Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Too Wild?

Last night I received the following communication from “Gus,” who questions the Catholicity of much of what I write on The Wild Reed.

“You may in fact be progressive and gay,” writes Gus, “[but] you are most definitely not Catholic.”

Gus, a gay Catholic man and president of his local Dignity chapter, also takes issue with the Spirit of St. Stephen’s Catholic Community, of which I’m a member.

Following is Gus’ message in its entirety.


Hi Michael,

This is the second time I’m writing to you and it’ll probably be the last.

The first time I wrote was to share with you my excitement at having found a blog from “a progressive, gay, Catholic perspective.” I consider myself as such and it is always joyful to find companions on the journey. I should explain that I am a self-described liberal who usually votes Democratic, who opposed the Iraq War, who supports universal healthcare, who opposes capital punishment, etc. I’m also the president of a local chapter of Dignity. So, I don’t think that I'd be very welcomed by conservatives, either political or religious ones.

However, the reason why I’m writing today is to say that over the past several months my excitement has turned to disappointment and with [your Rome Falling column] to utter dismay. You see, I’ve realized that this blog is just an exercise in false advertisement. For while you may in fact be progressive and gay, you are most definitely not Catholic.

Imagine for a moment that someone who described herself or himself as LGBT had a blog where all they did was to criticize Queer culture and extol the merits of heterosexuality while basically saying that the best way to be gay was to belong to Courage. Such a blog would be a farce. That person might indeed be homosexual but she or he would not be gay, i.e., self accepting of their sexual orientation.

Now here you describe yourself as Catholic but almost always you are criticizing the Roman Catholic Church, extolling the merits of other religious traditions such as Sufism, and basically saying that the best way to be Catholic is to be Protestant. You basically deny every Catholic dogma that you address whether its the hierarchical nature of the Church, the qualitative difference between the priesthood of the ordained versus the priesthood of the baptized, papal infallibility, etc. (BTW, all of the preceding are clearly affirmed by Vatican II). Furthermore, you misrepresent Church practice on indulgences and excommunication.

Finally, you seem to be engaged in this tearing down of the Church with glee since you believe that Catholic orthodoxy must give way to Protestant congregationalism where there is no universal Magisterium and only a local communal authority to determine worship and belief. [I think this contention is made in response to this post.] Of course, it is your right to promote your agenda but I have to call you out and make it clear that what you advocate for is not Catholicism.

You often state that you believe that the center (Rome) of the Church is dying while the
periphery (where you situate yourself) is thriving. Well, I’d wager that twenty years from now the Roman Catholic Church (where Christ’s Church subsists – see Vatican II) will be around, while a group like the Spirit of St. Stephen’s Community will have dissolved altogether or find itself becoming increasingly agnostic or even atheistic; the inevitable result of Protestantism – see Northern Europe).

Michael, I don’t know if you are calling yourself Catholic intentionally to mislead or if you are just not aware of how far from the Church you already are, but please realize that having cut yourself from the vine there is nothing left but to wither. I will pray for you (and others in the Spirit of St. Stephen’s Catholic Community) that you may come back to the Church and really begin to integrate being progressive, gay, AND Catholic.


Now I must admit that my first response was to wonder if Gus has similar issues with those (much higher profile) Catholics such as Hans Küng, Rosemary Radford Ruether, Joseph O’Leary, Robert McClory, and Mary Hunt. After all, they all espouse similar views to mine. Indeed, their scholarship and theologizing have helped shape my thinking on a number of topics. (Mary Hunt, incidentally, is scheduled to be one of the keynote speakers at DignityUSA’s annual conference. I wonder if Gus will be attending, given that he’s president of his local Dignity chapter!).

Anyway, I could go on (and probably will at some later date). But for now, after having directed Gus to this previous Wild Reed post where I address some of his concerns, and after having posted his comment here, I would now like to open this important discussion to a wider audience than would have been possible if I’d left Gus’ comment languishing in the comments section of my previous Rome Falling post.

So your thoughts & responses, my friends, I respectfully request . . .

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
What It Means to Be Catholic
Who Gets to Be Called “Catholic” - and Why?
Thoughts on Authority and Fidelity
Comprehending the “Fullness of Truth”
Celebrating Our Sanctifying Truth
A Catholic Understanding of Faithful Dissent (Part 1)
A Catholic Understanding of Faithful Dissent (Part 2)
Agreeing with the Vatican

Opening Image: A Passing Storm.


Tom said...

I don't have explicit connections to The Wild Reed, and yet I feel connected.

At 19, I invested my most significant assets and the biggest possible chunk of my available time in connecting with my long-estranged dad. The healthy result of that, for me, was clarity. The unfortunate but necessary result of that was coming out to myself as a guy who wouldn't ever have a substantive relationship with his dad.

At 33, I put everything I cared most about on the line -- my wife, my 10-year marriage, my relationships with my 3 young kids -- in order to say, I think I might be gay, but I'm not sure, and my bottom line is that I need to work on living more honestly from this point forward. Things got tough quickly, and remained unusually intensely complicated for years.

At 39, I was thrust into coming out as a survivor of my loved one's suicide. Until then, I considered myself to be reasonably conscious about and aware of gay suicide-related issues. Afterward, not so much. For me, the issues were much more multi-faceted and complex after my partner's death than they had been before.

The potential for a reasonably healthy, productive connection between Gus and Michael may have run its course, leaving nothing more to be explored.

Another possibility, which resonates with hope for me, is that both Gus and Michael know all too well what it is to come out as being "other" in whatever sense, then work through other folks' surprise, to find themselves being questioned, discredited, demeaned, or excluded in the community they considered to be their home base.

It's often harder to sustain our longer-standing, more deeply-rooted relationships as we grow and change, especially compared to the effort needed to sustain newer, fresher connections with the folks we mostly agree with.

But, don't our shared values call us, draw us, inspire us, to reach for what's difficult but possible, not just what's new or easy?

Peacemike said...

Dear Michael,

It is sadly amusing to read that the president, Gus, of a local Dignity chapter -- a group, by definition of "protestants" who are not welcome in Catholic churches in our country by edict of Rome -- is accusing you of not being "Catholic"! With very few exceptions among our bishops, most members of Dignity -- and certainly presidents of local chapters -- would not find themselves described as "faithful Catholics" by the leaders of our Church. Has Gus read any Vatican documents on homosexuality lately?

It is precisely the Vatican's estimation of Dignity that has prevented me from joining the organization over the years; I did not want to highlight the fact every Sunday that I was indeed outside the boundaries of the Church. Better to participate in a regular parish setting and at least feel like a "normal" member of our church... (even though I don't do that much either, but that's another story...).

Sorry, Gus. Your letter is just the pot calling the kettle black in my view!

Michael H.

Liam said...

Well, the periphery is a place where it is very easy to get lost in both solipsism and mirroring of the center.

Of course, the problem with solipsism is that one invariably thinks one is avoiding it....

And mirroring often shows up as variations on the theme of "We have better access to Wisdom at the periphery than They/You do at the center." Which is merely a mirror of the opposite conviction at the center. Whereas the center can get trapped up in the Authority of Tradition (which, btw, is not entirely to be sniffed at, given the human propensity to be blind to the blindnesses of the current age), the periphery is trapped up in the Authority of Prophetic Authenticity, et cet.

If the periphery actually wants to communicate rather than bask in the warmth of self-righteous validation, it must accept the lack of reciprocity as a fact (that is, you cannot wait to have communication until the other side is willing to converse with you on your terms - but they can) and move through the center.

A good place to start is to insist less on what is right about the periphery but what might be right (or is at least not certainly wrong) about the center *and* to be very clear that once you are certain about what is wrong about the center, you basically run into the problem of self-anointed infallibility that ends up validating the center's claim to infallibility. Basically, we cannot wait for pope-bishop-pastor to consider how he/they might be wrong in a core way to consider how we might be wrong in a core way - we have to mightily resist the tempting Catholic toggle switch to create a parallel magisterium of Sophia-Wisdom, et cet..

It's a very tough place. It requires a lot of detachment, not only from self but from spiritual consolation. It requires an immense commitment to endure spiritual dryness and desolation - and enduring spiritual dryness and desolation happens to be one of the weakest areas of spiritual development in many progressive Catholic circles.

This requires much more of most people than they realize, at least in my direct experience with many years at the periphery, and in subsequent observation of others at the periphery.

Finally, if one is thinking this is primarily about institutions and power, one is *way* out of one's depth. Unfortunately, that's the level a lot of people get stuck on (and the news media invariably focus on).

Phillip Clark said...

Hmmm...I can kind of see where Gus is coming from. I know probably from your point of view Michael you only see yourself as carrying out, much needed, constructive criticism. And indeed you are. But I think sometimes it is a little harsh. I remember what Nancy Pelosi always said when she was asked about her opinion of President Bush. She always said that as a person he was a very charming even jovial man to be around, but what she disagreed with was his policies.

Unfortunately, when we get mixed up in ideological battles its easy to identify the opposing side by putting a physical face on it. Hence, we've made Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, Jerry Fallwell, and others the angry bigots of the conservative movement. Regretably, this is precisely what many progressive thinking individuals within the Church do. Hans Kung, and others, who I understandably agree and sympethize with have made Joseph Ratzinger as the demonic head of Catholic conservative theology. And while, he may be the key contributing factor in this way of thinking we must remember that above all else he is our Holy Father, the Successor to the Prince of the Apostles, to whom we owe our respect and support. Even though I disagree with lots of the things he says there are also numerous others which I support and as a person I think Joseph Ratzinger is the most lovingly timid, grandfatherly, figure I've ever encountered. Although, I do think we can still be faithful Catholics in good standing and question certain teachings of the Church I don't think it's right to go after particular individuals...

I guess some of your posts may have been interpreted as having this personal, vendetive, tone in them, even if you didn't intend them to.

proustboy said...

I am a Roman Catholic priest and I want to commend you for your blog. Don't let anyone try to decide your catholicism for you. If the church is truly catholic (universal) then it has no one manifestation or theology. My favorite definition of the church is Here Comes Everybody (James Joyce in Finagin's Wake). The Church is us, It includes the hierarchy but also the faithful. John Henry Newman points out that in the Arian contoversy the bishops turned out to be heretics and the faithful the orthodox. We are all in this together and as we journey through history we are bound to fight over certain matters such as gays. But if we are right, and I think we are, someday the church will acknowlege the gifts and rights of gay people. And of course then it will say, "As we have always taught...." Keep up the good work.

Liam said...


It's easy for gay Catholic folk to demonize someone who authored the Hallowe'en letter with no sense of how it would be heard and understood by laity (for example, "disordered" is technical philosophical term about teleology, but to layfolk it reads like a double layer of original sin), and deliberately dated the instruction on same-sex marriage with the symbolic date of the memorial of the Ugandan martyrs (who were subjected to sodomic rape), et cet. These act as red flags of at least a lack of good faith, and for may the presence of bad faith.


Heroic as it may sound, demonizing such (directly or indirectly) is precisely the wrong approach. It's very seductive to rent such space in one's head. It's very easy to forget that, if one is receiving communion in the Catholic church, one is also receiving communion with the entire Body of Christ, Pope and Other Oppressors included - and that's a more intimate relationship than sex, just for starters.

That doesn't mean we have to get all Irish Catholic and stop talking about the Elephants in the Room. It does mean, however, that we have to be much more prudent about giving vent to mere feelings. Feelings are just information. We should neither ignore them nor let them determine our actions. In olden days, we tended to ignore them; now we tend to pay the wrong kind of attention to them.

As for this pope, there are wonderfully underappreciated things about him (perhaps most importantly - he's working pretty consistently to downgrade the cult of papal personality that bubbled in the reign of JP2) and there are things I won't miss when he's gone, shall we say.

crystal said...

I can't speak to the gay stuff but I know I get similar criticism about my blog - that I'm not really Catholic :) I think Gus is wrong.

Terence said...

Hang in there, Michael,don't let anybody else define your Catholicism for you. To me, the very word, and the point, of Catholicism is that it is universal and inclusive, whatever the hierarchy would have us believe.

I'm not at all sure I agree with all your positions; the Spirit of St Stephen's is probably too strong for me. But it is clear that there is life and sincerity there, as in so much elese that is happening in the Church today - which is more than can be said for the sterility and hypocrisy found too often elsewhere.

I too get weary of unrelenting criticism of the hierarchy, and often sit down deetermined to write a positive post - but too often intentions are derailed by the news of the day. We must play the hand we are dealt. If the powers that be are determined to call attention to their disconneection from reality, we have no choice but to call them out on it.

Jesus Christ was not a respecter or maker of any religious rule book, and nor should we be. Stick to your guns.

Joe said...

"I think Joseph Ratzinger is the most lovingly timid, grandfatherly, figure I've ever encountered."

Pius IX and Pius X could be described in similar terms, and were. Those who have had their livelihood and reputation stripped from them, sight unseen, by the CDF, have a different impression.

Joe said...


Not so grandfatherly here! Or at least not timidly so.

michael r. said...

Fascinating discussion in the past two threads. I didn't realize that it was so difficult to determine if one was Catholic or not. I'd always believed that there were some core beliefs that one gives assent to. Do you believe in transubstantiation? Do you believe in a priesthood, or can anyone cause the same effects? Do you believe it's ok to make up words for the consecration? Do you believe in baptism with the words which have been used by the Church for two thousand years, or do you believe it's ok to just make up your own words of baptism? I'm pretty sure that Catholics recite the Nicene Creed every Sunday. With all due respect to the clergy who are posting here, I'm reasonably sure that there is such a thing as Catholic theology. I'm also reasonably sure that Episcopalians, Lutherans and Presbyterians are not Catholics.

Michael J. Bayly said...


I want to thank all of you for your thoughtful responses. They're greatly appreciated.

I was particularly moved by what Tom shared. So much honesty, compassion, and wisdom! Thanks for that, Tom.



kevin57 said...

Before Gus comes here to criticize your criticizing the Church, he would do well to check out Dignity's website. I gleaned this quote from the center of its homepage:

You no doubt are aware of the frequent attacks in various ways on our loving relationships by our Pope and many bishops. Any devaluing, denying, or interference toward our loving relationships is an expression of spiritual abuse in my humble opinion, since all love finds its source in God, our Creator. Because of the existence of, or the potential for, such abuse in the Church of my birth, I, and many others, no longer regularly attend any Catholic parish. And so, my Dignity family remains my spiritual home where unconditional love is present.

-- Dennis Benoit, president of Dignity Canada Dignité
Dignity Canada Dignité Congratulates DignityUSA
Common Roots and Shared Visions

The Gay Species said...

Unfortunately, institutions are driven by divisions, by the "us/them" mentality, and Judaism Christianity (with some branch exceptions) are a "privileged" association, in which membership requires performance. Catholicism, Calvinism, and Orthodox Judaism are especially separatist, each virtually a social club only the "elect" can join -- and then spend life paying your dues in the form of obedience to their laws.

The first question one has to ask: What privileges do membership confer? The second: Do benefits exceed the costs? MY answers to both questions is NONE and NO. Those who answer differently may have good reasons for doing so.

To OBEY a Face in the Clouds with silly, absurd, and anti-humanistic laws to serve "those reasons" really must have a BIG Cost-Benefit. To surrender one's freedom at such a high cost must bring some other benefits.

Gus said...

Hi Tom,
I want to echo Michael's comment and say that I too was deeply touched by both the style and content of your remark. Thank you for sharing the story of your journey. You impress me as an incredibly courageous and compassionate human being. I admire both your integrity and your humility. You and your loved one are in my prayers.
Pax et Bonum, Gus

Gus said...

Hi all,
I want first of all to thank Michael for respectfully responding to my criticism.
I also want to thank all of you who understtod where I'm coming from and have expressed here your support to the fundamental point that I was trying to make.
I also want to take the opportunity to thank all who responded even if it was to express disapproval of my criticism.
I guess that if somehow my criticism inspires some soul searching and dialogue in a spirit of humility then even if we continue to disagree with each other perhaps we'll begin to express our disagreement with the Church or with one other in a more agreeable manner.
For my part, I'd like to once again express my criticism in the hope that I may be more clear as some of the comments here appear to be directed at something else than what I was trying to communicate.
My point was never to criticize Michael for being critical of the Church, the Hierarchy, or the Pope. The Church allows for criticism and I myself engage in it. As Catholics we are allowed to disagree with Church doctrine if we have carefully considered the teaching and have made an honest and humble attempt to assent to it, but in the end were just not able to agree. Whether one is traditional or progressive, conservative or liberal, or whatever other label we put on ourselves or each other, there is a place for us in the Church even if we disagree with Church doctrine. However, there is a difference between disagreement with doctrine and dissent from dogma. My criticism of Michael's attitude and of what he himself has revealed as his behavior with the Spirit of St. Stephen Catholic Community is that he has gone beyond loyal disagreement to rebellious dissent and as such is exhibiting not a Roman Catholic ecclesiology but a Protestant congregationalist theology. When anyone dissents from Church dogma such as denying papal infallibility or the essential difference between the priesthood of the Ordained and that of the Baptized or the teachings of an Ecumenical Council on these very issues then that person should not be self-identifying as a Roman Catholic for one cannot deny Church dogma and still be considered as part of the Church.
Now, some here have joined me in challenging Michael on this fundamental point; not on his being critical of Church doctrines such as those on homosexuality but on his denial of Church dogma.
Of course, some have also been critical of me and counseled Michael not to let others define his Catholicism. In a way I understand the sentiment because no one wants to see someone leave the Church or be made to leave it. (For the record, my comments were made with the desire to awaken in Michael some sense that he is going too far and in the fervent hope that he will come back to the Church and help his friends at SSSCC to do the same.) However, I believe this is very bad advise since what is being advocated is untenable. One is to define oneself in relationship with others. This is especially true in Catholicism that emphasizes that our relationship to God is mediated through the Church. The idea that someone could self-identify or self-define outside of the Faith community (universal and local and not just the most immediate one as that is congregationalism) is not Catholicism. I mean, could someone identify as gay and advocate for reparative therapy? Then, why could someone identify as Roman Catholic and advocate for dissent from dogmas?
Pax et Bonum, Gus

P.S. Some have wondered how my involvement with Dignity resonates with my criticism. I'd like to reiterate Dignity's point of view that each local Chapter determines their own perspective on a number of issues. Some Chapters of Dignity are integrated with Integrity (Episcopal), some are more traditional than others and some are more progressive; still others IMO are groups of people who were raised Catholic but who really no longer are. Our Chapter is gifted with women and men who are totally committed to being Roman Catholic and LGBT with dignity both in the Church and society; this is what we pray for and work for. While we strongly support LGBT equality including same gender marriage and gay clergy (both are doctrinal issues since there has never been a definitive statement making these dogmatic ones) we do not dissent and celebrate the Holy Mass as the Church has blessed us with. We are also gifted with many who are not Catholic but spiritual seekers that have responded to our outreach efforts and are being evangelized. Finally, many of our members in addition to participating in our Chapter's weekly Liturgy also attend our own parish's Sunday Mass.

Christian said...


I should start by saying I am something of a Catholic 'traditionalist' although I come from the Byzantine Rite. I come to your blog from time to time to gain a little insight into the 'progressive' movements within the Church. I take a particular interest in expanding my horizons on how one should be welcoming and deal with openly LGBT people who wrestle with practicing their faith.

With respect to your faith journey --I agree with Gus. I admire your passion in pursuit of your spirituality but I think you should in all honesty to yourself and your readers, abandon the title of Catholic.

I realize too, that there are many high profile catholics along the progressive spectrum who say and write things that are in harmony with your positions written here. However, Catholic isn't a title one can define for one's self. Hans Kung or not.

Imagine, as a rough analogy, if you replaced the religious topics here with political ones, and you called yourself a 'progressive' Republican. You would bear all the ideological trademarks of a Democrat - sans title.

The religious views you propound are often championed publicly by other Christian denominations such as Unitarians and even pockets of the Episcopal church. The most frequent question I ask myself when reading you blog is, "Why not simply leave all the angst behind and embrace a denomination that will shout back, 'Amen, brother!'"

There is so much here that is so very far outside of catholicism - and even a genuine progressive catholicism, it has boggled me why you fight for the title of Catholic while you simultaneously reject so very much of it.

I do hope that you find encouragement and peace on your journey towards theosis, and will remember you and Tom and his family in my prayers.



Anonymous said...

I just shake my head at the line of comments that take the "don't let anybody define your Catholicism for you" position. Father Proustboy especially should know better.

What is Catholicism if not a bimillenial community in constant effort to define itself? Anyone with the slightest knowledge of history can see that what we call Catholicism (or Orthodoxy) has been created by defining what is and is not acceptable both in doctrine and in behavior for a concrete group in history, not a private do-it-yourself project.

Are Marcion and Arius and Socinus all Catholics just because they want to be? The notion is beyond intellectually lazy. What it really means is that truth is just a matter of opinion and feeling. And more deeply, all that matters is feeling good and getting what you want. Catholicism may be a lot of things, but mush it ain't.

The Trinity and the Incarnation are not optional, nor the Sacraments. The list is not short.

There is room to explore and to contend, sure, that's why theology has a history and is not simply repetition, but there are definite limits and boundaries. Geesh, a few of you guys really need to wake up.