PETER DAY. When Church leaders forget to tell the story that liberates.

Sep 1, 2017

Human sexuality is a complex and fragile thing; far greyer than black or white. It is best tended to by gentle, wise, and humble hands – religious leaders might like to consider dropping their megaphone diplomacy, then?

“Tell me, sir; when you hear the words ‘Catholic Church’, what immediately comes to mind?”

“An abusive institution that opposes abortion, same sex marriage… and masturbation.”

We have a problem.

The catastrophic failure of pastoral leadership over many decades, along with the church’s ongoing obsession with the bedroom, has conspired to reduce the Catholic faith, in eyes of many, to merely a series of “no’s” over sexual and reproductive ethics – all the while promulgated by “a bunch of hypocrites who have covered-up sexual abuse of children.”

Our credibility is all but shot. The bishops have lost the people – they’re failing the ‘pub test’ miserably. But still they resume normal programming, dogmatically prosecuting yet another “No” campaign – talk about kicking own goals!

Haven’t they learnt anything from the recent Irish experience which was just as much a “No Vote” against the institutional Church, more especially the bishops, as a “Yes” to marriage reform? The days of celibate men wagging their disapproving fingers at people from on high are long gone, surely to goodness?

‘Catholicism is not an intellectual system. It is not a collection of dogmas, nor is it a moralism. Catholicism is instead an encounter; a love story; an event’ (anonymous).  We are what we are because of the mystical union between Jesus of Nazareth and God, an encounter of love that culminated in the Resurrection: the Event that affords humanity infinite hope. This is the Story that liberates.

Granted, this is folly, even nonsense to many, but to those of us who believe, it is what shapes our very existence, our very being – it is why we get out of bed. It is a reality that has compelled countless men and women throughout the ages to shine a light on the dignity of humanity: to walk alongside the poorest, to liberate the oppressed, to attend to the sick and dying, to pray in the trenches with the broken – to live for others.

Alas, ours is also a story of grand failures and betrayals, not least in the pastoral care of same sex attracted human beings. In this space we have tended towards moralism and dogmatics. We have failed to grasp the level of despair and shame felt by those whose very being has variously been questioned, ridiculed, and treated with suspicion – and Lord knows, the churches have contributed significantly to this marginalisation.

I was given a precious insight into this heartache via the pen of a friend. Here’s an edited extract of what he wrote:

“I am a diocesan priest in my forties who has come to realise that my own affective orientation is homosexual. This orientation makes me an outsider: ‘Am I normal’, ‘Am I unnatural’, I ask myself. These are hard propositions to deal with.

“The church is entrusted with proclaiming a gospel that is Good News to the poor: God is especially close to the outcast – the mentally ill, the divorcee, the addict… the homosexual.

“I am not writing to boast or pontificate about my sexuality. But being homosexual, being an ‘outsider’ has given me a treasured insight into suffering and loneliness.  I know what it is to live with a sense of shame. But I also know what it means to bring Good News to the poor, because I myself am poor and have tasted this Good News.

 “I believe we homosexuals may be able to enrich the church with our insights into love, suffering, and truth.”

These are fraught times: times of rapid social, cultural, and religious change that are overwhelming for many, but can’t come quick enough for others.

The Catholic Church’s official position on same sex marriage is well known. But by stridently leading the “No” campaign, it just manages to further erode the little pastoral credibility it has left – and all over a battle that appears to be well and truly lost.

This is not to say, of course, that the church must, therefore, pander to the whims of the marketplace, or surrender its values. On the contrary, the church, like the rest of us, has a duty to ‘follow its informed conscience… ever calling it to love… and to pursue what it discerns to be good and just and truthful’. Rather, this is about picking the right battles – and avoiding pyrrhic victories. Whatever the result of the upcoming Postal Plebiscite, the Marriage Act is almost certain to be amended, if not this year, certainly in the next little while.

Good pastors read the signs of the times – they pick up the vibe. The nation is fed-up with the all-consuming nature of this issue. Same sex marriage fatigue has set in. It’s time to say, “We respectfully rest our case, your Honour,” and quietly leave it to the citizenry to make up its mind.

Indeed, religious leaders could do worse than drawing a lesson from the hapless Japanese Army Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda.

“Lt. Onoda was sent to The Philippines in 1944 to carry out guerrilla warfare on the island of Lubang. He was young, just twenty, committed to his nation’s cause, and utterly faithful to his Commander’s orders to never surrender; to stay the course til the bitter end. Alas, Onoda was never officially told the war was over; so he spent the next 29 years hiding in the jungle, resolutely fighting an enemy that no longer existed. Remarkably, it wasn’t til March 9, 1974 that the Second World War officially ended for the faithful Lieutenant. It was then that his former Commander, Major Taniguchi, met him at a pre-appointed place and read the orders that stated all combat activity was to be ceased.

“‘We really lost the war! How could they have been so sloppy?’ Onoda said in disbelief. He then pulled back the bolt on his rifle and unloaded the bullets.” (Jennifer Rosenberg, ThoughtCo., “The War is Over … Please come out”.) 

Commitment and fidelity to a cause is a noble thing, but it must remain grounded in reality, in humility, lest we find ourselves jumping at shadows, or picking the wrong fights.

The battle over same sex marriage is redolent of the dilemma that confronted the Catholic Church in the 1960s over artificial contraception. Then, like now, the bishops were out of step with the people. Now, like then, the people will be laying down their rifles long before the bishops.

Ah, for a different exchange: “Tell me, sir; when you hear the words ‘Catholic Church’, what immediately comes to mind?”

“A compassionate and humble institution animated by the love of God and the servant leadership of Jesus.”

Fr Peter Day is a Catholic priest from the archdiocese of Canberra and Goulburn 

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