Can The Church Survive In America? Ctd

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And so it continues:

Barbara Webb had been a chemistry teacher and volleyball coach at Marian High School in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., for nearly a decade — until last month, when Webb says administrators at the all-girl’s Catholic school learned Webb and her wife were expecting their first child … Webb says that she learned of her pregnancy in June, informed her employers in July, and was fired by mid-August.

Webb had already been married for six years – and so she was fired not for marrying, but for that other terrible sin: having a baby.This time, however, the nuns in charge have had some qualms:

The congregation of Catholic nuns that operates Marian High School have signaled they will re-examine policies that led to the controversial firing of a gay teacher who said she was let go because of her nontraditional pregnancy.

“Pope Francis has brought a sense of hope to our lives and encourages us to look at our Church with new eyes,” Sister Mary Jane Herb, president of the Monroe-based Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, said in a letter to alums that was shared on a Facebook page created to support the fired teacher. “No, it is not likely that doctrine will change, however the Pope emphasizes that the values of mercy, inclusion and compassion need to be included in our response to complex situations.”

Part of the message is clearly not getting through:

Of the 40-some employees who have lost jobs at Catholic institutions since 2008 because of their sexual orientation, marital status, pregnancies or personal views on homosexuality, nearly half have lost their jobs this year.

This is only 17 firings across the entire country this year – which is a minuscule fraction of the number of gay and lesbian employees at Catholic institutions. But the accelerating pace and the intensive news coverage certainly means it is becoming more and more a live issue.

And it comes down to this: does it seem Christian to you to fire people for marrying someone or for having a baby? When the next generation of Catholics comes to see their church as doing this, how will they reconcile that with the notion of the church as dedicated to universal love, social justice and compassion? The “sins” that gay Catholics are committing, after all, are no worse in theological terms than masturbation, pre-marital sex or the use of contraception within a marriage. And yet only the gays are really subject to these new censures, because they can be more easily identified in the public space.

However way you slice it, that means that the Catholic church is engaged in a very targeted campaign of discrimination against gay people for the very sins most straight Catholics commit all the time. This has to strike most people as wrong – deeply wrong. Even the most stringent church teaching on homosexuality opposes what it calls “unjust discrimination” against gays. And isn’t selective enforcement of morals against one tiny minority precisely the definition of “unjust”?

Can The Church Survive In America? Ctd

Another day, another firing of a faithful Catholic parish music director … because he married his longtime boyfriend. The structure of the story is deeply familiar and depressing:

After marrying his long-time partner over the weekend, parishioners got an email from Father Bob White. It told them that Archbishop John Nienstedt had asked for Moore’s resignation, and Moore intended to resign. In a statement, Nienstedt said he was contacted by St. Victoria about the situation with Moore, and he told parish leaders that the church’s teachings must be upheld. Nienstedt never mentioned the Catholic Church’s stance against gay marriage, but added: “The … conduct of church employees can inspire and motivate people, but it can also scandalize and undermine their faith. Church employees must … recognize and accept the responsibilities that accompany their ministry.”

Disheads will know something about Nienstedt – and it encapsulates so much that’s so profoundly wrong with the Church. The archbishop accusing a popular music director of scandalizing and undermining the faith of others has a back-story:

Archbishop John Nienstedt of St. Paul and Minneapolis is being investigated for “multiple allegations” of inappropriate sexual conduct with seminarians, priests, and other men, according to the archbishop’s former top canon lawyer, Jennifer Haselberger. The investigation is being conducted by a law firm hired by the archdiocese. Nienstedt denies the allegations…

“Based on my interview with Greene Espel—as well as conversations with other interviewees—I believe that the investigators have received about ten sworn statements alleging sexual impropriety on the part of the archbishop dating from his time as a priest in the Archdiocese of Detroit, as Bishop of New Ulm, and while coadjutor and archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis,” Jennifer Haselberger, [the archbishop’s top canon lawyer who resigned in protest in 2013] told me. What’s more, “he also stands accused of retaliating against those who refused his advances or otherwise questioned his conduct.”

Haselberger also brought to light the issue of Nienstedt’s handling of child abuse cases – as recently as last year:

She contacted MPR News in July 2013 and disclosed how Nienstedt and other top officials gave special payments to abusive priests, failed to report alleged sex crimes to police and kept some abusers in ministry. Her account was especially stunning because it involved decisions made by church leaders as recently as April 2013.

Nienstedt has been cleared of an accusation of grabbing a boy’s buttocks, and the rest is still under investigation. Nienstedt, moreover, has admitted errors in handling accusations of child abuse, been forced to act against several priests he allowed to stay in their jobs, but refuses to resign:

A bishop’s role is more like that of a father of a family than that of a CEO. I am bound to continue in my office as long as the Holy Father has appointed me here.

So contemplate this: a man credibly accused of protecting child abusers, of violating his vow of celibacy by having relationships with other men, and of, by his own admission, creating dissension and distraction in his own archdiocese cannot ever quit. A faithful Catholic in a local parish is nonetheless forced to resign – during his honeymoon, for Pete’s sake – because he decided to commit himself in love and responsibility to another man in perpetuity. No thinking, moral person can find that dissonance anything less than disgusting.

A question for Pope Francis: why on earth is this staggering hypocrite and divider still an archbishop? And why would anyone be a part of a church as morally bankrupt as this?

Can The Church Survive In America? Ctd

A reader writes:

In your coverage of the Montana couple denied communion, the age of the priest (27) is important to note. My husband and I (then in our late 20s and very devout) left the Church in 2006 when our retired priest was replaced by a young (and very conservative) one. Pope Benedict had just been elected, and a new (and also relatively young) bishop was appointed to our Diocese making conservative issues his priority. For years we had “hidden” in our little liberal church where we worked to end the death penalty and served in homeless shelters. When a priest would make the national news for denying communion or protesting an abortion clinic, we’d shake our heads and be thankful – that Church was not our Church. But all that came into question when our new priest arrived and the progressive values of our congregation started to wane.

As with their actions against the Nuns on the Bus, American bishops have been dismantling little liberal congregations like mine – and their best weapons are young, conservative priests.

We realized that the priests and nuns we had grown up with – Baby Boomers who started their careers with Vatican II – were all retiring and dying. Their messages of peace, acceptance and mercy and their commitment to good works for the poor were dying with them. Though young Americans are much more progressive on social issues like gay marriage, the young American men becoming priests now are decidedly not, and their influence as leaders in the Church will be felt for decades to come.

We couldn’t find another progressive parish to “hide” in and be the kind of Catholic you continue to be. I wonder if you are coming closer to the same realization we had in 2006 –  that the Church you belong to is the same Church that has turned away Paul and Tom. And that one day – as these young priests rise to higher ranks – the Church will eventually turn you away as well.

I know where my reader is coming from. I thank God daily for the Jesuits.

Can The Church Survive In America?

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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.