Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Holy Things for the Holy: Debate about the Sacrament of Marriage among Catholics Today

Garry Wills writes in the New York Review of Books that marriage is a "natural" institution and a natural union that was sacramentalized only late in the history of the Christian churches, when the secular state, which had previously regulated this natural institution, began to fall apart (as the Roman Empire fell apart, that is), and the church began picking up the pieces.

At National Catholic Reporter, Michael Sean Winters fulminates in response, accusing Wills of denying the sacramentality of Christian marriage (and its foundations in Jewish scripture and culture) for maleficent reasons that he ought perhaps to take up with his confessor.  

At his Spiritual Politics blog site, Mark Silk, who is Winters's friend, counters Winters, suggesting that his friend has "gone a bit overboard" and misunderstands Wills's primary point, which is to challenge the claim of conservative Catholics and the magisterium that their "preferred sexual norms," which have grown up over the course of history and are not carved into the stone of biblical revelation, are perennial. Unquestionable and unchangeable.  (On these points, see Vincent Browne's magnificent rejoinder to the theologically preposterous claims of Archbishop Diarmuid Martin about marriage and the bible in the Irish Times today.)

Wills is correct in the points he makes, and I think Silk takes his points accurately.  For my part, I'd frame the discussion somewhat differently.  What I'd note is that those Catholics--including Winters and other conservative Catholics, along with the magisterium--who want to exclude gay and lesbian Catholics from the sacrament of marriage are eroding the sacramental principle that is central to the Catholic church's self-understanding and its mission in the world.  And in defending the sacrament of marriage from the gays, they're actually significantly weakening the claims of the church about its sacramental role in the scheme of redemption.  They're weakening the ability of the church to be an effective sacramental sign of God's all-embracing salvific love in the world.

Behind the sacramental system, behind the individual sacraments and arguments about when and how they were instituted in the church, there is the sacramentality of the people of God as a community keeping alive and conveying the salvific memory of Jesus in the world.  Behind the individual sacraments, there is the sacramental principle itself--the call of the church to be an effective sacramental sign in the world of God's universal salvific love for all human beings.

In recent years, one Catholic voice after another has been raised, including my voice and that of my partner Steve, to testify about the very serious harm the Catholic magisterium and conservatives like Winters who defend it implicitly are doing to their gay and lesbian brothers and sisters in the Christian community.  And to the gay and lesbian citizens of communities around the world.

Many of us--Steve and I included--have repeatedly testified to the way in which the leaders of our Catholic community and those who defend them have broken our lives, disrupted our vocations within the Christian community, made our economic and social lives precarious, shored up familial prejudices and hostilities that make us miserable, reduced us to the level of human dirt via teachings that define us in our very nature as intrinsically disordered, and excluded us from both Christian and human community.  As if we are not even there.  As if our human lives simply do not matter.

As if we do not experience severe pain from having had our lives broken in this way--our unique lives, which we will not have a chance to live again at this moment of history, before a moment arrives (and we hope for this) in which people of faith stop doing this to some human beings simply because they are gay.  And because they insist on acknowledging their God-given nature.  And forming stable, loving marital unions with those to whom they commit their lives.

Many of us have provided abundant testimony in recent years about the damage Catholic teaching regarding homosexuality has set in motion in our lives, and about the malice practiced in the name of Christ by many members of the Catholic community towards us, and the effects of that malice on us.  Our testimony is not heeded--neither by the pastoral leaders of the church, nor by the powerful media commentariat that claims to speak on behalf of the magisterium in the public square, who are perfectly willing to collude in the dehumanizing charade at the heart of the magisterium's abuse of us, which pretends we are simply not there.  And that our testimony about what Catholic homophobia does to us is illegitimate, since it proceeds from imaginary places and imaginary lives that are, after all, unnatural, disordered, and motivated by ill-will towards God and the church.

At the bottom of the defense of the institution of marriage and the attempt to hedge that institution around with barriers to gay Catholics lies a theologically unsound assumption that the sacraments are holy things to be guarded from the unholy.  The accent in what I have just written lies on the word "things."  The sacraments are, we're told by their present defenders, holy things that should remain exclusively in the hands of certain holy men to allocate to their brothers and sisters in Christ, in a way that rewards the compliant and the meek and punishes the disobedient and unholy.

This approach to the sacraments undermines their meaning, their holiness, what they claim to be about and what they do in the world and in the Christian community.  Instead of underscoring the holiness of the sacraments as vehicles of grace--of God's universal salvific love in the created world--this approach to the sacraments turns the sacraments into objects, into things.  Into rewards dispensed to the compliant, and punishments insofar as they're withheld from the disobedient.

Michael Sean Winters and other conservative Catholics who defend the magisterium from any and all critique, no matter how theologically valid, may well go on pretending that growing numbers of Catholics and growing numbers of people outside the church don't find this approach to sacramental life abhorrent.  The fact is, more and more Catholics absolutely reject this approach to the sacraments and are forgoing the sacraments altogether because the price tag with which these rewards now come from the hands of the holy men who claim unique ownership of them is too high.

That price tag requires us to engage in a game of pretending that the bishops and Vatican are preeminent defenders of human rights, of the poor, the weak, and the vulnerable, even as they savage the humanity of gay and lesbian human beings and do everything in their power to strip rights from gay and lesbian human beings whose lives are already, in many places in the world, made miserable and precarious due to a lack of respect, dignity, and human rights.  Because increasing numbers of Catholics now know and love someone who is openly gay, and because they are, through their Catholic faith, committed to defending and reaching out to those on the social margins, many Catholics refuse now to keep paying the price of pretending that goes along with the sacramental system, as it's presently configured in the Catholic church.

Leaving the holy things safeguarded by holy hands for a dwindling number of people willing to play the let's-pretend game: let's pretend that the hands dispensing the sacraments really are uniquely holy; let's pretend that there is no other access to God's salvific love in the world than via the holy things dispensed sacramentally by those holy hands.  And, above all, let's pretend that the gays don't exist.  And that our approach to them is not deeply harmful to them.  And that they have no right to be heard when they try to offer testimony about what the Catholic community is doing to their lives, via some of its chief spokesmen.  

And that not a whit of this has anything to do with the claims we make about being the preeminent defenders of human rights and of the weak and vulnerable in the world.  Or about the sacramental claims on which the entire raison d'être of our sacramental church is based.

P.S. The fact that many of those playing these toxic let's-pretend games designed to shred the humanity of their gay brothers and sisters are themselves closeted gay clergy, or gay men standing with these closeted  clerics and refusing to stand in solidarity with their gay brothers and sisters (or their own gay selves), makes the games even more toxic.  For the whole church.  Certainly for those of us who are the object of the games.

But, also, I daresay, most of all for gay folks playing these toxic Catholic games, whose souls have to be corroded by the game-playing and lying.  As Hegel long ago noted, the slave has the advantage over her  master, in that nothing the master does can convince the slave that she lacks humanity.  While the master dehumanizes himself completely by assuming what is false: that he can own another human being.  And he is dehumanized all the more because he is unaware of his dehumanization in this process--because he is puffed up by his illusion that he stands above and beyond the humanity of those he "owns."

As I say, these master-slaves games played out in contemporary culture with gay folks have to be toxic and corrosive to the souls of the closeted Catholics playing them.  I hope, for the sake of their souls, that they're dealing with all of this with their confessors.

For the graphic and its context, see this 22 Nov. 2009 posting at the Brainpuddle blog site.

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