The Church vs. the church

In a recent posting on America’s blog, Michael O’Loughlin writes about dealing with his anger at “the Church” because of Cardinal George’s recent comparison of the LGBT movement to the Ku Klux Klan.   He thoughtfully reflects on the notion that while statements like George’s do raise  angry reactions from people (both Catholics and non-Catholics), the anger that  he and many others feel is really directed toward an increasingly more rigid hierarchy, and not “the Church,” more accurately imaged by his hometown parish’s worshiping community:

“My younger sister and I have attended Mass here on Christmas Eve for the past several years, and though we lack a formal connection to the parish, we appreciate the diverse congregation, the avuncular pastor, the thoughtful decorations, the talented choir, and the general sense of welcome and joy that the parish emulates each year. I left Mass with an appreciation for my faith, a better understanding of the consequences of Christmas, and a sense of peace to carry me through the holiday.”

The blog post and the numerous thought-filled comments responding to it show what I have seen throughout my ministry across the nation, meeting and working with Catholics who want a church that is inclusive of LGBT people.  People constantly testify that their primary experience of  “the Church” is a local experience.  People are happy with the church if they have a good and supportive local community, and they are not happy with the church if that local community is not welcoming.  While nasty messages from the hierarchy may get people angry, these messages are not often the proximate cause of why people decide to leave or stay in the church.

Witnessing the ever-widening acceptance of LGBT people by mainstream Catholics is what keeps us folks at the New Ways Ministry office so optimistic about the future of the church.  This optimism is fueled not only by what we see, but also by what we believe:  that acceptance by the faithful, not doctrinal arguments, is what will make the Catholic church a welcoming place for LGBT people and their families.

News reporters and other observers often ask me: “Why do LGBT people remain Catholic?”  It’s a hard question to answer, not because its content is challenging, but because the answers are so diverse.  Everyone has a different reason for staying Catholic or not.   I tell reporters of a common theme that I have heard in so many different stories told to me over the years:  people stay Catholic because they have a great experience of the church at the local level.

I see this split between identifying “the Church” with the local community and not the hierarchy as a good and natural occurrence.  It means that people are living out Vatican II”s definition of the church as the entire People of God.

More importantly, it means  that Catholics are acting more as adults and trusting their faith experience over the messages of an impersonal authority.  Another way to put it is that Catholics are trusting  faith in action over harsh words.  This trend shows that people are actively growing in faith, not just passively receiving what they are told. More importantly, it shows that human relationships are a much more effective vehicle of teaching the faith than any verbal argument, no matter how logically or eloquently expressed.

By the way, yesterday the National Catholic Reporter editorialized  on the Cardinal George incident, and the editors point out  that hierarchy’s nasty comments  are only effective at making the hierarchy less relevant:

“But a cardinal who assesses a conflict at the time and route of a Gay Pride Parade and a Catholic Mass with the line, “You don’t want the gay liberation movement to morph into something like the Ku Klux Klan, demonstrating in the streets against Catholicism,” diminishes any standing the church might still have in the public arena. The important issues get buried beneath the understandable outrage such comments invite.”

The Catholic Church is certainly alive and well in the welcoming spirit that is active in so many local communities.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

0 replies
  1. Charles Bolser
    Charles Bolser says:

    My experience of Church spans several generations – and from a wide variety of perspectives. We, the Church are identified as “both/and”. We are saints and sinners. We are all blind, and yet we see through “the glass darkly”. The church is not the bishops – not even those of us who are Roman Catholics”. We so often narrow our vision of what the Church is and how we define it. It is the living body and blood of Christ – the living word of God acting in creation – the creation of all that is; the evolution of tthe cosmos. Evolution is process – coming to be and that which is coming to be is mystery – but we see the face of God in Christ and experience the living word. The church is not the heirarchy – nor is it the laity (which term needs to be eliminated) – we the baptized are called to mission – to follow in the footsteps of the Christ; to empty ourselves for the sake of the other. This demands a love of the “other” – not futile efforts to create clones. To love the other as other demands letting go of our own ego needs and to immerse ourselves into the midst of creation. All too often, those who speak for the church, make the church very little – in order to impose control through the imposition of power. When others depend on me for their salvation, I become the spokesman for God – the Channel – but in doing so, I also make myself into a false God – and assume that the Spirit only works through me or those that I approve of – but not the unwashed – the anawhim – the untouchables. The church is all of us together – “Here comes Everybody” as James Joyce so clearly stated. The role of the clergy is not to rule – but to lead by living the Gospel and that effort requires departing from mansions and limosines and walking the streets, joining in the struggle. Healing and feeding are active responses to the commandment of love – not judging and separating. Those in Sudan, Ethopia, Iran and Afganastan, Egypt and Indonesia, China and Japan – are the Church – the face of Christ proclaiming the presence of the Holy Spirit bringing life, light and freedom to the world. All that is; all of humanity is connected through the Spirit that gives life. The Church is us in all of our weaknesses and limitations – it is life growing through our struggles and recognizing that God walks with us. We are the Church.

  2. zauberflute
    zauberflute says:

    I’m gay, and if you check out my blog you’d get an idea of my own experiences in the Church. I’ve only got 1 chapter left to write, which I’ll call something akin to “the road to reconstruction.”

    Basically, I’m still Catholic. The primary reason is because I believe in the need for Communion. I don’t attend church hardly ever, because I know that if the priest knew I was gay and with the same husband for 9 years, that I would not be allowed to receive Communion.

    In order for a local priest to welcome an LGBT couple to receive Communion, he’d have to disobey the Church. If I received Communion, I’d be doing the same.

    Beyond that even, I would not donate to the Church, except for charities like St. Vincent”s. This is because the greater Church uses that money to fight equality for the LGBT community.

    You’re right in part about the local thing. The problem, I contend, is that in order for a local priest to be truly welcoming with all the Sacraments, he must disobey the Church he serves.

  3. JJ Marie Gufreda (@LeftHanderinLon)
    JJ Marie Gufreda (@LeftHanderinLon) says:

    Thanks for the well written and thoughtful article. In my case, I left the church. I haven’t been to Mass for months. I was rejected by the local pastor – after he consulted with the Vicar Judicial. The local church still answers to the bishops. Would he risk his position to stand up for me? He had been very supportive (I am transgender) but changed after he consulted with the authorities. The bishops are actively trying to hurt me through their lobbying and policies against same sex marriage. We were married in the Church over 30 years ago. Now they don’t want to recognize it. Still, I recognize that there is much good, but many of the very holy people inside the Catholic church are afraid that the hierarchy will “catch” them and hurt them.

  4. Chaplain Bill
    Chaplain Bill says:

    Zauberflute — I am so pained by your post. My recommendation is to find one of the Roman Catholic religious communities (Franciscan, Paulist, Dominican, etc) who often are far more accepting. There are other alternatives that are Catholic, yet not Roman Catholic. An enlightened spiritual director could be very helpful. Please don’t confuse God’s unlimited and unending love for you with the current, erroneous teachings about GLBT folks by the Roman Church — the two are not the same. We are called into the love of Christ not into the love of the Church. I hold you warmly in prayer.

  5. Barbara J Monda
    Barbara J Monda says:

    I’d say that the Vatican and Local Bishops leave thinking and loving Catholics no option except to take their bodies and purses out of the churches but I don’t need to say this, as It is happening. Sad that the Vatican cannot see the harm their positions of intolerance and rejection are doing to the entire Church and world as well.

  6. Paula Ruddy
    Paula Ruddy says:

    This subject is very painful. As a woman I have experienced oppression within the Roman Catholic Church, but nothing like the oppression of LGBT people. Personally I am trying not to separate the hierarchical church and the community of spirit I experience among faithfilled Catholic people. I can see why it may be necessary for some to do that, but holding the tension between the community and the institution is still possible and important to me. I think my baptism makes me responsible for doing all I can to make the policies and practices of the institution serve the community. In the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis we are organizing with each other–gay and straight– to see what changes we can make to the institutional policies and practices that hurt people. Our organization is called Catholic Coalition for Church Reform. Pray we can keep on working at it.


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