Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The Many Forms of Courage (Part III)

Part II of “The Many Forms of Courage” concluded by explaining why Catholics can, in good conscience, reflect upon and dissent from the Vatican’s stance on issues like homosexuality.

This third and final installment begins by looking at the supposed biblical condemnation of homosexuality, before exploring the question of authority within the Roman Catholic Church.

Adam, Eve, and Steve

So what about the Book of Genesis and the “design” supposedly laid out by God through its story of Adam and Eve – a “design” vigorous defended and promulgated by movements such as Courage and by theological undertakings such as Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body?

All such efforts leave me to wonder: are we to subscribe to
Clement Butel’s view that “whatever may be a Catholic’s personal beliefs, faith requires acceptance of the Genesis account of human creation as being literally and historically true”?

Contrary to Butel, I and many other Catholics view the Genesis account of creation as metaphorical. I also think that every aspect of creation speaks of evolution. And “every aspect of creation” includes human sexuality and our understanding of it.

Dr. Simon Rosser, a renowned researcher in issues of human sexuality, has noted that “ultra-conservatives are fond of saying that ‘God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.’ ”

“Well that’s not reality,” says Rosser. “Based on science’s current understanding of the origins and stability of sexual orientation, God made Adam, Eve, and Steve; and until we have a theology that can deal with that complexity the Church is neither healthy nor living in reality.”

In light of such an insight, I’m intrigued when people like
Alice Von Hildebrand declare that, “God did intend to create human beings of two different sexes. [ . . .] He clearly had His own divine plan in mind, and we ought to discover reverently what this plan is, for it will give us guidelines as to how we – men and women – should shape our lives in order to conform to our Creator's design”.

I’m intrigued because I’m left wondering: what are the sources being used to support such a theological claim and such an assumption about “the Creator’s design”?

Is it solely scripture and tradition?

And what of those who don’t fit this “design”?

And perhaps most importantly, should the design dictate the reality of human experience, or should the diverse reality of human experience inform our understanding of the design?

At best, a literal reading of Genesis could be used to champion heterosexuality. But such a reading, besides being intellectually dishonest, does a great disservice to the spirit behind the text. Also, it’s ludicrous to use such a reading of Genesis to champion heterosexual marriage as we know it today, or to say that the Catholic Church has always understood marriage as it understands it today. It’s indisputable that marriage, and the Church’s understanding and recognition of it, has changed over the centuries.

Also, Pope John Paul II interpretation of Genesis in his Theology of the Body is just that, an interpretation – one of many that theologians have offered throughout the ages. Like all interpretations it needs to be measured against a number of things – scripture and tradition, of course, but also reason and human experience. All four should be in dialogue. Yet in the case of the latter, the pope’s interpretation (obviously shared by Von Hildebrand and others) fails to acknowledge or reflect the fullness of human sexual experience.

The sources of our understanding

The reality is that GLBT people, along with heterosexual people, can and do experience sexual relationships marked by justice, wholeness, and life-giving love.

Shouldn’t such experiences be considered as sources in any theological discussion on human sexuality? And if not, why not?

What exactly are the sources of the Vatican’s current theological reflection on human sexuality?

Shouldn’t such sources include the findings of science and people’s experience?

Science, for instance, tells us that gender and sexuality are vastly complex realities. When will the Church’s official teaching begin to reflect such complexity?

These are the types of questions that many Catholics are asking. They are legitimate questions with important theological implications.

Yet sadly, the Vatican’s response to such questions is woefully inadequate. It’s simply not good enough to say, “Well, this is how it’s always been, so it must be right,” especially since it’s clear that the basis of “what it’s always been” has been informed by limited sources. And when we limit our sources, we’re limiting and obstructing God’s wise and loving outreach to us.

I think that Catholics are intuitively sensing the truth in statements like the following by National Catholic Reporter editor, Tom Roberts, who in January 2006 wrote that, “[Some insist] that current thinking that is tolerant of homosexuality [is] ignoring ancient wisdom. I happen to think that current wisdom that welcomes homosexuals is, more correctly, finally dropping centuries of ancient ignorance.”

The editors of the 1994 anthology Sexuality and the Sacred: Sources of Theological Reflection suggest that this ignorance stems, in part, from the fact that “throughout most of Christian history the vast majority of theologians who wrote about sexuality tried to approach the subject from one direction only: they began with affirmations and assertions of the faith (from scriptures, from doctrines, from churchly teachings, and so on) and then applied those to human sexuality. Now, theologians are assuming that the other direction of inquiry is important as well: What does our sexual experience reveal about God? About the ways we understand the gospel? About the ways we read scripture and tradition and attempt to live out the faith?”

Such questions, I admit, can be unsettling. But I think that it is not the Catholic way to shy away from them and to retreat instead into some fantasy world where, despite evidence to the contrary, we insist that we have all the possible answers (and thus knowledge) available to us about what it means to be human.

A question of authority

Supposed scriptural condemnation of homosexuality is highly problematic as “homosexuality” as we understand and define it today is a very recent development. Accordingly, many reputable biblical scholars question if condemnation of homosexuality can be backed up by the Bible. And of course, the historical Jesus said absolutely nothing about homosexuality.

Some Catholics maintain, however, that Jesus has and does speak on this issue whenever the Magisterium speaks. This attempt to basically equate the Gospel with the Catholic “tradition” which developed afterwards is highly problematic. For a start, this tradition, when it comes to matters of human sexuality, has been clearly shaped by previous eras’ limited understanding of this complex human reality. And that’s fine and appropriate. We are, after all, a pilgrim Church growing in awareness and understanding.

Yet ever since the papacy declared (relatively recently) that it can never be wrong in matters of faith and morals, and that therefore the Church’s teaching on homosexuality has always been correct and can never change, the teaching charism of the Church has been seriously compromised.

Such an “infallible” way of thinking prevents many within positions of church leadership from taking on board the insights and findings of science and human experience as they can’t risk proving that the church has been wrong and that its understanding of such matters has and can change. In short, the Magisterium has painted itself into a corner.

Most Catholics recognize this dilemma, but rather than address it head on and demand and work for structural change within the Church, they choose instead to quietly do their own thing – especially when it comes to matters related to sexuality. They no longer put their trust in the authority of the Church hierarchy, but rather in their own experience of ever-deepening relationship with God mediated by their struggle to be true to themselves.

It really does come down to the question of authority. Therefore, I think it’s important to remember that ultimately it is the spirit of the risen Christ which is the one true pastor of the church. And this spirit speaks through the life experiences of all people – regardless of their position in the male-designed and dominated structure of the church hierarchy, a structure which due to its homogeneous development and maintenance cannot adequately represent or speak definitively for the richly diverse reality of the Body of Christ.

In 2004, in my role as executive coordinator of the Catholic Pastoral Committee on Sexual Minorities (CPCSM), I interviewed Catholic theologian and author Mary Bednarowski for The Rainbow Spirit, the organization’s journal. She had the following to say about authority:

“Church history is very helpful [on this matter] – essential, I would say. To think of ‘the Magisterium’ as highly authoritarian and centered in Rome and in the authority of the Pope is a fairly recent interpretation of a kind of teaching function that, historically, was perceived as somewhat speculative.

“By speculative I mean creatively reflective in responding to the realities of human life and experience in and of the world. It is also an interpretation that has not gone unopposed. In reality, the Church has always had what I consider realistic and sophisticated means by which to ‘question authority’: the emphasis on the primacy of the individual conscience, for example, or the system of ‘probabilism’, are ways through which change emerges.”

The Body of the Faithful and the Infallible Church

Clearly, personal experience, including the personal experiences of LGBT people, should not be ignored when, for instance, the Catholic Church makes ethical and/or doctrinal judgments on matters related to human sexuality. Having said that, I don’t believe personal experience is the sole norm governing behavior. Scripture and tradition obviously have their role. But all too often, we forget that it is human experience which is the locus of divine revelation and accordingly, the seedbed for the emergence and ongoing interpretation and development of both scripture and tradition.

When we acknowledge the significance of human experience in discerning foundational truths about human life and relationships, the role of the laity comes into much clearer focus. Australian theologian Paul Collins, for instance, reminds us that, “Consulting the laity in the formulation of doctrine is part of Catholicism’s theological tradition. Also, the whole Church’s acceptance of papal and episcopal teaching is an integral part of testing the veracity of that teaching. The hierarchy does not have a monopoly on truth.”

Collins finds support for such claims in the writings of the great English theologian, Cardinal John Henry Newman (1801-90), “who said unequivocally that the laity have to be consulted in matters of doctrine, especially when teachings concern their lives so intimately”. (Collins, P., Between the Rock and a Hard Place: Being Catholic Today, ABC Books, Sydney, 2004, p. 12.)

Wrote Newman: “The body of the faithful is one of the witnesses to the fact of the tradition of revealed doctrine, and [. . .] their consensus through Christendom is the voice of the Infallible Church”. (Newman, J.H., On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine, (1859), ed. John Coulson, Collins, London, 1961, p. 63.)

Gospel democracy

In relation to issues of faith and morals, however, the Vatican operates from a model of leadership that assumes to always have the last word. Yet in the hierarchy’s insistence on such a model, many detect an element of fear and mistrust towards the laity, qualities that are totally alien to the trusting and compassionate model of leadership personified in Jesus.

In one of her Lenten reflections, author Donna Schaper writes on the model of leadership that Jesus exemplified. She notes that Mary Magdalene’s confusing of Jesus with the gardener on Easter morning, indicates “the radical nature of the risen Christ: he is more like a friend, more like the gardener, more like a woman. He is not big but little, not strong but weak, not above us but one of us. We will be raised from the dead when we understand that Jesus is accurately confused with the gardener. He is more like the gardener than he is like the owner of the garden.”

Schaper goes on to apply this example of “gospel democracy” and the “friendship model” of leadership it procures, to ministry. She notes that “we minister in a world that is ideologically hostile to the gospel, [to] that word from God in which Jesus says to all disciples, not just the ordained ones: ‘I have called you friends’. Here Jesus is illuminating us to a radically new relationship between people and God [. . .] It is like a garden we all work in together, not a garden where one is the employed and the other the employer”.

Loving the unfolding truth, and loving truthfully

Such an understanding of leadership reminds me my favorite saying of Pope John XXIII: “We are not on earth to guard a museum, but to cultivate a flowering garden of life”. It’s an understanding of church that implies that revelation is an ongoing process.

I’ve come to believe that such an understanding of revelation is central to our faith. It’s compels us to build and maintain a relationship with that sacred source that is behind and ultimately beyond all our limited scriptures and doctrines; it ensures that our faith is a living faith; and it compels us to seek right relationships with others as together we continue our journey as a pilgrim church, loving the unfolding truth, and loving truthfully (to paraphrase Pope John Paul II).

As history has shown, such an understanding of revelation has meant the periodic changing of the way we “package” our understanding of God. Such theological transitions can be very traumatic, and can incite resistance and even violence on the part of those secure in the old packaging and/or fearful of change.

As a way of illustrating this, I recall Robert J. McClory recollection of Patty Crowley in the December 9, 2005 issue of the National Catholic Reporter. In remembering how Patty and her husband Patrick, as members of the Papal Birth Control Commission of the late 1960s, clashed with those fearful of change, McClory writes:

“The Crowleys were outspoken in their own views on the subject [of birth control]. During a heated discussion about how the Church could save face if it were to allow couples to decide how to limit offspring, Marcelino Zalba, a Spanish Jesuit member of the commission, asked, ‘What then with the millions we have sent to hell’ if the rules are relaxed? Patty immediately responded in what became perhaps her most memorable quote. ‘Fr. Zalba,’ she said, ‘do you really believe God has carried out all your orders?’”

It’s so true: so much of what we attribute to God is in fact our own historical and cultural “packaging”. And this seems especially true when it comes to matters of human sexuality.

Amazing and courageous choices

Thankfully, things are changing. The old packaging is being discarded and we’re glimpsing and recognizing God’s love in ways we once did not – primarily, in this current time, in the lives and relationships of LGBT people open to God’s spirit of transforming love.

This spirit can inspire some amazing and courageous choices. I don’t doubt that it can compel some to live lives of celibacy. Yet it is also capable of compelling others to seek and maintain a loving relationship with another of the same gender – a relationship that is experienced and expressed both sacramentally and sexually.

And then there’s the beautiful choice of my friend Chad. For a while he was a member of Courage. Becoming disillusioned with the group’s “ideological commitments,” he chose not only to abandon Courage but also the Catholic Church. Yet he has recently returned to the church, and earlier this year I asked him to write about his journey for The Rainbow Spirit.

To conclude this post on the “many forms of courage”, here’s an excerpt from Chad’s article. Note that Chad acknowledges the presence of suffering in his life. Yet this suffering is not the result of his homosexuality, but rather of the homophobia within the church:

“Now I have come back to Mother Church in spite of herself, really. The only thing more influential than Rome’s rivers of shame, fear, and anguish, is the love I have profoundly experienced in Jesus Christ. And so I choose to march on, uniting myself to the Catholic Church. I offer up to God the sufferings I will endure as a result: the pain Rome will try to inflict upon me.

“Such suffering has meaning and I am able to endure it. Such suffering has power because it flows from a love of Jesus and his message. I pray that such suffering can break the monolith of Rome, and fill the Church once again with the unconditional love and grace of Jesus Christ for all peoples.

“In the midst of such suffering my experience of God has been one of peace, love, and joy. And it has been this experience, echoing throughout the ages, that has given me the courage to move beyond the rivers of the Vatican; to swim to the other side and find myself.”

Image: Two Saints by Ted Fusby, used with permission.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:

The Many Forms of Courage (Part I)
The Many Forms of Courage (Part II)
The Real Meaning of Courage
The Dreaded “Same-sex Attracted” View of Catholicism
Be Not Afraid: You Can Be Happy and Gay
The Catholic Church and Gays: An Excellent Historical Overview
Catholic Teaching on Homosexuality: “Complex and Nuanced”


kris said...

Mr. Bayly I read your post here (part 3) and I had some thoughts on it. I am also a Catholic. I can't give my comments in full here but I did blog about your post on my own and I titled it Sex in God's Plan if you'd like to read it. Sincerely - In Christ - Kris

Michael J. Bayly said...

Kris' comments on Part III of "The Many Forms of Courage" can be found here.

Thanks, Kris, for notifying me about your response to this particular Wild Reed commentary.



Anonymous said...

Hi Michael,

It's a well written article. Some of it seems to stretch from dissent to schism, you seem to attack the very process of forming a magisterium and generating doctrine. But such authority is at the heart of a faith organization. To me, the catholic mentality leans more towards the notion that doctrine is necessary to formulate what one considers to be the objective truth. It is the opposite of nihilism. And when one is in dissent on some of that doctrine, it is painful, because one has a yearning to be synchronized with the church who is the constant source of objective truth, though the deposit of faith presented as truth is never perfect.

So I think that there is a level on which, while you embrace god, you have rejected the authority of earthly authority. Sometimes when we embrace such authority, there are sharp pointy bits that poke us with dissent. But from your writing I really get the sense that you have moved on. You visit the catholic church like you visit your mom, you love her but you don't live there anymore. You've rejected the earthly authority because the dissonance is too strong.

As I am not LBGT I don't think I can contribute fully to the discussion. But I think that in order to reconcile with the ethic of the church as a dissenting, practicing homosexual one would need to adopt a firmly and staunchly anti-promiscuity, anti-objectifying, anti-bondage, et cetera stance. That would acknowledge the truth the church is pointing towards even if you consider the message a little bit garbled.