Should Civil Marriage Be Separated from Sacramental Marriage?

November 25, 2014

Conservative religious leaders, including some Catholics, have imitated an action that many pro-marriage equality advocates have used successfully:  they have pledged not to perform civil marriage ceremonies until their view of marriage is accepted by the state.

According to an article in Crux, the conservative Catholic opinion journal First Things has posted “The Marriage Pledge” on their website, which is a statement by Christian ministers who agree not to perform the civil aspect of wedding ceremonies (i.e., not signing the marriage licesnse) until same-gender marriage is revoked.  The pledge states, in part:

“. . . [I]n our roles as Christian ministers, we, the undersigned, commit ourselves to disengaging civil and Christian marriage in the performance of our pastoral duties. We will no longer serve as agents of the state in marriage. We will no longer sign government-provided marriage certificates. We will ask couples to seek civil marriage separately from their church-related vows and blessings. We will preside only at those weddings that seek to establish a Christian marriage in accord with the principles ­articulated and lived out from the beginning of the Church’s life.”

What I find most interesting about this stand is that in many states across our nation, pro-marriage equality ministers took a similar pledge as they were advocating for the state to adopt marriage for lesbian and gay couples.  The pro-marriage equality pastors pledged to not sign any marriage licenses for any couple until marriage was extended equally to all couples.

When opponents adopt the same strategy to achieve opposite ends, something must be happening.

I think that “something” is a growing consensus on the idea that marriage in the U.S. should be separated from religious institutions.  In other words,  civil marriages would only be performed by government officials, and not religious leaders, who currently are authorized to do so.  If a couple chooses to have a religious ceremony in addition to the civil ceremony, they are free to do so, though the religious ceremony by itself would not be legally recognized.  As many people are aware, this is how marriage is conducted in many European countries.

Some pro-marriage equality advocates, including Catholics, have been advocating for this distinction for a long time.  In addition to being intuitively fairer, this situation also helps to clear up  the muddy interaction that religious and government institutions have about the definition of marriage.  In that sense, such a distinction supports marriage equality.

One major problem that marriage equality advocates have had is that some people see marriage as a mixture of civil and religious ideas, and so the thought of changing even just the civil part of marriage makes them fear that the religious part of marriage will change, too.  Separating the two institutions thus paves the way for the state to democratically decide who should be allowed to marry, and for religious institutions to decide who they want to marry according to their own definitions.

There has already been a discussion of this separation from Catholic advocates on both sides of the marriage equality question.  Back in July 2013,  Bondings 2.0 carried two connected posts exploring the debate.  The first was by Jesuit law professor, Fr. Frank Brennan, who advocated for such a separation as a way to allow lesbian and gay couples to marry:

“It is high time to draw a distinction between a marriage recognised by civil law and a sacramental marriage. In deciding whether to expand civil marriage to the union of two persons of the same gender, legislators should have regard not just for the well-being of same sex couples and the children already part of their family units, but also for the well-being of all future children who may be affected, as well as the common good of society in setting appropriate contours for legally recognised relationships. . . .

“It would be just and a service to the common good for the State to give some recognition and support to committed, faithful, long-term relationships between gay couples deserving dignity, being able to love and support each other in sickness and in health, until death they do part.”

Arguing for the same distinction, but for an opposite purpose, was the Archdiocese of Washington’s Msgr. Charles Pope, a pastor, who said:

“It is a simple fact that word ‘marriage’ as we have traditionally known it is being redefined in our times. To many in the secular world the word no longer means what it once did and when the Church uses the word marriage we clearly do not mean what the increasing number of states mean.”

After giving an interpretation of why he thought such a redefinition took place, he stated:

“So the bottom line is that what the secular world means by the word ‘marriage’ is not even close to what the Church means. The secular world excluded every aspect of what the Church means by marriage. Is it time for us to accept this and start using a different word? Perhaps it is, and I would like to propose what I did back in March of 2010, that we return to an older term and hear what you think.

I propose that we should exclusively refer to marriage in the Church as ‘Holy Matrimony.’ ” [emphasis, his]

Interestingly, Msgr. Pope called for exactly the type of protest that First Things is now encouraging:

“A secondary but related proposal is that we begin to consider getting out of the business of having our clergy act as civil magistrates in weddings. Right now we clergy in most of America sign the civil license and act, as such, as partners with the State. But with increasing States interpreting marriage so differently, can we really say we are partners? Should we even give the impression of credibility to the State’s increasingly meaningless piece of paper? It may remain the case that the Catholic faithful, for legal and tax reasons may need to get a civil license, but why should clergy have anything to do with it?

The Crux article cited other examples of this type of proposal in the last few years, from both liberals and conservatives, Catholic and Protestant:

The concept that civil and religious marriage should be separate is not entirely novel. At US Catholic, columnist Bryan Cones has asked, “Is it time to separate church and state marriages?” And writer Len Woolley raised similar questions at the Mormon-run Deseret News. . . But the idea isn’t just limited to conservatives.

Gene Robinson, the first openly gay Episcopal bishop, proposed the idea as early as 2009. By 2011, three North Carolina church pastors and at least one in Virginia quit signing marriage licenses as a way of opposing state bans on same-sex marriages they felt violated their conscience.

And in July of this year, Paul Waldman argued at The American Prospect, a liberal publication, that religious couples should fill out state-mandated marriage forms and then have the religious ceremony of their choosing. “The wedding, in other words, should be a ritual with no content prescribed by the state, no ‘By the power vested in me by the state of Indiana’ at all.”

Waldman added: “The state doesn’t tell you how to celebrate Christmas or Ramadan, and it shouldn’t tell you how to get married.”

Such an interesting development!  What do you think?  Should marriage be separated into civil and religious institutions?  Leave your ideas in the “Comments” section of this post.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

Related article:

Ethika Politika:  The Marriage Pledge: Black, White, and Red All Over”

 


LGBT Issues Need to Be on the Agenda of World Meeting of Families

November 21, 2014

Philadelphia’s Archbishop Charles Chaput seemed to indicate that LGBT issues will not be high on the agenda at next September’s World Meeting of Families to be held in that city.  A National Catholic Reporter article said that Chaput said:

“[The World Meeting of Families] will deal with a wide range of family issues where our religious faith is both needed and tested.

“These are matters that affect all families, not only in the United States but on a world scale. So we want to focus next year not just on the neuralgic sexual issues that seem to dominate the American media.”

Though he did not mention marriage equality or adoption by lesbian and gay couples, since those two topics are very frequently reported on in the American media, it would be hard to imagine that he was not including them in his intention.

Chaput said that the meeting “will deal with a wide range of family issues where our religious faith is both needed and tested.”  He made these comments while attending a Vatican conference on male and female complementarity in marriage.

It will be a grave mistake not to include LGBT issues in the World Meeting of Families.   Almost every family in the United States is touched and affected by such issues, either by having an LGBT family member or because they know someone close to them who is LGBT.  And families headed by LGBT people are becoming increasingly more visible in the U.S. Catholic community.

7f826-archbcharleschaput

Archbishop Charles Chaput

Does Archbishop Chaput think that it is wise to ignore a reality which everyone in the United States is discussing?  The fact that these topics are in the media show that, in fact, they are part of the concerns of families.

Indeed, the World Meeting of Families organizers would do well not only to put these topics on the agenda, but to include as speakers Catholic LGBT people and their relatives to discuss their experience of faith, family, and church.  Why should this segment of the Catholic community be invisible at such an important discussion?

At last month’s Vatican synod on marriage and the family, bishops and cardinals from around the world did not shy away from talking about lesbian and gay people and their families.  And we saw, based on the synod’s interim report, that a large number of them were willing to speak positively about the Christian values found in lesbian and gay relationships.  If the world’s bishops can speak freely about such topics, why shouldn’t Catholic families attending the meeting be able to do so, too? After all, they are the ones most intimately connected to these people and issues.

The National Catholic Reporter article noted that some of the topics that will be included in the meeting will be “poverty and the family, marital intimacy, raising children and the impact of divorce, as well as issues affecting the elderly and the disabled.”  These are certainly important topics that need to be discussed.  But they need to be discussed fully and completely.  Families with LGBT members experience many of these same realities, though their perspectives on them might be somewhat different based on their unique position.  Wouldn’t it be best to have all perspectives represented at an event which calls itself the World Meeting of Families?

New Ways Ministry hopes that Archbishop Chaput will re-think this planning guideline, and that, instead, he will include LGBT voices, including those who affirm their committed relationships and the families they are part of, on the agenda of the World Meeting of Families.  We encourage Catholics to write to him and ask him to make positive approaches to families with LGBT members a priority for next year’s World Meeting of Families.

You can write to Archbishop Chaput at the following postal address:

Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap.
Archdiocesan Pastoral Center
222 North 17th Street,
Philadelphia, PA 19103-1299

Or you can send him an email at:

shepherd@chs-adphila.org

He will not know how important LGBT issues are to Catholics unless he hears from them.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

 

 


Pope’s Comments on Marriage Raise Questions About His LGBT Outreach

November 18, 2014

In a style which is becoming a hallmark of his papacy, while at the same time raising many questions, Pope Francis addressed the Vatican’s controversial conference on traditional marriage.  As has become his custom, the pope praised theological concepts concerning heterosexual marriage, while at the same time avoiding condemnations or even mentions of gay or lesbian couples, relationships, and marriages.

Pope Francis addresses Vatican conference on marriage.

Joshua McElwee of The National Catholic Reporter reported on the main points of the pope’s talk at the conference entitled “Humanum: The Complementarity of Man and Woman”:

” ‘We must not fall into the trap of qualifying [family] with ideological concepts,’ said the pontiff, speaking at an event organized to bolster inter-religious support for the concept of complementarity of men and women in marriage.

” ‘We cannot qualify [the family] with concepts of an ideological nature that only have strength in a moment of history and then fall,’ Francis continued. ‘We cannot talk today of conservative family or progressive family: Family is family.’

” ‘The family is in itself, has a strength in itself,’ said the pontiff.”

(You can read the entire text of the pope’s talk by clicking here, and scrolling down to the end of the news story.)

Pope Francis’ style of not wanting to offend also leaves room for a lot of speculation.  What does he mean by “ideological concepts”?  Since the major push in family laws around the globe focuses on same-gender marriage, it seems that this might be his target.  But the vagueness allows him plausible deniability.  It is easy to get behind his last statement about family strength, but only if he means it in an inclusive and expansive way to denote ALL families.

Other comments during his speech, however, indicate that he did not mean families with single parents or headed by gay or lesbian couples.   McElwee noted the conference’s general reticence to mention same-gender married couples, and noted the pope’s most direct comment on this topic:

“While speakers at the event have shied away from directly addressing or criticizing same-sex unions, most left little doubt about their view of such relationships.

“On that subject, Francis himself said: ‘Children have the right to grow up in a family, with a father and a mother, able to create a suitable environment for their development and their emotional maturation.’

“The pontiff also said ‘today marriage and the family are in crisis.’ “

It would have been better had the pope said that children have a right to grow up in a loving and supported environment, which is the greatest factor in promoting healthy development and emotional maturation.

Interestingly, the only direct reference so far about gay people came from a British representative discussing the mathematician Alan Turing, who was gay:

“[Rabbi Jonathan] Sacks, who also is a member of Britain’s House of Lords, made the only oblique reference to same-sex marriage during Monday’s morning session.

“Mentioning the story of Alan Turing, an early 20th century gay British mathematician who was punished with chemical castration because of his sexual orientation, Sacks said: ‘That’s the kind of world to which we should never return.’

” ‘But our compassion for those who choose to live differently should not prohibit us from being advocates,’ said Sacks, referring to traditional marriage as ‘the best means for which we have discovered for nurturing future generations.’ “

Sacks’ use of the words “choose to live differently” reveals a basic ignorance about the fact that homosexuality is not a choice for people.

The conference at the Vatican was already controversial even before Pope Francis spoke because of the line-up of speakers strongly opposed to same-gender marriage.  The most shocking invitation was Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, a notoriously anti-LGBT organization.  Perkins was invited to attend, but not give a speech.

In an Associated Press account of the story, Nicole Winfield framed the pope’s talk within the context of appealing to Church traditionalists:

“Pope Francis is seeking to reassure the church’s right-wing base that he’s not a renegade bent on changing church doctrine on family issues — weeks after a Vatican meeting of bishops initially proposed a radical welcome for gays and divorced Catholics.”

Similarly, British journalist Nick Squires said he thought the pope “appeared to bow to pressure from Catholic conservatives.”

I disagree with Winfield and Squires.  I think that what we are seeing is what Pope Francis has been doing for a long time:  defending traditional doctrine, but avoiding angering those who oppose it.  Is this a strategy that can work for the long haul?  How long will it be before people start asking for more specifics?

Specifics might be something he will need to work on when he visits the U.S. next September to participate in the World Meeting of Families, an appearance that he confirmed yesterday.  The event in Philadelphia is expected to draw over 1.5 million people.  No other details were given about any other stops the pope might make on his U.S. visit.

This pope has done more for engendering good will among LGBT people than any other Catholic leader.  He would do well to learn how his statements, which seem to be intended not to offend, actually cause harm to the people he is supposedly trying to welcome to the Church.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

Related articles:

Crux: “Pope confirms US trip, defends traditional family”

The Telegraph: “Pope: children need mother and a father”

News.va: “Pope Francis: I will go to Philadelphia for the World Meeting of Families”

Religion News Service: “Philadelphia gets ready to host Pope Francis following official papal announcement”

Bondings 2.o: “Pope Francis Needs to Speak Clearly on LGBT Issues,”  April 12, 2014

 


WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE? U.K. Bishops Open Dialogue; U.S. Bishops Should Do the Same

November 17, 2014

“WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?” is  Bondings 2.0’s series on how Catholics–the hierarchy and laity–can prepare for the Synod on Marriage and Family that will take place at the Vatican in October 2015. If you would like to consider contributing a post to this series, please click here

The news of a slate of mostly conservative bishops being elected to represent the U.S. church at the synod on marriage and the family in Rome next October was disappointing.  However, across the Atlantic, news about the synod preparatory plans of the bishops of England and Wales are much more optimistic.

The Tablet reports that these British bishops are going to “launch a wide-ranging consultation of parishes and clergy ahead of next year’s Synod on the Family.”  The article reports:

Cardinal Vincent Nichols

“Following their biannual plenary meeting in Leeds this week, the bishops would like a period of spiritual reflection in each parish and, separately, to hear the experiences of clergy on the main “pastoral challenges” they encounter with families.

“Speaking at a press conference on Friday Cardinal Vincent Nichols said that material would be sent out to parishes and clergy after Christmas. The period of reflection should go on until June or July of next year ahead of the synod in October 2015.

“ ‘It is not so much a request for opinions as a request for testimony,’ Cardinal Vincent Nichols said at the bishops’ conference offices in London.

“ ‘You will recall that the two great features of the synod in October was on the one hand for it to give a resounding trumpet call in support of marriage and stability of family life, and on the other hand express and strengthen the pastoral response of the Church in a wide variety of difficult and pressurised situations. We hope the material we prepare will find that same balance.’ ”

Nichols also made a point of saying that the results of such discussions should be made public.  When a synod organizer sent a questionnaire to bishops last year to disseminate to the laity, the Vatican asked that the results not be made public.

Such an open discussion is what is needed here in the United States, and it was exactly that kind of discussion that Equally Blessed, a coalition of Catholic groups that work for LGBT equality, asked of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) last week.  Coalition members–Call To Action, DignityUSA, Fortunate Families, New Ways Ministry–sent a letter to the conference last week in which they asked the bishops the following:

Equally Blessed Logo“To prepare for this upcoming event, we urge each of you to initiate a wide conversation with Catholics in your dioceses on marriage, sexuality, and family life, so that so that you can better understand how these realities are experienced by people of faith who actively work to discern how to follow God’s Will.  Since LGBT issues figured so prominently in this past October’s sessions, and since no openly LGBT person provided testimony at these events, it will be necessary to initiate those conversations with LGBT Catholics and their families, in particular. . . .

“Now is the time for bishops in the U.S. to replicate Pope Francis’ process on the local level by opening up a conversation on marriage, family, and sexuality. Many Catholics, especially LGBT people and their families, have waited decades for such an opportunity, and have been heartened by the fact that this year’s synod opened up this much needed discussion.”

New Ways Ministry’s Executive Director Francis DeBernardo, writing for the Equally Blessed coalition, posted an essay on Advocate.com explaining the importance of such a dialogue:

“Since LGBT issues caused so much discussion and disagreement, it will be especially important for U.S. bishops to open a dialogue with LGBT Catholics and their families. This synod showed that there were a majority of bishops who were willing to recognize that lesbian and gay people “have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community,” in the words of an early draft report. Similarly, that same report noted that the “mutual aid to the point of sacrifice” that same-sex partners offer one another “constitutes a precious support” in the couple’s life. It’s important for U.S. bishops to explore these ideas, and the best way of doing so is to listen intently to those closest to these issues. . . .

“The synod’s free and open discussion among bishops must be replicated in local churches. The Catholic laity are an educated and insightful resource. More importantly, they are the true experts on the topics of marriage, family, and sexual expression, since they are the people who live these realities every day, not the bishops. While Catholics develop their theology from scripture, tradition, and nature, they also develop it from examining the lived experience of people of faith. What leader of any organization would want to ignore the perspectives of the people who know an issue because they live it? . . .

“Last year a number of bishops complained that they could not gather input from laity because they only had two months to do so. Now they have 11 months, which is plenty of time to circulate surveys, hold listening sessions, meet with leaders, and post response forms on diocesan websites. When the bishops want to get a message out about opposing some legislative or judicial measure, they do not seem to lack in creativity in using all sorts of media to alert Catholics. Let’s see them use the same creativity to gather opinions on these matters.”

The U.S. bishops need to be encouraged to open such a dialogue, therefore we urge you to write to your local bishop and ask him for such a possibility.  Use some of the arguments and language from this blog post, the Equally Blessed letter, or the Advocate.com essay to make your point.  You can even start the dialogue yourself by sharing your personal story with your bishop so that he can see the faith lives of LGBT people and families, and also see the situations, positive and negative, that they encounter in their local churches.

#BishopsListen model sign. A blank form can be downloaded from the Equally Blessed website.

Equally Blessed is also promoting a Facebook  and Twitter campaign to encourage people to contact their local bishops.  Here’s how it works:

“Take a photo with a #BishopsListen sign to ask your local bishop to listen to families like yours. Then post your photo on facebook or twitter with the hashtag #bishopslisten, or email your photo to coordinator@equally-blessed.org.”

You can read more about the campaign by clicking here.

The U.S. bishops need to follow the example of the U.K. bishops.  But it is probably going to take the encouragement of the laity to get them to do so.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

Related posts

Queering the Church:  “For English Catholics, a ‘Request for Testimony’ ”

Bondings 2.0: “WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE? Writing Letters to Our Bishops

 

 


To Answer “What Is Marriage Now?” Lesbian & Gay Couples Must Be Included

November 15, 2014

These days, it is rare indeed that I read an argument about marriage equality that doesn’t remind me of other arguments that I’ve read in the past.  It seems that we have kind of reached the saturation point for arguments on this issue, having discussed this topic seriously for well over a decade now.

That’s why I was so pleasantly surprised to read Gerald W. Schlabach’s essay, “What Is Marriage Now?  A Pauline Case for Same-Sex Marriage,” in The Christian Century this week. His essay deserves to be read in its entirety (which you can do so by clicking here), but in this blog post, I will try to highlight a few of what I think are the most insightful parts of his thinking.

Schlabach, who is a Catholic professor of moral theology at the University of Thomas in Minnesota, develops the idea that allowing lesbian and gay couples to marry will strengthen marriage for all couples, and will do so because such an extension of the marriage institution will help us understand what is its essence. His thesis is:

“Extending the blessings of marriage to same-sex couples by recognizing their lifelong unions fully as marriage could allow the church to speak all the more clearly to what deeply and rightly concerns those who seek to uphold the sanctity of marriage.”

He uses as his jumping off point St. Paul’s famous line about marriage in 1 Corinthians 7 that “it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion” or as it is more commonly quoted from the King James translation “It is better to marry than to burn.”

One of the many things which make his argument unique is that he argues acknowledges the social power that marriage has in stabilizing individuals and society, as well as acknowledging the beauty of sexual expression and its importance in a couple’s overall sense of intimacy.

Schlabach doesn’t argue from the more common, progressive position of justice and equality, but states, instead:

“. . . . [S]ome of the best reasons to support same-sex marriage turn out to be deeply conservative ones. This suggests how the Pauline remark might provide the church with a framework for proclaiming a message of good news for all sides. It offers good news for those who are deeply concerned that we continue to hallow the institution of marriage as the only appropriate place for intimate sexual union. And it offers good news for those who are deeply concerned that people of same-sex orientation be allowed equal opportunity to flourish as human beings—that the covenanted bonds of sexual intimacy play just as much of a role in their lives.”

Gerald Schlabach

Schlabach’s interpretation of St. Paul’s admonition is a very insightful one, that raises the remark above a simple denigration of lust.  He looks at the key words as metaphors for deeper understandings about the power of marriage, beyond a cure for concupiscence:

“ ‘To burn’ may stand for all the ways that we human beings, left to ourselves, live only for ourselves, our own pleasures, and our own survival. By contrast, ‘to marry’ may signal the way that all of us (even those who do so in a vocation of lifelong celibacy) learn to bend our desires away from ourselves, become vulnerable to the desires of others, and bend toward the service of others.”

Schlabach upholds St. Augustine’s ideas about the three “goods” of marriage: permanence, faithfulness, and fruitfulness, yet he expands these beyond the more traditional understandings:

“Christian interpreters today may continue to see procreation and child rearing as the prototypical expression of fruitfulness, but not as the only one. Every Christian marriage should face outward in hospitality and service to others.

“Together with permanence, therefore, faithfulness has come to stand for all the ways that couples bind their lives together. Spouses do not practice faithfulness only by giving their bodies exclusively to one another in sexual intimacy, but by together changing dirty diapers and washing dirty dishes, by promising long and tiring care amid illness and aging, by offering small favors on very ordinary days.”

These new understandings of these “goods” can be easily applied to lesbian and gay couples as they are to heterosexual ones. Perhaps the most important part of his essay is in his understanding that traditional views about marriage are not for heterosexual couples only.

Schlabach takes traditionalists to task for equating homosexuality with the current licentious sexual mores of “contingency,” engaging in sex when it is convenient, like making a consumer choice.  He also challenges the progressive arguments which make marriage, in the words of writer David Brooks, seem like “a really good employee benefits plan.”

Instead the moral theology professor discerns a more important definition of marriage which is based on intimate relationship, not sexual convenience or economic advantage:

“Marriage can and should remain a covenant and a forming of the one flesh of kinship, rather than a mere contract forming a mere partnership. . . .

“Marriage will indeed be subject to endless reinvention unless we recognize it as more than a contract. Instead we should recognize and insist that marriage is the communally sealed bond of lifelong intimate mutual care between two people that creates humanity’s most basic unit of kinship, thus allowing human beings to build sustained networks of society.”

This view of marriage allows him to see the beauty and power of sexual expression, not procreation as the main force which establishes a couple’s union:

“Procreation will always be the prototypical sign of a widening kinship network. But as spouses in any healthy marriage know, including infertile ones, kinship is already being formed in tender, other-directed sexual pleasuring. Such pleasure bonds a couple by promising and rewarding all the other ways of being together in mutual care and service through days, years, and decades.”

Schabach concludes his essay with advice to pastoral leaders:

“. . .[T]he church and its leaders need great pastoral wisdom to do two things simultaneously:

  • Walk back from the culture of contingency by explaining and insisting in fresh ways that God intends for active sexuality to belong uniquely to marriage.
  • Work compassionately with those who have embraced the relative fidelity of cohabitation, even if they have not yet moved to embrace a covenant of marriage or a vocation of celibacy.

“If we aim for these two goals, Christians will be better able to speak clearly and work energetically because together we’ll affirm that marriage is good—for everyone.”

His advice would be important for bishops at next year’s synod on marriage and the family to consider.

If your appetite has been whetted for a new understanding of marriage and the marriage equality debate, I strongly recommend that you read Schlabach’s essay in its entirety by clicking here.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

 

 


Bishops’ Meeting Spotlights Tensions About Pope Francis and LGBT Issues

November 14, 2014

Though the U.S. bishops’ meeting in Baltimore this week has not produced anything substantial in terms of policy, the news coming from that gathering focused on the split reaction that bishops have had to Pope Francis’ call for a more open church.

Of course, not all bishops fear the pope’s new approach.  In fact, some seem to be emulating his style, as I will point out later in this post.  First, I’d like to examine the tension that appears to exist in the bishops’ conference with regard to Pope Francis. Such an examination may be fruitful because the same dynamic of tension exists in the discussion of LGBT issues in the church.

New York Times article entitled “U.S. Bishops Struggle to Follow Lead of Francis” contained quotations from two different bishops which showed, I think, some of the underlying assumptions that guide responses to Francis.

Archbishop-elect Blase Cupich

Archbishop-elect Blase Cupich, who will soon lead the archdiocese of Chicago said:

“The pope is saying some very challenging things for people. He’s not saying, this is the law and you follow it and you get to heaven. He’s saying we have to do something about our world today that’s suffering, people are being excluded, neglected. We have a responsibility, and he’s calling people to task.”

But a few paragraphs later, the former archbishop of Chicago, Cardinal Francis George, had a totally opposite evaluation of the pope:

Cardinal Francis George

“He says wonderful things, but he doesn’t put them together all the time, so you’re left at times puzzling over what his intention is. What he says is clear enough, but what does he want us to do?”

Those two quotations sum up a lot for me.  While Cupich emphasized that the pope is not ordering people to follow rules, George’s response is a question which asks the pope to provide the bishops with definite direction.  To me, that distinction underlines a difference in the church between people who are more comfortable with discussion and discernment versus those who are more comfortable with authority and obedience.

The National Catholic Reporter’s Michael Sean Winters estimates that “As many as half of the bishops are those who simply do not understand what Pope Francis is trying to achieve.”  He thinks 25% “are genuinely enthusiastic about Pope Francis,” and another 25% are “digging in, resisting the pope, hoping it will all blow over quickly.”

In a Religion News Service article by David Gibson, church observer Rocco Palmo of Whispers in the Loggia blog, described the distinction between the bishops’ camps using different language:

“The prelates know they can’t go back to the way things were, said Palmo, who was covering the annual fall meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which runs through Thursday.

“But, he said, they are still trying to figure out how to adapt Francis’ flexible pastoral style to their local situations. ‘When you come from an institutional mindset,’ as Palmo said many American bishops do, ‘that’s going to create some apprehension.’ ”

Many of the news reports seem to focus on the fact that many of the U.S. bishops fall into the “authority and obedience” camp.  But other reports have been sprinkled with quotations showing that some bishops are following Pope Francis’ lead.

Bishop Thomas Tobin

For instance,  Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, Rhode Island, who a few weeks ago referred to the synod as “rather Protestant,” and who has been a strong opponent of marriage equality, seemed to acknowledge past errors in pastoral practice.  Michael O’Loughlin of CruxNow.com, interviewed Tobin at the meeting :

“As for his letter condemning same-sex marriage, Tobin acknowledged that gay Catholics seek ‘a sense of welcoming’ in the Church. He said that he believes the Church is open to them, but ‘have we always expressed that very clearly? I’m not so sure.’ ”

In a second article, O’Loughlin of CruxNow.com reported on Archbishop Joseph Kurtz’ presidential address to the conference:

“Kurtz defended the pope’s emerging “culture of encounter,” with its emphasis on mercy over judgment, embracing those not living in accord with Church teaching, and more directly assisting the poor and disadvantaged. He likened Francis’ philosophy to his own visits to the homes of parishioners when he was a pastor.

Archbishop Joseph Kurtz

“ ‘When I’d come to someone’s home, I wouldn’t start by telling them how I’d rearrange their furniture. In the same way, I wouldn’t begin by giving them a list of rules to follow. . . .’

“ ‘I would then invite them to follow Christ, and I’d offer to accompany them as we, together, follow the Gospel invitation to turn from sin and journey along the way,’ he said. ‘Such an approach isn’t in opposition to Church teachings; it’s an affirmation of them. . . .’

“Notably absent from the address was a direct condemnation of same-sex marriage or even talk of threats to marriage, discussion of which had become a mainstay of the bishops’ group under Kurtz’ predecessor, New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan.”

Kurtz did seem to be playing both sides of the coin, however, since in the same address he also heavily praised “St. John Paul II’s remarkable vision of marriage and family life as developed in his theology of the body.”

And Peter Smith, reporting for The Pittsburgh Post-Gazettenoted:

“Bishops, however, maintained they would continue opposition to legalized same-sex marriage and linked the issue to their outspoken campaign for religious liberty, which they say is being challenged by gay-rights legislation.”

As I mentioned, this same dynamic exists in the debate about LGBT issues in the church.  Should we be a church of welcome or of rules? Which is more important:  “discussion and discernment” or “authority and obedience”?  “A flexible pastoral style” or “an institutional mindset”?  A ministry of accompaniment or Theology of the Body?

It comes down to a simple dichotomy that Catholics have been noting for decades regarding LGBT issues:  social justice or sexual ethics?  Which of these moral traditions should govern how the Church approaches LGBT persons?  Pope Francis has elevated that distinction to the front and center of the church’s discussion on marriage, sexuality, and the family.

I hope and pray for a Church where social justice and concern for individuals is primary. I will watch with continued interest to see how this debate, now amplified, will play out.

This year’s bishops’ meeting may not have delivered anything memorable in terms of statements or policies, but it sure did help to make apparent this important tension in our Church.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

 

 

 

 


Archbishop’s Comments About Sexual Orientation Show the ‘Francis Effect’

November 13, 2014

While LGBT issues have not been a major focus of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) meeting in Baltimore this week, one small introduction to these topics may be an indicator that the “Francis effect”–the idea that Pope Francis is influencing Catholic leaders–is having an impact on the American hierarchy.

Archbishop Thomas Wenski

At a press conference on Tuesday, Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami, Florida, and a member of the USCCB’s Committee on Migration, compared the situation of LGBT people in nations with repressive laws to the plight of undocumented immigrants in the U.S.

Buzzfeed reported on Wenski’s comments:

“ ‘We have to help people to realize that they should not demonize the undocumented; Nobody should be demonized because of their sexual orientation, etc,’ said Wenski, who is part of the USCCB’s Committee on Migration. Immigration reform is one of the American church’s top policy priorities.

“Wenski was responding to a question from BuzzFeed News about whether the global church had been clear in transmitting the message of  ‘love the sinner/hate the sin’ in its teachings on homosexuality. Wenski, a member of the Bishops’ Working Group on the Life and Dignity of the Human Persons, said that a public opinion study commissioned by the church found many American church members simply interpreted ‘love the sinner but hate the sin’ as ‘hate the sinner.’”

Wenski’s comments are certainly a step in the right direction.  It seems very likely, too, that his remarks have been very influenced by Pope Francis’ new approach to issues like homosexuality, which emphasizes that the Church needs to view such issues through the lens of its social justice tradition, rather than its sexual ethics tradtion.

Why does it seem that Wenski’s attitude is a result of the “Francis effect”?  Because until recently, he has not made supportive of comments for LGBT people, and in fact, some of his comments and actions have been quite negative.  In August of this year, he spoke out against a Florida court’s ruling that same-gender marriage could be approved in that state.  Wenski called the ruling “another salvo in the ‘culture wars’ that ultimately seek to redefine the institution of marriage as solely for adult gratification.”

As chair of the USCCB’s domestic policy committee,  Wenski joined with other bishops to state  great reluctance to accept President Obama’s executive order on non-discrimination, which when it was passed, the USCCB ultimately criticized.

In 2013, he authored a letter to Florida Catholics, instructing them to oppose marriage equality, and he suggested that adoption of same-gender marriage could lead to legalized polygamy.

Before becoming archbishop of Miami, Wenski was the bishop of Orlando, Florida, where he shut down a very successful diocesan outreach to LGBT people.

So, to see him now speak in such compassionate tones forces one to ask, “Why did he change?”  Since the change is very much in line with the pope’s approach, it seems reasonable to infer that Wenski has been influenced by the pontiff.

Rather than condemning him for his earlier comments, I think we should rejoice that his rhetoric is changing.  Regardless of what motivated him to change, it is very beneficial to not only LGBT people, but to the entire Catholic Church that he did. Though he probably still opposes marriage equality, he is still taking a step in the right direction, and that step will help to influence many other Catholics to at least begin to think more positively about LGBT people.

Solid change always happens by little and by little.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

 

 

 

 

 

 


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