Tuesday, October 14, 2014

My Favorite Sins

There’s already been an ocean of ink spilled over the synod and the relatio that has come from it, with plenty of disappointment on both sides.  The relatio retains the vague and non-specific language that characterizes thinking-in-process, but it does offer a few challenges for us as Catholics, at least the way I read it.

One of my favorite bloggers responded to this language:

Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community: are we capable of welcoming these people, guaranteeing to them a fraternal space in our communities? Often they wish to encounter a Church that offers them a welcoming home. Are our communities capable of providing that, accepting and valuing their sexual orientation, without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony?

With this:

This can only refer, therefore, to Catholic exclusion of men and women who are living an active homosexual lifestyle. Are these individuals to be granted “a fraternal space in our communities”? How so? How can we reject their lifestyle while accepting them? In what way exactly are we to grant them “fraternal space in our community”?

Fair enough questions.  There is a reason to be concerned that the Church not sacrifice truth for comfort, and I think that’s what this particular blogger is getting at.   Those concerns are not the only ones.  Nor do I think the relatio aims at that, despite his misgivings and distrust of the language of the document. 

Permit me a small anecdote.

A year or so ago, a friend of mine from Maine came to visit.  Our friendship came from relatively rocky soil: a Yankee and a Southerner, whose lives are very different. An “uber-Catholic” and a lapsed Catholic who can’t accept the Church because, in her mind, it can’t accept her for who she is.  A forty-years married woman and a committed lesbian.  A businesswoman and a scientist.  Not a great deal in common, but still a friendship developed.

Maine had recently passed its law permitting same sex “marriages;” I wondered as we went out for dinner whether my friend had taken advantage of it and what my response would be.  We’ve had enough conversations over the years that she knows something of my faith; I know something of the pain of a life abandoned early by a father after the death of a young brother and the difficulties of being different in a seemingly uniform and content world.  In the back of my head echoed all the proscriptions of various writers who have, at one time or another or in one way of another counseled that recognizing in any sort of positive way these “marriages” constitutes an affront to the faith and an erosion of the family.  All sorts of admonitions to present the hard truths of the faith clearly rattled about in my brain and I prayed desperately to be excused from any such conversation.

We were waiting for our entrees when she finally spoke.

“I just wanted to let you know that Sue and I got married.”

For a woman who makes her living with words, I was oddly silent, and my friend knew it.  Her next words were quiet and disappointed.

“I thought you might congratulate me.”

There it was.  A painful request for acceptance, not so much of gay lifestyle as of a friend who, in her imperfection, had sought solace and stability.

“Of course you have my congratulations,” I said.  “I am happy for you,” thinking to myself and God: If this is sin, I’m sorry.  It’s the best I can do.  You and I can talk about that later. 

She hurried on to add, “It’s not like I think this is a marriage like you and Steve have.   I know it isn’t.  I don’t expect it to be.  It isn’t a sacrament, I know that.  I don’t expect it to be, that isn’t right.  But Sue and I are worried about what happens when one of us gets sick.  We wanted to be able to visit each other in the hospital. This seemed the best way for that to happen. “

My friend is a cancer survivor, twice over, and bad cancers at that.  Her concern isn’t academic.  There it was: the most human of desires, to be comforted by those we love when we are ill, not some great desire to pressure me into affirming something she knows I do not, will not, can not.

I have some up close and personal knowledge about her concerns.  I was working in health care law years ago when hospitals began to deal with these issues of visitation rights.  The stories of gay (divorced, estranged, single, abandoned)  patients denied the comfort of those nearest and dearest were not common but they were tragic.  State laws and hospital rules regulated those who were admitted to visit patients especially in ICU settings. 

It didn’t end there. In the absence of written documents stating otherwise, state law defined who was able to act as a surrogate for the incompetent patient and gay friend with whom I have lived for forty years wasn’t on the list.  Parents, from whom I have been estranged for those forty years because of an admission of homosexuality were.  Loving woman who has shared my life these past fifteen years was not listed but son, who moved away ten years ago and has not spoken to me since was.  Moreover, there was a hierarchy that defined whose decision would control.  Friend, when listed at all, was at the bottom of the list.  For most of us, the list would work fine—but for most of us, there would not be a problem in the first place.  The legal deck was stacked against those falling outside the realm of usual from the very beginning especially those whose most meaningful relationships had no recognition in law.

I understand the reason for these laws: to protect the institution from legal liability in the case of surrogate decision making and to provide broad legal guidance when conflicts arose.  Certainly there were options to challenge the order of the surrogates built into the law but those options were unwieldy, time consuming and expensive and involved courts and judges too often inclined to support the legislative priorities rather than enter into a measuring of the equities. 

Real injustices were done in the name of legal convenience.  Liability limiting statutes for institutions became a mechanism for restricting the rights of patients.  The default justification became that it was possible to designate surrogates by appropriate written instruments and the remedy began to be to require them on admission.  Tough for you if you happened to be admitted incompetent and hadn’t executed one in advance.

I did a lot of work on the ground and in the trenches in this area, some of it for a hospital in a Catholic hospital system.  I don’t recall vast numbers of Christians—Catholic or otherwise-standing up in the public arena and saying This is nuts!  These are sick people entitled to their consolation.  We will not be a party to a one-size-fits all system that puts the onus on the sick person.  Figure something else out.  In point of fact, a lot of professed, good Christian people were responsible for putting into place a system that really did cause a lot of pain and fear for folks who didn’t fit the norm.  I think we have to answer for that. 

It’s clear that there are those in the gay community who use the push for same sex “marriage” as a vehicle to condone a homosexual behavior and push for acceptance of it as it is.  That’s clearly not something that Catholics can or should accept.  But there are others—like my friend—who do not. The issue is both greater and smaller than we see.  The piece my friend mentioned is just that—a piece, not the whole, but it was the piece that mattered to her.

Which brings me to the subject of my favorite sins.  There is no question that the assault on marriage is an assault on society, but it’s not the only one.  Nor are homosexuals asking for same sex marriage the ones responsible for the greatest decline.  Heterosexuals—even those in the Church—have done a fine and dandy job dismantling marriage all on their own. The striking difference is that the Church has found a way for many of them to remain in the fold, even in their chronic sinfulness.  Where else can they experience the love of Christ, the help of His body and the call, however slow and faltering the response, to continuing conversion? 

In theory, the Church welcomes all her children and asks a great deal of change from each of them.  In practice, the Christians in the pew sometimes—often, usually—fall short in their dealings with each other.  Those failures have consequences.  The reality is that we have not been very good at communicating the love and acceptance of the Church for a good many people. Too often our language—though explicable and theologically correct—builds a wall that is nearly insurmountable.  Try explaining to someone already hurt by rejection and name calling that “intrinsically disordered” isn’t a reflection on their person.  Too often we lead with the need for change instead of the welcome.  Too often we make change a prerequisite for fellowship, rather than understanding that only in relationship can we change.   Too often we look like hypocrites when we do and those outside the circle are acutely aware of it.

I can understand why one might not want an openly gay couple who flaunts a sexual relationship in a leadership position in Church.  But doesn’t the same thinking extend to the divorced and remarried-without-a-decree-of-nullity Catholic housewife who heads the parish council?  Or to the businessman whose hard dealings are a matter of court and public record who chairs the finance council?  And aren’t they all supposed to be in the pews with the rest of us, starting worship by reminding ourselves that we have no right at all to be there except by the grace of God:

I confess to Almighty God and to you my brothers and sisters, that I have greatly sinned….

That same favorite author of mine, in discussing the call for pastoral care of those cohabiting wrote of the need to offer cohabiting couples alternatives, such as residence with a local widow, a room with a happily married Catholic family or an apartment furnished through the Church as an alternative to cohabitation: Come now. Let’s cut the crap.  If the reasons for cohabitation really are financial, and the couples require pastoral care, then why don’t we offer the sort of pastoral care I was suggesting?

My guess is that we don’t offer it because the parish won’t really provide it.  We’ve come to think of sins and problems as individual, not collective.  I have no role in that gay man’s choice to “marry” his lover; the decision of those young people to cohabit has nothing to do with me and shame on them.  They just need to make another choice.  It seems to me that later in the Mass, just before we receive Jesus,  we pray forgive us our sins….

I remember a few years ago our pastor making a call from the pulpit for a family to take in a young exchange student who needed a place to live because of dire circumstances that had developed in his living arrangements  The parish isn’t large, but it’s wealthy with an abundance of relatively young retired folks with empty homes and comfortable circumstances.  He got exactly one offer, from a working couple.  One wonders how many people in any parish would leap at the chance to invite a stranger into the home? I’m not suggesting that it is everyone’s charism to do so; I am suggesting it is the parish’s role to figure out a way for that need to be met by the parish and I am not sure we are particularly good at that.  

Our local Catholic high school holds football practices on Sunday.  We can’t even give up an addiction to sports and the desire to funnel our kids into the best colleges in order to keep holy the Lord’s Day.  What makes us think we are self-sacrificial enough as a community to provide no-cost housing for cohabiting couples? 

Perhaps we need to take a look at other sins that are destructive to the human spirit and the family.  St. Ambrose taught that if one has two shirts in his closet, one belongs to the poor.  Where does that leave me with clothes I have not worn for years, empty bedrooms and four cars in my drive?  It’s not the sin of unchastity, but as I recall, Dante thought avarice was a greater sin than lust.  And avarice abounds….

The older I get and the more time I spend examining my own poor self, the more I realize my tendency is to tell others how to act, to offer my sage counsel on where they have gone wrong in their thinking and acting, especially when their behavior involves sins that I don’t see myself sharing.  Sometimes I am even right in what I have to say.  What I too often ignore is what role I have had in bringing about, fostering or failing to alleviate  their problem, their error, their sin.  It’s that mote/plank thing again.  I am more than willing to rationalize my favorite sins and more than willing to heap opprobrium on those I am not personally tempted to.  I am not so sure God sees it that way.

I am guessing that there are those in the blogosphere who would criticize my response to my friend.  Certainly there’s room.  I’m not sure that I offered her my congratulations out of real sentiment so much as from a desire not to appear churlish—Southern women are, after all, gifted with a politeness gene that supersedes all others.  But God only gets mixed motives out of me and at any given moment and I am as likely to find myself outside His perfect will as in it.  He makes do.  Maybe I blinked when I ought to have stared.  I hope did what I did to respond in the best way I could to a friend who dared to present me with a naked need for human connection.

We are still friends, perhaps better than before, perhaps not.  We talk, often about the tough issues of the day, including the call to holiness and the need to conversion—hers and mine.  We talk about issues political, social and religious, including same sex attraction.  I see some of her sins; she sees many of mine and that doesn’t alter either the clarity of our call to holiness or our struggles getting there. 

Someday, perhaps, I will be able to show her clearly enough for her to risk coming back home the love of the Church, who really does welcome her and want her at the family table.  I’d like to make the journey toward God, stumbles and all, with her at my side.  I wish for her the sacraments, the Magisterium in all its glory and all its demands, and the whole Body of Christ.  I wish it in spite of my sin and hers.

I think maybe that’s what the relatio means by accepting with fraternal kindness without compromising the teaching on marriage. 

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