In Crux, Beck repeats the love-is-all mantra used to defuse distinction between homosexuality and the heterosexual norm: “Love wins every time, in every way.” It is the leaven of the Pharisees, of which we are warned to be aware.
Beck’s reductive use of the Augustine quote betrays the intention of it. Augustine’s famous sermon on love begins: “Dearly beloved, let us love one another.” He addressed a specific community, the Christians of Hippo (in modern Algeria). His words were not a broadcast of warm feeling to all and sundry.
The love of which he spoke was not emotive. It was a discipline: the soul trained in love of God will do nothing to offend the Beloved. Only in the fullness of its context can “Love, and do as you please” be accurately conveyed:
All who do not love God are strangers and antichrists. They might come to the churches, but they cannot be numbered among the children of God. That fountain of life does not belong to them.
Augustine reminds Christians that one of the obligations of love is to admonish the sinner. There is a force, even a ferocity, to Augustine’s understanding of love that runs counter to today’s sentimentality.
If any of you should wish to act out of love, brothers, do not imagine it to be a self-abasing, passive and timid thing. And do not think that love can be preserved by a sort of gentleness – or rather tame listlessness. This is not how it is preserved. Do not imagine that you love your servant when you refrain from beating him, or that you love your son when you do not discipline him, or that you love your neighbor when you do not rebuke him. This is not love, it is feebleness. Love should be fervent to correct.
Ah, but correction entails negative judgment, which, in turn, “divides rather than unites.” That is unacceptable to Fr. Beck. And yet, Jesus said as much: “Think you, that I am come to give peace on earth? I tell you, no; but separation” (Luke 12:51). The gospel repeats the message: “I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother” (Matt. 10:35).
Division is the inevitable tragic consequence of fidelity to the Word in a world that diminishes it. In this, our vale of tears, we are necessarily separate, even from much that we might long to embrace.