Pope Francis is reported to have told a homosexual, “God made you that way and loves you.” In the last six months, I have responded to the miscarriage of a three-month-old baby, the sudden death of a hospice nurse due to an aneurism, and the terminal diagnosis of a middle-aged husband and father. In these situations, I have continually insisted on God’s love and providence. I have never said God made it happen.
One of the most astonishing features of the Biblical creation account is that the entire cosmos is declared “very good.” This flies in the face of human experience. In fact, the creation myths of many cultures hold that good and evil are inherent elements of human nature and the world order. It is the way things are made.
Genesis corrects this error by revealing that evil is not rooted in creation, but in humanity’s abusive decision to turn away from God, one another, and God’s created order through sin. At the same time, the account of the Fall of Adam and Eve unfolds in the context of God’s continual love and providential care in the face of sin and the evils unleashed by it.
The Scriptures tell the story of God opening a path to salvation that frees us from the effects of personal sin and the evils that befall us so that we might fully share His divine life through nuptial union with Christ. In Jesus, we discover that God foretold this saving union when He created the human race as sexually differentiated persons united in indissoluble marriage. (Mt. 19:56, Gen. 2:24, Is. 62:5, Eph. 5:31-32)
Despite the fallen nature of the human race and the cosmos, therefore, we can still affirm that God created us and loves us. But we cannot simply say, “God made me this way.” If “this way” refers to the image and likeness of the Trinity and the calling to be a member of the body and bride of Christ, then the statement is true. If “this way” refers to the ill-effects of the messed-up world or of our personal sin, then the statement is false.
God loves sinners, the handicapped, the sick, the mentally ill, the imprisoned, the enslaved, the abused, the starving, the doubting, the grieving, the dying, etc. In some cases, these people contributed to their situation, in others they did not. God loves them all, but He has not made them that way.
It can be said truly that God tolerates these situations since, evidently, He chooses not to enter into history to prevent these particular wrongs from happening. The nature of this toleration, however, warrants our careful attention. It is not indifference, acceptance, or welcoming. It is a “bearing with” (Latin: toleratio) or a “suffering with” (Latin: compassio).
The full revelation of God’s compassionate toleration of sin and the effects of evil is found in the passion, death, and glorification of Jesus. Precisely because Jesus loved us with the Father’s love, He carried in his humanity the burden of all the ill that we do and that we bear. In doing so, He made our innocent and culpable sufferings a place of encountering God and his love, that is, a place of conversion, healing, and communion.
God brings about our salvation, our “well-being” (Latin: salus), not by preventing, denying, or eradicating evil at each moment, but by fundamentally altering our relation to it through our union with Christ. He thereby enables us to carry and suffer every form of evil that afflicts us and others without entering into further sin.
This is the Good News we have been sent to live and to proclaim: “God did not make us the way we are and He loves us. That is why He carried the burden of the sins and evils that distort our lives and invites us to carry that burden with him. He wishes to espouse us to himself so that we might share his divine life now and forever. And I love you enough to tell you this.”
Experiencing same-sex attraction, being divorced by a spouse, feeling a compulsion to abuse others, having an addiction, and the myriad of other troubles of body, psyche, and soul that we face as members of the fallen human race are not made better by being declared the handiwork of God. Nor, of course, are they helped by being treated as sins if we have not deliberately willed them or if we have repented of the sin that gave rise to them.
What is helpful, indeed the only thing ultimately able to sustain us, is the truth about our fallen, sometimes sinful, condition and the union that God offers us in Christ. That union requires, as Jesus said, that we take up the Cross daily. We do so by acknowledging our sins, our distorted inclinations, the burden of evil in our lives and the lives of those we love, and by carrying those with Christ who first carried them for us. Because of this union, we can carry these burdens without yielding to sin.
That is the Gospel. It is not something to hide or to evade. We are called to announce it unambiguously to the world. Consequently, when our witness to Jesus is misunderstood we are obliged to take reasonable steps to offer a correction.
Were a priest to be misquoted about the Gospel in the local paper or by a parishioner publicly recounting a private meeting, the priest would need to remedy the error. I have myself faced this situation.
The solution is simple and involves no accusation of deception or violation of confidence. A priest need only say, “The position attributed to me is mistaken. It mischaracterizes (or contradicts) the Gospel of Christ that I profess. I regret any misunderstanding and am happy to clarify the matter.”
To do less would harm those misled by the report. Besides, my brother, a priest, would charitably but firmly insist on it.
*Image: “Go and sin no more.” The Woman Taken in Adultery by Lorenzo Lotto, c. 1528 [Louvre, Paris]