Friday, August 1, 2008

On Consulting the Wisdom of the Faithful: Towards a Truly Pastoral Church

Today is the funeral of Steve’s father.

Yesterday, at the wake, the priest (who for several years gave Marriage Encounter workshops with Steve’s parents) said, “John reminded me of St. Francis’s famous saying about preaching: ‘Preach always. If necessary, use words’.”

That statement really does sum up Steve’s father John’s life as a follower of Jesus. He preached always. He seldom used words to do so.

He was a giant of a man, intimidating because of his height and large frame. A cousin of Steve’s told me yesterday she had always been a bit afraid of her uncle John, when she came to babysit the children of the family. He was so large, he filled the kitchen up, she said.

Years later, when she told him about how intimidated she was by his height, he laughed. In the almost forty years I knew him, I never once heard him raise his voice in anger. He provided leadership in his family and community quietly, far more by doing than by saying.

Like many German Catholic farm families in the upper Midwest, this was a family that hewed strictly to the church’s principle of being fruitful and multiplying. In previous generations, the farms needed the labor of many hands. Having 10 or more children made economic sense, in the world of pre-high tech agriculture. And when some children weren’t suited for farm work or perhaps for marriage, religious life and the priesthood provided a tried and true option.

Now, things are radically different. The world in which the large farm families made perfect sense is gone. With the mechanization of farms, fewer hands are needed to farm even larger tracts of land.

The shift in how land is farmed, and in the cultural context supporting the family farm, makes for a massive transition in how families live their lives. Now, when religious life and the priesthood are not attractive options for those who have a different optic or calling, more and more children drift away—to the cities, to ways of living far different from the single option their upbringing pointed them to.

When families breed prolifically for generations, they are, of course, also likely to have a certain percentage of gay or lesbian children. One of the interesting and often unacknowledged consequences of the Catholic procreative ethic is that it naturally results in the birth of children who are gay or lesbian.

In the past, these children often became “bachelor farmers,” if they were male, sometimes living together with other “bachelor farmers” in living arrangements that must have been obvious to their communities, but were never pried into. When they didn’t choose this option, they often joined religious communities or the priesthood.

Today, they are frequently more open about their identity—because they have the option to recognize this identity and claim it, to live it more or less openly. Those who go to the cities can live in public gay relationships, without fear of censure or reprisal. Increasingly, those who choose to stay in their communities of origin, perhaps farming the family farm, as a brother of Steve’s has chosen to do, simply live quietly and courageously as openly gay members of their communities, sometimes in public committed relationships.

For the obituary and funeral program, Steve’s family chose to print the names of the partners of the sons who are gay. Doing this represents a significant social shift in the way middle America handles the fact that gay sons and daughters, gay brothers and sisters, are to be found in every family.

Steve’s father was part of that shift, in his own quiet, solid way. He might well have chosen to rail against the two sons who “chose” to be gay. He might have excluded them. Some members of his family who believe their Catholicism is the correct and pure form of a Catholicism that has become attenuated in the practice of others actively promoted the exclusion option.

Steve’s father chose not to listen to the advice of those family members. He didn’t argue. He refused to fight. He simply acted what he believed: he included; he welcomed; he accepted; he affirmed. He loved.

On the next-to-last visit we made to Steve’s parents, in November 2007, we wanted to surprise the parents. We let some of Steve’s siblings know we were coming to visit, but didn’t tell his mother and father.

This was a time in which our lives had been made exceptionally hard by a boss who happens to have a gay son herself, but who used homophobia to make our lives miserable. Steve's parents had met this boss on a trip to us, and were aware of her prejudice. They suffered along with us, as we went once again through the fires of homophobic discrimination in a church-affiliated college. As they suffered, they asked again and again how someone with a gay child herself could find it in her heart to make the lives of gay children of other parents so difficult.

When we arrived at the farm, Steve’s father was sitting alone in the kitchen. Steve called from the farmyard to ask how things were with his father. As they talked on the phone, Steve walked into the kitchen.

His father was dumbfounded. He was also overjoyed to see us. He gave me a bear hug I can still feel in my bones. A hug similar to the one God gives children returning home—the embrace the father gives to the wandering son in the parable of the prodigal son.

A church that listened well to the wisdom of its faithful—a wisdom derived from their struggle to live the Christian life well in diverse cultural circumstances—would be far more like the church of Steve’s father John, and—I cannot avoid saying this, though it hurts to say it—far less like the church of the Holy Father Benedict XVI.

What I wrote on this blog yesterday points (to my way of thinking) to one inescapable conclusion: in the papacies of John Paul II and of Benedict XVI, the church has failed at a fundamental level to be church. The ecclesiology of the church of the tiny remnant of pure and true believers is tragically flawed; it is not adequately catholic.

It is not adequately catholic because it deliberately does not want to welcome and include all. It is a church that lacks the pastoral compassion and outreach Jesus himself lived (Preach always—when necessary, use words) throughout his ministry.

A church that holds the door fast against selected groups of sinners; a church that cannot embrace sinners with the warm clasp of welcome; a church whose leaders refuse even to sit down with and face those who have been wounded by its pastors: this is a church that fails to be catholic. And it fails at the most fundamental level possible—the level of practice (Preach always—when necessary, use words).

A church that partook of the wisdom of people like Steve’s father John would be a very different church from the one our current pope has spent so much energy building in the past several decades. And it would be a better church, one more unambiguously shaped by the core values of the gospel and the lived example of Jesus. In being a better church, it would also be a more effective church, a clearer sign of God’s salvific presence in the world, calling all of creation to the divine embrace.

I am profoundly grateful for having known Steve’s father John, and for all his practice of Christian faith has meant in my life and the life of someone I love deeply, his son Steve. May John rest in peace.


colkoch said...

Catholicism has lost a true Christian. A type of person for which it is sorely in need. We have more than enough true Catholics.

"The ecclesiology of the church of the tiny remnant of pure and true believers is tragically flawed; it is not adequately catholic."

How true. It is also not adequately Christian, which should be the meta paradigm. Any other meta paradigm is dross.

Dad said...

What a moving and wonderful tribute. John's innate goodness shines though. My condolences to both Steve and you, Bill.


William D. Lindsey said...

Colleen and Michael, many thanks to both of you for the kind words. I will pass them on to Steve, who is preoccupied these days with helping his mother with after-funeral business and who appreciates knowing that so many care.