Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Two Priests

I met him only on a handful of occasions and spoke with him once on the phone. I likely heard more about him from my parents and my sister than I actually experienced of him first-hand. Yet Father Bob, the beloved priest who regularly visited my parents' village church from his own parish 55 kilometres away, said Mass, and socialized with the parishioners, left a deep and lasting impression on me.

One was first struck by his appearance, which was most unpriestlike. In the good weather he wore running shoes, baggy shorts, usually in some wild colour or ridiculous pattern, and a tee-shirt. To say Mass he would throw on a clean white alb and a stole with the liturgical colour of the day; I never saw him wear a chasuble (but them I only saw him in the summer). Throughout the hot summer months his "thirty-degree rule" was in effect: no homily if the temperature was over thirty degrees. And by the time any member of the congregation reached the church stairs after Mass, Father was already there in his shorts and tee, smoking his ubiquitous cigarette.

I imagine that no one, not even the bishop, had seen him in a Roman collar in years.

Father Bob died of cancer in January 2008. Shortly after his passing and the funeral Masses that followed, my father, already in the early stages of Alzheimer's, touched me deeply by sending me a copy of Father's obituary, which he had clipped from the local newspaper. On it - thoughtfully, in the tiny spaces between the tiny paragraphs - he had scribbled, "Thought you might appreciate this. Dad." I wonder how he had known how much I would appreciate both his simple, loving gesture and having this memento of a man I so admired. My father died in December of that year.

In addition to the usual biographical information, Father Bob's obituary said the following: "There was no pretense about the man. He lived very simply, spoke by both his words and example, and had a special gift of ministering to children. His droll humour, sharp wit, and empathy for those less fortunate will long be cherished."

The lack of pretense and the simple living were certainly reflected in the dress, both secular and liturgical, and also in the pleasures he took. He loved to sit in his garden at the rectory and meditate and he loved to stay in the little house beside my parents' church that had originally been built for catechism classes but was later renovated for the use of the visiting priests. He enjoyed drinking coffee - and smoking - with the men of the parish, and certainly appreciated a glass of wine - or two. There were very few children in the parish as my parents' village is more and more being populated with the retired; what children and young people there are do not attend the Catholic church. But it was commonly known in the parish that Father Bob loved his nieces and nephews; he once broke his collar bone playing football with them. He liked football too.

Father's obituary left out an important aspect of his character: his integrity. Bob was his own man, not the bishop's man, not his Basilian superior's man. He said what he believed and what he believed did not always conform to the "party line" of the hierarchical Church. In one of the few homilies I was able to hear him deliver, he stated that if the Church expected to attract young people into the pews, fundamental changes had to be made. When a Basilian colleague with whom he shared the duties of administration of the parish was transferred back to the southern United States, Father Bob made it clear that he was not going to be transferred. He liked being right where he was, and if anyone tried to move him, he would simply retire, which he was old enough to do. He knew how desperate the diocese was in its need for priests.

It is said that when the hard-line traditionalist Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger was elected pope, Father Bob openly expressed his disapproval. My sister, considering returning to the church after many years of lapse, told Father that if she came back she wanted nothing to do with confession. His reply was that she shouldn't worry: confession was highly overrated anyway. And in a telephone conversation I had with him after he had read one of my scripts, we talked a bit about the local seminary; he informed me that he did not like that institution and was not at all impressed with the product it turned out. In the same conversation he expressed his disgust over the Vatican's treatment of women. Then he wondered aloud why the bishop let him get away with so much.

When I met Father Bob, I had recently read Father Dominic Grassi's book Still Called by Name: Why I Love Being a Priest. I had just returned to the Church and was already thinking of the priesthood; Father Grassi, a diocesan priest in Chicago, was a real human being, an approachable man with strong emotions and with doubts and flaws, who loved people, loved God, and loved his vocation. He was nothing like the pastor of my youthful Catholicism, and I wanted to be a priest like him.

Still Called by Name is a collection of stories that reveal a multitude of facets of Father Grassi's personality, his ministry, and his relationship with his family and friends. It is by turns humourous, touching, enlightening, and inspiring. The accounts are also unfailingly honest. In the second chapter, "Remembering Faces," he laments his chronic inability to remember names:

I, on the other hand, really struggle with names. Sometimes during the course of a meeting with someone, I forget the person's name. Once I tried to fake it while helping a couple fill out their wedding questionnaire. I had drawn a blank on the name of the bride, whom I had just met, so I asked, "Spell your name for me please, so I get the right variation." She hesitated and then smiled at me, saying sweetly but quizzically: "M-A-R-Y." Oh, well, it was a nice try.

In another chapter, entitled "Passion and the Priesthood," he says:

When I laugh it is out loud. I cry often. I am quick to anger. And I love deeply. The only priesthood I know is one filled with passion. It does wear me out. It might even shorten my life span. But it is only by being passionate that I can be the effective priest I have to be.

In a recent article in America Magazine, Monsignor David Rubino offered to young clergy advice he had gathered "from among their retired brothers" in the Bishop Michael J. Murphy Residence for Retired Priests in Erie, Pa. The advice included Be yourself ("Learn from [your parishioners] and with them. Otherwise, your efforts to prove yourself rather than be yourself may obliterate the 'real you' from your priesthood.") Practice sacrificing self ("...practice becoming a better person and a better priest by sacrificing your self, as well as those petty things attached to your self-definition.") Be easy on the folks ("Smile and take it easy. People should not be harshly judged. Tenderly wait on your people and be present to them.") And much more. From the nature of the advice Msgr. Rubino offers in this article, it is not difficult to discern that he is also "a priest of the people." His excellent piece would have been splendidly crowned with one more suggestion: Read Father Grassi's book.

Despite their self-admitted personal weaknesses and spiritual doubts, Father Bob and Father Grassi have both maintained an unshakable belief in God's love for his children and in the gentle healing power of grace in the face of suffering and pain. The essence of the priesthood of each of these men has been its humanity; they have been servants of the people of God in the fullest sense. Neither was - is - a slavish adherent to Church tradition or a yes-man to autocratic Church leaders.

As I have stated in other posts, I am fascinated by priests and the priesthood - by the Roman collar, by the vestments, by the priest in celebration of the liturgy of the Mass. This fascination is perhaps one aspect of being a liturgy queen. I really don't know. Father Bob wore no collar, was casual about vestments, and said Mass in the simplest possible way. Father Grassi says of himself: "Neither hero nor saint, but also neither tragic loser or addicted idealist, I am just an ordinary person who still finds incredible joy, profound awe, silencing mystery, and overwhelming peace as a priest." Nevertheless, I am more in awe of these two men than I have been of any other priest.

I do not know what drew me as a child to the priesthood if the attraction was not simply to the theatrical. I was not exposed to priests like Father Bob and Father Grassi. The pastor of the church we attended during my childhood and adolescence does not in retrospect strike me as a particularly holy man or as especially pastoral. He was cool and remote as a person and neither liturgically nor homiletically inspiring as a priest. Without a true priestly model, it is no wonder then that at the age of 13 I was not at all prepared for the hard realities of seminary life and left (or was asked to leave) after only two months. My passion for the priesthood went underground after that experience.

It has been gloriously revived by these two men, who in my humble judgment, are true holy fathers.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas

We had intended to go to Midnight Mass last night, but everyone was just too tired, so we watched It's a Wonderful Life instead and went to bed. This morning we went to the 8:30 Mass, and I am so glad we did. It was one of the most beautiful liturgies I have attended and participated in for quite a long time. The church was beautifully and prayerfully decorated; the Mass was celebrated by our resident priest, who has a gorgeous singing voice; the homily was accessible, relevant, and appropriate both for the day and for always; the choir sang well.

To my complete surprise, the Mass was also a personally emotional experience for me and I found myself tearing up numerous times throughout. For the first time in memory my thoughts went to the Christmas Days of my childhood, and images of my father, who passed away last Christmas, blended with the loveliness of the sanctuary. I was not close to my father, so the powerful nostalgia that accompanied the images took me by surprise. I can still see those fleeting and rather hazy pictures as I write this.

I would like to wish everyone who reads this blog a very Merry Christmas and an abundance of blessings in the New Year.

Friday, December 18, 2009

A Nice Jewish Wedding

My dear friend Richard has started taking courses in theology this fall; one that he has just finished is the first half of a course in critical approaches to the Hebrew Bible. A gentleman that Richard and I both used to work with is Jewish; he was in fact a cantor at his synagogue for many years. Our friend Arthur is a Reformed Jew and is a member of a liberal synagogue here in Vancouver. I am also very interested in Judaism, so Richard and I decided to invite Arthur for coffee and just see what we might learn.

The three of us met yesterday at a local restaurant and chatted for two hours about faith in general and Judaism in particular. For me, it was a most fascinating conversation as I learned much about the Jewish religion and about the local Jewish worship community. I hunger for more, so I will again pick up Thomas Cahill's The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels and reread some parts of Karen Armstrong's The Bible: A Biography. Arthur invited Richard and I to attend a service at his synagogue, so we will likely do that in the early part of January.

During the course of the conversation the name of a person came up that both Richard and Arthur happened to know. Arthur told us that this person and his partner had been married in Arthur's synagogue. Richard wondered about Arthur's use of the word "partner" and Arthur informed us that the mutual friend is gay and that he and his male partner were married in the synagogue by the assistant rabbi, who is also gay. I was completely taken aback by this. Arthur had told us that he was a liberal Jew and that his synagogue was liberal, but I had no idea that same-sex marriages were performed by rabbis in any synagogue. When I asked if this was true, the reply was, "Yes, but both parties have to be Jewish."

During our conversation I learned that, just as in the Catholic faith, there is in Judaism a wide range of faith orientation, from ultra-orthodox to liberal. Arthur told us that there are certain Jewish religious groups in this city who will not cross the threshold of his synagogue because doing so would be tantamount to recognizing the community. Yet no community, no synagogue is forced by a higher, centralized authority to conduct services in a particular way or to censure those who do not follow a particular set of teachings or who disagree publicly with those teachings. Arthur is a man who is probably approaching 80 years of age; he has been a practicing Jew for most of his adult life. Yet here is a man who is obviously not only comfortable with gay people, but one who supports gay marriages performed in his own synagogue!

Why could I not have been born Jewish?

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Church as the People of God II

The more I read and think about the Church, the more I am inclined to see a deep spiritual divide between the Church as community and as the People of God and the Church as patriarchal hierarchy and as enforcer of traditional "teachings." Of course, I see this most clearly in a personal way, as a gay man, but I am sure that this divide affects nearly every Catholic in some way.

I am reading theologian Hans Küng's book The Catholic Church: A Short History. Küng is a theological scholar of international repute who played a significant role in the formulation of some of the most important documents promulgated at Vatican II. Because he has questioned "such traditional doctrines as papal infallibility, the divinity of Christ and the dogma of the Virgin Mary," Küng has been in hot water with the Vatican more than once. He makes no bones about this history being a critical one, written from the perspective of a faithful insider.

Near the end of the Introduction to this little book, Küng warns readers:

Those who so far have not been seriously confronted with the facts of history will sometimes be shocked at how human the course of events was everywhere, indeed how many of the institutions and constitutions of the church - and especially the central Roman Catholic institution of the papacy - are man-made.
Küng goes on to explain his own faith:

For is spite of all the radical criticism of the church, it has probably already become clear that I am buoyed up by an unshakable faith. This is not faith in the church as an institution, since quite obviously the church continually fails, but faith in that Jesus Christ, his person and cause, which remains the prime motif in the church's tradition, liturgy, and theology. For all the decadence of the church, Jesus Christ has never been lost.
The starting point of the book, then, is the question of whether Jesus actually founded a church and what relationship the church that evolved from the early fathers has with the life and message of Jesus of Nazareth. Küng asks a very interesting question: " it possible to imagine Jesus of Nazareth at a papal Mass in St. Peter's, Rome? Or would people there perhaps use the same words as Dostoyevsky's Grand Inquisitor: 'Why do you come to disturb us?'"

Are the papacy, the Roman Curia, the episcopate, the body of Canon Law, and Catholic Tradition the true essence of Christianity? How do they reflect the message of Jesus at the Last Supper, when he said to the apostles gathered with him: "This is my commandment: love one another as I have loved you."

More on this fascinating book as I work my way through it.

Monday, December 14, 2009

John the Baptist, Frank Rich, Up in the Air

Yesterday’s gospel reading, from Luke, began this way: “And the multitudes asked [John the Baptist], ‘What then shall we do?’ And he answered them, ‘He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none, and he who has food, let him do likewise’. Tax collectors also came to be baptized, and said to him, ‘Teacher, what shall we do?’ And he said to them, ‘Collect no more than is appointed you’. And soldiers asked him, ‘And we, what shall we do?’ And he said to them, ‘Rob no one by violence or by false accusation, and be content with your wages’.” This message seems particularly apt given the difficult economic times that have troubled this country, our southern neighbour, and indeed the world, over the past year.

In an op-ed article in Sunday’s New York Times, columnist Frank Rich marvels at how well the backdrop of the newly released movie Up in the Air “captures the distinctive topography of our Great Recession.” The film’s main character, Ryan Bingham (played by George Clooney) works for a company that specializes in terminating employees for firms that don’t want to do the dirty work themselves. Mr. Rich notes that Bingham’s victims “are not the familiar contemporary blue-collar factory workers in our devastated manufacturing economy. They are instead mostly middle-class refugees from the suburban good life depicted in credit card ads. Their correlative to the Dust Bowl [of the Great Depression era] is a coast-to-coast wasteland of foreclosed office spaces where desk chairs and knots of dead phones lie abandoned in a fluorescent half-light.”

Rich believes that the current Great Recession is darkly characterized by “the disconnect between the corporate culture that is dictating the firing and the rest of us.” This disconnect existed long before the current troubles began, and there is no question in the columnist’s mind, who is to blame for the beating that Main Street Americans are taking:

The private-equity deal makers who bought and sold once-solid companies like trading cards, saddling them with debt, never saw the workers whose jobs were shredded by their cunning games of financial looting. The geniuses in Washington and on Wall Street who invented junk mortgages and then bundled and sold them as securities didn’t live in the same neighborhoods as the mortgagees, small investors and retirees left holding the bag once the housing bubble burst.

Those at the top are separated from the consequences of their actions. They are exemplified by Robert Rubin, formerly of Citigroup and a mentor to both Obama’s Treasury secretary and chief economic adviser. He
looked the other way when his bank made ruinous high-risk bets, and then cashed out and split, leaving taxpayers to pay for the wreckage while he escaped any accountability. Such economic wise men peer down at the country from a hermetically sealed bubble of privilege and self-interest, much as Ryan does from the plane flying him to his next mass firing. And they tend to think, as Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs notoriously put it, that they are doing “God’s work” to sustain our free-market system.

Before embarking on “God’s work” these guys apparently neglected to read the job description in Luke’s gospel.

I am not an economist, so I cannot comment on the degree of accuracy in Mr. Rich’s indictment of the men at the top of the financial sector. I do not doubt, however, that there are plenty of “small folk” who have been hit devastatingly hard by this recession. For some, it will take a long time to recover the personal financial losses they have suffered, not to mention their relationships, their self-esteem, and their confidence. Some, of course, will never recover. Those of us who have avoided the worst of the recession’s effects, or have escaped altogether, can thank God—or our lucky stars.

Again, I am no expert, but let’s just take it for granted that the big guys are not going to be reading Luke any time soon. Sharing what you have is not generally one of the ways you get rich. Once you have fought your way to the top, you are pretty much concerned with either getting more or with keeping what you have by whatever means available, and you have long forgotten what sharing is all about. As a result of the collapse of the financial sector, the U.S. government is legislating regulations in the hope of preventing a recurrence. I, for one, will not be surprised if the financial institutions find a way around the regulations.

Of course there are wealthy philanthropists and we cannot discount the good they do, but one wonders if real philanthropists are the exception.

So let’s just assume then that in the end the little guy is not going to be protected by the corporate world or by government. Where do we stand? I believe that we stand at a crossroads. We can continue, as we have done for the last fifty years, to be seduced by the corporate world into believing that we need a new car every three years, that a Blackberry or an iPhone suits our lifestyle better than a regular phone, that it’s okay to wait on the line for twenty minutes for customer service only to end up speaking with someone we can’t understand who is going to tell us that we have to box up that printer we bought a month and a half ago and send it to Boise, Idaho and wait three weeks for it to come back. We can carry on working in jobs that are both uninspiring and insecure, often with bosses who consider our value only in terms of their own career advancement—or protection.

As employees and as consumers we have become slaves to the corporate world. As human beings we have become enslaved by our own materialism. Consumerism has made us think that what we want is what we need. We have forgotten how to be still, how to be quiet, how to relax—how to enjoy the non-material side of life. Just look at the state of traffic in our cities: the road rage, the running of red lights, the disregard for pedestrians. Where does this behaviour come from? Think about how we are now connected to the office around the clock and even when we are on vacation. Why do we do this? Well, maybe it’s because we are afraid that if we do not stay connected, we might miss a vital piece of information that could make the difference between a 3% bonus and a 3.5% bonus next year.

If someone were to tell me that the stress and worry involved in acquiring and keeping the material goods in their possession was worthwhile in terms of the happiness or contentment that those goods provided, I would have to smile. We all need a roof over our heads, and we all need a means of transport to get us from A to B. We need clothing and food and education. These must always be our priorities, and if we have children, they are among our greatest responsibilities.

It’s great to be able to watch a favorite movie over and over on DVD, to communicate with distant friends or family by e-mail or instant messaging, to listen to lovely music on a long flight. But is it necessary for us to have the slimmest, sexiest cell phone on the market or to have a device that keeps us connected to e-mail and the web? Do we really have to have ten pairs of shoes? Or twenty? What is the point of a $60,000 kitchen renovation when the new stove does not make the food any more delicious than the old one and the new refrigerator keeps food at exactly the same temperature as the one we replaced at three times the cost?

Which brings me back to Luke and John the Baptist. Shortly after the severity of the current recession became apparent, an article appeared in the New York Times. The article indicated that people who had not been directly affected by the recession, who were still cashing their substantial paycheques every two weeks, were beginning to rethink their lifestyles in light of the suffering they saw the recession bringing to others; in fact, some of those “others” were pretty close to home. The people cited in the article were redirecting some of their disposable income from personal consumption that was not necessary to individuals and groups who were truly in need. And the fact is that we all know people—a sister, a friend, a fellow parishioner who is trying to support her family in a third-world country , a colleague who has been laid off—who are in need.

Corporations exist in order to make a few people very rich. The ordinary people who make a corporation run—employees and consumers—are important only insofar as they contribute to the cause of further enriching the small group at the top. As Frank Rich says of the world depicted in Up in the Air, “Here is an America whose battered inhabitants realize that the economic deck is stacked against them, gamed by distant, powerful figures they can’t see or know.” But does it have to be this way? Is it not possible for us, the small people, to reclaim at least some control over our destiny, over our happiness and over the well-being of our fellow small people?

My favorite scene in Up in the Air is the one in which Ryan Bingham is sitting across from yet another victim of his company’s “services.” Bob is of course very angry and he is crying. He is concerned about what his children will think of him now that he is jobless and unable to provide them with what they need and want. Here is what Ryan does:

RYAN: Your children’s admiration is important to you?
BOB: Yeah. It was.
RYAN: Well, I doubt they ever admired you, Bob.
BOB: (looks up shocked and pissed) Hey, asshole, aren’t you here to console me?
RYAN: I’m not a shrink, Bob. I’m a wake-up call. Why do kids love athletes?
BOB: Because they screw lingerie models.
RYAN: No, that’s why we love athletes. Kids love them because they follow their dreams.
BOB: Yeah, well I can’t dunk.
RYAN: But you can cook.
BOB: What are you talking about?
RYAN: (Picks up Bob’s resume.) Your resume said you minored in French Culinary Arts….How much did they pay you to give up on your dreams?
BOB: (flat) Twenty-seven thousand a year.
RYAN: At what point were you going to stop and go back to what made you happy?
BOB: (simply shrugs)
RYAN: ….I see guys who work for the same company their entire lives. Clock in. Clock out. Never a moment of happiness. (Pauses for effect.) Not everyone gets this kind of opportunity. The chance for rebirth. If not for yourself…do it for your kids.

Bob’s eyes begin to water again. He’s a changed man.

Is Ryan serious about encouraging Bob to go back and follow his dream again or is he just leading him on so he can get him out the door and move on to the next “terminee”? It really doesn’t matter. Bob is hooked back into the dream. Many young people today are like Bob. They are going to abandon their dream—acting, dog training, cooking—to go after the big corporate salary so that they can afford to buy the home of their dreams and drive the car they see in the TV commercial. And perhaps, like Bob, somewhere down the road they will recognize that it was the dream that had value, not the salary, the corner office, and the luxury car.

If we “follow our bliss,” as Joseph Campbell put it, we may not make very much money. The fact is that we do not need to. A 27-inch TV, a good used car, and a three-year old cell phone can cover our needs. Some people do not actually need any of those things. Many of us do not even need to be in the city. So if we do not have to spend so much money, we do not need to break our backs to make so much. And we will have more time for the real pleasures of this life—a home-cooked meal and an evening of conversation or games with friends and family, a night of love-making with our partner or spouse, a game of football with our kids. Or just a quiet evening alone with a book. No guilt, no regrets, no stress.

There is great wisdom in the words of Jesus to the rich young man: “If you wish to be perfect, go and sell what you own and give the money to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” Of course, none of us is perfect, so we do not have to sell everything we own, but if we follow Jesus (and we do not have to be Christian to do so) and not the way of materialism, we will gain heaven, for heaven is indeed within each of us and thus here on earth. Jesus also said, “I tell you solemnly, it will be hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven….it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.”

I am sure that even the most unsophisticated economic mind will say that my ideas are naïve. Perhaps they are. But I do not see that our present economic system has given us anything even close to happiness, and I believe that the recession we have been suffering offers us an opportunity to at least consider taking another path. So if that is naive, I will happily err on the side of naïveté.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Courage and Priests

This is an article I wrote about two years ago after reading a couple of very shocking pamphlets that were given to me by my parish priest. I am afraid it is not very objective as I was outraged at the time.

Last summer the woman in charge of our parish PREP program asked me if I would be willing to be a catechist. The woman knew me from our bible study class, where I often volunteered responses and opinions. I was flattered to be asked, but as a recently returned Catholic whose views on dogma hover near the left end of the faith spectrum and as a member of a very conservative parish, my first impulse was to refuse. The woman immediately enlisted the aid of our parish priest to persuade me, and under this gentle onslaught I agreed to take on the task. I reviewed the material that was to be used in class and was getting ready to attend the training session, which was to be held in mid-August, a few weeks before the program was scheduled to begin, when I began to wonder if my being a gay catechist (and one who strongly disagrees with the teaching of the Church on homosexuality) might be a problem. I approached our priest-in-residence, who knew about my orientation, and asked him. He felt that it would not be a problem. We agreed, however, that I should run it by the pastor.

The next day I met with the pastor in his office and told him that I was gay. We had a brief but lively discussion on homosexuality (his first comment was, “Don’t you think it’s unnatural?”), after which he “suggested” that for my sake and his it would be better if I did not teach in the PREP program. He told me that he would find me other things to do in the parish.

In no way do I blame my pastor for making the decision that he did. First, I blindsided him with the sudden announcement that I was gay (judging by his reaction, I am sure I was the first person ever to have done that), and given the closeness of the date of the catechist training, he had to make a quick decision. There is no doubt that images of phone calls from outraged parents and from a concerned chancery flooded into his brain during the few minutes of our encounter; he made the decision that he felt was best for the parish as a whole. Second, if there is any blame to be assigned in this rejection of an enthusiastic if untrained catechist, it must be laid upon the Church for its institutionalized homophobia. Our pastor is East Asian and straight; there is little likelihood that he has ever been presented with the opportunity to explore the issue of sexual orientation beyond what he was taught by his culture and by his seminary professors.

It just so happens that during the Study Meeting for priests held by the archdiocese that fall (November of 2007), one of the guest speakers was Father John Harvey of Courage, the “spiritual support system for individuals with same-sex attraction.” When our pastor returned from the Study Week, he told me that the Courage session was “very good” and that he had some materials to give me that I would find useful. Some time later he presented me with two pamphlets. One of these, produced by the Catholic Medical Association, is entitled Homosexuality and Hope. The other is Same Sex Attraction: Catholic Teaching and Pastoral Practice, written by Father Harvey. While I knew of the basic teaching of the Church on homosexuality, I was shocked by the content of these publications.

The cover of Homosexuality & Hope contains this statement: “The major causes of homosexuality (same-sex attraction) are summarized in this question-and-answer pamphlet, as well as approaches to prevention and healing.” The phrase “approaches to prevention and healing” and certain of the questions and answers (Q&A) in the body of the pamphlet clearly indicate that the author(s) consider homosexuality to be a pathological condition. In fact, the pamphlet claims that it is one among a number of “addictive or chronic disorders, such as depression, substance abuse, or smoking.” Other Q&A in the pamphlet demonstrate the belief of the author(s) that any counseling or therapy provided for the purpose of dealing with the pathology of same-sex attraction must be carried out by individuals “who unequivocally support [Catholic] Church teachings on homosexuality and all aspects of sexual morality.”

Homosexuality & Hope cites a number of emotional, psychological, social and biological factors that lead to same-sex attraction and behavior. Among these are included: “In males, a weak masculine identity and loneliness resulting from a lack of male peer acceptance due to an inability to play team sports requiring eye-hand coordination, such as baseball, soccer, and basketball,” and “Narcissism or profound selfishness.” The document does not cite the scientific studies or academic research on which this information is based. Homosexuality & Hope recommends that individuals with same-sex attraction “seek out mental-health professionals who are experienced in the treatment of same-sex attractions” and that they undergo therapy, preferably with “a spiritual component…as in the treatment of substance abuse disorders.”

The phrase “the Church’s teaching on homosexuality” appears several times in Homosexuality & Hope. Details of these teachings are provided through quotes from the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The essence of the teachings is that homosexuality is “objectively disordered” and that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered” and “[u]nder no circumstance can they be approved.” The pamphlet also states that homosexuals must be “accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity.” Homosexuals “can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection.” Christian perfection includes the virtue of chastity. Finally, Homosexuality & Hope contains the following admonition: “Catholic mental health professionals, educators, physicians, priests and religious should recognize that medical science supports the Church’s teaching on homosexuality.”

The pamphlet Same-Sex Attraction: Catholic Teaching and Pastoral Practice treats the subject of homosexuality more extensively than Homosexuality & Hope. The author discusses the psychological and moral aspects of same-sex attraction (SSA) and offers guidelines to pastors dealing with individuals with SSA.

The overriding principle that governs the content of Father Harvey’s pamphlet is that homosexuality is psychologically and morally disordered. In citing what he believes to be “the four principal factors which individually or collectively contribute to SSA,” he makes clear his conviction that homosexuality is a pathological condition. Father Harvey claims that “[i]t is the experience of counselors that people generally deny SSA and, on a deep level, desire to be heterosexual.” He further states that “that there are millions of people with SSA in the country who are searching for more creative help than they have received in the past.” Every gay man who acknowledges his homosexuality “harbors self-hatred. He hates himself profoundly, often drowning himself in alcohol or contemplating suicide….In turn, this mood of self-condemnation begets bitterness toward society and toward God….” Furthermore, according to Father Harvey, gay people fear intimacy and are “usually proficient” at self-deception.

Father Harvey believes that “the pursuit of growth toward heterosexuality, though difficult and not always successful, remains a probability” for persons with SSA. In the chapter entitled "Pastoral Approaches," the priest/counselor is advised to encourage the person with SSA to seek therapy and to encourage him to “move toward heterosexual inclinations by chaste friendships with heterosexual persons.”

The Courage Apostolate was founded by Father Harvey in 1980, so one can reasonably assume that he is familiar with the scientific data on homosexuality collected in the past fifty years. Surely he has heard of the study carried out by Evelyn Hooker in the 1950s in which three separate psychological tests were administered to 30 heterosexual males and 30 homosexual males, all of similar age, IQ and levels of education. The individuals conducting the tests were unaware of the sexual orientation of the subjects. The results of the tests clearly indicated that there was no psychological difference between the two groups. This study, among others, led to the decision in 1973 by the American Psychiatric Association to remove homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. This decision was supported by the American Psychological Association in 1976. These two organizations alone represent nearly 200,000 health professionals. The organization known as the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), which considers homosexuality to be a disorder and which promotes so-called conversion therapy or reparative therapy, consists of less than 1500 health professionals. Nevertheless, in his pamphlet Father Harvey has chosen to recommend a book – Healing Homosexuality: Case Stories of Reparative Therapy – by the founder of NARTH, Joseph Nicolosi. In fact, in the Recommended Reading list that appears at the end of the pamphlet, there are listed no works by reputable authorities on homosexuality from either the American Psychiatric Association or the American Psychological Association. Nearly twenty-five percent of the items on the list are by Father Harvey himself although nowhere in the pamphlet does the author state his qualifications as an expert in psychology or human sexuality. Nor does Father Harvey attribute to any recognized authority the statements he makes about homosexual psychology in the text of the pamphlet.

Father Harvey also presents the Church’s moral position on homosexual acts. He claims that both the Old and New Testaments teach that marriage is the only relationship in which sexual intimacy is acceptable and quotes from an essay by the theologian Roger Shinn: “the Christian tradition over the centuries has affirmed the heterosexual, monogamous, faithful marital union as normative for the divinely given meaning of the intimate sexual relationship.” One must wonder, then, why such revered figures of the Old Testament as Abraham, Esau, and Jacob are not condemned for having more than one wife or for taking concubines. Father Harvey also notes that in the Bible “there are at least five clear condemnations of male homosexual actions and one of female.” There are also numerous references to slavery in the Bible, including several in the parables of Jesus, but where in any of them do we find a condemnation of this practice? Finally, Father Harvey writes that the story of the sin of Sodom was indeed a condemnation of homosexuality and not of inhospitality as many current interpretations claim. He quotes Dr. Ruth Tiffany Barnhouse, author of Homosexuality: A Symbolic Confusion (1977): “If the men of Sodom had no sexual intentions toward Lot’s visitors, why would Lot have replied, ‘I beg you, my brothers, do no such wicked thing. Listen, I have two daughters who are virgins. I am ready to send them out to you to treat as it pleases you. But as to the men, do nothing to them, for they have come under the shadow of my roof.’” Indeed the intentions of the crowd may have been sexual, but is it not also possible that the condemnation is against the intention to commit rape, a violent sexual act? And is it not interesting that there is no sanction against Lot – then or now – for offering his daughters to be raped by the crowd? Is it not possible that the culture of the day treated the sexual violation of males as a serious offence but that the same act against women was treated lightly? One cannot help but suspect that Father Harvey and others might be reading this passage “selectively” in order to buttress opinions already held, just as they ignore the overwhelming majority of medical opinion that homosexuality is not a sickness and that gay people therefore have no need to be cured.

The Church that tortured and put “heretics” to death in the Middle Ages now condemns the death penalty. The Church that condoned slavery until the nineteenth century now condemns this practice. The Church that claimed it was the moral obligation of wives to subject themselves to the will of their husbands now affirms the equality of women (unless of course women aspire to ordination to the priesthood). Yet homosexuality is still “a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil; and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder.” Does the inconsistency of the Church on these moral issues not reflect the very “moral relativism” condemned by Joseph Ratzinger prior to his election to the Chair of St. Peter?

It is curious that despite the number of sex-related sins listed by the Catholic Church, there are no continent-wide Church-sponsored organizations to assist people who commit adultery, who engage in sexual relations before marriage or who masturbate. And why are there no support organizations for the parents of these people as there is for parents of children with SSA?

Father Harvey has been involved with Courage Apostolate for nearly thirty years. If he is so convinced of the disordered nature of homosexuality, both psychologically and morally, one can reasonably assume that he has come to this conclusion as a result of considerable study and research and is thus able to put forth a logical and consistent argument that convincingly states his case. Instead, Same Sex Attraction: Catholic Teaching and Pastoral Practice is a poisonous document filled with misinformation, rhetoric, contradictory arguments, and unsubstantiated statements. In the chapter entitled Freedom and Compulsion, the author makes the following statement: “Not many homosexual acts may be called compulsive when we consider the squalid circumstances (like a public lavatory) and the high risk in which they take place.” Of all the homosexual acts that take place at any given time, how many of these does Father Harvey think occur in public lavatories? From what reliable source did he obtain the information that most gay sex is enacted in squalid circumstances? Why is this source not cited? Why are the millions of gay men and lesbians who are in loving, committed, long-term relationships not mentioned so that priests may receive an accurate picture of gay life? Why, in fact, does Father Harvey not acknowledge the fact that sex between two men or two women can be as much an act of love as it is in a heterosexual marriage?

In fact, the author does not use the word “love” anywhere in the pamphlet when he discusses gay relationships. Instead he says: “Homosexual activity lacks the same level of self-gift manifested in heterosexual activity. This lack leads to homosexual activity being primarily a selfish and self-gratifying act.” Has he not heard of the heterosexual men who jump on their wives, satisfy their own needs and then roll over and fall asleep without once considering the needs of the woman? Has he not heard of the “gift” of an HIV-positive condition given to their wives by millions of men in certain parts of the world? Surely he knows about the many gay relationships that have endured for twenty, thirty, even fifty years? Does he think that the couples in these relationships stay together simply for the convenience of the occasional self-gratifying act for which they use each other?

Father Harvey speaks disparagingly of pro-gay “propaganda,” yet his booklet is full of rhetoric that is clearly anti-gay propaganda. Consider the following statements:

  • “…as if no decent person could possibly see anything wrong with homosexual acts or anything distorted in the phenomenon of same-sex attraction.”
  • “Finally, the term orientation should not be used in reference to SSA, since the only genuinely sexual orientation is heterosexual. As Joseph Nicolosi says, there are no homosexuals, but only heterosexuals with a homosexual problem.”
  • “The gay agenda has promoted the idea that ‘gay is good’ and that the homosexual way of life is simply an ‘alternative lifestyle.’”
  • “In its sad and easily verifiable reality, the often-embraced ‘gay’ lifestyle is one of gay bars and bathhouses, a promiscuous subculture spread across the country.”
  • “Persons with SSA…readily regard themselves as a minority struggling for civil rights. The mainstream media, unfortunately, has become complicit in this political maneuvering….”
The author makes the following statement at the beginning of the pamphlet: “A person, after all, is more than a bundle of sexual inclinations, and our thinking about same-sex attraction is clouded when we start to think of ‘homosexuals’ as a separate kind of human being.” Most of the language and the arguments that follow, however, especially where they involve the “gay lifestyle” belie the author’s claim that gay people are other than “a bundle of sexual inclinations.” In fact, the author makes no reference to the millions of gay people who lead “normal” and healthy lives, making contributions to society as doctors, professors, artists – and Catholic priests!

Finally, a number of statements are made that cry out for citation. One wonders where Father Harvey gets this information from: “It is the experience of counselors that people generally deny SSA and, on a deep level, desire to be heterosexual.” To which counselors does he refer? What percentage of counselors have this “experience”? Or the following: “…it is sufficient to know that there are millions of people with SSA in the country who are searching for more creative help than they have received in the past.” What objective study produced this information? Why not cite the source? “The child knows that the style of life he or she has been living is not in accord with sound moral teaching….” How many children were surveyed in order to obtain this information? What organization conducted the survey and how was objectivity preserved?

One could dismiss these two pamphlets – and Father Harvey’s apostolate – as harmless relics of hopelessly outdated Church teaching if it were not for the fact that the views of Father Harvey on homosexuality contained in these materials are being presented as truth to Catholic priests throughout North America. How many of these priests will accept such views as the last word on homosexuality? How many pastors have the time or the inclination to explore these issues further on their own initiative? How many young priests come from conservative cultures that condemn homosexuality? Will not Father Harvey’s perspective only serve to reinforce the “correctness” of this condemnation? My own pastor is a good man who works very long hours and scarcely takes a day off, let alone a decent vacation, and despite great fatigue and not always perfect health, constantly displays the virtues of patience, charity, and forgiveness. He is a loving shepherd to his flock. Yet he believes that what Father Harvey imparted to priests in the 2007 Study Week is useful and good. And how are gay priests who must sit through the sessions led by Father Harvey to feel about their sexuality and their ministries, not to mention their relationship with clergy who are not gay and who believe what Father Harvey is teaching?

There are other views on this issue besides those of Father Harvey. One hopes that more than a few priests have read The Changing Face of the Priesthood, by Father Donald Cozzens. Father Cozzens points to the difficulty priests face in preaching the truth of the word of God under “the force of the sustaining ecclesial and cultural structures that may compromise the radical character of God’s word.”

In every age the Spirit nudges the collective consciousness of the Church to see ever more clearly the radical new order of the gospel message. I thought of this point when I came across a letter, written over two hundred years ago, from Bishop John Carroll of Baltimore to the prioress of the Carmelite Sisters. The Carmelites had arrived in the Commonwealth of Maryland in 1790, settling in Port Tobacco. There the sisters maintained a small farm for over a generation before moving to Baltimore in 1831. The letter announced a gift from the bishop intended to ease the hardships of the sisters’ demanding life in the New World. The gift consisted of two slaves, a mother and her daughter. Bishop Carroll and the Carmelite Sisters were bright and good people. Yet they did not see what we see clearly today. Two hundred years from now, our descendants will be puzzled at the blind spots of our present Church. They were good and wise people, it will be reasoned, why couldn’t they see what we are able to see from this point in history?

Peter Steinfels, in his book A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America, has the following to say about the Church and homosexuality:

In many respects, the society’s anxieties surrounding homosexuality are really only a projection of issues surrounding heterosexuality—once the tight link between sex and procreation is broken. Homosexuality becomes the obvious battleground for addressing questions about nonprocreative heterosexuality. The relatively small gay and lesbian portion of the population bears the brunt of unresolved moral and cultural questions facing the more than 90 percent that is heterosexual….

For the church, then, speaking to questions posed by the movement for gay and lesbian rights and social acceptance is not distinct from the challenge of speaking to questions of heterosexual morality. As long as the church remains entrenched behind its prohibition of all deliberately nonprocreative sex, that certainly provides an unambiguous teaching on all same-sex sexual intimacy: it is sinful. But once that moral Maginot Line collapses or is outflanked by realities it ignores, as has been the case with marital sex between men and women, the church appears to have little coherent to say about another cultural development with major implications for human dignity and well-being.

Father Harvey tells the reader that it took him years to understand the nature of same sex attraction. A careful reading of Same Sex Attraction: Catholic Teaching and Pastoral Practice leads one to be convinced that he does not understand it at all. On the contrary, this document promotes among the Catholic clergy an egregious misunderstanding of homosexuality. The opportunity to truly understand homosexuality has been available to Father Harvey for the nearly thirty years during which he has been involved in the Courage Apostolate. One can only guess why he has chosen to ignore the wealth of information from the medical and social sciences that presents an accurate picture of homosexuality and of gay men and lesbians. Whatever the reason for this choice, the point must be made that an individual who employs rhetoric and misinformation for the purpose of supporting what he considers to be a moral truth is in fact committing an immoral act.

One can only hope that most Catholic priests possess enough intelligence and sufficient experience of the real world to recognize that these pamphlets do not reflect the reality of either the psychology or the morality of gay people and gay life. And one can only hope that pastors will see their gay and lesbian parishioners in the same way they look upon the straight ones: as human beings who are kind and talented, weak and sinful, and as deserving to love and to be loved by a life partner as their heterosexual counterparts.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Traditional Marriage in Trouble

In June of this year, my parish priest declared in his Sunday homily that in life today we are faced with many frightening and confusing issues. An example he gave was our (Canadian) government undermining traditional marriage between a man and a woman by legalizing same-sex marriage. I thought about this for a day or so and decided that I had to respond. Here is the e-mail I sent him:

Good Morning, Father:

In yesterday's homily, you mentioned that there are a number of confusing and frightening issues that we are faced with in today's world. The first example that you gave was the undermining of traditional marriage brought about by the decision of the Canadian government to legalize same-sex marriage.

Since I actually heard this statement twice [I was in the choir at a later Mass], it has led me to wonder how same-sex marriage has undermined traditional marriage in this country. Has the number of marriages between men and women decreased since 2005 and has it been shown that this decrease is a direct result of the same-sex marriage legislation? Has the divorce rate in marriages between men and women increased since 2005, and if so, has this increase been linked evidentially to the same-sex marriage legislation? Does allowing gay couples to marry somehow cheapen or demean traditional marriage? It seems to me that holding such an opinion would be like believing that allowing interracial marriage would diminish the sanctity of racially "pure" marriage, or recognizing the value of left-handedness would diminish the value of right-handedness.

When we say that same-sex marriage undermines the sanctity of traditional marriage, I believe we are in a sense ignoring the elephant in the room. If we look at the divorce rate in this country over, say, the past twenty years (in other words, going back long before the same-sex marriage legislation), we must admit that there is something terribly wrong with marriage in our society. Something other than same-sex relationships has undermined this institution. I would suggest that we should perhaps look at the rampant materialism that has characterized our society since the end of the Second World War and the greed and selfishness that have resulted rather than pointing the finger at our government for giving gay couples the rights that heterosexual couples have enjoyed for many centuries. There are many traditions that are simply wrong (just read The History of Black Catholics in the United States, by Father Cyprian Davis, for example), so we cannot always point to tradition as a light that can guide us or use tradition as a reason to oppose change.

I have the deepest regard and respect for you as a person and as pastor of our church. You are a both a loving shepherd and a tireless worker in the vineyard of the Lord. I also recognize that you have a job to do and that your job includes ensuring that your parishioners understand and follow the teachings of the Church. But as a Catholic who has not "chosen a lifestyle" and who is not working from a particular "agenda" but who is nevertheless gay, I am offended by statements that reflect the Church's lack of understanding of - and its unwillingness to understand - both the psychology and the sociology of homosexuality. I can only hope that the integrity of individual Catholics, including priests, will one day overcome this lack and that younger gay people will feel validated, loved, and recognized in our church.

I waited for a response but did not receive one. The next Sunday I was a lector, so I saw Father in the sacristy. He told me that he had received and read my e-mail, but did not respond because he was poor at keyboarding. He suggested that it would be better to discuss this issue face to face. I am still waiting for that discussion to take place.

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Pilgrim & The Path

Here is an essay I recently wrote about my return to the Church.

In the early summer of 2006, at the age of 55, I became a practicing Catholic again, after 40 years away from the Church. Where had I been and what had I been doing for those four decades? I was a shy, sensitive, and needy boy looking for affirmation and desperate for love. For forty years my insecurity caused me to be led onto one inappropriate path after another in search of respect, security, money, love. Each time I thought I had found what I was seeking, the joy was fleeting at best. When I found love, it turned out to be not enough love or it wasn’t the right kind of love. Or I was so afraid of losing the love I began to cling and ended up alienating the other person. Money was spent frivolously, security was illusory, and respect could not be got because there was no self-respect. Finally, after the collapse of a business venture and the failure, less than a year later, of another relationship, I truly was lost without a compass in the snowy back country.

Did God then suddenly appear in a circle of blinding light in this my most desperate hour and take my hand to guide me out of the wilderness and back to a safe place? Not exactly. I do not discount the possibility, however, that providence played a role in what did happen. Two friends, one of whom I had not seen in ten years, gently maneuvered me, by the most subtle indirection, onto the path I had been trying to find my entire life. And there before me on the path was the Church, waiting like the loving father in Luke’s story of the prodigal son.

My “journey” back to Catholicism has been complicated and confusing, a stop-and-go process that has provoked much inner turmoil—most of it joyful. When I registered as a parishioner in my local church and started attending Mass regularly, I felt a great sense of “coming home.” I was welcomed warmly into the parish community by both pastor and my fellow parishioners. And in spite of the startling contrast between the post-Vatican II Church and the one I remember from my time as an altar boy in the early 1960s, the essential ritual of the Mass remained—the vestments, the formalized movements and gestures of the priest and the altar servers, the music, the fragrance of the incense when it is part of the liturgy. As a child I was awed and profoundly moved by all of the theatrical elements of the liturgy, enough to want to become a priest; now an adult of upper middle age, I am no less impressed. I recently discovered that there is a name for gay men on both sides of the altar, lovers of Catholic ritual like me: we are “liturgy queens.” This is a label that I am very comfortable with.

In these three years, I have discovered in myself a powerful connection with the Catholic Church, a connection that may be more emotional than spiritual but one that nonetheless persists despite my many doubts and complaints about faith and about the Church. I cannot explain why I am so drawn to Catholicism, but I know that the draw was there when I was a child and I now believe that it remained not far below the surface of my conscious mind during those 40 years of lapse. The emotional connection has spawned passionate intellectual and creative activity the like of which I have never experienced before.

A big part of the pull towards Catholicism for me is an enduring attraction to the priesthood. Very soon after I returned to the Church, I began to experience a powerful calling to be a priest, a draw more powerful than any I had ever experienced. I was even dreaming of saying Mass. I spoke with my pastor and with the diocesan vocations director about the possibility of entering the seminary, and I created for myself a make-believe world of priestly life. I soon became notorious for my collection of “priest movies.” Titles that now reside on my DVD shelf include Going My Way, The Shoes of the Fisherman, The Third Miracle, Mass Appeal, Diary of a City Priest, Priest, and many more. I watched these films again and again, each time with the same child-like—and childish—fascination.

I also began to read books on the priesthood. Still Called By Name: Why I Love Being a Priest, by Father Dominic Grassi, and Diary of a City Priest, by Father John McNamee, are honest accounts of the joys and struggles of imperfect but dedicated men. Reading these books intensified the feeling that I was being called; I even e-mailed Father Grassi to ask for his guidance. The more I read, the more I wanted to read. I devoured Paul Wilkes’ book In Mysterious Ways: The Death and Life of a Parish Priest, the true story of an ordinary parish priest whose faith is severely tested by a near-fatal bout of cancer and the radical surgery that was necessary to stop it. I also read the incisive and delightfully dry fictional accounts of the lives of priests by J.F. Powers, as well as the more scholarly studies of the priesthood by the psychologist Father Donald Cozzens. And then there were the memoirs of ex-priests and ex-seminarians, some of whom offer a critical view of aspects of priestly life, such as celibacy, and of the clerical hierarchy of the Church. In the end, these books actually served to give me a cleared-eyed view of the priesthood and caused me to reflect deeply on what I had thought was a priestly vocation for myself.

In February 2007, after six months of truly agonizing “discernment,” I invited the vocations director, who by this time was also a resident in our parish, to lunch and told him that I did not think it was possible for me to be a priest. I said that there was too much of Church teaching that I disagreed with, and besides, I was gay. He indicated that he understood my decision, we talked over lunch about a variety of issues, including homosexuality (he never once used the word “gay”), and we agreed that we would meet for a meal and a talk every few months. That was the last time we ate together.

While there have been isolated instances of that same powerful calling that I felt in the summer of 2006, the arc of my desire to enter the priesthood has been on the downward slope since that luncheon meeting. And while I believe that I was indeed being called to the priesthood and that I would be a good priest, I am at peace with my new vocation—Catholic writer. As a layperson I am free to explore and discuss in the public forum the many questions I have about the Catholic faith.

The novelist Anne Rice tells, in her memoir Called Out of Darkness: A Spiritual Confession, of her return to the Catholic faith (at age 57) after many years of being an atheist:

In the moment of surrender, I let go of all the theological and social questions which had kept me from Him for countless years. I simply let them go. There was the sense, profound and wordless, that if He knew everything, I did not have to know everything, and that, in seeking to know everything, I’d been, all of my life, missing the entire point.

No social paradox, no historic disaster, no hideous record of injustice or misery should keep me from Him. No question of Scriptural integrity, no torment over the fate of this or that atheist or gay friend, no worry for those condemned or ostracized by my church or any other church should stand between me and Him. The reason? It was magnificently simple: He knew how or why everything happened; He knew the disposition of every single soul.

The husband-and-wife team who facilitate the Bible study group in my parish are converts to Catholicism. The wife told me that her experience of faith was similar to that of Ms Rice and she recommended that I simply accept “everything” and then allow the individual questions and issues to sort themselves out.

But I cannot surrender; I am unable to let go of the questions. There is much that I simply cannot accept. More important, however, is my belief that I do not have to accept all the teachings of the Church in order to be a “good Catholic.” I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s. I have traveled and experienced and read a great deal in my life. Most of my friends are non-Catholic. I am not cynical, but I am skeptical, and my skepticism extends to much of the doctrine and dogma of the Church. I simply cannot accept holus-bolus the teachings of the Church on revelation, the literal interpretation of scripture that reduces so many homilies to banality, and the antiquated views of the hierarchy on human sexuality.

From what I have read in books like Peter SteinfelsA People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America and Catholic sociologist Jerome Baggett’s Sense of the Faithful: How American Catholics Live Their Faith, I am far from the only Catholic who harbors this skepticism. A significant percentage of Catholics believe, for example, that the act of transubstantiation performed by the priest at Mass is a symbolic act rather than the real transformation of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. The doctrine of the physical Assumption of the Blessed Virgin, proclaimed infallible by Pope Pius XII in 1950, would be difficult for any intelligent nine-year-old to believe in the light of science education today. Where would the Blessed Mother be ascending to? And I have talked with priests who wonder if indeed there is a heaven.

Through my extensive “Catholic” reading over the past three years, I have come to realize that there is a wide spectrum of belief within the Church. I am comforted that there are others who question as I do yet still consider themselves to be staunchly Catholic. I do not believe that they persist in their practice of Catholicism as insurance against possible damnation in the afterlife. The archdiocese in which I live is very conservative (one old priest was cited in the local Catholic periodical: “Father X sees orthodoxy in the future of the parish and diocese: ‘The priests are proud of being conservative, and are more Roman than Rome. They are proud of tradition’”), so I am pleased when my weekly copy of the magazine America arrives in my inbox. Here I can find insight and commentary—often by Jesuit priests—that is more in keeping with the spirit of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), which sought to redefine the rigidly hierarchical and fiercely anti-modern Church of the post-Reformation period as the People of God.

The issue with which I am most strongly in disagreement with the Church is, of course, homosexuality. I made the decision to tell my pastor that I am gay because I had been asked to be a Catechist in the PREP program in our parish and would thus be teaching religion to young children; I did not want Father to be blindsided in the event that a parent found out about my sexual orientation and came running to the rectory. The first thing that he said to me was, “Don’t you think it is unnatural?” When I pointed out that it was virtually certain that there are large numbers of gay priests who are active in ministry, he insisted that if those men were still in the priesthood that had to mean that they all agreed with the teaching of the Church in spite of their orientation. In the end, he suggested that it might not be a good idea for me to be teaching in the PREP program. Now, my pastor is a very intelligent man and a good man. But his views reflect the benighted attitudes and homophobic teachings of men like Father John Harvey, founder and, until recently, head of the Courage apostolate, the Catholic “spiritual support system for individuals with same-sex attraction.” It is hard to live as a gay person in a Church that condemns the physical expression of a love that is as much a gift from God as the love of a man and woman for each other.

Yet I remain Catholic.

I am sometimes asked how I can be part of a Church that teaches that homosexuality is “objectively disordered” and that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered,” a Church that for years covered up the most heinous abuse by members of its clergy, a Church that refuses to grant women the opportunity for full participation in the conduct of the liturgy and the administering of the sacraments. My answer is that I see the Catholic Church as analogous to a family. A son may disagree strongly with the views of his father; a sister may consider the behaviour of her brother reprehensible; a mother might disapprove of the choice of marriage partner made by a son or daughter. Such disagreements and disapprobation are not uncommon in families, and apart from rare cases of extreme dysfunction, families do not usually break up over these issues. Resentment may fester until it comes out into the open and is somehow resolved or is politely hidden away again to await the next flare-up, and disagreements may even be life-long, but the love that underpins family relationships remains constant. I recently saw the segment of the PBS television series Bill Moyers on Faith and Reason in which the writer Richard Rodriguez talks about being gay and Catholic. I was amused to see that he uses the same analogy to explain his reasons for remaining in the Church.

So where is God in all of this? For Anne Rice the return to faith came as a result of an insistent call, which she was powerless to ignore, try as she might to hold on to her atheism. She says, “And He was calling me back through His presence on the altar.” When I returned to the Church, I was not seeking God; I craved the embrace of the Church—the empty, silent physical church, the priest in his black clericals with Roman collar, quietly and purposefully and reverently moving about the sanctuary, the rows of comfortingly uncomfortable pews—and the liturgy of the Mass.

When I became a Catholic again, I did not begin kneeling by my bed at night to ask God to intercede to cure my brother’s terminal cancer, to relieve the chronic arthritis pain of my 85-year-old mother, or to free me from my seemingly permanent shortage of money. I do not feel the presence of Christ in the thin wafer of bread that is placed on my tongue at Communion. I cannot believe that the God of love would condemn his imperfect children to an eternity of suffering in hell. Intellectually I know that God is not the bearded figure that appears in Michelangelo’s painting “The Creation of Adam.” If I am truly in touch with the divine within me, I do know that he exists in the words that I read and write—and perhaps even more in the act of writing—and he lives in the beautiful canine companion who keeps me company while I work, and he is present at the dining room table when a meal prepared by me or by someone else in my household is shared with love. Yet when I think of God or try to pray, it is always that bearded old man that comes to mind, the same image present in my ten-year-old consciousness while I celebrated Mass in vestments cut from old sheets at an altar created out of my mother’s cedar chest. I can never forget the words of a wise priest, Father Bob, now deceased, in my elderly parents’ parish. At the end of his homily one Sunday, he said, “You know, I cannot understand why we genuflect only before the tabernacle. God dwells within all of us, so why aren’t we genuflecting to each other as well?”

In another homily on another Sunday, Father Bob, who had not been seen in a Roman collar in years and who wore baggy shorts, a T-shirt and running shoes under his vestments, talked about faith. He told his congregation how important it was for them to leave behind the faith of their childhood—to cast off their childish certainties—and to adopt a mature faith. Mature faith doubts and questions, and in the doubting and the questioning, faith does not grow stronger—it grows deeper. As adult Christians, we must accept that there are no final answers even though the Church—actually the hierarchy of the Church—would like us to believe that these answers do exist—because the Church has provided them for us—and that we are in fact obliged to accept them as God’s truth. I wish that I had been able to get to know Father Bob—to talk with him and find out what he had read, who he had spoken with, what he meditated upon in his garden at the rectory. I have finally given up the idea of ever becoming a priest, but if by some miracle I were able to pursue a clerical vocation and keep my integrity, I would hope to be a priest like him.

My life as a returned Catholic is filled with contradictions and paradox. But if we examine the history of the Church, will we not find contradiction and paradox throughout? In the movie The Shoes of the Fisherman, the young anthropologist-philosopher, Father Telemond, has been told by his friend Pope Kyril that he may not teach or publish his views pending a full investigation of his controversial works by a papal commission. In his bitter disappointment, Father Telemond says of the Church: “I hate her! And still I can’t leave her. I love her, and still I cannot live in her in peace.” My feelings about the Church are perhaps not as strong as those of Father Telemond—I hate nothing and I hate no one—but his words do reflect an ambivalence toward the Church that I am certain I will continue to experience to varying degrees.

Yet this is a joyful ambivalence, the sign of a mature faith that has made me happier, more fulfilled, and more at peace than I have ever been. When I returned to Catholicism, I looked for God in my church, in my “priest movies,” and in my books. Only recently have I understood that he has been with me all the time—in all that I am, in all that I do, in my friends and loved ones, in my garden, in the music that I love, and yes, in my church, my movies, and in my books. And all along, he has been shining a light on the path that I will blissfully follow for the rest of my life.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Cafeteria Catholic

At the very beginning of his book Sense of the Faithful: How American Catholics Live Their Faith, sociologist Jerome P. Baggett relates the story of "Bill," a gay man who lives in San Francisco. Bill's partner of eighteen years, Daniel, was a member of Most Holy Redeemer Parish in the Castro District. Daniel attended Mass at Holy Redeemer most Sundays, while Bill, who had long ago closed the door on his Catholic faith, preferred to sleep in.

Everything changed when Daniel contracted AIDS, and Bill became his primary care provider. This tragedy brought Bill agonizing stress and heartache, but it also introduced him to a face of Catholicism that he had not previously known. The AIDS Support Group at Most Holy Redeemer sent volunteers to help tend to Daniel's health and personal needs, which, toward the end of his life, required daily visits. Even in his grief, Bill was impressed by these people's witness to their--and once his--faith.
This was not the intolerably dogmatic "Churchianity" that had come to seem ossified and irrelevant to him. Nor of course was this the vicious "God hates fags" message he had heard while doing some church shopping before moving from Philadelphia. He found this open-hearted and open-minded incarnation of the faith to be very alluring. So much so, in fact, that Bill began attending Mass at Most Holy Redeemer not long after Daniel's death and soon became an active member of first the AIDS Support Group and then the parish itself.

Bill personifies the major theme of Baggett's book:
Bill's story might appear to fit the familiar "lapsed Catholic returns to Mother Church" mold, but Bill has not returned to anything; he has begun something new. On the one hand, he is quite the unabashed Catholic: "I love the traditions, and I love the mystery; I think it's a very, very, very rich religion." On the other hand, though, he is adamant about his freedom, even obligation, to mine those riches on his own terms and in accordance with his own needs....He calls himself a "very strong Catholic" but, without a hint of apology, eagerly embraces the pejoratively intended moniker "cafeteria Catholic" as a testament to his own religious agency and capacity for discernment.

Bill is an intelligent and thoughtful adult who has endured a great deal of suffering and out of that suffering has made the clear-headed and deliberate choice to return to the Catholic faith. This is just one choice--albeit a significant one--that he has made in his life; there have been many others. It is evident then that he does not require others to make decisions for him. As Catholic adults, we also do not need bishops and cardinals and Curia officials to make choices for us; in fact, according to the findings presented in Sense of the Faithful, even the most conservative of Catholics choose to interpret the symbols of the faith and the teachings of the Church in their own way. It does not take the IQ of a rocket scientist to figure out why even traditional Catholic families only have one or two kids.

I too love the tradition and the mystery of the Catholic faith. If it were possible, I would join the small group that arrives at my church before Mass every day and chants the Liturgy of the Hours and then I would attend Mass and receive Holy Communion. But I am also an unashamed cafeteria Catholic, just as I am an unashamed moral relativist.

In an article in America magazine entitled "Little Gray Cells," James J. DiGiacomo, SJ, tells the story of a woman who was upset by what he said in his homily at Mass one day as he had intimated that one of the reasons for the current shortage of priests was that "there are people who feel called but are not accepted, such as women and married men."

The parishioner (I’ll call her Virginia) objected to my bringing up the possibility of women being called to the priesthood, because Rome has pronounced any discussion of the issue as out of bounds. I replied that I was aware of this; but since I have yet to hear any personally convincing arguments against women’s ordination, I continue to wonder. And it was this very wondering that offended her! How could I, a priest, have any reservations when authority has spoken? And worse still, how could I even intimate such reservations from the altar?

Father DiGiacomo sees the disagreement between him and Virginia as a reflection of a more general search for truth in the Church today. "The question," he says, "is how should we search for the truth?"

For Virginia, the answer is simple. Listen to those in authority, especially the pope and those around him, whose judgments are final and not subject to review. The reasons they give for their decisions are irrelevant; the only thing that matters is the source. Her attitude is based on genuine faith in the vicar of Christ, confident that any pronouncement emanating from the Vatican comes from God. Any attempt to question its validity is tantamount to a rejection of the faith. But for me, and others like me, there is a problem. We have these little gray cells that persist in working even after respected authority speaks. We can’t seem to turn these cells off, and we tend to wonder, to question, to speculate, to evaluate, to criticize. In short, we can’t help thinking; and if those of us who are priests think out loud, Virginia and her friends are scandalized. She thinks our job is to tell people when to stop thinking, instead of giving bad example and continuing to speak when we have all presumably heard the last word.

I can sympathize with Virginia and other Catholics like her. They want their faith--and the so-called guardians of that faith--to show them the way, just as their parents, their pastors, and their teachers showed them the way when they were children. They do not want to have to agonize over moral issues or listen to their conscience, which can be capricious and can work like the devil. But there are those of us who believe that questioning and doubting are part of a mature faith and that it is in the questioning and the doubting that we recognize our own imperfection. It is the struggle to recognize and be who we really are that brings us closer to God.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Church as the People of God

In Part V, "The Ecclesiology of the Second Vatican Council," in his book The Church: The Evolution of Catholicism, theologian Richard McBrien says the following about Lumen Gentium, or the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, which was approved by the council in its third session in 1964:

The second chapter of Lumen gentium is entitled “The People of God.” In teaching that the Church is a mystery, or sacrament, the council underscored the point that the Church, like a sacrament, has a visible and an invisible side. The invisible side is the presence of the triune God. The visible side is primarily the baptized persons who constitute the Church. The Church is not something apart from the baptized to which they “belong” as recipients and beneficiaries of its principal assets, namely, the sacraments. The People of God are the Church. Whatever structures and other institutional elements exist within the Church are to assist the People of God to fulfill their mission and ministries. These elements, therefore, exist to serve the whole People of God, not the other way around. Indeed, according to the fourth chapter, on the laity in the Church, the laity share in the threefold office of Christ: of teaching, ruling, and sanctifying. The lay apostolate is no longer conceived as a delegated participation in the ministry of the hierarchy, but as a direct sharing in the mission of the Church through Baptism and Confirmation and then “communicated and nourished” by the Eucharist.

It seems to me that as baptized Catholics we must understand and take to heart what the council fathers fought so hard to give us and what the Church hierarchy, since 1979, has been in the process of attempting to reverse. It is not by virtue of our obedience to the dictates of the Roman Curia that we are the People of God, and no matter who we are, as Catholics we are entitled to receive the sacraments from those whose duty it is "to serve the whole People of God." Every priest, bishop, and Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, along with each lay person, belongs equally to the People of God and is therefore equally a sinner who is striving for perfection. We must remember this, even if the hierarchy chooses not to remember.

We must not mistake the organization or the institution for the real Church. As Father McBrien also says:

The council’s understanding of the Church as mystery, or sacrament, represents a transcending of the preconciliar concept of the Church as primarily an institution or organization. In the latter instance, one “belongs” to the Church; in the former, one participates in the life of the Church, and with all its other members, constitutes the very reality of the Church.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Liturgy Queen?

Why did I call this blog "Confessions of a Liturgy Queen"? I only recently learned of this term, but when I saw it in an article by David Gibson in Politics Daily, I instantly recognized myself. I do not usually like labels of any kind - although we all use them both for ourselves and for others - I have to admit I do love this one. Here is what Gibson says in his article:

Mark Jordan, a scholar of gay religion at Harvard Divinity School and author of several provocative books, such as "The Silence of Sodom: Homosexuality in Modern Catholicism," has argued that this sense of drama in the Mass makes churches a favorite stage for "Liturgy Queens," an epithet that Jordan reclaims as a badge of honor. "The liturgy creates its own divas, on both sides of the communion rail. It is a show that makes for ardent gay fans," he writes. "Liturgy Queens need not be members of the clergy, but they are typically found in the vicinity of the altar – or at least in the choir loft."

So I thought "Confessions of a Liturgy Queen" would be a catchy title for a gay man's blog on Catholicism. Now if I could only figure out how to actually get people to read my blog....

Monday, December 7, 2009

I am very excited to be launching this blog. I sincerely hope that it will stimulate respectful and friendly discussion among thoughtful folk who are interested in exploring the broad issues of religion, faith, and spirituality as well as more specific topics that come under the general subject of the Catholic Church.

I will try to post blogs daily on issues and topics that are current in the world of religion or that are percolating in my brain. I invite comments from everyone, but I do reserve the right to remove comments that I consider to be disrepsectful in any way.

As I have just launched this blog, it presently looks pretty bare, but I do hope to be able to link to blogs of a similar or related nature in order to be able to invite as many guests as possible to the feast.