Advent is beginning with an extraordinary amount of discussion about a new Vatican document on whether homosexuals should be admitted to the priesthood.
While the church should be the guardian of Mystery with a capital M, it now finds itself the uneasy custodian of a mystery with a small letter m.
The document, finely tuned over many years of preparation before being released Tuesday, seems a classic example of what St. Paul meant in contrasting "seeing in a glass darkly" with the promise of later "seeing face to face."
The ongoing interpretations of this Vatican missive may spring from its failure to look at the issue "face to face" - that is, as a conversation about living human persons rather than confusing hypothetical and abstract concepts about real persons.
The core of the 1,300-word document from the Congregation for Catholic Education is that candidates who are "actively homosexual, have deep-seated homosexual tendencies, or support the so-called gay culture" cannot be ordained.
Between the lines
But, as longtime Vatican observer John Allen observes, the instruction "does not define what 'deep-seated homosexual tendencies' means, leaving it unclear how to establish the difference between 'transitory' and 'deep-seated' impulses."
And difficult, one might add, to understand the length of time for which they must have been overcome or exactly how these judgments are to be made by seminary officials.
Classically, this Vatican document is now subject to an endless analysis that will leave it like the man set upon by robbers in the Gospel, roughed up and abandoned on the wayside. The legally minded dig meaning less from its substance than from its style. Allen notes that it was "not explicitly issued in forma specifica, meaning with the weight of papal act, and hence it carries the authority of a Vatican office rather than the pope himself."
Timothy Radcliffe, a former head of the Dominican Order, and many others sensibly defend the honor of faithful homosexual priests while examining the document with a practiced eye to "discern the intentions of the authors."
He finds much ambiguity and uncertainty in the language and raises the question of whether its strictures about "deep-seated" tendencies and support of a liberated sexual lifestyle should not also apply to heterosexuals who may be obsessed with sex or unable to overcome sexual conflicts.
These and other comparisons of the instruction's language to that of the 1997 revision of the Catechism of the Catholic Church leave homosexuals cold comfort. The Catechism says that these inclinations are "for most of them a trial" while insisting they constitute "an objective disorder."
James Martin, an associate editor of America magazine, a Catholic publication, reflects on the pain that these abstractions visit on homosexual priests: "The passage that states that gay men per se cannot 'correctly' relate to men and women will certainly cause anguish to the many celibate gay priests already working in ministry in the church."
The Christmas season bids us to meditate on the Mystery that encompasses all of us. We are preparing to celebrate God's becoming a person in our midst - less to pay off the debts of our sins, as an old economic model of salvation emphasized, than to identify with our experience, to accept its imperfection and complexity. Not to explain away or justify our human suffering, but to hallow it by taking it on himself.
Advent means the beginning of the Church year and heralds the return of light at the top of the year.
This Vatican document is about an old time of blithely and blandly classifying persons with no regard to their wonder, a dark period when we had little light to help us understand the less than perfect but glorious Mystery of being human.
That Mystery cannot be charted by canon lawyers or controlled by church officials, but only accepted and entered as fully as possible by all of us.
Advent allows us to meditate not only on our being human but also on the various pathways we follow, sometimes in the dark and sometimes in heavily forested areas, as we become human.
Is being homosexual as much a way of being human as being heterosexual? Can we speak in absolutes about this Mystery in which we are all involved?
The only test for believers, including seminary candidates, is whether they can make healthy relationships with other persons. Can they give themselves to others to help these others grow rather than use them in some way for themselves? The electricity of love cannot leap between two cold polar caps of perfection.
Advent prepares us for the greatest of all mysteries, that of how, as imperfect persons, we can still be whole and make each other whole.