Blogs | Sep. 10, 2014
I love Elizabeth Scalia, aka The Anchoress, and I very much appreciate her effort yesterday to inject a new perspective into the controversy over New York’s Saint Patrick’s Day Parade and the LGBT group that will be marching in it: a perspective that seeks to be thoughtful and compassionate as well as orthodox.
This is important, because Catholics have historically done a poor job loving our neighbors who are same-sex attracted and/or self-identify as gay. (For the purposes of this discussion, by “gay” I simply mean those who identify as gay.)
Unjust hostility toward the same-sex attracted, and fear of being associated or identified with them, are real phenomena with deep roots in human nature and social structures. Tragically, Catholics have not resisted these tendencies as we should have; on the contrary, we have too often embraced and reinforced them. (I haven’t read Elizabeth’s combox, but I suspect some of the comments she has received provide confirmation of this sad truth — and that some comments in my combox will do the same.)
This is a shame and a scandal, and has greatly harmed the cause of the Gospel. We need to do better. The need to make amends is great.
Having said all that, I can’t agree with Elizabeth’s conclusions, or with the way she has framed the issue of Cardinal Dolan acting as the parade’s grand marshal.
She begins her post by commenting on the woman caught in adultery:
[Jesus] did not speak to the woman until they were alone, or perhaps only a few of his unthreatening disciples were near. It was then, in the quiet of a face-to-face, one-on-one discourse, that Jesus revealed the love of God to the woman, and told her, “do not sin any more”…he didn’t even tell her to repent, or ask whether she was sorry. He did not call her “wicked” or seek to shame her. He did not even look for her contrition.
She also points out Jesus’ well-known habit of sharing table fellowship with people deemed sinners. Finally, she cites the parable of the Prodigal Son:
It didn’t matter why the son was seeking inclusion; the father did not know whether he was coming home repentant or full of swagger. Motivation did not matter. And the son was still a long way off. All the father knew was that the son had made a move toward home, and it was enough to send the father running out, to meet him.
I’m not sure a bishop has a choice but to run out to meet prodigals, regardless of motivating factors. The father wants everyone to come home and be with him. Once they’re at the doorstep, they may be encouraged to come in; once they’re inside, they can be talked with, nurtured, fed, encouraged, formed, and made whole. This cannot happen as long as they are off in the faraway places.
There are some lines of thought here worth considering. In general, though, I think the disanalogies are more important than the analogies.
It’s true that, when confronted by the crowd seeking to stone the woman taken in adultery, Jesus didn’t begin by saying to the crowd, “You are right, adultery is sinful”; it was only privately, to the woman, that he condemned her sin, saying “Go and sin no more.”
On the other hand, in the first place, in Jesus’ social milieu adultery was universally recognized as sinful.
There was no movement in Jesus’ day to normalize adultery. Adulterers did not form pressure groups demanding that their relationships have social status equivalent to marriage. Whatever Galilean wine seller provided the first round of drinks for the wedding feast at Cana did not have to worry about legal action or even hostile public-opinion campaigns if he declined to cater a dinner in celebration of adultery.
This means there is a greater obligation today to defend and uphold precisely those aspects of Catholic moral teaching that are under fire, and to do so by both word and action.
It is true that this obligation must be weighed alongside the obligation to make amends for mistreatment of same-sex attracted individuals. We must find ways of upholding Catholic moral teaching while also upholding the dignity of all persons and giving no support or cover to homophobia or gay-bashing.
At the same time, we can’t uphold the dignity of persons or make amends for injustice by downplaying or neglecting precisely those elements of Catholic teaching that are under fire, or by cooperating with the movement to normalize homosexual acts.
This is true for the good of souls, but it is also in the Church’s own interests. The Catholic hierarchy has been vocal of late defending freedom of religion in connection with federal mandates around coverage of contraception as well as other immoral services. It’s no coincidence that the battle over contraception mandates came after decades of comparative neglect of the Church’s teaching on contraception and even tacit acceptance of widespread use of contraception by Catholic couples.
Failure to defend Church teaching today leads to encroachment on religious freedom tomorrow.
Second, even though there was no question in Jesus’ day regarding the immorality of adultery, Jesus not only explicitly endorsed traditional Jewish sexual morality (cf. Mark 7:21, Matt 15:19, Luke 18:20), his own public teaching on adultery and marital fidelity was much stronger than conventional Jewish views.
Jesus’ teaching on adultery and marital fidelity was shockingly strong — so shocking that on one occasion his stunned apostles stammered that, if Jesus were right, it would be better not to marry (Matt 19:10; cf. vv. 5–12; Mark 10:11–12; Matt 5:27–32).
Between the universal public consensus against adultery and Jesus’ own unusually hardline public teaching on the subject, there was no danger of anyone familiar with Jesus being confused what he thought of adultery — much less gathering the impression that, if Jesus opposed stoning this woman, adultery must not be so bad after all.
It can’t be said that there is no danger today of confusion regarding the Church’s teaching — or whether the Church’s teaching might be changing. Even in the Church, priests and religious openly campaign for changes to the Church’s teaching. Pope Francis’ famous phrase “Who am I to judge?” is misrepresented as opening the door to such change.
Perhaps a bishop who was well known for taking an unusually hard line on Catholic sexual morality might be able to get away with startling acts of openness toward gays and gay groups without giving the impression of downplaying Church teaching. Cardinal Dolan is a winsome and effective spokesman for the Church, but I am not aware that he is particularly outspoken on this issue.
Third, in siding with the woman taken in adultery, Jesus went against the crowd to defend a victim in great and immediate distress. Jesus sided with a powerless, embattled person against a violent, angry mob.
Likewise, Jesus’ habit of sharing table fellowship with individuals deemed sinners was precisely a matter of welcoming the marginalized, the outcast, the powerless who had been rejected and excluded by the powerful.
While members of the gay-rights group that will be marching in next year’s parade — OUT@NBCUniversal Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender & Straight Ally Employee Alliance — may well have experienced discrimination or prejudice, as a group they are not social outcasts, nor do they seem to be in great and immediate distress. They are employees of a major corporation, NBC, that is strongly in their corner, so much so that it threatened not to televise the parade unless they were allowed to march. They also have the support of a major backer of the parade, Guinness.
When Elizabeth says “I’m not sure a bishop has a choice but to run out to meet prodigals, regardless of motivating factors,” I can’t help thinking, as advocates of the change have pointed out, that this policy shift was not something sought by parade organizers or advocated by church leaders, but something imposed on them after long resistance. Without even necessarily faulting anyone for the policy change, it can’t really be framed as a pro-active move by Catholics.
By the same token, just as the change in policy is not a matter of anyone “running out to meet anyone,” neither is it a matter of anyone “returning home.” The gay groups haven’t moved or changed their position. Their position is exactly what it has been for decades. It is the parade organizers who have finally changed.
To say “I’m not sure a bishop has a choice but to run out to meet prodigals, regardless of motivating factors” would seem to imply that Cardinal O’Connor, for example, was wrong to support the parade’s ban on gay groups marching under their own banner. (Remember, there was never a ban on gay individuals marching in the parade with other groups. The issue always had to do with marching as a particular group under a particular banner.)
Exegetically speaking, to say “It didn’t matter why the son was seeking inclusion; the father did not know whether he was coming home repentant or full of swagger” is over-determining the narrative. Parables aren’t meant to be read this way. They are not psychologically realistic short stories.
For example, there is nothing in the narrative to indicate how the father would have known that the son wasn’t only returning for a short visit, but his words and actions clearly indicate that he expects him to stay.
It is because the father sees the son returning home to stay that he runs to meet him, puts the ring on his finger, kills the fatted calf, etc. If we insist on over-extending the narrative, suppose we imagine the son, still living in a far country, writing to his father saying “Let’s get together at the market once a year, hang around for awhile, and each return to our own homes.” Would this induce the father to run to meet his son at the market, put a ring on his finger, and kill the fatted calf? Or would he reckon his son still “dead” rather than “alive”?
The difficulty can be highlighted by proposing other groups that might wish to be included. Take the National Organization for Women.
It could be argued that including NOW would be a gesture of goodwill to women from a church that has often been accused of misogyny and oppression of women. What argument for including OUT@NBCUniversal would not also apply to NOW? I can’t think of any. Yet how many orthodox Catholics would support Cardinal Dolan acting as grand marshal in that event?
If we could swallow NOW marching in the parade alongside Cardinal Dolan, is there any point at which the danger of scandal would oblige him to bow out? What about a group of drag queens, or a polygamy or polyamory support group? What about NARAL or Exit International?
At the end of the day, just as the marriage debate ultimately turns on how we answer (or don’t answer) the question of what marriage is, this debate turns on the question “What is the Saint Patrick’s Day Parade?”
On this question, I agree with Phil Lawler of CatholicCulture.org:
If this really is a Catholic event, it cannot include a group defined by its opposition to Church teaching. If it is a Catholic event, forget Guinness, forget NBC, forget the hoopla, and quietly honor St. Patrick.
But if it is not a Catholic event — if it is just another civic celebration, to which all are welcome, regardless of their attitude toward the Church — then it’s time to end an anachronism. There should be no reviewing stand outside St. Patrick’s cathedral, no sign of Church sponsorship. Cardinal Dolan should step aside as grand marshal.