Thursday, January 17, 2008

From Rome to Minneapolis, Dialogue is What's Needed

Some Catholics are crying foul and insisting that “leftist agitators” have “forced” Pope Benedict XVI to cancel a speaking engagement at the prestigious La Sapienza University in Rome. Yet, in reality, no one “forced” the pope to do anything. He is the pope, after all! No, he (and/or his minders) obviously chose not to go, which, when you think about it, isn’t that surprising.

I’ve heard it said that in the 1960s, Benedict was actually quite progressive. Yet, apparently, his witnessing of the student uprisings throughout Europe in 1968 ensured that he made a sharp turn to the right. Perhaps the prospect of witnessing the planned protest of students and faculty at La Sapienza was too much for the aging pontiff. Then again, those entrenched in feudal systems of power have always viewed with suspicion and hostility the collective voice of the democratic spirit. (Let’s not forget that the First Vatican Council in the 1870s condemned democracy!)

But, hey, aren’t “liberals” supposed to be all for tolerance and diversity?, one hears supporters of the pope cry. It’s a rhetorical question, of course. Those who pose it aren’t interested in hearing an actual response, let alone interested in dialogue. They already have their answer. As Gerald at The Cafeteria is Closed blogsite pontificates: “[It’s] always the same . . . leftist agitators keep conservatives from speaking.” To which I can only respond with the words of comedienne Catherine Tate’s crusty character, Nan Taylor: “What a load of old shit.”

Yes, “liberals” are for diversity. And I’m assuming that’s why those at La Sapienza (and elsewhere) object to the narrow, rigid, and dogmatic theology promulgated by Benedict. I mean, would there have been an opportunity for audience members to respectfully question and challenge the perspective of the pope? (My experience of “official” church forums leads me to conclude that, no, there would not have been such an opportunity.) Yet we rarely hear conservatives protest this type of silencing.

Also, if no opportunity for comments and questions was offered, than it has to be said that before the pope opted not to visit La Sapienza, many others were aware that they would not have a voice, would not have an opportunity to offer any kind of response to whatever the pope had to say. I would not be a bit surprised if this is what fueled the concern and outrage of a good number of those protesting. Many may well have questioned if a modern-day public university, one that values and promotes diversity, is an appropriate place for a feudal lord to hold court.

Others, however, obviously think it is. Take, for instance, the following comment left by Dan Hunter at The Caferteria is Closed: “I would beat the skulls of those arse walloping nursery school brats with a truncheon. Long live His Holiness the Awesomely Supreme Pontiff Pope Benedict XVI!!!” Like a lot of things one reads on conservative-leaning blogs, it’s hard to know if this guy is serious or not.

Another blogger, James Layne a.k.a. the Faithful Rebel (an oxymoron if ever there was one!), insists that those protesting the pope’s visit to La Sapienza did so in response to a comment he made seventeen years ago, when he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, that called the heresy trial of the 17th-century astronomer Galileo “reasonable.” In reality, the future pope was quoting another philosopher in that passage, part of a long speech on the Catholic Church and Europe.

More to the story

If this alone were the reason for the protest then it would indeed be lamentable. Yet Layne fails to mention the perspective of Andrea Frova, a physicist and one of the La Sapienza academics who protested the pope’s visit. According to Frova, the issue goes beyond Galileo to the pope’s stance on a range of contemporary scientific issues – from in-vitro fertilization to stem cell research. Frova insists that the Pope would be welcome at the university to debate these issues, but not to deliver a speech in which there would be no opportunity for discussion or response. Sounds reasonable to me.

Incidentally, Layne accompanies his post about the protest of the pope by Italian professors and students with images of angry Islamic extremists protesting the pope’s 2006 comments about the prophet Muhammud! Apparently, all who dare question or protest the pope are lumped together as rabid “extremists” and “fanatics.” (Hmm. What was it again that Nan Taylor said?)

The whole tone of Layne’s commentary is one of self-righteous indignation: How dare anyone attempt to question the pope, let alone seek to prevent him from speaking! This is rich, indeed, coming from Layne, a man who has repeatedly boasted of how he played a key role in ensuring that a Catholic lesbian and her 82-year-old straight father were prevented from sharing their story at a Catholic church here in the Twin Cities.

Reason and faith, truth and duty

Now, without doubt, Benedict XVI is a strong (if narrowly focused) intellectual who has emphasized the importance of reason in the practice of faith. Yet the question has to be asked: whose “reason” is actually being utilized? When it comes to the issue of, say, homosexuality, the reasoning offered by modern science and the lived experiences of homosexual people certainly isn’t. Rather, it is simply discounted and dismissed by the pope.

Here in the Archdiocese of St. Paul/Minneapolis, Coadjutor Archbishop Nienstedt has issued statements that have similarly discounted and dismissed the experiences and insights of gay people. His statements, however, have not gone unopposed. Last month, for instance, over 300 Catholics braved icy weather to stand on the steps of the cathedral in solidarity with lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) Catholics.

Archbishop Nienstedt’s response to this show of solidarity has been to declare that, with regards the Church’s teaching on homosexuality, it’s not up to him to change anything. Indeed, during a recent visit of the Archbishop to a local Catholic high school, a student posed the following question to him: “If you could change anything about the Church, what would it be?” Nienstedt’s response was that it wasn’t in his (and presumably anyone’s power) to change anything about the Church. It’s all be set up, just as it should be, by God. It’s “beautiful” just as it is. Not only is change not possible, it also should not be even desired.

It’s not surprising, then, that immediately after the Vigil for Solidarity, Archbishop Nienstedt, in his regular column in The Catholic Spirit, the official newspaper of the Archdiocese (which, incidentally, prevents the sharing of certain perspectives), declared that his “duty before God as a priest and as a bishop is to set forth, with clarity and conviction, the truth as expressed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church and as it has been handed down throughout the church’s history.” He finds support in this “duty” in the Vatican II document Lumen Gentium: “Bishops have by divine institution taken the place of the apostles as pastors of the Church, in such ways that whoever listens to them is listening to Christ and whoever despises them despises Christ and him who sent Christ.” (Lumen Gentium 20.2)

In response to Archbishop Nienstedt, the editorial team of The Progressive Catholic Voice online journal published the following in its regular “Dialoguing with the Archbishop” column:

We appreciate your sincerity in exercising your duty to teach. We know, of course, that the teaching you refer to, and, in particular, the language this teaching employs, i.e., the “intrinsic disorder” of the homosexual orientation, is not yours alone. As expressed in this way, it has been the teaching of the Church since 1986, and it appears in the Roman Catechism. Nevertheless, we question it and ask you to work with us to change it.

We are not asking you, as you fear, to compromise truth. Truth is discovered through time. Tradition evolves. The Church is currently teaching in Section 2358 of the Catechism, that homosexuals should be treated with compassion and sensitivity. That represents evolution of the tradition. There is no reason that the moral teaching on this matter of “intrinsic disorder” should not evolve further, and there is plenty of scientific evidence and moral/pastoral reasoning that it should evolve quickly.

Your duty as a bishop to be a stand-in for Christ, which you have quoted from Lumen Gentium, is an awesome responsibility. Doesn’t it stand to reason that a duty of such magnitude requires from you more than insisting on a formulation of moral teaching that is widely questioned by faithful people who are earnestly seeking to live moral lives? Doesn’t a duty of such magnitude include having the imagination and sensitivity to discuss, at least, a moral teaching that many clearly see as being out of line with Christ’s admonition to love one another?

Our duty to listen to you is also an awesome one. We think it requires more than just being “yes” persons. We take our duty seriously in trying to reason with you about this teaching that impacts so many lives. These LGBT people are our loved ones, our children. We rejoice with them in their finding partners to support them in living good lives. We believe we also stand as Christ through our baptism and our Christian life. We believe that on every moral issue we have to study the pertinent facts, reason about their implications, and consult the experience of those who are most impacted by the teaching. Do you agree with this method of arriving at moral positions? And if not, why?

Of course, such comments and questions are also appropriate for Pope Benedict XVI. Yet judging from the latest incident in Rome, it’s clear the that pope does not wish to engage with those who have experiences and insights that call into question the teachings of the Church.

An invitation to listen, talk, and learn

It certainly seems that Archbishop Nienstedt is following a similar path. But wait! He has the opportunity later this month to show that he’s capable of embodying a more open and receptive outlook, that he sees the value of dialogue. How? Well, he has been invited to a January 29 event hosted by the Catholic Pastoral Committee on Sexual Minorities (CPCSM), one entitled, “The Myth of Conversion Therapy.”

The featured speaker at this event will be John C. Gonsiorek, PhD., a clinical psychologist who has worked with LGBT clients for thirty years, and a past president of the Society for the Psychological Study of Lesbian and Gay Issues (a division of the American Psychological Association). Dr. Gonsiorek is also the author of several books, including Homosexuality: Research Implications for Public Policy and A Guide to Psychotherapy with Gay and Lesbian Clients.

As executive coordinator of CPCSM, I recently sent an invitation to Archbishop Nienstedt to attend our January 29 event. After all, he did say upon his appointment as Coadjutor Archbishop that: “I see myself as a learner. I’ll come here, I’ll listen, I’ll talk to people . . . This next year will be a sharp learning curve for me.”

Accordingly, part of CPCSM’s invitation to the Archbishop to “come,” “listen,” “talk,” and “learn” reads as follows:

It is our understanding that while serving as bishop in Detroit, you invited Joseph Nicolosi, co-founder of theNational Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), to speak as an “expert” on the issue of homosexuality. We have serious concerns about the credibility of NARTH, especially in terms of its advocacy of “conversion therapy” for gay people.

Accordingly, we invite you to join us on the evening of January 29 as we seek to understand the most current thinking of the scientific community on this particular issue. There will, of course, be an opportunity for you to share your perspective on this issue and to dialogue with other faithful seekers about their experiences and insights related to this particular matter.

Some friends of mine insist that the Archbishop won’t even respond to CPCSM’s invitation, much less attend the January 29 presentation. Yet I, with my “valiant” hope, prefer to think otherwise.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Thoughts on Authority and Fidelity
Beyond Papalism
Uncle Vince is at it Again
It’s Time We Moved Beyond Theological Imperialism
Authentic Catholicism: The Antidote to Clericalism
Beyond a PC Pope
What It Means to be Catholic
Archbishop Nienstedt’s “Learning Curve”: A Suggested Trajectory


Anonymous said...

Something like 50 out of 4,000 teachers at that Italian university signed the letter that opposed the Pope's appearance.

What would you call a person who "insists that the Pope would be welcome at the university to debate these issues, but not to deliver a speech in which there would be no opportunity for discussion or response."

Apparently, a "liberal."

What would you call a person who opposes a person who wished to speak at a university on the evils of homosexual practices?

I would guess, a "homophobe."

For the life of me I cannot understand why you are so obsessed with being a member of a Church with which you have so little in common. You seem to disagree with the majority of its rules.

The Church isn't going to change is teachings on homosexuality and the other things with which you disagree.

Therefore you only have the option of finding a church with which you agree.

If you persist in wanting to be Catholic I can only assume that you want to be one so that you can destroy the Church from within.

There are about 20 parishes in the Twin Cities area that have organized groups of homosexuals meeting on their premises.

What you don't like is the fact that the Church doesn't roll over and adopt the "Pride" and "Rainbow Sash" political agendas, both of which are intended to destroy the Church.

Michael J. Bayly said...

Wow! There are “about twenty parishes in the Twin Cities that have organized groups of homosexuals meeting on their premises”!? That’s news to me. Oh, wait, perhaps Anonymous is talking about church choirs. In that case, there’s probably more!

But seriously, 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.



Anonymous said...

I don't often have online access, so I am a little behind the times here. Bear with me. I understand that one professor's comment... perhaps Marcello Cini? was that it would be inappropriate to invite a head of state to open the academic year, and more inappropriate to invite one religious leader without inviting many.

To me this seems disingenuous. One can immediately think of dozens of heads of state who would not have been protested. The idea that 'We must honor religious leaders, and therefore we will not honor this one' doesn't make sense. One can think of dozens of religious leaders who would have been welcome.

I suspect that the professors rejected him not because he is a head of state, nor a religious leader, but because he is Benedict XVI. He would have been welcome if were not head of THAT state, the Vatican, and if he were not such a STUbborn religious leader. Andrea Trova, to his credit, admitted as much. It would have been honorable for the other protestors to admit the same. Their cry should have been honest: Benedict, we reject you for what you teach.

Benedict is, as Michael well said, an intellectual, bona fide if narrowly focused. He is a longtime religious professor and a currently working scholar of theology, exegesis, and a onetime publishing scholar of philosophy and history. He is a suitable candidate to deliver a speech to commence a year of studies. If listeners don't agree with his speech, let them speak. There is free press, there are blogs, there is radio. If they disagree with other positions he holds which, let's face it, he would not have treated in his speech, let them disagree. There are outlets. People can speak and should.

The protests, however, are an embarrassment to intellectuals.