Wednesday, July 18, 2007

To Whom the Future of the Catholic Church Belongs

After spending time with DignityUSA,
Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong

reflects on the future of the Catholic Church.

My friend Paula recently shared with me a wonderful commentary by Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong (pictured below) entitled “On Spending Three Days With DignityUSA.”

As Spong notes in the opening paragraph of his commentary, “DignityUSA [is] a national support and advocacy organization for homosexual members of the Roman Catholic Church.” The organization recently held a conference in Austin, Texas, where 250 delegates from across the United States “assigned themselves the task of charting the future for homosexual people in the Catholic Church.”

“This was not an easy assignment,” observes Spong, who gave the keynote address at the conference, “since DignityUSA is treated by the hierarchy of [the Roman Catholic] Church as an embarrassing pariah and, instead of any recognition or support, its members are the recipients of enormous Catholic hostility. By Vatican orders, no Roman Catholic Church in America can allow this group to meet on any Catholic property.”

“When Dignity’s leaders picked the Hyatt Hotel in Austin as the gathering place for their national conference,” reports Spong, “Gary Preuss, a local Dignity leader, as a courtesy, notified the Most Rev. Gregory Aymond, the Catholic Bishop of Austin that they would convene in his See City. The bishop responded with a letter, acknowledging the notification and saying that he would pray for them. There was no word of welcome and neither this bishop nor any of his local Catholic priests made an appearance at the conference. How short the Church sometimes falls in the simple act of showing kindness.”

Following are further excerpts from Bishop Spong’s commentary - one that serves as a timely reminder of the important ministry of Dignity and as a hope-filled reflection on the future of the Roman Catholic Church.

Catholic opposition to homosexuality is so total and unrelenting that any American Catholic priest who says Mass for local Dignity chapters runs the risk of discipline at the hands of his local bishop. Under the auspices of Pope John Paul II a statement was issued on October 30, 1986, written by the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, which moved the Roman Catholic Church from benign neglect of gay people into the stance of being a gay oppressor.

This “Halloween Letter,” as the gay community refers to it, urged all Catholic bishops to oppose every legislative effort, on every level of government, which sought to provide equal rights under the law for homosexual people. This included not just official Church opposition to gay marriage, civil unions and benefits for domestic partners, but also any ordinance that would make it illegal to discriminate against people in the work place because of their sexual orientation.

When Cardinal Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI one of his first acts was to announce his intention to purge gay males from the ranks of the Catholic priesthood. When the fine print was read, however, he limited himself to preventing aggressive or militant homosexual advocates from becoming priests. Even this Pope knew full well that a purge of gay men from the ranks of the Catholic priesthood would decimate the clergy, to say nothing of culling significantly the members of the College of Cardinals, the archbishops and bishops of that Church. The duplicity and dishonesty surrounding this issue in the Roman Catholic Church is breathtaking.

Despite this hostility, [the] gay Catholics [who comprise Dignity] still express genuine love for their Church and work tirelessly for the change that will enable them to find in their Church a place of welcome. They strive to demonstrate their loyalty to the worship tradition into which most of them were baptized. DignityUSA gathers in local chapters all across America and convenes its National Convention once every two years, to nurse the wounds of gay Catholics, to educate and inspire their members and to make people aware of their gay presence inside their beloved Church.

Because the members of Dignity know rejection first hand, they have developed a far more accepting and ecumenical understanding of Christianity than that which is official in Catholicism. Since their chapters of necessity are required to meet in non-Catholic churches, ties of friendship have tempered traditional exclusive claims. Dignity members understand what Catholic women have endured. In Dignity’s closing Eucharist, women were vested with priestly stoles while serving as full participants and co-presiders over the liturgy. These women’s hands were raised as they joined with a Graymoor priest to bless the bread and the wine and to utter the words of consecration. Catholic rules were clearly being bent here, but the presence of an ordained priest, whose security lay in that he was answerable only to the head of his order not a local bishop, nonetheless guaranteed the “validity” of the Sacrament.

For me, this conference was both humbling and exhilarating. Seldom before have I been so warmly welcomed, fully included and graciously engaged by members of this faith tradition. Seldom have I been so moved by worship as I was at this conference. The hierarchy of the Catholic Church needs to understand that these people are dedicated and committed Catholics who can neither be expelled nor driven away.

Dignity’s members are not threatening to leave their Church, they are threatening to stay! “This is our Church too,” they say, and “the hierarchy cannot define Catholicism in such a way as to exclude us.” They live out their Catholic lives in faithfulness, not in order to be troublesome, but to help to bring to Catholicism the inclusion that is called for in the gospel of Jesus. They are confident they will win this struggle for the soul of their Church and are encouraged by the incontrovertible fact that changes in consciousness are never reversed.

Inevitably every part of the Christian Church will lay aside its homosexual prejudices and embrace its gay, lesbian, transgender and bi-sexual brothers and sisters as the creation of God, the beloved of Christ and as those empowered to be all that they can be in the Holy Spirit. Benedict XVI is not the voice of the Catholic future; indeed, he will ultimately be little more than a negative footnote in Catholic history.

Every prejudice that is publicly debated is already dying, so this victory is inevitable. Diehard, retrogressive elements in every Christian Church lose ground daily. They will not prevail in this struggle. Christians cannot continue to sing, “Just as I am without one plea, O Lamb of God, I come,” and not live out that invitation.

The embarrassment of the Christian Church in our time will not result from the feared split over homosexuality; it will result rather from those Christian leaders who continue to value unity and institutional peace over truth and justice. Those are the people destined to discover that they do not, cannot and will not own the future. That future will belong to DignityUSA, to John McNeill, Sister Jeannine Gramick, Daniel Helminiak and their counterparts in every Christian tradition, who act without fear to make the Christian Church whole and to call it to be a sign of the Kingdom of God in our divided world. Indeed we live today at the dawn of a new era.

To read Bishop Spong’s commentary in its entirety, click here.

See also the related Wild Reed posts:

Honoring Brian McNeill
An Australian Bishop’s “Radical” Call for Reform
Beyond Papalism


Anonymous said...

I believe within a generation or so, much of what we are currently struggling with in terms of how sexually other people are treated will be "resolved" to some extent - at least in the states, Canada, Europe, and Austrailia - perhaps some parts of South America.

I was listening to Luke Timothy Johnson speak on Krista Tippet's program Speaking On Faith. Johnson proposes that the church is spending so much time focusing on "the family" and homosexuality, because it's easier than taking on the real problem - which is the crisis of marriage among heterosexuals. Marriage, as an institution, has all kinds of problems in modern times - divorce rates are, or people are not bothering to get married at all. So instead of dealing with the issues that are erroding modern day marriage, the attention is thrown over to how homosexuals are somehow "undoing" family values - are somehow responsible for the erosion of the institution of marriage and family.

I believe he has articulated an important truth with that statement. The bate and switch: we can't fix what is wrong, so, we'll make you think this is what's wrong, and put all our focus and energy over there.

Anonymous said...

How about trying out Courage?

Michael J. Bayly said...

Eileen, thanks for (as usual) a thoughtful response – one in which I definitely think you’ve raised an important point. In light of what you shared, you might be interested in this article by Stephanie Coontz on the “Changing Face of ‘Traditional Marriage’”. Also, for a link to a recent commentary by Luke Timothy Johnson on the issue of homosexuality, click here.

Anonymous, thanks for stopping by. For my thoughts on Courage, visit here and here.



Michael J. Bayly said...

Eileen, I'm not sure if you're aware, but a comment has been left in response to one you had made about this post. I thought you might be interested in reading this comment and possibly responding to it.