Interfaith Resistance Against Nazis & Serbians Must Inform Justice Campaigns Today

I spent last weekend at the Pax Christi USA conference, reflecting on peacemaking and nonviolence for a few days – and there will be plenty to post in coming days. For now, I wanted to share two amazing stories – connected acts of nonviolent resistance given their religious tinge.

The first piece is from Waging Nonviolence, which if you don’t already read is a necessary resource for imagining a new world through peaceful means. The article shares methods of resistance by Europeans under Nazi occupation. A few highlights of the interfaith actions:

“Direct intervention and non-cooperation in Bulgaria helped to save their country’s 48,000 Jews…leaders of the Orthodox Church refused to comply with the deportation orders, staging sit-ins in the king’s chambers and even threatening to lie across railroad tracks to prevent Jews from being transported. This pressure eventually encouraged the Bulgarian parliament to stand up to the Nazis and rescind the deportation orders, saving most of the country’s Jewish population…

“Meanwhile, the inhabitants of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, a Protestant village in southern France, were motivated by their religious convictions to help thousands of refugees escape Nazi persecution by hiding them in private homes as well as Catholic convents and monasteries.”

Aside from the absolute effectiveness of nonviolent resistance against (even) the Nazis, who are often quoted as the reason we would need war as the only solution to mass atrocities such as theirs, there are lessons for interfaith relations today. In essence, in war time, the division existing between Christians and Jews or between denominations of Christianity melted away. Orthodox Christians literally offered their lives to resist Jewish oppression, and Catholic institutions afforded a welcome that broke the strictness of monastic life.

Decades later, the Jewish community in Serbia reacted similarly when an existential threat was posed to their neighbors. The piece is about when it is ethical or proper to withhold a news story for the good of those involved, but within that argument is this story:

“The other story kept was how the synagogue in Sarajevo certified many non-Jews as Jews in order to let them pass through the lines – above ground — out of the city.  As the rabbi told me and others with a smile when we in the news finally did that story, it was the only time he can recall when Jews were not blamed for a war and that they were given passage without harm…As the animosity among the Serbs, Croats, and the Bosnian intensified, Jews were left in a unique position. Independent from each of the warring factions — they were even offered an opportunity to leave Sarajevo at the beginning of the siege of the city — the Jewish community had access to food, medical supplies and other goods during the war that were unavailable to the rest of the population

“A look at the numbers of Jews in Sarajevo before the war – compared to the number of ‘Jews’ who left the city – is a staggering difference. The ruse was clever and effectively.”

Common humanity united Europeans in resistance during both these trying periods. Though anti-Jewish sentiments are prevalent in Christian history including World War II that is not the sole narrative for people of faith. Faced with the ability to leave a war zone, the Bosnian Jewish community remained in solidarity and in active resistance. These communities did not weaken their faith by aiding others, even welcoming them in as honorary Jews or Catholics, and they did not act in spite of faith. Beautiful resistance that was powerful and life-giving was because of strengthened faith among communities!

At times, interfaith work currently seems impossible on matters of justice – like immigration or gun safety laws – because of theological and institutional difference. What if we imagined our common goals of justice, equality, and peace were so very necessary, though not comparable to combating genocide, we could put aside religious differences (though cognizant of them and in dialogue separately!)  for the good of common struggles? These two articles prove it is possible, and even desirable given their positive outcomes.



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Jettisoning ‘Worthiness’ From Our Faith

Pope Francis’ comments about ‘even the atheists’ being redeemed fueled stories in the media that displayed a confusion among Catholic respondents. Even the Vatican issued a clarification that seemed to correct the pope. It raised for me a more fundamental question about why non-theists or non-Catholics being redeemed upsets the more religious among us.

I often tell friends who love to disprove atheism as a hobby it is not disbelief that threatens our Church, it is apathetic belief. For this reason, I shy away from encountering atheism in my thought. Their conscience decision to engage spirituality in such a way is largely more experiential than intellectual, and you cannot argue experience. The pope’s comments are not a challenge to atheism though, but progress in dialogue with those who differ in belief – and, perhaps more telling, a conversation starter for necessary dialogue with Catholics ourselves.

If an atheist is redeemed why should this bother the believer?

If the theist’s beliefs are objectively true, then nothing they posit in this life will affect their redemption because it is of divine origin. If the atheists beliefs are objectively true, and there is no God, then this whole discussion of Christian redemption is futile.

Except for worthiness, which is the sole reason why Catholics have been objecting to the pope’s words (and they have in droves). Faith becomes a calculus of inputs and outputs, thus being Catholic and doing all the right things is the input to attain the output of redemption. Why would anyone who does not put in the time and work gain the reward? It would seem to lessen the redemption of those of us who labored; in other words those who are “worthy.”

In this mindset then, Pope Francis admitting the reality that ‘even atheists’ are included in Christ’s redemption can be jarring – or liberating if worthiness is something you hope the Church will soon jettison.

Inclusion in salvation, present to God’s overwhelming love should be a goal we desire for every person. The Catholic mind is communally-oriented and our conception of salvation cannot escape this nor can we cast communion with every human being aside. Atheists’ redemption is included in this universal nature of redemption, and we need to overcome inflated piety or over concern with worthiness for a shift in thinking to occur.

The Church, which is all of us as the People of God, needs to shift our thinking and ask, Why are we not overjoyed when all are redeemed? Why do we fail to express unconditioned joy at the thought any person would gain salvation? Is that not the entire point of evangelizing and bringing others into a relationship with Christ – so, even if this occurs post-mortem, is it not still the final end we would celebrate?

God’s all powerful ability to welcome any and all into the Kingdom of God cannot be limited by our human conceptions of worthiness, so rather than worry we must release false aspects of our faith. We must release the idea that our worship, service, or devotion contributes to more worth in God’s eyes. We must release the idea that those who worship in other traditions or participate in no tradition, or even adamantly defame God, are some how unable to participate among God’s love in an eternal sense. Beyond just acknowledging our work does not ‘earn’ salvation, we need to practice this in our lives – doing good, but not pretending it increases our worth before God.

Our worth is already maxed out.

God loves us, every single person in their uniqueness, without failure. To speak of equal love for all does not diminish God’s love for each one, but in typical both/and fashion we live this tension. Worthiness needs expulsion from our consciousness, and a leveling in our minds of all humanity before God. Pope Francis simply stated the long-held belief that Christ’s paschal mystery redeems all – it should not have rattled the world so much, and yet mired in our false beliefs it did. Let’s move on.


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Breaking Open Mental Health at ‘Mood Sponge’

Screen Shot 2013-06-13 at 10.21.22 AMLast week, I advocated for a cultural shift for how we laugh about mental illness – and ended with the hopes that ending stigma and promoting health could go viral. There may be just the blog to open wide this conversation now, as I came upon Mood Sponge earlier this morning.

I’m sure there are many blogs dedicated to mental health, and the spotty writer like myself who throws in the topic occasionally. What makes Mood Sponge particularly compelling? Kelly is a young adult and she’s promising a very vulnerable project that shares people’s narratives. From the opening post:

“I have started Mood Sponge in an attempt to create a forum where we can talk truthfully and openly about mental illness. I think it is so important to talk about it publicly. In today’s society, there is such a stigma surrounding mental illness that people are afraid to talk about it, and often try not to even think about it. This ‘if we ignore it maybe it will go away’ attitude is not working and will never work…

“Another reason I decided to start a blog about mental illness is that I don’t think there are enough young people writing about it.”

Mood Sponge will be a conversation I anticipate eagerly because the path to progress comes from exactly this kind of dialogue and sharing. My work in LGBT ministry has cemented my belief that ‘coming out’ is an essential step to social change; otherwise how can we account for the rapid pace of equality in just a few decades? In a similar way, I agree with Kelly that it’s time to ‘come out’ about our mental health – to cast away stereotypes, reveal the pervasiveness of illness in our social networks, and gain equal stature for mental issues alongside physical health.

My prayers to Kelly – and please, pop over to Mood Sponge as this project gets going!


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Two Capuchins, Two Churches, & Turning to Christ

Curious about the two paths American Catholicism could take? Tom Roberts of National Catholic Reporter uses two high-ranking Capuchins, Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston and Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, as models for these two churches, so to speak. The key quotes about each man, in my opinion, are below.

On O’Malley:

Archbishop O’Malley mowing a lawn

“His emphasis throughout his life has been on the poor and those on the margins, and he recalled sheltering people in the wake of riots that broke out in Washington, where he was then living, following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. O’Malley followed that by joining the Poor People’s March, ‘sleeping in a tent city’ and watching protestors get tear-gassed.

“He was a prison chaplain and ministered to immigrants and refugees while staying at Washington’s Centro Catolico Hispano during the 1970s and ’80s…He organized a rent strike among poor tenants until improvements were made to their property.”

On Chaput:

Archbishop Chaput

“Chaput’s is a rather gloomy view of the church and the world…His language is littered with phrases that are derisive of everyone else…When asked if he sees even a little hope, he replied, ‘I see some lights, but they’re not many and they’re small.’

“Everything, it seems, is someone else’s fault, and Chaput appears to hover above the fray, with both the accusatory analysis and all the answers. Not once did he even hint that perhaps Catholics in places like Philadelphia were leaving in droves because church leaders, especially bishops, deeply and horribly betrayed them in ways that would put the most relativistic, hedonistic secularist to shame. Perhaps they were leaving because they can’t stand to be in an institution led by men who had so little regard for their children that they would tolerate the rape and molestation of those children for decades without saying anything to anyone.”

Roberts concludes with some rhetorical questions, but it is obvious the answers. Americans are faced with the choice between a conservative pessimist who relishes conflict and thrives off condemnation or a more moderate leader who lives out the Gospel of the marginalized (i.e, the Gospel) through dynamism and love. Is there even a decision about where our Church needs to go?

Luckily, it seems Pope Francis seems to get it and perhaps, if we’re lucky, the hyper-partisanship of the US bishops I’ve written about before might cede to a more pastoral leadership we can all embrace. And if Archbishop Chaput needs a little more light and hope in the meantime, I suggest he turn to the blinding light of Christ that can set the world aflame.


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Pope Francis the Child

Pope Francis, the Child with the other kids

A strange moment occurred this evening – the Pope made me cry.

Actually, this was not the first time a pope made me cry. Engaging the broader Catholic world since middle school, I personally knew of popes only in the repressive contexts of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Tears then were from frustration and hurt about the inability of these two men, and the bureaucratic system behind them, to truly love as Christ did.

Tonight, the tears were peculiar though and the reasons behind them very different. As a blogger on Catholic LGBT issues for Bondings 2.0, I’ve closely followed Francis’ papacy as it begins. Cautious optimism accompanied an intellectualized understanding what this man may mean for Catholicism, but always kept at arm’s length from my interior life. Since March I wondered when the ‘other shoe’ would come crashing down from the Vatican, shattering the high hopes many gambled on Francis.

I often hear older friends speak of John XXIII as inspiring them in their 20s with his pastoral tone, joy and love, and openness to the world. I knew this phenomenon happened, but I could not relate in my life. I could not, thought attempting diligently, comprehend how a pope could be a source of inspiration (other than working to combat their misguided power) or contribute to my life positively. Tonight, that reality changed when I read of his actions with Italian students at Jesuit schools.

Tonight, the hope and optimism since Francis’ election came exuding out of me having pierced my interior life against all efforts to separate them. His consistency with being Catholic and challenging our world, while expressing love and pastoral care unbridled by regulation seems genuine. It seems real and lasting, and for the first time I glimpse at John XXIII’s impact on those in their 20s during Vatican II. I read these words, spoken to the students:

“When a student doubting his faith asked for words of encouragement, he likened the faith a long walk. ‘To walk is an art,’ he said, ‘To walk is the art of looking at the horizon, thinking about where I want to go but also enduring the fatigue. And many times, the walk is difficult, it is not easy… There is darkness… even days of failure… one falls…

“‘But always think this: do not be afraid of failure. Do not be afraid of falling. In the art of walking, what is important is not avoiding the fall but not remaining fallen…Get up quickly, continue on, and go…But it is also terrible to walk alone, terrible and boring. Walking in community with friends, with those who love us, this helps us and helps us get to the end.’”

Throwing protocol out, Francis answered ten unscripted questions from children after calling prepared remarks “a little boring.” One student today said, “You are like a child.” It made me call to mind Matthew 19 where Jesus says of the children, at first being driven away by the religious authorities, “Let the children come to me, and do not prevent them: for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”

Maybe that is the blessing of Francis. He reached out to God’s children, spoke to them with a tenderness and simplicity we hear Jesus preach in because its roots are true love. He speaks to the difficulties faith entails in an honest way, not pretending Catholic life is always joyful or rewarding and allowing for doubt, even falling. In a world torn apart by superficiality and disposability (another theme he’s been mentioning!), Pope Francis is preaching authentically with the people in our language and speaking to those most deep and unarticulated desires sometimes best expressed through the eyes of childhood.

For the first time in my 23 year old life, a pope inspires me and calls me to more as a Catholic with his witness. Where this journey ends is unknown, and certainly Pope Francis and I do not agree on everything – yet, my hope grows because Pope Francis the Child is a companion on our common journey and not a papal father from above.


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An Apology on Behalf of My Fellow Christians

The myth of Christian persecution in America is dangerous, and it is leading to reverse oppression by a faith I love that is not just, moral, or democratic. In South Carolina a high school valedictorian ‘stunned’ the audience by ripping up approved remarks and reciting the ‘Our Father’ after speaking extemporaneously about his Christian faith. His example is merely the latest problem.

This newly-minted graduate will now go into a pluralistic world championed by the Christian Right for his  stunt, and affirmed in the corrupted notion that Christian dominance is acceptable in American society. The article in The Washington Times reports applause broke out when this young graduate began praying as a protest against the school district’s removal of prayer from graduation ceremonies. Ignorant of civics it seems, this valedictorian’s parting intellectual act was to obliterate the separation of Church and State instituted by the framers of our nation for the explicit protection of religion.

An apology is owed to the public, especially those students, family, and friends celebrating graduation at (the ironically named) Liberty High School. It is owed to everyone because unhinging the wall of separation harms each American resident, not exclusively those who are not Christian.  The legal issue, however, is not what I take issue with most – for the case could be made he spoke under the 1st Amendment or that his prayer was not government sanctioned. I leave that for the lawyers.

The underlying reason for an apology is this valedictorian’s actions were immoral, and created an injustice against his community. The Christian response is to ask forgiveness and seek healing when you cause rupture. Assuredly, this student must apologize to non-Christian and non-theist communities who should not be subjected to Christian prayer at secular, governmental events. Christians, including myself, are also owed an apology for this young man’s pretense that he acts in our name or that his actions are Christian in the least.

Since Vatican II, Catholics defend religious liberty as a right accorded to each person regardless of how they exercise it.  I recognize that this student, being in South Carolina and speaking in the language he did, is most likely not Catholic – and many evangelical Christians possess a different take on religious liberty. I speak from the Catholic position because it is what I believe to be Truth.

For centuries, the Church enacted the morally bankrupt and ineffective practices of forced conversion and “Christendom,” and while I was not alive then it appears obligation and not liberation was the primary motivator in faith. Not exactly desirable for a growing and dynamic faith community.

Pacem in terris from Pope John XXIII (expanded upon in Vatican II and all of which drew off the once-silenced John Courtney Murray, SJ) reversed how society should treat religion:

“14. Also among man’s rights is that of being able to worship God in accordance with the right dictates of his own conscience, and to profess his religion both in private and in public.”

Now, Catholics were to respect the right of each and every person to live out their religion, or not, according to conscience. This meant that theocracy was not desired nor should Christians  hijack public forums to make their views heard disrespectfully any more.

Enacting God’s will into law is a desired goal through the legislative process, but always balanced by a respect for the individual’s conscience – to paraphrase Peter Maurin (and add some), we seek a society where it is easier to be good and yet one that respects our free will to act according to conscience. It is a challenge we may never get right, but we cannot excuse ourselves from engaging this tension.

Growing the Christian community through our witnesses of faith and love should also be a priority in the life of each person who professes Christ, but never through oppression or disrespect. Obviously, the call to evangelize and make disciples of all nations remains – and it is one I hope to write more about from a progressive Catholic angle.

This valedictorian’s remarks, his prayer – none of these are respectful civic engagement or Christian proselytizing, and nothing he spoke was said out of love. I readily confess the Catholic faith, the one expressed by Christ through the Spirit, and I wish to draw all into it – but never by imposition of my will, only through invitation that is freely accepted. For the many times Christians impose, rather than invite we must ask the apology of all those around us.



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Mental Illness Gone Viral

Another Facebook status was making the rounds today, this time asking us to list seven people with roles in a ‘mental hospital.’ It isn’t the first, only, or last time a viral status will appear on my newsfeed that is offensive – but what shocked me today was several friends I expected more from filled in names and posted it. What exactly is it about mental illness that leaves it with a lingering humor, or more precisely a humor based in stigma? How come otherwise aware and progressive activists, social workers, people of faith, and advocates for the marginalized are all fine laughing at the mentally ill?

Two decades of experience with my own mental health issues means I cannot but conclude that there is great humor in mental illness. Coping with pain, or worse the unknown, is sometimes only possible through humor and a recognition of how ludicrous a moment might be. Laughter scales the walls of mania or depression and eases the mental anguish within me. This humor is not only good (even if dark), it is something I recommend to anyone struggling personally or with a loved one afflicted by mental illness.

Yet, the Facebook status and general comedy around mental illness is not the positive, therapeutic kind. It is the nasty, stereotypical kind that relies on ignorance of mental health and decades old images of the ‘crazy’ people interned in psychiatric wards worthy of Nurse Ratched. Who exactly is listed in this particular status?

Well, there’s the roommate (the poster is considered mentally ill, too); there’s the window licker and the escapee; the naked person and the one “yelling nonsense about clowns”; there’s even the person you went crazy with whatever that means. Oh, and there’s a doctor thrown in for good measure. We’re all then instructed to copy/paste this, add our own seven friends, and “share the craziness.”

You may have surmised I did none of the above. I am fed up with mental illness being an acceptable target of derogatory humor. The same circles who would object to anything racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, anti-poor, anti-migrant, anti-…you understand (I should note, I would totally object to these too) – are posting statuses targeting the mentally ill as if it’s no big deal. To quote Vice President Biden, it’s a “Big F–kin’ Deal.”

The reality is, there is too much truth in this Facebook status. Of a random sampling of seven friends, we’re all likely to get a couple in there who have struggled themselves with mental health and a couple more who have firsthand experience with illness’ ravages on friends and families. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (definitely check them out) estimates that 1 in 4 Americans suffer from mental illness in a given year, which is about 61.5 million people.

If you’re reading this in a public place, look around for a moment and think about that 1 in 4 statistic. Mental illness, and the lack of proper healthcare around it, leads to and compounds a host of injustices prevalent in our society that so many of my Facebook friends are fighting against.

Mental health is a matter of our loved ones, and the ones we love as God’s children we may not know – who then are we ready to call the “naked one” or the “window licker” or the one “yelling nonsense about clowns”? Is it really all that humorous to list our friends aside these labels, when they may suffer in reality from afflictions that make getting out of bed a Herculean feat?

Shouldn’t we instead celebrate the victories of those who are learning to live, and thrive, amid a chronic mental illness or overcome an addiction? Shouldn’t we become involved in mental health care and advocacy, where we can acknowledge the true humor minds like mine provide?

If you want to make a Facebook status go viral, let us all make it the one that will pull my bipolar disorder and those illnesses of millions others out of the shadows, stripping them of stigma and opening a policy discussion on how to heal a broken society!


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Boy Scouts Decision Isn’t an Invite to ‘Cure’ LGBT Youth

Boy Scouts of America Welcome Gay & Bisexual ScoutsA good friend of mine recently wrote about the Boy Scouts of America’s decision to allow openly gay and bisexual youth into their movement, and he affirmed the decision from a Catholic perspective. Joe is an Eagle Scout (whereas I quit in 2000 when the Supreme Court upheld the BSA’s discriminatory policies, never extending beyond Cub Scout) so his thoughts come from a place of deep appreciation for Catholic faith and scouting. I offer my responses here, and while I acknowledge the other half of why Joe endorses the BSA’s decision is matters of unity (which I agree with), I cannot support his first reasons based on Catholic morality.

Two major areas within Joe’s thinking seem problematic to me: his support for a continued ban against gay adults and, following from that, the reasons behind allowing gay youth he endorses.

Excluding Gay Leaders 

Joe’s support for the decision, a compromise between competing interests in his view, considers the distinction between the scouts and the leaders to be “vital.” If this distinction is necessarily involved in making the compromise valid, and not just an exercise in kicking the gay leaders ‘problem’ down the road, then it seems fair to ask why. Joe offers that allowing gay youth while banning gay leaders:

“…helps promote a heterosexual lifestyle in the most respectful and compassionate way. The Boy Scouts (and this should be to no one’s surprise) still probably seeks to uphold its inculcation of values that include what it believes to be a proper sexual union between a man and a woman, and this is why gay adults are still not permitted…

“I believe such a choice [to exclude gay leaders] is because the sole basis of their moral choice to have a definitively active homosexual relationship rather than anything else…The character of homosexual adults can be, in many cases, exemplary. I think it is because the BSA would feel that allowing them as leaders would be seen as an endorsement.”

I deeply respect Joe, but in this line of thinking he assumes far too much. Breaking his argument down we see something like this for his logic:

(1) The Boy Scouts of America promote heteronormative standards, i.e. sex is properly enacted between only a man and a woman;

(2) To be in a sexual relationship that is not one man, one woman contradicts the Boy Scouts values, and all actions from Boy Scout leaders should be in accordance with the movement’s values;

(3) All gay leaders have made the “moral choice” to be in “definitively active homosexual” relationships, thus every gay leader fails to uphold scouting values in their lives;

(4) Therefore, there cannot be gay leaders in the Boy Scouts.

Obviously, the third premise is the objectively false one (even if I disagree with the first two) that invalidates the conclusion. It’s unfair to make claims about how anyone expresses their sexuality, including gay men, unless we are to have an Inquisition in scouting. Suddenly, every scout leaders’ sex life becomes open game – Did they engage in premarital sex? Are they using contraception? Is one partner having an affair?** If their use of sexuality is not an example of scouting values, then by the logic provided above even many straight leaders must go.

And herein lies the overall problem with Joe’s reasoning for allowing gay youth to participate in the Boy Scouts: conflating sexual expression as sexual orientation, which in the current articulation by the Catholic hierarchy are two different matters. Identifying as LGBT, even for Catholics, presumes nothing about how one dates or expresses their sexuality physically just as we never assume about straight people.

Endorsing Gay Youth 

This matter of orientation is behind why I oppose Joe’s reasons for allowing gay youth, at least as far as his endorsement of Catholic reasons. He writes:

“By allowing gay youths into the organization, and not allowing adults, the policy change posits that any youth who considers himself gay is not set in that view and should not be sexually active (Catholic teaching on chastity), and rather can grow and change as a sexual being:

“So then what is sexual orientation for youth in the Boy Scouts?…if a Boy Scout were to claim he is gay, as many of our youths do today, the response should not be one of alienation or affirmation, but one of expectation for their future sexual growth in holistically, healthy moral lifestyles…”

“That ‘future sexual growth,’ for me, is the heterosexual relationship or abstinence.”

In my reading, Joe comes perilously close to endorsing what can be referred to as a “cure” or “therapy” for LGBT youth. I agree that chastity, the responsible use of one’s divinely gifted sexuality, is a positive value to inculcate through scouting. However, he makes the claim that gay identified scouts are not “set in that view” and quotes extensively that welcoming gay youth is an opportunity for “future sexual growth” into either celibacy or a straight relationship. It is positive to bring in gay youth for more than teaching every scout to use sexuality in a just, healthy, and appropriate way. It is positive because scouting could change them.

Efforts to change gay youth do not, and can not, mesh with Catholic teachings that sexual orientation is an innate and unwavering state for nearly everyone. Straight and LGBT people alike are attracted to whom they are attracted, and I quote the US bishops in their 1996 document, Always Our Children:

“…It seems appropriate to understand sexual orientation (heterosexual or homosexual) as a deep-seated dimension of one’s personality and to recognize its relative stability in a person…Having a homosexual orientation does not necessarily mean a person will engage in homosexual activity.

“There seems to be no single cause of a homosexual orientation. A common opinion of experts is that there are multiple factors…that may give rise to it. Generally, homosexual orientation is experienced as a given, not as something freely chosen. By itself, therefore, a homosexual orientation cannot be considered sinful, for morality presumes the freedom to choose.”

Clearly, any attempts to alter gay scouts would contradict the notion of sexual orientation from the Catholic hierarchy’s perspective that Joe espouses. Healthy development of one’s sexuality is an essential part of raising children, but this healthy development should never aim to force LGBT youth into heterosexual relationships or repression through celibacy.

If openly gay scouts are merely being welcomed into the movement to “help” them, then this decision means nothing. If however, openly gay scouts are welcomed, affirmed for who they are, and grow in understanding the responsible and just use of their sexuality like every other scout – then that is a step forward. As for gay leaders, discrimination remains in place and LGBT advocates like myself will continue educating and advocating for a better approach to sexuality in conservative cultures.


**I should note, I do not make any claims about the morality of same-gender relationships or any of the actions described thereafter. I’m merely working from the conservative Catholic articulation of sexual morays that Joe is working within. I personally see the true goodness in same-gender couples, as I do with mixed-gender ones.

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CUA President John Garvey: Consent & Chastity “Clash Awkwardly”

John Garvey of The Catholic University of America

John Garvey, the president at The Catholic University of America, recently wrote a letter in Catholic San Francisco about students’ sexual conduct at his school (and my alma mater). Concerns about the “hook-up culture” and sexual health seem to be discussed a lot lately in higher education, and with validity I agree. Garvey’s take however is troubling given CUA’s poor record on sexual violence. He begins:

“At The Catholic University of America, where I serve as president, we have been working on some revisions to our code of student conduct. We’re finding that it’s challenging because we need to send students two different messages about sex that can at times clash awkwardly.”

What exactly are these two clashing messages that Catholic college students receive? The messages, as Garvey elucidates, are the importance of consent and the importance of chastity.

It seems that Catholic teachings on sexuality are at odds with seeking consent from one’s partner – in his words, they “clash awkwardly.” He refers heavily to the sexual violence portion in legalistic terms, although admitting it is “a sin against justice and charity” at one point. Most important it seems is that sexual assault is forbidden by local and federal laws, and there are all kinds of laws that colleges must comply with too.

The takeaway from John Garvey: Don’t sexually assault a person because it violates the law, and we need to keep the “risk managers” happy. He actually writes at one point:

“Risk managers (accountants and lawyers) want us to be very clear with our students about what counts as sexual abuse…If we’re not explicit about this, they say, we may be guilty under Title IX of creating a hostile environment, and risk losing federal funds.”

Cast aside any concern for students who may be victimized by failing to teach about healthy, mature, and consenting sexual relations (or Catholic identity for that matter), The Catholic University of America could lose precious federal funds and thus is forced to comply with the laws. So there’s that, in approximately three paragraphs.

President Garvey then continues discussing consensual sexual relations, which are presented as far worse, and is worthy of almost double the words sexual violence was. He continues:

“College student conduct codes will usually tell students that the difference between sex and sexual abuse is the element of consent. And they will use a formula something like this to define consent: ‘Consent is informed, freely given, mutually understandable words or actions that indicate a willingness to participate in sexual activity.’

“But that’s not the end of the story from a Catholic perspective. Consensual sex between students matters, too. It’s not a crime (fortunately), but it is a sin against chastity when it takes place outside of marriage.

“Chastity is an unfashionable virtue nowadays, but the idea is not hard to understand. Casual sex is harmful even if there is no coercion. It plays at love for sport. It makes promises that the players don’t intend to keep. It insults the dignity of the other person by treating him or her as a sex toy rather than a child of God. It divorces sex from the creation of new life and the unity of a family.”

Apparently, encounters of rape and sexual assault, and consensual relations between two students are analogous at some level – the article hints that both are quite harmful. It even leans to emphasis how sinful consensual sex is – it’s insults the dignity of the partner, treats them as a sex toy, divorces sex from it’s meanings. Sex outside of marriage is seemingly the worst sex there could be. Except it is not.

In a balancing act, the president then forcefully says sexual abuse must be dealt with justly at Catholic schools, even if “it’s a bit awkward to turn around then and say, ‘But wait – that sexual activity we told you to get consent for? You should not be doing it at all.'” These principles of consent and chastity now “clash awkwardly” again, even as President Garvey writes that the goals are “quite harmonious.” So who is to blame for positioning them in conflict?

“The awkwardness in explaining this arises because our culture doesn’t want to hear the message it needs. It wants to prevent violence while preserving promiscuity. It is forbidden to consider that for some subset of the population, the latter can lead to the former.

“Casual sex is a disordered activity. If you engage in it, it creates terrible habits in you and degrades your partner.”

Nowhere in the article is sexual assault called a degrading activity or a disrespecting of human dignity, and nowhere in the article is the opposition to violence rooted in Catholic thought aside from the general “sin against justice and charity.” The theology against using our sexuality as a violent tool and a power game is so clear and so deep, it would not be hard to draw from. Garvey would rather stick to faulting culture for putting Catholics in the awkward situation, not our own inadequacies in responding to pastoral realities.

Yet, President Garvey in this article is clear that sexual violence is a legal matter, and sex outside marriage is the theological one. I know he would clearly speak about against rape and assault as morally contemptible acts, but he refuses to stop equivocating between two disparate acts. Where is the disconnect?

The problem, I believe, is the Catholic silence around sex positivity, especially for young adults. Yesterday, I wrote about misguided views by Catholics on intimate partner violence and marriage, with some good links on these same problems including a piece by Meghan Clarke at Millennial.

As for education today, the hierarchy and school administrators spend far too much time with heads buried, constantly haranguing unmarried Catholics to chastity – meaning celibacy – without any other conversations. Deprived of discussions around sexual health, consent, positive body image, and good relationship dynamics, students on Catholic campuses are trapped in a twilight zone where there is no acceptable “yes,” and yet nearly everyone is sexually active. Students participating in the average activities of college students nationwide, drinking and hooking up, are less (or completely un-) equipped situations they may find themselves in – and this is when terrible things happen.

Garvey hedges in ever saying consensual sex, inside or outside of marriage, is totally separate from violence and power expressed sexually. The Catholic University of America, and I guarantee it is not alone, hedges from recognizing that consensual sex may not fit within the Catholic framework – but it should never be spoken of alongside rape.

Catholics in our Church remain silent around building up a culture that is sex positive – that endorses the goodness of these divine expressions, openly discusses consent and sexual health, deals with the realities of college students’ lives, and all the while rejects the “hook-up culture” by reappropriating chastity to the responsible use of one’s sexuality, not merely listing prohibitions.

I know that Catholics in the pews are imagining sexuality in new ways, in ways closer to Christ’s message and the love of God, and in ways that are making each of us safer, healthier, and more fulfilled. Let’s pray this Spirit carries onto our Catholic campus too!


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Misguided Divorce Comments Speak to Underlying Scandal

Fr. Peter Ryan of the USCCB

Joshua McElwee has another good interview at National Catholic Reporter, this time with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops new doctrinal head, Jesuit Fr. Peter Ryan. The interview is introductory, and Fr. Ryan offers little besides lockstep adherence to the bishops. He’s an expert in bioethics, which is a growing field of moral quandary with medical advancements on the daily – and in this capacity maybe he will advance theology.

However, one response from the priest about divorce struck me as particularly misguided. I quote it here in full, with my comments afterwards:

“[Joshua McElwee] Since you specified the church’s teaching on divorce and remarriage, I wonder how you would say this on a pastoral level in talking to someone who has been divorced who was obviously in an unhealthy relationship and wants to continue with their life. How do you consider that?

“[Fr. Peter Ryan] Well, there certainly does need to be a lot of pastoral outreach in that area and many other areas where people have real-life problems. I think the first thing to do is to be genuinely compassionate and understanding and to reach out to them with genuine pastoral care.

“At the same time, the teaching about marriage is right there in the Gospel. It’s pretty clearly not something the church happened to come up with years later. … And so I don’t think that somehow it makes sense to think that being pastorally sensitive could somehow mean compromising that teaching,

“… Sometimes people have to accept a really difficult reality that in fact they are married, and then we just have to support them as well as we can. And if they’re not willing to live by the church’s teaching, then we still love them and welcome them to church.

“That doesn’t mean that we violate what the church says about holy Communion, but it does mean we try and reach out to them and help and support them as much as we can.”

The Catholic hierarchy’s failure to adequately understand and address marriage is not newsworthy, and the continued attacks on the divorced, remarried, same-gender couples, etc. are to be expected. Except, McElwee does not ask about any old divorce and receive the party line. He asks about a woman who is separated from an unhealthy (and we can fairly read abusive) relationship and receives a poor response.

It seems, amid all the talk of pastoral concern and compassion,  Fr. Ryan expects the victim of an unhealthy marriage to remain in that marriage. In order to not “compromise that teaching” that marriage is indissoluble, those in ministry should counsel the abused spouse to stay married even if it is a “difficult reality.”

It’s a few paragraphs in an initial interview, and perhaps I could accept it as such and wait to see how this new doctrinal czar acts. The problem is Fr. Ryan is speaking about a larger trend in the Church, and living among the anti-woman and anti-pastoral culture of the bishops he may only get worse. Catholics should be scandalized by this problem: we do not take issues of intimate partner violence and sexual violence seriously in our theology nor in our pastoral practice.

John Garvey of my alma mater, The Catholic University of America, recently wrote in a San Francisco Catholic publication. His words, like Fr. Ryan’s reveal the scandal, in regards to student life on Catholic campuses where “two different messages about sex…can at times clash awkwardly.” Garvey explains that the two messages in conflict are consent and chastity – I will write more tomorrow about this troublesome piece.

I’m obviously not the first Catholic who reads remarks like Fr. Ryan’s or President Garvey’s and feels pained by the bishops’ backwardness, and Meghan Clarke of Millennial writes a piece well-worth everyone’s time. Writing about rape culture and the high rates of violence against women worldwide, she concludes by criticizing the Church’s complicity:

“As a Catholic feminist ethicist, I am currently struggling with the silence of my own community on the structural sin here.  There are a handful of theologians writing on the hookup culture, domestic violence, and sexual violence in war, but these conversations are small and largely relegated to the edges of our moral theology conversations.  Catholic public debate on violence against women is virtually nonexistent, even as we are about to launch a second fortnight for freedom – this time on same-sex marriage and the Supreme Court.  Why isn’t rape culture and violence against women a priority within Catholic moral theology?”

Let us pray that as Fr. Ryan takes over at the USCCB’s head position for moral theology, a growing awareness of women’s issues and the impact gender and sexual violence will help the scales to fall away from his eyes. His response to the divorce question is inadequate in our day, and everyone who is affected by marriage (so everyone…) deserves more Christ-like, loving guidance from our clergy.



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