Thursday, October 2, 2014

Was I Unfair?

In a recent Facebook post, I posted a link to an article about a Catholic priest who barred a gay couple from receiving sacraments and volunteering at their church because they had gotten married. The Bishop of their diocese then required them to sign a document asserting the sinful nature of their relationship as a precondition to being allowed to resume membership, but the priest was insisting on adding further conditions (including the initiation of divorce proceedings). I accompanied that post with the comment “…*fuck* the Catholic Church!”

A number of respondents to my post pointed out that this was a case of the priest being a jerk, and that it was unfair and offensive for me to condemn all Catholics for his behavior. I tried to clarify what I was saying in the comments, but Facebook is really not the best medium for that sort of conversation. So I thought it might be worth a blog post.

First and foremost, I want it to be absolutely clear that I was not condemning all Catholics. That’s why I said “the Catholic Church,” and not “Catholics.” While I understand that there are many who would interpret the phrase “Catholic Church” to encompass the institution itself, the priesthood, and every person claiming membership in the Catholic faith, I was in this case referring only to the institution. I have nothing against Catholic people, or even Catholic priests. In most cases, I believe them to be better people than their church would have them be.

If you interpreted me to be insulting Catholics, then I apologize unreservedly. My phrasing was created in anger and ill-considered, leaving open the interpretation that I was condemning people who might in no way agree with the behavior I was attacking. I am sorry for that.

But that still leaves open the question of whether my outburst was fair to the intended target: the institution of the Catholic Church. So let’s examine that in greater detail.

When I say “the Catholic Church,” I refer to the body of rules and theological interpretations that make up official Catholic doctrine, along with the official structures that enable the transmission and enforcement of that doctrine. And yes, that does include some people: the people who developed and wrote those doctrines, and who created and occupy the structures that transmit it.

So why should the actions of this priest and his immediate superior prompt me to exclaim “fuck the Catholic Church!?” After all, it’s the priest being an ass. It’s the Bishop being an ass. Why does this reflect on the institution?

Because their actions are fully supported by the doctrine of the Catholic Church. The doctrine of the Catholic Church teaches them that anti-gay bigotry is, in some cases, not only acceptable but mandatory. The structure of the Catholic Church gives them the authority to penalize gay members of their flocks with ostracism from their faith communities.

To see what I mean, let’s look at the body of Catholic law – the Catechism – as displayed on the Vatican website. On the subject of homosexuality, it says:

“Chastity and homosexuality

2357 Homosexuality refers to relations between men or between women who experience an exclusive or predominant sexual attraction toward persons of the same sex. It has taken a great variety of forms through the centuries and in different cultures. Its psychological genesis remains largely unexplained. Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity,141 tradition has always declared that "homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered."142 They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved.

2358 The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These persons are called to fulfill God's will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord's Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition.

2359 Homosexual persons are called to chastity. By the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom, at times by the support of disinterested friendship, by prayer and sacramental grace, they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection.”

(Emphasis mine)

There is a separate section in the catechism discussing the Sacrament of the Eucharist, also known as Communion. This is the specific sacrament being denied to the couple in question. The description is pretty long and at times vague, but it does state a couple times that parishioners who are not “in a state of grace,” or in “full unity with the church” may not participate unless they complete a Sacrament of Reconciliation. The full text is located at and I invite you to read it rather than rely on my interpretation here. However, the FAQ on the site summarizes the relevant portions thusly:

“The Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist cannot be administered to those who voluntarily continue to live in grave sin.”

Yes, there is a line in the discussion on homosexuality about avoiding “unjust discrimination,” but if you read the whole thing and digest it, you’ll see that this would not regard the priest’s actions as being “unjust discrimination.” It takes the tack that being gay is ok, as long as you suffer for it and live a life of self-denial as a result. If you accept it and act on it, well, then you’re a bad person. Taken together, the discussions on homosexuality and the Eucharist make it clear that the priest’s actions are wholly justified by Catholic doctrine. The Catholic church defines homosexual acts to be gravely sinful (and a disorder), and states that people “…who voluntarily continue to live in grave sin,” can be denied the Eucharist (and, by extension, full unity in Catholic congregations). The gay couple got married voluntarily. Ergo, the priest was fully justified in denying them Communion, and the Bishop was fully justified in demanding they repudiate their relationship as part of their reconciliation.

You can say that they might have been jerks to actually apply the rules of the Catholic Church in this way. But you cannot say that, by the doctrine of the Catholic Church, they were not right to do so.

I don’t even doubt that the priest and the Bishop in this case actually think they’re doing the good and compassionate thing. Sure, they uprooted an elderly couple from their community for the crime of loving one another, and used the threat of permanent ostracism from full inclusion that community in the waning years of their lives to force them to deny their relationship. But in their mind, they probably think are doing a good thing. And if they do, then it is because the Catholic Church trained them to think that. If they don’t believe that, and are just assholes, then it is the Catholic Church that gave them the doctrinal cover and the authority to act on it.

Either way, yes, “fuck the Catholic Church.”

And I do get that the Catholic Church does do a lot of good things. It provides comfort to people, it does charity work, it funds hospitals and relief organizations the world over. For those things, I applaud them. But it also pressures people into not using contraceptives, thus encouraging both overpopulation and the spread of deadly sexually transmitted diseases. It provides cover for pedophile priests because it is more interested in protecting its reputation than its children. It is neither wholly good, nor wholly bad.

But on the specific position of homosexuality, I think it is poison. It comes back, once again, to the tendency of religions to tie bad ideas to good ideas, and demand that they all be accepted together as good.

So anyway, that’s my argument. Do you think I’m being unfair?

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