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The Church and Its People

by Kilian Melloy
Monday Mar 28, 2011
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Two recent polls show that America’s devout, church-going Roman Catholics support gay and lesbian families, and think they should have legal recognition of some sort--either marriage or civil unions.

For many, this may seem surprising; for some (conservative Catholic especially, I am guessing) this may seem like an outrage.

But I have to say that I’m not surprised. Catholicism prevails throughout Spain, and yet that nation not only legalized marriage equality, it recently dedicated a memorial in Barcelona to the gays and lesbians who were persecuted and murdered throughout history.

Here in the States, we are on a similar trend. It may not have as great an impact on the civil rights scene, given that there are more Protestants and Evangelicals here than Catholics, but it may be possible that we will see a day dawn when religious objections to full legal equality for gay individuals and their families has diminished, and civil law--along civil rights--are universally and equitably available.

For Catholicism to play a role in that transformation would only be fitting. The very word "Catholic" means universal in scope: true, valid, and relevant no matter where you are. In that sense, the only saying that "the Church is its people" is a good one.

Speaking for myself, the Catholics in my life are also some of the most important people in my life: my parents and their spouses; my mentors; my best friend; early role models whose imprint I carry still. One of them wrote a book to his grown children--all of whom had fallen away from the faith--and reminded them that the Church is not a repository for the dull-witted or the passive, but a social and spiritual hub for vital, intelligent people who choose both a life of the mind and of the spirit. Catholicism does not flee from inquiry, but rather embraces it as a tool for greater alignment between human beings and the Divine. It is that quality of the Church, he argued, that makes the Catholic faith forever refreshed and enduring.

It is hard, at times, to look at the Church and recognize in its hierarchy and doctrines the faith that my mentor’s book describes. In his vision of the Church, freedom of thought is encouraged, and material, worldly evidence is admissible. We may know the universe as the Word of God because it is the Work of God. This being the case, rational investigation--science--is also a path toward truth, and therefore to atonement.

It’s a touching and deeply democratic vision--a vision rooted in the strength and moral character of the individual, requiring and promoting personal engagement and personal responsibility. It’s very an American view of the Catholic faith.

But the Church, alas, is not a democracy. Theological reasoning is full of antiquated--medaeival, in fact--patterns of thought. God is a "King" who rules over the earth, and we humans are His "subjects"--not a very reassuring depiction, for those who love freedom and believe that the individual, if left unmolested by bureaucracy and tyranny, will by nature prove to be upright, responsible, and moral, which is to say, capable of managing his own affairs.

More chilling --and more telling--is the habit that the Church’s officials have of referring to themselves as "Princes" of the Church. More medaeival thought: royalty is a cut above plebes and peasants, not necessarily due to talent or personal accomplishment, but rather out of some sort of mysterious (and self-proclaimed) divine right. In the days of Kings and divine right, the Church and the State were entwined. That is not--in theory, at least--the recipe for a modern democratic nation.

The Church, to its credit, recognizes the medical and scientific facts surrounding homosexuality. It’s innate; it’s ineradicable. Gays and lesbians deserve the same respect and dignity that is accorded to heterosexuals. Where the Church goes off the rails is in its insistence that its own doctrines, as they stand today, comprehend and can summarize the full scope of God’s design for humanity--a design that the Church refers to as "natural law."

"Natural law" restricts loving familial relations--specifically, sexual relations--between two persons of opposite genders, within the framework of religiously declared marriage. This suggests that gays are not "natural" in their impulses to establish and care for their own families, and moreover implies that gay couples are breaking the law.

Indeed, the Church teaches that gays and lesbians are intrinsically "disordered" and that any sexual expression of their romantic and erotic yearning for people of the same gender is "inherently evil." Sexuality, according to the Church, is all--and only--about procreation.

This is an intolerable affront not only to gay people, but to God. Given that gays are a part of the natural order and always have been--not only among the human species, but among other animal species as well--it’s worse than arrogant to assume that God’s plan does not include gays and gay families. Worse, it’s flippant. Anti-gay preachers simply toss off ugly accusations as if they were celestial truths falling from their own inerrant lips. If the pedophile priest scandal of the last decade has illustrated anything, it’s that the "Princes" of the Church are far from inerrant. The Church has engaged in plenty of spin, damage control, and political maneuvering--it’s been a deft display of worldly expertise, coming from an institution that’s theoretically concerned with higher matters.

The scapegoats in this ugly affair are gays--whether or not they also happen to be pedophiles. The Church’s solutions to the pedophile priest problem have been spectacularly beside the point: Barring gays from seminaries (even though well 90% of child molesters are heterosexuals); attempting to re-define the problem (according to one Vatican official, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, who serves as the Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the Office of the United Nations, sexual predator priests are not "pedophiles" at all; they are "epheobophiles." Well, then, that’s okay); seeking to keep incriminating records out of the hands of investigators and away from the public domain (hardly fitting conduct given that the Church claims to be primarily concerned with truth, and with Truth); and even going so far as to declare those among its membership who demand a full and transparent accounting "enemies of the Church."

Most disturbing and most enraging has been the Church’s attempt to shift focus away from the even more sinister conduct of bishops who knew what the sick priests under their supervision were doing, and who responded to the crisis by simply removing pedophile priests from parishes where they’d done enormous damage and reassigning them to unsuspecting parishes, where the same atrocities could take place all over again among a fresh cop of victims. The men who should have known better were not "ephebophiles" or gays; they were, however, Princes of the Church, and the Church’s royalty forgot to care about the welfare of its people. (For more on this, see the EDGE interview with filmmaker Amy Berg, whose 2006 documentary Deliver Us From Evil centered around pedophile priest Oliver O’Grady and peeled the veil back from the Church’s efforts at spin and denial.)

That Catholics embrace me and my family is no surprise because the Catholics in my life have always accepted me, and they have accepted my husband. It’s Catholicism--the corporate nature of the Church, the all-too-temporal nature of its hierarchy’s priorities, and the disappointingly mundane direction of its response in a time of terrible spiritual crisis... well, it’s these things that shock and enrage.

The Church doesn’t seem to get that. The true test of whether the Church really is its people is how long, if ever, it will take for the Princes of the Church to follow their people’s lead.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor, writing about film, theater, food and drink, and travel, as well as contributing a column. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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