Friday, December 30, 2005

Catholic Church Policies Could Bring It Down

This past Thanksgiving, a friend of mine found out that he wouldn’t be reading anymore at his Catholic church. He’s gay, and his priest has known and accepted it. But this fall, an anonymous complaint was registered with the bishop in his diocese. Another member of the parish, it seems, bought into the bigotry of the Catholic church and felt it inappropriate that someone who lives a life in conflict with Catholic teaching would be allowed a leadership role in “the church”, as Catholics call both the building and the religion.

The priest assumed the issue would go away, but these are not lenient days for Catholics where homosexuality is concerned. The bishop ordered the priest not to allow openly gay members to serve in liturgical roles in the church. So my friend, a lifelong Catholic and a very faithful, spiritual–not to mention brilliant–man who might have become a priest but for the requirement of celibacy, has had to make a choice between accepting this decision and remaining a second class member of his church (until that is banned, as well, I suppose) or leaving it once and for all. He has chosen to move on, but it has been a decision mixed with tremendous sadness. He has been cut loose from a spiritual fold that has always been integral to his life. A church is like a family; he will lose that connection. He also faces the challenge of attempting to reconcile his deep and lifelong faith with what I believe is the humiliation he has suffered within his community.

For a long time, my friend found sanctuary in an apparently open-minded parish with a liberal pastor. He had a sense of belonging there and was a valuable part of the community. Most important, it fulfilled a spiritual need for him. It is disheartening to see that all this can simply be undone because the hierarchy of the church has enshrined prejudice. I used to think that there were two faces to this schizophrenic church. Spiritually, I believed it to be quite liberal and accepting, as it appeared to be in its post-Vatican II incarnation of my childhood. This openness might not be outwardly accepted by the authoritarian hierarchy of the church, but it was one of the better dirty little secrets the church is now so well-known for keeping. The era of the church’s willingness to live with its temporal and hierarchical aspects in conflict, if it ever was, is coming to an end. The dogma of prejudice at the Vatican is again hurting people, just as over the years it has hurt divorcees, unwed mothers, and women who have had abortions. As the hierarchy reaches into local communities of faith to enforce an untenable and even brutal orthodoxy, people are stung by its ugly face of intolerance and condemnation.

I have not considered myself a practicing Catholic for several years, but when I heard this, I was struck at the sense of mortification and powerlessness–the products of injustice–that consumed me. My stomach went into a knot; I got teary. Another friend of mine, a liberal woman raised as an evangelical Christian, had the same reaction. We each hurt for our friend, regardless of our individual decisions in years past to leave the churches of our childhoods. This reaction is what happens in the face of prejudice, and in one important way, it reminds me of the injustice I have heard about and read, from childhood stories to classmates’ anecdotes to contemporary publications, about the treatment of blacks in America. The humiliation and denigration are the same. In both, there is the suppressed rage of one whose actions could not possibly alter the injustice at hand. There are the flushed cheeks and wet eyes of endurance in the face of dehumanization. Whenever there is absolutely no way to subvert, challenge, or change a power structure in a given moment, its products are frustration, tension, shame at one's own powerlessness, sadness, loss, and the dull ache of injustice. Each is deeply wrong. Each is disgusting.

The new pope, Joseph Ratzinger, has made his first major official act the banning of gay men from becoming priests, hardly a courageous act in a world where homophobia too frequently goes unpunished and where the opportunities for true courage in the modern world are endless. In his cowardice, then, the pope has chosen to fuel the prejudice of Catholics and provide justification to homophobes worldwide. As with all forms of hatred, the cost will be paid in the form of misery and fear for life for its targets, especially in places outside of the United States and Europe.

Homosexuals are an especially easy target for Catholicism. If they banned the participation of blacks, left-handed people, the handicapped, Republicans, or the poor, there would be outrage. The threat of outrage and its consequences keep powerful institutions from attacking certain minority groups while victimizing others that have fewer or less significant advocates within the system. Clearly, there is the perception that this sort of discrimination is somehow acceptable or even beneficial for the church, that it will not suffer unendurable consequences for its intolerance. On the other hand, Ratzinger has made allusions to his belief that a smaller, more faithful church is an acceptable scenario in the future. He seems to desire a leaner and certainly meaner church: he may get his wish.

In an earlier column, I suggested that as the United States begins to act like a "second world" rogue nation, so does it become one. Equally, as the Catholic Church begins to take steps that will decimate its following in the civilized world, so is it decimated. As it takes action against human decency, so it becomes indecent. It would appear that the pope has chosen to address the problem of pedophilia not by resolving its more likely cause–the unnatural practice of celibacy–but by scapegoating the easy target of homosexuality. It would seem that eliminating gays from the priesthood would have eliminated many of the competent, spiritual men we know as traditional priests. Perhaps, in the future, the only ones left will be the sort of rigid, self-righteous conservative heterosexual men trickling forth from seminaries at the present. These men will likely live in a state of perpetual adolescent agony over sexuality; their relations with women may be strained and bizarre. Adolescent girls, including a new generation of altar servers, will continue to be at high risk as an easy target of these men struggling to live an untenable life of celibacy. But boys will be at risk, too, because clergy sexual abuse is most importantly about the exercise of power at the hands of the miserable and the angry. Ratzinger’s ban will solve nothing.

How can any of us choose to remain complicit in this agenda of demonizing and hatred? Enough is enough.

Friday, December 09, 2005

So Much Funakkah

In early November, I wanted to curse the darkness. By now, it’s about early December, and I’m getting used to it. I don’t like that the sun is setting around 4:30, but as autumn progresses, the early fall of darkness becomes more palatable as I remember some of my favorite things about these extended evenings of late fall and early winter. There’s the promise of snow. Christmas and its attendant gatherings, cheer, and change of pace and activities are coming. When I’ve been coupled, it’s been wonderful to have long evenings of shared intimate space, of settling down, for several weeks, for the proverbial long winter’s nap. As a single guy, it’s not so bad, after all, to have good reason to light a few candles, put on soft classical music, and read a long, Gothic British novel or fall asleep trying. One of my favorite parts of the season, however, is the celebration of Hanukkah I have adapted into my adult life.

No, I’m not Jewish; I have no desire to convert; and I don’t celebrate any other Jewish holidays, though I may eventually consider doing something to commemorate Yom Ha’Shoah, the day of Holocaust remembrance. I was married to a Jew, though, and loved celebrating Hanukkah during our four winters together. I came to love it as much as Christmas and to enjoy it more in some ways, as it provided a powerful balance to that predominating Christian holiday.

Both Christmas and Hanukkah fall, not coincidentally, at the darkest time of the year, near the winter solstice. The ancient Christian church set the date of Christmas only three or four days off. The date of Hanukkah is determined by the Jewish calendar, which is governed by the moon. I remember my delight at discovering that the last night of Hanukkah, when all eight candles are lighted, is the night of the new moon at the darkest time of year. On that night, when no light is reflected to us from the moon, our candles illuminate the longest completely dark night of the year.

When first celebrating Hanukkah as a young couple, we needed to strike a balance between our cultural and religious traditions. She had never celebrated Christmas, and I had never had to face a moderating force against the excesses of Christmas decoration in my own home. So, we agreed that, during Hanukkah, there would be no Christmas lights or music until the Hanukah lights had been set ablaze and burned themselves out. Usually, this meant about an hour of calm. We would light the candles, stumble our way through the simple prayers in Hebrew and repeat them in English, place our menorahs in windows where they would be most visible to the neighborhood, and finally exchange presents by the light of the candles.

While I loved how the electric window candles of my childhood gently illuminated the house, the natural glow of the Hanukkah lights–with a candle’s mutability and flickering–would leave me transfixed. For many, this is a time for jubilant celebration of the literal and figurative triumph of light over darkness; I’ve seen some raucous Hanukkah parties! For me, though, the part of the ritual I took with me was the chance to immerse myself in the hour of quiet created as the candles burned. The elemental softness of the Hanukkah lights at home was conducive to calmness, reflection, and a sense of peace. Which candle lasted longest was always unpredictable, but with between two and nine candles burning each night, the dimming of the light was always gradual. Each flame in succession would disappear into the candle holder, perhaps blossoming in a moment of inundation by liquid wax. Then it would be dark for another day. We would swiftly return to the noise, brightness, and pace of life at Christmastime.

As with other Jewish holidays, including the sabbath, in my erstwhile home, celebrating Hanukkah created a time for us to be apart from homogenous, mainstream culture. It created time to look inward, toward home, family, and ourselves as individuals. In our culture, celebrating Hanukkah lacks both the evangelistic pressure to be part of a once solely Christian event and the militant messages (buy more now, and be happy, or else!) of Christmas. My view of Hanukkah is through a goyishe American lens. It provides for me a way to remember and express the quiet, introspective, and spiritual aspects of my personality just as Christmas allows me a chance to take a role in some of the brighter aspects of the American cultural monolith. Hanukah is the yin to the yang of my Christmas celebrations. Mine is not a Jew’s Hanukkah, but it’s a deeply satisfying celebration that helps me stay balanced during the hectic season of the holidays.