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      Young black men in our nation are, and I use this word with purpose and the pain it entails, routinely gunned down by the police with no repercussions. Once every 28 hours. None of this is new. What is new is that we as a nation are noticing. The brave response of communities in Missouri and New York and around the nation have made policing and race an issue […]
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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.

The Underlying Dysfunction of the Denver Archdiocese’s Recent Actions

I’m sure that by now most readers of this blog would have heard of how a child within the Archdiocese of Denver has had his or her enrollment in a Catholic school terminated due to having a lesbian couple as parents. According to a statement from the archdiocese, the “homosexual relationship [of the child’s parents] violates the school’s beliefs and policy.”

Reports 9News.com:

According to teachers at Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic School, a meeting was held Tuesday to discuss the issue. The staff was told a student would not be allowed to re-enroll because of his or her parents’ sexual orientation. The staff members were also told not to talk to the media.

. . . Because this student’s parents are homosexual, the Archdiocese says they were in clear violation of the school’s policy.

School staff members, who asked to remain anonymous, say they are disgusted by the Archdiocese’s decision. One employee said she could not believe a student will have to suffer because of his or her parents’ sexual orientation.

The Archdiocese also told 9NEWS, “Parents living in open discord with Catholic teaching in areas of faith and morals unfortunately choose by their actions to disqualify their children from enrollment.”

Staff members said they were not allowed to discuss the decision after it was made. Some of them said they were disheartened to work at a school that preaches peace and love, but also makes this decision.

As outrageous as the actions of the archdiocese are, I’m actually not that surprised. Why? Well, first the Archdiocese of Denver is headed by Charles Chaput, a notorious reactionary. Don’t think for a minute that there are not thousands of students with same-gender parents attending Catholic schools across the U.S. Yet, it takes an individual of Chaput’s rigidity to actually penalize these students. Thankfully, we haven’t seen a mass purging of children and young people from their school communities in any other part of the country. It could well happen, however, as the clerical leadership of the U.S. church is unhealthily and thus dangerously fixated on the gay issue. Sadly, the unhealthiest of these men are the ones being promoted. Also, such a dysfunctional fixation is encouraged and taught among the (albeit dwindling) ranks of seminarians, i.e., the future clerical leaders. Thus the dysfunction, the sin, will continue.

This “sin” isn’t homosexuality, despite what the clerical leadership would have us believe. No, as I’ve noted previously, it’s to do with the fact that many (perhaps even a majority) of bishops and priests are closeted (and psycho-sexually stunted) gay men who do not want healthy, well-adjusted gay people in their midst. Why? Because such well-adjusted people pose a highly uncomfortable challenge to all forms of unhealthy and dysfunctional expressions of sexuality. In a similar way, the vast majority of male clerics have a stunted and dysfunctional connection with women – so much so that they fear them gaining any kind of equality in ministry.

In short, most men in positions of power within Roman Catholicism fear relating with anyone who has grown beyond the dysfunction that, in large measure, justifies and sustains the entire clerical, celibate caste system within which men are prevented from growing, changing . . . and, yes, loving in a truly Christ-like way.

Author James Baldwin says it best:

I think the inability to love is the central problem, because the inability masks a certain terror, and that terror is the terror of being touched. And, if you can’t be touched, you can’t be changed. And if you can’t be changed, you can’t be alive. The great difficulty is to say YES to life. The difficult quest is to be oneself, to be true, to say YES with courage – to accept one’s sexuality, one’s race, one’s bittersweet contradictions.*

Think about the church’s prohibition against any type of sexual connecting outside of procreative sex within heterosexual marriage sanctioned by the church – a prohibition that even includes masturbation. At it’s most basic level, it’s a prohibition against touch – human touch that can potentially lead to greater self-awareness, personal development, and fullness of life.

I think centuries ago, church leaders recognized and began to fear the power of sexual touch. Such touch is transforming; it has the potential, yes, for harm, but also for liberation and empowerment. I wouldn’t be surprised if many of the strict sexual prohibitions within the Christian church came about during what Harvey Cox has termed the “Age of Belief,” that time when Christianity “curdled into a top-heavy edifice defined by obligatory beliefs enforced by a hierarchy.”

Cox maintains that, in contrast, early Christians allowed for multiple understandings and expressions of the faith, so much so, I’d add, that even the “gay saints” Sergius and Bacchus were acknowledged and accepted. Yet once Christianity moved from being “a loose network of local congregations, with varied forms of leadership” into a “rigid class structure with a privileged clerical caste at the top ruling over an increasingly disenfranchised laity on the bottom,” all kinds of changes began to take place. And women, along with those whom we now understand as gay, where no doubt the first to be “pushed to the underside and the edges.”

We’ve inherited quite a problem, haven’t we?

Still, our God is a God of transformation. People – and institutions – can and do change. Life remains a precious gift – full, it’s true, of “bittersweet contradictions,” of joy and suffering, pleasure and pain. It’s both “tree of life” and “cross of death.” So when a gay person is unlucky in love, when he/she experiences, for instance, heartache over a failed relationship, it’s wrong to blame his/her sexual orientation. It’s erroneous to imply that the homosexual orientation guarantees such unhappiness and failure; that a homosexual orientation is the mark of a broken sexuality. Yet these types of things are exactly what the clerical leadership of the Church says. It says that as gay people we can never be fulfilled and happy; we can never experience God’s sanctifying love in our sexual relationships, we can never be good parents. These are all lies. If you take nothing else, dear reader, from this commentary, take this: Those types of statements, that type of thinking . . . lies, all lies.

And the average Catholic in the pew knows it – as do the vast majority of folks within the wider society. Accordingly, the response to the decision of the Denver Archdiocese to deny re-enrollment to this particular child has been overwhelmingly critical and therefore, from my perspective, encouraging. First, it’s ensured some hard-hitting yet legitimate statements from everyday folks like the comment below, left on the website of 9News.com

I think that those fierce defenders of the Catholic School’s action are missing the point. If they agree that the 5-year-old should be excluded because his/her parents are living in “dissonance” with Catholic dogma, then it stands to reason that children of ALL couples living in “dissonance” with Catholic dogma (e.g. divorced parents, single parents, parents living out of wedlock, parents who practice birth control, etc, etc, etc) should be excluded from attending the school. To not do this is rank hypocrisy on the part of the church and school. The fact that only an innocent child from a same-sex home is discriminated against in this way shows quite clearly the bigotry and hatred of the Catholic Church. However, my question is why would ANY parent want to put their child in the care of the biggest organized pedophile ring in the history of the world, thus making them fair game for sexual molestation?

I must also admit a certain satisfaction in viewing the results of the poll conducted by the Denver Post. “Do you agree with the Archdiocese of Denver’s policy that bars children who have lesbian parents from enrolling in Catholic schools?”, the newspaper asked. At the time of writing this post, over 1500 people had responded. Sixty-five percent of these have answered “No” they do not agree with the policy of the Denver Archdiocese. An additional 15% percent have answered “No, and I’m Catholic.” Ten percent have answered “Yes” they do agree. And another 10%, “Yes, and I’m Catholic.” Such responses correlate with the findings of a Pew survey of October 2009 which clearly show that the clerical leadership of the church does not represent the views of ordinary Catholics, many of whom do not see homosexuality per se as a moral issue, and who subsequently support either civil unions or full marriage rights for gay people – something the official church vigorously opposes (yes, that fixation again!).

These figures are quite telling, and represent for many Catholics the work of God’s spirit of compassion and justice – the sensus fidelium – within and throughout the people of God. May this spirit continue to “blow where it will,” regardless of how uncomfortable, fearful, and reactionary such a holy activity may make some members of the Roman Catholic clerical leadership.

* James Baldwin, from an interview first published in The Advocate and excerpted in the Utne Reader, July/August 2002, p. 100.

Why This Gay Man Takes Heart from the Feast of the Holy Family

On the recent Feast of the Holy Family my mother and I attended Mass at St. Agnes Roman Catholic Church in Port Macquarie, Australia. I’m currently in the “Great South Land” – visiting my parents, family, and friends – from my “other home” in Minnesota, USA.

As I sat waiting for the homily to begin I braced myself for a diatribe against perceived threats to the family – such as gay marriage. But I need not have worried.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure there are some members of the clerical leadership in the Australian church who would choose to use such a feast day to malign the lives and relationships of gay people. But, by-and-large, the Australian Catholic Church, I’ve discovered, reflects the wider “live and let live” ethos of Australian society. That, of course, is a far cry from the current case in the United States.

What the priest at yesterday’s Mass did talk about actually resonated with me as a gay Catholic man. He noted that, contrary to the rosy, holy card images we’re so often presented with, the reality is that Jesus’ family knew conflict and misunderstanding – just like any other family. Of course, nowhere is this more evident than in the story of the finding of the boy Jesus in the Temple.

This story served as yesterday’s Gospel reading, and in it we are presented with a young Jesus disobeying his parents; confusing, perhaps even disappointing them – all so that he can be true to the person he knew God had called him to be. As I listened to the priest describe this popular story of the Holy Family in this way, I realized that it is something to which many gay people can relate. Accordingly, it’s something to which many families can relate.

Like Jesus, young people coming into awareness of who they are sexually often have to retreat from their families so as to attune themselves to and embrace what’s awakening within them. For many gay people, answers and support are initially found outside the family. Parents are seldom the first to know that their child is gay.

These were my thoughts as I reflected upon yesterday the young Jesus leaving his family and the caravan bound for Nazareth so as to seek out the wisdom and insights of those in the Temple. I’m sure that as they busily prepared to leave Jerusalem, Mary and Joseph had instructed Jesus “not to wander off.” And yet that’s exactly what he did. He required answers and experiences beyond those which his family could provide, and so he went in search of them. This to me seems a healthy thing; a sacred journey or quest, if you like.

Once found by his parents, Jesus, in a way, “comes out” to them. He’s not the boy they thought he was. There’s definitely something different about him. He challenges them, confuses them, and, no doubt, disappoints them. Yet despite all of this they accept him as he is and, as a family, they resume their journey home together.

Sound familiar? I hope it resonates with you – especially if you’re gay, because here’s the bottom line: God calls gay people to something very special; something very sacred. God calls us to journeys of faith and consciousness that often compel us to “wander off” and seek answers elsewhere, despite the disapproval of others – even our parents, even “Mother Church.” And, no, this “something” is not a life of sexual abstinence – as the clerical leadership of the Roman expression of Catholicism would have us believe. Rather it’s a life of abundance as the relational beings that God created us to be. And, yes, God created some of us with relational capacities that are gay in orientation. Accordingly, for most gay people, a life of abundance means seeking, building, and maintaining a loving relationship with another of the same gender – a relationship that is experienced and expressed as something that is both sacred and sexual. I’ve come to believe that the seeking, building, and maintaining of such a relationship is always about “doing God’s work.”

I take to heart and am nourished and encouraged by the journeys in consciousness and compassion conveyed in the trusting, loving and accepting relational dynamics of Jesus and his family. They are journeys in and of faith. And, for me, they are what make this family – and so many others – holy.

Born and raised in rural Australia, Michael Bayly now lives in the US where he serves as the executive coordinator of the Minneapolis-based Catholic Pastoral Committee on Sexual Minorities (CPCSM). He is also the editor of The Progressive Catholic Voice, and a co-chair of the Minnesota-based Catholic Coalition for Church Reform. His book Creating Safe Environments for LGBT Students: A Catholic Schools Perspective was published in 2007 by Harrington Park Press. He established his blog The Wild Reed in 2006, as a “sign of solidarity with all who are dedicated to living lives of integration and wholeness – though, in particular, with gay people seeking to be true to both the gift of their sexuality and their Catholic faith.”

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