Intemperate Episcopal Rhetoric and a Church of Honest Discourse
Last week was a very hard one for me. First, I reeled from reading, for the umpteenth time, over a twenty year period, Vatican attempts to tame the ' good sisters' in a document seemingly aimed at dessicating The Leadership Conference of Religious Women. Demands were made that the American nuns' organization revise its statutes, desist from any so called 'radical feminist rhetoric', pronounce less on issues of poverty and social justice and more on abortion and gay marriage, monitor speakers more carefully, somehow dissociate itself somewhat from Network (a Washington, D.C. lobby group sponsored by religious sisters which works for issues of poverty and social justice). All I could say is what Nicholas Cafardi, a Catholic law expert, said: "I have known many very saintly nuns in my life but very few saints who work in chancery offices!" Jesuits who work at the University of San Francisco, where I live, minister to a community of retired Presentation Sisters, many of them elderly. They spoke of a widespread dismay by these elderly sisters who gave their lives to the church at this recent disavowal of their direction. All this week, at every daily mass I have said in Saint Ignatius Church I have prayed in gratitude and thanksgiving for the witness and ministry of the sisters in our American church. When our pastor singled out the religious women for such a prayer of thanks at a recent mass, one congregant said to me: "He was courageous." I retorted: "What does it say about our current church's openness to honest dialogue and discourse if we think it is especially courageous to be grateful for the women who have been in our lifetime the very backbone of the church!"
On the back of the Vatican's announcement censuring The Leadership Conference of Religious Women, I read the remarkably intemperate remarks of Bishop Daniel Jenky of Peoria in a homily attacking the Obama administration because of its mandate for insurance coverage of contraception. Jenky compared President Obama to Hitler and Stalin and denounced Obama's "radical, pro-abortion and extreme secularist agenda." He went on to say: "This fall, every practicing Catholic must vote and must vote their Catholic consciences or by the following fall our Catholic schools, our Catholic hospitals, our Catholic Newman Centers, all our public ministries--only excepting our church buildings--could easily be shut down." Jenky evoked the vote as a clear battle! Reverend Barry Lynn of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State (not an organization I usually admire) rather rightly suggested that the IRS look into the tax exemptions of the diocese of Peoria because any right minded listener could hardly miss that Bishop Jenky effectively urged a vote against President Obama, against the IRS limitations for tax exempt churches. I joked at the end of the week to my Jesuit superior: "I think I may have to quit this church." He responded: "I won't let you. We need your salary!". The irony for me is that while the American bishops can be super sensitive to what they take to be the rhetorical excesses of American nuns or a distinguished theologian such as Fordham's Sister Elizabeth Johnson, they rarely speak out in reproof when one of their fellow bishops exceeds ordinary civility and credulity and engages in intemperate rhetoric or fails true pastoral outreach.
Whatever one may think about the Obama administration's mandate on contraception (and the fact that the pill is used to regulate other health issues and not just for contraceptive purposes) by even a fairly conservative Catholic moral theological calculus, the Bishops could appeal, in the last resort, to a double effect morality. What they will is a good health care insurance for their employees. They will not pay or have to inform employees that the health care covers contraceptives nor are they responsible for the use or non-use of that possibility by employees. They can make clear their opposition to any such use of contraceptives, to be sure. The fact that ' the pill' has other medical effects than contraception ( and has sometimes been prescribed for post-menopausal women) came up recently when the Arizona legislature wanted to pass a law to protect anyone with religious objections from having to pay for contraceptive coverage in their insurance. It became clear that in some cases it was medically indicated for other than contraceptive purposes. When the legislators then said :" Well, then the woman would have to tell her employer or insurance precisely what that medical purpose was", the bill went down to defeat. Obviously, this tactic would violate the privacy and dignity of the woman patient. So, the issue is complex.
The American bishops have announced a fortnight of freedom, for the two weeks leading up to the Fourth of July, about religious freedom as they see it jeopardized by the Obama mandate. I have some real respect for issues of religious freedom and possible jeopardy to it (cf. my article in America for March 12, 2012). But clearly, if the bishops can not reign in the intemperate rhetoric of some of their confreres, such as Bishop Jenky, the bishops' effort is not likely to succeed or to be conceived of as anything other than the Republican Party at prayer. This is a real danger.
On Saturday, at a reception honoring our retiring pastor, a man spoke to me to compliment me on my homilies. He then told me he was gay. He said he came to a Jesuit church because he had no fears in such a setting that his dignity would be assailed from the pulpit. I was surprised! I asked him if he had ever experienced such a denigration of his dignity from homilies in other settings and he assured me the answer was yes. Again, the issue of gay marriage roils our current political scene. I read recently the letter of Archbishop John Nienstadt of Minneapolis-Saint Paul to his priests about his concern to marshal an attack on gay marriage and support a referendum in Minnesota opposing it. He told his priests that this is one of the greatest challenges of our times and that he saw those who supported gay marriage as involving" an attempt to eliminate the need for marriage altogether." He made clear that he would not brook from his priests any open dissension on this issue. One of the dangers of Catholic attempts to fight gay marriage ( as we saw in California in 2008 at the time of the divisive Proposition 8 fight) is that the church runs the risk of allying its activity with other groups. In Minnesota, the Catholic effort seems to be allied closely with the Minnesota Family Council on whose web site one finds truly homophobic remarks which link gay orientation intrinsically to pedophilia and beastiality!
In the winter of 2008, the Catholic bishops of Los Angeles (who had supported Proposition 8 to outlaw gay marriage) wrote a post-election letter to their gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. They acknowledged with sadness that some in that campaign employed hurtful and accusatory language against gays and lesbians. The bishops wanted to distance themselves from those other opponents of gay marriage who did so. They said they wanted to ensure gays and lesbians that the church's support for Proposition 8 " was not meant to diminish their dignity or their membership in the church." They insisted that gays and lesbians are " cherished members of the Catholic Church and that we value you as equal and active members of the body of Christ." In the heat of the campaign about Proposition 8, however, the bishops did not, publicly, distance themselves from the intemperate and disparaging rhetoric about gays employed by some of their co-supporters of the proposition. The same danger of entaglement with disparaging and intemperate ( and frankly un-loving) rhetoric by other groups opposing gay marriage in Minnesota is also there. The church has said, often, that the church recognizes the full dignity of gays and lesbians and has a pastoral outreach to them. As such, when it joins other groups in a campaign against gay marriage, it does need to distance itself from the intemperate rhetoric fulminating from its electoral allies ! Inasmuch as the church clearly and openly allies with other groups opposing gay marriage who use language which denigrates the dignity of gays and lesbians and does not repudiate such language, the church is also complicit, by association, in such disparagement of dignity.
My last experience this past week was a two day meeting of priests and lay members of the nine Jesuit parishes in the California Province. Much concern was heard about our parishes embodying prime Jesuit values: Ignatian spirituality brought into everyday life; the faith that does justice in social justice outreach; ecumenism and inter-religious dialogue; co-responsiblity for ministry among Jesuits and lay collaborators; some concern for a true and honest intellectual life. It became clear to me that many in our parishes have come to them as a kind of refuge or oasis. Also, I saw how widespread it is that, increasingly, thoughtful laity have come to simply assume that there is little room for any honest dialogue in the church about a host of burning pastoral issues: ministry to the divorced and remarried; whether we can have a married clergy; the issue of contraception in marriage; ministry to gays and lesbians.
In an editorial in the April 14th issue of the British Catholic journal, The Tablet, entitled, "Listen to the People," the editors said the following about this sense of the church as a place where one can not any longer have honest dialogue about pressing pastoral issues:
Tacit disobedience in practice, for instance over birth control and increasingly over the admission of divorced people to Holy Communion, is already commonplace. Disobedience, in theory, includes a rejection of the arguments against ordaining married men and, increasingly, against the ordination of women. Lay Catholic attitudes to homosexuality have changed remarkably within a generation. There is no method of re-evangelization that will turn this tide.
So, who is adrift, the leaders or the led? Indeed, which is which? If dissenting clergy are little more than proxies for dissenting laity, then the real chasm opening up is between the senior hierarchy, the Vatican especially, and the lay faithful at large. But they are out of reach, because the church has neglected to put institutions in place through which an honest dialogue can take place. A useful move would be to remedy that deficiency. First, however, the Vatican would have to give at least the appearance of listening. And that moment is still some way off.
When our best, practicing and well-informed Catholics feel that honest discourse is not allowed in the church (they continue to think on their own, of course) we have lost our pastoral mooring. The American bishops, too, need to approach this growing and serious pastoral perception if they want, in a true sense, to lead. They need to put institutions in place which do allow such dialogue. Later this week we are celebrating the feast of Saint Peter Canisius, the apostle to Germany and Austria at the time of the Reformation. Two of his comments stick with me when I think of the problem of intemperate Episcopal remarks: "An honest exploration of the faith would be much more effective than polemical attacks." Unlike most of his contemporary Catholics, Canisius refused to demonize Luther and Calvin. He noted: "With words like these we don't cure the patients, we make them incurable!"
John A. Coleman, S.J.