I was surprised the other day to learn that the Episcopal church had just voted to allow same-sex weddings. The surprising part wasn’t the “Episcopal” the “same-sex” or even the “voted.” I was surprised that this was news. I thought the Episcopalians had decided to go this route ages ago. I had no idea — I mean seriously, no idea — that such questions were still being debated as recently as a week ago.
The reason I was surprised by this vote was because I don’t follow Episcopalian internal politics, but I do know real live Episcopalians. The ones I know love their faith and love Jesus and love other people, and pretty much school me in the charitable works department. And these people that I know, here in my Bible Belt community where a congregation doesn’t hop onto the latest fad just because it’s being done in California or something, they were living out this day-to-day reality in which same-sex weddings were just part of normal old boring Episcopalian life.
This is the normal way that most people learn about religions other than their own: You see a person practice their faith, and thus you find out bit by bit what that faith entails.
This is also the normal way that people learn about their own religion: You see your fellow believers practice your faith, and thus you find out bit by bit what that faith entails.
This is why the government pretty much busted out laughing when the bishops said, “But paying for contraception violates our conscience.” And the government’s like, “Um? Is this one of those secret Illuminati teachings? Because no one really hears about it.” And then there’s one guy in the government who’s like, “Oh, wait, I went to a Catholic church once and there was this poster about NFP classes in the corner by the coat rack.” The other guy’s like, “They had a coat rack?”
It is somewhat difficult to explain that IVF is a serious violation of your faith’s moral code when a theology professor at one of the best-known Catholic universities in the nation writes in the popular press in favor of the practice.
It’s going to be difficult to explain that Catholics can’t in good conscience cooperate in the carrying out of a same-sex wedding when a chairman of the theology department of a Catholic University has had his same-sex wedding (Episcopal) announced in the New York Times. This is not the lunch lady or even some guy who’s really good at physics and who has agreed not to promote non-Catholic teaching on campus, he just does science and leaves religion to other minds. It is reasonable for the general public to consider what Catholic universities’ theology professors are teaching and practicing to be an indicator of what the Catholic Church believes.
Fortunately, there are two pieces of good news. The first is that there are some quarters of the federal government where bureaucrats have done what bishops have not, and started distinguishing between authentic practice of the Catholic faith and just-borrowing-the-brand-name. That bodes well for us: There’s a chance the government will help us sort out our ecclesiastical mess, and sift the real freedom-of-religion cases from the I-just-want-my-benefits cases, and deal with each according to genuine merit. For all that certain regulators have abandoned common sense, there still exist government officials who believe in the Constitution.
The second is that there is a real revival in the Church today. One of the amusing problems you run into in certain circles is that you can no longer host an event for just the serious Catholics to attend, because there are far too many of us to fit in one room. The number of people who truly do believe and profess all that the holy Catholic Church believes, teaches, and proclaims is not insignificant. Some among us struggle to hold onto the faith, some of us are utterly firm but woefully hapless, some of us have our act together; most of us wander among all three categories on any given day. But we’re there.
So what do you do with a complex faith? One of our difficulties is that we really do mean it when we stand up every Sunday and confess that we have sinned. We take it as an article of faith that the Church is composed entirely of bad Catholics. This affects our outlook the way it doesn’t affect more aggressively delineated religions. We don’t have the option of clearing out all the sinners; the best we can do is hire the right sinner for the job.
In terms of prudent decision making, this leaves a lot of room for variation. We aren’t wondering whether this volunteer position or that staff job should be filled by someone who wanders from the faith; we’re just wondering how far the wanderer can have strayed before it’s too far. Around the edges of the question lurk the classic division between mortal and venial sins (still apropos) and of confession and repentance (likewise). Into that mix our pluralistic upbringing and our ecumenical instincts nag at us. To be Catholic is to want to open the doors to the whole world, and invite each to participate as much as able, even if that can’t be full participation just yet.
So here’s a funny story: After I posted on evangelization, a friend quipped that the next in the series should be about shaking the dust off one’s feet. But what I have found is that people tend to do their own grooming that way. If you persistently proclaim the Catholic faith, people who don’t want to hear it move on. If the only thing you have on offer is Jesus, people looking for something other than Jesus start looking elsewhere.
You can tell how serious a parish or a school or a diocese or a family is about practicing its faith by checking on the way it shores up the faith. When you want someone to use NFP, you offer conferences and classes and stock books and give out pamphlets and host a support group and organize your life in a way that accommodates the reality of such a practice. If you want people with same-sex attraction to live chastely, you do likewise. Is it no wonder that people don’t take seriously the teaching on divorce and remarriage, when I’ve never even heard of a support group for divorced Catholics ineligible to remarry? Is it that we think such a situation is so amazingly easy to live out, or that we think there is nobody in that position? You are thousands of times more likely to find a parish quilting club than a parish group for illicitly-remarried Catholics attempting to live chastely.
The sad reality is that the bulk of Catholics who dissent from essential Catholic teachings aren’t making a decision to counter what they’ve learned on Sunday morning and what their parish is practicing all week. They are doing exactly what they’ve been told to do, and are assuming that if the subject never comes up, then we’re free to decide as we like. It must not be important. If it were important, there’d be a sermon on it, right?
Our difficulty is that we have a scandalous religion and a terror of scandalizing. We hide behind an excuse we call “being pastoral” and that excuse is why I need to tell you about Downton Abbey.
See, my husband and teenagers watched the latest season of Downton Abbey on PBS, but they’d never seen all that came before. So after the season ended, we used the miracles of streaming video for us and “you can have ice cream if you don’t come into the TV room” for the younger siblings, and thus went back to episode 1, season 1, and watched the whole thing through from the beginning. The trouble with this is that my teenagers and I are prone to binge-watching our favorite shows. If it were just the three of us, we’d have watched the whole thing by now.
But we live with this responsible guy who does things like “going to bed on time” and “getting the work done before watching TV” and all that stuff. And thus we typically only get to watch one episode a week, and never, ever, get to watch two in a row. Because we’re pursuing this as group, one of the rules is that you don’t watch unless everyone watches, because then it’s more fun because you can talk about what happened afterwards, which is why the three irresponsible people don’t just forge ahead.
So when we whine, yet again, that we want to watch another episode even though it’s already 10pm, what is the pastoral response from Mr. Responsible?
If you believed the excuse people, the thing for him to do would be to not argue. Eventually we’ll figure out the virtues of good behavior on our own, and until then he mustn’t upset us, because we might be alienated and rebel and leave the Downton Abbey group.
But weirdly, that’s not what he does. What he does is say, “Um, we need to go to bed.” This is the pastoral thing. By force of his enthusiasm for the show if we’ll just wait for him and go at at the agreed-upon pace, his own self-control (it’s not like he doesn’t want to watch, too), and the camaraderie we’ve built both in our wider family life and in our pursuit of this particular hobby, he’s pastoring us towards more self-control.
Sometimes that pastoring is unpleasant. If homework isn’t done on time, no TV show for anybody, because homework comes first. There are consequences to our behavior — consequences that might be distressing at the moment, but that in the long run guide us towards a peaceful, fruitful TV-watching life.
Being part of the group means doing your best to stick to the essential practices of the group, and the way we make that happen is by supporting each other along the way.
So this is the challenge that lies before us. Catholics aren’t so much in peril of having our monasteries dissolved as we are challenged to figure out how to move forward when we’ve spent the last fifty years dissolving our monasteries all on our own. If we want to be recognized as a distinct religion with firmly held beliefs, we must hold onto those beliefs firmly. If we want to have our practices protected by federal law, we must be willing to protect them by church law as well. Why should the government value what we do not?
Artwork:By Central Intelligence Agency (Crusade for Freedom / Cold War Radios) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. Image Description: “Stamp from the Crusade for Freedom, a campaign to create domestic support for America’s Radio Free Europe. Image depicts a heavenly world of religious tolerance on the top, versus a hellish world of communist oppression below.”