Friday, November 17, 2006

Pope, U.S. Bishops Jump Off Cliff

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, meeting in Baltimore this week, and Pope Benedict XVI, pontificating in Rome, have issued spiritually irrelevant but nonetheless harmful pronouncements which should cause anyone identifying themselves as a Roman Catholic Christian, as I do, to think twice.

It reminds me of the story of the Gadarene (or Gerasene) swine, repeated with some variation in all three synoptic Gospels. Jesus encounters a man (or maybe two men) possessed by demons (or unclean spirits) and living, perhaps without clothes, in a cemetery. The man (or men, whose name is "Legion"), recognize him and beg for mercy. The teacher performs an exorcism and casts out the demons into a nearby herd of swine, who then proceed to jump off a cliff, like lemmings, into a lake where they drown. All three versions end the same way: The residents of the neighborhood, terrified at what they had seen Jesus do, ask him to leave.

"Let him who has ears to hear me, hear!" (Mark 4:9)

The U.S. bishops, at the end of their conference on Wednesday, released three documents which affirmed traditional, and increasingly irrelevant, church teachings: "Married Love and the Gift of Life" condemned artificial contraception; "Ministry to Persons with a Homosexual Inclination" denounced sexually-active gays and lesbians, and "'Happy Are Those Who Are Called to His Supper': On Preparing to Receive Christ Worthily in the Eucharist" suggested that those singled out above, as well as pro-choice Catholics, should consider themselves unworthy and refrain from receiving communion.

While one news source lauded the bishops for at least not invoking a communion ban for politicians who do not support the Church's teaching on abortion in their public life, which had been advocated by the American Life League and other right-wing Catholics, the Bishops' actions illustrated the persistent fixation of Church leaders on sexual issues. The Gospels are strangely silent on matters to do with sex, but they have much to say about poverty. Have the bishops not read the Beatitudes lately, or Matthew 25?

It might be the scandal of priestly sex abuse that has skewed their vision, but the Church hierarchy was misguided about sex long before the current crisis. The document on marriage, designed for engaged and young married couples, claims that artificial birth control introduces a "false note" in marriage and has led to a decline in respect for life in society. In addition, "suppressing fertility by using contraception denies part of the inherent meaning of married sexuality and does harm to the couple's unity." According to Boston's Bishop Sean P. O'Malley, heterosexual marriage is divinely ordained because of its role in procreation. Balderdash. The disordered musings of aging and celibate bachelors.

The condemnation of gay and lesbian sex uses the same reasoning. In the words of Bishop Arthur J. Serratelli of Paterson, NJ: "Because homosexual acts cannot fulfill the natural end of human sexuality, they are never morally acceptable." Making love, having sex or fucking without intending to, or being able to, make children is strictly verboten. But here it goes farther. "The homosexual inclination is objectively disordered" and therefore "homosexual acts are immoral." No gays or lesbians were consulted before drafting the document. Members of DignityUSA, an advocacy group for gay Catholics, said the new guidelines would further alienate gay people. According to Dignity president Sam Sinnet, "At some point the bishops have to realize that they speak in willful ignorance about what homosexuality is and about sexuality in general."

In my understanding, God IS love, and the Church is ignorant of the many forms that love can take, mistaking social customs for God's command. Humanity is spiritually evolving and some of us have been blessed to encounter the love in same-sex unions, and in the many non-traditional forms of family. My daughter considers herself bisexual and is in a committed relationship with a wonderful woman. Their love is not disordered, and Church leaders who declare it so will have much to answer for.

The final document on worthiness to receive the Eucharist declares that Catholics who "knowingly and obstinately...reject the defined doctrines of the church" should not seek to receive Communion. Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann of Kansas City, KS, said that this includes sexually active gays and birth-control-using heterosexuals. Apparently these pillars of the Church are ignorant of teaching that no one is "worthy" to receive the Eucharist but all are welcome. The idea that some are more worthy than others is totally foreign to the Gospels.

The bishops were encouraged to produce these documents by the same Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that Cardinal Ratzinger headed before he became pope. Many of the U.S. bishops were appointed during John Paul II's long reign and they were mostly chosen for their orthodoxy and subservience to Rome.

At a press conference, Bishop Serratelli said, "To be a Catholic is a challenge, and to be a Catholic requires a certain choice, and these are the choices that are consisten with the Gospel of Jesus." The bishop seems unaware that Catholics today can read the Bible, and anyone who reads the Gospels carefully will be mistified by the issues that the bishops deem most important.

Not all of the bishops’ pronouncements, however, were focused on sex. At the last minute an item on Iraq was added to their agenda, and the conference president, Bishop William S. Skylstad of Spokane, WA, issued a statement saying, "Our nation's military forces should remain...only so long as their presence contributes of a responsible transition." The bishops called on the government to "look for effective ways to end their deployment at the earliest opportunity consistent with this goal." Bravo, bishops. You have a little spine after all.

In the same week, Pope Benedict XVI met with his advisers for a "reflection" on the rule of celibacy for Roman Catholic priests. Many of the 100,000 married priests
worldwide (25,000 in the U.S. alone) held their breath in anticipation. The average age of priests in America is now over 60. The meeting was prompted by the disobedience of Archbishop Emmanuel Milingo of Zambia who was married briefly in 2001 and who recently ordained four married American men as bishops, an act that drew a swift excommunication. Eastern Rite priests, and married Anglicans converting to Catholicism, have been granted an exception to the celibacy rule. Hopes for change were dashed however, when a Vatican announcement said priestly celibacy had been affirmed. What else might one except from a pope opposed to the modern age?

The Pope has more pressing problems. This week he is receiving a visit from the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, who admittedly publicly that the only reason he did not become a Roman Catholic is because he does not believe the Pope is infallible. And the International Herald Tribune reported that the Vatican is upset by Italian satirists who make fun of the Pope and his staff by ridiculing his German accent and pretending that he shoots pigeons in St. Peter's Square.

And so I continue to reflect on why I became a Catholic over twenty years ago and wonder what that identity means to me now. If the Roman Catholic Church is a private club presided over by celibate gatekeepers, then count me out. I recently resigned as a communion presider after being told I must make sure that whatever I say in my reflections on the Gospel reading are in line with Church teaching. But who is worthy to decide on what is orthodox and what is not, what is approved sexually and what is not? The demons that Jesus cast into the swine, who then jumped off a cliff, remind me of the institutional leaders of the Church who ignore the teachings of love and burden the poor followers of Jesus with rules about sexuality. Does Doestoevski's Grand Inquisitor come to mind?

Vatican II declared that the Church is "the people of God," not the Vatican and not the hierarchy, not conferences of bishops or assemblies of priests. We the people, together, are the Church, and why should I leave?

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