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A “Fruit” Reflects Upon What It Means to Be “Fruitful”

Then Jesus told this parable: “A man had a fig tree, planted in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it, but did not find any. So he said to the gardener who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’

“ ‘Sir,’ the gardener replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. It may yet bear fruit. If not, then cut it down.’ ”

Throughout both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, our loving God invites us to be fruitful, to bear fruit. We hear too of the “fruits of the Spirit,” and are told that our lives should bear witness to these attributes and qualities. What does all of this really mean in our day-to-day lives and our life together as Church?

I’ve been thinking a lot about such questions as I observe the clerical leadership of the Roman Catholic Church intensify its efforts to deny civil marriage rights to gay couples and, in at least one case, deny a Catholic education to the children of a gay family.

For this clerical leadership and their supporters, “fruitfulness” within the context of a loving relationship between two people is first and foremost about procreation, about making babies.

As important as procreation is, however, as a Christian I think God’s call to be fruitful is primarily related to Jesus’ call to fullness of life; to that abundant life in God that Jesus certainly experienced and invites us all to experience. Living this life ensures that we flourish as individuals, couples, families, and communities.

The question then becomes, are gay people (ironically, often maligned as “fruits”) excluded from such a life of flourishment, of fruitfulness?

The clerical leadership of the Roman Catholic Church certainly believes that such exclusion is warranted for gay people who physically express their sexuality. Such expression, according to the testimony recently delivered by Fr. Michael Becker at the Minnesota State Capitol, is fundamentally selfish. Becker was testifying on behalf of the Minnesota Conference of Roman Catholic Bishops against a number of marriage equality bills currently before both the Minnesota House of Representatives and the Minnesota Senate.

Because there is no possibility of making a baby, Becker argues, those who engage in gay sexual activity can never give themselves fully to one another. Gay sex, therefore, is only ever about “using” another for one’s own pleasure. There’s never any mutuality, equality, or dignity. Furthermore, children raised by couples who engage in such selfish and immoral activity are disadvantaged and prone to all kinds of potential traumas and problems.

Yet is this really the case? Many people – including Catholics – question and even dissent from the position advanced by Becker. How then are we to proceed together as Church in order to come to some consensus in this matter?

In preparation for the Catholic Coalition for Church Reform’s 2010 Synod of the Baptized, I’ve been reading two books: Paul Lakeland’s Church: Living Communion and Todd A. Salzman and Michael G. Lawler’s The Sexual Person: Toward a Renewed Catholic Anthropology. Drawing upon the insights of the great twentieth-theologian Bernard Lonergan, Lakeland contends that “as Catholic Christians we are . . . shaped by . . . courageous, Spirit-driven discernment of the changes we need to make in order not only to be attentive, intelligent, and reasonable but also, and above all, to be loving. If the Catholic Church is not evidently a loving community of faith, then it is failing.”

Lakeland contends that as a “community of conversion,” the Church is “constantly in process of change.” Our challenge is to “make the right changes,” changes that are dictated by the Church’s mission, one that calls us – individually and collectively – to be “an effective sign of the love of God in the world.”

In all honesty, I have to say that I’m at a loss as to how the current words and actions of the Church’s clerical leadership concerning gay people, relationships, and families, are loving. Rather, they seem to convey and champion divisive triumphalism; abstract tenets divorced from both human experience and the insights of science; and what seems to be a fear-based rigidity to the idea (and reality) of development and change.

It seems to me that the “fruitfulness” that our brother Jesus calls us to is all about embodying compassion and justice in our world (fulfilling the Church’s mission, in other words). In an ever-changing world, such embodying and fulfilling requires that all of us as Church be attentive (i.e., willing and capable of reading the signs of the times), intelligent (i.e., willing and able to practice discernment), reasonable, loving, and, if necessary, open to change. It has little space for attitudes and beliefs that insist that certain things can’t be changed because they represent God’s “rules” not ours – an argument one hears incessantly from those who remain unresponsive to the presence and action of the sacred in the lives and relationships of gay people.

I appreciate the insights of Sebastian Moore, shared recently in a letter in the February 20 issue of The Tablet. Moore observes that what is never mentioned in the discussions concerning homosexuality and the Church is “the collapse of the taboo on homosexuality, reflected [for example] in the striking of homosexuality off the list of deviances by the psychiatric associations of [the United Kingdom] and America.” For Moore, “this surely marks a unique progress in human self-understanding.” It also means that those civil societies, “being in support of this position in advocating acceptance of homosexuals as of all other persons, [are] ahead of the official church teaching which still maintains, as does the taboo, that homosexuality is a disorder.”

All of which brings us back to Jesus’ parable of the unfruitful fig tree. I think the number one reason why I love and follow Jesus is that he was such a boundary breaker; that, in the words of Bishop John Shelby Spong, he “appeared to need no security barrier behind which to hide. He could thus step across the boundaries of tribe, prejudice, guilt, and even religion into a new dimension of what it means to be human, and this is what caused people to experience God present in him.”

What does this inspiring and salvific quality of Jesus tell us? According to Spong, it means that Jesus’ “call to us is . . .  not to be religious but to be human and to be whole.” And to be human and whole surely means that we are ever growing in awareness and compassion – a growing that leads to flourishment, to fruitfulness. I see such flourishment and fruitfulness in loving gay couples and families; I see it in the communities – religious and secular – that recognize and celebrate such relationships and families. Yet as noted above, I’m having a really hard time seeing it in the words and actions of the clerical leadership of my Church.

Instead, I see a disturbing fixation on certain sex acts, and an unrealistic demand that all gay people live lives of celibacy simply because they’re gay. In reality, though, human beings – gay or straight – flourish when they engage in and build relational lives that are experienced and expressed sexually. Actual sex acts are just one aspect of such relational lives. It’s the quality of these relationships that the Church should be concerned about, not so much who puts what body part where and with whom. I consider this latter type of fixation to be typical of the psycho-sexually stunted.

Like the fig tree in Jesus’ parable, the Roman Catholic clerical leadership’s position on homosexuality is barren. It other words, it’s inattentive to “the signs of the time,” it’s unintelligent to intelligent people, it’s unreasonable, and, worst of all, it’s unloving. Catholics have every right to question this position, to require that it be clarified and justified to the point that all are satisfied. That the clerical leadership has so far been unable to provide such clarification and justification says much about the credibility, the validity, the truthfulness of this particular position.

Meanwhile, there are Catholic theologians, scholars, and commentators offering what could be considered a “fruitful” understanding of homosexuality, i.e., an understanding that is attentive, intelligent, reasonable, loving, and open to ongoing development. Two such scholars are Todd A. Salzman and Michael G. Lawler. When discussing self-integrity and sexuality in their book The Sexual Person: Towards a Renewed Catholic Anthropology, they note, for instance, that:

We argue from empirical human ‘nature’; this enables us to take the experienced reality of homosexual orientation seriously as what a person is and, therefore, how she or he might act personally, sexually, and morally. Because marital acts of a heterosexual and reproductive kind – that is, the insertion of a male penis into a female vagina – are naturally beyond the capacity of homosexuals, they cannot be bound to them morally.

In light of contemporary human knowledge about homosexual orientation, we have examined in this chapter the threefold bases on which the Catholic Church rests its judgment that homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered and gravely immoral, namely, the teaching of scripture, the teaching of the Magisterium, and the moral sense of the Christian people. On all three bases . . . the Church’s teaching needs serious reevaluation.

Such a stance echoes theologian Margaret Farley’s observation that “At this point, . . . it is difficult to see how on the basis of sheer rationality alone, and all of its disciplines [including theology], an absolute prohibition of same-sex relationships or activities can be maintained.”

These theologians – along with countless Catholics throughout the church – are aware of the many, many flourishing gay individuals and families living in our midst. Think of such individuals and families, if you like, as fruitful fig trees. The reality of their lives and relationships, their faithfulness to the Church’s mission to be living signs of consciousness, compassion, and justice – regardless of whether or not they can procreate – stands in stark contrast to what many see as the rigid and sterile position of the Church’s clerical leadership.

And, yes, even though I often feel like the vineyard owner and want to just say of this leadership, “Cut it down,” I chose instead to take my cue from Jesus, the ever-patient and loving gardener, who, in his efforts to encourage growth and change, remains dedicated and hopeful.

5 Responses

  1. Thanks, Michael. As you rightly point out, there are indeed sound Catholic theologians who have shown that gay men and lesbians can also be spiritually fruitful. Some go further: The Jesuit theologian James L’Empereur and other leading specialists in spirituality argue that from our gay experience, we have much that we can teach the rest of the church about spirituality – a theme I will be expanding on shortly in a post of my own.
    The Vatican falls down in blithely ignoring all empirical evidence that does not support its own conclusions, depending instead on repeated recourse to the long standing “authority” of its own documents.
    Thank God for the vigorous theology coming from secular thinkers and women religious, who are not constrained by the shackles of the Vatican. While the official theologians of the Church remain mired in the fifteenth century , these new voices are taking us into the twenty first.

  2. Michael, thank you for a valuable and outstanding presentation of these issues.

    It seems to me that a focus on generativity in the sense that Erik Erikson came to use that term in the latter part of his career would be so valuable to the Catholic tradition, as it looks on the fruitfulness of committed relationships. And a stress on relationship and not acts . . . .

    I’m struck, too, by the glaring double standard of statements like Fr. Becker’s, re: the “selfishness” of gay relationships. When it’s easy to demonstrate that the vast majority of married heterosexual Catholics use contraception, to speak of gay sexual acts and relationships as selfish in an exclusive way that overlooks the general Catholic rejection of natural-law thinking about sexuality is obviously discriminatory.

    It’s as if the church is some fixated, in a very unhealthy way, on gay lives and gay “acts,” to the exclusion of anything else–including the way in which the large majority of straight Catholics reject and depart from the same norms used to bash gays.

  3. great post. I always found the “selfish” argument puzzling. My encounters with it have been in the context of contraception. I can remember in college hearing that on a retreat given by the religious community that ran the student Catholic Center. Now the scene strikes me as absurd: a professed celibate man telling young people about how other people having sex were being “selfish” for using contraception.

    I often wonder if the champions of Natural Law react in horror when they leave for work and find the windshields of their cars covered in pollen. Onanism! And on a massive scale! They’d probably say that was O.K. for trees but not for people because God endowed human males with, ahem, better aim.

  4. Another excellent article. You covered a lot of good points here. Who is Fr. Michael Becker that he would testify? What special understanding does he have on gay issues? Is he some kind of expert?

  5. This is a beautiful piece, not only because the points are beautifully and passionately expressed, but also because it reminds us that we are followers of Jesus, whose commandment to us, through his Apostles, was “Love one another as I have loved you.” Sad to say, somehwere in the line of apostolic succession, the true and deep meaning of this commandment has been forgotten.

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