RGOD2: From exclusion to inclusion, making Catholicism truly universal

COMMENTARY

Pope Benedict’s statements on March 9 attracted significant media attention as the Roman Catholic Church in the United States prepares for battle to defend “traditional marriage” in several states while thwarting same gender marriages. His comments were seen by the LGBT community as another direct attack on us claiming we are “injurious to society.”

Injuring society has connotations of violence. Marriage has to be defended from those injurious qays, one might think. In reading the whole statement, however, the Pope is much more critical of heterosexuals than homosexuals, particularly those who live together “out of wedlock.” He is speaking about millions of people who outnumber us qays considerably.

When I was working as a parish priest, 99% of the heterosexual couples who came to me seeking marriage were already living together. Their relationships were honest, good and deserved the blessing of God, community and their families. To demonize them or to claim their relationships were injurious would have been far from the truth of my experience and indeed theirs.

They are our allies and represent a significant body of experience from responsible and caring human beings who are deeply troubled by the statistic that one out of two marriages fail in the USA. They are part of a movement to reform the way we express love and lifelong commitment and are trying to prevent the heartache and trauma caused by failed marriages that indeed can be very injurious to the men women and children who are victims of them.

However, the Holy Father felt it was important to instruct the bishops of Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota that the task of defending the sanctity of marriage and respect for human sexuality is among the most important pastoral duties of bishops today. In his statement, Pope Benedict recalled a quote from his letter Sacramentum Caritatis, in which he said:

[T]he good that the Church and society as a whole expect from marriage and from the family founded on marriage is so great as to call for full pastoral commitment to this particular area. Marriage and the family are institutions that must be promoted and defended from every possible misrepresentation of their true nature, since whatever is injurious to them is injurious to society itself.

I grew up in a Northern Irish Protestant home where Roman Catholicism was misunderstood and deeply feared. My grandmother was Roman Catholic and my brother married a devout Roman Catholic who brought up her children in her faith tradition.

Even though most families were “mixed marriages” or were only a generation away from them, the hostility directed towards the Catholic community and misrepresentation of them in Northern Irish society was similar to the prejudice that was directed towards LGBT people. We had to find out for ourselves what Catholics were really like. This was difficult given we attended separate schools and lived in segregated neighborhoods. I had very few Catholic friends growing up and did not set foot in a Catholic church until I was in my mid-teens.

The parallel to fear and misrepresentation of LGBT people is worth noting. We can hate Catholics universally in the same way LGBT people can be feared or hated universally. Just because the Pope says we are “injurious to society,” we should not see Catholicism as something intrinsically evil. I have found the process of getting to know people and what their religious beliefs mean to them can be enriching.

I have two wonderful Catholic friends who exemplify what is best about their faith and they would not agree with the Holy Father’s position on a whole range of issues yet are still devoutly Catholic.

Maxensia serves a very poor community in the Centre of Kampala. She is HIV-positive and has gathered 3,000 Ugandan women who care for a loved one with AIDS. She is deeply involved in the life of her Catholic community as well and serves on a number of church bodies.

She told me of an experience where a woman who was HIV-negative had the courage to stand in a conference rooms of clergy, bishops and lay leaders and asked them to respond to her dilemma of how she can have sex with her HIV-positive husband. Maxensia’s voice still rises in amazement at the response of the conference to this weeping woman.

“No one could give her an answer,” she told me. This convinced her more than anything that the church’s position on a whole range of sexual issues was indeed injurious from both a personal pastoral perspective and a deeply flawed societal policy. Sometimes the response of the church can be so outrageously unjust or out of touch that the victim wins new allies.

Maxensia has become an ally of the LGBT community as a result of how the Church treats married couples who are positive and negative and desperately seek responsible encouragement to live out their love and commitment. When I returned to Uganda in 2010 after a 13-year absence for fear of the homophobes there, the population of this relatively small country had risen from 20 million to 33 million. The churches and the government were encouraging their people to breed like rabbits. More than anything I saw in Kampala, the rise of religious-based homophobia, a corrupt and violent government or the rise of HIV, population growth on this scale scared the hell out of me. This is totally unsustainable and opens the Ugandan society to issues of food scarcity and security. What is more injurious to family life than war and famine?

My second Catholic heroine, professor Margaret Farley, works from the ivory tower of Yale University as a former ethics professor but has spent a lot of time on women’s developing higher education in Africa. I met her several years ago at a conference in Dublin where she was presenting a 21st century view of Catholic sacramental marriage that included same gender couples. Brilliantly informed and cool as a cucumber, she appeared on Irish television where she would calmly state why she disagreed with the Pope and could still remain a faithful Catholic.

Her book “Just Love” moves the concepts of justice to the forefront of the Catholic understanding of marriage. For example, she reinterprets the Catholic position on procreation more broadly to include couples who may not be able to have children but can still be “fruitful” by caring for other people’s children. I want to revisit her position in another column because she convinced me that marriage is indeed a sacrament and she would also claim most heterosexual Catholic marriages are not actually sacramental by her definition, particularly around issues of mutuality. So I want to come back to this because it is enormously valuable in the current debate.

Farley’s theological framework on marriage was deeply influential on my understanding of marriage as we entered into the debate on Proposition 8 in California. She would have been a great advocate for the LGBT community if we had “leaned into the wind” on defining marriage from a religious perspective and not only about a civil partnership.

From Kampala to Yale, there are wonderful examples of deeply caring inclusive Catholics who represent a significant yet not dominant voice of the Church’s witness. They remain Catholics but do not agree with the present policies of the Papal Curia. They are a kind of “loyal opposition” and remain thorns in the flesh of certainty and conformity.

My life and my spirituality are enriched by knowing them and their courage to be themselves is an inspiration. They have helped me break out of my own cultural ignorance and affirmed our common humanity. Jesus had many confrontations with the clergy of his day and he commented that they “heaped huge burdens on people’s shoulders without offering as finger to lift them.” I can recognize similar traits in some of the clergy and institutions in the 21st century and need to be vigilant about my own participation in this “holier than thou” mentality which is ultimately deeply injurious to all of us.

Complete Article HERE!

Bishops and their flock at odds over religious liberty concerns

In a bit of coincidental timing, less than 24 hours after the U.S. bishops released a new statement promising a vigilant effort to defend religious freedom a new poll from the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) reveals that 57 percent of Catholics don’t seem to think their liberty is really in danger.

The bishops’ latest statement contains more of the same arguments they’ve been making in recent weeks–that the issue is not about contraception, nor are they engaging in a partisan battle. Their efforts are instead spurred by a general concern over religious liberty for all faith-based institutions, which they believe has been greatly eroded by the government’s health care coverage mandate. Sister Mary Ann Walsh, director of media relations for the bishops’ conference, told the Washington Post that the bishops are prepared to move ahead with a full-scale media campaign on the issue in the coming weeks.

That’s likely because they were already aware of the same trend the PRRI study finds: the majority of Catholics simply aren’t in agreement with the bishops on this issue.”Catholics overall are generally more supportive than the general public of the contraception coverage requirements,” the study says. It finds that roughly 6-in-10 Catholics think the mandate should apply to religiously-affiliated hospitals, universities, social service agencies, and privately owned small businesses, which are the same institutions that the bishops argue should be exempt.

Walsh dismisses the findings as being a case of researchers asking the wrong question. “If you were to ask, ‘Should the government force churches to violate their religious beliefs?’, you’d get different results,” she said. That may be true, but it is comparing apples and oranges if people don’t buy the premise that the mandate is actually an infringement upon religious liberty. Even among those polled who did say that religious liberty is being threatened, only 6 percent specifically named the contraception mandate as the reason.

In a memo to the media after the release of the bishops’ statement, Jesuit Father Tom Reese notes that their argument hinges on a very broad understanding of what constitutes “religious freedom,” particularly their insistence that private employers should also be exempt from the federal law if they feel it violates their conscience.

“The statement infers that religious liberty is an absolute right that cannot be restricted,” Reese says. “If this were true, Mormons and Muslims could practice polygamy and those who believe God demands the separation of the races should be exempted from civil rights legislation… The application of civil rights and labor laws to faith-based institutions is more complicated.”

In fact the interpretation of all First Amendment rights, including religious liberty, is quite complicated. The justices of the highest court in the land have long disagreed with one another over the application and scope of those rights. It should come as no surprise then–nor should it be considered a sin–that faithful members of the Catholic Church would also differ in their interpretation of religious freedom rights.

The bishops have the right and responsibility to speak to the faithful on the church’s moral and social teachings. They can’t expect, however, that all who follow the teachings of the Catholic Church will be in agreement on matters of constitutional law.

Complete Article HERE!

Pope denounces gay marriage lobby, evil of premarital sex, cohabitation in US bishops’ speech

Pope Benedict XVI waded deep into U.S. campaign politics Friday, urging visiting U.S. bishops to beef up their teaching about the evils of premarital sex and cohabitation, and denouncing what he called the “powerful” gay marriage lobby in America.

As debate over health care coverage for birth control rages in the United States, Benedict said there was an urgent need for Catholics in America to discover the value of chastity — an essential element of Christian teaching that he said had been subject to unjust “ridicule.”

Benedict has long championed traditional marriage between man and woman, as well as opposition to premarital sex and fidelity within marriage. But his strong comments to visiting U.S. bishops took on particular significance given the culture wars that have erupted in the U.S. this campaign season.

U.S. bishops are currently locked in an election year battle with the Obama administration over federal funding for birth control.

In addition, bishops have been at the forefront of the campaign against same-sex marriage, with at least five U.S. states scheduling ballot measures on the issue in coming months. Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the head of the U.S. conference of bishops and archbishop of New York, unsuccessfully lobbied against the legalization of gay marriage in his state.

The 84-year-old pope acknowledged his comments might sound anachronistic or “countercultural,” particularly to the young. But he told bishops to not back down in the face of “powerful political and cultural currents seeking to alter the legal definition of marriage.”

“Sexual differences cannot be dismissed as irrelevant to the definition of marriage,” he said.

He also denounced what he called the failure of priests and bishops to instruct Catholics in core church teachings on human sexuality, saying many Catholics seem unaware that living together outside of marriage was “gravely sinful, not to mention damaging to the stability of society.”

The entire Christian community, he said, must recover an appreciation of the virtue of chastity.

“Young people need to encounter the church’s teaching in all its integrity, challenging and countercultural as that teaching may be; more importantly they need to see it embodied by faithful married couples who bear convincing witness to truth,” he said.

Benedict said a weakened appreciation for traditional marriage and the widespread rejection of responsible sexuality had led to “grave social problems bearing an immense human and economic cost.” He didn’t elaborate on what the cost was.

Groups of visiting U.S. bishops have been traveling to Rome for the past several months as part of bishops’ regular once-every-five-year visits with the pope and senior Vatican officials.

Complete Article HERE!

Gaithersburg priest defends decision to deny lesbian Communion

A Gaithersburg priest who was put on administrative leave from his parish after a controversial funeral Mass at which he denied Communion to a lesbian said in a statement Wednesday that he “did the only thing a faithful Catholic priest could do” and suggested that archdiocesan leaders and the woman were lying.

The Rev. Marcel Guarnizo had declined to comment publicly since the Feb. 25 Mass at St. John Neumann Catholic Church, where Barbara Johnson was mourning her mother. Having learned just before the Mass that Johnson, a 51-year-old D.C. artist, was a lesbian living with her partner, Guarnizo refused to let her receive Communion. The story exploded on the Internet, triggering an emotional debate among Catholics and others about the church’s views on homosexuality and the priest’s role in determining who is fit to partake of the sacrament.

Guarnizo’s statement, distributed on the conservative news site CNSnews.com, contradicts the account given by Johnson and her family about how the tensions that day unfolded.

He also said his parish priest and the Archdiocese of Washington were being dishonest when they told parishioners this past weekend that Guarnizo was being removed for intimidating behavior unrelated to the Communion standoff.

Guarnizo said he was removed as a result of two conversations he had with people from whom he was trying to obtain written comment about what happened at the funeral Mass: the funeral director and a parish staff member present at the funeral.

In announcing his removal, the archdiocese said it had “received credible allegations that Father Guarnizo had engaged in intimidating behavior toward parish staff and others that is incompatible with proper priestly ministry.”

In his statement Guarnizo takes his superiors to task, saying he was essentially being removed because he denied Johnson Communion.

“And indeed contrary to the statement read on Sunday, March 11th during all Masses at St. John Neumann, both instances have everything to do with the Eucharistic incident. There is no hidden other sin or ‘intimidation’ allegations that they are working on, outside of these two meetings,” he said.

“The meetings in question, occurred in our effort to document from people at the funeral Mass in written form a few facts about the nature of the incident. We have collected more than a few testimonies and affidavits, testifying to what really took place during the funeral liturgy.

“My personal conversation with both parties in question were in my view civil, professional and in no way hostile. I respect both individuals in question and really do not know the nature of their grievance.”

Officials at DeVol Funeral Home have declined to comment, as have parishioners, who were told to refer questions to the archdiocese.

The Catholic blogosphere has been ablaze with debate about the incident, in part because of the silence of Guarnizo and the St. John Neumann community.

Previously, the only other details about the incident came from anonymous sources on conservative Catholic blogs who said Johnson had outed herself to the priest for no reason, forcing his hand.

Guarnizo said in his statement that public pressure to give Communion to the wrong people will force “the cruelest crisis of conscience that can be imposed.”

“It seems to me, the lack of clarity on this most basic issue puts at risk other priests who wish to serve the Catholic Church in Washington D.C.,” he said.

Officials of Washington Archdiocese, which includes the District and the Maryland suburbs, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. But Johnson’s brother, Larry, said the family is livid.

“I actually thought there had been some closure. He has ripped it apart and escalated it,” said Larry Johnson, a Loudoun County accountant. “It’s remarkable. I thought he was a reprehensible person, and he’s certainly confirmed it. The arrogance, the tone, the characterizations, the blatant falsehoods.”

In describing the incident, Guarnizo said Barbara Johnson and her partner came in “completely unsolicited” and identified themselves as “lovers.”

The Johnsons said the women’s relationship came up inadvertently when Guarnizo, during a discussion of pre-Mass logistics, asked who the other woman was, and the other woman replied, “I’m her partner.”

Larry Johnson’s voice shook as he described Guarnizo’s version of events.

“His premise of the whole thing is the most remarkable. . . . I witnessed the coldness of this man, the arrogance of this man,” he said.

Guarnizo’s status at the parish isn’t clear as the Northern Virginia native is attached to the diocese of Moscow. It wasn’t known whether he was still a parish resident or what his suspension means for his ministry.

He said he would defend himself.

“What happened I believe contains a warning to the church. Such circumstances can and will be repeated multiple times over if the local church does not make clear to all Catholics that openly confessing sin is something one does to a priest in the confessional, not minutes before the Mass,” he said. “I am confident that my own view, that I did the only thing a faithful Catholic priest could do in such an awkward situation, quietly, with no intention to hurt or embarrass, will be upheld.”

Complete Article HERE!

Inclusive ‘Old Catholic Church’ community formed in Saranac Lake

The Rev. Christopher Courtwright-Cox was at the heart of the Roman Catholic Church when he realized that he no longer could be affiliated with it.

It was at the height of the Catholic priest sex abuse scandal in 2004, and Cox was living in Vatican City. He had just completed his seminary training and been ordained as a deacon.

“I had this growing sense of anxiety and depression while I was over there, and I couldn’t really articulate it,” said Cox. “But when (the sex abuse scandal) happened, to hear behind closed doors the amount of secretiveness and homophobia, and the amount of misogyny within the hierarchy of the church, it dawned on me why I was struggling so much.

“I started thinking about the place of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) people in the church,” said Cox, who is gay. “I got to thinking about the place of women in the church, and about divorced people and how they’re not allowed to receive communion. All these things started coalescing for me, and I realized I can’t do this because it’s destroying me and it’s destroying people I care about. So I decided to leave active ministry.”

That decision marked the start of a journey that would eventually bring Cox to Saranac Lake, where he recently founded the Crossroads Catholic Community, billed as an “ecumenical, inclusive, non-judgmental and independent” religious community that still retains most Catholic traditions and practices.

Cox credits the Rev. Ann Gaillard, rector of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, where Crossroads is renting space for its services, for coming up with the Crossroads name.

“Crossroads worked because St. Luke’s is literally at the crossroads of the community, at the corner of Main and Church (streets), in the heart of the village,” he said. “But it’s also at the heart of what I’m trying to do and what the Old Catholic Church is about, and that is being an ecumenical bridge among all of the Christian denominations.”

The term “Old Catholic Church” refers to a number of Christian churches that originated with groups that split from the Roman Catholic Church over certain doctrines, primarily the belief that the pope can make infallible statements on church doctrine.

Cox’s connection to the Episcopal Church is what led him to try to learn more about the Old Catholic Church. About a year-and-a-half after he left active ministry, Cox was living in Plattsburgh and was approached by a friend who encouraged him to visit an Episcopal church.

“I started attending the Episcopal church to check it out, and I was like, ‘It’s Catholic-lite, but it’s also Catholic right,'” Cox said. “It’s kept all the things about Catholicism that I love: the scriptures, the Eucharist, the priesthood, the ritual, the community. But it got rid of a lot of the moralizing.”

Cox became a member of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Essex. He later moved to Saranac Lake, where he worked as the spiritual director of St. Joseph’s Addiction Treatment and Recovery Centers, a position he held for four years until he recently stepped down. During his time at St. Joseph’s he received his doctorate in pastoral counseling and started work on a master’s degree in theology.

“It was then that I realized, while I was writing my dissertation, the call that’s always really been in my heart, that I want to be in active ministry again,” Cox said. “It was at that time that I brought it up to my spiritual director, and he said, ‘Have you ever heard about the Old Catholic Church?'”

Cox contacted Bishop Rose Tressel, head of the United Catholic Church, which describes itself as “an old Catholic heritage church for the church’s homeless.” After giving it a lot of thought, Cox reactivated his ministry in August 2011 and founded the Crossroads Catholic Community, a member of the United Catholic Church.

Its services – held Wednesdays and Saturdays at St. Luke’s – are almost identical to those of the Roman Catholic Church, Cox said.

“The only real difference is that in the Eucharistic prayer, the pope is not prayed for as such; he’s prayed for as the bishop of Rome,” he said. “And we have more freedom in our liturgy; it’s not as rigid. We can draw from Orthodox sources, Old Catholic sources, Roman Catholic sources, Celtic sources. But the basic structure is the same: There’s a gathering around the scriptures, a sermon and the liturgy of the Eucharist, where all believers gather around the table to receive the body and blood of Christ.”

Cox says he averages about a dozen parishioners at the Saturday service, but he said he isn’t measuring his success by the number of people who attend.

“If just one person finds healing or finds peace with their own struggles, then that’s enough,” he said.

Crossroads has also been taking its message to the street. Cox, Gaillard and several of the Crossroads Community’s parishioners provided “Ashes to Go” on Ash Wednesday, Feb. 22, outside the Saranac Lake post office and in the Sears parking lot. About 60 people received ashes and blessings, Cox said.

Cox stressed that he’s not out to pick a fight with the Roman Catholic Church and its local parishes, like St. Bernard’s in Saranac Lake.

“What’s unique about this is you are free to come and go,” he said. “You can be a part of this community and still be a Baptist, a Methodist, an Episcopalian, a Roman Catholic – whatever you want. Our object is not conversion. It’s just a matter of belief and practice, and we want to return to what all of Christianity held in common.”

The Rev. Mark Reilly, pastor of St. Bernard’s, was reluctant to speak about the Crossroads group, although he said he is aware of it.

“To the degree that we may share some things as common as Christians, that’s one thing,” Reilly said. “To the degree that it’s another form of schism, that it appears to be, I need to be very careful.”

Gaillard called what Cox is doing “very exciting.”

“I think that the idea of that very specific ministry of reaching out the marginalized – it’s a very important one,” she said. “All churches seek to do that, but when you’ve got a different sort of ecclesiastical structure that supports it, that’s a new way of doing things, and that’s what he has.”

Crossroads parishioners like Angela Estes of Saranac Lake are just as enthusiastic. Estes said she grew up in the Roman Catholic Church but became dissatisfied with the church’s hierarchy in the wake of the priest sex abuse scandal and because she said she was “treated differently” when she got divorced.

Estes said she likes the Crossroads Community because “there’s no judgment at all, and the rules are not the same. You can be divorced, you can be gay, you can be a woman priest. It’s just church. It’s wonderful.”

Complete Article HERE!