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Issue Date:  June 30, 2006

From the Editor's Desk

A lesson in who we are

I took some time off recently and when I returned I had a message from a radio station asking if I’d agree to give some suggestions for summer reading. I was too late in getting to the message to make the show, but I was ready with a suggestion: Steven Kinzer’s Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq. We’ll have more on his book in a later issue, but I’ll take the opportunity here to recommend it.

I first encountered Kinzer in print in 1981, the year I first traveled to Guatemala. He is coauthor of the book Bitter Fruit: The Story of the American Coup in Guatemala, a detailed account of the CIA overthrow of Guatemala’s democratically elected president, Jacobo Arbenz, in 1953.

The account by Kinzer and Stephen Schlesinger was no overheated screed in service of some conspiracy theory but a meticulously documented tale, mined from reams of CIA and other government documents. A far briefer account of the Guatemala episode is a chapter in Overthrow.

This may not be everyone’s idea of vacation reading. It is a journalistic treatment that gathers the data of deep reporting and research and assembles an unvarnished portrait of the United States’ fascination with overthrowing governments.

The book might be described as an exercise in American self-discovery or an object lesson in who we really are, as different from who we think we ought to be. The latter -- an idealized notion of ourselves as the protectors of liberty and democratic principles -- has more often than not been at odds with reality. And that reality finds little space in our newspapers or history texts or public life. Kinzer provides the mirror should we dare a peek at an accurate, if at times unflattering, image.

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Earlier this month, I was a guest on another program on a local public radio outlet to discuss the firing of Joe Nadeau as music director of St. Agnes Catholic Church in nearby Roland Park, Kan. Nadeau was fired when he refused to pledge to live as a celibate, refused to call homosexuality a disorder and refused to stop conducting the Heartland Men’s Chorus, a distinguished organization of mostly gay men. By most, if not all, accounts Nadeau excelled as a music director. Within five days of his firing, he reportedly had a number of job offers and ultimately was hired by a local Lutheran congregation.

On one level, the discussion of his firing is very simple. The church’s rule on the matter is that homosexual orientation (while tending “toward an intrinsic moral evil”) is not a sin, homosexual sexual activity is. So, if someone in a parish wants to make a case of someone else’s sexual orientation, particularly a high-profile figure in the community, a pastor might feel he has no choice but to confront and expel. After all, it’s church teaching.

I recall a sermon I heard in an East Coast church some years ago, a rather incendiary anti-homosexual tirade. After Mass, I registered my disagreement with the priest, especially his characterization of himself and those like him as courageous in going against social norms. I believed that he was, quite to the contrary, reinforcing some of the ugliest of social norms and buying into social hatred. He replied, “It’s what the church teaches!”

Perhaps. But the question that I posed during the radio show was whether it might not be better to dial back the rhetoric and desist from asserting so absolutely that we know precisely what God has ordained, based on scripture, about homosexuality. Are we certain about this matter of homosexuality in the way we are certain, say, about the divinity of Jesus? Or are we only certain in the way we were certain at different stages of our history that scripture ordained that the Earth was the center of the universe or that scripture condoned slavery, or in the way our greatest early thinkers were certain that women are malformed men? Or any of a list of other certainties over the ages?

Could it be that in some future, where we understand far more than we do today about sexuality in general and homosexuality in particular, that our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters will be seen as exemplary Christians and model Catholics? Could it be that we will look back and declare that anyone who persisted in a community in which they were spoken of as tending toward evil and “objectively disordered” understood forgiveness and the draw of God’s love to a greater degree than most?

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Such are matters that deserve wide, reasoned and tolerant discussion, and now you’ll have a chance to do that in a new and exciting way. Our ad on Page 7 gives directions for finding, a place where the tables have endless space and where the discussion can go on freely and as long as you’d like. This is a Web site currently under construction, but open for your perusal and participation. Take a look, click around, register and comment. Welcome in advance.

-- Tom Roberts

National Catholic Reporter, June 30, 2006

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