Friday, November 17, 2006

Turkey worthy

Inspired by the new document on who can and can't go to communion, I've decided to post guidelines for admission to Thanksgiving dinner.

"Where Pilgrims Fear to Tread": Guidelines for admission to dinner on Thanksgiving Day

1. Thanksgiving is a time of celebration for God's generous bounty. It is fitting that we gather together to pray and celebrate and give thanks for the many gifts we enjoy.

2. However, Thanksgiving is a privilege. Not everyone is entitled to a share of turkey and dressing--much less gravy--if they have not taken seriously the duties and obligations Thanksgiving entails.

3. Therefore, Thanksgiving participants should consider whether their actions warrant a place next the mashed potatoes; some should surely choose to sit next to the peas, though all should aspire to placement near the turkey.

4. Waging unjust wars, torture, unlawful imprisonment, and general government mismanagement all disqualify a person from Thanksgiving dinner.

5. Those responsible for reducing food programs, cutting budgets for poverty alleviation, and reckless pollution of the environment because it's good for business should sit quietly in the living room while others eat.

6. Ignoring homeless people, underfunding schools and health care for children, and relying on casino gambling to pay for government are all serious offenses against Thanksgiving.

7. General ignorance, failure to vote, and other forms of laziness, though serious, need not result in absolute exclusion. Places at the kiddie table should be made available, in the hope that partial participation may encourage greater commitment.

Not my best work, but unlike the bishops, I'm happy to take suggestions.

Stay of celibacy

Not surprisingly, mandatory celibacy didn't get the ax after yesterday's Vatican summit, though there was an interestingly worded statement that emphasized "the value of the choice of priestly celibacy." Time magazine's deck for their headline, however, overstates things, I think: "The Pope Lays Down the Law on Celibacy, A shortage of priests has some calling for a loosening of the traditional restrictions, but Benedict makes clear it won't happen on his watch."

B16 has already said celibacy is a discipline that can be relaxed, and I think it likely he will begin what will be a long process to a married clergy shortly. First will be the readmission of priests who left to marry but whose wives have died. After that, we'll see, but I don't think the pope wants another schism on an issue like this one.

There is some fear, though, and perhaps this is why the Milingo controversy sparked the "summit," that Milingo's group could gain traction in places like Africa, where the Romans see the future of the church. Though the Catholics of the developing world may share the Roman attitude on the wedge issues--homosexuality, women's ordination, etc.--celibacy has never been terribly popular there, nor has it put down strong roots among indigenous clergy. Milingo, with his everything but the celibacy church and personal popularity in Africa, may find a receptive audience.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

The many meanings of "welcoming"

I'm still puzzling over the characterizations of the new document on those "inclined" to members of the same-sex as "welcoming," one voiced by both the media and the bishops themselves. Consider this from The Age: "Bishop Arthur Serratelli, of New Jersey, the chairman of the Conference of Catholic Bishops' committee on doctrine, stressed that the tone of the statement was intended to be 'positive, pastoral and welcoming,' even as it compared same-sex attractions to the temptations of 'envy, malice or greed.' "

So far, I haven't heard any gay Catholics identify this doc as welcoming, and I certainly don't think it is. So, as a service to the bishops, I'm going to attempt to outline a document that is actually welcoming yet still doesn't contain a change in teaching on this matter:

1. To our dear sisters and brothers in Christ who are gay or lesbian:

2. The Body of Christ has always had members with a same-gender sexual orientation and has no doubt been enriched by their presence among the baptized. Today as well, the church is enriched by the gifts of its gay and lesbian members who generously offer themselves in service to the gospel. Like all the baptized, lesbian and gay women and men are full members of the church, called by God into the Body of Christ.

3. Unfortunately, the relationship between the church's leadership and its gay and lesbian sons and daughters has not always been positive. Over the past decades, many lesbian and gay Catholics have felt persecuted and rejected by the language popes and bishops have used to describe same-sex sexual orientation and same-sex relationships, as well as efforts on the part of some church leaders to oppose civil laws favoring gay and lesbian people.

4. We regret the pain this has caused our lesbian and gay sisters and brothers, and realize that many have left the practice of their faith because of these statements and actions.

5. At the same time, scripture and tradition have historically judged same-sex sexual activity as inconsistent with the Christian life, a consistent judgment not easily dismissed. There has also, however, been a vigorous debate among clergy, theologians, and the people of God concerning this matter; some have suggested that the scriptural prohibitions and the church's teaching may reflect the prejudices of the past and need to be informed by the modern social sciences.

6. Though at this time we do not see error in the church's teaching on this matter, we invite gay and lesbian Catholics to participate in this ongoing conversation by fully participating in the life of the church in ways befitting the duties and privileges of their baptism and by engaging their pastors and bishops in continuing dialogue, that together we may continue on the path of salvation and the fullness of gospel truth.

7. Our tradition offers sage advice for this sometimes difficult journey: In essentials, unity; in doubtful matters, liberty; in all things, charity. May charity guide us in this endeavor.

And it only took me 15 minutes. And, yes, it leaves open the possibility of change, but as anyone who has studied church history knows, doctrinal development--even the correction of error--is a part of our Catholic story.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Inclined to disagree

The U.S. Catholic bishops took another step toward irrelevance yesterday, issuing three documents that are likely to go over like lead balloons among most Catholics.

The first, "Ministry to Persons with a Homosexual Inclination," gets dinged from the beginning for not even getting the vocabulary right. I'm waiting for the document that would address the care of persons with a heterosexual "inclination," whatever that is. The bishops get credit for insisting that the children of same-sex couples must be baptized, though this document isn't as strong as the injunction in canon law itself.

Document two, "Married Love and the Gift of Life," will no doubt win the eye-rolls it richly deserves from married couples of childbearing age, only 4 percent of whom practice the Natural Family Planning it endorses. If I were married, though, I'd be more irritated that a group of men who know absolutely nothing about the financial, psychological, and interpersonal demands of childrearing presume to speak so bluntly about a "generous" attitude toward fertility. Add to that the insulting statement that marital sex that uses artificial contraception is merely "casual" and tantamount to lying, and you get a sure winner with the married set.

Finally, and perhaps most sadly, “ 'Happy Are Those Who Are Called To His Supper' ”: On Preparing To Receive Christ Worthily in the Eucharist" encourages those to whom the first two documents apply to refrain from receiving communion if they can't or won't toe the line on gay sex, contraception, and a host of other issues. All I can say is that the day the bishops issue a document on worthiness to preside at Eucharist (Cardinal Law, anyone?), I'll pay attention to a document about who is "worthy" to receive.

All three of these ill-conceived statements share the same problem: Never did the bishops make any effort to consult those addressed. Heaven forbid that the bishops should hold a public dialogue with gay and lesbian Catholics, much less with married ones. No, armed with their infused knowledge, "the grace of orders," or naked presumption, the bishops have once again treated the people of God as a voiceless mass, fit only to listen, never to speak. The bishops are content, it seems, to stay safely in their own magisterial echo chamber.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Pope Richard

Nixon, that is--and I mean that in the nicest way possible!

I don't mean to compare B16 to the Watergate Nixon, of course. Think "only Nixon can go to China." In this case, "only B16 could call off celibacy."

That's right, God's Rottweiler may be on the verge of relaxing the discipline of celibacy in the Western church, and he's called together a study group in Rome, presumably because of Emmanuel Milingo, an African bishop who got married in a Moonie ceremony and is now making mandatory celibacy a big deal. To wit, he's gathering 1,000 married priests in December.

Now, to be honest, the discipline has been slowly eroding especially since the Church of England began ordaining women in the 1990s. At the time a good number of married Anglican priests came over to Rome--and brought their wives along with them. Here in the U.S., a small number of married Episcopal and Lutheran clergy have also come over; they number about 600 now, I think. So, allowing priests to marry, perhaps before ordination as in the Eastern Catholic and Orthodox churches, isn't a big theological step, though psychologically it could be huge.

For one, this would mean a dramatic reduction in the number of celibate clergy--which I think would be good for celibacy, since those that choose it would really be choosing it. It might also mean some hard feelings for those long-timers who never got the chance to marry. And it will certainly have practical ramifications: For starters, parishes especially are going to have to start paying salaries that can support a married priest and his family.

We may be jumping the gun, of course, but consider these statistics from Latin America: Right now, about 500,000 Brazilian Roman Catholics a year are becoming evangelicals, primarily because their congregations are smaller and they have plenty of ministers. In Mexico, the Catholic priest to layperson ratio is something like 1 to 7,500; for evangelicals it's 1 to 232. The average age of a Mexican priest is 65; evangelical ministers' average age is 32. You do the math.

What is perhaps most surprising, at least as Reuters reports it, is that the group meeting in Rome on this issue are considering not only permitting married clergy but even the dispensation of current clergy to marry despite already being ordained, and, a bigger deal, allowing those who left to marry to return to active ministry. Good bye clergy shortage. (Wish I was running a "theological update" program for the guys coming back!)

Of course, some parishes will refuse married clergy, but my guess is that their number will be small. And, to quote the Bush administration's favorite expression, "make no mistake, " when and if this change comes, it will be a very big deal with lots (and I mean lots) of unintended and unanticipated consequences.

I say bring it on. If there's one thing our church needs right now, it's a great big shake-up.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Staying in the bedroom

In light of the fact that much of the bishops' time will be devoted to thinning the communion line of dissenters--with most issues being of the bedroom variety--the following is perhaps not surprising from Bishop William Skylstad of Spokane (whose diocese, incidentally, is now in bankruptcy because of sex abuse claims):

"There is a mocking reduction of sexuality, debasing it from God's beautiful gift of creation to little more than casual chemistry and inconsequential recreation."

Skylstad gets props from CtotheL in his opening address for taking on the "debasing personal attacks" that have characterized much of church debate of late, but let's be honest: Is our culture's sexual excess really the demon that needs exorcising right now? Our country is involved in two wars with religious overtones, the income gap has become a chasm, our church leadership has absolutely no credibility, the priest shortage (and access to the sacraments) is bordering on crisis both here and abroad, the HIV pandemic is showing no signs of abating, and many dioceses are financial ruins.

Pop culture's sex addiction is the least of our problems, especially when study after study shows that most people are choosing monogamous, committed sexual relationships, and the age of first intercourse for teenagers has stabilized and is even showing signs of (upward) improvement.

Of course, sex is always the straw person to go after when one wants to avoid real issues.

Clear as mud

In response to the overwhelming outcry after the sex abuse scandal for greater transparency in church governance, the U.S. bishops have decided it's better to meet behind closed doors. So, for about half of their annual meeting in Baltimore--where they will be discussing, among other things, new guidelines for pastoral care to gay and lesbian Catholics, a document on determining just who among the baptized are "worthy" for communion, and an official songbook for liturgies in the United States--the bishops will be safely kept from the watchful eyes of their constituents, that is, the people of God, to whom they are bound in service.

Wrong move, guys. All this is likely to accomplish is a more secretive, self-involved hierarchy, and a more irritated, disenfranchised laity.

Could it be that when the bishops got a taste of transparency--and the accountability that goes along with it--their first instinct was to turn tail and run?

Monday, November 06, 2006

Homophobia getting Haggard

After about two weeks of non-stop stuff, I finally get a breath and a second to blog. I'll have more to say in the coming days--especially as the U.S. bishops are debating a new document on who can (and, evidently more importantly, can't) go to Communion and another on those with a "homosexual inclination." Speaking of such inclinations, I feel compelled to comment about Ted Haggard, former president of the 30-million-member National Association of Evangelicals, now "disgraced" as a frequenter of a male prostitute, despite his vitriolic opposition to homosexuality and same-sex marriage.

In the interests of charity, I only really have one point to make: How strange it is that everyone is interested in the fact that Haggard had sex (or got a massage or whatever) from a man, and no one seems to care that he purchased and presumably used crystal meth, one of the most dangerous and addictive drugs out there. Haggard's own letter of confession focused more on the "darkness" and "dirt" of his "inclination" ("objective disorder" sounds pleasant by comparison) than on the fact that he was using a life-threatening illegal drug.

To my mind, though, what he really needs God's grace to overcome is the deep self-hatred the led him to take such risks. As last Sunday's gospel reminds us, the command to love self is right up there with loving God and neighbor. We all struggle with that from time to time; wouldn't it be nice if everyone made it a little easier for same-sex oriented folk by finally putting prejudice against homosexuality in the bad-idea trash heap where it belongs?