“Surely our law does not judge anyone
without first giving that person a hearing
and discovering what they are doing”
A few years ago I was at a media training day with half a dozen church leaders including one of our New Zealand Catholic bishops. During the day each of us trainees was interviewed by a media professional, a practice run for both radio and TV. Then the group watched all the interviews and we offered robust critique on each other’s performance.
It was all pretty gruelling and we came out of the sessions both humbled and wiser about the potential and the power of TV and radio as instruments for our wider communication.
There was one moment of the day which I will never forget.
The bishop was interviewed on the topic of the Catholic Church’s teaching on same sex relationships. The interviewer was an intelligent young reporter who had done her homework and it was clear that she was not going to miss this opportunity to teach us well, using the bishop as her main classroom aid.
The moment the recording light turned red signalling that the camera was filming she started to grill the bishop beginning: “Remembering the loving and gentle example of Jesus, surely it’s time the Catholic Church abandoned rules like the negative outdated doctrines about homosexuality, as well as a few other rules that have no place in a civilised and loving society.”
We felt for the bishop and I was grateful that I had drawn the relatively easy topic of why many Christians opposed sport being played on Good Friday.
For the next ten minutes the bishop responded to challenging questions and provocations, calmly presenting and repeating the Church teaching on homosexuality.
After a few minutes the interviewer changed her tack to focus on why the church taught that gay people could not parent children as well as a heterosexual couple.
The bishop remained calm and firm. From the point of view of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the Vatican office of orthodoxy) the bishop would have received top marks.
As our little group watched the replay we couldn’t help but be impressed by the bishop’s gentleness and clarity.
Then came the reporter’s final question.
“Is it better for a child to be raised by a gay couple who love each other or by a heterosexual couple who do not love?”
The bishop paused. The interviewer knew she had hit the mark. We all stopped breathing and waited.
After what must have been ten seconds of silence, the bishop looked directly into the camera and answered: “Love is always better than no love.”
Everyone in the room was moved. The bishop had hit the nail on the head. He had not disregarded Church doctrine. He had gone beyond it, surpassing the letter of the law with the presence of the Spirit of Jesus, the God who is love.
From our point of view the bishop received top marks. Love is always better than no love.
Earlier this week the church hit the headlines following the recent Vatican statement that the Catholic Church is not able to bless same-sex unions. Across the world media reports of this Vatican clarification were without exception, negative: “Vatican Ruling Prompts Defiance, Pain, Confusion”, “It Just Hurts”, “Catholics Stung by Vatican Rebuff” and many more similar headlines.
It’s not been a good week for the Vatican communications teams.
Every day I spend time with people who have been baptised as Catholics but have drifted from a visible and active relationship with the church with the conviction that Catholicism is about moralism and legalism making abundant living more difficult. Their experience is that much of what the church teaches does not take into account the experience and challenges of family and social life in the twenty-first century.
I am sure that like me, you now are thinking of good faith-filled people who have this negative perception of the Catholic Church.
I suggest that the task ahead of us is not about changing doctrine. Instead we need to learn about faith and relationship with Jesus Christ who is God-with-us, not only from Vatican documents, but from professional Christians, that is, anyone who is baptised and who strives to live in relationship with Jesus in the midst of daily ups and downs of life.
A healthy person accepts that human sexuality is complex. There are stages and spectrums of attractions and preferences, and practices, attitudes and beliefs about sex, every one of which can be used for good or for bad.
As we mature as healthy people we become more aware that many things we might have held as gospel are not simply right or wrong as we might have previously defined them. Once we thought that people who were married must be heterosexual. We now understand that a married parent might be more gay on a spectrum of sexual orientation than a more straight person who has found security and love in the rainbow community.
We are becoming more accepting that life is not a dull black and white existence, and that diversity, colour and complexity have always been the nature and experience of healthy humans.
The Vatican document that led to this week’s headlines clarifies the difference between a sacrament of the Church (freely available to those seeking to grow in relationship with Jesus within the Church) and the sacramentals of the Church which (according to the Catechism of the Church) “prepare us to receive grace and dispose us to cooperate with it.” CCC 1670
As a priest I minister within the Catholic Church’s understanding of the Sacraments of the Church. I do this for the celebration of the Sacrament to be both licit and valid and therefore effective, and with a calm acceptance that I am simply the minister (celebrator) of the sacraments, not their creator.
The beauty of the sacramentals of the church (ie blessings, rubrics, prayers and blessed objects for devotion) is that they are more freely available (than the Sacraments) and can be liberally and informally dispensed to anyone who asks, even though the passion for faith of the one who requests might seem very limited, perhaps as hidden as the gospel mustard seed.
Every day I have the opportunity to give priestly blessings to people who are sick or struggling, for those who are wanting to experience deeper faith (ie to receive grace and to be disposed to co-operate with it), for objects that are considered to be religious (statues, rosary beads, holy pictures) for secular objects (houses, cars) and for animals (pets, farm animals and race-horses).
While the fruitful celebration of the Sacraments of the Church requires preparation, priests don’t test eligibility before giving blessings. Instead we simply appreciate the fact that the request is made and we delight in the obvious desire of the person to grow in faith through this sacramental.
Usually those requesting blessings appear suddenly and ask, and priests have to respond on the spot. Sometimes there is one person, in other situations a couple of friends or a group make the request.
People who request blessings for themselves, their family, their friends (or for any person place or object) always have right intention and are, as well as they are able to at the moment, oriented towards God.
The complex and diverse situations that we find ourselves in with the challenges of relationships, family, work and society helps us to appreciate that life within any earthly institution, even one with a divine beginning and end like the Church or the institution of marriage, is not enough for us.
Institutions (like the people who are part of them) will always fumble with language and communication, and that will frustrate and even anger us. But the maturing person will be able to accept these ambiguities appreciating that we are made for relationship with Jesus Christ lived both now and eternally.
We are made for love, and even with imperfections and limitations the Church remains for me a most effective signpost leading me to human and divine love, both now and eternally.
- If you are the parent of children, as you put them to bed tonight use a sacramental of the church, simply by making the Sign of the Cross on their forehead using your thumb. Do this with them often, through the day, especially when they are suffering or sad.
- Take a moment to pray for those who are suffering, especially those in your families, friends, neighbours, workmates, who may not feel at home in the church because of same-sex attraction.