Friday, February 9, 2018

The price of a blessing

Two of Germany's movers and shakers. That's Mutti on the
left and Cardinal Reinhard Marx on the right
My heart breaks for those unfortunate lesbian and gay Catholics still holding out hope they might find their unions “blessed” by the hand of old Mother Church. Dream on, kids. You'd have better luck getting drug dealers to build a drug prevention center.

German Cardinal and head of the German Bishops’ Conference Reinhard Marx gave an interview this week in which he was asked if the church was ready to extend its blessing to lesbian and gay couples. Showing himself to be a smart diplomatic politician, he deflected the question. “You’re asking the wrong question,” he said in effect.  What is important here is that some things can be regulated and some things must be left up to people making on-the-spot decisions. The church’s stand on homosexuality is one thing. Blessing an individual couple is another, in other words.  

The cardinal likes to have his cake and eat it too.

As you might expect, Marx’s response satisfied no one. Hardliners huff that the cardinal has no business leaving open the question of church doctrine. It is clear. Homosexual behavior is a sin. Those inclined toward it have one option – celibacy. If they want to avoid sin, that is. They should not expect the church to change its mind on this.

At the other end of the spectrum are those who heard the cardinal’s clearly ambiguous answer and saw in it the prospect for change. Several German papers used the sneaky tactic of putting words into the cardinal’s mouth with attention-getting headlines. “Marx holds out the prospect of blessing,” say the Frankfurter Allgemeine of Frankfurt and the Rheinische Post, of Düsseldorf. When you read the articles themselves, though, you realize the headline is an ellipsis. The completion of the sentence runs, “but only in individual cases.” This only places the burden on the individual priest to remind himself that the price of a blessing for a gay person is celibacy. And for couples? Well, maybe if they just live together and never share any pleasure of their bodies...

It’s an old church trick. Some people think of it as the Italian way of doing things. Say one thing and do another. Do what you want. Just don’t mess with the principle. Keep up appearances.

Marx actually provides fuel in this interview to the fire in this battle by progressive forces such as We
Munich's Frauenkirche, cathedral church of the diocese
of Munich and Freising - and one of Munich's major
Are Church
and The Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK), to include gay people as equals in the life of the church. Among the first questions Marx is asked are, “What changes have you seen since you have taken over this job (as head of the church in Munich and Freising)?” and “What is the biggest change you have seen?” To the latter question he responds, “The biggest change is actually a new awareness of change,” and urges his followers to be prepared to take on the challenges of a changing world.  One is reminded of the theological question debated recently of whether to change the wording of the Lord's Prayer.  Is God, the thinking goes, the type of guy who might actually “lead” one into temptation, and therefore must be begged not to? In the end the church decided to leave things as they are. not change the language, in other words. But let's not miss the point that this suggested what would have been a whopper of a change. One should get points for having the temerity to ask, right?

Which ties this question to the larger question of how the church comes to terms with its past. They have admitted that St. Peter’s in Rome, the church of all Catholic churches, was built with money from selling forgiveness for not-yet-committed sins, a corruption which not only led to the Protestant Reformation but begs the question of just what won’t the church do for money?  

On March 12, 2000 John Paul II surprised the world by apologizing for the sins of the church. Some of them. Addressing the Jews of the world, he said, "We are deeply saddened by the behaviour of those who in the course of history have caused these children of yours to suffer." Nice. "Saddened" is not quite the same as "I'm really sorry; we were bad," but it was a start. And, to be fair, when he was done, Cardinal Edward Cassidy stepped up to acknowledge the "sufferings of the people of Israel" and ask divine pardon for the "sins committed by not a few [Catholics] against the people of the covenant". 

I may be mistaken about this, but to my knowledge there was no mention of a misinterpretation of scripture or an admission that the theology behind the anti-semitism played any part in the commission of those sins. That would seem to be pushing it.  And lest this apology, if that's really what it was, get out of hand, the move seemed to be anticipated by the Vatican’s International Theological Commission. In December 1999 they published a document entitled, "Memory and Reconciliation: The Church and the Faults of the Past."  And what's that about?   Please note, says the commission, we don't want you to take this apology wrong. With our apology we are issuing a “purification of memory” statement which should work to “liberat(e) personal and communal conscience from all forms of resentment and violence that are the legacy of past faults.” You gotta love these guys.

So much for fessing up for all that dark history, from the arrest of Galileo for maintaining that Copernicus was right, that the earth does go around the sun, to the sin of omission of not standing by the Jews at the time of the Holocaust and, for that matter, centuries of unmistakable anti-Semitism.

So what went down last week was the church being church: Cardinal Marx sending out signals that led a number of German sources besides those mentioned above, like Domradio, in Cologne and Die Presse, in Vienna to suggest that there is some “room to maneuver” (Spielraum) in Marx’s statements about blessings for gays. Perhaps it’s not fair to the cardinal to blame him for the misleading headlines like “Marx holds out the prospect of blessing.” But if you read the articles, they point to the fact that he is avoiding the issue and throwing responsibility onto individual pastors whether to call what they do “blessing” the couples. Talk about plausible deniability.

The church has definitely changed over the years. It no longer endorses slavery (or "perpetual servitude" if that distinction is meaningful to you), and no longer cooperates with fascists (well, in most places, at least). No modern-day pope would steal a child from a Jewish family on the excuse that its nanny had baptized him. It turns a blind eye to divorced couples and allows them to take communion, and it has pretty much cried uncle in the fight against the use of contraception, recognizing that when 98% of Catholics admit to using some form of it, they can't very well withhold blessings from that many people. But for some reason it continues to hold out on a couple of issues – not allowing women the same right as men to turn bread and wine into the body and blood of the son of their god, and not allowing gay people to be gay and keep their dignity as decent men and women who’d simply like to have a sex life and/or build a family along with a same-sex partner.

Go join the Episcopalians, I want to tell them. But I recognize that in practical terms there are two distinct Catholic Churches – the clericalists, the folk in the clutches of the authoritarians; and the “ecclesia” – a concept that loomed large at Vatican II – the body of believers as a collective. The first church is about power and being in control, the second about trying to make meaning out of a Middle Eastern creation story and mythical tradition to which one can attach a moral code. I want to lend my support to those in the second group, because I think they are basically good folk looking for an anchor in life, and do a lot of good when they put their minds to it. 

Unfortunately, this is a tough time for the sincerely righteous. Just as America is being held captive to greed and deceit at the moment, despite the best efforts of the not all that effective “Resistance,” the good Catholics of the “ecclesia” – the non-authoritarians, are in the clutches of the Vatican hustlers. Not all Republicans are indecent – many are well-meaning government-is-bad ideologues who become justifiers and enablers. And not all power-structure Catholics are indecent, either. Many – like Cardinal Marx, who foster the illusion that people can surrender their dignity and still have self-respect, are the Enablers who make the wheels of Vatican Central go round.

Marx was given an opportunity to answer that question about whether the church could bless gay couples with a clear yes. He could still harbor the thought that these people are living in sin but see the grace of God extended to all believers, sinners and folk of the straight-and-narrow alike, as well as everybody in between. Are sinners (if that's what they are) not worthy of blessings? But he chose instead to remain in the good standing with his authoritarian bosses instead of joining with the large-tent contingent. Fine. The Catholic Church in Germany has a long history of enabling authoritarians - I don't need to mention names. Marx will go down in history as just another one.

Maybe in a hundred years there will be a sea change and people will no longer need to believe God wants men on top, women on the bottom. And that hetero reproductive sex is the only permissible way to be erotic and passionate.  It's possible these notions will go the way of astrology and a belief in unicorns, and there will be more room for real love and compassion. In the meantime, lesbians and gays will no doubt go on fooling themselves into thinking they’re simply being forced to sit in the back seat when actually they are outside the car being dragged along the road on a rope.

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