Tuesday, February 8, 2011

143 Theologians of Conscience

I came across a fascinating article in the Süddeutsche Zeitung on Friday. A bunch of German catholic theologians have sent a memo to the Vatican, telling them to straighten up and fly right. It’s world news, and you can find the memo in English translation on a blog called Pray Tell.
Specifically, they are asking the Vatican to:

1. allow religious to marry, and allow married clergy to participate as equals in the church hierarchy;
2. allow for much more local governance, determination of appointments and policy, and a broad democratization of the church in general;
3. overhaul the church’s legal structure;
4. respect all persons living in committed relationships, including same-sex couples and divorced persons;
5. move away from an attitude of self-righteousness;
6. encourage diversity in forms of worship.

Anybody familiar with the split in the church between what some call its right and left wings will see this as nothing new or particularly surprising. This is what the “left” has been asking for ever since before such views were given traction when John XXIII called the church together for the Second Vatican Council in 1962.

John didn’t live to see his ideas of modernization carried through. He died only a year later, and the curia went to work to make sure the church returned to its old ways, with the pope and the hierarchy in charge and his infallible authority intact.

Today, there are effectively two catholic churches. One focuses on the Christian virtues of compassion and pastoral care. It is open minded and ecumenical, which means it is constantly seeking common ground with other Christian groups and pushing for the church to stress universal decency as something which demonstrates the whole world, including even nonbelievers, can come together to good purpose. The other insists the pope, as the representative of Christ on earth is in possession of ultimate truth and without the church there is no salvation. Not so much "left" and "right," perhaps, as Vatican II vs. Vatican I oriented.

When former San Francisco Mayor (now California Lieutenant Governor) Gavin Newsom defied law and custom and started marrying same-sex couples, the issue went all the way to the California Supreme Court, which determined same-sex couples’ right to marry could be found in the state constitution. For a brief period, thousands of gay couples, including several friends of mine, took advantage of that period of fresh air and light. Then San Francisco’s Roman Catholic Bishop, George Niederauer, called up friends he had made when he was Bishop in Salt Lake, and joined forces with the Mormons, and ultimately with fundamentalist Protestants as well, to put aside their differences long enough to run a campaign to convince California voters that society was being threatened by sin and debauchery and that the American family would be destroyed if perverted love were sanctioned by the state. They were successful. The right gays and lesbians once had to marry in California was taken back, and gays were once again made to feel they were strangers in their own land.

It is no secret where homophobia comes from in American culture. It falls like acid rain from the pulpits of catholic, Mormon and fundamentalist churches. Remove religion from the scene and gay rights fall into place like the last few pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Outside of religion, homophobia has largely dried up and blown away.

And, it should be obvious, when people talk as I have just done, they are actually misusing the word religion. It’s not religion that’s the source of homophobia, actually. It’s not even a particular religious denomination. It’s closed-mindedness. That aspect of religion which makes people want to use the Bible or church tradition as a hammer, an absolute assurance that one has access to the mind of God and he wants them to impose their world view on non-believers.

We need to be reminded with regularity that sometimes the categories we use to divide up the world mislead us more often than they help us. We know how to distinguish believer from non-believer, catholic from protestant, Christian from Muslim, Jew and Hindu. What we need to know is how to distinguish people with a psychological penchant for surrendering to authority from people with a dedication to personal responsibility for making meaning in life. The former become ideologues and members of religious groups with absolutist truth claims; the latter embrace an evolution in culture and understanding. The former associate striving for personal responsibility with social breakdown; the latter take courage in discovery. The former see the world in terms of black and white, God and the devil, heaven and hell. The latter open themselves to poetry, including the poetry of speculation over the nature of God.

The 143 German-speaking Roman Catholic theologians who just sent that memo to the Vatican are the Catholic Church as John XXIII saw it in Vatican II, the “ecclesia” defined not by the pope and the hierarchy, but by the whole body of believers. 143 may not sound like a lot, but it’s about a third of all the theologians in Germany. Some on the other side are crying heresy. My guess is that the old boys in the Vatican with the keys to power will simply conclude the church cannot accept these recommendations, and the church will continue to come apart at the seams.

I would have called that good news once. Seeing the catholic church as a monstrous homophobic monolith, the church could not fall apart fast enough for my taste.

But in recent years I have come to know a great many men and women inside the church who are working just as hard – harder even – to hold the church together as I might have been to knock it down. I see them these days in the same light as I see men working for the feminist cause, what Robin Morgan refers to as “men of conscience.” The institution they serve is the institution as it should be, not the institution that is. I feel common cause with these people. I am not a believer, I don’t have a dog in this race, and frankly ecumenism strikes me as personally irrelevant. But I know good will when I see it and I have no desire to bring believers away from their faith. I want to work with religionists to keep their co-religionists who make my life miserable in check. There is genuine communication possible, common ground accessible between believers and non-believers who remain open to one another and share the value of universal human equality.

I came across a blog published yesterday, written by a priest about an experience he had marching with a Vietnamese group in an LGBTQ parade, which illustrates my point and embodies the kind of ecumenical church outreach that may just keep the church alive. Check out his story if you have the time. He reminds us of the danger of Dostoevsky's Grand Inquisitor, who would "lift from (our) shoulders the unbearable weight of freedom." And this priest, Father Geoff Farrow, is hardly an outlier. In fact, there is a reference to an article in a Jesuit publication twenty years ago already which made the point I brought up here - that the fault line between religions is of less significance than the fault line between literalist fundamentalist protestants, traditionalist fundamentalist Catholics, and hardline Orthodox Jews on the one hand, and those of all religions and no religion, on the other, with the courage to face their own doubts and take responsibility for the consequences.

Two churches. One which refuses to allow abortions in its hospitals even to save the life of a mother, disparages and on occasion demonizes gays and lesbians, maintains the illusion its priests have surrendered their sexuality, works to prevent condoms in AIDS-riddled Africa, and prays for the conversion of Jews – and one which focuses on its origins in the man who preached the Sermon on the Mount. You know. The guy who gave his attention to peacemakers, the meek, the persecuted, the hungry.

I have nothing to fear from a church that tells you to give away your coat when somebody asks for your jacket, or to walk two miles with him when he wants you for only one mile, even if they never quite get around to doing these things.

But that church the theologians were addressing, the one that got its Knights of Columbus to come up with a million dollars to keep gays from marrying in California, just one of the fifty states, that church, well…

The church in Germany (and Austria and Switzerland) is supported by the state, and those 143 theologians have their jobs in state universities only with Vatican approval. Keep your eye out and see if they hold on to those jobs.

It will tell you a whole lot about which side of the church is winning the tug of war.

Update, Feb. 9: The number of signers has now risen to 224.
Update, Feb. 13: The number of signers has now risen to 247.


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