Originally Published in The Catholic Thing
In his Letter to the Romans, Saint Paul starts by greeting “all the beloved of God in Rome.” The next words he uses, however, qualify that greeting: “called to be holy.” The community is called to be holy – the whole reason for the letter and for the existence of the Roman community in the first place.
It is also the premise on which his subsequent teaching is based. Paul has teaching credentials, “the grace of apostleship” and he offers the Gospel, which “is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes.” Salvation, meaning freedom from sin and union with God, includes becoming holy through God. Only the holy can be united with the holy God.
Next Paul explains the nature of God and of the humanity that he sustains in existence and relates to in grace. Mankind is in desperate straits. His situation is not neutral but rather man’s thoughts, words, and actions are marred by sin: “all have sinned and are deprived of the glory of God.”
The nature and effects of this sin are then described. After which Paul offers the answer to this situation: “in [the Gospel] is revealed the righteousness of God.” Righteousness and holiness are the nature of God himself. So God is not neutral in this relationship either.
Now through this Gospel comes righteousness for mankind. In fact, a human “who is righteous by faith will live.” He/she can unite with the righteous God. Paul knew he was quoting scripture but left no clue where the words come from.
The Letter to the Hebrews says: “my just one shall live by faith, and if he draws back I take no pleasure in him.” (Hebrews 10:38) This is the same idea, namely that the relation with God is interpersonal, that mankind’s side of the relationship is based on faith, uniting the just with the just One in eternal life, but starting already in this world where they live in faith. Interestingly, faith involves the whole person, body and soul. The alternative to a faith relationship is the prospect of men and women “holding back,” and thus becoming unjust, body and soul.
How to describe the injustice? Fundamentally, justice is related to truth, the truth of who God is, of what a relationship with him means and that this truth is already expressed in the way things are created to function. None of these truths is a human construct and so not a single one of them is open to the treatment of “what I would like it to be,” but rather rests on “what can be known about God [and] is evident. . .because God made it evident.” The impious or wicked – his words – deny this truth. In fact, they go further – and “suppress this truth.”
The Apostle Paul by Rembrandt, c. 1657 [National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.]
Living in faith, body and soul, means acknowledging the whole truth of existence – one of the meanings of “Catholic” – and not just selected bits of it. For the human being, acknowledging this truth, body and soul, in its entirety “accord[s] him glory as God [and] give[s] him thanks.” Thus fulfilling the relationship with God.
Paul has not mentioned feelings at all. Instead the highest power of the soul, the reason, is given its full responsibility. It learns what is genuinely good from revelation and it guides the will to do that good. This is the authentic human being operating authentically body and soul!
Alternatively one can suppress this truth and then people “bec[o]me vain in their reasoning, and their senseless minds [are] darkened.” Or again: “They exchange the truth of God for a lie and revere and worship the creature rather than the creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.” In short, they become idolaters in their souls.
Here is the central question in this chapter of Romans – holiness or idolatry in body and soul? Man cannot pose artificial limits on the consequences of his actions. Instead, the Almighty God is the intimate ground of every human action (starting in the soul and expressed in the body) and is worshipped in the positive carrying out of action from that ground, which is where the positive moral worth of the act lies. My gratification is not the issue!
The consequences of this idolatry? Paul again: “God handed them over to degrading passions. Their females exchanged natural relations for unnatural, and the males likewise gave up natural relations with females and burned with lust for one another.” The idolatry in the soul passes over to idolatry in the body.
Finally, by these activities such women and men degrade themselves by going against the order of created reality. Furthermore, a whole culture develops based on their “undiscerning mind[s]” comprising people who “not only do [these things] but give approval to those who practice them” as well.
This is not the only kind of idolatry that arises, because there are many, many ways to deny the truth of existence. For example, people become “filled with every form of wickedness, evil, greed, and malice; full of envy, murder, rivalry, treachery, and spite. They are gossips and scandalmongers and they hate God.” And they all promote cultures that support their particular vice. In short, there is a whole panoply of idolatry that is possible once one goes against the truth of existence that leads us to God.
Some today think that’s only a view current 2000 years ago. But the truth of existence is ever the same. And the result of ignoring it – as we now see all around us – is pretty much always the same too.