Can The Church Survive In America?

Andrew Sullivan —  Sep 22 2014 @ 12:50pm

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I used to believe – and a part of me still does – that the question of homosexuality was not that big an issue for Catholicism. Gays are only a tiny minority of the population at large; the power and beauty of the church’s core understanding of heterosexuality sustains most people’s interest and commitment; and the central teachings of Jesus – of forgiveness of sins, redemption, charity, mercy – are so much more important than issues relating to human sexuality and romantic love.

When I was asked – with mind-numbing regularity – how I could remain happily gay and a Catholic, I answered honestly that, for those very reasons, I could live with institutional dissonance, as any thinking member of a hierarchical church has to, from time to time. But I think now that I misread a couple of things – and that the whole question may be a much bigger deal than I once believed and hoped. Here’s a story that underlines the problem:

A Catholic church in Montana has told two gay men that they can no longer receive communion simply because of their gay marriage and, in order to do so again, they must file for divorce. The two men, Paul Huff, 66, and Tom Wojtowick, 73, have been together for over 30 years and were married in Seattle in 2013. They’ve attended Saint Leo The Great Catholic Church in the town of Lewistown since 2003 and have also been members of the church’s choir. The’ve also now been denied participation in that church group.

Maybe years ago, removing two faithful choir members because they’re gay would have passed some kind of muster. First off, the couple wouldn’t have been out of the closet and so the entire don’t-ask-don’t-tell paradigm would have allowed the pastor to ignore the fact that two gay men were in the choir – or to keep their expulsion on the down-low; second, they would probably have been too ashamed to protest, and their peers too embarrassed to support them. But those two conditions are now no longer close to being met:

Huff and Wojtowick have received support from many of the church’s congregation. Forty members have reportedly either voiced their disapproval of the church’s offensive decision or have quit attending mass there altogether. One parishioner has suggested the title of a song sung at the church be changed from “All are Welcome” to “Some are Welcome.” How apt.

The controversy has now led to the bishop intervening and holding a meeting with 300 parishioners to air views. The bishop claims there is polarization in the congregation over this and is now mulling the decision to bar the couple from the sacraments and from participation in their church – unless they get a civil divorce and sign a statement supporting civil marriage as exclusively heterosexual. Yes, the church is now in favor of divorce as a condition for being a Catholic! If that sounds perverse, you’re not wrong.

Here’s the problem: maintaining doctrinal orthodoxy requires penalizing two men, aged 66 and 73, who have been committed to each other for thirty years and are pillars of the local community. Here’s a brief profile of who these two men are:

Huff and Wojtowick have both historically been active in their community and in their church. Huff is a two-time past-president of the local Kiwanis Club, chairman of the Fergus County Fair Board, board member of the Lewistown Art Center and formerly served as an organist and cantor in the St. Leo’s church choir.

Wojtowick recently retired as executive director of the Central Montana Council on Aging, and has served as either a board member or chairman of the Lewistown Public Library, Lewistown Art Center, and as an adviser to the Central Montana Medical Center Home Health and Hospice Program. Wojtowick is a four times elected representative of the Fergus County Community Council.

It’s kinda hard to portray these two as some kind of subversive force. More to the point, the core reason behind the church’s position is the natural law teaching barring all non-procreative sex. I don’t know how much non-procreative sex the two men are now having, but it’s not entirely crazy to assume it’s no more than any heterosexual couple past menopause and in retirement. So the sodomy question has to be pretty moot.

And the action against the men came not because they are gay but because they decided to celebrate their love and friendship with a civil marriage license. So they’re not really being targeted for sex; they are being targeted for their commitment and responsibility and honesty. And the only reason they have been excluded on those grounds is because they are gay.

If the church upholds this kind of decision, it is endorsing cruelty, discrimination and exclusion. Pope Francis’ view is that this is exactly the kind of thing that requires the church to exercise mercy not rigidity. But allowing a married gay couple to sing in the choir as an act of “mercy” would merely further expose the fragility of the church’s thirteenth century views of human sexuality. It would put the lie to the otherness of gay people; to the notion that it is essential or even possible for a tiny minority to live entirely without intimacy or love or commitment. It also reveals that gay men have long been a part of the church – and tolerated, as long as they lied about their lives and gave others plausible deniability with respect to their sexual orientation. It is an endorsement of dishonesty.

None of this is compatible with the core moral teachings of the church – about fairness, truth, compassion, forgiveness, mercy and inclusion. And this is clear to large numbers of Catholics – especially the younger generation who will rightly view this kind of decision as barbaric and inhuman. There is only so much inhumanity that a church can be seen to represent before its own members lose faith in it. I recall the feelings of my own niece and nephew who lost a huge amount of respect for the church when they heard a homily denouncing the civil marriage of their own uncle. I notice the outcry among Catholic high school students when a teacher was fired for the very same reason. When a church responds to an act of love and commitment not by celebration but by ostracism, it is not just attacking a couple’s human dignity; it is also attacking itself.

What was once a blemish can become a defining wound. It has split one small parish. It may slowly wreck the whole church.

Update from a reader:

Question: Why would the church need these two men to get a “divorce”… for a “marriage” that isn’t even recognized by the Roman Catholic Church?

Possible Answer: Did a member of the Roman Catholic clergy just recognize and affirm the existence of a gay marriage?

Dish followups to this post here and here.