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.


Which Catholic parish will be first to welcome Gay Scouts?

BSA-LogoApparently the Boy Scouts of America may soon revise their long-standing ban on allowing gay people — as either scouts or volunteer leaders — into the organization. (See today’s story in the Washington Post.) The revision may be that local organizations that sponsor troops — typically civic or religious groups — will be able to make their own call on this matter.

If that comes about, I pray that there will be one Catholic parish somewhere in these United States that will have the faith, the courage, and the decency to do the right thing.  I pray that there will be one courageous pastor who will lead his parish in making a decision that puts them “on the right side of history,” and allows the scout troop under their auspices to accept openly gay scouts and leaders.

Today’s story in the Washington Post includes this comment:

“Said Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, “The bishops hope the Boy Scouts will continue to work under the Judeo-Christian principles upon which they were founded and under which they have served youth well.”

Hopefully Sister Mary Ann and the bishops for whom she works will one day learn that exclusion of people because of who they are as God made them to be is not really a “Judeo-Christian principle.”

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.

What’s the difference, really??

Here are two current stories about two very similar men whom the Catholic Church treats very differently.

The first is a man who followed a call to ministry, was ordained a priest within his church, and eventually became a bishop. Because that church allows priests to be married, Jeffrey Steenson also has a wife, three children, and even a grandchild.  Steenson, the former bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of the Rio Grande, Albuquerque, NM has since left the Anglican Communion, been welcomed into the Catholic Church and ordained a Catholic priest.  Most recently he was appointed head of a new Ordinariate intended to smooth the transition to the Catholic Church for Episcopalians who, for whatever reason, feel called to swim the Tiber. Although Fr. Steenson will not be permitted to become a bishop, his new position essentially gives him all the administrative authority of a bishop and he will even be a voting member of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The second man also followed a call to ministry within his church, and was similarly ordained both a priest and a bishop.  Though I don’t presume to know anything other than what is being reported today, Gabino Zavala apparently also felt called to the intimacy of a marital relationship and family life, and recently revealed that he is the father of two teenage children.  In the current structures of Catholicism, however, the requirement of mandatory celibacy makes all this a big “no, no.” And so, today’s big news is that the Pope has accepted Zavala’s resignation as an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. The Vatican announcement of this news cites that part of Canon Law (can. 401§2) which allows for the resignation of a bishop prior to the established retirement age of 75 due to ill health or “some other grave cause.”

Putting aside the fact that Bishop Zavala did not live up to the imposed requirement in the Western Church that priests and bishops be celibate, the question remains:  At a substantive, material level, how are these two men really different, and why does the Catholic Church treat them so differently?

Abp Dolan: “Conversion of hearts, not calls to action”

This direct quote from his presidential address to the current meeting of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) struck me like a knife. In a litany of descriptions about the essence and mission of the Church, Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York said that the Church’s focus should be on what “Jesus prefers,” namely “conversion of hearts, not calls to action.”

The not-so-subtle critique of Call To Action notwithstanding, Dolan’s words are hard to understand. In an address that one would expect to be unifying those from all points of the Catholic spectrum, is this not a direct self-contradiction? Is not the life of Christ and His followers one that should continually seek both conversion of heart and the Gospel call to live out its mandates in daily action? Is not the Gospel in action evidence itself of the converted heart, or rather, the heart in the midst of ongoing conversion?

Here’s the full paragraph in which this statement was made:

“Our urgent task to reclaim “love of Jesus and His Church as the passion of our lives” summons us not into ourselves but to Our Lord.Jesus prefers prophets, not programs; saints, not solutions; conversion of hearts, not calls to action; prayer, not protests: Verbum Dei rather than our verbage.”

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.

Genesis of Same-Sex Attraction

The Pilot reports somewhat objectively on the resignation of Daniel Avila.  The story, however, concludes with this slightly puzzling statement from the USCCB’s director of media relations, Sister Mary Ann Walsh (@sisterwalsh):

“While the general population has debated whether it’s nurture or nature that leads to a homosexual inclination, the church has not posed any theory in that regard.”

Why puzzling?  What competence does the Church have even to pose a “theory” about this in the first place?  Almost all fields of scientific inquiry are quite clear that sexual orientation is a “given.” Should its genesis be studied by science?  Of course, but “theorizing” about its genesis by an institution which has a pre-set agenda is hardly a path that will lead to clarity and truth.

Daniel Avila Resigns from USCCB

Apparently in response to his outrageous commentary printed last week in which he claimed that “the evil one” must be responsible for same-sex attraction, USCCB policy advisor Daniel Avila is reported to have resigned from his high-level position with the nation’s bishops.

There’s no announcement yet on the USCCB web site, but it will be interesting to see (1) if  it’s announced in writing, and (2) what reason is given.

The Pilot — Boston’s Catholic Newspaper — Prints Heresy

UPDATE:  On Nov. 2, 2011 The Pilot issued a retraction of the story, noting its “theological error” (though without specifying what that error was, exactly). The original piece has been removed from the website, and the link below leads only to the retraction and Daniel Avila’s “retraction/apology.” In case this retraction is eventually removed as well, I’m posting it here:

Editor’s Note: Daniel Avila issued the following “Retraction/Apology” Nov. 2 in regard to his opinion piece “Some fundamental questions on same-sex attraction” which was published in our Oct. 28 edition. In addition to echoing Mr. Avila’s statement of regret, The Pilot also wishes to apologize for having failed to recognize the theological error in the column before publication. The Pilot has removed the column ‘Some fundamental questions on same-sex attraction’from its Website.

Retraction/Apology from Daniel Avila

“Statements made in my column, ‘Some fundamental questions on same-sex attraction’ of October 28, do not represent the position of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the column was not authorized for publication as is required policy for staff of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. The teaching of Sacred Scripture and of the Catechism of the Catholic Church make it clear that all persons are created in the image and likeness of God and have inviolable dignity. Likewise, the Church proclaims the sanctity of marriage as the permanent, faithful, fruitful union of one man and one woman. The Church opposes, as I do too, all unjust discrimination and the violence against persons that unjust discrimination inspires. I deeply apologize for the hurt and confusion that this column has caused.”

The Pilot
The Oct. 28 edition of the The Pilot, newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, has printed an article in which the author asserts that actions of “the devil” are what cause same-sex attraction.  He makes this outlandish claim not only by suggesting that the devil causes people to become gay, but suggests that this devilish hand is at work in the act of creation itself.  Lest you think I exaggerate, here’s Daniel Avila’s article in full.

If Mr. Avila were just some independent author presenting his own thoughts, that would be one thing.  He is, however, an attorney and Policy Advisor for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage. The fact that a man with such a position would write such bunk is bad enough.  That The Pilot editors would not see such statements heretical in the narrow definition of that term is inexcusable.

In addition to the quotation cited in my comment below, the following paragraph from Avila is perhaps the most egregiously erroneous:

“Therefore, whenever natural causes disturb otherwise typical biological development, leading to the personally unchosen beginnings of same-sex attraction, the ultimate responsibility, on a theological level, is and should be imputed to the evil one, not God. Applying this aspect of Catholic belief to interpret the scientific data makes more sense because it does not place God in the awkward position of blessing two mutually incompatible realities — sexual difference and same-sex attraction.”

I submitted the following comment on The Pilot’s web site, though am posting it here in case it never gets published:

“I never thought I’d live to see the day when The Pilot would actually support heresy!

For this venerable Catholic newspaper to print this article in which it is not only suggested, but clearly stated, that “the devil” is involved in creation itself is amazing and truly scandalous.  Yet, this is what Mr. Avila’s article asserts as he appears willing to go to any length whatsoever in a theologically empty attempt to hold up his argument that God didn’t create gay people. Lest you think my criticism is overstated, let me quote:  “In other words, the scientific evidence of how same-sex attraction most likely may be created provides a credible basis for a spiritual explanation that indicts the devil.”

Mr. Avila’s twisted presentation of “the scientific evidence” notwithstanding (most scientific evidence suggests that homosexual orientation is a normal and naturally occurring characteristic in the diversity of the human family), his assertion that the devil’s hand is at work in the creating God’s LGBT children is a new low indeed!

As far as I know and believe, God and God alone is the Author of Creation. Surely to suggest otherwise is heretical to 2,000 years of Christian faith and is anathema to a most fundamental Catholic belief.

I look forward to The Pilot’s retraction and correction on this most basic point of Christian faith.”