The Synod on the Family and the End of the WorldOctober 27, 2014 at 4:46 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments
Tags: Archbishop Charles Chaput, Climate Change, David Gushee, drought in the American West, Pope Francis, Ross Douthout, sea-level rise, Synod on the Family, the missionary position
By now, it’s hard to imagine anyone who hasn’t heard about the recent gathering of Catholic bishops in Rome to discuss certain unbelievably important issues related to sexuality. The document presented for discussion, the relatio, used such radical terms as “welcoming” with regard to gays and lesbians, and the possibility of divorced and remarried Catholics being allowed to take communion. Some conservative bishops have objected to the very mention of such things, for example, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, who has said that causing “confusion” in the church is “of the devil.” And in the Sunday New York Times, the conservative Catholic columnist Ross Douthout argues that reversing Catholic sexual teaching, in particular, the teaching on divorce and remarriage as adultery, would put the church on a “precipice.” The is so, we’re told, because the sinfulness of divorce is rooted in the “specific words of Jesus of Nazareth.” If Pope Francis does allow such a reversal, we learn, it “would encourage doubt and defections…and eventually a real schism.” If the pope seems to be choosing this dangerous path–“reassigning his potential critics in the hierarchy, stacking the next synod’s ranks with supporters of a sweeping change…”– conservative Catholics should consider that this pope “may be preserved from error only if the church itself resists him.”
Douthout is a successful writer, and he certainly has a right to his opinions. But some of what he writes in this particular manifesto is problematic, to say the least. With regard to the “specific words” of Jesus on remarriage after divorce as adultery, I don’t have a copy of the Jesus Seminar volume that highlights in red the actual words of Jesus in the Gospels, but a lot of Jesus’ words were added by the books’ authors to address problems that arose well after his departure. Even more to the point, as Baptist ethicist David Gushee notes in a new book in which he changes his position on LGBTI people, Christians have been quoting the Bible to support their entrenched positions–on slavery, segregation, antisemitism, misogyny–for a very long time. The church owes apologies to many, many people, including gays, lesbians, and divorced and remarried Catholics.
Another questionable assertion in Douthout’s article has to do with the terrible effect that a reversal of Catholic sexual teachings will have on the church’s small minority of orthodox adherents who have “done the most to keep the church vital in an age of institutional decline.” If Douthout had read Young Catholic America, a new sociological study about the practice and beliefs of young American Catholics, he would be forced to acknowledge that the orthodox, here in the U.S. at least, are not keeping the church particularly vital: only 7 percent of Catholics between the ages of 18 and 23 are what we might call “practicing” Catholics–going to Mass each week, saying religion is very important, praying. Twenty-seven per cent at the other end of the spectrum are totally disengaged. Why? according to the Commonweal reviewer, “the most obvious factor identified in both the interviews and the survey data in Young Catholic America seems to be disaffection from Catholic sexual teaching, dramatically so with respect to both premarital sex and birth control.” A full 61 percent of “practicing” young Catholics report that they have had pre-marital sex. And young Catholics across the spectrum acknowledged in their interviews that they have “major problems with the church’s ‘unrealistic’ teachings” on such matters. How’s that for a precipice: huge numbers of young American Catholics ignoring teachings that people like Douthout make out to be the source and summit of the faith. (See my earlier post about sexual teaching as the top of the Catholic ideology hierarchy.)
But my chief complaint about the synod on the family is not aimed only at conservative Catholics like Douthout. It’s also aimed at the rest of us– Pope Francis, the bishops, and progressive Catholics like me who are preoccupied, not to say obsessed, with the church’s sex/gender teachings and behavior. (I myself have published five books and several hundred articles and reviews addressing aspects of sexuality and gender in Catholicism and Christianity.)
So why am I enormously frustrated with all of us, myself included? Because we ARE on a precipice– in fact, we’re actually on our way over this precipice, but it’s not the one Douthout is worrying about. It’s the one that’s already causing massive droughts in the American West, from which a major portion of our food comes, and will cause very many coastal communities (including New York City) to be under water by 2050 (to give just a few examples.) It’s the climate precipice, and the fact that the synod focused on divorce and gay marriage instead of on our destruction of God’s creation is scandalous. But of course, at a synod on that topic there might be some discussion about the ways in which the doctrine of a transcendent God and the intrinsic nature of the missionary position contribute to the destruction of the world. And that would cause even more demonic confusion than the synod on the family did.