Jesuits

Another year, another wave of headlines about 'gay Catholics' losing their teaching jobs

Another year, another wave of headlines about 'gay Catholics' losing their teaching jobs

School years close with graduation ceremonies, which are now followed by a painful rite for Catholic educators and some bishops -- headlines about teachers losing their jobs after celebrating same-sex marriages.

Catholic school leaders in Indianapolis recently refused to extend a teacher's contract after people saw social-media notes about his marriage. A nearby Jesuit school's leaders, however, refused to remove that same teacher's husband from its faculty.

A CNN headline said this teacher was fired for "being gay." Reports at The New York Times and National Public Radio referred to a "fired gay teacher." A Washington Post headline was more specific, stating that the teacher was "fired for his same-sex marriage."

At issue are canon laws requiring Catholic schools to offer education "based on the principles of Catholic doctrine," taught by teachers "outstanding in true doctrine." Church leaders, usually local bishops, are charged with finding teachers who are "outstanding … in the witness of their Christian life," including "non-Catholic ones."

It's hard to have constructive discussions of these cases since they are surrounded by so much scandal, secrecy and confusion, with standards varying greatly across the country, said Eve Tushnet, a gay Catholic writer who accepts the church's teachings on sex and marriage. Most of the "gay celibate Christians I know have lost or been denied" jobs in Christian institutions, she said.

The Catholic Catechism, citing scripture and centuries of tradition, states that "homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered" and contrary to "natural law." However, it also says those "who experience "deep-seated homosexual tendencies," must be "accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity."

Far too often, argued Tushnet, "gay sins are treated as serious sins in a way that heresy or other non-gay sins aren't. I can think of reasons you might, as a Catholic school, hire Protestants, but fire someone in a same-sex marriage. But … when one already-marginalized group is so often singled out for penalties it seems more like targeting than like prudence." Far too many church leaders, she added, will "fire you if you marry," but they "otherwise look the other way."

One thing is clear: the term "gay Catholic" -- as used in news reports -- is too simplistic, if the goal is to understand the doctrinal issues driving these debates.

The pope, the media and balance on pro-life ministries

It was the telephone call heard around the world, because the pope made the call. On the other end of the line was a single woman in central Italy, who mailed Pope Francis a confused, anguished letter after learning she was pregnant by a man who turned out to be married. The man demanded that she have an abortion and she refused.

Then a strange telephone number appeared on her caller ID screen. It was the pope, who called to say that she made the right decision because the "child was a gift from God" and that he wanted to help.

Pope Francis, she told The Catholic Herald, assured her that "as Christians we should never be afraid. He told me I had been very brave and strong for my unborn child. I told him that I wanted to baptize the baby when it was born, but I was afraid, as I was divorced and a single mother. ... He said he would be my spiritual father and he would baptize my baby."

If the baby is a boy, she plans to name him Francis.

A few news organizations, but not many, covered this media-friendly parable.

But two weeks later, the pope unleashed a media tsunami with a long, candid interview published exclusively in America and other Jesuit magazines around the world. While the pope talked about confession, sin and mercy, one quote leapt into news reports and headlines more than any other.

"We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible," he told the interviewer, a fellow Jesuit. "The teaching of the church ... is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time."

Stressing the need for improved pastoral responses on hot-button issues -- such as abortion and homosexuality -- Pope Francis said the church "cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently. .... We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel."

The pope, of course, stressed the need for balance between pronouncements and pastoral care, not the end of the church's public advocacy on its moral doctrines. He said that Catholic leaders cannot insist "only" on issues linked to sexual ethics, which is not the same as saying they should be silent on them.

The church, he said, must be a "field hospital" for the wounded and its most important message is "the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you. And the ministers of the church must be ministers of mercy above all."

The world of Catholic bloggers, insiders and experts exploded, both on the doctrinal left and the right. Some traditional Catholics expressed sadness and concern, focusing on secular media editing of the pope's remarks, more than on the content of the actual interview.

While the media storm raged, Pope Francis did an interesting thing -- especially in light of his alleged call for the church to tone down its teachings on abortion and other hot-button issues. He addressed, with little media fanfare, a gathering of Catholic gynecologists, urging them to remember that a doctor's "ultimate objective" must always be the protection of life.

"The culture of waste, which now enslaves the hearts and minds of many, has a very high cost: it requires the elimination of human beings, especially if they are physically or socially weaker," he said, according to a English translation offered by The National Catholic Register.

"Our response to this mentality is a categorical and unhesitant 'yes' to life. ... Things have a price and are sold, but people have a dignity, worth more than things and they don't have a price. Many times we find ourselves in situations where we see that which costs less is life. Because of this, attention to human life in its totality has become a real priority of the Magisterium of the Church in recent years, particularly to the most defenseless, that is, the disabled, the sick, the unborn child, the child, the elderly who are life's most defenseless."

In the end, stressed the pope, the church must continue to proclaim that, "Each child who is unborn, but is unjustly condemned to be aborted, bears the face of Jesus Christ, bears the face of the Lord, who, even before he was born, and then as soon as he was born, experienced the rejection of the world."

'Tis this pope's gift to be simple

The rise of Pope Francis has certainly raised new questions for Vatican watchers, such as: How significant is it that he has not been wearing cufflinks? In the past, this kind of detail "would be seen as frivolous," noted Rocco Palmo of Philadelphia, whose "Whispers In The Loggia" site is must reading for Catholic insiders. Now, this pope's commitment to beyond-symbolic simplicity is causing religious leaders, journalists, diplomats and Catholics at every level to wrestle with the importance of his Jesuit roots, as well as his devotion to St. Francis of Assisi.

The symbolism began with his introduction, when he wore simple white vestments -- the papal equivalent of street clothes -- and declined a formal, ermine-trimmed red cape. He has been wearing his steel pectoral cross, rather than an ornate gold papal model. He has favored black walking shoes over dramatic red footwear.

Greeting the masses in St. Peter's Square, he bowed and said: "Before the bishop blesses the people I ask that you would pray to the Lord to bless me." Then he rode the bus with the cardinals, one white skullcap among the red ones. He returned to the Domus Paulus VI -- where he roomed pre-conclave -- to collect his luggage and pay his own bill. The pope has been placing some of his own calls, shocking clergy who answer their telephones and find the occupant of St. Peter's throne on the other end of the line.

Pope Francis is so reluctant to change his style, noted Palmo, that this trend even "extends under the white cassock, to boot: the Argentine pontiff's preferences don't just make his move to keep wearing black pants visible through the garment, but likewise highlight the untucked tails of his white dress-shirt.

"In other words, the lack of fuss isn't just a show for the world. But having declined the archbishop's residence in Buenos Aires for a flat where he did his own cooking, and riding around the city on buses and subways without an entourage, that was fairly well-established."

The connections to St. Francis are obvious and, this past weekend, the new pope explained to media professionals why he chose that name. But while telling this story, Pope Francis offered another layer of content for journalists who had ears to hear his deeper, more critical, message.

As the votes lined up in favor of the cardinal from Argentina, he said a friend hugged him and advised, "Don't forget the poor."

"And those words came to me: the poor, the poor," said Pope Francis, according to a Vatican Radio translation. "Then, right away, thinking of the poor, I thought of Francis of Assisi. Then I thought of all the wars. … Francis is also the man of peace. That is how the name came into my heart: Francis of Assisi.

"For me, he is the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and protects creation. These days we do not have a very good relationship with creation, do we? He is the man who gives us this spirit of peace. … How I would like a church which is poor and for the poor!"

On one level, these remarks to the press focused on issues -- economic justice, peace and the environment -- that are usually framed in political language in news reports. However, Pope Francis stressed that it is crucial for journalists to realize that pivotal religious events, such as his election, cannot be reduced to mere politics.

"Ecclesial events are certainly no more intricate than political or economic events," said the pope. Nevertheless, they "follow a pattern which does not readily correspond to the 'worldly' categories which we are accustomed to use, and so it is not easy to interpret and communicate them to a wider and more varied public. …

"All of this leads me to thank you once more for your work in these particularly demanding days, but also to ask you to try to understand more fully the true nature of the church, as well as her journey in this world, with her virtues and her sins, and to know the spiritual concerns which guide her and are the most genuine way to understand her."

The bottom line? "The church is certainly a human and historical institution with all that that entails," he said, "yet her nature is not essentially political but spiritual."

Warnings to believers in a consumer culture

Since the goal was to explore the cultural ties that bind, Father John Kavanaugh asked the young Catholics in a St. Louis classroom a basic civics question: How many national and world leaders could they name? The Jesuit didn’t allow the seventh graders to include celebrities and entertainers, which meant that actor Tom Cruise didn’t make the list. In the end, they ended up with 12 names.

"You started off with the pope and the president, of course. Then things got harder after that," said the St. Louis University philosophy professor, describing this scene during a 1990 Denver lecture that I covered for The Rocky Mountain News.

The questions got easier, for youngsters baptized in untold hours of commercials on cable television. When asked to name brands of beer, the list on the chalkboard topped 40. How about designer jeans? The seventh graders came up with more than 50 different brands. They were experts when it came to the shopping-mall facts of life.

The Regis University crowd laughed, but it was nervous laughter, as the author of "Following Christ in a Consumer Society: The Spirituality of Cultural Resistance" walked them through a slideshow demonstrating the power of advertising in shaping the minds of materialistic modern Americans.

Yes, it was funny when the priest offered Freudian interpretations of popular cigarette ads. But no one wanted to laugh at the images demonstrating how professionals were using bleak, depressing, yet erotic images of children in advertising aimed at adults.

Is this, the philosopher asked, what our culture's powers that be think real life is all about? If that is the case, he said, "then let's be freaks. Let's be tourists. ... We must remember this is not our home."

Kavanaugh died on Nov. 5 at age 71, after a career in service and scholarship that took him from St. Louis to India and then back home again. His perspectives on suffering and poverty were shaped by his early work with Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta and then with the Jean Vanier communities for those with disabilities in Bangalore.

In addition to his work as a professor and spiritual director for seminarians, Kavanaugh was known for his columns in America magazine, film criticism in The St. Louis Review and numerous books. "Following Christ in a Consumer Society" was reissued twice in new editions, to keep its cultural criticism up to date.

Kavanaugh pleaded guilty to tilting at his share of conservative windmills, but anyone who was paying close attention knew that he was trying to prod the consciences of Catholics on the left as well as the right.

The priest raised eyebrows with a 2002 column entitled "Goodbye, Democrats" in which he argued that America's political culture had collapsed to the point that it would be wise for believers to cut their partisan political ties by registering as independent voters. He stressed that he thought Catholics in the Republican Party needed to bail out, as well.

Writing to his fellow progressives, Kavanaugh proclaimed: "One thing the Democrats really stand for, however, is abortion -- abortion on demand, abortion without restraint, abortion paid for by all of us, abortion for the poor of the earth. I am not a one-issue voter, but they have become a one-issue party. … If traditional Democrats who are disillusioned with the selling out of the working poor and the unborn simply became registered Independent voters, would not more attention be paid?"

The problem, of course, is that it’s sinfully easy for ministers -- once again, on the left or the right -- to keep preaching easy sermons that they know their flocks want to hear, said Kavanaugh, when I interviewed him once again in 2008. It's easy to keep lashing away at the same familiar straw men, while avoiding topics that could offend the faithful in the home pews.

The Jesuit summed up his message with a quote that rings as true today as it did the final time that I talked with him.

"Whether you are preaching to liberals or conservatives, it's hard to tell people truths that they don't want to hear," he said, in that telephone interview. "It's hard to tell people to love their enemies. It's hard to tell people to repent of their sins and to forgive others. ... It's hard, but this is what good preachers have to do."

So a cardinal, Jesuit and comedian get to chat ...

In the year 752, a priest named Stephen was elected pope, but died four days later -- before officially filling the chair of St. Peter in Rome. For centuries Catholic records included him as Pope Stephen II -- until the Second Vatican Council. At that time, Pope Stephen III officially became Pope Stephen II (III) and the other later popes named Stephen received similarly strange titles.

So Pope Stephen III kind of vanished and that title became a kind of ecclesiastical inside joke, the kind that might appeal to cardinals and Jesuits. But what about a satirical superstar from Comedy Central?

Actually, this insider joke works if the comedian is named Stephen Colbert and Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York delivers the punch line. The two faced off before 3,000 students and faculty at Fordham University in a Sept. 14 program focusing on "Humor, Joy and the Spiritual Life." The event was arranged by Father James Martin, author of the book "Between Heaven and Mirth" and for legions of fans the "Official Chaplain of the Colbert Nation."

The jocularity started early as Dolan -- who is used to having Catholics kiss his ring -- lunged to kiss Colbert's hand, first. Then, when Martin said the cardinal might become pope in a future conclave, Dolan responded, "If I am elected pope -- which is probably the greatest gag all evening -- I'll be Stephen III."

Colbert piled on: "Write that down! I want that notarized!"

Fordham officials disappointed YouTube fans by, at the last minute, declaring this much-anticipated summit a media-free zone. Still, a few journalists – starting with a New York Times scribe – slipped in as guests. Also, it's impossible to keep one-liners locked inside a hall packed with college students and Twitter-friendly smartphones.

Some of the exchanges shared via hashtag #Dolbert and #DolanColbert included:

* Colbert, who teaches Sunday school at his New Jersey parish, stressed that he never jokes about the sacraments. Instead, he skewers people he believes use and abuse faith, especially in politics. "Then I'm not talking about Christ. I'm talking about Christ as cudgel," he said.

* At one point, Cardinal Dolan introduced Evelyn Colbert, the comedian's wife, and kissed her cheek. "I can kiss your wife," he quipped. "You can't kiss mine."

* Jabbing the cardinal about recent changes in the Mass, Colbert noted one bumpy Nicene Creed edit: "Consubstantial! It's the creed! It's not the SAT prep."

* A student, via social media, asked: "I am considering the priesthood. Would it be prudent to avoid dating?" The cardinal said dating was a good idea, adding, "By the way, let me give you the phone numbers of my nieces." Colbert responded: "It's actually a great pickup line: 'I'm seriously considering the priesthood. You can change my mind.' "

* Concerning his own struggles as a believer, Colbert said: "Are there flaws in the church? Absolutely. But is there great beauty in the church? Absolutely.” And also, “The real reason I remain a Catholic is what the church gives me -- which is love."

* Dolan to Colbert: "Do you feel pressure to be funny all the time?" Colbert back to Dolan: "Do you feel pressure to be holy all the time?"

The bottom line, noted Martin, is that humor has always been part of religious life, including the lives of the saints. Take, for example, that famous prayer from the young St. Augustine: "Lord, give me chastity … but not yet."

In remarks later posted online, the Jesuit noted: "Humor serves serious purposes in the spiritual life. Joyful humor can evangelize, and draw people to God. Self-deprecating humor reminds us of our own humility. Provocative humor can also gently speak truth to power."

In his own theological reflections, the cardinal argued that the roots of Christian humor can be found in the darkest hours of Good Friday, when it appeared Jesus had been "bullied to death by undiluted evil; Love, jackbooted by hate; Mercy incarnate, smothered by revenge; Life itself, crushed by death."

But he who laughs last, stressed Dolan, laughs best.

"Lord knows there are plenty of Good Fridays in our lives. But they will not prevail. Easter will," he wrote, in his script. "As we Irish claim, 'Life is all about loving, living and laughing, not about hating, dying and moaning.' ... That's why we say, 'Joy is the infallible sign of God’s presence.' "