Embracing The Tension

"Struggle between flesh and spirit, rebellion and resistance, reconciliation and submission, and finally the supreme purpose of the struggle/union with God: this was the ascent taken by Christ, the ascent which he invites us to take as well, following in his bloody tracks.” – Nikos Kazantzakis


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On the Catholic Vote “Not Alone” Campaign…

An Overview

not alone still
After a popular Catholic Youth Ministry speaker posted a link to it on Facebook, I recently watched Catholic Vote’s “Not Alone” campaign video. It begins with black and white vignettes of young, racially diverse men and women sitting down as if about to be interviewed, like some kind of Dove® Real Beauty campaign ad. Initially the subjects express sentiments that seem to allude to the fact that they are about to come out of the closet. I have to admit, I hoped that is what would happen. (To some of you this may be a newsflash, but there are people who identify as both openly gay AND Catholic.)

But that’s not what happens… They come out, not about being gay, but about being openly against gay marriage. The video goes on to show how these individuals feel like social outcasts and feel ostracized, not knowing who they can feel totally safe revealing these true feelings to. They continue on to plead sentiments like, “I have gay friends” and “I’m not afraid of them”  and go on to even express how they believe that obviously The Creator loves gay people (almost as if they might still need to convince themselves?). Ultimately it ends with the would-be encouragement to fellow Catholics that they are not alone if they feel that they are against gay marriage, and that they should feel emboldened to “Speak truth with love”.

My reaction: “Oy vey Maria…” (I’m half-Jewish on my dad’s side, or as some would call me, a Cashew).

I subsequently watched a parody of the video. The parody aptly takes the line of reasoning in Catholic Vote’s video (“I should be able to believe whatever I want and not be social outcast for my different views”) and applies it to thoughts about racial inferiority, likening believers in “traditional marriage” to bass ackwards bigots who bemoan that they ought to be free to express their views on how women should be barefoot, pregnant, and in the kitchen, and how white people are better than all others. They conclude with a recap of the slogan “you are not alone”, promoting solidarity amongst their “underdog” white supremacist sympathizers. I’m sorry Catholic Vote, but based on how you tried to frame your viewpoint, this was an easy shot.

not alone parody still

After viewing both videos, I was really stunned that Catholic Vote put out this video and I wondered who they consulted before releasing it. I felt compelled to write something from a Catholic perspective that challenges the direction Catholic Vote decided to take, as a way to illustrate to some fellow Catholics why that video is problematic, and to also illustrate to non-Catholics that not all Catholics think the same way.


My Catholic Critique of the “Not Alone” Video
The main issue I take with the video is its premise which centers on painting Catholic opponents to gay marriage as victims. It appeals to ethos (queue sappy instrumental music, dramatic black and white cinematography) in an effort to make the viewer feel bad for these poor victimized Catholics, and even to encourage a sense of self-pity in Catholic viewers: poor us and how misunderstood we Catholics are. It’s weak in it’s effort to be persuasive or affect any kind of real change in perception of Catholics or even of the Church’s teachings on love, marriage, and sexuality. It propagandizes the notion that straight Catholic people are the real underdogs.

I have to admit, that on some level, the antics got to me. Seeing the interviewees crying at the end… I’m an empathetic person. Additionally, being a devout Catholic myself, I have had firsthand experience with isolation for my religious beliefs before. I attended a college with the slogan “Communism, Atheism, Free Love”, so it was bound to happen. In today’s American society, being a devout Catholic, aligning with ALL of the Catholic Church’s teachings, is actually highly unpopular, and I would argue, more unpopular than being or supporting LGBTQ rights/individuals. Has it always been that way? Certainly not. And does this mean that oppression of gay and lesbian and trans people is over? DEFINITELY not.

The tides are just beginning to turn, and I DO believe, this is a good thing. If our society is moving towards the normalization of fair treatment and access to rights of all people, regardless of their gender identity or sexual orientation, then that is a good thing. Catholics and all of society SHOULD support and love LGBTQ individuals and uphold their basic human rights because we shouldn’t discriminate between how we treat people based on their sexual orientation. Also because, hello, Jesus would not have treated them differently, and we are called to love like Christ did and to love Christ in each person we encounter.

And we as Catholics REALLY shouldn’t try to co-opt an oppressed group’s oppression in a convoluted way to “love” those people. Suffering with them, aka compassion, is one thing, but to try to overshadow their persecution with your own is really self-righteous. Likening the feeling of being outcast for your views on traditional marriage to being outcast for your sexual orientation is a completely disproportionate and insensitive analogy. You are a lot more likely to be thrown out of your house, beaten, and possibly killed for being openly gay. There is plenty of research out there about the significantly higher likelihood of being the victim of hate crimes as an LGBTQ person than as a straight person. If you came out to your parents or friends about believing that gay marriage is wrong, you might be disagreed with or even socially shunned, and that might hurt your feelings, but you wouldn’t have to worry about your basic human needs (a roof over your head, bodily integrity) being violated.

This isn’t to undermine the very real presence of religious persecution in the world, and even in America. Obviously Christians are largely the targets of ISIS terrorist violence. Domestically, we mourn the loss of the lives of the nine African-American people who were shot in their church during a bible study session in Charleston.  And we’ve seen numerous instances of religious violence towards Islamic people as well throughout our country. But, with regards specifically to the issue of persecution of openly gay individuals and the persecution of those who are openly opposed to gay marriage, I think the ramifications are incomparable, and I think it’s insensitive to co-opt a sort of comparative martyrdom or to play “oppression olympics”.


A Future Direction for Catholic Media

LGBT-Catholics-with-banner

Overall, Catholic Vote really missed an opportunity to make a good point or shed a new light on this very divisive issue. I think what failed to happen was constructive dialogue with gay and lesbian people about the issue, or even with other straight Catholics who may wrestle with the Catholic Church’s teachings, who have questions, and who have gay and lesbian loved ones. It was such a one-sided video, with one of the featured interviewees even saying, “I know what marriage is.” Even if you believe that to be the truth, do you really believe any gay person considering entering the Church is going to hear that and feel welcomed or invited into dialogue?

One alternative that could have actually been very powerful, would have been to have openly gay people who are also Catholic be represented. The gay Catholic demographic is one of the most oppressed groups because not only are they trying to find their place in a Church that is only very recently rethinking their approach to being pastoral towards them, but also, they are often rejected by fellow LGBTQ communities because of their religious affiliation. They are ostracized from both sides! How do devout gay Catholics respond to the SCOTUS decision? What are their struggles? What are their points of view? Their voices offer an insight that heterosexual Catholics simply cannot understand. You cannot know what it’s like to live in someone else’s skin unless you’re that person. A straight person simply cannot project the narrative of a gay person’s lived experience. That’s why it’s important to dialogue.

I’ve seen so many pseudo-pastoral approaches on the part of Catholics to try and being more loving towards LGBTQ people. But the problem is how we’re conceptualizing these issues and other-izing gay people. For example, LifeTeen, an organization that does a lot of great work for Catholic Youth Ministry, recently published a blog post entitled, “7 Ways To Love Our Brothers and Sisters Who Experience Same-Sex Attraction“. The blog post actually has a lot of good pastoral approaches in it, but the title is actually kind of condescending and practically characterizes the persistence of homophobia in the Church. The post does explicitly discourage homophobia, but simultaneously isolates people with SSA as “other” or in need of a special prescription of love. Benevolent homophobia is still homophobia. The fact that many Catholics still see having same-sex attraction and acting on those attractions as the same thing is the problem. You probably wouldn’t see a Catholic blog entitled “7 Ways to Love Our Brothers and Sisters Who Are Black” or “7 Ways to Love Our Brothers and Sisters Who Are Paraplegic” because we can see that those titles are condescending and imply intolerance that we need special instructions on how to love “those people”. The blog isn’t about the identity of the person, but about the actions that person might take. If it’s about loving the people who engage in homosexual acts, then ‘re still classifying those sins as so distinct from other heterosexual sins. Similarly, they wouldn’t have written a blog called, “7 Ways to Love Our Brothers and Sisters Who Engage in Pre-Marital Sex” or “7 Ways to Love Our Brothers and Sisters Who Masturbate”, so why focus on one particular kind of sin? And if it’s just about seeing same-sex attraction as an inherent struggle and praying for people who experience that struggle, it still exoticizes that struggle because you don’t see blog posts entitled, “7 Ways to Love Our Brothers and Sisters who are stressed at work” or “…who are recent grads looking for a job and have a lot of college loans to pay off”.  Ultimately, it shouldn’t have to be any different, the way we as Catholics love gay people or any other people. As much as Catholics may want to try to go above and beyond to be “loving” to gay people, by treating them differently, it still highlights a belief that they are an “other”.

Taking an empathetic approach, rather than a “feel-bad-for-me” or “it’s-so-hard-being-one-of-the-only-people-who-really-knows-the-truth” approach, would be something for Catholic Vote and other Catholic media sources to consider. Jesus didn’t go around Eeyoring about how misunderstood he was, feeling sorry for himself. Yes, he did get frustrated, and he also did speak definitively about morality, but his approach was always patient and loving. While at times he tailored his reproaches to specific people, other times, he was gentle and forgiving, not self-righteous. He was God, so he knew who would receive what he said and who wouldn’t. We are not God, and while we are called to do our best to speak truth, as the Catholic Vote video encourages Catholics to do in one very specific (and I would argue misguided way), we also need to focus on how best to love and serve others, how to be pastoral, and how to LISTEN rather than making our works about ourselves and refusing to see outside of our own perspectives and experiences. One thing the video got right was when one woman says that we really need to bring the issue into one-on-one conversations. That’s true! But that doesn’t mean one-sided conversations. It means really listening to one another.


Dialogue and Inquire Fearlessly

Jesus and the woman caught in adultery.

Jesus and the woman caught in adultery // “He who is without sin shall cast the first stone”.

Ultimately, those of us who are Catholics, whether we are gay or straight, no matter our intersecting identities and personal struggles, are called to go outside ourselves, to be Christ’s hands to those on the margins, and to wrestle with our faith and Catholic teachings. That doesn’t necessarily mean that we’ll arrive at a black and white conclusion. We may in fact remain in tension, in mystery, in the gray. But our faith also calls us to have trust in a loving God that is bigger than all our uncertainties and ultimately sees the intentions and goodness of our hearts. And it is that same faith that emboldens us to ask “why?” with regards to Church teachings. If we believe that our faith’s teachings truly come from God, then we must be unafraid in seeking to understand God’s love in those teachings. We can trust that if we are open, then God will put truth in our hearts and convict us. It may be what you’ve always known, and it may be different. But we can trust God will be with us. Meanwhile, all we can do is try to be the best versions of ourselves that we can be. And we can be confident that God will not abandon us in our uncertainties, that we need not be afraid.

Whether you are gay or straight or trans or queer, you need not be afraid that God does not love you. The Church acknowledges that we all sin. Anytime we veer away from doing what our conscience tells us is truly good, innocent, pure, selfless, loving, and pleasing to God and we do what might be more momentarily pleasing or comfortable for ourselves, we sin. It’s as simple as that. We are tempted by so many things, sexual and otherwise, and no one is perfect. This doesn’t mean we excuse sin or redefine it to suit us, but we can place our trust in a God who is infinitely merciful and unconditionally loving and just wants to be with us. In order to understand what sin is, each of us must take the time to form our conscience (pray, read Scripture, read reflections and studies on various interpretations of Scripture, talk to be people you trust and regard highly). Often what one person may consider a sin, another may not. This is the tension we are all called to wrestle with.  We trust that God will love us regardless of the conclusion we arrive at, and he will even love us regardless of whether we wrestle at all.

Even when we don’t have all the answers, God does, and God is with us in the tension of not knowing, so because of that, we know that no matter what, we are not alone.


Other Useful Links/Resources

Article in National Catholic Register, “Gay and Catholic”: http://ncronline.org/blogs/ncr-today/gay-and-catholic-two-views-supreme-courts-same-sex-marriage-ruling

Interview with Arthur Fitzmaurice by America Magazine: http://americamagazine.org/media/videos/lgbt-catholics-interview-arthur-fitzmaurice

Eve Tushnet’s book Gay and Catholic: http://www.amazon.com/Gay-Catholic-Accepting-Sexuality-Community/dp/1594715424

Ignatian News Network: Gay Catholics Series: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLaaVes-rPoONj6SUTXuCTDX5RWWZRYOlZ

A Gay Catholic teen’s personal blog post: http://lifeteen.com/blog/gay-catholic-and-doing-fine/

United States Conference of Catholic Bishops “Ministry to Persons with a Homosexual Inclination: Guidelines for Pastoral Care: http://www.usccb.org/about/doctrine/publications/homosexual-inclination-guidelines-page-set.cfm

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50 Shades of Catholicism

On the word “Catholic”.

Polarizing Catholicism

Someone once said that an atheist who is searching may be closer to God than a Catholic who believes he has God in the palm of his hand.  I think that’s pretty true.

As a “cradle-Catholic” (one who is born and raised in the Catholic Church), I have seen firsthand that Catholicism has many shades and means a lot of different things to a lot of different people.  Recently an opinion article was published in the New York Times about Catholicism, particularly American Catholicism, in light of the papacy of Pope Francis.  The article illustrates the range of “catholicism” from those who advocate against the reforms of Vatican II, desiring a return to the Traditional Latin Mass to those who have been ex-communicated by the Vatican and still retain the term “Catholic” for the name of their congregations.  The author, Peter Manseau, writes,

Who is a Catholic? Is it a matter of baptism? Belief? Loyalty? Psychology? For some, the answer depends on tests of political purity. For others, who may no longer receive the sacraments but continue to identify with the faith, “once a Catholic, always Catholic” is not just a principle of canon law (semel catholicus, semper catholicus), but the diagnosis of a chronic condition.

In my own experience I have encountered this very diversity.  I’ve seen stale Catholicism where the teachings and lifestyle of the faith take no root, yet people collect Sacraments and perform rituals out of some kind of perfunctory superstition.  Fortunately, these Catholics seem to be out of the fray, where the more heated division takes place between two opposing yet active extremes. I’ve seen Catholic angst from more left-leaning, progressive Catholics who seem to disregard the institutional Church as being completely bass ackwards, along with many of the Church’s teachings, in pursuit of a more ecumenical and anarchist, yet elusive ideal rooted solely in what is written in the Gospels without the context of 2000 years of history and interpretation. But I have also encountered more right-leaning, traditionalist Catholics who frequently exclaim “So and so is NOT Catholic” and who seek to define the in-group and out-group, clinging to the letter of the law as their basis for making such distinctions, while utterly ignoring the reality that the exclusion they espouse is explicitly counter to the inclusion Jesus preached.

Frankly, this is nothing new. Jesus dealt with the same binary reality, being condemned both by Jews and Romans alike in his effort to admonish hypocrisy, preach reform, and call everyone on to a higher, but more challenging way of life: one of compassion, solidarity, and love, not of condemnation and finger pointing.

three-stooges-pointing fingers

The focus on the lack of consensus over the semantics of the label “CATHOLIC” really serves to create more division than unity and it distracts us from the higher calling and meaning of our lives, which is to look outside of ourselves and follow a higher calling, one to love and serve God, the Greatest Love and Lover of All.  And, inconveniently enough, we are called to love and serve that very Love in one another, without exception.  Additionally, the preoccupation with the precise definition of the word and how to apply it (aka: who’s in and who’s out), serves to disrupt our own personal spirituality. We become distracted from discovering our own deeper identity and calling by being concerned about comparisons to others.


Fear versus Fear

At least for the sake of linguistics, let’s take a look at the root of this nebulous word, Catholic. The word “catholic” comes from the Greek term meaning “universal” or the phrase “on the whole”. When I picture the word “universal”, I imagine a broad expanse of outer space, distant galaxies and stars, unfathomable distance, a mind-blowing reality.

Image by Greg Marshal, taken from The Oregonian.

One of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, according to Scripture (see Isaiah 11:2-3) and the Catechism of the Catholic Church is the term “Fear of the Lord” or “Wonder and Awe”.  When I look up at the night sky (maybe not in LA, but in general) and try to comprehend the vastness of space, of time, of existence, I am filled with Wonder and Awe and I realize how small I am, and how little I really know.  And even breaking it down the other way, when I ponder how infinitesimally small subatomic particles are, and yet they make up all matter, again, I wonder where do I fit in to this all? And how, in the midst of the infinitely large and infinitely small, do I exist and see order?  Okay, I realize I’m getting pretty existential, but these are the kinds of concepts that are meant to be at the heart of religion, and at the heart of Catholicism.  We are meant to realize our smallness and our fragility in light of something (or Someone) much greater and more mysterious that we are. And in that, we are meant to realize our intrinsic connectedness in this broad, enigmatic scheme of our own existence.

So just to clarify, the word “fear” here isn’t referring to fear as in being afraid of God, like he’s gonna strike you with lightning bolts or condemn you.  Rather, “fear” refers more to the overwhelming prospect of contemplating infinity or existence or time and space.  Truly, fear, as in being afraid and letting those feelings dictate your behavior, is actually condemned in Scripture and in Catholicism.  Fear is contrary to love and is frequently discouraged (about 365 times) throughout the Bible. This kind of fear really gets in the way of love, which is what we are all called to, and is what leads to our division. So, just to clarify, Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie, the cranky nun who said “fear is the heart of love” was either misguided, or you misunderstood her (by the way, I still love “I’ll Follow You Into The Dark“, suuuuch a catchy and poignant song).

In a TED talk on vulnerability by author, researcher and public speaker Brené Brown, she comments on the problem of trying to quantify and make certain things which are intended to be mysterious:

The other thing we do is, we make everything that is uncertain, certain. Religion has gone from a belief in faith and mystery, to certainty. ‘I’m right, you’re wrong, shut up.’ That’s it. Just certain. The more afraid we are, the more vulnerable we are, the more afraid we are. This is what politics looks like today.  There’s no discourse anymore.  There’s no conversation. There’s just blame.”

How true is that?  In America, a country whose collective identity is based on principles of patriotism and liberty (although also undeniably rooted in a history of slavery and oppression), we place a lot of stock in our politics as part of our identity.  We are afraid of uncertainty in others and in ourselves, and we seek to make things black and white (or red and blue), no shades of grey (or purple). We see, today, a country that is polarized by its politics, and this absolutely spills over into our religion (or lack thereof) and determines or at least predicts a lot of how we include or alienate people.  Ironically, this is not at the heart of the Gospel, and is contrary to Christianity.  In the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 12, Verses 22-28, we read,

Then they brought to him a demoniac who was blind and mute. He cured the mute person so that he could speak and see. All the crowd was astounded, and said, “Could this perhaps be the Son of David?”But when the Pharisees heard this, they said, “This man drives out demons only by the power of Beelzebul, the prince of demons.” But he knew what they were thinking and said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself will be laid waste, and no town or house divided against itself will stand. And if Satan drives out Satan, he is divided against himself; how, then, will his kingdom stand? And if I drive out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your own people drive them out? Therefore they will be your judges. But if it is by the Spirit of God that I drive out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.”

The context of this passage is that Jesus has command over “unclean spirits” and he drives out demons.  People cannot seem to understand where his power comes from and they accuse him of being in league with Satan.  They fear what they do not understand (familiar?). He rebukes this in pointing out that it wouldn’t make much sense to be driving away some of his own.  How often are we misunderstood in our own actions, when our intentions are to heal and to stand up for what is just?  We encounter opposition all the time, but we see in Jesus solidarity with those who are misunderstood and oppressed, and he points out that God is also on our side.  God is on the side of righteousness (not self-righteousness).  With this in mind, we must try to keep our egos and our fears out of our decision making, and act out of love, vulnerability and faith.

Whether we are religious or not, and regardless of how we decide to define the parameters of “Catholicism”, Jesus gives us some advice that we can all benefit from, that our Church, our country, our society, the human family, cannot stand when it is divided.  We are called to embrace our diversity of opinions and to seek to understand and build solidarity with those who are different from us. Yes, there is suffering and pain and discomfort in embracing the other, but it is better to sit with one another united in that discomfort, rather than to “discharge [our] pain and discomfort” (Brené Brown, The Power of Vulnerability) with blame onto one another.


 

Embracing the Grey

A Jesuit priest who was the pastor at the parish I attended in college once told me that the Catholic Church is like a big family reunion.  Unlike other congregational churches, often made up of homogenous, like-minded individuals, in the Catholic Church there is a lot more diversity. You’ve got your Tea Party cousins playing Go Fish with your neo-liberal hippie grandparents at one table, while your Libertarian uncle grills burgers with your Green Party third cousin twice-removed whose flipping veggie patties.  Regardless of our opinions and politics, we’re all family.  The Catholic Church, in its universality, is meant to unify not to divide.  The more we strive to find a middle ground, to have compassion for the experiences of others by listening and humbling ourselves, the stronger our “kingdom” will be.foggy path

The irony in it all is that we are really not as different as we think.  No one really knows it all, and life is not about “being right” but about following our conscience and being true to our inner selves.  We all have fears and insecurities, and we’re all just trying to figure out how to live and love in the best way possible.  For the most part, we all seek to do good while we’re on earth and to leave it in a better condition than we found it.  The 10 Commandments, the rest of Scripture, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church provide a foundation on which to direct our efforts for doing good and loving rightly.  But ultimately the light that guides us on our path comes from inside of us, the tiny whispering voice of the Spirit who speaks in the silence of our hearts, and only lights the path one step ahead.  We can strive to inform our consciences and to share what wisdom we have with others, but each of us walks our own path.  We cannot control what others choose to do or how we each choose to live.  All we can do is love each other in our frailty and continue to walk forward in faith, side by side, hand in hand, through the fog of uncertainty.

For we know partially and we prophesy partially, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. When I was a child, I used to talk as a child, think as a child, reason as a child; when I became a man, I put aside childish things. At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face. At present I know partially; then I shall know fully, as I am fully known. So faith, hope, love remain, these three, but the greatest of these is love. – 1Corinthians 13: 9-13