Monday, December 1, 2008

Rock-Star Priests and Bogus Arguments about Gender Complementarity: The Post-Election State of the Churches

As a follow-up to my Saturday posting about the Republican captivity of American Catholicism, I want to notice a story that’s getting a lot of play in the media. It seems another ardent Republican priest has instructed his parishioners to go to confession before receiving communion, if they voted for Obama (,0,6113406.story).

The priest in question is Father Joseph Illo of St. Joseph church in Modesto, CA. In a 21 Nov. letter, he instructs parishioners who were among the “54 percent of Catholics who voted for a pro-abortion candidate” to go to confession before receiving communion, lest they commit sacrilege and lose their state of grace. Though Illo’s own bishop, Stephen Blaire of the Stockton diocese, disagrees with Illo’s one-issue approach to Catholic voting, Illo is adamant about his position.

As I think about this story and others similar to it, including that of Father Jay Scott Newman of Greenville, South Carolina (, I am convinced that we are witnessing the beginnings of a new resistance movement in American Catholicism. This will be a movement that will resist not only the new federal administration, but also the authority of bishops who do not toe the Republican-Catholic line.

And it will be led by rock-star priests who are self-conscious about cultivating an image as exemplary and uniquely qualified defenders of the faith in the 21st century. Look at the website of Father Illo’s parish and tell me that this is not what you see ( Glitzy, smooth, image-driven and image-laden (and insubstantial in direct proportion to its reliance on airbrushed images): Father Illo is among a new breed of John Paul II priests who have worked hard to craft superstar media images for themselves, to position themselves as exemplars of a new evangelical Catholicism that stands stalwartly against the mainstream.

Look for clerical men of this ilk to become rising stars of a new movement of Catholic resistance to Obama’s administration—as well as of resistance to the growing number of American Catholics who want to break the alliance of the American Catholic church with the Republican party. Look too for fireworks if any bishops anywhere try to check the media-driven power of such clerics, as they work to return American Catholicism to the Republican fold.

Ironically, the movement of evangelical Catholicism that priests like Illo represent has stressed obedience as the central, the indispensable virtue of “serious” Catholics. Up to now, that is: up to now, as long as the tiller seemed permanently turned to the right, evangelical Catholics allied to the Republican party have for decades now used snippets of catechetical texts and papal documents to browbeat dissenting or questioning Catholics. They have demanded obedience from such Catholics. Or else. Or else leave the church. Or else stop receiving communion.

Now, they face a new situation, one in which this obedience game cuts against their own attempt to claim unilateral ownership of Catholicism, and as many bishops refuse to toe their right-wing political and ecclesial line, while a majority of American Catholics are clearly repudiating that political and ecclesial line. Look for a muting of that rhetoric of absolute, unquestioning obedience, now that the minority (and cultic) status of evangelical Catholicism has been made apparent in the last election.

In the final analysis, this is a rigid, purist movement that believes itself to be more Catholic than the pope, much like the Donatist heresy of the early church—more Catholic than a pope who has given communion to Protestants in a number of highly public ceremonies; more Catholic than a pope who refused (to the chagrin of Republican evangelical Catholics) to force the American bishops to issue instructions denying communion to Democratic politicians in the last two elections. This is a self-righteous Catholicism driven by anger at what it is against, as much by pastoral zeal.

And by money and power: as this opposition movement gathers strength in American Catholicism, look for bishops to handle it gingerly, and for Rome to treat it with kid gloves, even when it engages in blatant disobedience and dissent. Don’t look for the kind of rapid-fire response we’ve seen when Catholic leaders like Jeannine Gramick and Bob Nugent reached out to the gay community, or when Louise Lears attended a women’s ordination ceremony. Gramick and Nugent were silenced. Lears was excommunicated.*

Many bishops and the Vatican will endure a great deal of assault from Republican evangelical Catholics in the months ahead, for one reason and one reason alone: this group has money; it has wealthy and highly placed friends. It has power. It is well-funded by right-wing political donors who are not even Catholic, but who can call the shots in American Catholicism because of the influence and economic clout they carry.

Look for those glitzy, smooth images of rock-star priests of the Republican Catholic cult to be plastered everywhere in the media in coming days. There’s money behind those images, and money is what smiles out at you when you ponder the image.

Jesus? For me, not so much.

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And in the resistance and disobedience vein, notice what happens when the Vatican issues a mild statement to pastors to refrain from alienating gay and lesbian parishioners
( "Remember that homophobic jokes and asides can be cruel and hurtful," the document reminds priests—an astonishing reminder to give anyone who has trained to do pastoral ministry and has been cleared for ordination.

And yet even that bland appeal for civility enrages Republican evangelical Catholics who want, one can only assume, to drive gay and lesbian Catholics out of the fold. The article to which I link in the preceding paragraph is on the United Press International (UPI) website. It is accompanied by comments from the faithful—vile, hateful, self-righteous comments for the most part.

In response to the appeal to priests not to tell fag-bashing jokes, one poster states,

Guess it is time for another Catholic Dogma lesson. Those who die unrepentant in mortal sin go to Hell. Last time I checked, homosexual activity is a mortal sin. Reaching out to homosexuals is laudatory if it is done in conformity with the mind of the Catholic Church. But to encourage the homosexual, to give tacit approval of his or her behavior places in peril his or her soul, as well as the soul of the ennabler [sic].

Pshaw. You don’t say. Time for another Catholic Dogma lesson: from an American Republican evangelical Catholic to the Vatican.

The posting elicits images of official sin-hounds posted at the door of every Catholic church to sniff out sin and keep sinners out. One wonders if the poster has thought about the price the church will pay when it starts that activity, targeting a select group of the faithful. Besides assuring that the church will quickly empty itself out, the activity sets a precedent in which justice demands that we warn all sinners, and not just a targeted minority, to repent and avoid hell.

And surely if the checklist used by the official hounders of sin at the church door is in line with traditional Catholic teaching about measuring sin, it will keep in mind that sins of the spirit are always graver sins than those of the flesh. And it will remember that, very high on the list of sins of the spirit is the sin of self-righteousness, which blinds us to our own need for conversion.

I wonder if the minority of true believers within the Republican evangelical Catholic fold have given much thought to what they are bringing on themselves as they mount their purge of gay sinners from the fold. Every purge of this sort ends up purging the purgers. If sinners are to be barred from churches, we may as well turn out the lights now, may we not?

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And for more in the vein of totally unconvincing and self-serving “logic,” I recommend the synopsis of a recent press conference of Dublin Archbishop Diarmuid Martin on today’s Clerical Whispers blog ( Archbishop Martin addresses the question of same-sex marriage.

According to Clerical Whispers, Archbishop hinges all teaching about marriage on the complementarity of the sexes. And on the “consistency” of teaching about marriage in all Christian churches. And on the “order” of creation that cannot be changed.

Archbishop Martin meets the obvious objection to his teaching that marriage is about a gender complementarity for the sake of procreation—namely, that not all marriages of persons of opposite genders end in biological procreation. At least, he meets it halfway and inconsistently, noting that, even when the marriage of persons of the opposite sex does not issue in children, these marriages are valid—unlike same-sex marriages. In such marriages, there is still “the intention of having children.”

Obviously, Archbishop Martin hasn’t thought very long or hard about these assertions. If he had done so, he would have had to recognize that the Catholic church marries opposite-sex couples, even when those couples can never have children—because of the physical condition of one or both spouses, because of the age of the wife, and so on.

Until the Catholic church begins refusing to marry a couple in which one or both partners is known to be infertile, or in which the woman is beyond child-bearing years, or in which there are other clear impediments to procreation, then this argument that marriage is all about a gender complementarity hinged on “the intention” to have children is . . . well, plain silly. And plainly deceitful.

One has to conclude that defending “traditional” marriage—marriage as it has always been, marriage as “all” churches believe it to be, marriage as creation instructs us to marry—is not really about defending traditional marriage at all. It’s about assuring that the church remains totally invested in the symbolism of a gender complementarity that privileges men and demeans women.

At the heart of this debate—and fueling the resistance of churches to same-sex marriage—is a belief that the entire order of creation and the social order cannot stand, if men are not on top of women. If the couple atop the wedding cake shift, if they are no longer little man and little woman but also comprise two women or two men, all will fall apart.

The homophobia institutionalized in the churches and in our cultures is all about male domination and resistance to women’s rights. The fight is not against gay marriage. It is for male domination. That is the universal created order that male churchmen (of both genders) are fighting to maintain, when they fight gay marriage.

Were it otherwise, would Catholics really be locking arms with Latter Day Saints to defend “traditional” marriage, marriage as it has “always” been? Vis-à-vis the theology of marriage and the history of marriage, it would be difficult to find two religious communions that are further apart, worlds apart. Marriage as it has always been, when the founders of Mormonism had multiple wives?

Catholic churchmen surely know this history. What binds them together with Mormon churchmen is a vested interest in preserving male control of the Word and of the world. Pure and simple. And of women’s bodies. I'm convinced that in the minds of churchmen, the need to control women trumps even concern for fetuses. Until church and society confront the ravenous need of men to control and dominate those they deem their inferiors, we will not make headway in the battle to respect the human rights of gay persons.

* Please see correction in the comments section below this posting. Louise Lears was "interdicted" rather than excommunicated. In the judgment of Archbishop Raymond Burke, who imposed that penalty on her, she was guilty of "grave and external violations against the Catholic faith or moral teaching." This resulted in her removal from her job and ministry, as well as her being barred from receiving the sacraments (which is what most Catholics commonly understand the term "excommunication" to mean). Her grave and external crime? She attended a women's ordination ceremony.