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Can we forbid good in the name of God

(ran PS edition of PASCO TIMES)

In banning a ministry for gays, the Vatican is doing the wrong thing for what it claims is right.

With all the hazards that such a journey suggests, enter with me into the conscience of a theologian, a theologian who is also a bishop.

He has just been asked for his opinion on the Vatican decision to remove the Rev. Robert Nugent and Sister Jeannine Gramick from the ministry they have offered to gay Roman Catholics for more than a generation.

Our bishop-theologian knows about the previous Vatican investigations that criticized them for creating "ambiguity and confusion" about church teaching. That teaching, tagged infallible by some, asserts that homosexuality is "an objective disorder" and homosexual acts are "intrinsically evil." The pope has approved their dismissal.

Our theologian asks, "What am I to do?"

The heart of it is simple and yet as grotesque as a gargoyle: Father Nugent and Sister Jeannine must give internal consent to the two absolutes, homosexuality's disorder and the intrinsic evil of its acts. And they are forbidden to work in a pastoral way with gays in the future.

But their work has been essentially pastoral; they have operated on the street level not on the podium of a theological symposium. They have worked with ordinary people in their everyday lives, the unflamboyant masses of good men and women who are gay and who, along with straight Catholics, are also sinners. The English film director Ken Russell once defined himself as a "sinning Catholic." So say we all.

At the pastoral level, the church does not preach righteously, setting the ceiling ablaze as James Joyce remembered the tirades of his childhood churchgoing, but gives of its human understanding and sacramental help to people who have fallen and want to get up again.

This is the church's work in ordinary times. It reflects the central mystery of Catholicism _ dying and rising _ by removing our uncleanness, by having mercy on us, for we are sinful. Catholicism is a faith for, by and about sinners.

In his opening address at the Second Vatican Council, Pope John XXIII stressed that its task was not to condemn, even though the church opposed errors. "Nowadays, however," he said, "the Spouse of Christ prefers to use the medicine of mercy rather than severity."

How can I endorse these notions that homosexuality is an "objective disorder" and its acts are ever and always "intrinsically evil"? We cannot brand gays with this wound of disorder when the healthiest of us carry so many scars from just being "normal."

This seemingly unrelenting crusade is, in the final analysis, against gays and the rest of us as well. For a finding of "objective disorder" in any of us defames all of us who are brothers and sisters in this extended family of the church.

So, I ask as my imaginary bishop-theologian: On what principle do we forbid people to do good? And how in God's name can I do so?

Yet I am going to sign onto this decree, in God's name, God help me. I am a theologian, yes, but I am a bishop as well, and I must, to respect the ordination I have accepted, override my own conscience.

I am reminded daily that a bishop's duty is to support the pope and his decisions no matter what the personal cost may be to me. I hide that cost as Bishop Joseph Fiorenza, president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, did when, affirming the exile of Gramick and Nugent, he stressed the bishops' commitment to "continuing pastoral responsibility" to gays.

Most people have no idea how many of us bishops must speak one way for the sake of the church as an institution even when we feel a different way about the church as a people who need acceptance and encouragement. We must be loyal because we were chosen to be loyal. We like to think we are like St. Thomas More, finding a way that we can sign the oath and save our consciences. But are we, really?

So, in great distress, I'm signing on for, as I have been reminded repeatedly, "the good of the church." But what is that "good" if angels would fear to tread on our unstable arguments?

What is that "good" if we make life harder to bear for those for whom it is already a burden?

Nobody cares about a bishop's conflicts of conscience when he is expected to say "aye." How many of them feel that we are doing the wrong thing for what we say is the right reason? Sister Jeannine and Father Nugent are dying for our sins. But what they have accomplished pastorally for gays will still be alive when this dismissal has been declared long dead.

_ Eugene Kennedy, a longtime observer of the Roman Catholic Church, is professor emeritus of psychology at Loyola University in Chicago.