Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Truth Telling: The Greatest of Sins in a Dysfunction Church

Recently in Gillette, Wyoming, a lesbian Catholic couple, Leah Vader and Lynne Huskinson (pictured above), were notified by their local priest that they were barred from receiving communion.

The reason? Well, obviously because they’re lesbian, right?

Well, actually, no. There’s a little bit more to it than that.

Going public

Vader and Huskinson, who were married in Canada last August, were known in their Catholic parish of St. Matthew’s to be a lesbian couple. The Associated Press reports Vader saying that they’d never made any secret of their relationship and that they’d even posed for a church directory family photo with her children from a previous marriage. Their barring from receiving communion, however, wasn’t the result of being known as a committed couple to their fellow parishioners and, I assume, their priest.

No, what ultimately ensured that they and their relationship were denounced and punished was the publication in the local media of a letter they’d written to a state legislator during a debate in the Legislature over a proposed bill that would deny recognition of same-sex marriage. Understandably, the couple’s letter urged opposition to the bill.

“Soon after,” reports the Associated Press, “the local paper interviewed the couple on Ash Wednesday and ran a story and pictures of them with ash on their foreheads, a mark of their Roman Catholic faith.”

It was after this very public coverage that the couple received word from their parish priest, Fr. Cliff Jacobson, that they had been barred from receiving Communion at St. Matthew’s.

“If all this stuff hadn’t hit the newspaper, it wouldn’t have been any different than before – nobody would have known about it,” said Jacobson. “The sin is one thing. It’s a very different thing to go public with that sin.”

What’s Jacobson saying? That if the couple had just kept their mouths shut in the public arena they’d still be able to receive communion at St. Matthew’s?

Sounds to me as if “going public” about expressing and living one’s life as a gay person is a greater sin than the “homogenital activity” condemned as a sin by the Church. After all, it seems that if we engage in this type of “sinful” activity in the darkness of the closet, than we could well expect the Church to turn a blind eye. But woe betide a gay person or couple who try to live with any degree of honesty and integrity that draws public attention.

The greatest of sins

Hypocrisy, intellectual dishonesty, and dysfunction, in other words, seem to be the hallmark of Catholicism when it comes to matters not only of homosexuality, but to the healthy and life-affirming expression of human sexuality in general.

I think it’s obvious that for many in positions of hierarchal power within the Church, being honest about one’s homosexuality is treated, if not considered, as a type of sin. This shouldn’t be surprising as public dissent is the greatest of sins in Catholicism – or rather, in a warped expression of Catholicism dominated by clericalism and reactionary ideology. And without doubt, public dissent was what Leah and Lynne were punished for.

To be sure, such dissent – and the honesty and integrity that compel it – frightens many in positions of ecclesial power. Why? Because such truth telling exposes the error and dysfunction of that “warped expression” of Catholicism outlined above. And in the case of Leah and Lynne, it exposes the related error and dysfunction of the Church’s teaching on homosexuality. For as British writer Mark Dowd noted in The Tablet in May of 2005: “When [the Vatican] asserts, ‘homosexual activity prevents its own fulfillment and happiness by acting contrary to the creative wisdom of God,’ the very existence of contented and fulfilled partnerships in local communities creates problems.”

Yes, and going public with such “contented and fulfilled partnerships” creates even bigger problems – especially for the partnerships involved. Just ask Leah Vader and Lynne Huskinson.

Huskinson has questioned why Catholics having premarital sex and/or using birth control are not barred from receiving Communion. Fr. Jacobson replied that the difference is that such Catholics are “not going around broadcasting, ‘Hey I’m having sex outside of marriage’ or ‘I’m using birth control.’”

Yes, well, obviously they don’t need to. Most heterosexual Catholics recognize the intellectual dishonesty and dysfunction of the Church’s teaching on human sexuality. Yet rather than addressing this dishonesty and dysfunction head-on and demanding and working for structural change within the Church, the vast majority of them choose instead to quietly do their own thing. (For instance, even the US Conference of Catholic Bishops concedes that 96 percent of married Catholics use birth control.) Gay people, on the other hand, in order to secure the rights and benefits of civil marriage (or its legal equivalents) must speak out, must “broadcast” their lives and relationships.

Also, one could argue that the turning up to Mass each week of Catholic families with one, two, or three children is a pretty obviously (and public) indication that birth control is being practiced. Yet are parents of such families ever accosted and challenged? Of course not. Priests like Fr. Jacobson wouldn’t dare. It’s ever so much easier to go after the gays.

Plus, think of the financial strain the Church would be under if the 96 percent of married Catholics using birth control received letters saying they were barred from receiving communion. Better that the Church just turn a blind eye; better that it just let them all continue quietly dissenting – even as it’s aware that the scope of this dissent dwarfs that of dissenting gay Catholics.

The real sin

One of the saddest aspects of this whole story is Leah Vader’s observation that, “You spend half your time defending your gayness to Catholics, and the other half of your time defending your Catholicism to gays.” It doesn’t leave much time to just be, does it?

I think of Jesus’ invitation for all who are burdened to find rest in him. Shouldn’t the Church be a place where folks are given rest from such burdens? Oh, but wait! It’s that warped expression of Catholicism masquerading as the Church that has placed much of this burdensome weight upon Leah and Lynne. Now that seems to be the real sin in this sad and sorry tale.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the couple has not been back to St. Matthew’s since they received the letter barring them from full participation in the life of the community. Vader said they did not want to “make a scene.”

Here’s hoping that their fellow parishioners will “make a scene” for them – and insist that St. Matthew’s be a place of welcome and acceptance for Leah and Lynne; that it be a community where the public acknowledgment of their relationship does not merit any form of denouncement or punishment, and where truth-telling is encouraged and honored.

Image: AP/Jennifer Ottinger.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
The Catholic Church and Gays: An Excellent Historical Overview
Catholic Teaching on Homosexuality: “Complex and Nuanced”
Thoughts on Authority and Fidelity
The Many Forms of Courage
Our Catholic “Stonewall Moment”
Authentic Catholicism: The Antidote to Clericalism
The Triumph of Love: An Easter Reflection
Trusting God’s Generous Invitation
Pan’s Labyrinth: Critiquing the Cult of Unquestioning Obedience


Anonymous said...

I'd be OK with responding in this way to public sin if it was fair. But I just don't see any of the public homophobes being punished for overt, public homophobia and hate speech that isn't in keeping with the catechism. Then again, Bishops in Italy seem to be equating homosexual unions with terrorism these days, so maybe these are just plain bad times in the church.

episcopalifem said...

This is a major reason why I left the Roman Catholic church - too many things not dealt with in a consistent manner.

We are all God's creations. God isn't human, and it's our human arrogance that assumes that homosexual people have a "disordered nature" rather than that they are another reflection of God's manifestation.

There is no way I will continue to raise my kids in a church that teaches that segments of people are excluded just because of some tribal claptrap written in the OT, and because of one of two obscure verses by Paul in the NT. I don't want to wait for things to change there. It took them 400+ years to admit that Galileo was right, and shouldn't have been scared with death threats.

They've lost me, and my family. I jumped ship and joined TEC - Catholic Lite.

Mark Y said...

Readers should understand that Catholic belief is very keen on the sin of scandal. Living in a known mortal sin in a very public way, as the case of the couple in this article, scandalizes the Church (the faithful and the shepherds). Partaking with the Sacrament of the Eucharist is a sign of being in communion with the rest of the faithful, the saints, the angels, and with Christ Himself (hence the term "Holy Communion"). Therefore, the bishop or a pastor can and should refuse giving the sacrament to people openly living against Catholic Church beliefs. In fact, if a priest gives the Holy Sacrament to someone he knows is openly living in mortal sin, the priest and the person both endanger themselves from profaning the Sacrament. Refusing to give the Sacrament should not be looked at solely as a punishment but an invitation to come back to to the communion of the faithful through true repentance.