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Issue Date:  May 20, 2005

'Strangers No Longer': Who is the Other among us?

The following article by Erik Meder appeared in the April/May 2005 issue of National Jesuit News. After the article appeared, Meder was asked to resign from his position as outreach coordinator for the Office of Social and International Ministries at the U.S. Jesuit Conference. (See story)


The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 19:34)

This is a common scriptural motif: God’s command that Israel love the Other as herself is coupled by the bid that Israel understand herself. Understanding herself as liberated from the exile of otherness, Israel must not re-create for Others a new Egypt, that land of slavery.

There is a circular relationship between self-understanding and conduct. We behave toward one another according to our self-understanding, which is always aspirational, always projecting from what we are to what we might become.

Just as our self-understanding molds our behavior, so our behavior informs our self-understanding. In relationships, we learn who we are through how we act toward the Other: our spouse, friend. In relationships, we sometimes learn that we are a little more selfish than we would prefer to believe; at [a relationship’s] best, we can discover, too, that we have a capacity for deep love and inspiring sacrifice.

This circular relationship of self-understanding and conduct is not a vicious circle; it is dynamic, owing to the ceaseless imposition of history, personal and corporate. This hermeneutic might be imagined as a three-dimensional spiral being drawn through space. Our being in the world progresses: We grow, diminish, fail, achieve. We seek authenticity.

The same approximate percentage of the U.S. population is homosexual as is foreign-born: 10 to 15 percent. The majority of American Catholics are neither. How does this majority encounter the Other when that Other is a migrant? A homosexual?

When the Other is a migrant, Catholics are urged by the church to employ a hermeneutic of self-understanding in her encounter with the Other. When the Other is a homosexual, the notion of hermeneutic encounter drops from the scene. Instead, the church has consistently relied upon the detachment of natural law reasoning. Thus, what is of concern is not the homosexual at all, but homosexuality. Perhaps, in the soon-to-be-issued document considering homosexual clergy, the Congregation for Catholic Education will reverse this unfortunate, though consistent, approach and instead encourage hermeneutic encounter.

In “Strangers No Longer,” the U.S. and Mexican bishops encourage the scripturally based hermeneutic encounter with the Other: “Part of the process of conversion of mind and heart deals with confronting attitudes of cultural superiority, indifference, and racism; accepting migrants ... as persons with dignity and rights, revealing the presence of Christ; and recognizing migrants as bearers of deep cultural values and rich faith traditions.”

To impugn one’s own attitudes of cultural superiority and to seek recognition of the presence of Christ in the Other is a conversion process wherein one’s self-understanding is confronted by the reality of the Other and is challenged by that otherness. That confrontation isn’t determined; one needn’t recognize the cultural richness of other traditions. But the bishops seem to encourage an openness characteristic of true dialogue; by encountering the Other as a Thou, a person with reality, history and worth, our self-understanding will be challenged and might be changed. We might no longer be superior; we might be in solidarity.

To enter into dialogue is a daunting experience involving an openness that is never achieved or finalized but is a process of conversion, of humility, of admitting that we might not have all the answers -- even about ourselves. To be open is to put one’s self-understanding at risk; in fact, it is to risk losing one’s very self.

In June 2003, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith addressed homosexuality within the context of marriage: “Legal recognition of homosexual unions or placing them on the same level as marriage would mean not only the approval of deviant behavior, with the consequence of making it a model in present-day society, but would also obscure basic values which belong to the common inheritance of humanity.” The same document reminds Catholics that the homosexual orientation is “objectively disordered” and that homosexual acts are “sins gravely contrary to chastity.”

Instead of urging Catholics to engage in dialogue -- the hermeneutic encounter with the Other in which the dynamism of self-understanding and chosen openness is the precondition for the possibility of conversion -- the CDF employs a detached natural law reasoning that simply states propositional “truth.” Catholics are called upon to participate in this process through assent and obedience. What if the CDF had encouraged hermeneutic understanding? Might there be another means of accessing the natural law?

A hermeneutic approach, sensitive to the circular dynamic of self-understanding and conduct, might have included an open dialogue with married persons, perhaps asking: Do homosexual couples obscure the basic value of your marriage? Were homosexual unions legally sanctioned, would you have pursued that option? As a couple, what is your understanding of sexuality within marriage? Of openness to procreation? Do you know any homosexual couples? Do you share your struggles as a couple -- spiritual, relational, economic -- with this homosexual couple? Can you say with the U.S. and Mexican bishops: “Part of the process of conversion of mind and heart deals with confronting attitudes of cultural superiority, indifference and racism; accepting [homosexuals] … as persons with dignity and rights, revealing the presence of Christ; and recognizing [homosexuals] as bearers of deep cultural values and rich faith traditions”?

Before the [Congregation for Catholic Education] document on homosexuality and the clergy is issued, Catholics -- laypersons, priests, homosexuals, heterosexuals, married, celibate -- would do well to examine how one’s own sexual self-understanding determines how one treats and defines the Other. Can we achieve a measure of the openness which the bishops call for in encountering migrants and which is a precondition for the possibility of conversion?

Perhaps the CCE document will encourage American Catholics to be open, to enter into a genuine dialogue wherein one’s own self-understanding is challenged. Perhaps Catholics, in losing a part of our self-understandings, will gain something new and unexpected. Perhaps there is a way of living the Gospel which we have been denied hearing. Perhaps there is a mode of Christianity practiced widely among us -- but secretly. Perhaps it’s time the Gospel of homosexual clergy be proclaimed. We might not all be ready for such a bold proclamation, but so was Christ a stumbling block and foolishness for many in his day.

National Catholic Reporter, May 20, 2005

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