Wrong message sent by response

By  Janet Somerville, Catholic Register Special
  • January 17, 2008

{mosimage}The vigorous letter of Dr. Andrew Caruk in the Catholic Register of Dec. 30—Jan. 6, about what constitutes courage in upholding Catholic teaching on sexual orientation, got me thinking hard about the difficult ecclesial times in which we live.

Dr. Caruk is confident that the Catholic Church is defending God’s own intention, inscribed in creation and echoed in revelation, when the church refuses to describe same-sex unions as “marriage” and when it continues to teach that genital sexual activity between persons of the same sex is not part of God’s plan for human holiness or wholeness, but is instead part of a problem, a “disorder” in one’s emotional life.

As a Catholic, I too hold that the church’s teachings on sexual orientation, and more generally on God’s intentions for sex within the human vocation, are part of a revealed wisdom which we must receive reverently, ponder carefully, live integrally and protect from hostile or uncomprehending modern attacks.

I am far, however, from sharing Dr. Caruk’s approval of some recent pastoral actions that were intended to protect those teachings. For example, Dr. Caruk praises Archbishop James Weisgerber’s last-minute decision to prevent James Loney from speaking at a Catholic-organized conference in Winnipeg last fall, although Loney had in good faith accepted the conference’s invitation to be a featured speaker on peace.

Loney has well earned his right to speak about peace. He is a member of the Christian Peacemaker Teams, an organization of Mennonite inspiration with significant Catholic participation. CPT members go to areas of lethal conflict and with prayer, patience and quiet heroism, do whatever they can to intervene. He is also a member of the Catholic Worker movement and thus a spiritual son of the American convert Dorothy Day, one of the most respected Catholic pacifist leaders in the 20th century.

Archbishop Weisgerber has well earned his right to speak about the church’s teaching on marriage, celibacy and the spiritual importance of sacramental sexual behaviour. He became a priest in the days when celibacy was still strongly supported in everyday Catholic culture. He remained steadily a priest when tsunamis hit all our longheld securities, when celibacy and marriage began to be challenged and debated on every side. As a bishop, his task has included holding the ship steady while Catholics reeled with news of sexual behaviour by some priests which electrified the media, shocked the secular consensus and scandalized Christians. As a bishop and a leader among bishops, Archbishop Weisgerber knows well how serious our situation is and how beleaguered is our credibility.

It seems to me that far more scandal may have been caused by the public prohibition than might have been caused by the people at the conference listening to a speech on peace by Jim Loney.

There is more than one difficult Christian teaching to uphold in this world. Loney, in a way that has been evident to millions since his long ordeal as a hostage in Baghdad, was willing to lay down his life to witness to Jesus’ teaching about peace. He showed the courage of a martyr in the setting of a miserable war which Pope John Paul II had tried hard to prevent and which, in the opinion of most Catholic bishops who spoke publicly about it (including the Canadian ones), was not a “just war” even by traditional non-pacifist church standards.

Is there nothing we need to learn from such a witness?

In the old days, the church’s canon law sometimes labelled a certain kind of scandalous and/or dissident person excommunicatus vitandus — excommunicated, and to be shunned and avoided by the faithful. Should Catholic bishops today treat Loney like an excommunicatus vitandus — someone to be kept far away because of the moral danger of his thoughts? Emphatically, I don’t think so. It is true that on one difficult, currently burning issue, Loney does indeed publicly oppose Catholic teaching. In every other way of which I am aware, he is an exemplary and eloquent Christian. Surely we need to learn from him as well as to teach him. Surely we need to acknowledge that there is a struggle of conscience inside the church on this issue, and treat everyone involved like “one of us” until God leads us safely back/forward to a multi-faceted shared light on these much-contested questions of gender and ethics.

The archbishop is a sympathetic and eloquent pastor. No doubt he was facing painful public consequences from his critics in Winnipeg (juicy grist for the media) if Loney had been allowed to give his talk. But he could have found many other ways to be responsibly present to everyone concerned. He could have introduced James Loney at that conference, with love and respect. That attractive archbishop could have spoken of the church’s gratitude when someone witnesses with heroism to Christian truth about the evil of war, and of the church’s pain when the same person opposes a serious Christian teaching that is currently unpopular, as is the teaching on sexual orientation. He could have diagnosed pastorally the confusion we all feel when a person so evidently Gospel-graceful disagrees with the church (and agrees with a powerful modern secular consensus!) on something important. He could thus have dealt healingly with this issue which so torments and divides Christians today.

Maybe he did that, more privately, after the conference. But if so, that didn’t make the national news. What made the news was an action that said “Shut up and go away. We have nothing to learn from you.”

With all due respect to Dr. Caruk, I don’t think that’s a good way to teach Catholic moral theology in difficult times.

(Janet Somerville is a past general secretary of the Canadian Council of Churches. She lives in Toronto.)

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