The Truly Catholic Vision of Religious Freedom

Today's post from Bondings 2.0, On the USCCB's Fifth (And Hopefully Final) "Fortnight For Freedom", prompted me to re-read Dignitatis Humanae [DH], the Second Vatican Council's Declaration on Religious Freedom. After all, if the bishops or others think that religious liberty and the free exercise of religion are under attack in the US, one would think we should be looking to this important document for guidance.

DH clearly and strongly promotes the rights of individuals and social groups "… to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits."

The bishops' concern that religious persons and institutions might be forced by the government to act in a way that is coercive and violates their "own beliefs" clearly finds some support here. However, that nasty 3-word phrase at the end puts a different slant on things: "within due limits." Several times DH references the "just order of society" and the "due limits" on one's religious freedom. Perhaps the clearest statement is in Article 7, which begins:

"The right to religious freedom is exercised in human society: hence its exercise is subject to certain regulatory norms. In the use of all freedoms the moral principle of personal and social responsibility is to be observed. In the exercise of their rights, individual men [sic] and social groups are bound by the moral law to have respect both for the rights of others and for their own duties toward others and for the common welfare of all. Men are to deal with their fellows in justice and civility."

While the bishops and other "religious freedom" advocates look with limited vision to the US Constitution, they seem to have forgotten the teachings of their own Tradition. DH reminds us of the "due limits" and "regulatory norms" which a just and civil society must enact to ensure the "rights of others" are respected. The bishops' original concern related to healthcare, though quickly was extended to the area of LGBT rights. The US Supreme Court has decided to hear a case from Colorado about the refusal by the owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop, Jack Phillips, to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple. Phillips cited his disapproval of same-sex marriage, which he claims to be rooted in his Christian faith, as the reason.

From a Catholic teaching perspective, it'd be quite a stretch to say that the baking of a wedding cake rises to the level of a "religious act" worthy of protection. If it did, then where would it end? In theory, no end would be in sight. After all, any religious person who takes faith seriously would try to express his/her religious values in all aspect of life, right? If that's true, what's to stop said religious person from hiding behind such "religious freedom protections" for any and all acts in which he engages?

As the bishops of Vatican II rightly recognized, civil society has the obligation to impose due limits and appropriate regulatory norms on the exercise of religious freedom. Such limits and norms must respect the rights of ALL citizens. As we celebrate today 241 years of independence from political tyranny, may we be always strive to be free from tyranny of all stripes, even when wrapped in red, white and blue.


Evidence, not Opinion: What the bishops should embrace about homosexuality

I spent this past week at a conference in San Francisco on ADHD, the annual conference of the non-profit organization where I work. The closing plenary was by a renowned neurologist, Dr. Martha Denckla from Baltimore’s Kennedy-Krieger Institute. Dr. Denckla is a true scientist, relying on the facts and what empirical data show in drawing her research conclusions.

During the Q & A after her presentation she was asked by one attendee, “What’s your opinion of [some named product making claims about alleviating ADHD symptoms]?” Without missing a beat, Dr. Denckla replied, “I prefer not to have opinions. I prefer evidence over opinions.”

Russian icon from the collection at Hillwood Museum.

Such wisdom would serve well current Church leaders who continue to bury their heads in the sand, choosing to remain blind to the incontrovertible evidence about what it means to be gay. As the US Catholic Bishops have their fall meeting in Baltimore this week and discuss (as no doubt they will) what to do in response to last week’s election, the wisdom of those words deserves repeating. The bishops (both in the US and around the world, including Rome) would do well to take a dose of humility for a change and simply listen. They should listen to the evidence of the lives of LGBT people, their families and friends, as demonstrated in the favorable votes in four states on same-sex marriage. They should put aside their opinions, based as they are on outdated and incorrect understandings of human sexuality, and they should listen to the evidence that tells us that:

  • being gay is a given, not a choice;
  • being gay for a gay person is just as ‘natural’ as being straight is for a straight person;
  • the struggle for LGBT rights — including the right to marry the person you love — is about gay people and in no way diminishes the marriages of straight people.

As the US and worldwide bishops continue to look away from the clear evidence of research and most especially the evidence of the lived experience of God’s LGBT children, they run the risk of being guilty of remaining in what moral theology calls “vincible ignorance.”  Unlike “invincible ignorance” which cannot be overcome due to one’s own efforts, vincible ignorance is that lack of knowledge for which one is morally responsible. As shepherds of God’s People, bishops have an obligation to know the people they are called to serve.

They have an obligation to listen to the stories of gay men and women who live lives of deep Christian faith and who live in faithful, committed relationships.  They need to listen to the stories of parents whose gay children have suffered bullying and abuse at the hands of others inspired, in part, by the hateful language of “disordered” and “unnatural.”  Perhaps especially they need to listen to the stories of their own lives (many bishops, no doubt, are gay themselves) as well as the stories of their family members and friends.

The lived experience of God’s People is not only a legitimate source of insight into clarifying and articulating anew the Christian message in every age; it is a required source of such insight. If we really believe that God is actively involved in the lives of His People, then it is the evidence of God’s action in human lives that deserves recognition, respect, and support.

Always Our Children — 15 Years Ago Today

Fifteen years ago today the Catholic Bishops of the United States had one of their brighter moments in recent history.  On September 10, 1997, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (now the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, USCCB) published Always Our Children, A Pastoral Message to Parents of Homosexual Children and Suggestions for Pastoral Ministers (and available from the USCCB bookstore here).

As the title indicates, this document was addressed not to gays and lesbians directly, but rather to the parents of “homosexual children” and to pastoral ministers.  Nonetheless, it marked a significant milestone in presenting a more positive understanding of God’s gay children, standing squarely on the side of respect for the full human dignity of gay and lesbian people. It even addressed the issue of persons living with HIV/AIDS, stating unequivocally (as the times demanded), “…we reject the idea that HIV/AIDS is a direct punishment from God.”

Sadly, the intervening years since this publication have not seen the hoped-for progress that LGBT Catholics continue to pray for.  May the recognition of this important anniversary reinvigorate our prayers that one day soon, leaders of our Church may — like the man whose ears were opened in the Gospel story from yesterday’s liturgy — be able to hear the stories of their LGBT brothers and sisters and learn from the loving and faith-filled experiences of our lives how the Living God is alive and well, doing wondrous deeds even today.

Bishops, Oaths, and Conscience

Catholic bishops joining in the Nazi salute.

Today’s Washington Post reports on a highly troubling story (Arlington Diocese parishioners question need for fidelity oath) about a rising trend in Catholic dioceses to require workers — including volunteers who teach religious education — to affirm some sort of “fidelity oath” in order to continue their work or ministry. The story ends with this:

The Rev. Ronald Nuzzi, who heads the leadership program for Catholic educators at the University of Notre Dame, said many bishops “are in a pickle.” They want Catholic institutions to be staffed by people who not only teach what the church teaches but whose “whole life will bear witness.”

Nuzzi said he keeps a photo on his desk from the 1940s that shows all the German bishops in their garb, doing the Nazi salute.

“I keep it there to remind people who say to do everything the Church says, that their wisdom has limitations, too.”

Anyone who fully understands and values the breadth and depth of Catholic Christianity must be appalled by this trend, especially when such oaths appear to be written in ways that clearly are contrary to Catholic teaching. What is more troubling, however, is the perspective expressed by some — both clergy and laity — who see no problem with such a practice.

Opposing the death penalty: “common ground” for conservative and liberal Catholics

The idea of “common ground” seems to have become a victim of the extremism all around us these days.  In the worlds of politics and religion, we hear regularly about the lack of civility, the dearth of bipartisanship, and the recalcitrant conflicts between those who have different perspectives on almost every issue.

Instead of focusing on what separates, the concept of common ground asks us to look for those areas in which we agree in order to make some progress and do some good. The fact that such common ground must be searched for in the first place means we already know, and likely know all too well, the areas in which we disagree.  It recognizes that progress on those issues of conflict may not be possible right now … but surely there is something we can do, some common ground we can find, in order to make this world a better place.

In the Catholic world where conservatives and liberals have conflicts no less strident than those on Capitol Hill, why can we not come together on the issue of our collective opposition to the death penalty as a place to start?

Recently, Pope Benedict XVI praised the advocacy efforts of some Americans from Chicago representing a group whose name needs no explanation: Illinois Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.

If American Catholics from cathedra to pew could find this common ground, at least two benefits could ensue. First, we might be able to help our fellow citizens see that our words about human dignity and the value of human life are words with meaning. We would put into practice what we preach when we say our faith calls us to respect the dignity and value of every person. Second, achieving a goal with someone typically seen as “the other” would surely open our eyes even more, helping us see the humanity in “the other” whom we can sometimes readily dismiss. Perhaps  we might understand more fully why they cling to what they cling, even when we cling to something different.  Common ground forces us to see one another not from a distance, but up close.

Perhaps that’s not such a bad thing to do, especially during this Advent Season when we celebrate our belief not in a distant and disinterested god, but in a God who took on the common ground of our own humanity and invites us daily to do the same.

Your thoughts? Would love to know.

Australian Gay Marriage Video

Guess I am a bit of a romantic, but I admit it … I did tear up when I saw this! How can anyone watch this video, produced by the Australian advocacy group, “GetUp! Action for Australia,” and not be moved?

To all  Catholic bishops around the world (including the Pope); all the Republican presidential candidates who have signed pledges in support of DOMA; Maggie Gallagher, Brian Brown, and other intellectually challenged supporters of NOM … how can you possibly watch this and fail to understand that support for civil (and yes, sacramental … but that’s another story) marriage will in no way harm either the marriages of heterosexuals or children?

This is about:

  1. accepting the fact that being gay is not a choice;
  2. recognizing that being gay is a natural part of the diversity with which humanity is so blessed; and
  3. deciding how to live faithfully and responsibly in light of the God-given realities of #1 # 2.

What do Straight Catholic Priests think about the new Anglican Ordinariate?

By now everyone is probably aware that the doors of the Roman Catholic Church have been opened widely to those disaffected members and the Anglican Communion who seek communion with Rome. Such disaffection usually has to do with the ordination or women and more open attitudes toward gays and lesbians in some branches of Anglicanism. Whether as individuals or even as entire parishes and communities, Rome has put in place processes and structures by which Anglicans (Episcopalians in the US) can enter the Catholic Church, often keeping in place many of the traditions and practices they bring from their Anglican heritage.

On its face, this would seem like a gracious thing to do. It was back in 1980 when Pope John Paul II granted a special “Pastoral Provision” allowing clergy from the Anglican Communion to become Catholic and continue to exercise their priestly ministry.  The difference with this new provision was (and remains) that if married, such clergy would obviously remain married — thus creating a married Catholic priesthood. At the time, I was surprised that there wasn’t more of an outcry from Catholic priests who had made the difficult choice between marriage and priesthood.  After all, the Church has always thought of both as vocations, both sacramental, and not mutually exclusive.  Though complex, the rationale of mandatory celibacy in the Roman Rite of the Catholic Church has largely been rooted in matters of order and church discipline. Yes, there have been countless attempts to spiritualize this requirement, but mandatory celibacy for non-monastic clergy in the Roman Rite has sometimes been called a discipline in search of a theology.

More recently, this open door policy has been expanded not just to individuals, but to entire Anglican parishes.  Benedict XVI’s apostolic constitution Anglicanorum Coetibus (2009) established the norms and procedures for this en masse “swimming the Tiber” to take place.

And so we come to the most recent meeting of the US Bishops held in Baltimore Nov. 14-16, 2011.  There, it was announced that the Anglican Ordinariate, as it is known, would be implemented in the US on January 1, 2012.  Washington’s Cardinal Donad Wuerl heads up the US bishops’ efforts to welcome former Anglican groups, while Bishop Kevin Vann of Fort Worth, TX takes over as the “Ecclesiastical Delegate” for the 1980 Pastoral Provision process.

So, my question is this:  What do men who were raised Catholic and who feel called both to priesthood and marriage have to say about all this? We certainly know that priests were not consulted before either of these provisions were announced, but one would expect that some priest or group of priests would at least raise to the bishops questions about the fundamental fairness of this very unequal treatment.  I can find nothing from a “policy perspective” on the website for the National Federation of Priests’ Councils, nor can I even find a website for a recently announced new Association of U.S. Catholic Priests.  So, what do straight Catholic priests think of all this? Anyone??

The Bishops’ Vincible Ignorance

People are responsible for their actions.  The degree to which one is either blamed or praised for those actions is determined by a number of factors.  In moral theology, one such factor used in weighing culpability for an evil act is ignorance.  Literally, “ignorance” means “not knowing,” and usually refers to something one should know.  If I get behind the wheel of a car and start to drive, I may not know the speed limit of the road I’m driving on, but I should know that speed limit.

Invincible ignorance is the type of ignorance that cannot be overcome, while vincible ignorance can be overcome with a relatively normal amount of effort and diligence. Vincible ignorance does not typically reduce culpability and it is this type of ignorance that we should strive to overcome throughout the course of life. Diminishing vincible ignorance is at the heart of education and every pursuit of knowledge.  Knowledge at the horizon is advanced not by mere repetition of what has been received and maintenance of the status quo. On the contrary, it is advanced by constructive and thoughtful criticism, by asking questions, by challenging accepted notions and seeking greater understanding as new data – including the data of lived experience – become available.

It is this type of ignorance — vincible ignorance — which seems so frequently to be present in most of what comes from official church statements about God’s gay and lesbian children and same-sex relationships, including ongoing debates about public recognition of those relationships in marriage.

I continue to be so very saddened by the un-Christlike actions of our episcopal leaders who seem to be stuck in a state of vincible ignorance when it comes to gay and lesbian people.  They seem not only to be blind to the truths about sexual orientation that we are learning from all areas of science, but they also are unwilling to implement a Catholic approach to scriptural theology when it comes to discussing what Sacred Scriptures really say about same-sex attraction.

And — perhaps what is saddest of all —  is  that they seem to think that love, all of which comes from God, is a zero-sum reality.

On the first two points, the bishops and others who oppose the recognition of numerous civil rights for gay and lesbian people — especially marriage — have begun to use the term “sexual difference” instead of “sexual orientation” as they put forth their arguments.  In their lingo, “sexual difference” simply means that males and females are different, and that this difference has predetermined goals, ends and purposes that are the same for everyone.  In their minds, the purpose of “sexual difference” is the creation of family — men and women coming together in exclusive, lifelong partnerships, for the raising and rearing of children.  Bishop Salvatore Cordileone, the current voice of the American bishops’ opposition to the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), uses the term in this way: “There is no corresponding duty, however, for society to disregard the meaning of sexual difference and its practical consequences for the common good; to override fundamental rights, such as religious liberty; and to re-define our most basic social institution.'” To put it bluntly, the “meaning” of sexual difference and one of those “practical consequences” is simply that every man and every woman should be heterosexual and should have an inherent desire to seek out an opposite-sex partner for a life-long spousal relationship.

This, of course, is where Bishop Cordileone and his confreres completely miss the boat and express their vincible ignorance.  They continue to try to retrofit a square peg into a round hole, and refuse to consider the perspective in which all the pieces fit together – a perspective which honors fundamental Christian anthropology and incorporates the lived and valid experience of God’s gay and lesbian children.

The “good” bishops apologizing? A nice idea, but ….

Brian Cahill’s suggestion in the National Catholic Reporter (NCR) that the small number of “good guy” bishops apologize for the harm done by the church leaders to gays and lesbians is intriguing. Unfortunately, I think it misses the bigger picture, and falls way short of what these “good guys” can and should be doing.

Here’s my comment.

Mr. Cahill,

The idea of an apology from church leaders for the ways in which the official church currently treats God’s LGBT children is certainly appealing. However, the problem with your suggestion — i.e. that this small group of “the good guys” apologize for the actions of others — is that it is inconsistent with the more complete idea of “reconciliation” and misses the point that, for reconciliation to be truly meaningful, it must be personal.

If my brother steals your car or harms you in any way, I can tell you that “I’m sorry this happened” or “I regret what my brother has done; he should not have done it,” but this is not an apology in the formal sense. It’s a statement of empathy, care, and concern for the harm you have experienced at the hands of another. Only my brother can truly “apologize” for the harm HE committed (sorrow for one’s actions), only HE can make right (penance) this harm, promising not to do it again (purpose of amendment), and only YOU can forgive him. These elements are what is necessary for reconciliation to occur.

  • What these “good guys” CAN do, however, is challenge — fraternally, respecfully, lovingly — the misguided “teachings” of their fellow bishops on the various issues surrounding homosexuality.
  • What they SHOULD do is embrace their teaching responsibility and fraternally correct their brother bishops who continue to misinterpret Sacred Scripture and ignore the truths from all current sciences about sexuality and sexual orientation.
  • What they SHOULD do is help their brother bishops form their consciences so that they — the bishops, including the Holy Father, who speak harshly and disrespectfully of God’s LGBT children — may allow their hearts to be unhardened, and they may find it in themselves to apologize for the wrong they continue to do.

Now THAT would be a good day in God’s Church!

Homily for the 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time (July 3/4, 2010)

Dignity NoVA/DC

1 Is 66:10-14c; Ps 66:1-3, 4-5, 6-7, 16, 20; Gal 6:14-18; Lk 10:1-12, 17-20

Before I get to the heart of what I want to say, let me make one comment about the reference Jesus makes at the end of this passage from Luke – a comment that perhaps might be of help if ever you find yourself in a “discussion” – and hopefully it will be a “discussion” and not an “argument” – with someone who is claiming that “the Bible itself condemns gay people.”  As many of us know, there are just a small handful of passages from the Bible that many people have used to condemn God’s gay and lesbian children – passages that we generally consider to be incorrectly taken out of their historical and cultural context, and thus misunderstood and misinterpreted – and one of them has to do with Sodom. This perhaps is the most well-known, the most notorious, because the word “Sodom” (which comes from the Hebrew word for “burnt”) found its way into English with the ill-defined words of “sodomy” and “sodomite.” You recall the story from the Book of Genesis in which two divine messengers come to the town of Sodom and are greeted by Lot. As was so important a custom in that part of the world, Lot extended a welcome to these strangers, offering them that life-giving hospitality without which travelers in the harsh terrain could perish.  Hospitality also placed a responsibility on the shoulders of the one who extended it; and that responsibility was to protect those to whom shelter and welcome were given.  Now, for unstated reasons, the citizens of Sodom come to Lot’s house and demand that he bring out these strangers so that they might abuse, probably rape them. And so the debate has been – is this passage about homosexuality, or is the true sin of the people of Sodom the fact that they turned their backs on the custom of hospitality and the responsibilities that come with welcoming the stranger?

So if you do find yourself in that discussion, you can and should point to this passage from Luke.  Because here, in the words of Jesus, we have a reference to Sodom, that city which God destroyed.  In making this reference, is Jesus speaking about sexual behavior? Clearly not. Jesus is making a reference, an allusion that was probably well-understood by his hearers, simply by naming the town. That reference, that allusion, is in the context of the lack of welcome, the lack of hospitality that his disciples might receive as they go about their mission of preaching in those towns and villages that Jesus intends to visit. And so, Luke chapter 9 supports the claim that the real sin of Sodom had nothing to do with sexual behavior, but was their lack of hospitality and caring for those in need.

So … moving on… we have this weekend a collection of readings that don’t necessarily have a common thread or theme that jumps out at us.  In fact, these three passages have a wealth of ideas that we can reflect on, but the one thing I would like to draw our attention to is what Jesus instructs these 72 disciples – going out in pairs – to do when they enter a village or a town.  He tells them that they are to: 

  • head directly to their destination without being side-tracked along the way;
  • accept hospitality in whatever way it is given;
  • cure the sick and tell them that God’s Reign is at hand
  • but … their very first words are an offering of Peace.  “Into whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this household.’ If a peaceful person lives there, your peace will rest on him; but if not, it will return to you.”

Much of Luke’s Gospel is focused on Jesus’ “going up to Jerusalem,” and this story from the 9th chapter of Luke is set n that context.  In the previous chapter – chapter 8 – Luke tells us that the time had come for Jesus to be taken up, to be “lifted up,” Jesus decides it’s time for him to go up to Jerusalem, the place where Jesus knows he will suffer and die, where he will be lifted up on the cross. And so, it’s in this context that we have this story of Jesus sending out the 72 … the context of going up to Jerusalem — in Hebrew, Yerushaláyim – the city whose very name means, “the abode of Peace,” or the “the dwelling place of peace.”

Earlier this week I was listening to bits and pieces of the testimony before the Senate about the nomination of Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court. After her own testimony and questioning, the Senate Committee listened to various panelists presenting their views, people who both support her nomination and who those who oppose it. As I listened to the testimony of one particular person – someone who heads an organization with roots in conservative Christianity and whose stated mission is “Defending Family, Faith and Freedom,” – he was making the argument that he believes the nominee is anti-military and opposed to veterans and military service. In saying this, he said something that I found very striking. “War is the most difficult human activity, bar none.” When I heard that, I was puzzled, and I thought – Really? Is that really true? Is war the most difficult of all human activity? Now, I don’t mean to dismiss or overlook the countless sacrifices made and burdens borne by the hundreds of thousands of men and women – and their families – men and women in years past and even in our present day who have stepped forward to – as the saying goes – “stand in harm’s way” so that we might enjoy the blessings, the liberties and freedoms that we celebrate as a nation this weekend.  War is, no doubt a very difficult and even a terrible thing.  But when we look at the whole span of human history, we humans have been pretty good at fighting war.  And so when I heard that statement – “War is the most difficult human activity, bar none,” … my immediate reaction was to ask, “What about peace?” It struck me that if we look at this from the perspective in which “success” or “failure” is a measure of difficulty, isn’t Peace a more difficult human activity? Isn’t it more difficult to follow the command of Jesus to be bearers of peace, to be sources of peace, to be instruments of peace?

Many of us will remember a time when the collective voice of the Bishops in our country had a weight that, for various reasons, seemed stronger than it does today. It was 27 years ago, in 1983, that the Bishops issued a Pastoral Letter on War and Peace entitled, The Challenge of Peace:  God’s Promise and Our Response. And while this pastoral letter reflected the time in our nation’s history in which it was written – a time in which its focus was not so much on the type of wars being fought today, but rather focused on the possibility of nuclear war and issues surrounding nuclear deterrence – the guiding principles articulated in that letter are still worth remembering.  If you’ve never read this document, I encourage you to do so. It’s not light summer beach reading, but rather is a thoughtful and in-depth discussion of war, of peace, and what we as Christians can and must do to further advance that Reign of God which, while still close at hand, sometimes seems so very far away.

Let me close by reading one brief passage in which the Bishops remind us of some core values and perspectives:  “At the center of the Church’s teaching on peace and at the center of all Catholic social teaching are the transcendence of God and the dignity of the human person. The human person is the clearest reflection of God’s presence in the world; all of the Church’s work in pursuit of both justice and peace is designed to protect and promote the dignity of every person. For each person not only reflects God, but is the expression of God’s creative work and the meaning of Christ’s redemptive ministry..” [emphases added].

“The transcendence of God and the dignity of every human person.” As we observe the 234th anniversary of that day in which our forebears declared to the world that “All people are created equal,” let us pray that we will never forget that “All” means “All” and that as followers of Jesus who suffered, died and conquered death so that we might have peace and the fullness of life, that we also have what it takes to engage every day in that most difficult of human activities, bar none … the activity of being instruments of God’s peace every moment of our lives.