Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Mr. Dolan Decrees: No, No, No Cooperation with Same-Sex Marriage

And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed (Luke 2:1).

Decree: such an old-fashioned word.  I cite Luke's text in the King James version (appropriately old-fashioned), because that's how I remember being required to memorize the Lucan Christmas narrative when I was in first grade.  God spoke King James in my childhood, in the world in which I grew up.  Even in the public school where memorizing the Lucan nativity narrative in King James's translation was expected of all first-graders.

Decree: an old-fashioned word with a very direct resonance of imperial control.  Emperors decree.  Caesar Augustus issued the decree to tax all the world, which Mary and Joseph had to obey, so that they found themselves in Bethlehem when Mary gave birth to her first-born child.

Caesar commanded.  Mary and Joseph, little people with little control over their lives, were expected to obey.  

Because of the imperial resonances echoing through the term "decree"--because Caesars issue decrees and little people obey them--I always perk up my ears when I hear Catholic pastoral officials resorting to decretal language.  And so placing themselves on the side of Caesar, of emperors and rulers.

Not of Mary.  Nor of Joseph.  And not of their babe born in swaddling clothes in a lowly manger, who, to the best of my recollection, is never spoken of by the gospel writers as issuing any decree at all.  And who is never spoken of as commanding obedience to himself, since he constantly pointed away from himself towards God.  And he constantly emptied himself of divine power and status, with the ultimate goal of assuming the form of a servant and dying the death of the lowest of the low on the cross.

I'm certainly well aware that the term "decree" has an ancient provenance in Catholic ecclesiastical usage. I'm also aware that this provenance is imperial and not from the gospels.  Not from the gospels, which frame decree-making as Caesar's business.  Not the business of Mary and Joseph, whose business is decree-obeying.

The term decretum became prominent in Roman Catholic ecclesiastical life with the conflation of church and empire in the early period of the church, when the church began mimicking and replicating the governance structures of the Roman empire after church and state developed a cozy relationship under Constantine.  From the Constantinean turn forward, not only emperors issued decrees.  So did popes and bishops and other princelings of the church.

And all of these thoughts have been running through my mind in the past several days as I read the decree that Archbishop Timothy Dolan,* president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, issued in October, whose text has recently been made public.  The decree lays down the law for clergy incardinated within the archdiocese of New York, and for Catholic institutions of the archdiocese.

The decree tells us it's a decree in bold capital letters at its heading.  The bold capitals and the term "decree" indicate that it is being issued with authority, as a command, and we are expected to listen and obey.  And penalties will be attached if we refuse to hear and do as we are commanded.

Mr. Dolan's decree is full of language about church, authority, and command, but short on gospel language.  While it contains a single reference to Jesus Christ, it uses the word "church" three times, "diocesan" or "archdiocesan" five times, "canon" or "canonical" four times, and "authority" twice.  And "law": this word appears five times in the decree, indicating the overweening concern of the decree to lay down churchly canonical imperatives to deal with a situation the decree paints as one of painful conflict for the Catholic archdiocese of New York.  The decree states that "divine law" has established the "nature and the definition of marriage," and previously, civil laws respected such divine law.

But in an unprecedented move, the legislature of New York has now enacted a civil law that abrogates divine law, and ignores the fact that the Catholic church has been given "the authority and the serious obligation to affirm the authentic teaching on marriage," and so the new civil law in New York places the Catholic church and its authority in an unfortunate situation.  Because Jesus Christ gave to the Catholic church divine authority to define the institution of marriage when he raised the marital union to the level of a sacrament (or so the decree states, though I recall no such passage in the gospels), and because the civil law of the state of New York is no longer respecting the divinely ordained right of the Catholic church and its leaders to define marriage, the archbishop of New York must command.  He must decree.

He must forbid any cleric in his archdiocese to assist in any way at all as same-sex couples contract civil marriages.  And he must forbid any Catholic institution within his archdiocese from cooperating in any way with the new law.  Those who refuse to adhere to this decree will be subject to canonical sanctions.

No: there is to be no cooperation in any shape, form, or fashion with a new civil law that ignores the divine command previously enshrined in civil law when civil society respected the right of the leaders of the Catholic church to define the institution of marriage--a right granted to them by Jesus Christ.  The decree uses the word "no" three times and "not" three times.  I don't spot the word "yes" anywhere in the decree.

And so it goes.  Caesars keep on decreeing, throughout history.  And people keep on obeying--out of fear and not out of love.  Since Caesar decrees not as an expression of love for those being ordered about, but as an expression of authority.  And control.  Caesars decree because they own the language of no, not of yes. And because they have in their power the ability to make life miserable for those who do not obey.  they have the power to impose "sanctions" on those who refuse to obey.

Caesars come and Caesars go.  Caesars rise and Caesars fall.  

They always fall in the end, because even when they issue their decrees to all the world, the divine unexpected inevitably happens: their very intent to control, their very ordering of little people about, results in disruptions, upheavals, displacements that set the stage for reversals of power that bring Caesar himself down.  Caesar instructs all the world to go and be taxed, and because he issues this command, a baby is born in a manger--a baby whose outlook on life will be shaped by his mother, a woman who sings about the mighty being cast down from their thrones and the lowly being lifted up.  A baby whose message will refashion history in a way that no imperial decree issued no matter how fulsomely is capable of affecting history.

A message that Caesar cannot understand, since he is fixated on power, authority, control.  On the law and claiming the right to control the law.  On issuing imperatives and asserting that God stands behind those imperatives, since God has placed divine authority in Caesar's hands and what Caesar decrees reflects what God also commands.  

But the louder Caesar asserts those claims, the more he sets himself up for a hard fall, in a world that really does belong to God and not to Caesar at all.  A world in which divine energy and divine love are incarnated in the lives of those little people Caesar imagines he controls, who never truly belong to Caesar at all, no matter how much Caesar seeks to order them around.

And whose lives and love--in the case of history in the making now, whose gay lives and gay love--often  turn the world upside down in ways that topple Caesar from his throne, so that all his decrees, with their imperatives and commands and threats of punishment and no, no, no come toppling down with him.

*This is a pdf file.

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