Still, The Arc in the Church Continues to Bend

Today’s reflection is by Bondings 2.0 contributor Michaelangelo Allocca, whose brief bio can be found by clicking here.

Today’s liturgical readings for the Third Sunday of Easter can be found here.

“What are you, a masochist?” We in the Catholic LGBTQ community sometimes hear this question from well-meaning, non-Catholic friends, who wonder how we can remain in a Church that seems, in many ways, not to want us. For evidence that this is common, look no further than this blog’s guideline for comments. There would be no need for a rule against telling someone to leave the Church, if that suggestion didn’t get made frequently for the reason I mentioned at the start of this paragraph.

That question haunts me when I ponder today’s readings. I sense a similarity between our community and the Apostles in today’s first reading from Acts 5. In regard to the abuse and persecution the Apostles experienced, we are told that they left the Sanhedrin, “rejoicing that they had been found worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name.” Should we not, as they did, rejoice to be found worthy to suffer dishonor for the name of Jesus, who always went to the margins to meet all who needed him, and always included rather than excluded? And yet, isn’t it masochistic to rejoice in one’s own rejection or persecution? 

I have a similar reaction to the second reading, from Revelation, where the heavenly host sings, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain, to receive power and riches (… fill in the rest from Handel’s Messiah).” I hear, “yes, good: those who are slain are worthy to receive, etc …” But then the nagging “what are you, a masochist?” voice speaks up again: it doesn’t actually say the Lamb is worthy because he was slain; and besides, since when am I the Lamb of God, who taketh away the sin of the world?

Ultimately, I persist in believing that it is spiritually healthy to identify with, and be consoled by, the suffering of the Apostles, and of Jesus himself, and finally to praise God, Who in the words of today’s psalm, “did not let my enemies rejoice over me.” The psalmist reminds us that persecutors may have the upper hand for a time, but that they do not have the final word. 

And so my feeling is not masochism, but hope. Not in the cheap-optimism sense of Scarlett O’Hara’s “after all, tomorrow is another day,” but in the sense of the theological virtue that told Dr. Martin Luther King that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” I see this long bending in the Church trying, inch by inch, to catch up with Jesus’s nurturing and welcoming love, and abandon the Sanhedrin-like need to control and to compel.

On that front, we have encouraging words from two European prelates. Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich of Luxembourg recently told an interviewer that he considered current teaching on homosexuality “no longer correct,” and not based on science, and recommended a “fundamental revision of the doctrine.” Then, Bishop Georg Bätzing, head of the German bishops’ conference, also told a magazine that Church teaching needs to change. And when he was asked if same-sex relationships were permissible, he said: “Yes, it’s OK if it’s done in fidelity and responsibility. It doesn’t affect the relationship with God.” While some might argue that such statements are too little, too late, I am old enough to remember when the concept of a bishop, never mind a cardinal, speaking thus was inconceivable.

And yet the bending of the arc is ever slow, only inch-by-inch: soon after, Cardinal George Pell told another interviewer that these two bishops should be reprimanded, perhaps even silenced, by the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith. I wonder if Pell noticed how well an attempt to silence the Apostles worked (Acts 5:27-28) when the high priest “gave them orders to stop teaching,” and they continued doing so even more boldly. Pell was once on Pope Francis’ council of cardinal advisors, and his statements are still noticed by many.

Still, the arc continues to bend. Were the queer-positive bishops reprimanded? Did they back down or recant? No, instead, there was repetition with emphasis. Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich-Freising (ironically, the same diocese once headed by a cardinal named Ratzinger) repeated Hollerich’s and Bätzing’s call for change in the church’s teaching, and their endorsement of potential sanctity in same-sex relationships. Most startling of all, he also announced that he himself had actually blessed same-sex couples. Marx never mentioned Pell, but it is striking – and I doubt coincidental – that he made his statements just two weeks after Pell’s attack on the other two bishops. Marx (unlike Pell) remains a member of Pope Francis’ council of cardinal advisors, hinting that the Pell side may be waning in influence.

My final proof that I see through the lens of hope, not masochism, is found in today’s gospel. John 21 contains two distinct episodes, tied together by the idea of leadership as feeding, not dictating; nurturing, not giving orders. The third time Jesus meets the apostles after the Resurrection, he finds them back at their fishing jobs, as if unchanged by their experiences with him. Yet he does not open with “let’s set a few things straight,” (which, in John’s gospel, might not be surprising) but with, “Come and have breakfast.” He meets them where they are, tends to their needs, and patiently lets them grope their way to the truth. 

He then singles out the one who had the most reason for shame and regret, and puts him in charge. In case it’s still not clear which side Jesus takes, the commission comes as “feed my lambs … tend my sheep … feed my sheep,” and not correct them, dominate them, rebuke them. This is how Jesus understands leadership, and that is all I need to have hope that the loving and welcoming voices will ultimately carry the day.

Michaelangelo Allocca, May 1, 2022

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