(well, at least not the out ones!)
I once had an irate visitor to The Wild Reed tell me that I was out to “destroy” the church! Can you believe it? Lately, I’ve been reminded - almost on a daily basis - of this accusation by a number of events taking place within Roman Catholicism. These events have made me realize that no effort on my part is actually required for the destruction of “the church.”
I mean, look around: members of the Roman Catholic hierarchy are showing that they are more than capable of destroying “the church” - or at least their own limited understanding of it. It’s a destruction being wrought primarily by their rigid enforcement of uninformed, insensitive, and supposedly “unchangeable” truths. And I can’t help but notice how their destructive endeavors have intensified in the last twenty years or so, in unison with what could be said to be the official sanctioning, under John Paul II and Benedict XVI, of the roll-back of Vatican II reforms.
The result of such endeavors? Well, people are leaving in droves. And, really, who can blame them? I’m actually beginning to wonder if the church, i.e., the community, that Jesus modeled (1) and calls us to build in our lives and the world, is capable of emerging and surviving in the toxic environment that the “Roman Catholic Church” has become.
Here’s a recent local example of what I mean: at a CPCSM event last month, a deacon became quite emotional when he observed that whenever a young person approaches him for guidance about their growing awareness of their homosexuality, he is painfully aware - now, more than ever - that there is no safe place within the “official” church to which he can refer them. The sole “ministry” that the church offers and promotes (Courage) is both psychologically and spiritually abusive, and so this deacon has no other option but to refer young gay people (or anyone questioning their orientation) to places and services outside Roman Catholicism; to places and services, in other words, that are actually embodying for gay people the mission of the church (2) that Roman Catholicism is failing to do. It’s understandable that for many deacons - and priests - who have dedicated their lives to the church (as defined by Rome), this abysmal failure of the institutional church is greatly distressing and very painful. Yet considering the direction Rome has moved in recent years, I have to question if such a failure in living the mission of the church is really that surprising.
Another example, one that’s making national news: Archbishop Joseph Naumann (pictured at right) has been very vocal in declaring as “troubling” for the nation President Obama’s nomination of Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius for Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services. Why is this troubling for the Archbishop? Because Sebelius (in good conscience, it should be noted) supports legalized abortion in certain circumstances; a view held by the majority of Americans - including Catholics. Archbishop Naumann has even gone so far as to publicly call upon the Governor to refrain from presenting herself for communion.
I can’t help but think that for folks like the heavy-handed Naumann, the solution to “troubling” developments (such as the Sebelius appointment) within our democratic society is to install a Roman Catholic theocracy. Certainly they often speak and act as if such a theocracy already exists. They also sound increasingly impatient with the rest of us - Catholic and otherwise - for not embracing the idea of such a theocracy and shaping up accordingly. Needless to say, for the vast majority of people, such ignorance and arrogance is repellent - literally repellent, if recent figures showing declining membership in the Roman Catholic Church are any indication. The Pew Forum of Religion in America, for instance, reports that thirty million Catholics have left the U.S. church over the past twenty years. Thirty million! (3)
A third example - one that is making international news: Time magazine is reporting on the outage among Catholics in Brazil about Archbishop Jose Cardoso Sobrinho of Recife (pictured above) who recently announced that the Vatican was excommunicating the family of a local girl who had been raped and impregnated with twins by her stepfather, because they had chosen to have the girl undergo an abortion. According to Time, the Church has also “excommunicated the doctors who performed the procedure as well.”
Writes Time correspondent Andrew Downie:
The case has caused a furor. Abortion is illegal in Brazil except in cases of rape or when the mother’s life is in danger, both of which apply in this case. (The girl’s immature hips would have made labor dangerous; the Catholic opinion was that she could have had a cesarean section.) When the incident came to light in local newspapers, the Church first asked a judge to halt the process and then condemned those involved, including the 9-year-old’s distraught mother. Even Catholic Brazilians were shocked at the harshness of the archbishop’s actions. “In this case, most people support the doctors and the family. Everything they did was legal and correct,” says Beatriz Galli, the policy associate for Ipsas Brasil, an NGO that fights to give women more say over their health and reproductive rights. “But the Church takes these positions that are so rigid that it ends up weakened. It is very intolerant, and that intolerance is going to scare off more and more followers.”
Indeed, as Downie notes: “Brazilian devotion to the Catholic Church has declined over the past several years. Whereas Brazil was once an almost entirely Catholic nation, only 74% of Brazilians today admit allegiance to Rome.” While still a high percentage, the Church’s rigid response to the Recife rape and abortion case has “shocked” public opinion and will no doubt further erode membership. (4)
Much has been written about this situation, though, as often is the case, I particularly appreciate the perspective of Colleen Kochivar-Baker over at Enlightened Catholicism.
Last Friday Colleen wrote:
[Many are] furious with the Church [for] not excommunicating the girl’s stepfather. The truth is the stepfather has not engaged in an excommunicable offense. In fact, raping his stepdaughter is actually seen as a more moral sexual act than having sex with his wife if they were using birth control. Raping his nine-year-old stepdaughter is a sexual act open to procreation. According to the Church, God’s law favors rape over birth control. God’s law is sure tough on women and nine-year-old girls.
What did the Archbishop expect a competent medical team to do in this case? Let this child bring two dead babies into the world at the imminent threat to her own life? Would three potential deaths then satisfy the Archbishop and by extension God? Did he really expect that the professional medical community would allow this girl to potentially die, and certainly suffer, so they could save their own souls? Is this really the bottom line in Catholicism? Save your own soul at the expense of any reasonable expression of compassion? The Archbishop’s use of excommunication certainly seems to say so.
Colleen also compares the Archbishop’s actions with the Golden Rule, the “core teaching” of all the great spiritual traditions of the world. It’s a comparison she made after her viewing online a speech by religion scholar Karen Armstrong.
Armstrong maintains that real religion is about compassion and practicing compassion. It’s in the practice of compassion that religious people find a relationship with God. When religions place doctrinal belief ahead of compassion, they cease to function as meaningful contributors to the collective good and become sectarian and divisive. They also excommunicate professional medical people who are exercising ethical compassion and mother’s who care about their children.
This lack of meaningful compassion as played out in the pro-life debate is becoming more and more obvious. In many cases Catholics who are pro-choice ground that decision in compassion, not obstinate disobedience to Papal authority. This seems to be a distinction that is lost on pro-lifers. It’s a distinction that needs to be acknowledged if Catholicism is going to appear as anything other than a sectarian religion on a rampage against secular culture.
Compassion needs to be extended beyond the fetus and include the mother, just as accountability for abortion must extend beyond the mother and include the father. Rape is not about the decision of a nine-year-old girl. Her circumstances were dictated by the perverted sexuality of her stepfather. He is the causal agent, and as such should be excommunicated. In the secular world this makes perfect sense, but in the convoluted world of Catholic moral theology the stepfather is the more moral agent. This is only possible when absolutism trumps compassion. When adherence to doctrine supersedes human decency. What a sorry state of affairs.
Indeed. (And it’s a “sorry state of affairs” that reminds me of Vanessa Redgrave’s line as the title character in the film Mrs. Dalloway. Concerned about her young daughter’s growing involvement with the Reverend Whittaker, who, according to the insufferably pious Miss Kilman, can put “history and religion in their proper perspective,” Mrs. Dalloway notes how she’s often thought that “religious fanaticism can make a person rather callous.”)
Earlier last week, Colleen Kochivar-Baker explored what she calls “the pro-life paradox regarding birth control” and, in doing so, shared some invaluable information and insights concerning the real (and “rather callous”) motivation and agenda of the “pro-life” movement.
The Guttmacher Institute, which both sides in [the abortion] issue routinely cite, stated recently that access to birth control reduces abortions by nearly 40% in low income areas. That’s a pretty staggering percentage. So why aren’t pro-lifer’s on board with free access to birth control if they really care about reducing abortion? Because ultimately it’s not about abortion, it’s about sex and who gets to have it and who gets to pay for it.
Guttmacher also has some other interesting information. For instance, the countries whose legal system follows the pro-life sexual agenda by limiting access to birth control and criminalizing abortion also have the world’s highest rate of abortion and highest rates of over all poverty. The countries with the lowest rates of abortion have the easiest access to birth control and legal abortion. The same is true in states in the US. The lowest abortion rates are in the states with the most liberal abortion laws and easy access to birth control.
The pro-life movement is not about reducing abortions. They are about forcing their vision of appropriate sexual behavior on society, and if women and their children get caught in impossible situations, it’s their own fault.
Do you notice how it always seems to be around issues of sexuality that the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church has lost and is losing credibility? Why is this? Well, obviously, one major reason is the lack of the perspective and wisdom of women in developing church teaching. Another is the (male) hierarchy’s own “unhealed wound” around human sexuality, and related to this is a third - articulated by Chuck Lofy in an interview I conducted with him in 2005.
A problem with the Catholic Church is that the power is in the hands of celibates. As a result, human experience of God within the full range of human sexuality has not been recognized or valued. What’s valued is a system of logic. So for the pope it is logical that when you think of the penis and the vagina, the point of sexuality is to procreate within the framework of heterosexual marriage. It’s a logical, intellectually-based paradigm. But it doesn’t align with human experience in the real world.
The place where the church impinges itself on the conscience of the Catholic is almost invariably in the area of sexuality – whether that’s masturbation, divorce, birth control, homosexuality, premarital sex, or married priests. These realities don’t fit into the limited logical paradigm of someone like the current pope. Yet at the same time there are all kinds of inconsistencies within this particular paradigm; for example, allowing sex when one or both partners are past the age of procreation. Or the fact that priests in the Greek Orthodox Church, which is aligned with Rome, can and do, in fact, marry. Gary Will in his book “Papal Sin,” accurately identifies such inconsistencies as examples of “intellectual dishonesty.”
The institutional church is a power structure that in some areas of life in intellectually dishonest or spiritually blind – something that Jesus consistently warned against.
What about the issue of abortion? Is there evidence of “intellectual dishonesty” on the part of the hierarchy with regard to this important issue?
Again, I appreciate the perspective and insights of Colleen Kochivar-Baker. In a recent commentary on Archbishop Charles Chaput’s February 23 speech at St. Basil’s Church in Toronto, Colleen observes that:
A great deal of this speech pounds the abortion issue. Sometimes I wonder if he ever takes into consideration his own state completely rejected the life begins at conception notion. If Archbishop Chaput ever wants to make a cohesive argument for his case he needs to seriously deal with the biological reality of which he speaks. The real biology of conception runs counter to his claim. There is no real potential life until implantation in the uterus. In this sense a skin cell has as much life potential as a blastoceol (until implantation) and no rational person would advocate for the sanctity of skin cells. That nasty little biological truth has all sorts of ramifications which go well beyond abortion. Perhaps in this case Archbishop Chaput is falling into his own observation: “I’ve learned from experience, though, that Henry Ford was right when he said that ‘Two percent of the people think; three percent think they think, and 95 percent would rather die than think.’”
And speaking of thinking, I’ll conclude this post with how I thought to respond to my anonymous visitor’s contention that I was out to destroy the church (a charge made in response to this post). And note how I understand “the church” in my response - as the people of God, alive with God’s transforming love. This church cannot be destroyed. It’s another story, however, when it comes to church as a monarchical system controlled by a sexist, homophobic, and feudal ruling caste. Not only can this model of church be dismantled, it should be and it is. And as we’re seeing, the principal (if unwitting) dismantlers are members of its own ruling caste. Ironic or what?
Anyway, here’s my response to my accusing (and anonymous) visitor:
There are two things that particularly strike me about Anonymous’ comment. The first is its tone of absolute certainty. Anonymous is certain that all expressions of homosexual activity are “evil;” he’s certain that the church can never change; he’s certain that I, as a gay man who is at peace with his sexuality (a profoundly spiritual peace that he reduces to a rainbow sash-draped “political agenda”), is out to “destroy” the church!
The second thing I’m struck by is the level of fear I sense in Anonymous’ comment. This is no doubt connected to (and perhaps accounts for) his rigidity. My sense is that he really thinks (fears) that the church can be destroyed!
Two points: I find this fear difficult to fathom – especially from someone who professes to be a follower of Jesus, who counsels us to “Be not afraid.”
Second: I think Anonymous equates growth and change with destruction. Sure, as individuals, institutions, and communities develop they inevitably let go of old and restrictive ways of thinking and behaving. But have the things that really matter been destroyed in such a maturation process? I don’t think so.
Yet for those who are incapable of “putting away childish things,” growing up can, I guess, be a fearful prospect and experience – a type of dying, perhaps.
I’m sorry that Anonymous views as destructive the breaking through of God’s love into the lives and relationships of gay people - and the inevitable development within the wider church that such epiphanies have facilitated and continue to facilitate.
I don’t really know what to say to Anonymous, accept to invite him to join with me in not fearing the destruction of the church, but rather in trusting that the Spirit of God is guiding the church, the people of God, in its ongoing pilgrimage through this world.
All will be well, my friend. All will be well.
(1-2) As I’ve noted previously, our “inspiration and guide” for building this community, this church, should be the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. It was a life and ministry that was all about two interrelated and quite revolutionary things: 1) God’s loving presence in our lives, here and now; and 2) liberation from oppressive forces and limiting mindsets that prevent us and others from recognizing and embodying this presence, and thus living lives of consciousness and compassion, i.e., that “abundant life” that Jesus invites all to participate in. (And, of course, intrinsic to all of this is the radical hospitality of Jesus that is reflective of God’s extravagant welcome to all.) These two core components of Jesus’ life and ministry should comprise the mission of the church. Yet for increasing numbers of Catholics, the structures and teachings of Roman Catholicism are actually impeding this mission. And their response to such an intolerable situation? They’ve chosen to leave and are either without a faith community or have found alternative faith communities where the mission of the church is actually being lived out.
(3-4) One has to wonder if the hierarchy gives cares about the number of people who are leaving. After all, as Kathleen Kautzer notes: Pope Benedict XVI has stated publicly that he wants a smaller, purer Church, and that he wants reformers to leave unless they can support everything the hierarchy teaches. “[The pope] doesn’t care if you leave,” says Kautzer. “He’s happy to push you out the door.”
I don’t believe this is true of all cardinals and bishops, many of whom are not as isolated as the pope. They are acutely aware of what such an exodus would mean financially for the Church. Even some conservative Catholics are worried. Writing in the February 2008 issue of the Catholic World Report, Russell Shaw refers to David Carlin’s book, The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America, and notes that: “Carlin concludes that the outcome of the crisis will probably be the de facto collapse of the Church in America and the retreat of Catholics into the status of a ‘minor and relatively insignificant sect.’ Traditionalists will have won the internal Catholic power struggle, mainly because the progressives will have drifted away. But in the end, the small band of traditionalists will find themselves isolated in ‘a new Catholic quasi-ghetto,’ with about as much influence on the culture as the Amish and Hasidic Jews have now.” Mmm . . . given recent events in Brazil and elsewhere, such diminishment of influence would not be a bad thing.
Recommended Off-site Links:
Vatican Backs Abortion Row Bishop - BBC News, March 7, 2009.
How to Empty the Church - Joseph O’Leary, March 3, 2009.
“Falling Away” - Mary Lynn Murphy (Progressive Catholic Voice, January 4, 2009).
A Church Jesus Would Recognize: An Interview with Lena Woltering - Progressive Catholic Voice, October 2007.
See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
What It Means to Be Catholic
A Time to Re-think the Basis and Repair the Damage
“The Real Battle”
Benedict’s Understanding of Church
“We are Facing a Structural Problem”
Of Mustard Seeds and Walled Gardens
Dispatches from the Periphery
A Declaration of Reform and Renewal
Conflicting Understandings of Church and Revelation Underlie Situation in Madison and Beyond
U.S. Catholic Bishops: “Playing Politics on Abortion”
The Bishops and Obama (Part 1)
The Bishops and Obama (Part 2)
The Church’s Teaching on Abortion: Unchanged and Unchangeable?