Will the Church be truly catholic?
New York City — The synod convened by Pope Francis at the Vatican has been generating both excitement and anger, with its preliminary report on how to treat gay men and women, couples who cohabit without a Church-sanctioned marriage and are said to be “living in sin,” and those who have divorced.
While the 12-page report points out that the traditional teachings of the Church on marriage are not being forsaken, it advocates a more positive approach and a relatively welcoming tone towards those it had once castigated as being wayward sheep. I suppose they are still seen as such, but now are being wooed back to the fold, or at the very least a hold has been put on language that alienates—the judgmental tone Rome has always favored.
A key declaration of this preliminary report stated that gays and lesbians possess “gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community,” that among them are those who offer “mutual aid to the point of sacrifice” and “precious support in the life of partners.”
Concerning the matter of whether those who have divorced and remarried outside the Church may receive Holy Communion, the report noted that the church hierarchy was split on this matter, but that nevertheless the institution should treat them respectfully, “avoiding language or behavior that might make them feel discriminated against.”
Even if Church doctrine preaches that marriage is indissoluble, in practice it in fact is, as long as a couple has the time and the money to afford the tedious and expensive process leading to an official annulment by the Church of said marriage. This is a solution only the moneyed can avail of, and certainly discriminates against those who lack the wherewithal to shoulder the fees.
Is this Vatican II redux? Vatican II was about the renewal of Church doctrine at the same time that it recognized the need for liturgical changes that would accommodate modernity and the Church’s various constituents. The use of local languages rather than Latin to say the Mass in, and having the celebrant face the congregation rather than having his back to them, are some of the welcome changes introduced by Vatican II.
Will the gathering of bishops be as groundbreaking as the gathering called by Papa John in 1962? Luis Cardinal Tagle of Manila certainly seems to think so, and said at a news conference that a few of the bishops at the synod felt the “spirit” of Vatican II, and that the report would be a map going forward so bishops can “see what needs to be deepened, what needs to be clarified, and what other things should yet be raised, which we have not yet raised.
Naturally these changes, not at all fundamental, deeply disturb the conservative bishops. One such is the American prelate Raymond Cardinal Leo Burke, who described the reorienting implied by the preliminary report as “worrying,” and that such tendencies support “the possibility of adopting a practice that deviates from the truth of the faith.” What that truth is he leaves undefined though he surely means what and how the church has traditionally presented it, and that is as a decree-issuing patriarchy: that sexuality is proper only when heterosexual and even then expressed only within the sacrosanct boundaries of marriage. From this point of view, it’s all about a legalistic interpretation, a narrowing if you will, of the human spirit so that love and compassion lack a presence.
The fear isn’t so much about love being expressed in a manner that contradicts heterosexual emphasis, though there is that, but the diminution of power that a patriarchy holds. Once one’s sexual orientation and who one loves become irrelevant to one’s faith, once it is accepted that a gay man and a lesbian can be as fervent and God-fearing believers, and even as close-minded, as the devout heterosexual kneeling beside them in a church, then other constraints are inevitably loosened.
Gender bias that now relegates women to second-class citizenship will sooner or later be regarded as anachronistic, and the way paved for women to serve as priests, all the way up to becoming the head of the Roman Catholic Church. In sum, to the imperial conservatives who have dominated church discourse forever, the friendlier, gentler voice portends a very slippery slope.
What strikes me in this report, as warm and friendly as it is, is that it reeks of condescension. Why should what one does with what one has between one’s legs diminish or increase one’s spiritual capabilities? How different is the statement that queer folk have “gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community,” from “For a ______________ (place here any person of color) he or she is pretty smart”?
Still, it is a welcome beginning, and one that may eventually lead the Church hierarchs to realize that if the institution is to be truly built on love and respect, irrespective of gender and sexual longing, if it wishes to be truly catholic, then the stereotyping of roles needs to be excised from its approach to the world.
Copyright L.H. Francia 2014
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