I can’t pretend to have insider knowledge of the workings of the Roman Catholic Church. All I know, as the saying goes, is what I read in the papers. My views remain somewhat hostile, because it's no secret the RC Church is primus inter pares among the chief sources of homophobia that still lurk in so many dark spaces, like the demons the catholics fear are roaming the earth seeking the ruination of souls. Demons is a powerful metaphor for homophobia and the other phobias that plague the church in regard to human sexuality. Rather than recognizing sex as an appetite and embracing it as something to accommodate with care and thought and sympathy, it has traditionally turned it into something to be instrumentalized and rationed by the powerful. And shamed. If you're going to burn in hell for anything, it should be for turning beautiful into ugly and clean into dirty.
Much as the folks in charge of the church want to indoctrinate their flock from early childhood into believing it was founded by a god and is held in place by that god’s specially ordained servants, it is a very human organization. And by that I mean it reflects both the best ideas human beings can come up with and the worst. Non-Christians on every continent tend to agree on the big questions of right and wrong. They all agree violence and deceit is destructive to human well-being and have developed moral codes to reflect that instinct. But just as the right-wing members of any society grab the flag and the patriotic songs and claim to be better citizens than everyone else, the church has grabbed the notion of morality and claimed it invented it. Anyone who ventures out of the village into the larger world can see most of its peoples, “all God’s children” – those of the faith and those outside the faith as well - have established ways of living good lives without the benefit of this peculiar European-flavored concoction that is the church of Rome.
I remember a discussion I had once with a Saudi student about the source of morality. Not in Saudi Arabia, of course. The year I taught there any discussion which might have suggested relativism in regard to religion would have gotten me in very hot water. I mean in one of my classes in California. The dialogue went something like this:
Saudi Student: What religion are you, Baptist or Catholic?
Me: I’m neither of those.
SS: You are a Jew!!!???
Me: Nope. Not that either.
SS: But you’ve got to have some kind of religion. We all need some kind of religion.
Me: I was raised a Christian and I’m still a cultural Christian, but I don’t share their belief in a god.
SS: Wow! But what keeps you from killing people?
Me: I have no desire to kill people.
SS: But what about when you become very angry?
Me: I still don’t have any desire to kill people.
SS: Well, you’re not like most people. Most people who don’t have a religion would kill when they got really angry.
Me: Have you ever been to Japan? I’ve lived there for many years and I can tell you two things about the Japanese for sure: 1) very few of them believe in God; and 2) they are a remarkably peaceful bunch of people.
My point is that religious people, Muslims and Catholics being only two examples, like to believe it is their religious institution that keeps us all from going out the front door and mowing down the neighborhood. And I’ll save for another day any discussion about the work that army chaplains do to make it easier for soldiers to fight whatever enemy is bugging their leader at any given moment.
Another positive benefit of being catholic, I’m often told, is that one is associated with all the schools and hospitals the church sponsors. To say nothing of St. Vincent de Paul and other organizations formed to serve the poor. “Charity” is closely associated with “religion.”
True. Catholic schools and hospitals are often managed and operated by some remarkably generous and kindly people, to be sure. But since generosity and kindness are to be found among the non-religious as well, the cause-and-effect relationship isn’t an exclusive one.
One of the first things that strikes an outsider about the Roman Catholic Church these days is how deeply divided it is. At the risk of oversimplification, we can say there are in fact two churches, and they are quite distinct. Just as you can divide the world into those who see a glass as half full and those who see the same glass as half empty, you can divide the world into those who look for – and therefore see – light, and those who look for – and therefore see – darkness. It’s more common to divide the RC Church into “Vatican I” Christians and “Vatican II” Christians, but “light and dark” works about as well. “Dark” catholics focus on hell and punishment; “light” catholics on heaven and forgiveness. Dark on hard and fast absolutes, light on pastoral care. Dark on record-keeping of who’s in and who’s out, light on leaving it up to God to judge human lives as he will. Dark on circling the wagons in moral certainty; light on personal humility. From the perspective of gay and lesbian people who want to remain in the fold, the two distinct churches may be seen as the “Can’t Come In” Church (dark) and “Come in, but sit over there and be quiet” Church (light).
In this day and age when the “nones” outnumber all the other groups in polls asking people about their religious affiliation, discussions among church leaders about what the church is up against, as far as I can establish, seems to be less about Protestantism, as it was in the days of my youth, and more about the opposing flank of the church itself. Ecumenicals (light) on one side; hard-liner doctrinalists (dark) on the other. Before the administrative challenges became too much for him, Benedict XVI, the Pope Emeritus, once suggested that the way to go might be for the church to embrace this drop in membership and worry less about numbers and pay more attention to getting the doctrines right. Benedict looked toward the conservative. Which is not identical to the dark church, although being dark and being conservative are often mistaken for one another. Francis seems to be trying to push the church toward the light, but it’s no easy task turning that battleship around in the water. Like many people caught in the middle of a civil war or a family squabble, his is a thankless job. Both sides call him a traitor. Well, the hard liners call him a traitor. The “light” folks usually try to moderate their name-calling and describe him simply as “not quite up to the job,” “deeply disappointing” and the like.
The split into factions is quite serious. If you doubt that, have a look at the battle between the CFC - Catholics for Choice, an organization formed to support Catholic women who think a woman should not be excommunicated or condemned for seeking an abortion, and the traditionalists lined up on the other side insisting the CFC stop using the word “catholic” in connection with their association.
This is not to say that there is a single mindset on the “light” side. Like other progressive movements, they agree on some things and disagree on others, in comparison to those on the “dark” side. Traditionalists tend toward authoritarianism, and that means a single source, often a single man, gets to establish what is to be believed, and everybody gets in line. Republicans have greater group discipline than Democrats, and clericalists have greater unity than free thinkers. It goes with the territory.
What prompted this reflection was an item a friend called to my attention in today’s New York Times about a guy who has found refuge in the light church now facing some serious bats and bricks from the dark church. He’s a gay man who wants to be a Catholic. My advice, which I readily admit is not advice he has to take or even should take, is to give it up. Recognize that you can worship God anywhere and find like-minded folk elsewhere, as well. I understand that for a serious Catholic believer, the liturgy and especially the Eucharist is commonly central to one’s faith, and when the church pushes you away from the communion rail, it’s cold comfort to be lectured at about becoming Episcopalian. I’ve done it a number of times, and I always feel like the person who tries to comfort a grieving person with words like, “Well, be thankful he lived as long as he did!” Bad move. Cruel, even. Certainly tasteless, because it doesn’t allow for how the person is feeling inside.
So what’s to do but feel sad? Antonio Bianco, I wish you well.
And I’m sorry the darks currently have more clout than the lights in your church.
Or should I say more bricks and bats?