"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)

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.