"Let us make man in our image, after our likeness...in the divine image he created him; male and female he created them" (Gen.1:27)

Friday, December 11, 2009

"To live is to change...."

"In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below, to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often." [emphasis added]
-- Venerable John Henry Cardinal Newman, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (1843)

I've read this quotation from Newman before, but stumbled across it recently while reading some of the writings of another learned John, John T. Noonan, Jr.(A Church That Can and Cannot Change: The Development of Catholic Moral Teaching). Newman's declaration seems particularly relevant today in discussions of same-sex marriage and whether or not society should enact laws that recognize and support such unions. One of the oft-heard arguments from those who oppose such recongition is rooted in the antithesis to Newman's statement: the assertion that marriage has never changed, that such laws would 'redefine marriage,' and that marriage has always and everywhere been between one man and one woman.  Despite the clear historical inaccuracy of the "one-man, one woman, always and everywhere" argument, the first claim is accurate:  yes, same-sex marriage laws would re-define marriage, but that's what societies across time, culture and geography have always done. Doing so now would only advance the cause of justice by providing societal support to loving unions between those whom God created gay or lesbian.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Miss Manners and Verbal Vomit

I love Miss Manners!

Her December 2nd column includes the story of gay man asking how he and his partner should respond when they are publicly confronted or attacked for having adopted a child (whose birth mother, by the way, was a heroin and crack addict). They have been told in public and by strangers that they are "not a real family, " are "evil" and doing "an injustice" to the child. Seeking Miss Manners's guidance on how to respond politely, she replies:

"A gentleman of Miss Manners's acquaintance was once subjected to a barrage of unwarranted insults. Outraged on his behalf, she asked why he did not trouble to defend himself. His reply (and please forgive the inelegance for the sake of vividness) was: 'If someone is throwing up on you, you get out of the way. You do not stay around to examine what is coming up.'

There is nothing you can say to people who, whatever they may think, see fit to hurl crude insults at you, even in front of your son. A stiff 'I'm sorry you feel that way' is all you can utter before turning your back." 

"Violence," "not a real family," and "evil" are descriptions shockingly familiar to anyone who has read "official" Church pronouncements about gay men and women. (If you doubt this, see the blog by James Martin, S.J., What Should a Gay Catholic To Do?) Although these pronouncements are presented in ways that seek to heighten their significance, the fact remains that the medium is not the message. Verbal vomit -- whether spewed forth from a complete stranger in the street, from a Fred Phelps fanatic, or even from a Vatican document with a papal seal -- is still verbal vomit.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

The Lost Art of Catholic Drinking

From The Lost Art of Catholic Drinking, by by Sean P. Dailey at InsideCatholic.com

"Here we encounter Catholic drinking. Catholic drinking is that third way, the way to engage in an ancient activity enjoyed by everyone from peasants to emperors to Jesus Himself. And again, it is not just about quantity. In fact, I think the chief element is conviviality. [emphasis added] When friends get together for a drink, it may be to celebrate, or it may be to mourn. But it should always be to enjoy one another's company."

Words to live by!

Monday, November 30, 2009

The Present Moment of the World in Which We Live: Homily for the 1st Sunday of Advent (2009)

First Reading: Jer 33:14-16
Second Reading: 1 Thes 3:12-4:2
Gospel: Lk 21:25-28, 34-36
I was invited by a friend to join him and some of his family and other friends for Thanksgiving.  At one point in the conversation as one of the friends was trying to coax our host’s sister into telling us stories about him from childhood, we began to discuss some basic differences between individuals, including the degree to which someone is more of a “planner” or more “impromptu” and able to fly by the seat of one’s pants. Some of us clearly self-identified as ones who like to have things very ordered, structured, and planned out in great detail – while others of us were much more laid back, able to go with the flow, and take things as they come.

Well, regardless of our preferred way of approaching life, all of us know that things don’t always go according to plan and that what we envision things will be like at some point in the future often needs to be periodically adjusted with the passage of time and in response to the reality of changed circumstances.  This is a fact of life – true for individuals, for families, for companies, for societies, and even for communities of faith.  Although there are some who would like their community of faith – the Church – to be timeless and never changing, even our earliest scriptures tell us that this was never the way it was.

In fact, within the very first half-century of Christianity, our ancestors in the faith needed to make two very significant adjustments precisely because things weren’t going as they thought they would.  These two adjustments were rooted in their lived experience of life – in the reality that “Life Happens.” The first adjustment had to do with their understanding of when Jesus would come back – when his promised return to usher in fully the Reign of God, would take place.  The second – because of the first – had to do with their understanding of the steps required for a non-Jew, a Gentile, to become a Christian. Originally it was believed that in order to become a follower of Jesus and member of the Christian community, a gentile must first convert to Judaism, as Christianity was seen by those outside and inside the Christian community as a “reform of Judaism” movement.  Over time – this perspective changed. This perspective – which answered an utterly fundamental question – “what is Christianity?” – gave way to a new and evolved understanding, a different perspective that was informed not only by the passage of time, but by the lived experience of people unfamiliar with Judaism who heard the Gospel message. Our second reading today comes from what is probably the oldest scripture in the New Testament – Paul’s first letter to the community at Thessalonica. These were mostly gentiles who were not familiar with Judaism, yet who heard the preaching of Paul and were drawn to follow Jesus.  They were not required to convert to Judaism as part of their path to Christian discipleship – they were not required to follow the 613 Laws of Moses in order to be faithful Christians. Rather – they were simply to follow what Paul instructed them to do – to “abound in love for one another and for all” – essentially to live lives that were loving and just.

This change in how a gentile could become a Christian was partly influenced by the realization that the Second Coming of Jesus – originally thought to be just around the corner – was probably not happening any time soon. And so the first followers of Jesus – whom we can imagine as having both eyes gazing heavenward as they awaited Jesus’ return – began to realize that perhaps they needed to have at least one eye focused not on the skies above, but on the earth below, on the world around them.

Today we celebrate the first Sunday of Advent, the first Sunday of a new liturgical year. And while many around us are focused on putting the holiday shopping season into high gear, our history and liturgical tradition draw our attention to this period of four weeks which is often spoken of in terms of anticipation, expectation and hope.  Each of these is among the traditional words used to describe Advent.  From the Latin meaning a coming, or coming towards – Advent is a season that invites us to reflect not only on the First Coming of Jesus in time some two thousand years ago, but also the second coming of Jesus at the end of time.

I suppose that’s one of the reasons why we have for our gospel reading a passage that seems at first a bit out of sequence.  We have a reading that sounds like it belongs more at the end of the year rather than at the beginning. When we think of this time of year, we think about those scripture stories that prepare us for the birth of Jesus. This year – Year C in our liturgical cycle of readings – we will be reading largely form the Gospel of Luke.  And beginning next week we will start to hear some of those beautiful Lucan stories that are referred to as the “Infancy Narrative.” But today on this the First Sunday of Advent, we hear a passage not from the beginning chapters of Luke, but one from the 21st chapter. Luke presents Jesus telling his followers about the end of the world, speaking in an unusually apocalyptic tone. But even as Luke presents Jesus as saying these things – things that seem to direct our eyes heavenward – Luke also reminds of what is most important. Today’s Gospel reading leaves out a small parable that occurs between the beginning lines and the ending lines of what we just listened to. In the so-called “parable of the fig tree,” Jesus states that “Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will not pass away.”

Living that Word here and now is the challenge before every Christian. The Living Word is always found at the intersection between Faith and the present moment of the World in which we live. Bringing these together isn’t always easy. In some ways it seems particularly challenging this year, because at first glance, the present moment of the world in which we live doesn’t seem all that receptive to folks like you and me. In fact, in some ways one could say that the world and our Church are becoming less – not more – welcoming to the LGBT community.
  • On the political front, voters in Maine joined voters from many states around the country when they rejected same-sex marriage for their gay and lesbian neighbors;
  • The Vatican welcomes Anglicans who no longer feel at home in their own communion – not because the Anglican Communion has denied the divinity of Christ or abandoned the Nicene Creed, but because they do not like their church’s positions on women in ministry and same-sex unions;
  • In Uganda – where homosexual activity is already criminalized – there is strong support, even from those who call themselves Christian, for legislation that would expand this criminalization and impose the death penalty in certain circumstances;
  • And, closer to home, numerous Catholic bishops – including Washington, DC's own Archbishop Donald Wuerl – have signed the so-called “Manhattan Declaration” which labels same-sex relationships as examples of “immoral conduct” and compares such loving unions to polygamy and incest.
Perhaps that’s why it’s so important that we take our Advent theme to heart this year.  That theme – “Dignity: Tell Your Friends” – invites us to tell our friends, our families, our colleagues and neighbors who we are and what we have to say to the world.  It invites them to come here as they are – to pray with us, to celebrate Eucharist with us, and to share in our faith which we experience as gift. As a community, we claim that we are a prophetic voice to the gay community and to the Church – a voice that says the arms of God are big enough to welcome all people – regardless of any category or label we might place on one another.  As we begin this Advent Season, this New Year in our own life of faith, let us with faithful hearts be attentive to the present moment of the world in which we live. Let us re-commit ourselves to telling our stories with others – our stories as lesbian and gay Catholics.

If any of you read the National Catholic Reporter, you may have seen a commentary by Nicole Sotelo, writing about the recent pastoral letter approved by the bishops of the U.S. on Marriage, which promotes – I think – an incomplete and at times incongruous theology of the human person.  She essentially writes about how our Catholic brothers and sisters – more so than Church leaders – are much more  like our Christian ancestors who were able to grow and change and evolve with the passage of time, being able to discern the difference between the essentials of faith and those things that are conditioned by history and culture and circumstance. In conclusion, here’s what she says:

“When one stops gazing only at the 258 active Catholic bishops, but instead takes a good look at the approximately 65 million Catholics in the United States and their growing acceptance of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, there emerges much hope for the future of our church and society.”

“Dignity: Tell a Friend.”  With 65 Million Catholics in the US … that’s a lot of friends to tell!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Giving Manhattan a Bad Name -- The "Manhattan Declaration"

You may have heard that a group of Evangelical, Catholic, and Orthodox folks have signed a document that they're calling the Manhattan Declaration. It's subtitled, A Call of Christian Conscience, and it was released on November 20, 2009. (Here's the Manhattan Declaration itself, and here's a List of Religious Leaders Signatories). If you haven't read it -- you should.

For an overview of it, read the blog entry from National Catholic Reporter. As NCR reports, there were a number of Catholic bishops and archbishops -- including Richard Malone of Portland, Maine and Donald Wuerl of Washington, DC -- who lent their support to this historically inaccurate and deceit-filled statement. 

Here are a few sections that demonstrate how low those who hate gay people will go, all the while cloaking their animus in the claims of being faithful to Christianity and our two thousand year tradition:
  • "The impulse to redefine marriage in order to recognize same-sex and multiple partner relationships is a symptom, rather than the cause, of the erosion of the marriage culture."
  • "We acknowledge that there are those who are disposed towards homosexual and polyamorous conduct and relationships, just as there are those who are disposed towards other forms of immoral conduct."
  • "On inspection, however, the argument that laws governing one kind of marriage will not affect another cannot stand. Were it to prove anything, it would prove far too much: the assumption that the legal status of one set of marriage relationships affects no other would not only argue for same sex partnerships; it could be asserted with equal validity for polyamorous partnerships, polygamous households, even adult brothers, sisters, or brothers and sisters living in incestuous relationships. Should these, as a matter of equality or civil rights, be recognized as lawful marriages, and would they have no effects on other relationships?"
So much for a fair presentation of the issue, because all same-sex marriage efforts have also called for the legalization of "polyamorous" and "incestuous" relationships, right??

I have said before and I will continue to say:  the effort to civilly recognize same-sex unions is not about marriage; it's about seeing God's gay and lesbian children as fully human and worthy of the dignity of all God's children -- including the right to form loving, stable, and generative relationships.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Doing God's Work & Rendering Unto Caesar

The Catholic Archdiocese of Washington released a statement (“DC Council Committee Narrows Religious Exemption in Same Sex Marriage Bill") last Tuesday (Nov. 10, 2009) concerning legislation currently pending in the DC City Council. The archdiocese has concerns that this legislation, Bill 18-482, "Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Equality Amendment Act of 2009", does not contain strong enough provisions to protect the rights of religious institutions which disagree with the bill's main purpose, namely to permit same-sex couples to civilly marry in the District, and to have all the same rights, benefits and privileges currently limited to opposite-sex married couples. In addition to allowing same-sex couples to marry, the law would not require any individual person or any religious group to officiate at or solemnize same-sex marriages; the legislation explicitly protects this right of religious freedom.

I am not an attorney, and I have no doubt that there are legitimate questions of law that should be thoroughly addressed by the Council before this legislation is approved and passed on to the mayor of Washington for his signature. I trust that the Council is addressing these concerns, especially to ensure that the final version of the Bill that is enacted into law is able to withstand any possible legal challenge claiming the law does not provide sufficient protections for religious freedom.  

While I am not a lawyer, I do know something about Catholic teaching and moral theology. It is here that I find the archdiocese's statement -- characterized by the Washington Post as an "ultimatum" -- problematic. The archdiocese declares that pending legislation, “…could prevent [emphasis added] social service providers such as Catholic Charities from continuing their long-term partnerships with the District government to provide critical social services for thousands of the city’s most vulnerable residents."

No wonder that the Post reported this as an "ultimatum," because the Church is essentially saying:  either exempt us from provisions of the law with which we disagree, or we will be forced to discontinue being a service provider for thousands of DC's neediest residents.

There are two problems with such a declaration.

Forced into a Corner? Not really!

First, the legislation would in no way require the termination of the "long-term partnerships" between the District and Catholic Charities (or any other Catholic entity). While Catholic Charities may choose not to continue such partnerships in a world where same-sex marriage is allowed in the District, this decision would be Catholic Charities,' and not the District government's.

Doing Good with Acceptance: The Principle of the Double-Effect

Second, even from the perspective of Catholic faith, the termination of such partnerships would be the Church's choice, not an obligation. This choice would be free and not required by Catholic social or moral teaching. There is a widely-accepted principle in Catholic moral thinking called the Principle of the Double Effect. This principle is a way of thinking through whether or not an action which has two effects -- one good and one bad -- is morally permissible. Catholic Charities could very validly and correctly apply this principle and still maintain its city partnerships in order to continuing doing the good work it has done in Washington for decades.

Although moral theologians may disagree on some fine points, there are generally four conditions that must be met in order for a double-effect analysis to adjudge an action as acceptable.
  1. First, the action itself must be either morally good or morally neutral.
  2. Second, the evil or bad effect must be unintended.
  3. Third, the good effect must not be caused by or a result of the bad effect.
  4. And fourth, the good effect must proportionately outweigh the bad effect.
Here's how it would work. For argument's sake, let's say that Bill 18-482 has been enacted and is now the law within the District of Columbia. The Archdiocese of Washington (or any of its entities) is now faced with the decision of whether or not to continue current or seek new contracts with the District government to provide social services.  From the Archdiocese's perspective....
  1. The "action" is continuing or entering into a contract to provide social services to the needy.
  2. The "good effect" is the provision of such services (feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, caring for the sick and dying, etc).
  3. The "bad effect" (from the Church's perspective, not mine) is the Church's compliance with the District law requiring all organizations receiving District funds not to discriminate against same-sex couples (e.g. by providing spousal benefits to a gay Church employee, or by considering same-sex couples in adoption applications along with opposite-sex couples).
How would the four conditions of the Double-Effect Principle fare in this scenario? Clearly the action itself – continuing or entering into contracts – is at the very least morally neutral. There is nothing per se that is bad or evil about contracting (unless you’re re-modeling your kitchen, but that’s another matter!). Second, the bad effect – following the DC law prohibiting discrimination against same-sex couples – is obviously not the intent of Catholic Charities, but would rather be their compliance with a law with which they do not agree. Third, the good effect of their contracts – the continuance of financial support from the DC government in doing good for the thousands and thousands of people in need – is a result of the action itself (i.e. the contract) and has no causal connection to the “bad effect.” And finally, this good effect, which would allow the Church to continue in an uninterrupted fashion the numerous programs it manages that help those in need, clearly outweighs any “harm” that the Church could envision by its full compliance with DC law.

Does the Church really want to be in a position of saying that the physical, material, social, healthcare, educational, and yes spiritual needs of so many thousands of Catholic Charities’ clients went unmet simply because the Church would have had to comply with DC law? Would such compliance be so evil, so horrible, that it was worth abandoning such a core facet of the Church's mission and the Gospel call to serve those in need?

While I in no way share the Church’s perspective that compliance with this law would be bad or evil, even Jesus advised his followers to ‘render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's; and to God the things that are God's’ (Mt. 22:21). The Church is presenting itself here not as an actor, but as a victim, as if it were being forced out of doing God’s work because it didn’t want to give Caesar his due. This is a false choice -- the DC Council shouldn't buy it, and neither should we. 

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Thoughts for the Day

The Power of Free Will

"Many liberal activist movements are trapped by their cynicism. It's so easy, too easy to demonize the other side...

"Even in the church, many have no positive vision forward so they lead the charge backward or against. But note that Jesus' concept of 'the Reign of God' is totally positive -- not fear-based or against any individual, group, sin or problem...

"...only when we get ourselves out of the way can we [appropriately] judge anyone else and take on the powers that be with righteous indignation."

from Everything Belongs (pp 107-111), by Richard Rohr, O.F.M.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Hope in the Age of Benedict

Though I don't always succeed, I try to be a person of hope.

Although hope is at the core of what it means to be a Christian, it's more and more difficult live in hope during this Age of Benedict.  NCR's John Allen discusses the continued rise of Archbishop John Burke within the Vatican bureaucracy, most recently having been appointed to a powerful position that oversees the selection of new bishops around the world. Allen reports that, "Since being called to Rome in 2008, Burke has hardly gone quiet. In a September 2008 interview with an Italian newspaper, Burke said that the U.S. Democratic Party risks becoming the 'party of death' because of its positions on bioethical questions. He’s also insisted that nothing can justify voting for a candidate who’s 'anti-life' and 'anti-family.'" Lest it not be clear, "anti-family" is a reference to anyone who supports the full rights and legal recognition of gay and lesbian individuals and couples.

Given the state of things, I can't help but be reminded of the words of Job: "Yet when I hoped for good, evil came; when I looked for light, then came darkness," (Job 30:26)

Nonetheless...even in the midst of what appear to be dark days within the Church, the words from the Letter to the Hebrews remain strong: "Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful," (Heb. 10:23)

Saturday, November 07, 2009

What Rights for Same-Sex Couples Does the Church Support?

Much of my attention this week has been focused on the result of the referendum in Maine which repealed that state's recognition of same-sex marriage. In his stated opposition, Portland's Catholic Bishop Richard Malone also spoke of  certain benefits which he thinks same-sex couples should have. While I am not aware that he has offered a complete list of the types of civil benefits he would support, a legitimate question for the bishop would be to articulate which of marriage's approximately 1,400 civil rights he thinks same-sex couples should have access to. Specifically, what rights constitute that package of "basic rights" that USCCB president Archbishop Joseph Kurtz says even gay people are entitled to?

The answer to this question is important. In trying to determine the line that indicates where the Church's support and opposition begin and end, it's been suggested by many that perhaps advocates of same-sex marriage should not use the term "marriage." Rather, they should simply seek civilly recognized "domestic partnerships" that have all the same rights as civil marriage, but are just not called "marriages." Would Bishop Malone (whose mantra was, "Marriage matters!") have been supportive of the legislation if the relationships of same-sex couples were not called "marriages"? While this may seem like a reasonable alternative, actions by bishops on the other side of the country suggest that even this would not be acceptable.

On the same day that Maine voters rejected same-sex marriage, voters in Washington state voted the other way. They upheld a legislative expansion of "domestic partnership" rights to equate these rights with all those afforded married couples. Despite the change in terminology and the avoidance of the term "marriage," even this wasn't acceptable to Washington's Catholic bishops. They opposed R-71 (as the referendum was called, and informally called "the 'Everything but Marriage' law") not for what it would do now, but for what it might lead to at some point down the road.

So ... what rights for same-sex couples does the Church support? How many of those 1,400 marriage rights would Bishop Malone or other bishops support?  For all the effort and energy that went into opposing Question 1 in Maine and Referendum 71 in Washington, one would think the bishops could find time to say so.

One positive note about the bishops of Washington:  although they stated their own opposition to R-71, they at least expressed this opposition while respecting the consciences of Washington Catholics, stating: "The bishops of Washington State urge all Catholics to vote after informing their consciences on these issues through prayer, Scripture reading and study."

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Bishop Richard Malone and Spiritual Abuse of Power

Richard Malone is the bishop of the diocese of Portland, Maine. One of his predecessors, William O'Connell (1859-1944), eventually left the backwaters of rural Maine to become the Cardinal Archbishop of Boston. O'Connell pulled off this promotion because of his close friendship with Vatican officials involved in making the selection and because, as secretary to the group of New England bishops putting forth recommendations, he played loose with the facts and the truth, somehow managing to get his own name at the top of the list when he forwarded the bishops' recommendations (which did not include O'Connell) to Roman officials.

Looking at the statements of Richard Malone on the Portland diocesan Web site -- statements that include a "Referendum Alert to Faithful Catholics" (see below) and a 12-minute video in which Malone calls same-sex marriage a "dangerous sociological experiment" -- one wonders if Malone has inherited from O'Connell more than just a title, a cathedral, and a diocese.  Malone's "Alert" quotes Cardinal Ratzinger in stating that Catholics have a duty to oppose civil efforts to recognize same-sex marriage.  Ratzinger's statement certainly deserves respect and consideration -- but neither this nor any particular statement by a Church leader on any particular issue can ever supersede what the Church has always taught is the ultimate norm -- the individual's well-formed conscience. 

Malone's statement is an abuse of his episcopal  role, an example of spiritual abuse causing great harm to the thousands of good and faithful Catholics who, having used the many tools that go into forming one's conscience, have come to a conclusion different from his.  The role of any bishop is to help people form their consciences -- it is NOT to be their consciences, telling them what their conscience alone can tell them.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) states that "...conscience is man's most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths." Catholic moral teaching is unequivocal in stating that, "A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience," (CCC, 1800). Bishop Malone (and Cardinal Ratzinger, for that matter), in this instance would usurp this sacred place of the human person, standing between the individual and his or her relationship with God, saying that "I have the truth" on the issue of same-sex marriage, and all you need to do is listen to us and do what we say. 

Sadly -- Malone's strong-arm tactics with the good people of Maine have contributed to a temporary setback for those seeking justice and civil respect for God's gay and lesbian children. Voters in Maine yesterday approved a referendum repealing earlier legislation granting same-sex couples the right to marry. I know in the depths of my heart that this setback is indeed temporary, that this example of the "tyranny of the majority" to deny a minority its rights will one day be relegated to the wrong side of history. I had hoped that yesterday's vote would bring that day closer. While not yet fully within sight, that day will indeed come and one day not only civil society but even the Church and leaders like Bishop Richard Malone will see their gay and lesbian neighbors as the children of God we are.

 Posted on the dioces of Portland, Maine prior to the vote on November 3, 2009:

A group of self-described Catholics who have chosen to dissent publicly from established Catholic doctrine on the nature of marriage as the union of one man and one woman recently published a paid political ad entitled “Statement of Conscience by Maine Catholics Regarding Marriage Equality.”

The evidence for their dissent runs through the statement and is crystallized in the following sentence: “…we find disturbing any suggestion that formal Church teaching obligates all Catholics to oppose marriage equality.”In contrast, please let your conscience be formed by these clear and authoritative words of Pope Benedict XVI (Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger): “In those situations where homosexual unions … have been given the legal status and rights belonging to marriage, clear and emphatic opposition is a duty." (Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, July 2003)

A Catholic whose conscience has been properly formed by Scripture and the teachings of the Catholic Church cannot support same sex marriage. Please vote YES on question 1.

Most Reverend Richard J. Malone, Th.D.
Bishop of Portland

Sunday, November 01, 2009

If I could vote in Maine on Tuesday ...

This coming Tuesday (November 3, 2009), voters in Maine will have the opportunity to do what is just and right by saying "No" to an attempt to overturn a law enacted by the legislature and signed by the governor allowing same-sex couples to marry.  I wish I could add my vote in this referendum that many say will be close. While I can't do that, I can hope and pray that this vote will not be an example of the "tyranny of the majority," but that Maine voters will continue to provide full recognition for same-sex couples in loving, committed, and faithful relationships.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Maine Catholics Find Their Voice

I continue to be surprised and saddened by some of the things that Bishop Richard Malone (of Portland, Maine) has repeatedly stated in his goal of encouraging Maine Catholics to vote for the repeal of recent legislation allowing same-sex couples in that state to marry. In a letter last year, Bishop Malone made the odd statement that, "Marriage is an institution that predates civilization..."  I'm not quite sure what the bishop means by that, but surely he doesn't mean that our prehistoric ancestors were forming the types of marital  relationships currently being discussed, does he?

Thankfully, many good and faithful Catholics in Maine seem to be taking to heart their baptismal right as full members of the Church and voicing their disagreement with Bishop Malone. A commentary in the National Catholic Reporter quotes the bishop as stating, "'that it is the doctrine of the Catholic church -- not my personal opinion — that all Catholics are obligated to oppose legal recognition of same-sex marriage.'" (Though not cited, this apparently appeared in a September pastoral letter.)  By using the word "doctrine," it appears that Bishop Malone is trying to give greater weight than is due to certain pronouncements from Church leaders. While legitimate questions can be and are being raised about whether the bishop is correct on this point, it is quite clear that the "obligation" Catholics have is that they follow their well-formed consciences, even in matters in which their consciences lead them to conclusions that are different from Church leaders. The matter at hand -- a civil law that recognizes a civil right and in no way infringes on religion or the rights of the Church -- clearly does not by its very nature place Catholics under an obligation to oppose such a law, even if it does not reflect current Church law.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Letter to Bishop Malone of Maine

Richard Malone, the Bishop of Portland (Maine), was on the faculty of St. John's Seminary College when I was a student there in the early 1980's. Fr. Malone was not only an instructor in theology, the college's academic dean, and my own faculty advisor; he was also one of about ten resident priests who shared daily life with the seventy or so seminarians in resident at the college commonly referred to as "St. Clement's." Fr. Malone was generally very well-liked and respected, an excellent teacher, and -- at the time -- considered by most to be open and progressive.

Because Bishop Malone has been in the forefront of efforts to undo the legislative action which expanded the right of civil marriage to same-sex couples, I felt compelled to write to him to express an alternative perspective. Here's my recent letter:

October 18, 2009

Most Rev. Richard J. Malone, Th.D.
Bishop of Portland
510 Ocean Avenue
P.O. 11559
Portland, ME  04104

Dear Bishop Malone,

You may not remember me, but I was one of your students when you were on the faculty of St. John’s Seminary College.  In fact, for one year at least, you were my faculty advisor and helped me to make the most of the educational opportunities provided at St. Clement’s.  When you were appointed Bishop of Portland, I was pleased that a man I had known to be intellectually gifted, theologically balanced, personally affable, fair, reasonable and pastoral would be receiving the miter and crosier and would be in a position not only to shepherd the good people of Maine, but might also have an impact on the wider Church, perhaps counterbalancing the actions of some of your more reactionary brothers in the episcopate.
Earlier this year, however, I was saddened to see a story in The Pilot that highlighted your homily of November 16, 2008.  In that homily, you took issue with Protestant leaders of Maine who publicly support the right of God’s gay and lesbian children to enter into unions that are legally recognized and that guarantee the rights that married heterosexual couples receive.  While I was pleased to read your reiteration of the position that homosexual persons should be respected in their full human dignity, and that homosexual couples should be allowed hospital visitation rights and the right to share health insurance benefits, I’m sure you’re well aware that same-sex couples do not currently have such rights and no mechanism exists to ensure them.  Insurance companies, hospitals, state and federal governments, and even family members who “disapprove” of their relative’s same-sex relationship are all huge obstacles to ensuring that the rights you recognize are respected and honored. 

By most estimates, there are approximately 1,400 specific rights that are automatically accorded to married couples in the U.S. All of these accrue automatically the moment any 18-year old opposites-sex couple says “I do” in a Las Vegas wedding chapel and their marriage is civilly and universally recognized.  Unfortunately, the 80 year old gay or lesbian couple who has lived in a committed and faithful relationship for more than half a century has no such rights. Because they have been denied the rights that come with civil marriage, millions of gay and lesbian couples have been forced to consult expensive attorneys to craft legal documents stipulating their legal wishes in very detailed contracts. Sadly, the bigotry against God’s gay and lesbian children that you claim to disavow has also given rise to attempts in some states to make even such contracts as these illegal.

I am writing to you now because the vote to reconsider the legislation in Maine allowing same-sex couples to marry is coming close. While I harbor no illusions that you will change your mind and come to realize that there is no conflict between your understanding of the official Church’s position on “homosexuality” and the civil law at hand, I nonetheless feel compelled in conscience to ask that you consider doing just that. There is nothing in the legislation allowing same-sex couples to marry that undermines families, that infringes on religious rights, or that hurts society in the way claimed by so many who trade in fear, hatred, and ignorance.

I urge you as the good man I know you to be to consider the grave harm that would be done to God’s gay and lesbian children under your pastoral care if the voters of Maine rescind the legislation that has been a beacon of light for the rest of the nation.  At the core of his ministry, Jesus never sought to exclude, but rather included all those whom society or religion had otherwise discarded.  Please follow His example by not being an obstacle for God’s gay and lesbian children to participate fully in the fundamental human right to form relationships and establish families as they believe God is calling them to do.

In Christ’s Peace,

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Cardinal O'Malley, Senator Kennedy and Changing Hearts

In his blog shortly after the funeral liturgy for the late Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, Boston's Sean Cardinal O'Malley provided reflections in response to the many Catholics who thought that providing the Senator with a Catholic funeral was "scandalous."  For those who fully understand Catholic teaching and even church law on this subject -- not to mention the Gospel of Jesus -- there never was any question whatsoever whether Kennnedy would or should be burried from the Church.

In part, Cardinal O'Malley stated: "We will not change hearts by turning away from people in their time of need and when they are experiencing grief and loss." These are pastoral words from a pastoral heart. These are words that answer with Gospel values the question, "what would Jesus do" in a similar situation.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

"Kansas City-St. Joseph diocese priest criticizes his bishop's leadership" - from NCR

Today's National Catholic Reporter reports, "Father Michael J. Gillgannon, a widely respected missionary priest of the diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, has written an open letter to his bishop, Robert W. Finn, taking strong exception to his leadership...." Read the full story and Fr. Gillgannon's wise and thought-provoking letter.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Marianne Duddy-Burke in Huffington Post

See the commentary in the Huffington Post by Dignity/USA Executive Director Marianne Duddy-Burke on the death of Sen. Ted Kennedy and political leadership for issues of importance to Gay Catholics.

Friday, August 28, 2009

"Let's start at the very beginning..."

One of the most familiar songs from "The Sound of Music" can be used to teach youngsters about the notes on the scale that get "mixed up" to make music.  "Do-Re-Mi" is catchy, fun, and easy to remember. Its opening words -- "Let's start at the very beginning..." -- also have application far beyond music hour at the local elementary school.

Failing to start at the beginning can lead to all sorts of trouble. Anyone who's ever followed a recipe, read a book, or built a house knows this intuitively. Unfortunately, failing to start at the beginning (i.e. the complete beginning) is the fundamental intellectual failure of all those who "oppose homosexuality" and thus oppose any rights, including marriage rights, that society might accord its gay and lesbian citizens. Today's Washington Post has an article about the family-friendly-sounding National Organization for Marriage (NOM) and its apparently likable and talented executive director, Brian Brown (who, by the way, is a devotee of Mass in Latin). As the Post reports, NOM is good at providing its supporters information and talking points that "support" heterosexual marriage, saying that they should avoid speaking about "banning same-sex marriage," and that they should only speak positively about how heterosexual marriage is the way it's always been, and that this is what's best for families, and that there's no reason to change.

Mr. Brown is presented in the Post article as a well-educated and intelligent man (though, he does seem to be ignorant of much of history, with such statements as, "'I think it's irrational that up until 10 years ago, all of these societies agreed with my position" on same-sex marriage,"). Despite such historically sweeping and inaccurate statements, Mr. Brown and those who share his view have the intellectual part of this discussion only half right. The "half right" part is that they do "start at the very beginning" when addressing the lived experience of most of the world's inhabitants who are heterosexual.  All of NOM's arguments that support marriage for straight men and women -- individuals whom God created with an opposite-sex attraction, and all the hormones and urges that come with it -- are perfectly valid for those who are straight.

Their intellectual shortcoming is that they fail to recognize that for those whom God has created gay (and, being an apparently good Catholic, I'm sure Mr. Brown wouldn't suggest that one "chooses" one's sexual orientation), there's a different starting point. Gay men and women are created as such by God.  Same-sex attraction is part of the gay person's very being, in the same way that opposite-sex attraction is in the genes of straight people.

Supporting the rights of gay men and women to form socially-recognized unions, allowing them the same rights and privileges of all heterosexuals, is the only logical and reasonable conclusion one can arrive at if one "starts at the very beginning" of who gay men and women are.  As persons created by God, is not their lived experience just as valid as their straight brothers and sisters?  As persons created in God's image and likeness, isn't it possible that their hopes and dreams, desires and longings, might have something to say to all of us about God's hopes and dreams, desires and longings for His people?

The strugle of gay and lesbian people to have their legitmate relationships fully-recognized by society (and, hopefully one day, by the Church) is a struggle to ensure that the full humanity of all God's children is recognized and supported. The only way this will be achieved is when straight men and women are able to step back and recognize that their gay brothers and sisters don't experience human relationships and interactions in exactly the same way, that for them there is a different starting point, a different beginning. This beginning is not of human creation or will, but is part of the "givenness" of all of us, reflecting the beautiful diversity within humanity that is part of the divine plan.  I pray that Mr. Brown and those who currently share his perspective will come to realize that their gay brothers and sisters have a lived experience that may be different, but that is no less worthy of equal respect and rights within society. 

And, as Maria von Trapp would say, starting at the very beginning is indeed "a very good place to start."

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Directionally Challenged yet Democratic Bishop of Tulsa

Given his recent decision to celebrate the Liturgy with his back to the people in a desire to celebrate the liturgy "Ad Orientem," (i.e. "facing east"), some might think that the current bishop of the diocese of Tulsa, OK would be keen on maintaining hierarchy and status. A recent visit to the diocesan website, however, betrays another picture altogether. In fact, the bishop seems very committed to recognizing the dignity of God's People, he even has refers to all members of his flock as "bishop," having instructed the diocesan webmaster to label every picture of people (including women and children) on the diocesan site with "Our Bishop."  (By the way, the only problem with the bishop's desire to celebrate the Liturgy Ad Orientem in the diocesan cathedral is that Holy Family Cathedral seems to be on a southwest-northeast axis ... oh well!)



Monday, August 24, 2009

Catholicism, Fundamentalism, and the Presences of Christ

Homily for the 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time – August 22/23, 2009
Dignity NoVA/DC

: Jos 24:1-2a, 15-17, 18b; Eph 5:21-32; Jn 6:60-69

I won’t ask for a show of hands, but was anyone just a little bit uncomfortable when we listened to that passage just heard a few moments ago – the passage from Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians in which he says that wives are to be subordinate to their husbands? No doubt that is one of those passages in Scripture that can offend the sensibilities of many of us. In the Gospel passage from John, which continues the long “Bread of Life Discourse” that we have been hearing these past weeks, and in which Jesus previously said his followers must eat his flesh and drink his blood, we hear these followers today saying that these words are hard to accept. For those of us in 21st century America, Jesus could well be speaking about the passage from Ephesians when he asks his followers, “Does this shock you?” While we may not be shocked by more conservative societies around the world displaying their very rigid social norms about how wives and husbands, men and women – as well as young and old, parents and children – are to relate to one another, we are I think just a bit shocked when we hear scripture passages such as this one – and many others like it – which on their face can seem very much out of step with the norms and values that we seek to uphold in a free, democratic and open society, a society which claims to see equal human dignity present in every person.

By drawing our attention to this passage, I intend not to raise for our reflection the particulars of how husbands, wives, spouses should relate to each other; but rather I’d like to say a few words about a bigger issue about who we are as Catholics and how we understand and hold together some of the basic and formative elements that define us as Catholic Christians.

In 1963, the Fathers (and yes, they were all men) of the Second Vatican Council and Pope Paul VI approved and promulgated the first of 4 “Constitutions” of Vatican II. This first constitution—Sacrosanctum Concilium – was The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. Early on in the text, the document identifies four ways in which Christ is present in the Sacred Liturgy. Specifically the document states:

“To accomplish so great a work, Christ is always present in His Church, especially in her liturgical celebrations. [Christ] is present in the sacrifice of the Mass, not only in the person of [the] minister, …but especially under the Eucharistic species. …[Christ] is present in His word, since it is He Himself who speaks when the holy scriptures are read in the Church. [Christ] is present, lastly, when the Church prays and sings, for He promised: "Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them" (Matt. 18:20)”

These four presences – the minister, the Word of Scripture, the Bread and Wine of Eucharist, and the Gathered Assembly – these all speak to the richness of who we are and what we do whenever we gather together “in word and in sacrament.”

Why is this important? Why does it matter that we are conscious of these various ways in which Christ’s presence is known and experienced? Well, I think it’s important – especially in our own day – because we are constantly surrounded by and bombarded with declarations about “what Scripture says” and “the authority of God’s word” and “the Bible says…” Such declarations claim that Scripture is the final authority on all things, and they come very close to home when people claim they are just adhering to “biblical precepts” when they make pronouncements about the sinfulness of homosexuality, or about justifications for war, or about the distribution of the wealth and the world’s resources that keep so many millions in poverty; … and yes… we still hear Scripture used to justify the oppression of women and so many others.

Perhaps you’ve seen that bumper sticker or t-shirt that reads: “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.” This sort of fundamentalism, a fundamentalism that leaves no room for the assent of faith, no room for the human person struggling to balance faith and reason, doubt and certainty; a fundamentalism that in effect denies the presence of Christ in the Gathered Assembly – such fundamentalism is foreign to us as Catholic Christians, and truly foreign to the most traditionalist understandings of Christianity.

Earlier I mentioned Vatican II’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. In that document’s opening paragraph, it states that one of the constitution’s purposes is, “to adapt more suitably to the needs of our own times those institutions which are subject to change.” Let me read that again: “to adapt more suitably to the needs of our own times those institutions which are subject to change.”

Fundamentalists thinks that when it comes to God and religion, nothing is “subject to change.” They dismiss adaptations to the needs of our times as being unfaithful at best, and heretical at worst. And yet, throughout the history of the Church, faithful Christians have struggled with how to live out the truly fundamental, the foundational beliefs of Christianity, the ones that transcend time and place and culture, giving them concrete expression in the context of the times and circumstances in which they found themselves. We saw an example of this just yesterday as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America – the largest Lutheran denomination in the US – voted to lift a ban that effectively required gay and lesbian ministers to be celibate. Their action affirms the loving, committed relationships that gay and lesbian people can and do form and recognized that our understandings about sexuality and human relationships have grown and evolved with the passage of time. As one man quoted in the today’s Washington Post story about the ELCA’s action put it, “We are responding to something that the writers of Scripture could not have understood.”

Applying this same approach to this passage from Ephesians about husbands and wives, isn’t it possible to understand that, even though there may be suggestions of male dominance, influenced by the context of the first-century in which Paul was writing, the real and enduring meaning of this passage is that spouses are to put each other first? Of course it is.

When Jesus saw others leaving because they were not able to hear the deeper meaning of his words within the depths of their hearts, he turned to the Twelve and asked if they were leaving as well. Like Peter and the others, we have come to believe that Jesus is the Son of God, that Jesus does have the words of eternal life. We believe that Jesus is present not only in the Words of Scripture and the Bread and Wine we bless, but that Jesus is also present in each of us and in our community, gathered as we are in His name. Although there may be some who might want us to leave, let us today make our own the words of Peter. Peter said, “Master, to whom should we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Put another way, our response might well be: “You know, Lord, we’re staying with you; we’re not going anywhere.”

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Good for you, Barney!

Homily for the 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time

19th Sunday in Ordinary Time – August 8, 2009
Dignity NoVA

As you know, a new justice to the US Supreme Court was confirmed by the US Senate this past week. Earlier today in fact, Judge Sonia Sotomayor actually took the oath of her new office and become Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the newest member of one world’s most select group of people – one of only nine people who, in our judicial system, have a voice in that Authority which can decide whether existing laws and their applications are or are not consistent with our Constitution. Now, I’m not an attorney or any sort of legal expert, and so it doesn’t matter whether I do agree or don’t agree with her selection and confirmation or what I think about any of the varied legal and other issues that were raised during that process.

What I found fascinating, however, was one of the main reasons – perhaps THE main reason – that was given by many in the Senate who voted against her. In explaining their vote of disapproval, several senators cited what they believe is her commitment to a so-called “empathy” standard and that this would inappropriately sway her one way or another in making sound legal judgments.

As I said, I’m not an attorney, and I don’t know whether it’s appropriate or not for “empathy” to play a role in the making judicial judgments. Nonetheless, this little drama in our national life can provide us an opportunity to think about what exactly empathy is and how it does or does not fit with our own lives. Empathy comes from the Greek – empathes, with its roots em and pathos, meaning feeling, or emotion. As it’s currently defined in English, empathy (according to Merriam Webster) is: “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another [of either the past or present] without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.” Empathy is different from sympathy; although they’re similar and related, empathy has a little bit more of a sense of “I know where you’re coming from,” “I can relate,” “I’ve been there, too.”

In today’s second reading from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, we hear very clear and explicit guidance on how the followers of Jesus – members of the Christian community – are called upon to act and to treat not only one another, but all others. Even though the specific word “empathy” is not used here, it certainly is consistent with that list of Christian virtues about which Paul writes – kindness, compassion, tenderness, forgiveness. As followers of Jesus, Paul reminds us that we are not to be characterized by bitterness, by anger, by shouting at one another and having malice toward others, as I’m sure we all feel like, on occasion. Similarly, I’m sure we’ve all felt like Elijah does – like throwing in the towel and calling it a day. Even though he has just successfully defeated the prophets of Baal and demonstrated that the God of Israel is indeed the one true God, nonetheless Elijah is dejected and worn out as others are trying to have him killed.

Now, I don’t know about you, but for me it’s not always easy to be kind and compassionate, to be upbeat and positive. It’s not always easy in the day to day lives that we live to go on with the journey of life that God has given us. I’m from New England, and I’m what you might call your typical “Boston driver.” For some reason, all the patience I have goes out the window when I’m driving and dealing with other drivers who – from my perspective (!), would probably be much happier walking or taking public transportation! I'm sure many of us would rather not have to deal with certain colleagues, acquaintances, neighbors, or others with whom we interact with regularly.

Likewise, I’m sure that each of you can easily call to mind someone with whom you occasionally get angry or frustrated; perhaps someone you’ve even had words with and shouted at. I’m sure you’re aware of those situations which cause you to be less than patient, less than kind, less than understanding and compassionate.

Today’s readings not only remind us of how we are called as followers of Jesus to be in the world and to act toward one another, they also remind us how we are able to do this. Left to our own devices, who knows what our lives and our world would look like. But as followers of Jesus, as ones who believe that God so loved the world that God took on our very humanity, our flesh and our bones to become, as we say, “One like us in all things but sin,” we are nourished and strengthened every time we come together in prayer to break bread and share in the Eucharist.

The sacramentality of our Catholic Christianity is perhaps most characterized by the Eucharist. This is what we DO as Catholic Christians … we gather together, we listen over and over to the stories that have formed us, we break bread and share the cup, and by doing so are not only nourished and strengthened to live as Paul encourages us, but we in fact become that which we celebrate. We become Christ’s living presence in the world, in every contact with the incompetent driver, in every encounter with the frustrating colleague, the troublesome neighbor, the aggravating person in the grocery store checkout line. John reminds us, in the words of Jesus: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.” It is indeed our prayer and our hope that not only will our sharing in this same Bread from heaven bring us to the fullness of eternal life, but that we can in some small way be the living presence of Jesus in our world – a world in which just a little more empathy probably wouldn’t be such a bad thing.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Fighting Bigots in DC

Submitted the following in response to the article in today's Washington Post on possible referendum re: same-sex marriage in D.C.

Dr. Lenora Cole and Mr. Charles Lowery, Jr.
Members, Board of Elections and EthicsGovernment of the District of Columbia
One Judiciary Square
441 4th Street NW
Suite 250 North
Washington, DC 20001

Dear Dr. Cole and Mr. Lowery,

My name is Tim MacGeorge, and I am a resident of and registered voter in the District of Columbia. I have lived in Washington, DC for almost sixteen years.

I am writing to ask you not to allow a referendum to be placed on the ballot asking voters to decide whether the District of Columbia should recognize the legal marriages of same-sex couples performed in other jurisdictions or whether same-sex couples should be allowed to be legally married in the District.

While I recognize that on one level, this request goes against one of the principles of a democratic society, namely that "the people" rule and that "the majority" usually prevail. However, allowing such a referendum could possibly lead -- as it did in California -- to the violation of another principle of a democratic society that requires limitations to be placed on the "tyranny of the majority," lest the rights of the minority be trampled underfoot. This second principle must always supersede the first, and our history as nation bears this out. While there have been bleak chapters of our national story in which the rights of some were denied due to the color of their skin, the religion they professed, the gender/sex with which they were created, or other characteristics that define them as persons, we have come a long way as a society in ensuring that people are judged for what they do, and not who they are. Those who seek this referendum fail to recognize the truths about gay men and women, notably that sexual orientation is a given, not a choice; that gay men and women are good, productive members of society; and that gay men and women deserve the same rights to their committed relationships currently afforded married heterosexual couples. Allowing this referendum will afford these individuals, many of whom do not even reside in the District of Columbia and should have no standing whatsoever to bring such a request, to begin a campaign of fear and misinformation that perpetuates so many lies that minorities have always been subjected to.

I make this request as a Christian, as a man who was ordained as a Catholic priest.... I have heard all my life the so-called "Christian" or "biblical" arguments against homosexuality. In fact, I cannot recall ever hearing an "argument against homosexuality" that was not at its root religiously based. These arguments are frail, flimsy, and are easily discarded within the context of a legitimate and honest theological discussion.

Your task, however, is not based on theology. It is based on the law and whether or not such a referendum will advance the cause of justice within the District of Columbia. As citizens of the District of Columbia, we know all too well what it is like not to have full rights within a democracy. Such a referendum will more likely advance the cause of hatred and bigotry and injustice, and continue to keep a segment of our society "less free" than others. I urge you not to allow this referendum to move forward.


Saturday, May 23, 2009

"There is something radically wrong ..."

"...with the institutional Catholic Church."

That sentiment, expressed by Fr. Thomas Doyle in a National Catholic Reporter commentary on the recent report about decades-long abuse of children by clergy, brothers and sisters in Catholic-run institutions in Ireland, is nothing new to many of us who have lived both inside and outside the walls of clerical life.

While U.S. Bishops spend their pastoral energies condemning Notre Dame University for inviting the President of the United States to speak at its commencement, or organizing letter-writing campaigns to lobby against the recognition of the right to marry civilly for same-sex couples, the Church -- the People of God -- continue to be ignored and ill-treated.

Where I attend Mass regularly, there's a man who offers a frequent prayer when the community is invited to voice its own "Prayers of the Faithful." Today especially, I make his prayer for "new and enlightened leadership in the Church" my own.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

"Friends by God's smile...."

Yesterday I received a brief, handwritten note in the mail. In this Internet age of email, text messaging and other forms of instant communication, what a wonderful feeling it is to see a hand-addressed envelope in the mail, amidst the bills and junk mail and advertising flyers.

As I opened the envelope and read its contents, I saw it was a response to a letter I had written recently to a former seminary professor, a man I've always thought of not only as a brilliant academic with the heart of a poet, but one of the most Christ-like men I've ever known, a living saint whose joy is infectious. In part, he wrote: "We're friends by God's smile and grace forever. I give him thanks."

Monday, March 23, 2009

Homily for the Fourth Sunday of Lent (B)

Readings: 2 Chr 36:14-16, 19-23; Ps 137:1-2, 3, 4-5, 6; Eph 2:4-10 ; Jn 3:14-21

Fourth Sunday of Lent
Dignity/NoVA (March 21, 2009)

To be honest, I feel a little less prepared standing before you this weekend than I usually do. I say that not because I haven’t had time to look over the scriptures we just heard, not because I haven’t been able to think about them, to reflect on them, to study them, and pray about them. No, I say that because even with the attention I’ve given them over the past week or so … there’s something about them that I’m not quite sure I “get.” And so I struggle with coming to a “conclusion” about what the real message of today’s Scriptures is. In fact, I struggle with that because I see in the passages we just heard – the first reading from the Book of Chronicles, and then the two New Testament passages from Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians and the Gospel of John – I see a real tension and conflict. It’s a tension that conveys different understandings of God and how God and humanity interact.

Let me say more about what I mean by that.

In the reading from Chronicles, we hear briefly about how the Chosen People, the Israelites, have essentially not been following God’s Law. The passage starts off by stating explicitly that the leaders (both political and religious) as well as all the people have been guilty of “abominations” and unfaithfulness, adding “infidelity to infidelity.” They ignored divine messenger after divine messenger, not heeding God’s word and call. And so, in response to this, the author of Chronicles tells us that God’s anger is roused and God allows the Chosen People to be attacked, to be conquered and to be sent into what is called the Babylonian Exile. This sort of dynamic is very familiar to our human lives – namely the dynamic that Behaviors have Consequences. In my work we provide information to parents whose children have certain challenges – and the ideas of Behavioral Interventions are based on this fundamental concept. One approach to this even uses the simple concept of ABC – antecedent, behavior, consequence. A small child has been told that the stove is hot and not to touch it; for whatever reason (curiosity? obstinacy?), the child touches the stove and immediately experiences the consequence of a painful burn. Even as adults we know that the things we do or say, our actions and inactions – these all can have consequences (sometimes severe) of how others relate to and interact with us.

And so on one level, we’re not surprised when we see this very human dynamic played out and mirrored in Humanity’s encounter with the Divine. The Chosen People were told how they should act and behave (the Antecedent); they chose not to follow God’s Law as the prophets revealed (the Behavior); and so God’s anger is stirred up and they are carted off into exile (the Consequence).

When we move to our two New Testament readings, however, we get a very different picture. The love and mercy that Paul speaks of isn’t offered because humanity has acted well, has followed God’s Law and is deserving of this Divine Reward. No, Paul states that “even when we were dead in our transgressions,” it was the freely given love and grace of God that restored humanity to life. Twice we hear the phrase, “by grace you have been saved.” Grace – the freely given gift of God’s very self – is not a consequence of our human behavior. If it is a “consequence” at all, it is a consequence of God’s own Nature – the Divine who brings us into being, who sustains us in this life, and who calls us to joy and happiness in eternal life.

And so we have these different and apparently contradictory perspectives of how God and Humanity interact. How, then, are we to resolve them? A bit of an answer can be found, I think in the Gospel passage from John.

In speaking to Nicodemus, we hear Jesus speak of those very simple yet profound images of Darkness and Light. Just a few sentences before we’re told that Nicodemus came to Jesus “at night” – highlighting the fact that he was a man whose faith had not yet been fully formed and setting the stage for later on in the Gospel when Nicodemus will encounter Jesus in the Daylight, symbolically signaling his growth in faith. John tell us that the person of faith – the one who lives “in the Light” – that person’s “works” are therefore seen to be good and as “done in God.” So – it seems – that there really isn’t a contradiction here, but simply a change in order. God’s gift of grace is not the consequence of or reward for good human behavior – it’s the other way around. Despite the fact that we still even in our own day hear “Christian” preachers and others proclaim that natural and human disasters are God’s wrath visited on humanity because of some perceived “sin” that didn’t fit in with their worldview or understanding of God – as in the case of HIV/AIDS and even Hurricane Katrina – the Christian perspective reminds us boldly that this is not the case. Because we strive to be people of faith, because we strive to have hearts and minds open to God’s free gifts already given – it’s because of this that we then also seek to do good works that are “done in God.” It’s the gift of faith that impels us to do good things.

Our task this Lenten season is to challenge our purely human way of thinking. As long as we continue to think that it’s our actions that cause God to love us, to care for us, to reward us with salvation – as long as we continue to have a purely human perspective on the Divine-Human interaction, then I think we will still be “in exile” in some form or another. Only when we are able to let go of the perspective that tells us we somehow deserve God’s love (or, conversely, God’s punishment) and are able simply to accept God’s love and mercy and grace as the pure gifts that they are … only then will we be freed enough truly to live in the light; only then will we be able to live and act and work like the Children of God we already are.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

An Eye for Two Eyes

An Iranian court has ruled that a man found guilty of burning, disfiguring, and blinding a woman whom he believed spurned his romantic affections should himself be blinded in one eye with a drops of the same acid he poured on his victim. Despite her protestations to the contrary, what Ameneh Bahrami sought and has now been granted is nothing but revenge, plain and simple.

Although my knowledge and experience of Islam is minimal, my general perspective is to be open-minded when I hear devout Muslims express their conviction that theirs is a religion of love, justice and peace.

It's hard to hold that perspective, however, when so called "Islamic law" allows for this kind of "justice." In such a system -- one where this type of retribution (called "qisas") is enforced and where a woman is seen as half the value of a man -- how long long would it be before the whole world is blind? Is this the kind of world The Prophet envisioned? I pray not.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Thought for the day ....

"If there are no just people, then there can be no justice." -- from the Vatican's press statement (27 Feb 09) summarizing Benedict XVI's comments on the current economic crisis.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

Homily Delivered at Dignity NoVA and DC (February 21 and 22, 2009)

Reading 1 Is 43:18-19, 21-22, 24b-25
Reading II 2 Cor 1:18-22
Gospel Mk 2:1-12

When I read this passage from Mark that we have for today's Gospel, I found this story particularly moving. It comes early in Mark’s Gospel, at the beginning of the second chapter; and it relates the 4th in a series of 4 healings that Jesus performs and about which Mark writes.
  1. The first was the man with an “unclean spirit” whom Jesus healed on the Sabbath;

  2. Next, Jesus healed Simon’s mother-in-law, who lay ill with a fever and whom Jesus healed simply by helping her up and without uttering a word;

  3. And third was a leper who knelt before Jesus and begged to be healed by saying, “if You wish, you can make me clean”; and of course, Jesus does wish this, and so heals him of his leprosy.

And so as I read this fourth and final healing about the paralitic, three things came to mind, and these are the three things I would offer to us very briefly as we reflect for a few moments on the Scriptures on this Sunday before the beginning of Lent. Those three things are Friendship, Faith, and Forgiveness.

Friendship plays such a key role in how this paralyzed man comes to Jesus. Because of his physical condition, he clearly is not able to walk and so is not only dependent on others to get around – but is probably dependent on others for so many other things in life as well. Although there is no mention of his family, he obviously has friends – people in his life who care for and love him. And it is some of these friends who literally carry the man to Jesus’ home. In this same story in Matthew and Luke, they use the term “bed,” … but Mark says he is carried “on a mat” – suggesting more clearly that this man is poor and of low social status. And so these friends, determined as they are, not only bring him to Jesus, but go to what seem to be great lengths by opening up the roof and lowering their friend down so that they can lay him at Jesus’ feet.

And what it is that drives these persistent friends to do what they do? Faith – faith told them that their paralyzed friend simply needed to be close to Jesus and something wonderful would happen. One commentator I read noted that the Greek word that is here translated as “faith” also connotes “loyalty.” These loyal, faithful friends are persistent in what they know they must do. Notice that none of them – neither the friends nor the paralyzed man – say anything. Their faith is expressed not in words, but in action It’s not expressed in anything they say, but is clearly shown in what they do! Their persistence and loving action in reaching their goal speaks volumes. And seeing their faith in what they do …. Jesus responds!

And how does Jesus respond? At first, in a somewhat surprising way. Jesus responds by speaking of Forgiveness. As I mentioned, this is the last Sunday before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of the Lenten Season – those forty days before the celebration of the Sacred Triduum, during which time our attention is annually drawn to a deeper self-reflection, contemplation of our faults and shortcomings, but more importantly to the forgiveness that God never fails to extend to us, no matter how many times we sin or “miss the mark.” In the healing of the paralytic, the physical healing that Jesus gives to this man is actually secondary, offered only in response to what Jesus knows is in the hearts of the religious leaders present. Initially, what Jesus offers is even more important than bodily healing … and that’s the spiritual healing that comes when he says, “Child, your sins are forgiven.”

As Christians and disciples of Jesus, we certainly are called to come before God and seek that forgiveness that brings wholeness to the totality of who we are. But our faith asks more than that. Our faith invites us not only to be the recipients of forgiveness, but also agents of forgiveness. After all, isn’t that what Reconciliation is all about? Our faults and failings certainly separate us from God in a spiritual sense, but our real-life, daily conflicts separate us from one another in a very tangible, deeply felt way. It is these un-reconciled conflicts which may not cause physical paralysis, but which have the power – if we let them – of paralyzing our hearts and souls and which get in the way of our forming deep bonds of friendship and community and are stumbling blocks in our building a world of justice and peace.

Our contemporary understanding of “conflict resolution” tells us that it is more often the injured party – the one who has been hurt – who has the power to take the first step in the process of reconciliation, forgiveness, and healing. And so as we prepare to enter the Season of Lent, perhaps this is a good time for us to reflect on how well we have been open not only to receiving forgiveness in our own lives when we have harmed others, but also extending it outward beyond ourselves when we have been harmed.
  • Is there a forgiveness or hand of reconciliation that we as individuals have failed to extend to someone who has hurt us?

  • Even, dare I say, is there a forgiveness or hand or reconciliation that we as a Dignity community have failed to extend to the institutional Church that continues to be hurtful toward us?
Isaiah reminds us how God fervently desires NOT to remember our sins, not to be burdened by the sins of long ago. God – Who makes all things new – wants us to live in the present and remember not the transgressions of the past. This is the life giving and healing forgiveness that God offers us. As faithful followers of Jesus, shouldn’t we be willing do the same?