This week's stories | Home Page
Issue Date:  November 24, 2006

Not bad for melodrama

A year ago we lamented in this space the disappearance of the U.S. Catholic bishops. Well, we meant that in a metaphorical sense. They hadn’t actually disappeared; they had just become far less visible on the national scene than in an earlier era.

Here’s how we put it: “We are watching the disintegration of a once-great national church, the largest denomination in the United States, into regional groupings bent on avoiding the spotlight and the big issues.”

We noted that there was war and starvation everywhere; fresh clergy sex abuse reports out of Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and Spokane, Wash., to name a few; 20 percent of U.S. parishes without a pastor; a Congress poised to reduce health care coverage and food stamps; the United States accused of torture and keeping combatants in secret prisons; and so on. And the bishops had nothing to say. They would talk only to each other about internal church matters.

We are compelled, then, to report that the bishops have not entirely disappeared. For they gathered again, in Baltimore this year, and, continuing their trip inward, issued documents on such burning issues as birth control, ministry to persons with “a homosexual inclination,” and how to prepare to receive Communion. Now, none of these matters is unimportant. Don’t get the wrong impression. We’ve had documents aplenty about all of them before. And these topics -- unlike the war in Iraq, say, or what it means to have a president and vice president endorsing torture -- are even covered in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

So why again? Apparently the bishops feel that people just aren’t listening. If that’s their hunch, we’d agree. Why aren’t they listening? Let’s consider for starters the document on contraception. A lot of the U.S. bishops today might say there are a lot of bad, or at least ignorant, Catholics out there, Catholics influenced by the contraceptive culture, for instance, who no longer know good from evil.

Maybe they’re right. More likely, though, it’s because the teaching makes little sense, doesn’t match the experience of lay Catholics and tends to reduce all of human love to the act of breeding.

In short, the bishops aren’t terribly persuasive or clear when they talk about sex, and they tend to want to talk about sex a lot. To be sure, they say lots of lovely and lofty things about marital love, about how it completes people and cooperates with God’s plan and fills married lives with joy and happiness. You can want not to have children, say the bishops, you just can’t do anything “unnatural” about it. It’s a strange concept, like not wanting to die of heart disease while not doing anything “unnatural” about it.

They make the point that if every time a married couple makes love they are not open to having children, then they’re not giving “all” of themselves to each other. If you use birth control, say the bishops, and every single act is not open to having children, then “being responsible about sex simply means limiting its consequences -- avoiding disease and using contraceptives to prevent pregnancy.” Whew! So that’s it, eh?

It’s either be open to having kids or married sex is no more significant than an encounter with a prostitute. Such a view of marriage and sexuality and sexual intimacy can only have been written by people straining mightily to fit the mysteries, fullness and candidly human pleasure of sex into a schema that violently divides the human person into unrecognizable parts. There’s a reason 96 percent of Catholics have ignored the birth control teaching for decades. We doubt the new document will significantly change that percentage.

So it is with gays. Here again, church authorities try to fit together two wildly diverging themes. They go something like this: Homosexuals are “objectively disordered” (that’s about as bad as it humanly gets, in our understanding of things), but we love them and want them to be members of our community.

Only this time out, the bishops are not using the term homosexual “orientation” (a definite position) but homosexual “inclination” (a liking for something or a tendency toward). Sly, no? The inference to be drawn, we presume, is that someone inclined one way can just incline another way, whereas someone with an orientation is pretty much stuck there.

That science and human experience generally say otherwise is of little concern, apparently, though the bishops were clear they weren’t suggesting that homosexuals are required to change. This time, too, the bishops, while acknowledging that those with homosexual tendencies should seek supportive friendships, advise homosexuals to be quiet about their inclinations in church. “For some persons, revealing their homosexual tendencies to certain close friends, family members, a spiritual director, confessor, or members of a church support group may provide some spiritual and emotional help and aid them in their growth in Christian life. In the context of parish life, however, general public self-disclosures are not helpful and should not be encouraged.”

The next paragraph in the document, by the way, begins, “Sad to say, there are many persons with a homosexual inclination who feel alienated from the church.” You can’t make this stuff up.

It is difficult to figure out how to approach these documents. They are products of some realm so removed from the real lives of the faithful one has to wonder why any group of busy men administering a church would bother. They ignore science, human experience and the groups they attempt to characterize. The documents are not only embarrassing but insulting and degrading to those the bishops are charged to lead. The saddest thing is that the valuable insights the bishops have into the deficiencies and influences of the wider culture get buried.

Where is this all going?

No one’s come out with a program, but we’ll venture yet one more hunch. It has become apparent in recent years that there’s been an upsurge in historical ecclesiastical finery and other goods. We’ve seen more birettas (those funny three-peak hats with the fuzzy ball on top that come in different colors depending on clerical rank) and cassocks (the kind with real buttons, no zippers for the purists) and ecclesiastically correct color shoes and socks, lots of lacy surplices and even the capa magna (yards and yards of silk, a cape long enough that it has to be attended by two altar boys or seminarians, also in full regalia). In some places they’re even naming monsignors again.

It’s as if someone has discovered a props closet full of old stuff and they’re putting it out all over the stage. Bishops, pestered by the abuse scandal that they’ve avoided looking full in the face, find it easier to try to order others’ lives. They have found the things of a more settled time, a time when their authority wasn’t dependent on persuading or relating to other humans. It was enough to have the office and the clothing. Things worked. Dig a little deeper in the closet and bring out the Latin texts, bring back the old documents, bring back the days when homosexuals were quiet and told no one about who they essentially are. Someone even found a canopy under which the royally clad leader can process.

Now that’s order.

Now that’s the church.

Bring up the lights a little higher so all can see.

Before it all fades to irrelevance.

National Catholic Reporter, November 24, 2006

This Week's Stories | Home Page | Top of Page
Copyright  © The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO   64111
All rights reserved.
TEL:  816-531-0538     FAX:  1-816-968-2280   Send comments about this Web site to:  webkeeper@natcath.org