Food for Thought

Let Dialogue Continue

Pope Benedict XVI speaking recently to Malta’s young people responded to questions from a young man “whose powerful-worded questions” spoke for folks not just in Malta, but everywhere. (All quotes are from internet reports)

The question was from “ones who do not fit comfortably into the stereotyped roles”…”dysfunctional families, sexual orientation, immigrants”.  They have all had encounters which estranged them from the Catholic Church.  They are told that they are people “who claim to believe yet do not live up to the commitment of faith.”

My personal experience of 42 years of priestly ministry, half of that with young people, is that this statement could be voiced in every parish about each and every one of us.  The questioner is correct to say “the church community still considers us to be a problem.”  How often do we hear from preachers, “the problem is..” followed by the naming of a group of people.  Like the young people of Malta we are aware of many statements from churchmen about who can and cannot receive communion; who are ineligible to attend Catholic schools; and how we must vote to be morally correct.  Some are even told that their actions are “intrinsically disordered.”

The young man continued; “we are made to feel that we are living in error”.  “Please tell us what exactly is Jesus’ call to us.”

The Pope’s answer begins with St. Paul as an example of a young man “Whose whole life was transformed after his encounter with the Lord.”  Benedict continued, “Every personal encounter with Jesus is an overwhelming experience of love.”  We agree.  Then Benedict asks a question of his own.  “Maybe some of you will say to me, St. Paul is often severe in his writings.  How can I say that he was spreading a message of love?”

St. Paul did change from hunting down and persecuting Christians to being a follower of Jesus.  But I think Benedict goes a little too far to say, “His whole life was transformed.”  Paul had been born and raised in Tarsus a Roman city immersed in Greek culture, and for that reason Paul was a Roman Citizen.  He was a learned man in the Jewish Law and tradition who become a Rabbi.  However he was also strongly influenced by Greek Stoic and Platonic thinkers of his day.  A Greek prospective continued to be a dominant part of Paul’s world-view and language after his conversion.  That orientation was attested to by St. Jerome who believed that eight ancient letters between Paul and the Roman philosopher Seneca were authentic.  Their thoughts and words were very similar.  Most telling is that they had lived in Rome at the same time.  (Those documents later proved to be forgeries but the strong connections are still telling.)  Paul’s words, often favoring Stoic philosophers, were the tools he had to express Jesus’ teachings.  It is a difficult task to try and disentangle Jesus’ teachings from the specific language they are expressed in by Paul and other who wrote them.

St. Paul was transformed, but slowly, gradually, like all of God’s people, like us.  He was still the strong, energetic man-with-a-cause, working tirelessly, even as he complained of his “thorn in the flesh.” (2 Cor. 12:7)  Paul certainly was a believer and an Apostle among Apostles, but he was also a man embedded in his time and in his culture with its unique language and world-view.

Benedict and the Church since Pius XII accept that Scripture must be read and interpreted according to its historical context.  Before he became Pope, then Professor Joseph Ratzinger taught the same thing about traditions.  “Not everything that exists in the Church must for that reason be also a legitimate tradition; in other words, not every tradition that arises in the Church is a true celebration and keeping present of the mystery of Christ.  There is a distorting, as well as legitimate, tradition.”

Benedict continues in his words to young people “God loves every one of us”…”he knows us intimately”…”because he loves us so much he want to purify us”…”of our faults and build up our virtues.”  [God] “is asking us to change and become more perfect.”

We do not question God has made us as we are and knows us intimately.  God does want us to flourish, to become healthier and happier and more conformed to his image.  But “purify” is a difficult word.  It images dirt, sickness, flaws in persons.  True, specific actions may lead to flourishing or might impede our flourishing.  Virtues are habitual actions which up-build us and enable us to flourish, as Benedict would have us do.  Yes, each person begins and continues to become God’s image.  But the changes that occur and the perfection each of us attains are culturally conditioned.  We are creatures of the language, traditions and culture we grow up in.

The questioner speaks of what many Catholics, especially many young, who experience that they are not fitting in, do not measure up to what is expected, and are considered abnormal, even unnatural.  Many people experience the Church saying that they themselves are errors or at least live in error.

What is the “correct way” of being?  Answers depend on who is making judgment. The values we hold and the ways we live our lives, are all culturally constructed, culturally conditioned.  As an anthropologist I can not stress enough that ideas, thoughts, theories, even “data” and “revelation” are culturally conditioned.  The Catholic Church accepts the notion of culturally conditioned understanding, in theory, but still struggles with rigid, overly-objectified habits of thinking and judging in area of traditions and moral thinking.

Leadership of the church, always culturally positioned and conditioned, has been continuously perplexed even outraged by other cultures.  The first “unnatural” event of the early Church was the gentile controversy.  God had clearly chosen a people, the Jews.  And now those first Jews who followed Jesus were being told that all those unrighteous “other” people, gentiles, were also saved and were to be welcomed and embraced!  We know the outcome.

As Christians began to evangelize Europe the pagan cultures and religions they found were also see as “problems” to be defeated.  Later foreign missionaries elsewhere in the world encountered the same problems.  The Church, allied with colonizing governments, saw the beliefs and practices of native people, and their whole cultures as “pagan”, obstacles to be destroyed in the name of God and His Church.  That record remains.

Benedict counsels correctly “God loves everyone”.  He doesn’t mention that people are created by God and develop as they are within unique cultures.  Thus every person is loved and formed through nature (genetics), in specific cultures and religions of their birth.  Just as Scripture and traditions must be seen in their historical, cultural contexts so each person must be considered according to their natural and cultural contexts.

God continues to encourage us to a more refined understanding of His self-revelation, in Scripture and in His creation. Modern scientific instruments reveal surprising information never before known or imagined.  Modern Scripture scholarship has overturned some of our traditional understandings of Scripture stories.  For example, the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah were condemned, not for homosexuality but for inhospitality.  The leaders of the Jews after the Exile were concerned about quelling inhospitality and separating Jews from pagan customs of the time which would draw them away from their faith.  In the same way Science in the study of genetics, archeology and cultural anthropology, among others, continues to refine our understanding of the complexity of God’s creation, human and non-human.

The young man in Malta asked Benedict whether or not the Catholic Church accepts us as we are, not just as tradition says we should be.  He asks how can you say with such certainty that your way to perfection is the only way.  Yes, everyone needs to grow towards perfection, but by which standards and whose measurement?  Diverse cultures, languages, traditions and genetic ancestry suggest that there are diverse ways to live and to grow in perfection

The church itself is culturally conditioned as history reveals.  The church’s moral standards also have varied in history and culture.  Not all traditions have been kind or true.

Benedict closes with “Do not be afraid”!  Yes, but like Jesus, like Joan of Arc and many others, going to a martyr’s cross is not our first choice.  Living an affirmed, accepted life, fully included within the Church, remains our longed-for first choice.

“Do not be afraid”!   Yes; do not be afraid to be prophets of a future Church where Christ lives visibly within and among his people; where compassion is made more perfect and God’s love of all creation is obvious; where exploitation and false judgments no longer condemn.

--Ken McGuire, csp, April 20, 2010

What we know about Homosexuals and the Catholic Clergy Sexual Abuse Crisis:  

Thomas Plante, Ph.D. has a thoughtful article asserting that homosexuals shouldn't be blamed for the Catholc Clergy Sexual Abuse Crisis.  Check out his article in Psychology Today, p


The following editorial was published in The Tablet on February 6, 2010.  It is posted here with permission from The Tablet Publishing Company.  Check out their website:  We share it as important food for thought and possibly for discussion in your ministries.

Deepest Human Desire
The Catholic bishops of England and Wales did not experience first-hand the super-heated reaction of the mass media, whether accurately reflecting public opinion or not, to Pope Benedict’s attack on the “unjust” consequences of British anti-discrimination legislation. For they were in the room with him when he said it, at the end of their routine ad limina visit to the Vatican.

Aggressively secularist groups like the National Secular Society seized on the incident to whip up support for their campaign against Pope Benedict’s visit to Britain in September, which his address was mainly about. But the larger jury, the British public, will not yet have made up its mind and can still be persuaded either way. That is why the Church must take seriously, and ponder deeply, the underlying reasons for this week’s furore. It is a pity the bishops missed it.

The focal point of this reflection needs to be the Catholic attitude to homosexuality, for it was this that sparked the explosion. Public opinion on homosexuality is becoming more tolerant, as the British Social Attitudes Survey recently reported, and that poses an ever greater challenge to the Church to put its case across. In its dealings with the Government over the implementation of the Sexual Orientation Regulations in 2007, which effectively squeezed Catholic child-welfare agencies out of the all-important work of adoption placement, the ­bishops stood by the principle that children need a parent of each of the sexes, not that homosexual men or women are unsuitable parents per se because of their “unnatural” sexuality.

It was the better argument and many people agreed with them, but this approach left the specific issue of homosexuality unexamined. The debate about the Equality Bill, on the other hand, did raise the issue. The Government’s decision this week to back down over the bill and no longer insist on its more precise criteria for when discrimination was allowable, has let the Church off the hook, but not very comfortably. It still allows the Church’s enemies to accuse it of anti-­homosexual prejudice, even bigotry.

There can be no reasonable expectation of a change in church doctrine on homosexuality, at least in any relevant timescale. That means there will continue to be certain posts in the Church, such as head teachers in Catholic schools, where public dissent from this teaching is a disqualification. That dissent could be by campaigning against official teaching, or more likely by living in a manner that is visibly at odds with it – in short, being a gay man or women in a gay relationship which is admitted to be sexual.

But to let that be all the Church has to say on the subject is to invite the animosity that was on display this week and to lose the sympathy of wide sections of the public. What gay Catholics say is that it is not so much the Church’s disapproval of their sexual activity that hurts and damages them, as its inability to comprehend and value their emotional lives, their relationships. The deepest human desire of all is to love and be loved. Many have found that desire realised in one other person of the same gender as themselves. They are adamant that their sexual and emotional orientation is a discovery – something that was there before they realised it – rather than an invention.

Is the Church able to move beyond a sterile state of dis­approval that is in danger of becoming part of its public profile? Fifteen years ago, the late Cardinal Basil Hume issued a ground-breaking statement of impeccable orthodoxy which included the passage: “In whatever context it arises, and always respecting the appropriate manner of its expression, love between two persons, whether of the same sex or of a different sex, is to be treasured and respected … When two persons love, they experience in a limited manner in this world what will be their unending delight when one with God in the next. To love another is in fact to reach out to God, who shares his lovableness with the one we love.”

And elsewhere he said that just because two men or two women love each other does not mean they have to be assumed to be in a sexual relationship – which suggests that even being in a civil partnership does not necessarily imply defiance of church teaching on sexual activity.

There is also a context supplied by the present Pope, in his first encyclical Deus Caritas Est. He asks, quoting Friedrich Nietzsche, “Doesn’t the Church, with all her commandments and prohibitions, turn to bitterness the most precious thing in life? Doesn’t she blow the whistle just when the joy which is the Creator’s gift offers us a happiness which is itself a certain foretaste of the Divine?” His subject is eros, and the task he sets himself is the reintegration of erotic love into Christian spirituality, rather than, as Nietzsche thought, its denigration and rejection. The role of eros in homosexuality the Pope leaves alone, but it has a direct relevance in the light of what Cardinal Hume had to say.

In his recent speech to the clergy of Dublin at the invitation of Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, Fr Timothy Radcliffe OP prophetically declared: “We have told families with large ­numbers of children that no contraception is permitted, and young people who cannot afford to get married that their sexual behaviour must be strictly controlled, and gay people that nothing is permitted – and that they should be ashamed of their sexuality. Regardless of the rights or wrongs of church teaching, this has been experienced by our people as a heavy burden.”

There is enough of a basis here for the Church to move on with confidence, if not doctrinally then at least pastorally. The fundamental principle has to be that homosexual people must not be defined negatively by their sexuality, but positively – if it is necessary to define them at all – by their affections. There are those among them who demonstrate a constancy and a stability in their partnerships that, rather than causing scandal, set an example to their heterosexual friends and relations. This might seem radical, but if it follows logically from well-grounded theological positions – as in the case of the Pope, the late cardinal and Fr Radcliffe – it is compelling.

And such a basis would utterly refute the underlying charge against the Catholic Church this week, that it hates gay people and wants to banish them from its sight. It does not, it cannot, and it should not. It must accept them, respect them, love them and indeed, with a minimum of caveats, employ them. If the Church had been seen to be doing that already, before this week’s events, the furore would never have happened.