Two stories came across my computer screen this week, both first person accounts by Catholics, both of whom support marriage equality, but both who have different relationships with the church. While it would be irresponsible of me to speculate further about why each of these writers has a different approach to Catholicism, I did find the juxtaposition of their two stories interesting since they raised a lot of questions for me.
Not In Spite of Being Catholic, But Because of Being Catholic
Dan McGrath, a Minnesota Catholic, wrote on Sojourners magazine’s blog that he is voting “no” to the state’s proposed constitutional amendment to ban marriage equality, and his essay explains his decision:
“When I was 10 my parents divorced. A couple years later my mom came out to my family as lesbian. By then she no longer felt welcome at church and stopped going to mass, though she has remained a deeply spiritual person. This one case of social exclusion is deeply meaningful to me, but is nothing compared to political decision by church leadership to spend millions of dollars to limit the freedom to marry in Minnesota. By doing so church leaders seek to permanently exclude gays and lesbians from the civil rights and benefits straight couples enjoy.”
Like many Catholics who support LGBT equality, McGrath is often quizzed as to how he can remain loyal to his church:
“Some have asked how I can embrace a faith whose leadership has taken such a hard line against gay and lesbian equality, and which is painfully quiet on the threat to limit voting rights. I understand why people ask this question. For me, my decision to vote no is not in spite of my Catholic faith, it’s because of it. . . .
“I’m a religious person because I need help figuring out how to apply the values I believe in to the real world. Prayer, reflection, the sacraments, and regular attendance at mass are important elements of the Catholic faith. But a great thing about being Catholic is that there are also countless examples of how others live faithful lives that one can look to for inspiration.”
McGrath attributes his faith and his commitment to social justice to his aunt, Sister Kathleen Ries, a long-time community organizer. Her example helped him to see faith as an integral part of life, and it is that sense of integrity which still motivates him today:
“My choice to vote no has everything to do with being Catholic. The marriage amendment says that gays and lesbians should not have equal access to the financial and social rights and benefits my wife and I enjoy. Nothing in my faith experience justifies this. The voter restriction amendment will set in place permanent barriers to the civic participation of all voters. The fact that it will quiet, if not silence, the voices of those who are poor, homeless, unemployed, in foreclosure, elderly, people of color, and students makes this amendment morally out of bounds.
“Another great thing about being Catholic is that by practicing our faith in community we help each other live the values of the gospel. This is why we Catholics can see how our lot in life – and the fate of our souls – is tied to the fate of others. This sense of purpose and interconnection is what I want for my daughter. I’m voting no because that’s what my faith – and my family – have taught me to do. I’m voting no for my faith and my family.”
A Spiritual Refugee
Tom Moran, a columnist for Newark’s Star-Ledger, is also a Catholic, and he also supports marriage equality, but his experience with church leaders has moved him in a different direction than McGrath.
In his column, Moran relates how his early faith formation from his father stressed faith as a way of serving the poor. Yet, he did not receive reinforcement for this aspect of faith from future church leaders:
“In the decades since, I have fled a million miles from the church, and have never found a new religious home. I am a spiritual refugee.
“One in three American adults was raised in a Catholic family, but fewer than one in four identify as Catholic today. No other church has shed so many followers, according to surveys by the Pew Charitable Trusts.
“So if I am a refugee, I am walking on a road that is crowded with others who feel the same way.”
Newark’s Archbishop John Myers’ recent statements against marriage equality re-fueled the sense of alienation that Moran feels toward Catholicism:
” [Myers] said, all Catholics must embrace his views. And those who refuse should not take Holy Communion.
“I’ve gone through stages when it comes to the church, bouncing between anger, estrangement and exasperation. It started when one of my six sisters, at age 10, wrote the Vatican a letter asking why she couldn’t be an altar girl. She never heard back. But the dinner discussions on that planted seeds of revolt in all of us.
“They flowered as I began to understand the church’s views on birth control and divorce, which put even my mother on the wrong side of the law, and taught us how Catholics cope with the hierarchy.”
Moran relates the story of his mother’s decision to stick with Catholicism, but he is not so optimistic that others will follow her example:
“In the meantime, though, men like Myers will drive millions more onto the refugee highway. He had his own small share of complicity in the sex abuse scandal, transferring a priest who had confessed to abuse to St. Michael’s Hospital in Newark without telling the staff. He refuses to release the names of priests who have been credibly accused, as some New Jersey dioceses do.
“But the fixation on same-sex marriage may do even more damage in the long run. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center found that 53 percent of Catholics support same-sex marriage, a number that rises to 72 percent among those between ages 18 and 34. Remember, they shouldn’t be taking Holy Communion.”
Moran criticizes Myers for discussing marriage, but never mentioning poverty, and he notes that other Catholics probably do not share the archbishop’s priorities:
“ ‘Catholic citizens must exercise their right to be heard in the public square by defending marriage,’ Myers wrote.
“I doubt most Catholics will see this election in such pinched terms. They know how to sidestep this land mine, too.
“Because if you visit any poor neighborhood in New Jersey, you can see a more vibrant Catholicism at work in schools, hospitals and food pantries.”
Do These Stories Tell Us Anything?
As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I’m not going to play “armchair spiritual counselor” and imagine why these two men have taken such different approaches to their Catholic heritage. Similarly, I don’t intend to judge either one as better or worse than the other. I presume that each has faced his life experience in the way that they found revealed the greatest integrity for them.
Both, it seems to me, have retained their Catholic sense of passion for justice and strong distaste for hypocrisy of leadership figures. In my life and travels, I have met many folks in situations that are similar to each of these men. Some find it is the right thing to stay, some find it is the right thing to leave. What I find interesting, though, is that what they share in common is their belief that the Catholicism they were taught as young people stressed love and justice, and that both think that church leaders are not heeding those messages when it comes to the question of marriage equality.
What do you see in these two stories?
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry