Not Bad For Melodrama

A year ago we lamented 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 note that there was war and starvation everywhere, fresh clergy sex abuse reports out of Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Spokane, Washington to name a few, 20% of U.S. parishes without a pastor, a Congress poised to reduce health care coverage and food stamps, the United States credibly accused of torture and keeping combatants in secret prisons, and so on. 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. 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 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. These topics (unlike the war in Iraq 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 U.S. Catholic 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 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 talk about it 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.

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 why 96% of Catholics have been ignoring 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 anyway 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 instead homosexual inclination (a liking for, or a tendency toward something). Sly, no? The inference to be drawn, we presume, is that someone inclined one way can just incline another way as well, whereas someone with an orientation is pretty much stuck there.

That science and human experience generally say otherwise is of little apparent concern, 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 them to be quiet about their inclinations in church. "For some, revealing their homosexual tendencies to certain close friends, family members, a spiritual director 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." Surprisingly, the very next bishops' paragraph begins: "Sad to say, there are many 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 far removed from the real lives of people 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. These documents are not only embarrassing; they are insulting and degrading to those these bishops are charged to lead. The saddest thing is that the valuable insights the bishops do have into the deficiencies and influences of the wider culture get buried. Where's it all going? No one's come out yet with a program, but we'll venture a hunch. It has become apparent in recent years that there's an upsurge in traditional ecclesial finery and other goods. We've seen more birettas (those funny three-peaked hats with the fuzzy ball on top that comes in different colors depending on clerical rank) and cassocks (the kind with real buttons, no zippers, for the purists) and lots of lacy surplices and even the capa magna

(a cape with yards and yards of silk). In some places they're even naming "monsignors" again.

It's as if someone discovered a props closet full of the old stuff and they're putting it all over the stage. Pestered by the abuse scandal they've never dared look full in the face, they find it far easier to order the lives of other people than to put their own lives in order. They've discovered the trappings of a more settled past, a time when their authority wasn't dependent on persuading or relating positively to others. It was simply 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 all homosexuals were quietly desperate. You might even locate a canopy under which the royally clad leader can process! Now that's order. That's the church! Bring up the stage lights a little higher so all can see...before it all fades to irrelevance!

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