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NCR Editorial: Marrriage Equality in New York and Bishops’ Loss of Moral Credibility

National Catholic Reporter has just published a noteworthy editorial about the recent marriage equality legislation in New York.  The editorial is worthy of attention for a number of reasons.

 In the first place, it’s entirely to NCR‘s credit that this publication is choosing to address the legislation forthrightly, and without kowtowing to the overheated talking points of the bishops themselves about marriage equality as the end of civilization and how we’re courting divine wrath with increasing tolerance of gay and lesbian people.  NCR stands out among publications of the American Catholic center in its response to the New York marriage equality legislation, while other publications which purport to represent the intellectual center of American Catholicism either remain disdainfully silent about a civil rights breakthrough many brother and sister Catholics are celebrating, or have chosen to pick away at this breakthrough with snippy comments about the anti-Catholicism of the New York Times or votes bought through bribery.

And as a result, many American Catholics are left in a kind of wilderness as we try to think through the issue of human rights for LGBT citizens, when our bishops hurl condemnations and our intellectual luminaries, who profess to be measured and thoughtful, actually collude in the anti-intellectual and anti-democratic behavior of the bishops, as they do everything in their power to block civil rights legislation protecting gay and lesbian persons.

And this is the second reason I find the NCR editorial noteworthy: it forthrightly admits what a huge gap there has come to be between the thinking and commitment of “ordinary” Catholics in the U.S. about the human rights of gay and lesbian persons, and the thinking of the leaders of the American Catholic church–the thinking of the bishops and, by implication, of the intellectual luminaries who continue to collude with the bishops in attacking LGBT rights.  The NCR editorial notes that the bishops have almost entirely lost credibility as moral teachers.

And, as a result, many American Catholics are turning elsewhere for moral guidance.  They are turning for guidance, as one contributor to the thread discussing this editorial, Don H., says, to the gospels and the traditional works of mercy enumerated in the gospels, as they think through the moral issues involved in the LGBT struggle for rights.

NCR attributes the bishops’ loss of credibility as moral teachers–and the growing gap between what ordinary Catholics think about gay and lesbian human rights and what the bishops think–to two factors.  In the first place, because an increasing percentage of Catholics know and love someone who is gay or lesbian (often, a family member, a co-worker, etc.), they view the moral question of human rights for the LGBT community through a personal optic.

They engage the LGBT community at a personal level, that is to say.  They recognize that they are dealing with persons, with fellow human beings whose humanity counts as much as the humanity of anyone else–a key insight of Catholic social teaching.

The bishops, by contrast, aren’t engaging.  They’re condemning.  They’re excluding.  They’re turning fellow human beings and fellow Catholics into enemies.

And they’re trying to coerce the body politic to accept their peculiar moral views and Catholic ideology, as if these views and this ideology ought to trump all other views in the public sphere.  They have backed themselves into a we-vs.-them corner, while much of the rest of American Catholicism has long since moved towards a stance of compassionate, respectful engagement.  And the bishops’ stance is proving to be ineffectual in the extreme, as large numbers of Catholics celebrate a human rights breakthrough that the bishops have chosen to condemn, from their ever narrowing square of “The Unchanging Truth.”

Second, the bishops rely, more and more, on such draconian measures as threatening to withhold the Eucharist from those who raise critical questions about various aspects of official Catholic teaching–and they do this precisely at a moment in which their own moral house is in spectacular disarray, with their mishandling of the abuse crisis.  And so when they speak, threaten, fulminate, no one is listening any longer.

I think NCR is right on target with this analysis.  It’s complemented–as the editorial itself notes–by an article of Catholic canonist Nicholas Cafardi in the same issue of the paper, which also bears reading, and which argues that the bishops ought to recognize the distinction between civil and sacramental marriage, and stop undermining their teaching about sacramental marriage by trying to control what civil norms choose to do with this social institution.

There’s one other point I’d throw into the mix of this discussion of how the majority of American Catholics have chosen to respond to the historic struggle for LGBT human rights, and how the bishops and intellectual luminaries are responding.  The point is this: when the Catholic church committed itself, under the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict, to a church-vs.-world stance that nullifies Vatican II’s call for positive engagement with the world, the church ipso facto made itself increasingly irrelevant to much that goes in in the public sphere.

The core problem–the fundamental reason–that the Catholic church has been increasingly retreating, issuing bitter condemnations of this or that development in secular society, in the last several decades, is that it has locked itself into such a stance by blocking, at an official level, the reforms mandated by the last ecumenical council of the church, Vatican II.  Reforms that centered on an ecclesiology which views the church as a pilgrim body of believers, the people of God, moving towards the reign of God that is to arrive at the end of history.

Moving along with and not in opposition to secular society, so that the church has a strong theological (and gospel-based) reason to listen attentively to other religious groups, to non-Catholic thinkers, to the world at large, as these groups and thinkers address questions like how to extend rights to groups within the human community that have been previously marginalized.  Because the thinking of many secular bodies and of those outside the church itself glimpses the same goal of human history that the church identifies as the eschaton, the culmination of history in which a place is set for everyone at the table of peace and justice.  And the church can learn from movements within the secular world that move towards this eschatological goal that norms the life of the church as it propels both church and world towards the eschatological fulfillment of history.

Part of my intense dissatisfaction with many of my colleagues of the American Catholic intellectual center in recent years is that I suspect they know better.   I suspect that they know full well that the choice of the Catholic church at an official level to turn its back on Vatican II and on positive critical engagement with secular society during the last two papacies is a serious betrayal of core Catholic values.  Not to mention of the last ecumenical council of the church . . . .

Anyone with half a brain who has tracked the constant retreat of the church in recent years into a bitter, defensive little shell of itself, into a tightly disciplined cadre of true believers at war with the world, could have foreseen what would happen as one society after another began to accord full human rights to gay and lesbian persons.  The church’s defensive posture and its pretension to have all truth in its hands while the godless world has departed from truth and is headed to hell: this precludes Catholic celebration of human rights breakthroughs that, to many Catholics, sound suspiciously like secular enactments of values proclaimed by Jesus himself in the gospels.

While the true believers–the bishops and the intellectuals of the center who choose to keep shoring the bishops up–inhabit an ever-narrowing space of absolute certainty and absolute truth, much of the rest of the Catholic world finds a larger and larger space in which Catholic truth is shared with others in secular society, with believers in other religious traditions.  Shared Catholic truth about the primacy of love in the spiritual life, about respect for the value of human lives different from our own, about intent concern for the least among us.

One of the grand ironies of the period of Catholic history through which we have been living during the reigns of John Paul II and Benedict is that those who claim to have cornered the Catholic truth market often appear to many of us precisely to be betraying Catholic truth.  To be betraying what is first and foremost in our Catholic tradition: that is, setting a place for everyone at the table, and actively embracing everyone at the table called Catholicism.

 And so the choice with which many of us are left now is to set that Catholic table in the wilderness, in the places the bishops have condemned as godless and bereft of truth, and to feast there with those the bishops tell us to avoid–but whom Christ would very likely have welcomed to his own table, and with whom he would have feasted with great joy.

Cross-posted from Bilgrimage, 7 July 2011.


13 Responses

  1. Bill,

    The NCR article is also noteworthy for reasons other than what you mention.

    First, there are a number of comments that are simply a mis-characterization of Church’s teachings. For example, the article states that the Church teaches that homosexuals are disordered. Incorrect. Also, it states that the bishops claim that they have a direct connection to God. Again incorrect. Whether the mistakes are intentional or unintentional, such obvious mistakes certainly diminish the value of the article for any serious student of the debate.

    Second, article fails to note that the bishops’ loss of moral credibility mirrors a general loss of moral authority for all institutions, not just Catholic leaders.

    Third, the article implies that the loss of moral credibility with the people, rather than faithfulness to the Gospel, or intellectual consistency, should be the determining factor in deciding moral issues.

    It is difficult for me to see how the divide between the Church’s leaders and the people is going to be bridged by articles, such as the NCR article, which is essentially an attack against the Church’s leaders.

  2. Thanks, David. You may wish to let NCR know that their editorial staff doesn’t understand authentic Catholic teaching–and that you do, and would be willing to help them sort things out better.

    And this is a battle that has special pertinence for your own state, so that your contributions to it must have a personal significance for you, as the bishops of your state lobby (with money from the Knights of Columbus, to which you belong) to amend the constitution of your state to define marriage as solely between a man and a woman.

    So you’re right: it’s extremely important that we know and understand real Catholicism very well these days, because these are not merely abstract discussions. They involve the real human lives of real brothers and sisters in Christ.

    And we must never forget that, whatever side of any political battle lines we stand on, since we’ve been told that our final judgment will depend on what we’ve chosen to do to the least among us.

  3. Bill,

    The misguided effort to amend Minnesota’s state constitution to not allow same-sex marriages shows that misunderstandings exist on both sides of the issue.

    In Minnesota (as in every state), there is NO constitutional “right” to be married – even for opposite-sexed, unrelated persons of legal age. My “right” to be married in Minnesota is actually a federal First Amendment freedom to be free from government interference with my personal associations. Obviously, if opposite-sexed couples do not have the constitutional “right” to marry, the state cannot prevent same-sex couples from marrying.

    The tricky legal question is whether the state is obligated to provide persons wishing to “marry” the same governmental benefits and presumptions regardless of number, sexual orientation, or familial relationships of that marriage. The question becomes trickier because Minnesota does not recognize that marriage is a binding contract (i.e. sacramental) or as the creation of another legal entity (the one flesh of Scriptures).

    Unfortunately, the legal scholarship, and legal critique, in this area has been abysmal, or non-existent. For example, In my own state, there is very little authority on what obligations husbands and wives have towards each other or why the government prefers man-woman marriages. There is no indication as to why three people can’t marry, or why same-sexed couples or family members cannot marry.

    Sound legal principles would suggest that the government needs to establish objective criteria for “marriage”, and sound rationale for when it will provide benefits without regard to marital status. It seems to me that the days of adult-centered civil marriage are numbered. With an increasing number of people choosing to forgo marriage, or partner in same-sex or multi-person relationships, the government needs to take a more practical approach. Rather than legislating by taboo, it needs to legislate by rewards and contract enforcement.

  4. Thank you for the detailed legal explanations of rights, David. I wonder why you are overlooking the fact that the United Nations’ declaration of rights considers marriage a fundamental human right, however.

    And I also wonder what this information has to do with the topic under consideration in this posting, which is the recognition of many Catholics (or increasing numbers of Catholics) that we must turn to the gospels and their enumeration of the works of mercy for our primary moral cues, when the bishops have lost moral credibility.

    I understand that move on the part of many Catholics, since we’ve been taught by the church itself to take Christ seriously when he tells us that we’ll be judged at the end of our lives on the basis of the decisions we’ve made about the least among us.

  5. Bill,

    The question of what constitutes a fundamental human right is an issue of which bishops are “authorities”. For whatever reason, people are increasingly looking to secular “authorities” to define the nature of man, freedom, and the proper use of freedom (which is the definition of morality) without reference to God. This inevitably leads to a subjective definition of morality, and a loss of credibility for those define morality with reference to God, and/or man’s inherent nature.

    This subjective definition suits most of us because it allows us to judge the value of an action based upon us, and no one else. In such thinking, no one has true credibility.

  6. David, I’m afraid you’re spectacularly missing the point of the NCR editorial. As it notes, a significant majority of U.S. Catholics now disagree with the bishops and the magisterium about the issue of human rights for LGBT persons–because 1) the bishops have long since lost most of their credibility as teachers of morality, and 2) the gospels point us in a direction different than the direction to which the bishops wish to point us.

    Your contention that only bishops can teach with authority about questions of human rights (or anything else) is absurd on the face of it, when a sizable number of bishops in Germany, Austria, and other European countries actively aided the Nazis during their reign of terror in Germany in the 20th century. Catholic layman Franz Jägerstätter chose to listen to the gospels and follow his informed conscience against the attempts of church officials to coerce him and to use “official” and “authoritative” church teaching to force him to collaborate with the Nazis. Jägerstätter was beatified.

    As Cardinal Newman (also recently beatified) points out in his historical works, it was lay Catholics who–acting against the authoritative teaching of the bishops–preserved the christological position that has long been identified as orthodox, which speaks of Christ as having a divine and a human nature co-existing with each other.

    Even if we did transfer the discussion from the gospels to questions of rights, as you’re insisting on doing (thereby ignoring the entire point of the NCR editorial), you (and the bishops) don’t have the human rights tradition itself on your side, when 1) the United Nations defines marriage as a fundamental human right and 2) a number of U.S. judges have asserted that civil marriage is a fundamental right that cannot be denied by civil society.

    And then there are the gospels: which tell us we’ll be judged, in the end, on the basis of how we treat the least among us. For a large majority of American Catholics, that is what speaks most powerfully in the current debate about how to treat gay and lesbian human beings, and the bishops and Knights of Columbus, with their gay-bashing, are not only on the wrong side of history, but also on the wrong side of Jesus and the gospels.

  7. Bill,

    You are right. I don’t get the point of the NCR article.

    Whether the bishops are losing their credibility has nothing to do with whether the teachings are sound. Religion itself is losing credibility in this world. The idea of God itself is credibility. The Gospels are losing credibility. That speaks to a larger issue that men are having with authority in general, not just the bishops.

    The United Nations and U.S. judges are not only talking about different meanings of marriage, they are talking about a different meaning than the bishops. They are apparently gaining in credibility. So what does that mean?

  8. David, unfortunately, your argument from the standpoint of brittle authoritarianism is just not convincing many Catholics these days. It’s akin to the arguments a father who is intent on controlling his wife and children uses, when he asserts: it is the way I say it is, and you must listen and obey. Because I am father.

    Lay Catholics aren’t children any longer. They look for compelling reasons within authoritarian imperatives, and when those compelling reasons aren’t there, the argument from paternalistic authority no longer convinces them. Even less so, when the behavior of the parental figures issuing the authoritarian imperatives does not conform to the ideals they themselves are preaching.

    A sizable group of priests in Austria have just announced their refusal to obey the authoritarian imperatives imposed on them by church officials for these reasons.

    The theology you’re sketching in your arguments here is deeply flawed, for two reasons. First, it does not recognize something the church itself teaches: that is that the church is both holy and sinful. Arguing that the church alone has authoritarian answers to guide the faithful, and that the world is going to hell in a handbasket, overlooks the reality of sin within the church itself–and in its leaders.

    And second, Vatican II insists over and over again that the Spirit is at work in both church and world. Vatican II notes that the Spirit resides in churches other than the Catholic church, and is also at work in the world, which is on pilgrimage along with the church to the reign of God. Many of the Spirit-inspired movements that the church gradually came to recognize as promoting holy and good ends like the abolition of slavery or the recognition of the rights of women began not within faith communities, but within secular groups. To the extent that these movements had a foothold within communities of faith as they began, they did so initially on the prophetic margins and were resisted by the mainstream within various churches.

    But in time, most churches, including our Catholic church, recognized that holding human beings in bondage and denying women rights solely because of their gender was morally wrong. There is constant interplay between church and society in movements that advance human freedom and respect for human rights, and the Spirit is at work in both church and world in these movements. And the church is always affected by its sinful nature, and sometimes upholds practices and promotes teachings that are later discarded as morally flawed–e.g., as it did when bishops and religious once held slaves, and the church defended slavery, but ultimately discarded that defense as morally untenable.

  9. Bill,

    The NCR article isn’t about theology. It is about the loss of moral credibility of the bishops.

    Take for example, the Church’s stand on capital punishment. As good as the theology is, it gets only a lukewarm reception in the Church. Or as another example, look at the Church’s teaching and example of social justice – lukewarm again. On abortion, the reception is almost hostile. On almost any issue, you can find a large segment of the Catholic people claiming that the bishops have no credibility.

    The reality is that the Church’s members are made up of many different secular political factions. They point to the Church’s teachings when it suits their political leanings, and rail against the Church when they don’;t like it. There is another, almost exactly opposite political faction that will take an opposing view on the same issue.

    The NCR article does a disservice to scholarship by making unfounded claims against the bishops. That type of advocacy also does a disservice to the Catholic faithful by creating a divide that does not actually exist.

    • @David: “The NCR article isn’t about theology. It is about the loss of moral credibility of the bishops.”

      I see, David.

      The loss of moral credibility by bishops isn’t about theology at all.

  10. Thanks, Bill for highlighting this editorial. What I find fascinating here is not just the content (which I will come back to later), but the simple fact of its appearance. In fact, there have been something like half a dozen articles at NCR over the past fortnight or so, on the subject of gay/lesbian Catholics and the church, and another at Commonweal – to say nothing of a whole slew of them in secular media, such as an excellent one at Huffpost, by Joseph Ammadeo. It seems that the heated debate in NY over gay marriage, and the bishops’ role, has if nothing else highlighted the gap that exists between them, and the Church as a whole.

    For me, the key feature, highlighted in an earlier post by Jamie Manson, concerns Archbishop Dolan’s plaintive insistence to the LGBT community that it has never been his intention to offend them, and if he has done so, he is deeply sorry (or words to that effect). But, as Manson points out, every week there are members of Dignity outside his cathedral in silent protest, simply at his total lack of interest in just speaking to them.

    The Catechism states that we are to be treated with dignity, respect, and understanding. There is no respect in refusing to meet with us, to listen to our stories and perceptions, and no possibility of understanding without that listening.

    Those who have changed their views on gay marriage, and on the morality of homoerotic relationships, are overwhelmingly those who are aware that they have friends, neighbours, colleagues and family who are gay or lesbian, and recognize the total falsity of the stereotypes that give rise to prejudice.

    There are many hopeful signs that leading figures in the church establishment are beginning to see the need for fundamental change in the teaching (as many or most professional moral theologians have already done). But there will not be real progress, until the bishops begin to do what Archbishop Dolan (and most others) still refuses to do: sit down, and talk with us – with, not at us.

    • Terry, thank you. I agree very much. The content of the editorial is noteworthy, but also noteworthy is the fact that NCR chose to publish it, and has been publishing the series of articles you mention, noting the large discrepancy between what a growing majority of Catholics think about LGBT issues, and what the magisterium teaches.

      It also strikes me as a very promising sign that NCR now has on its journalistic staff several out gay folks, including Jamie Manson and Kate Childs-Graham, and that they are free to write about their experiences as lesbian Catholics. This is a huge step forward, which hasn’t been characteristic of Catholic publications in the past.

      And the more rigid and downright draconian the bishops continue to be about these matters, the more lay Catholics move in precisely the opposite direction–just as you say, in direct response to the bishops’ obliquity and even cruelty.

    • Terry,

      Rather than “them” meeting with “us” (to understand “our” plight) don’t you think it is time for “us” (gay Catholics) to agree to meet with “them” (the bishops)?

      It would seem that everyone in the Church wants the bishops to meet with them to change the teaching, but no group seems particularly interested in understanding the plight of the bishops in developing teaching.

      In my opinion, it would go much further for the gay community to focus upon the need to be treated with dignity and respect, and how that dignity and respect relates to the teaching rather than insisting that dignity and respect can ONLY come from changing of the teaching.

      Obviously, some, if not most, of the bishops need help in separating sacramental marriage from civil marriage. But, it is just as clear that some, if not most, Catholics, need help separating civil marriage from sacramental marriage.

      This isn’t the only issue. I once had a very bright lawyer and apparently devout Catholic tell me that the Pope had no business denouncing the Iraqi war because the Pope didn’t understand politics or national security. My response to him was that the Pope isn’t American, he is Catholic, and that this lawyer should decide which was more important to him – being Catholic or being American.

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