Monday, January 26, 2009

Homosexual Priests and Spiritual Paternity

By Ed Kohler

Cardinal Zenon Grocholewski, Prefect of the Vatican Congregation for Catholic Education, made a number of allegations about homosexuals and the Roman Catholic priesthood in a press interview October 30, 2008.

The Cardinal maintained that no one may be admitted to Holy Orders who has a deeply seated tendency to practice homosexuality. He labeled homosexuals defective human beings who lack the normal heterosexual tendency, deviates of a certain type, irregular males with a disordered psyche, all of which combine to create, if ordained, a type of wound on their priesthood and in forming relations with others.

The following conclusions may be drawn from the Cardinal's allegations:

1. Seminarians with this tendency must be weeded out, a pogrom initiated to expel them from the seminary.

2. The pogrom should also include homosexual priests and bishops because they too have the tendency.

3. Sacraments administered by homosexual priests are invalid because they lack "spiritual paternity" which is of the nature of the priesthood itself.

4. It is a legitimate pastoral concern to ask a priest if he is homosexual before confessing or scheduling a baptism, or a bishop before he administers confirmation or holy orders.

5 It would be more effective, however, to require homosexual priests to manifest their spiritual impotence by wearing a pin, similar perhaps to the Hitlerian triangle.

6. The Cardinal contradicts himself by asserting on the one hand that homosexuals may not be ordained and on the other hand to maintain as he did earlier (Nov., 2005) that their ordinations are valid.

7. The Cardinal's comments may reflect a deep seated homophobia.

8. Since his comments are not grounded in any of the generally accepted fields of human inquiry, the Cardinal should be removed from office.

9. In everyday parlance, the Cardinal is blowing smoke. The smoke, however, is malevolent and potentially lethal because the Cardinal's language squares perfectly with the first three of Gordon Allport's five steps of prejudice, Antilocution, Avoidance, Discrimination. If his remarks along with other proclamations emanating from the Vatican and local chancery offices lead to (4) Physical Attack and (5) Extermination, Cardinal Grocholewski, the Vatican, and local ecclesiastics will be culpable of additional acts of prejudice.

Ed Kohler was ordained for the Archdiocese of St. Paul in 1957 and married in 1972. He is at

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Archdiocesan Pension Pitfalls

By Michael V. Tegeder

The decline of the economy in our country is impacting everyone including churches. Donations are down, investments are worth much less, parishes are slashing budgets and laying off employees. Pensions are also affected. In the Archdiocese of St Paul and Minneapolis, all lay employees over age 18 who work at least 25 hours per week are part of the lay pension plan. They have a vested interest in the plan after 5 years of work.

Our plan was started in 1970 and on the surface appears pretty standard. The parish or institution puts into each person's account an amount equivalent to 5% of his or her annual salary. These funds are invested and the plan is monitored by the Archdiocesan Pension Board. The Board has a fiduciary responsibility to the plan's participants. These trustees are appointed by and report to the Archbishop, who has the ultimate control of the plan.

One unique feature of any church pension plan is that they are exempt from the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) of 1974 or the Federal Government's strict accounting regulations for private pension plans. These rules require certain funding levels and other safeguards. ERISA also requires each private pension plan to pay to the government a certain percentage to cover insuring the plan. If a business's pension defaults, the Federal Government will protect the individual pension participant up to a certain maximum amount. Although churches are exempt from ERISA, most church plans, as a matter of standard practice, seek to follow the ERISA rules. They do have the bonus of not having to pay the pension insurance. Of course, if a church plan fails, the participants have no protection.

Our Archdiocesan Lay Pension Plan has been run in fairly normal fashion with an outside pension consultant (The Mercer Corporation) and investment advisors. We do have some oddities. For instance, when the plan was started in 1970 all parishes and Archdiocesan institutions were required to participate unless they had an approved, legitimate defined benefit plan already. One parish, St. Bernard in St. Paul, did have such a plan; and to this day that parish and their schools do not participate in the Archdiocesan plan. Catholic Charities and the then College of St. Thomas also were exempt.

A number of pastors objected to participating in the pension; but only one held out, Msgr. Richard Schuler from St. Agnes. For over 30 years until he left the parish as pastor, St. Agnes parish and school did not pay anything into the plan. He set up a 403-b7 plan but legally this is not an approved pension but only a supplement. When some of the St. Agnes lay employees turned 65 they were able to apply and receive the Archdiocesan pension even though no funds were ever paid in for them. When I became aware of this situation over 10 years ago I made repeated efforts to have it addressed but to no avail. Under a new pastor, the employees at St. Agnes are now officially written out of the Archdiocesan plan, although employees are grand-fathered into the plan up to this change. No funds have been paid into the plan to cover this expense. This is simply incredible and would be obviously illegal under ERISA. I was the bad guy for bringing up this and other concerns and was removed from the Pension Board.

There is a separate plan for the priests. Their plan is really not a true pension plan but more of a disability plan. There are all kinds of departures from ERISA in how this plan is run. I will save this for another day. However, up until this year, the biggest difference between the two plans was the significant under-funding of the priest plan. Unlike the lay plan, from its inception in 1969, the priest plan grand-fathered in all those who reached retirement age even though most of their ministry took place before the plan existed and so no monies were contributed for them. To accomplish this, the plan was to have been fully funded by 30 years. Unfortunately, the priest plan never came to over 75% of funding its liabilities, and so in recent years the plan's trustees have extended the funding deadline out another 30 years.

Meanwhile, because the lay plan was run on normal actuarial standards, lay employees (with the exception of St. Agnes) only receive an amount based on the actual contributions made for them. Indeed, for many years the lay plan was over-funded. The plan had investments that more than covered the plan's liabilities. However, with the recent market decline that is no longer the case.

A year ago, in January of 2008, the lay plan was over 100% funded with assets valued at 107 million dollars. A year later the plan's value is estimated to be between 64 and 77 million dollars, and this includes the extra funds that were contributed to the plan over the past year. It is a remarkable loss. The priest plan had an even greater loss, but because the priest plan was always under-funded, it had to be more aggressive in its investments. For the lay plan to have had losses of 40% plus suggests that it was heavily invested into stocks. Bond investments are more conservative and had far fewer losses. It is very surprising that a plan that was obviously adequately funded, and could have lessened its risks by more conservative investments, had such large losses. This is very troubling.

To get back on track, instead of a 5% match, the lay plan would have to almost double this amount contributed for lay employees. This will not happen. We can all hope that the market will come back, but these losses are for real. It is time for a truly independent plan with trustees not hand picked by the Archbishop. Indeed, the time is opportune for true pension reform in the Catholic Church. Other denominations have pension plans based on a national basis. The economy of size allows them to have much lower expenses and to get true expertise in Board members. Indeed, the ELCA (the largest Lutheran Church body) pension plan is run from its Minneapolis headquarters and covers churches throughout the United States.

Ten years ago when at a Pension Board meeting I suggested that we might learn from the Lutherans, the priest fiscal director of the Archdiocese told me to join the Lutherans. He has since gone off to his ultimate retirement rewards, and I am still catholic enough to think we can learn from the Lutherans.

I have had trouble getting information for this article. The Chancery staff who work with the pension plans have been told they cannot talk to me or give me information. Under ERISA, plan participants have a right to financial information about their pension plan. This is one more violation of the intent of ERISA with the church officials using their exempt status to remain unaccountable.

Rev. Michael V. Tegeder is the pastor at St. Edward’s Catholic Church in Bloomington, MN.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Sub Secretum

By Jacqueline White

I’d been able to outrun the panic before. But now, back in the grip of it, there was only the frenzied present tense. I was parked in my car, terror — the ruthless “it” in a toxic game of tag — again in pursuit, targeting me as the next victim. In reality, I wasn’t moving, but in my tightening gut, I was the kid separated from the pack, an easy mark, running frantic through a vast field. I just needed to get to whatever constituted home base — the tree way over there or that gravel driveway — and feel the welcome scrape of bark on my hand, the sharp ouch of safety pinching my bare feet.

Except there was no home base anymore — not for me. I was way out of bounds. I had nowhere safe to run to, no place I could think of that would take me in. I was alone with what I didn’t want to know. I wanted to go back to before, to the shadowy netherworld of not knowing, where I thought my love and I could escape scrutiny, where the bright light of condemnation had yet to fall. But I now knew what the Catholic Church’s stance on transgender people was, or at least what it was purported to be. To read the actual charges against Marcus was impossible: the Vatican denunciation had been delivered “sub secretum.” All I had to go on was a report about the report—a 2003 Catholic News Service clipping preserved on a transgender Internet site. The headline: “Vatican Says Sex Change Operation Does Not Change a Person’s Gender.”

In other words, Marcus was not really a man. He was still Margery, a woman, which made us into a same-sex couple, ineligible for marriage. Except, if that was truly who we were — a same-sex couple — I would have known the Church’s stance and been prepared. Instead, I had allowed myself a dangerous luxury — hope. I’d imagined a lapse in vigilance: the tiny minority within a minority had been overlooked. Maybe the Church just hadn’t gotten around to condemning transgender people yet. In the meantime, Marcus and I could slip through the unintended loophole and tie the knot. In my most delusional moments, I went so far as to think — what had I been thinking? — that the Church might even approach transgender people with understanding.

I couldn’t seem to get enough air into my lungs. I gripped the steering wheel. I was parked. I didn’t know where I could flee. Before, St. X had been my refuge when panic descended, but the Catholic church that had been my spiritual home for over two decades no longer felt safe. No matter how sympathetic the parishioners might be, Rome still called the shots. Where could I go? Who would take me in?

If we really were a same-sex couple, we’d be in this together, sharing the blame for our “disordered thinking.” But the news report put the onus on Marcus: his decision to transition was evidence of “mental instability” that rendered him unfit to make or uphold marriage vows. Let the Vatican say whatever it wanted about me. I’d grown up in the Church — I could deflect such craziness. I knew my bisexual self wasn’t sinful. But to talk that way about the man I loved? I felt so helpless. He wasn’t sinful, or even Catholic, for that matter. I couldn’t expose him to such nonsense.

I had thought I’d found sanctuary at St. X. In 1985, when the call had come that Peter had died, I’d only been attending mass there for a few months. Still, I’d known immediately where I would go. I’d fled the few blocks from my apartment to the stone church, not stopping until I set foot on the concrete stoop of the parish office. But when I tried the door — locked. How could that be? I rattled the door again. It stayed locked. I took in a gulp of air, trying to steady my breathing. Even though it was early on a Saturday evening, long past office hours, it hadn’t occurred to me that at the house of God no one would be home. I was twenty-something and impatient: my newly awakened faith hadn’t yet factored in temporal limitations. I swiped all the wet from my face, the tears and snot. I rang the doorbell, the buzz in the empty vestibule loud and insistent. I buzzed again. I needed to make contact. And just then, like an apparition, a priest had appeared. The door opened.

“Peter died,” I sobbed in explanation, though the priest barely knew me and knew nothing of Peter. But the immediacy of grief can foster intimacy: the priest nodded as if he understood, then walked a block with me to a nearby park, where we settled onto a bench beneath a gnarled oak. He seemed unflappable, as if he regularly opened the door to find sobbing women on his stoop — which perhaps he did. He touched my shoulder, ready to listen, and I began to tell him how I’d met Peter when I was a senior at Yale and he was an inmate taking the creative writing class I taught at the New Haven jail. After I graduated and he got out, I’d written my first big magazine article, a cover story, about his daily struggle, most often unsuccessful, not to fill his veins with heroin.

Looking back, that Peter’s death would hit me so hard now feels extreme, but somehow my sense of self was at stake. “You met good people, didn’t you?” Peter had asked at my last class at the jail, and that was the bewildering truth of it. It was also true that I hadn’t met the victims of my students, but still, these men in the jail who had stolen cars or burgled businesses or thrown wounding drunken punches — they did have good in them. That I was willing to grasp the complexity of their lives set me apart from the many others who had written them off. By returning week after week to teach the class, I had defied their expectations. And I didn’t just “use” Peter as fodder for my writing and then turn my back. He wasn’t just a “subject” to me — an ex-con and a heroin addict with a good story I could tell. He was a person. I stayed in touch. My belief in my own goodness was on the line.

So the call I’d received the morning I’d fled to St. X — a mother on the other end of the line telling me her son had driven his car into a tree — that call had severed something vital.

I was inexperienced with the raw arrival of grief. I’d never even heard the sound of keening before the penetrating wail came moaning out of my own mouth. The keys in my hand flew across the room, chipping a bookcase. The finality of it all hit me like a revelation: someone could be breathing one moment and still the next. How do the rest of us carry on?

The involuntary cry emanating from my mouth introduced a possibility: it might be that I was part of a primordial truth, connected to others in ways I couldn’t even begin to fathom. A feeling that I stood at a remove had gnawed at my days. I was overwhelmed by the scale of the world and my own small place in it. I wanted to make large gestures, take a stand against injustice, help nudge the planet toward a more equitable balance. But I held back. Where to begin? I was paralyzed with indecision. I was afraid I would commit to the wrong thing—the wrong city, the wrong job, the wrong person — get entangled and get stuck. Better to stick it out, aloof, lonely, and alone.

It took a death — the ultimate separation — for me to see that I was, after all, bound to others. That my mourning was instinctive seemed to confirm my membership in humanity — and also the existence of a connecting force. Death had brought me to God.

As the years passed, I let myself be drawn into St. X. To commit to a community had seemed as if it would be constricting, but instead the ineffable took shape and form. I added my voice to the choir, placed the Eucharist into outstretched hands, stayed overnight with the homeless guests in the basement shelter. I discovered I didn’t have to lose myself to become a member of the flock.

I had even come to assume I would get married at St. X. After all, I had two decades of history there. I’d watched priests come and go, one capitol campaign finish and another begin, the pews get rearranged and the mass schedule too. But now, I had the internet evidence: I couldn’t delude myself any longer. Though the state of Minnesota would sanction my marriage to a transgender man, the Catholic Church would not.

Between my shoulder blades — that spot that’s nearly impossible to reach on yourself?—that spot ached. My whole body had rotated, as if to curl around and shelter my heart. I now knew profoundly what I hadn’t known when I’d shown up on the doorstep of St. X after Peter died—I needed others. Marcus touched my hard to reach places. I wanted our relationship blessed. And I wanted it blessed somewhere where such a blessing was forbidden: the community where I was known. To face the rejection was excruciating. I wanted to flee, but I no longer had a safe haven.

I was doing all I could do: clenching the steering wheel and driving into the hurt.

Jacqueline White is currently writing a memoir, My Transgender Husband: A Love Story. She is the recipient of a 2008 Minnesota State Arts Board Artist Initiative grant and can be reached at

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

"Spiritual Paternity": Why Homosexual Men Cannot be Ordained Catholic Priests

By Paula Ruddy

The Vatican issued its latest document on homosexuality in the priesthood on Thursday, October 30, 2008, making it clear that homosexuals are barred from being priests by the “paternal” nature of priesthood and/or their inherent lack of “affective maturity.”

At a Vatican press conference, Cardinal Zenon Grocholewski of the Congregation for Catholic Education was asked if homosexuals committed to lifelong celibacy could be ordained. Cardinal Grocholewski said “No,” adding that:

The candidate does not necessarily have to practice homosexuality (to be excluded.) He can even be without sin. But if he has this deeply seated tendency, he cannot be admitted to priestly ministry precisely because of the nature of the priesthood, in which a spiritual paternity is carried out. Here we are not talking about whether he commits sins, but whether this deeply rooted tendency remains. (1)

Cardinal Grocholewski was then asked why a celibate heterosexual can embody a spiritual paternity when a celibate homosexual cannot. He answered:

Because it’s not simply a question of observing celibacy as such. In this case, it would be a heterosexual tendency, a normal tendency. In a certain sense, when we ask why Christ reserved the priesthood to men, we speak of this spiritual paternity, and maintain that homosexuality is a type of deviation, a type of irregularity, as explained in two documents of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Therefore it is a type of wound in the exercise of the priesthood, in forming relations with others. And precisely for this reason we say that something isn’t right in the psyche of such a man. We don’t simply talk about the ability to abstain from these kinds of relations. (2)

Progressive Catholics have to object to this, but where do we start?

Is the choice of a sexual analogy to describe the relation of priest to church being used to limit the priesthood to those who fit the analogy? If we define the nature of priesthood to require certain biological qualifications, then, of course, everyone who does not fit the requirement is by definition excluded. Why are maleness, heterosexuality, and sexual abstinence inherent in the “nature” of priesthood?

The Cardinal’s theology of priesthood uses the Christ as bridegroom metaphor. It’s an analogy of sexual union between Christ and the Church, with the ordained priest standing in for Christ who begets spiritual life in the faithful. In this analogy, the Church, an abstraction, is female, so priests have to be heterosexual men. The analogy requires that these men be celibate because if priests are sexually active, it is spiritual incest: the “spiritual father” exploiting the trust of the baptized. Homosexual men, and, of course, women of any orientation throw the analogy into further absurdity. Should this analogy control the theology and practice of ordained priesthood?

I guess the unsubstantiated assumption is that the historical Jesus was heterosexual and that his being the “anointed one” of God was somehow dependent on his gender, his sexual orientation, and his having remained celibate. The Cardinal also asserts gratuitously that “Christ reserved the priesthood to men” and he presumes to say why. Is there scriptural evidence for any of these assumptions or assertions?

The Cardinal is interpreting two documents, one issued in 2005, and the other in 2008. (3) These documents were prepared by the Congregation For Catholic Education, of which Cardinal Grocholewski is the Prefect, to supplement the work of the 1990 Synod of Bishops which concentrated on the formation of priests.

The 2005 document specifically addressed the criteria for the ordination of homosexual men. It is only 3 pages long, excluding 3 pages of notes, unusual for a Vatican document. It does say, in no uncertain terms, that men with deep-seated homosexual tendencies may not be ordained. It distinguishes homosexual acts from deep-seated homosexual tendencies, but declares both “objectively disordered.” The Congregation, Cardinal Grocholewski signing, says it believes it “necessary to state clearly that the Church, while profoundly respecting the persons in question, cannot admit to the seminary or to holy orders those who practice homosexuality, present deep-seated homosexual tendencies, or support the so-called gay culture.”

So how does the 2008 document change the policy? It spells out the guidelines for the use of psychological testing and expert opinions in the admission and formation of candidates for the priesthood. The emphasis is now not on theology or natural law theory of sexual morality; it is on the “affective maturity” of the candidate for the priesthood. The guidelines require that a candidate be rejected who is “unable to face realistically his areas of grave immaturity. . . Such areas of immaturity would include strong affective dependencies, notable lack of freedom in relations, excessive rigidity of character, lack of loyalty, uncertain sexual identity, deep-seated homosexual tendencies, etc.” Instead of calling for the assessment of the maturity of the individual homosexual man, the policy presumes that his deep-seated tendency has prevented his maturing.

The Congregation has jumped from analogical/deductive reasoning that homosexuality is not compatible with the nature of priesthood to questions of empirical fact. Are homosexuals less affectively mature than heterosexuals? Are healthy ego development, emotional, and moral development determined by sexual orientation? There is no way to know the answer except through well-constructed empirical research. The document cites no evidence for its presumption that homosexuality itself is a sign of immaturity.

Why doesn’t the Church extricate itself from this tortured reasoning? There is no necessity to continue to use the sexual analogy of Christ and priest as bridegroom of the Church. Pope John Paul II in his exhortation following the Synod of Bishops of 1990, Pastores Dabo Vobis, uses other images of Christ’s and the priest’s relation to the Church—head, shepherd, servant. These analogies do not specify gender or sexual orientation.

If we accept a theology of priesthood that defines its “nature” as a relational role within the community of the baptized, then why can’t that role be held by women and men, straight and gay, married and celibate? Why not “spiritual maternity” as well as “spiritual paternity”? Why can’t any baptized person with the requisite cognitive, emotional, moral, and spiritual maturity mirror the love of God for humanity as manifest in Christ? If ability to relate to others is the litmus test, shouldn’t many of the already ordained heterosexual celibate males be looking for jobs?

We asked several men, some of them fathers, to reflect on the Vatican’s declaration that only heterosexual males can fill the paternal role of the priest. Here are some of their responses:

I don’t recall anything about “spiritual paternity,” the Cardinal’s term, in pastoral class in seminary -- in our final year or at any other time anywhere. But then that was a long time ago. The Cardinal’s piece strikes me as another attempt by the Vatican to denigrate gay men as physically, morally, spiritually, and psychologically unfit for Roman Catholic ministry. That we priests should be competent in guilt formation and guilt relief (now that I do recall) seemed to be the focus of seminary education.

- Ed Kohler, St. Paul, former Catholic priest,
retired realtor, married, father of two sons

Do you mean to tell me that God made a mistake when creating my children? How can you refer to my children as “irregulars” and “deviants.” You wouldn’t call someone born blind or without limbs a “deviant” person or an “irregular” person. Why the homosexual?

This made me wonder how I could remain associated with an organization that I have such a fundamental disagreement with. If what the Cardinal says is right, what does it say about our celibate gay priests today? If the church is going to follow its own logic, our gay priests ought to be removed from their ministries and the church should start a campaign to weed out of the priesthood, or at least out of active ministry, all of the gay priests, bishops and cardinals since they are so wounded that they certainly can’t carry out their priestly functions.

- Dan DeWan, North Branch, lawyer,
married, father of two gay sons

I’ve just finished reading The Book of Mychal, by Michael Daly. It’s the story of Father Mychal Judge, the priest/chaplain of the New York City firefighters who lost his life on 9/11 in the collapse of the Twin Towers, and who had come out in a select circle that he was homosexual. His life’s story left me with some very strong impressions, foremost being that with the admission of his being homosexual he also remained celibate as a priest. As a Franciscan friar he exemplified all the values that are the historical hallmarks of this order. Following the model of its founder he became active as a street-priest, being available and open in meeting the needs of those he came in contact with in New York City.

When he became the chaplain of the firefighters he quickly gained their respect and admiration as he never shied away from any of the dangers inherent in this job, taking the same risks as the most seasoned.

But what most impressed me was the manner in which he handled his sexual orientation, especially in the fire station's macho environment. He had admitted to his department head that he was a homosexual. I was impressed by how he lived out this duality in a quiet, non-advertising way, and continued to perform all his priestly duties that were the markings of his life. As his reputation grew from his outreach ministry and his unwavering bravery as a firehouse chaplain was brought to the attention of the church’s hierarchy of New York City, it received a negative reception at the chancery office, especially from the presiding cardinal who, as depicted in this account, was unable to accept all the attention that Father Judge was receiving. It is important to note that this very humble, but openly honest priest, did not seek this attention.

The question that was asked remains: Could I accept an ordained clergy whom I know to be, or have heard to be, homosexual? My response is yes, especially if his public behavior did not openly advertise or flaunt his homosexuality, and if he attempted to perform his priestly duties in the model of Father Mychal Judge.

- Mark E. McCartan, 80, Bloomington, retired educator,
married and father of six sons.

Spiritual paternity was never mentioned in my theological training. At least not that I recall. The implication from the cardinal's viewpoint seems to be that in order to be ordained one has to have the emotional or psychological inclination to want to have (while of course abstaining from) a sexual relationship with a woman with the intention of procreating. Gay men would not have the desire or psychological capacity to engage in such behavior or activity.

Surely the church does not deny the large percentage of gay clergy all the way up the ecclesiastical ladder? The hypocrisy of the bureaucracy must be somehow made known. A theology of priesthood is not marked by sexual orientation, not even by celibacy but by dedicated service in the model of Jesus Christ, plain and simple. How could married apostles be seen as the first leaders in the church if celibacy were a mark of the priesthood?

I am not in the best position to comment on such theology. I only know that I loved priesthood, was very good at it, felt called to it and would still be in it, if the church allowed optional celibacy and recognized its own, nearly inherent, homosexuality. That’s where I am at with that, but I have also moved on and away from all that. As the days, weeks, months and years pass and with the continuing loss of credibility for the Church, especially for the hierarchy, my life has moved on to what is relevant and helpful in my/our journey (I am, after all, not in this alone), and the aloneness was a prime motivating factor for my leaving priesthood.

- Jim Leith, Golden Valley, resigned Catholic priest

Please let us know what you think of the Vatican’s excluding of homosexual men from ordained priesthood by commenting below or by emailing us at

1-2. Quoted in Thavis, J., “Homosexuality and the Priesthood Revisited,” Catholic News Service, October 31, 2008.
3. Instruction concerning the Criteria for the Discernment of Vocations with regard to Persons with Homosexual Tendencies in view of their Admission to the Seminary and to Holy Orders (2005), and Guidelines for the Use of Psychology in the Admission and Formation of Candidates for the Priesthood (2008).

Monday, January 5, 2009

Civil Discourse. In Church?

By Charles Pilon

Earlier this year, Waiting for Mozart, the novel that I had been writing for 15 years, was finally published. During this past summer, excerpts from the story were printed here in The Progressive Catholic Voice.

Waiting for Mozart is the story (fiction) of a titanic power struggle and the madness and dysfunction it causes in a Catholic parish attempting to implement the changes called for by the Second Vatican Council. For almost 20 years, life at St. Mary’s has been disrupted by efforts to implement diverse visions for change in the Church that can’t happen until the stakeholders learn that their visions for change are flawed because they – the stakeholders – are.

I myself was a stakeholder committed to change in the Church, both as a priest ordained in 1962 and as a layman after 1971 when I left the priesthood, rescript from Rome allowing it in hand. In writing the story told in Waiting for Mozart, I eventually came to understand that my own vision for a post Vatican II Church had often been flawed, no matter on what side of the altar I stood. It had been so easy to label others, making it almost impossible to find common ground. I sometimes brought anger to the table and often no sense of humor whatsoever about the struggles involved with change in the Catholic Church. In a moment I could lose perspective on the bigger picture for reform – perhaps the one seen by God.

The question raised for many readers turning the last page in Waiting for Mozart is: interesting story, to be sure, but now what? How, in the name of God, when we disagree about matters considered important in the Catholic Church, do we talk civilly with each other?

This topic, civil discourse in the Church, was discussed thoroughly in an article “Overcoming Discord in the Church” by Timothy Radcliffe in the National Catholic Reporter (5.5.06). More recently, as keenly and at greater length, Krista Tippett addressed the issue in her book, Speaking of Faith.

My interest in this matter, after spending such a long time writing and endlessly editing Waiting for Mozart, is that I am experiencing a long-hoped-for outcome: it’s more than a good story. Readers are telling me that this fiction does raise two crucial questions: can followers of Jesus of Nazareth talk civilly with each other about their faith and the practices that follow from that faith? And will they do so, no matter how profoundly their points of view may differ or how difficult it may be?

My fondest hope after all these years is that the story in Waiting for Mozart will afford Catholics – and others, too – an invitation to consider these two simple questions deeply and at length. If we don’t address them, future generations may have occasion to ask about us: Why didn’t’ they awaken and do so while they had the chance?

What’s in a Name?

Radcliffe chooses not to use the terms liberal and conservative. He opts for Kingdom Catholics and Communion Catholics. The former found themselves liberated in many ways by the Second Vatican Council. It gave them a profound sense of the Church as the pilgrim people of God, on the way to the Kingdom. For Communion Catholics, Vatican II disrupted centuries of standard belief and practice. They felt forced to believe and to live within a Church that seemed to have changed its mind dramatically.

Radcliffe describes how both Kingdom Catholics and Communion Catholics have experienced a loss of home in their Church. He calls this loss root shock, defined as an experience – whether tsunami or war or an interstate highway built through a cherished neighborhood, destroying it – that demolishes people and the way of life they have grown accustomed to. In this case, for both types of Catholics identified by Radcliffe, root shock has followed disruptive changes brought into play by the Church they trusted.

Interpreting the root shock suffered by Communion Catholics beginning in the 1960’s, the editor at the National Catholic Reporter, by way of introduction to Radcliffe’s article, noted that “in hindsight . . . it can be said that those who embraced the impulses flowing from the council ironically used a pre-conciliar ecclesiology and understanding of authority to impose a post conciliar openness and collegiality. It didn’t work very well” (my emphasis added).

And currently, Kingdom Catholics are feeling from Communion Catholics a notable press for retrenchment from the vision and the changes brought on by Vatican II. Bishops appointed by Pope John Paul II in the 1980’s and later, and who largely embraced the Communion Catholics’ perspective, are now heading dioceses around the world and are seated in chairs of power at the Vatican.

These differences and changes and swings in leadership have at times created unbearable tension and pressures, often to the breaking (and breaking away) point for Catholics in each group. We are invited to be one, diverse as we are, in the one Bread that we break, yet so often we find ourselves overwhelmed by the pressures that accompany our differences.

Challenges to Civility

Is it this, then – root shock – that puts us so on edge, prompting incivility when we talk about church? If not, what is it that triggers the emotion, makes our eyes burn, causes us to fumble in our speech, unable to neither think clearly nor articulate what it is that we believe and want to say civilly? What is it that unnerves us so and triggers our insensibilities, our instabilities? I will speak for myself, revealing clearly, to be sure, (and civilly, I pray) that I am a Kingdom Catholic. Some Kingdom Catholics, and certainly Communion Catholics, will have other issues or see mine differently in whole or in part. In any event . . .

How do I say to my soul, “Be still now” when Benedict XVI in his encyclical Dominus Jesus proclaims salvation for all through merits earned by the death and resurrection of Jesus, no matter the person’s humble stance before the one God and faith and practice in their own religious tradition? In effect, I hear him saying, “Your salvation, friend, comes through the Jesus of Christianity, no matter whether you know it or not and whether you believe it or not. So listen up. Our Jesus saved you, Muslim. Jew and Buddhist, you don’t get it, I know, but one day you will know and you’ll understand who saved you.”

Further. I begin to slip and slide into some level of uncivil, internal hostility when a bishop says that homosexual partnering is a mortal sin that could send an individual to eternal punishment in hell. And so it would be curtains for me spiritually if I’m gay and choose to have a loving, intimate relationship and a life-long commitment with another gay person. I find that wholly unlike what Jesus would say, given what we know about him from the Gospels, though there is no specific record of his ever having addressed this matter.

And then, what is going on, I wonder, and what is Rome doing when it re-establishes the Tridentine Mass of the 16th century as an acceptable form of Liturgy, equal to the rite promulgated by Vatican II? And why the recent revival of public exposition and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, sometimes explained as keeping Jesus company, supported by theology that would suggest he is in need of comfort or is possibly lonely. Not now, not today, please, when many people continue to think of adoration first of all, even at weekend liturgy, when they think of Eucharist – apparently still unaware, more than 40 years after Vatican II and some 70 years since the Liturgical Movement was introduced to this country, that the crucial point about Eucharist is that we come to break the bread, share it and then live by that sign for the rest of the week.

And finally, what do I say and how do I say it when people quote the Catechism of the Catholic Church to prove a given point – this the Catechism published in 1994, authored in part by Benedict XVI as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who then approved it with his imprimatur. This is the Catechism that was out of date in some of its paragraphs on the day it was released because it had not come to terms with the modern world and what we have learned from scholars and experts in various disciplines who have questioned and proven untenable some deeply held Catholic teaching.

These are matters that surface for me – easily and often. Other people have different issues and there are varying opinions on most of them. The divide is widening. What often does us in is an inexorable need to be right, to win at all costs. Frightful thinking can set in. What’s the fun and what’s the purpose in dialogue then? If you can’t come away with several points well made (wins) and other points at least a tie, then there’s neither the sense nor satisfaction that you’ve spent your time well. How does one live with this grim frame of mind and within this spreading divide – civilly?

An Affair of the Heart

Radcliffe maintains that the first thing that both Kingdom and Communion Catholics can do is to develop an appreciation – a feel – for the loss of home that the other congregation feels. It is a pain of exile, of being discounted that prompts members of one group to be afraid of the other and to make assumptions, labeling them and ignoring them to the point of not even seeing them. The heart will heal with recognition and validation of one worldview by the other. We are fellow seekers.

Preaching on the feast of the Epiphany some time ago, the pastor at my parish, Philip Rask, noted that God’s salvation is for all nations, not just one. He continued, “We need to set aside any suspicions that we have and we need to bring ourselves to believe that all the members . . . of our church are acting in good faith. We need to set aside our conviction that we have full possession of the truth and we need to bring ourselves to remember that other people are seeing parts of the truth that we cannot.”

My reading recently of Thich Hnat Hanh’s Living Buddha, Living Christ suggests to me that Buddhist practice can be helpful here. Looking deeply into another person is the beginning and the requirement for change in my own heart. Truly understanding what is there in the other and, again, looking deeply into the factors that may have caused what is there, will lead to peace in my own heart and eventually to respect for the other.

And of the Mind

The mind can help the heart. Krista Tippet quotes the Indian journalist and Buddhist, Pankaj Mishra, in Speaking of Faith. “The mind – where desire, hatred and delusion run rampant – is also the place, the only place, where human beings can have full control of their own lives.” There is a mindset – a head, if you will – that I can put on in addition to the heart that I must bring to civil discourse.

Some people are able to access that mindset through a practiced ability to bring, at first light each morning, a sense of humor to the events of the day at hand. A sense of humor is essentially a capacity and adeptness at gracefully comparing what should be or could be with the actual life situations in which we find ourselves. The contrast can be amusing and at times even downright funny.

This is not to make light of the tragic side of the human condition and the terrible things we often do to each other. However, if we can find a way and develop the habit of getting some distance mentally from ourselves and the events of the day, we could find ourselves with lighter hearts and better able to appreciate the humor inherent in the human condition.

Perhaps Kingdom and Communion Catholics alike could appreciate the humor apparent in the contrast between the discipleship Jesus stood for and the empire the Church became in the High Middle Ages, notable traces of which remain with us today.

Another head-set might be to develop and vividly maintain perspective on the place that our planet Earth holds within the universe. Personally, with no science background whatsoever, I have relished the pleasure of reading, re-reading and sitting still for satisfying periods of time with the story of the natural world and what are considered pivotal events in the evolution – the unfolding – of the universe. My trust in God each day begins with the earth in orbit around one star a million times its size – like a child’s blue and white marble in orbit around a four-foot inflated playground ball.

This star, our sun, and its orbiting planets lie two thirds of the way out one arm of our galaxy, one of one trillion galaxies in the universe. The universe, however, is not a vast, static, celestial container filled with objects like galaxies. It is a subject – a varied, multiform, developing subject. A mountain created by the universe, for example, is an acting, a doing subject – creating weather, affecting every form of life around it and changing the human who hikes its beauty.

Each of us is kin with the stars, since exploding stars created every chemical element, every creature on earth. That makes us kin, too, with the bearded iris and the tiger lily; with a whale rolling in the ocean; with trees, arms extended, open to the sun – a diverse, elegant community, to be sure.

To live this, to be inspired by it daily, requires a transformation of consciousness. The first step is simple awareness that the eye that searches the sun and the soul that delights in its warmth is the very eye, the very person, created by it. And so, as I pause to reflect on the sun, that star is truly reflecting on itself. Through the human creature the universe gives itself consciousness. Imagine! And so, to be in step with the universe, I must, absolutely, find ways to be civil within my religious tradition, within this community we call the Body of Christ.

And Finally

Language can help. It’s better to ask a question than to make a righteous, dogmatic statement. A simple inquiring attitude goes a long way. “Might it be better to say . . . ?” for example, or “What have you read about that recently?” And “Let me think about that for a minute” or “I’d have to give that some thought” seem to be good responses.

Too quickly we label people, a subject addressed some time ago by John Bauer, a priest of the Saint Paul-Minneapolis Archdiocese in The Catholic Spirit, its weekly newspaper. Bauer writes that labels make it almost impossible to find common ground. A label suggests all there is to know about another person. Labels separate people who might otherwise be able to talk together civilly. And finally, and most importantly, labeling people is not what Jesus did – refusing, for example, to label as a sinner the woman who washed his feet.

Summing Up

A heart. A mindset. Civil ways of speaking. We bring these to church discourse – any discourse, in fact. There is no saying to the head, however, “Here snap this on.” Nor to the heart, “Plug this in.” The right mindset and the heart that is habitually civil develop slowly, patiently, with practice – as does everything unfolding within the universe.

At times, it seems to me that the only sure way to remain civil – all the time, on every occasion – is to be of the mind that, really, none of it makes a whole lot of difference today, this day. Nothing will change tomorrow or next month, probably, because of what I say today. But say it clearly, I tell myself, and forcefully, if necessary – what you mean and why – but don’t try to coerce, don’t be dogmatic, don’t close any doors. Just bring the right intensity at the right time and remember: conversation, not monologue; many questions, no single answer.

The way we approach our differences and divisions is as important as and says as much about our faith as the positions we take (Speaking of Faith, 186). The one God is faithful and, it seems to me, has no preference among religions. For Christians, our differences may well be resolved by some form of natural selection – what eventually works best for the survival of the essential message of Jesus.


A little over a year ago, standing before the tumbling, artfully constructed waterfall at a small lake near my home, it struck me that the two levels for observation of the falls offered a fine metaphor for civil discourse and its opposite in the church.

At the upper level, the water tumbles down into a small pool forcefully, noisily – so that you can hear nothing else – others passing or talking, bicyclists, children. It is powerful, potentially destructive, raging, won’t stop, wouldn’t listen if it could.

At the lower level I observed the same water as it flowed from the pool above – not so noisy, slower, less driven, less powerful, yet churning, twisting, beautiful, a lot more manageable and certainly able to move things and change them. It seemed creative, not destructive, would be a much more manageable flow for most people and surely, over time, more likely to get something done with less destruction..

Charles Pilon lives with his wife Ana in Roseville, Minnesota, where they raised their three children. Chuck was ordained a Catholic priest in 1962 and left the priesthood in 1970. He did not leave the Church, however, and has remained an active member from the people’s side of the altar.

To learn more about "Waiting for Mozart" or to purchase this book, visit

Sunday, January 4, 2009

“Falling Away”

By Mary Lynn Murphy

I was a “Cradle Catholic” . . . born, raised, fully sacramentalized, and educated in the Roman Catholic tradition from kindergarten through college.

I am one of those (perhaps few?) former Catholics with entirely fond memories of my Catholic upbringing in South Minneapolis, circa 1950. Admittedly, during that era, the Sisters of St. Joseph could scare the living daylights out of us when they got riled up. But to me, they seemed to be generally fair if we “minded our Ps and Qs.” They managed to efficiently educate overflowing classrooms of 50 students, in settings that felt safe and were frequently fun! Make no mistake about it, the sisters threw the greatest Christmas parties of all time! There were decorated Christmas trees and Advent wreaths hung with ribbons and candles. Advent calendars trimmed the window panes, full of promise and hidden surprises, set off by hand made paper snow flakes of varying sizes. There were Secret Santas, gobs of candy, and Christmas carolling until our throats became hoarse. The sisters pulled out all of the stops to celebrate the highly anticipated “birth of the dear baby Jesus.”

And there were other things to love . . . the comforting prayers and rituals, the sense of community; the girls’ basketball team, coached by beloved Fr. Burns!; the music, ( I ADORED choir and chant!); the mysteriousness; the sisters’ clear sense of justice that hooked me to the plight of society’s underdogs. And of course, my mother was a dyed in the wool Irish Catholic, so I probably absorbed her affection for all things Catholic by the time I could walk or talk. Even now, grade school days are the hoarded treasures of long ago memories.

By high school, though, despite enjoying a fairly sophisticated women’s educational environment (Convent of the Visitation), Catholic admonishments regarding sexuality took on a disturbing light. The birth control ban wreaked havoc in the lives of my parents and other Catholic families. (My outspoken father never hesitated to speak volumes about that and related topics!) Like my father, I was not a lover of authority in the first place, and Church authoritarianism began to grate on me at exactly that time. But I remained dutiful until college – when I began to take my first hesitant steps beyond the Church door.

I attended a Sacred Heart college, and The Madames of the Sacred Heart were brilliant and lovely women. My Theology Professor, Mr. Herrigas, was likewise a brilliant and lovely man, but I just didn’t believe him when he apologetically conceded that indeed, Roman Catholicism must be viewed as the only legitimate path to eternal life. He was a sharp young guy who must have choked on such concepts, but intellectual freedom never struck me as a strong feature of Catholicism, so I took it with a grain of salt, and moved happily through my college years.

It was just that all of that heady stuff seemed irrelevant to the galvanizing opportunities my college provided to engage social justice and community service in the 1960s. Thursday nights were spent in South Chicago, connecting with activist families of the civil rights movement, and in tutoring grade school kids. Sundays were spent with special needs poverty kids. It was a time when change felt possible, and gave us all hope. Over time, the Mass and all of the Moral Theology/Philosophy conversations simply lost meaning for me in an ambiguous day-to-day world, while activism was something I could get a hold of.

Then the Women’s Movement materialized, and my Catholic outlook dimmed another watt or two. While in truth, the “Sexual Revolution” looked like fool’s gold to me, the equal rights message I perceived in it was right up my alley, but at odds with what I was hearing at church. Meanwhile, my Catholic professors railed against the likes of Betty Friedan, while I gradually embraced her revolutionary point of view. One notable Moral Philosophy assignment was to write an essay about her ground breaking book. The mandatory topic, incredibly, was “Why the Feminine Mystique would lead to the downfall of American society”!

One step followed the other until I found myself slip-sliding away from the whole spectrum of Catholic thought. In truth, mine might have been a tenuous Church connection to begin with, because as an adult, I never recall any discernible sense of “belonging” to the faith communities I encountered. Rather than feeling inspired by compulsory giving programs, pancake breakfasts, and interminable sermons steeped in judgment, I felt disturbed and disappointed. Whatever happened to the “least of our brethren”? Was it really all just about “sexual sin?” Sunday mornings at the park, or along the river, felt much more uplifting. (I remember attending more than a few uproarious Sunday morning “Church services” in parks along the river with college friends and relatives, while our parents trooped off to earlier Masses. Those are some of my fondest Sunday memories!)

My nebulous Catholicity continued for the next several years until, by some mysterious alchemy, I was appointed, as a young mother in my mid 30s, to Archbishop Roach’s Urban Affairs Commission. This appointment may have been the result of my affiliation with the Women’s Institute for Social Change, a respected, though slightly radical group at that much more radical time in history. Regardless, one thing led to another, and years later, during more conservative times, I wound up on the board of Cretin-Derham Hall ( in the early 90s) where my children went to high school. The opportunity to be a progressive public voice appealed to me. So I continued to loosely define myself as Catholic . . . a Catholic, like most others I knew, who did as they pleased about birth control, Mass attendance, etc.

Unfortunately, like so many other self described feminists at that time, I acquiesced in the face of Church sexism toward women. It wasn’t until years later, when I realized that I had a gay offspring , that I “tuned in” much more closely to the Church’s teachings on the status of women and homosexuality. Church language and policies related to homosexuality actually startled me. They seemed consciously and intentionally cruel. It was then that my instinct for social justice transitioned into flat out activism. I launched headlong into gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) support work with the secular organization PFLAG, and eventually with the Catholic Pastoral Committee on Sexual Minorities (CPCSM). That work sustained me, and has, I hope, made some identifiable changes in church and society. But I became increasingly impatient with and disgusted by unrelenting Church homophobia. The description of “exiled Catholic” began to feel more appropriate for me.

Even that title seemed a bit chummy as our new archbishop, John Nienstedt, swung into gear about a year ago. I was surprisingly unprepared for his emotionally detached righteousness in regard to Catholicity in general and homosexuality in particular. Knowing that he was probably dispatched by Rome to diffuse our activist community should have toughened me, but it didn’t. The specter of this man as the future of the local Doctrinal Church began to settle in my bones. Any affiliation with him and his Church-sanctioned language began to feel like marriage to an abusive husband for a person like me, an activist for gay rights.

The last straw came in September, at the John Ireland Speaker Series at St. Thomas University which featured the “Scholar in Residence” at the St Paul Seminary. The speaker disgorged an hour’s worth of what I considered to be right wing demagoguery with regard to human sexuality. Her comparison of gay relationships to heterosexual incest was appalling to me. Astonishingly, the woman was warmly received by a large crowd of religious, lay persons and students. It dawned on me then that as a Seminary dignitary, this woman represents not just the present, but the near future of academia in Catholic higher education. It also became clear to me that as a feminist and an activist in the secular GLBT support community, any affiliation with the word Catholic, as it is commonly understood in regard to Church treatment of women and gays, undermines my credibility and integrity.

Today it is hard for anyone to deny that the train is leaving the station with regard to women and gays in contemporary America. And I am on that train. For me there will be no more debating medieval churchly mindsets about the evils of homosexuality, female ordination, or reproductive freedom – which will be an enormous relief . In all honesty, at least in terms of my adult years, I concede that my love of Church may have dissipated long ago, through a steady process of disillusionment. I may have hung around just to say NO to its policies. (Part of my activism has been to role model resistance when I believe it is called for.) Oddly, even my devout, non activist mother drifted slowly away over the years. She was detached from religion by the time she lay dying at age 53. “I’m square with God,” she told me. “No need for the priests.”

Beyond that, I have lost hope for any kind of productive or functional relationship between the pastoral and the doctrinal Church in my life time, though I credit those who choose to stay and persistently question. They take the incremental approach to change, and some day they may very well succeed. They honor themselves and their communities with the path they have chosen. My path, however, is diverging. I have decided to officially move on, to the delight of my immediate family! I will continue to seek and express spirituality in the alternative places I always have – in the parks, along the rivers, among friends and fellow activists. And I will be at peace with my final status as “non Catholic.” Some may call that “falling away.” But for me, it feels like growing up.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

The Gay Catholic Insurgency

By Brian McNeill

In a fascinating book I am reading that compares the Soviet Union in its death throes to the current economic and political situation in the United States, I found the follow quote. The author is describing the lessons the Red Army learned in Chechnya and Afghanistan.

"A military effort alone can never defeat a popular insurgency. The insurgents never have to win, they just have to continue to fight. In fighting them, the military is forced to fight the people of the country, and by perpetuating a state of war it continually thwarts its stated purpose, which is to establish peace. There is no room for victory in this scenario, but only for an ever-widening spiral of murder, hatred and shame."

- Reinventing Collapse, Demitry Orlov (p.40)

We cannot exactly equate the situation of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (glbt) Catholics with that of the insurgents of Afghanistan in the 1980s, or Chechnya in the 1990s. However, I think we benefit from thinking of ourselves as insurgents confronting a huge, monolithic adversary. Most gay Catholics who stay in the Church prefer to think of themselves as the loyal opposition rather than insurgents, but during the last twenty years it is clear that the hierarchy does not view us that way. Some might abjure the idea of being in a fight with Church authorities, but I would like to suggest that is exactly where we are. Since the publication of then-Cardinal Ratzinger’s 1986 “Halloween Letter,” which first described us as “objectively disordered,” and “oriented towards an intrinsic moral evil,” we have been treated as the enemy.

If, in the above quote, we substitute “church authorities” for “military,” and “the Catholic faithful” for “the people of the country,” our current situation begins to come into clearer focus. The above quote would then read as follows:

The church authorities can never defeat a truly grassroots movement of the faithful. We, the glbt insurgents, never need to win, we just have to continue to fight. In fighting against us, the hierarchy is fighting its own people, which thwarts its stated purpose of proclaiming the Gospel, and creating the Reign of God. They will never win as long as we continue our efforts. The harder they fight us, the more they alienate the Catholic faithful and reveal themselves as hypocrites.

I reached these conclusions after a recent, brief exchange with Fr. Thomas J. Kessler, the Director of Pastoral Formation at the St Paul Seminary School of Divinity.

Fr. Kessler presided at the 9:30 Mass at my parish, Holy Rosary, the first Sunday in August of last year. The Dominican, Brother Kevin, introduced him to the congregation as “an important guy” at the seminary. In light of our unsuccessful efforts to begin a dialogue with the seminary authorities in 2006, I asked to speak with Fr. Kessler after Mass, and he obliged.

I introduced myself as the president of Dignity Twin Cities and the organizer of the Rainbow Sash. He had never heard of Dignity. When I explained that Dignity is a group of glbt Catholics, and that I am a gay Catholic man in a committed relationship, his immediate initial response was, “You are sinners!” and there is nothing to talk about. I pointed out there is a great deal to talk about on a pastoral level since there are glbt Catholics at most Masses in most parishes everyday. I said that Dignity and the Catholic Pastoral Committee on Sexual Minorities would like to have a formal dialogue with the seminary about pastoral, not doctrinal issues. There is no need to discuss doctrinal issues because the doctrine is completely clear, but there are glbt Catholics in the pews each Sunday who reject that doctrine, and his priests need to understand their lives and their issues.

At this point, realizing I was taking him somewhere he did not want to go, Fr. Kessler began pulling out the excuses. I could see the wheels spinning, and the thought foremost in his brain, “How do I get rid of this guy?” He said I was like a Jehovah Witness who recently cornered him for the purpose of trying to convert him. I replied that he was dealing with baptized Catholics who show up in church each Sunday just as I had showed up at Holy Rosary. He then tried to dismiss me as an “activist,” obsessed with an issue not important to anyone else. He said he was too busy. He said he was not authorized to initiate the kind of dialogue I was requesting; only the rector could do that. Finally, he said that gay Catholics are not really a minority group like African Americans or Latinos, and therefore do not deserve a dialogue. I ended the discussion by saying I would send the rector, Fr. Aloysius Callaghan, and him, a follow-up letter.

After formally requesting a dialogue once again with the seminary staff, my letter to Fr. Kessler and Fr. Callaghan included the following quote from the November 14, 2006, document issued by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, “Ministry to Persons with a Homosexual Inclination: Guidelines for Pastoral Care.”

It is important that Church ministers listen to the experiences, needs, and hopes of the person with a homosexual inclination [sic] to whom and with whom they minister. Dialogue provides an exchange of information, and also communicates a respect for the innate dignity of other persons and a respect for their consciences.

In his reply to my letter, Fr. Kessler assured me that he instructs “the seminarians entrusted to my care” to treat all people in a Christ-like manner. However, unlike Christ, rather than take responsibility for initiating a dialogue, he continued with his bureaucratic dodge and concluded by saying that “any further communications should be directed to Monsignor Aloysius R. Callaghan.”

As I write to Fr. Callaghan, I do not hold any illusions about the possibility of the archdiocese engaging the Catholic glbt community in a serious dialogue through the seminary staff, where such a pastoral dialogue clearly belongs. Their counter-insurgency tactic is to ignore us, call us sinners, and hope that we will go away. Many of us have gone away, for reasons I, who tire of the struggle from time to time, completely understand.

The insurgency / war metaphor for our effort is not completely apt, because what we are doing, fundamentally, is loving, not fighting, on. The priests and bishops are our brothers. Some honestly believe the Church teaching, and some know it is seriously in error. Either way, the Gospel calls us to teach them the truth of our lives, even if they have locked themselves in a dungeon of false theology and thrown away the key.

Brian McNeill is the president of Dignity Twin Cities and the convenor of Rainbow Sash Alliance USA.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Stop in the Name of Discriminatory Ideology!

By Michael Bayly

On Monday, October 20, 2008, some friends and I attended the Archbishop Ireland Memorial Lecture Series at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul. This series is a program of the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity, and the October 20 lecture featured Janet Smith (pictured at right), the Saint Paul Seminary’s “first scholar in residence.”

The seminary’s website has little information on Janet Smith’s educational credentials, and as Paula Ruddy discovered when researching a recent article for The Progressive Catholic Voice, an internet search fails to reveal where Dr. Smith went to school or received her training.* Promotional material for Dr. Smith’s talk on the seminary’s website simply says that she “holds the Father Michael J. McGivney Chair of Life Ethics at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit” and that she’s the author of Humanae Vitae: A Generation Later and Contraception: Why Not.

Elsewhere on the website of the University of St. Thomas, Dr. Smith is described as an “ethicist” and the author of Why Humanae Vitae Was Right: A Reader. Her latest book is on bioethics and is entitled Life Issues, Medical Choices, Questions and Answers for Catholics.

This same site notes that: “Smith has taught at the University of Notre Dame and the University of Dallas, where she received the Haggar Teaching Award. She also received the Pro-Life Person of the Year from the Diocese of Dallas and the Cardinal Wright Award from the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars. Smith is serving a second term as a consultor to the Pontifical Council on the Family. More than a million copies of her talk, Contraception: Why Not have been distributed.”


I must admit that I find the lack of available information about Smith’s qualifications as a scholar to be perplexing. After Smith’s talk I spoke to a high-ranking faculty member of the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity. Incredibly, he was unable to tell me in what area Smith’s doctoral studies had been.

“Classics,” he offered uncertainly, “maybe philosophy.”

He was clearly embarrassed by his lack of knowledge concerning his institution’s “scholar in residence” and so asked that his name not be used in anything I wrote about Smith’s presentation.

Disappointed but undeterred by his response, I posed a follow-up question: Would the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity ever consider hosting someone like Margaret Farley, Daniel Helminiak, or Joan Timmerman – renowned Catholic scholars who intelligently and respectfully critique and challenge the Church’s sexual theology? He said that the works of such people are covered “in the classroom,” but that for a public lecture, such as the Archbishop Ireland Memorial Lecture Series, only someone who supports church teaching is acceptable.


So what of Janet Smith herself and the talk she gave as “scholar in residence”?

Well, as I mentioned to the seminary faculty member with whom I conversed, I didn’t detect very much scholarship in her presentation. Rather, she simply expounded upon the sexual theology contained in a number of writings by Pope John Paul II. Indeed, she came across as more of a cheerleader for the late pope and his “Theology of the Body” than an original thinker in the field of either theology or ethics.

Most of the slides in her Powerpoint presentation contained a holy card-type image of John Paul II in the top right hand corner. Honestly, I was half expecting Smith to blow a kiss to this picture of the pope at some point during her presentation!

Her talk had the rather ridiculous title, “Stop in the Name of Love! – John Paul II on Transforming Sexual Desire.” Who would have thought the late pontiff was a Motown fan! Seriously, though, Smith herself conceded that the title of her presentation was not of her choosing. Which, when you think about it, is rather odd: a visiting scholar in residence can’t choose the title of her own public presentation?

In reiterating the sexual theology of John Paul II, Smith reminded those in attendance that the sexual urge is “fundamentally selfish and must be transformed into something fundamentally unselfish, which is love.”

Gay love, however, doesn’t make the grade.

No, for Janet Smith, love must fit a certain understanding of “objective reality” – Pope John Paul II’s understanding!

Accordingly, the “selfish” sexual desire of humans must be transformed into an expression of sexual love that can only be heterosexual (one man, one woman in the state of sacramental marriage) and must always be open to new life, understood solely in terms of procreation.

Thus an “ideal” is lifted up as “objective reality,” and any and all acts that do not correspond with this “reality” are viewed as bad and wrong. Contraceptive sex and gay sex were offered by Smith as examples of such acts. Furthermore, if a person finds fulfillment and/or enjoyment through these acts, then it means he/she is delusional as only acts that correspond with “objective reality” can rationally be appreciated and enjoyed.

A closed system

Of course the question has to be asked: Whose experiences, whose reality, is being observed and utilized to inform this understanding of “objective reality”? Smith acknowledges that John Paul II based his views on reality on human experience, yet judging from the narrow theology that resulted, the pope seems to have been very selective with regard to the experiences of humanity that he chose to observe and utilize so as to shape his vision of “objective reality.”

Not surprisingly, the failure of Pope John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body” to speak meaningfully to and for people and the non-reception of Humanae Vitae (which he vigorously defended throughout his pontificate) are readily seen by the vast majority of Catholics to be the result of the institutional church’s dismal failure to integrate into its thinking and teaching the corporate body of Christians’ experience and wisdom regarding sexuality. And once one recognizes this failure, then the pope’s and Janet Smith’s “objective reality” can be seen for what it really is: a discriminatory ideology; a closed system of ideas and beliefs that starts with a premise already inside the system. For the architects and guardians of such a system, no experiences, insights, and questions that arise beyond the system can be tolerated. Indeed, they are routinely condemned and actively discriminated against.

This is because experiences beyond their view of “objective reality” are viewed as acts outside the laws of nature, as acts that are shameful, embarrassing, wrong, and the result of humanity’s fallen state. Yet theologian Joan Timmerman has proposed that perhaps it is “the hubris of those who would pretend to be gods that would lead them to be ashamed and embarrassed at being sexual.”

For Timmerman, “rejection of the sexual and attempts to exclude it (‘outlaw’ it) are symptoms of the fallen condition.”

In her insightful essay, “Thoughts While Reading Over the Bishops’ Shoulders,” Timmerman notes that:

When outlawed in such fashion, the “lower” nature gets its own back by behaving lawlessly. This is lust. But lust is produced by shame, not vice versa. The disorder, that which leads to unacceptable acts, is not sexual orientation but contempt for the sexual.

“Sloppy and false”

A priest who heard Smith speak at Archbishop Nienstedt’s August 28 “marriage study day,” told me that he found her arguments “sloppy and false.” I’d have to say that, after listening to her speak last week, I found her arguments to be also naive and her worldview bordering on the superstitious.

According to Smith, the Holy Spirit chose Karol Wojtyla so that as Pope John Paul II he would “courageously defend” Humanae Vitae. She finds evidence for such a contention in the fact that John Paul II noted that this controversial document was “central to the whole magisterium” of his pontificate. And Smith is clearly dedicated to continuing the pope’s vigorous defense of Humanae Vitae, a defending that she frames in terms of “spiritual warfare.” Again, she draws from events in the pope’s life to justify this claim: apparently on the day in 1981 when the attempt was made on Pope John Paul II life, he was to open a Commission on Marriage and the Family. Satan himself was trying to “take out” the pope, according to Smith, and prevent him from his life’s mission of defending and promoting Humanae Vitae.

I also gathered that, for Smith, the accounts of creation that we find in Genesis are literally true. Furthermore, it’s objectively true that “sex leads to babies,” and that “God made human sexuality so that He can get more souls into Heaven.” Accordingly, Smith maintains that if people would just think of every sexual act as an invitation from God to create a new soul, then they would “govern” their sexual behavior appropriately, i.e., in accordance with the “objective reality” that “sex leads to babies.” Not surprisingly, “expanding the circle of love,” for Smith, seems to be always and only about procreation.

Alternative perspectives

Contrast this “sex=babies” perspective with how actual theologians – Catholic and Protestant – understand and talk about the purpose of human sexuality. For instance, in their book, The Wisdom of the Body: Making Sense of Our Sexuality, Evelyn and James Whitehead “draw out and make public the sense of the faithful about Christians and their sexuality.” Accordingly, they note that the “truth” about sexuality is that the life of Jesus challenges all, married and unmarried, to “a more than genital love, a larger than biological family, a fruitfulness that goes beyond fecundity.”

Donald G. Hanway, author of A Theology of Gay and Lesbian Inclusion, similarly observes that:

[Sex] is not just about maintaining the species, but about reaching out in relationship. Sex and spirit are not opposites: they are part of one yearning toward wholeness. . . . Sex is bound up with important developmental and maintenance needs such as caring, self-expression, self-esteem, and human connection at multiple levels. In terms of Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs, sex encompasses the spiritual as well as the physical, and it ranges from simple relief of tension to higher levels such as love, esteem, aesthetic appreciation, and self-actualization. . . . Sex makes use of all our human capacities: tenderness, strength, imagination, the use of all our senses, and our use of symbols. It calls forth not just our lowest impulses but also our highest impulses such as generosity and the desire to lose ourselves in another.

Theologian Daniel Helminiak, in discussing natural law and human sexuality notes that:

To be sure, procreation is an inherent aspect of sexuality. But there is more to sex than that, especially when we look at sex in human beings. Procreation is an animal function. In humans sex is taken up into a new array of purposes. Human sex involves emotional bonding and the dreams and promises of lovers. That is to say, beyond the physical, human sex also involves the psychological and the spiritual. (I see “dreams and promises,” or ideals, and beliefs and ethics – all ways of suggesting meaning and value – as spiritual matters.) So having sex (physical) seduces lovers (emotional) into dreaming dreams and making promises (spiritual). The trend of sex is toward higher things. And since the spiritual dimension of human sexual sharing is the highest and most significant, it is what determines the unique nature of human sexuality, so it is what must be preserved in every case. Not procreation, but genuine care and loving are the non-negotiables of human sex.

Margaret Farley draws similar conclusions, though she cautions against the ease by which love can be sentimentalized and thus distorted if it does not presuppose justice as its more inclusive framework. In his review of her award-winning book, Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics, Paul Capetz notes the following of Farley’s conclusions:

Love, which is the most appropriate context for the embodied expression of sexuality, requires justice as its sine qua non. While love, as the cherishing of another human being, goes beyond justice, love must never leave justice behind. From within this revised ethical framework wherein love informed by justice is the supreme moral norm for evaluating the appropriateness of sexual relations, traditional prohibitions against homosexuality can no longer be sustained. At the same time, however, consensual and committed relations between persons of the same gender are beholden to the same moral criterion of just love as are heterosexual relations.

And then there’s the wise and beautiful reflections on sexuality offered by theologian and poet, David Weiss:

Sexuality is indeed intended to be procreative, to give life; but our own prejudice – perhaps our desire to stem the flow of God’s creative energy into the world – has led us to understand this in a narrow, biological fashion. But truly, to find ourselves partnered in longing love with another person is to find that we have company in the work of caring for creation. Whether you are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or straight – whether you are celibate or sexually active, single or in a relationship – one truth that we hear in the biblical creation account is that human beings were created to tend the Garden, to guide creation’s bounty and to tend its scarcity in ways that promote the flourishing of all. That’s why we’re here. The joy that we know sexually in our bodies is there, at least in part, to lure us into the holy act of caring for all that is embodied, for all the ecological diversity that reflects God’s rampant desire for incarnation.

We don’t need a partner to do this. But if in our partnerships we fail to look outward and tend to the corner of creation around us – whether that is children or other humans, animals or ecosystems, or simply our household resources – if our love for another person does not spill out into these areas, we have missed something of the presence of God. God is always engaged in the care of life, especially among the vulnerable. And no one need shrink from the expectation that Christian sexual love should be procreative. Lived well, it always is.

I wonder if Janet Smith has read and reflected upon these wonderfully expansive theological perspectives on the gift of human sexuality?

Then again, how would it be possible for her closed system of ideas and beliefs to access them? It can’t, and so Smith remains adamant that our experiences are only valid and helpful in shaping our lives and our understanding of sex if they match what, in reality, is a discriminatory ideology – one which through its highly selective observations, insists that the sole primary function of sex is procreation.

In such an understanding, Smith reduces the male sex drive to physicality and the female’s to sentimentality (the character of Madame Bovary was her example of female sexuality). In doing so she entirely leaves out the context of need for human intimacy, union, and release that can occur respectfully and lovingly between a man and a woman, between a man and a man, and between a woman and a woman who have not committed themselves to anything other than the act itself. They might have a desire for permanent monogamous relationship, even children, but impermanent relationship may be all that is possible for them in the moment. That does not make the moment any the less good. The good that they experience, if it is a good experience, is in itself an “objective reality.” It may not be “ideal” or even “special” but it can still be true.

Sensus fidelium

Of course, the idea that it’s God’s will that each and every sexual act must be open to biological procreation is a core teaching within the sexual theology of Roman Catholicism. It’s a teaching (and theology), however, that clearly has been rejected by the sensus fidelium, the Spirit-inspired beliefs of the faithful. Smith herself acknowledged that over 95% of Catholic couples reject Humanae Vitae.

However, she dismisses such rejection as “dissent” (understood solely as something negative – as if faithful dissent doesn’t have a legitimate place in Catholicism!) and/or the fact that people “haven’t actually read Humanae Vitae.” Furthermore, all those dissenters aren’t really part of the sensus fidelium, according to Smith. Only those who are good practicing Catholics, those who already agree with what the Church teaches, are included in the “sense of the faithful.” Yes, it’s that closed system again – one that by necessity requires circular logic such as this. But as my priest friend notes, it’s logic that is “sloppy and false.”

Smith’s talk was full of such specious arguments. She also had the rather annoying and, quite frankly, insulting habit of flipping to an altogether different example when attempting to respond to a specific question or situation. For instance, she equated one audience member’s act of contraceptive sex with his wife to him having an affair with his secretary! She also compared my friend’s support for her gay son and his same-sex relationship to supporting someone having sex with his/her sibling! See what I mean by “insulting”? But, again, when people operate within a closed system of ideas and beliefs, I don’t think it’s that surprising to hear them react to new data in ways that are irrational, discriminatory, and hurtful to those of us outside their closed system.

A loving God

As incredulous and disappointed as I was by much of what Janet Smith had to say, I realized later that she really does believe she’s defending and promoting a way of thinking about human sexuality that will bring right-relationship and happiness to people’s lives. In other words, like John Paul II, Smith sincerely believes that she’s presenting a certain understanding of human sexuality that, if adhered to, will ensure that people are treated lovingly and respectfully.

We thus have something in common: I too want people to be treated lovingly and respectfully. Yet in espousing the understanding on sexuality that Smith does, there’s a clear lack of respect for gay people – and indeed straight people whose experience don’t match the “objective reality” defined and articulated by John Paul II.

There’s also a stubborn resistance to see that gay relationships can and do ensure that individuals are treated lovingly and respectfully. Indeed, for many a gay person, the relationship with his/her significant other may have been the first time they experienced such love and respect. Calling such experiences “delusional” is not helpful, loving, or respectful.

Personally, I do not want to be so attached to a certain understanding of “objective reality” that I fail to perceive, acknowledge, and respond to the transforming presence of God in the lives and relationships of others. I also lament that the theology that emerges from such a rigidly prescribed perspective on reality is always an impoverished and ultimately stagnate attempt at honoring both our living God and our living Catholic tradition. Sadly, it would appear that just such a theology is being promoted at the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity.

Smith concluded her presentation by discussing the role of prayer in one’s spiritual life. The most necessary prayer, she said, is “any that reminds us that God is a loving God.” What a pity, I thought, that she is closed to the experience of this “loving God” in the lives and relationships of gay people, indeed to anyone whose experiences take them beyond what she (or rather, Pope John Paul II) narrowly define as “objective reality.”

There may well be “objective reality” but I believe we as humans are still in the process of being guided by our loving God in recognizing, appreciating, and celebrating the full extent of its beauty and complexity. And the only way such guidance is mediated is through our subjective experiences. Even scripture and tradition emerge from and are filtered through human experience. Therefore, to say that we can learn nothing about reality, about God, and/or about what it means to be human from the loving lives and relationships of gay people seems to many of us evidence not of truth but of hubris.

How sweet it is . . .

Here’s a closing thought: Perhaps the title of Janet’s next scholarly project and subsequent presentation could reference not the Supreme’s “Stop in the Name of Love,” but another classic Motown song, Marvin Gaye’s “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You)” – with the “you” encompassing all who have given and received love, all who have flourished and allowed their beloved to flourish through and within their shared and loving sexual relationship.

Now I realize that it would definitely be a departure for Dr. Smith in terms of her current area of expertise, but I believe she’s capable of finding within herself all that is required to step out and join in trustingly and joyfully exploring and expanding the frontiers of our understanding of God. Such exploring and expansion takes place within the context of a pilgrim Church - a Church open to new questions and possibilities, and one that is still very much on the journey.

And perhaps this journey is teaching us that it’s not so much our sexual desire that needs to be transformed but our hearts and minds so that we can perceive and celebrate God beyond our existing ways of viewing and understanding the presence of love in the lives and relationships around us.

How sweet it is indeed!

Michael Bayly is the executive coordinator of the Catholic Pastoral Committee on Sexual Minorities and the editor of The Progressive Catholic Voice. This article was first published on his weblog, The Wild Reed in October 2008.

* A subsequent search of the Internet, after both the publication of Paula’s article in The Progressive Catholic Voice and this article at The Wild Reed, found Dr. Smith’s credentials listed on the website of Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit, the seminary where she has an appointment on the faculty. These credentials are as follows:

Dr. Janet E. Smith: B.A., M.A., Ph.D., School of Theology, Fr. Michael J. McGivney Chair in Life Ethics, Professor of Moral Theology. B.A. (Classics), Grinnell College, 1972; M.A. (Classical Languages), University of North Carolina, 1975. Ph.D., (Classical Languages), University of Toronto, 1982. At SHMS 2001–