In the last couple posts I’ve been wrestling with a way to interpret the Synod on the Family and attempting to frame the two “sides” in the debate about homosexuality (and other issues) which the media has encouraged and often exaggerated. This week I’m introducing a
3 4 post series* to show how the exaggerated portrait of each side can cause trauma for gay people–because that is exactly what has happened to me. Forgive me for only teasing you with an introduction this week.
As a brief recap of the controversy that has come to light throughout the synod:
- So-called-conservatives are frustrated that so-called liberals talk so much about mercy and love without sufficient reminders that certain acts like remarriage and gay sex are sinful. This could lead more people to doubt or ignore these moral teachings, and therefore damage souls and society.
- So-called-liberals are battling back so-called-conservatives who talk so much about the sinfulness of remarriage and gay sex without sufficient reminders that the Church’s core is mercy and love. This causes people to doubt or ignore these central realities of our Church and therefore leave or stop taking it seriously, which damages souls and society.
*These two points are basically a better version of last week’s post–where I emphasized the need for so-called-conservatives to be more mindful about their own media representations.
Both sides consist of people who share the same beliefs about remarriage, gay sex, mercy, and love. Their debate treats the search for a rhetorical balance that builds the Church in Christ’s image. Both sides appear to be reactionary in a sense: one side reacting to the widespread perception of the Church as homophobic and unloving; the other reacting to the widespread perception of the culture that Church teachings on sexuality are antiquated and silly. Both social realities are worthy of some reaction/response (we don’t want to be silly, antiquated, homophobic, or unloving!)–but doing all that at once is a tightrope act with few to no masters–at least at the global level. A big part of getting the balance right is knowing your audience–Which extreme is more prevalent? More problematic? Who’s doing a good job of this already? Doesn’t the answer depend on who you’re talking to? I imagine that the message for LGBT Christians in Uganda and San Franciscio need to be different. Francis has repeatedly emphasized the role of pastors in using their pastoral judgement to work with individuals according to particular situations and needs. But we are also immersed by a global media and global platform (the Pope, the Vatican, the Synod documents, etc.) that should be leveraged to speak the Truth. So again, the question is how to leverage these tools to share the fullness of Truth to everyone without further damaging souls and society?
That kind of thinking leads me to appreciate Pope Francis’ inspired decision to invite Catholic families from various parts of the world to share their experiences, so that the Synod on the Family will listen to the voices of people who experience the challenges of the family today firsthand. Because the synod has been sidetracked by the issue of “irregular unions” (at least somewhat–even if the media has exaggerated the prominence of these debates), I think it would be rather helpful to actually highlight the voices of gay and divorced Catholics as well… but I digress.
What hit me like a brick wall on the bus this week (I spend a hideous amount of time on the bus) is that the two equally false extremes (“it’s okay to ignore the Church’s moral teachings about sexuality because God loves you anyway” and “the Church judges and rejects gay people because it cares more about its rules than human persons”) have both taken hold of my life at different moments, and both lies have done serious harm. Each of the next two posts will be a flashback of sorts to provide one concrete example of what can happen in the life of a gay Catholic who falls into one extreme line of thinking. It hasn’t been pretty, but I’ve learned a lot.
I decided to add a conclusion to these three, and called it One Extreme is Worse than the Other.
In my last post, I called out one mainstream media story for misleading its average readers in stating that the Synod on the Family was debating the truth of Church doctrines about sexuality and marriage. Such stories were not hard to find–but my own perusal of internet news met with mostly nuanced portrayals that reflected the reality that no Church leaders are debating these teachings, or even desire to do so–especially and including the Pope. Since the Synod, there appears to be a collective freak-out from conservatives who think that a confused or false message came out of the Synod (or at least the controversy it generated–thanks to it’s Francis-driven and unprecedented transparency). The media have seized even the most mild of generous posturing toward “people in irregular unions” and celebrated it. The reaction from conservatives seems to indicate their belief that this will confuse people into thinking the Church teaches that divorce, and remarriage, or same-sex marriage are fine–or worse yet–open space in which leaders actually question the doctrines. Throwing sand at the doctrine is problematic because that would defy Truth and (probably) enable sin. Thus one reaction logically follows that is that open-hearted sentiments about irregular unions should either (1) Not be uttered, or (2) only exist alongside such strong reminders about Church teaching about doctrine that even the media can’t ignore them, or (3) only be uttered behind closed doors. I disagree with those conclusions, for reasons Michael Sean Winters stated elegantly for the NCR.
But now I want to point out that unhelpful narratives about the Synod and its participants can happen to the other side too. As evidence for this, I share a tortured article from the National Catholic Reporter. Here’s the headline: “Archbishop Chaput blasts Vatican debate on family – says ‘confusion is of the devil.'” The article does not cite enough source material to convince me this the headline is justified–in fact it leaves me with great doubt this is what deserves to be emphasized. And writing that an Archbishop “blasts” the synod (and later that “+Tobin Slams Synod Too“) adds to the same narrative brewing on the “left” in the mainstream media: nice progressive Pope Francis wants to change Church teaching and people who uphold Church doctrine are therefore upset. But here’s what the article actually shares:
I had no idea how to address the moderate craziness ensuing at the Vatican right now, and even wilder craziness the media has spun out (although, to be fair, there is a good deal of level-headed and accurate reporting to be found in mainstream outlets like TIME). Then I read this amazing article by Mark Shea at Patheos which you should stop and read right now. I’m such a fan that all
three four hyperlinks go to the same place. Among many thoughtful points, he incisively highlights how the most extreme members on both sides are operating as atheists. (Perhaps more on that later.)
I want to respond to one thing:
1. (in a list of one) The scope of what is at stake here
First of all, the document causing the kerfuffle is a “relatio post disceptationem” which is a totally non-binding collection of some thoughts so far that have been aired (and were not even voted on or meant to reflect a majority–just commonly mentioned ideas as recorded by a few of the participants), in the first smaller segment of a Synod (which is a meeting of Church leaders lower than a Council with no ability to change doctrine, that I know of…), which will take two years, which was called by the Pope to discuss the topic of his choosing: “Pastoral challenges of the family in the context of evangelization.”
This topic alone indicates that the participants of the synod are NOT doing what the BBC reports in a byline: “Senior clerics taking part in a review of Catholic teachings on the family.” For me this conjures the laughable notion of bishops studying for a theology midterm by re-reading their professor’s PowerPoint slides one more time. But for the public, this misleading sentence indicates that the teachings about the family are “under review”–that people are deciding if they are good or bad. This is not the kind of thing that happens at a Synod anyway, and it also defies the purpose of the meeting as outlined by the Pope… to discuss “pastoral challenges.” Perhaps this term lacks obvious meaning–which is just one more example of the big problem at stake: The language (and related mindsets) of our Church leadership is lost on the public. That’s why this synod was a great idea.