More Catholic Reflections

I had the good fortune of reading this today. Here are some initial reactions, before the kids wake up and I have to make breakfast.

First and foremost, I can’t thank Bishop Robert C. Morlino enough for saying what he did. There’s a growing tide of ugliness in Catholicism and other religion, one that saps any of the love, warmth, charity, generosity, forgiveness, or open-heartedness at its core, or which characterizes mature believers of any faith.

It’s a tide which turns personal and political differences into moral and religious ones. In the process, it ends up injecting a lethal dose of self-assuredness and self-righteousness into just about any discussion. There’s no quicker way to kill a conversation than to have a party to it think they have all the answers or keep reaching for the last word.

This is a tide which has people denouncing the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy even now, days after his death, for his admittedly egregious personal failings. It has them continuing to spit on him and his memory, even as they go to church and claim allegiance to a movement which proclaims universal love.

The good Bishop fights that tide admirably, particularly with words as well-chosen as these:

I’m afraid…that for not a few Catholics, the funeral rites for Senator Kennedy were a source of scandal — that is, quite literally, led them into sin. From not a few corners has come the question, “how on earth could Teddy Kennedy be buried from the Church?” There have also been expressions from some, that “whatever happens in Church, Senator Kennedy will now face justice, which will lead him inside the gates of Hell.”

From the earliest days of the Church it was defined as sinful to enjoy the thought that someone might be in Hell. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit worked powerfully through history so that Hell could be avoided by the proper exercise of human freedom, and to take delight in the perceived foiling of God’s plan is wrong.” [emphasis mine]

That, dear reader is how a pastor speaks. It is not the speech of a member of the Taliban (ours or anyone else’s).

Unfortunately, for many good Catholic clergy and laity, the kind of love spoken by the Bishop is reserved for those who agree with them on issues like the ordination of women, sexuality, and abortion. The latter has especially become a cause célèbre among Catholics (and others) who would reduce membership in the communion to a willingness to agree to the criminalization of abortion.

You see, I think it is precisely this kind of narrowing with regard to the Church that is at the head of that powerful tide I’m speaking of. This tide, moreover, is not just confined to Catholicism. It infects the political discourse of our nation, turning political differences into moral ones, and fanning the worst flames of bigotry in the process.

Those flames can very easily burn our society down, literally as well as figuratively, if we let them. I also think comments like the good Bishop’s point the way towards mitigating the problem.

The tide I’m speaking of is mean-spirited and exclusivist in nature. That is to say, it’s a way of giving voice to our natural human tendencies towards states of distaste, displeasure, anger, hostility, and judgmentalism. In so doing, it focuses much more – at times recklessly – on the differences between people rather than what they have in common.

This tide specifically valorizes discussions over who gets to be called Catholic or American at the expense of those about what it might mean to be a Catholic or an American.

Now I think when it comes to politics, questions like these are fine. With regard to religion, however, there’s a real spiritual risk. When you engage in these kinds of authenticity games with your religion, you risk reducing it to a political movement.

Put another way, when questions of membership take precedence over the message of the religion in question, it ceases to be a religion. It instead becomes a political party, and one of the worst kind: one that claims the exclusive support of God.

It’s gotten so bad that, for many Catholics I speak to, not only are those who disagree with them on criminalizing abortion not good Catholics, they’re not good people. And if you love this country, it’s hard to see someone as both a good person and a good American. Thus an almost impregnable moral wall gets erected between them and those who disagree with them on things like abortion.

This, incidentally, is the very wall that allows some clergy to shamelessly deny the Host to those with whom they disagree on abortion. I cannot begin to describe my own personal revulsion over this practice; it astonishes me that someone like me (see below) can have more reverence for what Catholics consider to be the body and blood of their Lord than some priests and bishops.

But its not just a matter of mere carelessness with the Body of Christ, however. What’s happening right now to the Catholic Church and many Christian denominations is nothing short of their deliberate hijacking into the service of the Republican Party.

Someone, somewhere, some time ago got the brilliant idea to channel the profound anxiety in the US over social change in general — immigration and Civil Rights for blacks, women, and gays in particular — into outrage over the practice of abortion, and use that carefully cultivated indignation to catapult individuals of their choosing into public office.

It’s a sweet deal for all concerned. Conservative Catholic clergy get people in positions of power and prominence to make public policy decisions in line with their interpretation of the Gospel, and the GOP gets a reliable bloc of voters to turn out on election day. Time will tell if Obama’s election represents a temporary setback, defeat, or even public repudiation of that strategy.

For a lot of people, especially clergy, the biggest scandal or “lost opportunity” of Teddy Kennedy’s life was his failure to hew to the official Catholic position on abortion. For me, it was one of his shining virtues to be able to stand up to those very high-placed Church officials who deliberately place the issue of abortion not just at the center, but as the whole of the Catholic experience.

Whether or not those officials know what they’re doing is not my call to make (I think some of them do). However, the results of what they’re doing is staggering: the purging of countless Catholics from the Church by alienating them from the Mass and other sacraments, simply to make a political point.

Teddy Kennedy stood for a much more open-minded and inclusive Catholicism, one that took the Gospel of Matthew aa seriously as others take Leviticus, and never questioned God’s love for those who have fallen short of our own laws or God’s. This is a Catholicism guided by concerns for a social justice that never excluded abortion but never made a position on it the condition for membership in the Communion, either.

The lesson of Teddy’s life, for me, is that there is a way to be a Catholic of conscience even when you disagree on the strongest of possible terms with the political direction your Church is taking. It speaks to going against the very tide I’m talking about, especially when you’re fighting so many of your fellow Catholics and Church officials in the process of remaining Catholic.

For me, whether or not to criminalize abortion is a political, specifically a public policy matter, not a religious or spiritual one. Those of the Catholic faith risk reducing the Gospel – the Word of God for Catholics – into a set of marching orders when we say, in word or deed, that one cannot be Catholic if one opposes abortion in any way other than to work to make those who perform, obtain, or support them into criminals.

This is a message which, had I heard it ten years ago, might have kept me from leaving the Church into which I was born and which, I have to say, I miss dearly.


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