The Florida Divisions: A Tale of Two Sees

COMMENTARY

Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops
Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops (photo: fccb.org/)

The Extraordinary Synod of Bishops of 2014, contrary to belief in some quarters, did not change Catholic teaching.

But synod participants were encouraged, by the Pope and others, to modify its style. Separating words and concepts, however, is not as easy as it sounds — witness the confusion after Vatican II.

By the mere fact of advocating “outreach” to various groups, for example, we now have — probably as a permanent thorn in the side of the Church — battles among Catholics themselves over divorced-and-remarried people receiving Communion, a practice never allowed in the Western Church. And (though Pope Francis made clear that same-sex “marriage” was not spoken of at the synod) deep divisions exist over how the Church is to deal with people in homosexual relationships.

Anything that touches on homosexuality in our culture sets off an immediate firestorm — if only because  activists are quite diligent and industrious in pursuing any and all efforts to resist this latest phase of the sexual revolution. It’s not easy to resist such activism, especially since it gets an added push by the mainstream media. So it’s no surprise that a sharp contrast has just arisen within the Church in the United States in the persons of Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski and St. Petersburg, Fla., Bishop Robert Lynch.

Florida was recently forced by a court ruling to begin performing same-sex “marriages” — despite an amendment to the state Constitution that prohibits them. The reactions of the two Floridian prelates shows how divided the Church may soon become; indeed, in some ways already is.

Archbishop Wenski took the more traditional route — and, in an unusually bold step, announced to all employees of the Miami Archdiocese that they were subject to dismissal for public support for same-sex “marriage,” even in private venues such as Facebook and Twitter.

The Miami Herald immediately highlighted the response from homosexual-rights activists, but Archbishop Wenski held firm, saying it was hard to understand how Church employees could be opposed to the Church’s mission: “Not to be flippant, but I don’t think Coca-Cola would look favorably on an employee promoting Pepsi products or disparaging Coke products on or off the job site.”

Bishop Lynch, on his diocesan blog, took a very different tack. He conceded that he wasn’t a legal expert and therefore couldn’t speak to how a court could overturn a state constitutional amendment passed in full accordance with legal procedures by the citizens of Florida. But he made a different claim: “I am rather a pastor and shepherd looking to the peripheries for people in the Church who long have felt alienated, unwanted, embarrassed, angry and marginalized.”

These are familiar terms to us these days, and Bishop Lynch argued in an op-ed column he wrote for the Tampa Bay Times:

Together with Pope Francis and in light of the discussions at the recent Extraordinary Synod on the Family held in Rome, I also recognize that the reality of the family today, in all its complexities, presents the Church with pastoral challenges as the Church strives to accept people in the specific circumstances of their lives and support and encourage them in their search for God and their desire to be members of the Church. Therefore, I do not wish to lend our voice to notions which might suggest that same-sex couples are a threat incapable of sharing relationships marked by love and holiness and, thus, incapable of contributing to the edification of both the Church and the wider society.

With this, Bishop Lynch has perpetuated a dangerous confusion that was quite evident at the synod as well. (Pope Francis, speaking in the Philippines Jan. 16, also just made clear that “gay marriage” is indeed a “threat” to the family.) Vienna’s Cardinal Christoph Schönborn went on and on at one of the press briefing about precisely this same thing: He knew a same-sex couple with great affection for one another. When one fell seriously ill, the other showed great charity and concern in caring for him. This is probably true, but how that “charity” may somehow be thought of as a partial justification for a sexual relationship that Christianity and Judaism have always regarded as wrong is not clear, to say the least. As I said at the time, perhaps the cardinal and others in the Church ought to read C.S. Lewis’ The Four Loves.

The U.S. bishops in general have not taken the ambivalent path proposed by Bishop Lynch. And they would do well, instead of adding to confusion, to cite Genesis: “Male and female he created them.”

The Bible carries little weight for the sexual radicals in this country, but they are small in number. People as a whole resonate when you tell them that God himself made man and woman. That’s why state referenda have always resulted in a majority who wish to retain traditional ideas of what constitutes marriage. The bishops would actually stand with the people, as in Florida, if they held firm. If they do not, it will be no surprise if there’s rising support for same-sex “marriage,” even among Catholics.

The 2014 synod put on the table a tangle of several issues, notably the prudence of changing language and how those changes, if any, should be carried out. In the abstract, of course, there’s nothing wrong with the Church trying different approaches to any group of people alienated from the faith. You might even say that the times require it, since so many people in the last 50 years or so who in the past would have been active practicing Catholics simply aren’t any longer. Figures for Mass attendance, marriages in the Church and a host of other indicators demand serious consideration.

Still, it’s essential to remember that, while things are bad, they can get even worse. One of the paradoxes of the softer approach is that, since it gives the impression that the Church is not much outraged by certain sins, it may create the expectation — some might argue it already has — that the day is not far off when the Church “will change its teaching.” So why inconvenience yourself?

And besides, the secular world already offers a greater welcome for those not driven by a burning desire to know God and his truth. It’s quite simple: Which are you going to turn towards: a Church that maintains ancient standards, some quite difficult to follow, even for Catholics, or a world that tells you you’re fine just the way you are (and that your critics are merely bigots)? (Archbishop Wenski, an advocate for immigrants who has long worked among Haitians and speaks Creole, suddenly became an evil conservative in the secular press.)

Few voices in the Church calling for the softer approach intend this outcome, of course, but, operationally, that’s where the choice will lie. We know only too well from the recent history of mainline Protestant groups that such religiosity inevitably gets drawn into the magnetic field of secularism. It has little independent appeal and has led to the emptying out of some of the mainline Protestant bodies in America, even as more traditional evangelical and Pentecostal churches have grown.

Archbishop Wenski’s stronger approach may not win over many new converts to the Church — in the short term. But it will attract those seeking God and some escape from the ever-increasing toxicity of our culture. And, in season and out, it is more faithful to the Gospel.

Robert Royal is the founder and president

of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington

and editor in chief of The Catholic Thing.

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