Saturday, May 2, 2009

Augustine and Croaking Frogs: America Magazine on Sectarian Catholics

America has just uploaded to its website an editorial entitled “Sectarian Catholicism” (here), and it’s a fine statement—a powerful one. It notes the strong parallels between the situation of U.S. Catholicism today and African Catholicism in the period in which Augustine confronted a purist group, the Donatists, who declared themselves the only right and true church, and implicitly excommunicated the rest of the church.

Augustine strongly opposed the notion that a group of ideological purists who refused a place in their church to anyone outside their small circle constituted the church. He notes that the church is to be like Noah’s ark, with representatives of every species brought inside. (This is an idea that, by the way, ought to compel churches and their pastors to assure the presence of gay and lesbian persons in the churches.)

In City of God, he also writes (here and here) that none of us will know with certainty whether we are among the saved or the unsaved until God’s final winnowing at the end of history. In fact, he says, some of those now most confident that they alone are the saved may well discover in the end that they have not been among the saved at all.

Augustine stressed the catholicity of the church: its obligation to reach out to and include everyone, its welcome to sinners and not merely to the pure and the righteous. As America suggests, while claiming to be more authentically traditional and more truly Catholic than anyone else, some contemporary American Catholics have constructed a tiny, defensive little shell of church that is very much like what Augustine decried in the Donatists, while he sought to defend the notion of catholicity.

And, for these smaller-purer church types, what seems to count in the final analysis, even more than doctrine, is political loyalty—loyalty to their party, and to their ideological interpretation of what that party stands for:

For today’s sectarians, it is not adherence to the church’s doctrine on the evil of abortion that counts for orthodoxy, but adherence to a particular political program and fierce opposition to any proposal short of that program. They scorn Augustine’s inclusive, forgiving, big-church Catholics, who will not know which of them belongs to the City of God until God himself separates the tares from the wheat. Their tactics, and their attitudes, threaten the unity of the Catholic Church in the United States, the effectiveness of its mission and the credibility of its pro-life activities.

These sectarian Catholics have radically impaired the American Catholic church and now threaten its viability by attacking, in particular, those called by the Spirit to help the community remember, understand, and transmit its beliefs and core values to subsequent generations. They have targeted Catholic thinkers, theologians, and universities that foster careful study and interpretation of our beliefs and core values. They have selected a handful of rigid, intellectually bankrupt Catholic colleges and universities as the only "truly" Catholic schools left in the nation, because these schools have been willing to sell themselves lock, stock, and barrel to the Republican party and its wealthy promoters.

In the view of the editors of America, the Vatican itself is now concerned about the damage these politicized sectarians are doing to the American church. America notes that, while some bishops and a significant proportion (though by no means a majority) of American Catholics wish to punish Notre Dame for inviting the president to its commencement, Pope Benedict has twice reached out to Obama, met with and maintains ties to Nancy Pelosi, and participated in a ceremony to honor New Mexico governor Bill Richardson after he abolished the death penalty, though Richardson does not toe the official Catholic party line about the politics of abortion.

The subtext of the America editorial is that the church in the U.S. is in serious trouble, unless it can disengage itself from the highly politicized, sectarian, ideological purists who have dominated it for some decades now. This group of Catholics, who have come to believe that they alone own the church and that it must conform to their narrow agenda, refuse to relinquish control even after the most recent elections showed that they are by no means in the majority in the American Catholic church. They continue their use of destructive slash-and-burn political tactics designed to drive thoughtful, non-ideological fellow Catholics away from the church.

And if they continue unchecked, the handwriting on the wall is clear: the American Catholic church will not have a bright future. As my posting on this theme yesterday notes (here), one in ten American adults is now a former Catholic, and four times as many Catholics are leaving the church as are now entering it.

This is a church in crisis, and that crisis will only deepen in years to come. What those who take heart in the finding that 68% of American Catholics remain Catholic do not note—and apparently do not wish to note—is the sharp demographic gap in the current Catholic population. The 68% remaining Catholic are aging Catholics.

And they are not being replaced by younger Catholics. The decline among younger Catholics continuing their affiliation with the Catholic church even into early adulthood is precipitous. And it is growing. And it will grow rapidly, if the Catholic church in the U.S. continues to permit itself to be identified with the Republican party, and, even more, with the right wing of that party.

The internet has been abuzz the past several days with articles noting that Republican groups are meeting to address the decline of the Republican party. Some of these articles state that Republicans are perplexed that they have so quickly achieved minority status and appear now headed to an even more marginal place in the nation’s political life.

I’m perplexed in turn when I read that. Just as I’m perplexed by the seeming inability of some of the pastors of the American Catholic church for some time now not to see where the church is headed: to demise. How can people not see what is right before them, and how can they not adapt when their present course is clearly leading to their annihilation? To my eyes, it has been very clear that the future of the nation does not lie with right-wing political and religious extremists, and that the future of the American Catholic church does not rest in the hands of those groups, either.

I’ve always thought that true pastoral acumen and real religious insight gives the pastor or the believer a feel for the future, an ability to see the direction in which the Spirit is moving. To my way of thinking, the inability of many of the leaders of the American Catholic church to see the cul-de-sac into which they have been leading the church for some time now is a strong indicator of lack of pastoral acumen, and/or a failure to listen carefully to the Spirit.

And the upshot is now that, through their blind captivity to people who have not sought to and are incapable of building a viable future for our nation, the leaders of American Catholicism have already alienated millions of us who once thought we might find a spiritual home in the church. As a postscript here, I'd like to add a note for readers who may be picking up the conversation on this blog only in recent days, and who may think I'm an active, practicing Catholic who is arguing that it is possible for one to remain Catholic while accepting oneself as a gay or lesbian person.

I'm adding this postscript because of some questions readers have sent me by email—very welcome questions. To those new to the blog, I'd like to note that I'm someone who has found himself pushed outside the Catholic church by the sectarian process the America editorial is describing.

This has much to do with the fact that I'm gay and have lived my adult life with another gay theologian. The church has not made a place for us, and does not intend to make a place for us. We have been made to know we are unwelcome in a number of ways, but most clearly of all by the refusal of any Catholic institution to provide us with a place in which to pursue our vocation as theologians. People have to eat in order to live. The church cannot tell people it welcomes them when, at the same time, it excludes them from economic life.

As numerous postings on this blog indicate, I have come to the conclusion that it is almost impossible for any openly gay person to remain in healthy contact with the Catholic church today. I do admire those who manage to maintain that contact, and I think that they are doing a valuable service both to the gay community and to the Catholic church by struggling to exist within an institution that is, on the whole, destructive of gay souls and gay lives.

I have also become aware, through my experiences in a United Methodist institution, that the dynamic of exclusion and destruction I am describing is not limited to the Catholic church. It runs through many Christian churches today, in their approach to gay and lesbian persons. The churches are, on the whole, the least safe place in American culture today for those of us who are gay and lesbian. To their shame . . . .

I do, however, continue to write about the churches, their ties to the political realm, and gay issues, because I think that it is impossible for anyone who is gay or lesbian in the U.S. to ignore the churches and their effect on our culture. In this nation with the soul of a church, that effect is considerable, and for the LGBT community, it is often horrendous. We ignore churches and church life at our peril.

Finally, as with many LGBT persons though not all of us, I think that spirituality is a component of a healthy human life. I do not think that spirituality is confined or has to be confined to any particular religious expression. I understand those who turn their backs on religion altogether, when the face that religious groups persistently show us is a cruel, demonic one. I also think it is possible to find within the religions of the world, and within the Christian churches, authentic expressions of spiritual life that can nurture us as gay persons, though we have an obligation to sift through much of the heritage of religions and churches and combat whatever is destructive to us and others in that heritage, as we seek the authentic components.