Thursday, July 7, 2011

NCR Editorial Addresses Marrriage Equality Legislation in NY: Bishops' Loss of Moral Credibility

National Catholic Reporter has just published a noteworthy editorial about the recent marriage equality legislation in New York.  The editorial is worthy of attention for a number of reasons.  

In the first place, it's entirely to NCR's credit that this publication is choosing to address the legislation forthrightly, and without kowtowing to the overheated talking points of the bishops themselves about marriage equality as the end of civilization and how we're courting divine wrath with increasing tolerance of gay and lesbian people.  NCR stands out among publications of the American Catholic center in its response to the New York marriage equality legislation, while other publications which purport to represent the intellectual center of American Catholicism either remain disdainfully silent about a civil rights breakthrough many brother and sister Catholics are celebrating, or have chosen to pick away at this breakthrough with snippy comments about the anti-Catholicism of the New York Times or votes bought through bribery.

And as a result, many American Catholics are left in a kind of wilderness as we try to think through the issue of human rights for LGBT citizens, when our bishops hurl condemnations and our intellectual luminaries, who profess to be measured and thoughtful, actually collude in the anti-intellectual and anti-democratic behavior of the bishops, as they do everything in their power to block civil rights legislation protecting gay and lesbian persons.  

And this is the second reason I find the NCR editorial noteworthy: it forthrightly admits what a huge gap there has come to be between the thinking and commitment of "ordinary" Catholics in the U.S. about the human rights of gay and lesbian persons, and the thinking of the leaders of the American Catholic church--the thinking of the bishops and, by implication, of the intellectual luminaries who continue to collude with the bishops in attacking LGBT rights.  The NCR editorial notes that the bishops have almost entirely lost credibility as moral teachers.  

And, as a result, many American Catholics are turning elsewhere for moral guidance.  They are turning for guidance, as one contributor to the thread discussing this editorial, Don H., says, to the gospels and the traditional works of mercy enumerated in the gospels, as they think through the moral issues involved in the LGBT struggle for rights.  

NCR attributes the bishops' loss of credibility as moral teachers--and the growing gap between what ordinary Catholics think about gay and lesbian human rights and what the bishops think--to two factors.  In the first place, because an increasing percentage of Catholics know and love someone who is gay or lesbian (often, a family member, a co-worker, etc.), they view the moral question of human rights for the LGBT community through a personal optic.

They engage the LGBT community at a personal level, that is to say.  They recognize that they are dealing with persons, with fellow human beings whose humanity counts as much as the humanity of anyone else--a key insight of Catholic social teaching.

The bishops, by contrast, aren't engaging.  They're condemning.  They're excluding.  They're turning fellow human beings and fellow Catholics into enemies.

And they're trying to coerce the body politic to accept their peculiar moral views and Catholic ideology, as if these views and this ideology ought to trump all other views in the public sphere.  They have backed themselves into a we-vs.-them corner, while much of the rest of American Catholicism has long since moved towards a stance of compassionate, respectful engagement.  And the bishops' stance is proving to be ineffectual in the extreme, as large numbers of Catholics celebrate a human rights breakthrough that the bishops have chosen to condemn, from their ever narrowing square of "The Unchanging Truth."

Second, the bishops rely, more and more, on such draconian measures as threatening to withhold the Eucharist from those who raise critical questions about various aspects of official Catholic teaching--and they do this precisely at a moment in which their own moral house is in spectacular disarray, with their mishandling of the abuse crisis.  And so when they speak, threaten, fulminate, no one is listening any longer.

I think NCR is right on target with this analysis.  It's complemented--as the editorial itself notes--by an article of Catholic canonist Nicholas Cafardi in the same issue of the paper, which also bears reading, and which argues that the bishops ought to recognize the distinction between civil and sacramental marriage, and stop undermining their teaching about sacramental marriage by trying to control what civil norms choose to do with this social institution.

There's one other point I'd throw into the mix of this discussion of how the majority of American Catholics have chosen to respond to the historic struggle for LGBT human rights, and how the bishops and intellectual luminaries are responding.  The point is this: when the Catholic church committed itself, under the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict, to a church-vs.-world stance that nullifies Vatican II's call for positive engagement with the world, the church ipso facto made itself increasingly irrelevant to much that goes in in the public sphere.

The core problem--the fundamental reason--that the Catholic church has been increasingly retreating, issuing bitter condemnations of this or that development in secular society, in the last several decades, is that it has locked itself into such a stance by blocking, at an official level, the reforms mandated by the last ecumenical council of the church, Vatican II.  Reforms that centered on an ecclesiology which views the church as a pilgrim body of believers, the people of God, moving towards the reign of God that is to arrive at the end of history.

Moving along with and not in opposition to secular society, so that the church has a strong theological (and gospel-based) reason to listen attentively to other religious groups, to non-Catholic thinkers, to the world at large, as these groups and thinkers address questions like how to extend rights to groups within the human community that have been previously marginalized.  Because the thinking of many secular bodies and of those outside the church itself glimpses the same goal of human history that the church identifies as the eschaton, the culmination of history in which a place is set for everyone at the table of peace and justice.  And the church can learn from movements within the secular world that move towards this eschatological goal that norms the life of the church as it propels both church and world towards the eschatological fulfillment of history.

Part of my intense dissatisfaction with many of my colleagues of the American Catholic intellectual center in recent years is that I suspect they know better.   I suspect that they know full well that the choice of the Catholic church at an official level to turn its back on Vatican II and on positive critical engagement with secular society during the last two papacies is a serious betrayal of core Catholic values.  Not to mention of the last ecumenical council of the church . . . . 

Anyone with half a brain who has tracked the constant retreat of the church in recent years into a bitter, defensive little shell of itself, into a tightly disciplined cadre of true believers at war with the world, could have foreseen what would happen as one society after another began to accord full human rights to gay and lesbian persons.  The church's defensive posture and its pretension to have all truth in its hands while the godless world has departed from truth and is headed to hell: this precludes Catholic celebration of human rights breakthroughs that, to many Catholics, sound suspiciously like secular enactments of values proclaimed by Jesus himself in the gospels.

While the true believers--the bishops and the intellectuals of the center who choose to keep shoring the bishops up--inhabit an ever-narrowing space of absolute certainty and absolute truth, much of the rest of the Catholic world finds a larger and larger space in which Catholic truth is shared with others in secular society, with believers in other religious traditions.  Shared Catholic truth about the primacy of love in the spiritual life, about respect for the value of human lives different from our own, about intent concern for the least among us.

One of the grand ironies of the period of Catholic history through which we have been living during the reigns of John Paul II and Benedict is that those who claim to have cornered the Catholic truth market often appear to many of us precisely to be betraying Catholic truth.  To be betraying what is first and foremost in our Catholic tradition: that is, setting a place for everyone at the table, and actively embracing everyone at the table called Catholicism.

And so the choice with which many of us are left now is to set that Catholic table in the wilderness, in the places the bishops have condemned as godless and bereft of truth, and to feast there with those the bishops tell us to avoid--but whom Christ would very likely have welcomed to his own table, and with whom he would have feasted with great joy.

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