The Church and Gays: No Earthly Reason

Yesterday morning, ten LGBT-rights activists gathered outside St. Patrick’s cathedral for Mass and found themselves, so to speak, stonewalled. They were warned — first by New York City police officers, then by a cathedral functionary — that they would face criminal trespassing charges if they tried to enter.

But the ten had more than liturgy on their minds, and on their hands. As a rebuke to Cardinal Dolan for his recent statement that the Church would welcome gay people so long as they “washed their hands,” that is, if they stopped having sex, the activists smeared their palms with ash. “We gathered not in protest, but as a silent witness,” explains Joseph Amodeo in the HuffPo.

It’s easy to sympathize with the archdiocese. Pointed gestures by any name can turn disruptive. Kevin Donahue, the cathedral’s director of operations, did agree to admit the men on the condition they wash their hands. This suggests their demeanor gave him confidence they wouldn’t switch to some brasher tactic — shouting, say, as Michelangelo Signorile once did during an address by the future Pope Benedict. Still, it wouldn’t do to permit any remonstrance, no matter how silent, to distract anyone from the readings, the homily, or the Eucharist.

But before everyone stampedes to agree how Amodeo & Co. are ill-mannered, ill-catechized, or both, do let’s pause for a moment to notice that what they wanted, more than anything else, was in. Given the state of the Church today, that’s nothing short of miraculous.

How does the Church see itself these days? Embattled, marginalized, even persecuted. In Africa and Asia, particularly the Middle East, this is often literally true. Cardinal Dolan himself coined the term “Global War on Christians,” and if the statistics of the Global Institute for Human Rights mean anything, there was no blarney in it. Closer to home, there’s a mounting terror that the Obama administration has it in for the Church and means to run it out of the social-services business. Though the media and Pope Francis haven’t quite returned from their honeymoon, Fr. Dwight Longenecker, for one, is convinced Francis is due a crucifixion at their hands. Who would want to throw in his lot with the doomed?

More exactly, why would gays and lesbians? In Angels in America, Tony Kushner has Roy Cohn say, “Homosexuals are men who know nobody and whom nobody knows.” That’s been flipped on its head. Now everyone wants to know homosexuals. The armed forces and the NBA are competing to see who can lay out the welcome mat fastest. Even hip-hop artists have decided that homophobia is one kind of transgression that can’t be made to look cool. In the culture wars, the LGBT rights movement has beaten everyone, including the Church, absolutely hollow.

Unless their activists have very short memories, they’ll remember it’s been barely 20 years since the CDF declared that homosexuality, unlike race or religion but like mental illness, could constitute a valid basis for discrimination in hiring and housing. What is it that makes Joseph Amodeo and his friends want to do anything but gloat over our bruised and bloodied form?

In 1793, the French National Convention enthroned a lightly-draped woman named Sophie Mormoro before Notre-Dame’s altar. Mormoro was meant to represent the goddess of Reason; shouting, “Down with fanaticism!” the crowd offered her its fanatical devotion. Alarmists will say gay Catholics are harboring similar plans to desanctify the Church from within. This past week or so, Masha Gessen’s statement that LGBT activists want to destroy marriage altogether, has gone viral among marriage-equality opponents, and it’s easy to see why. For whoever wants one, it’s a regular Protocols of the Elders of Sodom, apparent proof that all these people want to do, finally, is dirt.

But most Catholics, I hope, are too sophisticated to judge an entire social movement by its most threatening manifestations. Marriage equality and military service rose to the top of the LGBT agenda precisely because activists wanted to embrace, in Andrew Sullivan’s words, “the conservative values of responsibility, mutual care, and service to others.” Participating in the life of the Church would seem to fit on that list. Service to others certainly seems to have been a specialty of Nicholas Coppola, who was dismissed from various parish ministries after he and his partner married in a civil ceremony.

My point isn’t that the Church should change its teachings on homosexuality. But Cardinal Dolan himself has admitted, very sportingly, that he and the American bishops have no idea how to communicate the Church’s message on gays, to gays. It’s a huge question, one that will probably take a long process of trial and error to answer. A good starting point might be an acknowledgement — maybe a silent one — of two unwelcome facts. First, stripped of its social and cultural clout, the Church has no tools of coercion. By booting gays and lesbians out of ministries or diocesan jobs, it can purify and insulate itself, for whatever that’s worth, but it won’t likely bring the objects of correction into line.

The second is related, but distinct. When dealing with gays and lesbians, the Church is dealing with people who are culturally — and increasingly, legally — able to fulfill themselves, even if self-fulfillment means marriage or parenthood. There are a number of Churches who will receive them exactly as they are. Gays or lesbians who continue to find something appealing in Catholicism must have more intellectual or moral depth than they’re usually given credit for.

In an open letter to Cardinal Dolan, Michael Pettinger demonstrates this very compellingly. Pettinger, a recent revert to Catholicism and member of the Gay and Lesbian Ministries at New York’s St. Francis Xavier parish, begins by thanking Dolan for not flinching or frowning when the members of the ministry were introduced to him. He also assures Dolan that the Catholic Church should not be a Church “where anything goes.” But then he asks:

So what about queer Catholics? From what should they wash their hands? Your Eminence, I can’t answer that question without looking closely at the lives of each and everyone one of them. Neither can you. They are so varied, and have been so long ignored by the Church hierarchy, that there is no one place in the Tradition to which I can point and say, “Look there.” The one thing I can say is that Nature — which might be the God of some atheists, but is certainly not our God — is not the standard by which to understand the lives of LGBT Catholics. Look for grace instead. If you want to see what God is making with our lives and our loves, if you want to help us grow further in that love, you need to spend more time listening to us. A lot more time. -

If I were a bishop, I’d give thanks folks like Pettinger haven’t washed their hands of the Church.

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