Continued from “Living prophethood. Part I: a fire shut up in my bones.”
I hate, I despise your religious festivals;
your assemblies are a stench to me.
Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them.
Though you bring choice fellowship offerings,
I will have no regard for them.
Away with the noise of your songs!
I will not listen to the music of your harps.
But let justice roll on like a river,
righteousness like a never-failing stream!
—Amos 5:21 – 24 (NIV)
Twenty-seven centuries, and we are still not hearing the prophet scream at the top of his lungs: Justice not ritual! Compassion not temples!
Loving God is in loving the world God is in.
The vestments will take care of themselves. Turning away from fellowship or from service anyone—anyone!—who doesn’t threaten the community’s safety nullifies every reason and purpose of the existence of the Church. Catholic Mass is sacrifice, but are we sure God wants it today?
Justice. Yes, it’s about gay couples, it’s about women priests, it’s about remarried spouses and providing our employees insurance that covers every benefit the U.S. law mandates without forcing the government to give the Church a hand-out. Who would like to debate? Let’s. Let’s debate. But it’s not good enough to say that the Church does not bow to “Gallup morality,” that its doctrine is not a popularity contest, that it’s not a democracy. It’s not a democracy, but it’s not a dictatorship. It’s a process of communal discernment.
Humanity grows in its moral awareness. For thousands of years it’s been maturing, reevaluating its ideas of good and right, and the Church has been growing with it. Our conceptions have changed, our tradition, our way of thinking. We no longer believe the Earth is the center of the universe, and we no longer approve of slavery. We no longer think Protestants are evil—in fact, we are encouraged to dialogue. Only a few decades ago, but lo, Jews are not evil either, and even other religions are worth learning from! Change is hard and comes slowly to a gigantic, billion-person rock of many ages, but change it must. We’ve chiseled it before and must again, except now we must do it faster.
Of course, every time a change comes, the people must be ready, but it’s hard to tell because the “Gallup” of our “morality” is in a state of some chaos.
In preparation for this fall’s Extraordinary Synod on Family, the Vatican has been gathering opinions of the Church around the world, via extensive questionnaires. The data is fascinating and variegated, but one pattern is as constant as an equator sunrise: parishioners in all corners of the world are far removed in their views from the Teaching Authority. All over northern Europe, North America, and Australia they find the doctrines on sex and family unrealistic, outdated, and lacking in compassion. Some of it (like the denial of communion to gay and remarried couples) makes people angry. The rest of it they quietly ignore: extra-marital cohabitation, contraception… It’s just part of life.
Specifically in the U.S., more than two-thirds of Catholics would like to see ordained women priests (not a part of the questionnaire) and same-sex marriage. An even greater number have no problems with married clergy and remarried parishioners, and overwhelmingly—this is old news—between 75 and 90 percent of Catholic women have used or use artificial contraception.
“Non-Western” parts of the world are not so uniform in opinion. In Japan, apparently, the 440,000 Catholics are not generally familiar with Humanae vitae at all and don’t care to know. They get taught well about sex and condoms in school and are much more concerned with the Church’s views on financial behavior and social values. In Africa, opinions swing wildly from country to country: in places, almost uniformly anti-gay; in other places, almost 50-50. South America is a tight split on gay marriage, and France and Italy are in slight opposition, though everywhere young people lead in support over their elders by at least 18 points. And everywhere—and I mean everywhere—the body of the Christ’s Church is in love with means of artificial contraception, by a margin so large that it’s not worth discussing. And no wonder, considering all the nightmares they prevent, from abortion to AIDS.
It’s a motley map, but then—this is not a democracy, we just agreed. And it shouldn’t be. The questions of deepest moral significance should not be decided by a showing of hands. Nor by a hijacked declaration of authority from a self-perpetuating elite. It should be a product of honest, painful, open, and timely discernment, with participation by all, formulation of arguments by the brightest, and a guiding hand by elected leaders, and the time for it has already long passed. And it should submit to the one and only law from the one and only source, spoken constantly, perpetually in us by the one and only voice. The law is Love. All it takes is the longing to listen.
Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Heap your burnt offerings upon your sacrifices; eat up the meat! In speaking to your ancestors on the day I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I gave them no command concerning burnt offering or sacrifice. This rather is what I commanded them: Listen to my voice; then I will be your God and you shall be my people.
There are many causes for me to take up, but I will take up one, here and now: one that seems to have by far fewer advocates than the disaster of its moral bankruptcy demands, one that even its advocates don’t seem to take all the way to the altar in the Holy of Holies, where the heart of the matter lies in wait for the one special time of access. Today, I talk about homosexuality in the Church.
I shouldn’t have to defend it. Not in the era when we haven’t enough tears to cry for the victims of murder and rape, soul-crushing poverty, child and elder abuse, starvation, and every sort of prejudice, for battered women and child soldiers and trafficked sex workers and bullied teenagers and millions, billions living in fear and oppression in war zones, droughts, under corrupt and dictatorial regimes, in prisons… When we know of so much violence, I shouldn’t have to defend to a Christian church the people who want only to love and do no harm. People who make no victims.
I say nothing new when I point out that Jesus, who unfolded a radical ethic for his disciples—so radical we find it impossible to follow—based on the Law of Moses, never said anything we know of about same-sex relationships, or that the exhortations against them in the letters of Paul and in Leviticus are culturally specific and contextual at best. It’s been noted again and again, and in much more detail, that for a very long time now we haven’t been following most of the Old Testament’s commandments. We plant crops one next to another and mix fabrics in the same garment. Hardly anybody keeps kosher. Stoning a rebellious child in the city gates is now, thank God, a serious crime, and working on the Sabbath, though not, I believe, a great idea, no longer carries the penalty of death. Carries no penalty at all, for we leave it to individual conscience.
We have evolved, the letter of our law led by the Spirit guiding our understanding. The world has changed. That’s how it’s supposed to be. The same St. Paul, who raged against the ritualized same-sex action of the pagan world around him, had no problem with slavery or child marriage. Things change. We learn. Thank God for that.
“Queer” means “odd,” you know. Unusual, peculiar. Fringe. Queer is “other.” On the margins. It was a pejorative term in the beginning, but just like “gay,” the community picked it up and wore it, and made it its own. The queer community of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, transsexual, and all the other marginalized lovers of people.
Christianity should understand that. Because marginality is its honored root tradition—more specifically even, the marginality of Love denied by the establishment. Since before its inception Christianity was on the fringes of its world’s culture: grown from the tiny, bothersome colony of Rome; preached by a wandering teacher of illegitimate birth from the despised northern province. “Nothing good can come out of Nazareth,” they used to say in Judah. Even as a rabbi he was a freak. He broke every convention of respectability and ritual cleanliness, he touched the sick and dead bodies, he spoke to women and foreigners, he drank with tax collectors—and they called him a glutton and drunkard and traitor and blasphemer, and they called him a sinner, and they nailed him to a cross. He lived and loved and died on the fringes of society.
His students lived in the margins for a long time, persecuted and hunted throughout the empire for the love they practiced, the life they lived together. But they believed to the tiniest bone in their bodies and every string of their trembling hearts that this life and no other made them fully human as God intended, and they would live this love as long as they could and then die, and they would turn no one away who believed the same.
We are the establishment now. We are mainstream. The tradition. The empire. But we grow from their heritage, and we must not forget that the Christian heart lives on the fringes, always in love with God who is Love. Nothing is above love, and all is subordinate to its overarching consideration, and what same-sex couples want is just this: to love openly as family.
Family. A profound good by Jesus’ words. Created into a demand of culture and rights by our society. Legal, increasingly for every kind of couple. And holy by the Law of Moses. Holy. How can we say “No” to two people, committed to each other in love and care, till death, who wish to stand before God and all the people of God and vow faithfulness? And witness to the holiness of family?
When people come in love and say they are at peace with God and ask for a sacrament, can we close the gates of our sacramental Church before them—and then come knocking on the gates of Heaven? It’s not a sacrament? How do we know? The founder of this Church did not say so. Who are we to say so?
That’s right, I am talking about more than communion. I am talking about marriage. I can hear the Voice of God in every sound of the universe, and it is pleading for justice. I can see God in every spec of nature, and everywhere I turn God is trying to show us how to open our arms to each other. It is time—long past time—to welcome all Catholics to communion, straight and queer and center and fringe and mix and every kind, single and couples and families and celibates, those in love and those looking for love. And it is time—long past time—to begin performing marriage ceremonies for couples gay and straight. And to stop calling it “gay marriage.” To call it just “marriage.”
Again, I know the arguments: Natural Law, procreation… I am convinced that none of them hold water, but we can argue. Not right now. Because this—right now—is not theoretical. It is very important that you understand, this is not just an “issue.” It’s not an abstraction. This is not about two camps squaring off in the debating arena, shoving bibles into each other’s faces, Aquinas passages flying. This is about blood and tears and ruined lives. Suicide notes. Bitter jokes about “recovering Catholics.”
It’s about a boy who sits in the pew week after week quietly and realizes that the identity he is discovering he can share with no one, that he is completely, inconsolably alone. He used to trust his priest, his teacher, and his mother, and now that’s over, and he confronts all by himself the enormity of what his Church is teaching him about his inborn nature: Living a life that’s not a lie—marrying a person he loves, raising children, helping neighbors mow the lawn—living a life that fulfills the capacities of love with which he was created is a highway to hell. Born to love and condemned for loving. Unthinkable. Monstrous. And the boy faces a choice: either God is evil or every adult he’s ever respected. So he will bury his desire to love another human being deep inside and lead a lonely, dispirited life. Or he will give up on himself and plunge into the world with a desperate abandon of a condemned soul, and overdose at 34. Or he will agonize for years and decide finally it’s all a lie and walk away from the Church who called him a sinner just for being him and never look back. Or maybe he’ll look back. One day, watching his husband of 17 years play with the kids they’ve adopted from a war-torn country. And he will smirk bitterly.
We disagree on much. The Catholic Church is the single largest human organization on Earth. Even American Catholics can’t agree on many things, and some are important. We argue about how to spend our money and how to govern the use of firearms, about abortion and assisted suicide—issues of justice, of life and death, and we should argue. Discernment, that’s what it is. But we don’t excommunicate each other over issues. At least, not normally; at least, we shouldn’t. We don’t close church doors. We don’t manipulate Sacrament, the thing that is Mystery, the lifeblood of reality. That which binds the body of Christ together. Condemnation for love is not an issue. It’s an injustice. Rivers are crying and winds are sighing, Amos and Jeremiah are rolling in their graves.
This is a question of love.
It shouldn’t be a question.
Say to those with fearful hearts, “Be strong, do not fear…”
… But Zion said, “The Lord has forsaken me,
the Lord has forgotten me.”
… I will not forget you!
See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands.
—Isaiah 35:4, 49:14–16 (NIV)