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As interdicts pile up, Catholics drift away


One of the bedrocks of Vatican teaching is that lay Catholics are too dumb to pass water. Again and again, when condemning individuals or groups one finds the phrase, “[They] have caused confusion among the Catholic people and have harmed the community of the church.” Almost from the day they were baptized, confused Catholics appear to be asking, “Hey, who doused me?”

I came to this conclusion after reading about Fr. Robert Nugent and Sr. Jeannine Gramick, two dedicated souls who have been ministering to homosexuals for some 25 years. Recently they have been barred from their ministry and from even holding office within their congregations (NCR, July 30). The announcement left me genuinely confused, especially since it came from under Michelangelo’s great dome, where it had been passed from one desk to another — many of them, no doubt, manned by homosexual priests.

The incident brought back memories of a wonderful dinner in a Roman restaurant with a gay priest. Thank God, gays are not forbidden to eat pasta. It’s a good thing that linguine con vongole isn’t “intrinsically evil.” There were enough gay priests there that night to staff a synod.

The Vatican’s announcement came on the heels of the death of England’s Cardinal Basil Hume, one of the most admired figures in Britain. Hume could be heard beyond his church. He understood that it was a bishop’s role to lead, not to suppress, to comfort people rather that insist on saving them. He urged homosexuals “not to develop a sense of guilt or think of themselves as unpleasing to God.”

“On the contrary,” he added, “they are precious to God.”

Hume’s hand never became a fist. He believed in clarity but understood that one could never arrive at a pastoral decision legalistically. The Vatican’s recent announcement reminded one of Vera Carp’s pronouncements that, “You will act like a Christian or I will slap the snot out of you.”

Author Auberon Waugh, son of Evelyn Waugh, called Hume “silly,” a wonderful endorsement from a family of stuffy bed wetters who viewed Vatican II as the end of civilization as we know it.

Confrontation is seldom the best pastoral technique. Yet, when the Vatican uses its holy hammer, it is always careful to point out that it has been the soul of patience.

Cardinal Hume also supported a more open dialogue on the possibility of married priests. He welcomed married Anglican priests into the Roman church. According to historian Terence Dosh, Hume once said: “When I was abbot and sometimes had to come down to London, I would go back to my room alone at night and I’d miss somebody there to talk to about what sort of day it had been. You miss not being somebody’s first choice and someone not being yours.”

Hume was not scandalized by the presence of resigned priests. Instead, he was edified by their love of God. He also wrote of his observations of sincere Catholics who practiced birth control. He found such people to often be “good, conscientious and faithful.”

A priest friend recalled that if Hume met a woman who had had an abortion, he would probably throw his arms around her rather than give her a lecture. He hated sin but loved sinners. He supported church teaching but never seemed to feel that clarity was important when pastoral concerns were at stake.

Meanwhile, back in Chicago, rumors persist that the core administration of the archdiocese is positioned to crack down on parishes that use resigned priests in any form of church ministry. Reportedly, Cardinal Francis George will be given full discretion in determining which resigned priests will be permitted to serve. With some parishes literally held together by resigned priests with immense talent and dedication, the notion of sweeping them under the sanctuary rug is sickening. The archdiocese might be better served if the archbishop booted out those priests in good standing who are doing next to nothing in pastoral work.

Early one morning some years ago, Jean and I passed the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin’s gingerbread mansion while riding our bikes. We spotted a thin-faced, white haired man in the driveway, taking the air. We were blocks away before we realized it was the late British cardinal, who was visiting his brother, Joseph.

Hume seemed to echo the sentiment of poet and Brooklyn Dodger fan Marianne Moore, who wrote: “It is an honor to witness so much confusion.” Indeed, it may be that a mark of the church is not that it is “one, holy, catholic and apostolic,” but that it is confused.

It is my belief that playing it safe is idiotic. Indeed, taking risks might be a grave sin, causing culpable confusion to the hierarchy. I revisited my Catechism of the Catholic Church and found paragraph No. 2235, which reads: “Those who exercise authority should do so as a service. No one can command or establish what is contrary to the dignity of persons and the natural law.”

The responses given to Fr. Nugent were liberally salted with punitive language such as “erroneous” and “dangerous,” “ambiguous” and “imbalanced in methodology.” It sounded like a professor’s commentary on a mathematics dissertation.

Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger is not a man given to flabby statements. He has written in his book Years of Renewal: “For any student of history, change is the law of life. Any attempt to contain it guarantees an explosion down the road; the more rigid the adherence to the status quo, the more violent the ultimate outcome will be.”

I don’t know what will become of all this suppression. Sadly, I’m already finding more room in the pews as Catholics who once genuinely listened and cared drift away, while the quarantines and interdicts pile up at our feet.

Tim Unsworth writes from Chicago where he reports that his chemotherapy is going nicely. He expects to found a devotional group called “Catholics in Chemo.”

National Catholic Reporter, September 17, 1999