On The Wrong Side, Again … But Maybe Some Self-Growth

By Mark Esposito, Weekend Contributor

feature-faith%20crisis_520It’s Sunday and I made a rare visit to church today here in Richmond to test the waters after Judge Arenda Wright Allen’s historic ruling overturning  Virginia’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.  I was curious because the two Roman Catholic Bishops in Virginia had taken a keen interest in gay marriage ever since newly elected Attorney General Mark Herring had declined to defend the state’s ban on the practice in Bostic v. Rainey and after Governor Terry McAuliffe had refused to appoint a special counsel to take over the defense of the ban. The two presiding bishops in Virginia, Arlington Bishop Paul Loverde and Richmond Bishop Francis DiLorenzo, had issued a joint statement vowing to soldier on against the right of gays to marry. The good bishops instructed that:

 “No politician should be able to reverse the people’s decision … We call on the attorney general to do the job he was elected to perform, which is to defend the state laws he agrees with, as well as those state laws with which he personally disagrees.”

After the Valentine’s Day decision, the bishops issued a new statement opining that Judge Wright Allen’s ruling violated the Commonwealth’s right to define “marriage” however it wishes under that rubric of neo-cons everywhere, the hoary 10th Amendment. The good shepherds went on to offer their assessment of Virginia’s first African-American female federal judge:

Judge Wright Allen’s decision also, more fundamentally, contradicts the wisdom and understanding of the ages. It strips marriage of its intrinsic meaning and converts it into nothing more than an arrangement that recognizes a voluntary relationship between any two consenting adults. While all people should have the freedom to form attachments and relationships as they wish, the union of a man and a woman, in marriage, makes a unique contribution to the creation, protection and well-being of children. It is more than a “consenting relationship.” It is a union that – alone and uniquely – unites the two complementary halves of humanity, a man and a woman, to cooperate with the Author of Life to create new life. It is a union that alone provides children the opportunity to be nurtured and to learn from both a mother and a father, each of whom brings unique gifts to the family, the fundamental building block of society.

The bishops, echoing the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, say the case will forever alter the very definition of marriage. And of course it would from their perspective … at least to this current crop of American bishops it would.  But judicial rewriting of the notion of marriage hasn’t always scared the Conference or raised issues of states’ rights. “Interracial marriages do not constitute a threat to the ‘principles of government’ made manifest in the United States Constitution,” several American bishops — and four archbishops — argued in a 1967 brief filed in support of Mildred and Richard Loving’s right to marry. Thus the term is not so immutable as the current bishops argue — and the proof is found in their own history.

Our parish priest, Fr. Mike,  is an affable fellow from eastern Pennsylvania who is literally the poster boy for vocations in the diocese. He’s an accomplished speaker by most assessments even though I find his jokes a tad corny and predictable, and his analysis of church doctrine is … well … usually a little too doctrinaire for my liking.  Still, I was wondering if he was going to make any comment about the case or simply give the canned homily about love, forgiveness and the church’s role in promoting both.

I suppose the word was out and the bishops had made their wishes known because the first few words out of his mouth were about the case. Calling the decision “insanity,” this priest went on to state the party line that the decision would change the very definition of marriage. He called the judge’s opinion “foolishness” and described her exercise of the judicial function as ignoring what most Virginians wanted marriage to be despite recent polling to the contrary. He even juxtaposed the  angry  reaction to the decision by some  with the display of anger of a Pennsylvania man who brandished a gun when a snow plow pushed snow onto a driveway he had just shoveled. He condoned neither.

But then the priest did a curious thing and departed from the party line. Rather than rail about the decision in some fire and brimstone way so as to chastise its proponents as I’m sure his superiors wanted, this thoughtful fellow asked the uncomfortable question every movement has to ask itself.  No, not the obvious “Why won’t the [non-believers] listen to us?,” but rather “Why should [non-believers] listen to us?”

By that he meant what should non-believers make of  the fact that so many Catholics act and react exactly the way that non-Catholics do in regards to marriage (Catholic have about the same divorce rate as non-Catholics) and anger (Ever been to a football game between two Catholic colleges?). He even acknowledged in one of the great euphemisms of all time, that the Church undermined its position as arbiter or morals when it did “a terrible job of taking care of the children” entrusted to its care.  Of course, he went on to say that the Church, despite the apparent hypocrisy (he never used that term, however),  was still important since it had the Gospel as its foundation.  However, the  implied point was made — at least to me — that this one priest was beginning to see just how non-believers (and a great many believers) have come to view the Roman Church and the utter failure of its moral authority. That’s moral growth in my book.

To remedy this perception, the priest suggested that clergy and laity alike live a life of example of what is good about religion — its compassion and commitment to human relationships like marriage and child rearing. I was struck that he said this with no visual sign of the irony of decrying a legal decision that embodied both. I like to think he understood the contradiction and was wrestling with the moral challenge in his own mind.

I think many churchmen have a moral struggle raging in their brains. Can I believe only what the Church teaches despite its obvious human cost to gay parishioners? Am I compelled by my profession to espouse positions that my intellect, at the very least, tells me is questionable or, at most, finds to be incredible?

I think that moral dilemma is real and pervasive. There is a program sponsored in part by atheist writer Richard Dawkins and his Foundation for Reason and Science. Known as The Clergy Project, it’s purpose is to provide a “safe haven” for those members of the clergy who wish to move beyond the supernatural beliefs of their job and quit towing the party line. It offers counseling and guidance for those people who have lost their faith in the structure of their religion but not necessarily its spiritual goals.

Here is part of the testimonial from John Compere, PhD who lost his faith but not his interest in the spiritual:

I was a fifth-generation Baptist minister, ordained at age 18, while in college.  I  served until age 32 when I left the ministry and the church to get a PhD in Clinical Psychology.  I had already completed a three-year seminary degree following college, which only increased my doubts about the authenticity of the theology I had learned from childhood.  Leaving the ministry was not an easy decision to make since all my friends and family were in the church.  But it was a decision I ultimately HAD to make if I didn’t want to risk being publicly phony and privately cynical.   I became an agnostic, then an atheist, NOT because I hadn’t read the Bible, but because I had!  An atheist, by the way, is simply someone who does not believe in a supernatural being.  I am convinced that the evidence supports that view.  All religion suffers from being bound by unchanging myth.

As a psychologist, I continued to try to help people find meaning in their lives.  I taught at the university and medical school, had a private clinical practice, and then became a professional speaker on “Psychology You Can USE!”  I seriously doubt that life has any ultimate meaning, but I’m convinced that we can make our own meaning, and I have spent the last 45 years since I left the ministry trying to help people do just that.  Success is not the goal — all therapists have dealt with many a successful person who was miserable — life satisfaction is the goal.

I think we underestimate the struggle many religious leaders deal with in promoting ideas that do not stand up to their reasoning skills or which violate their own hard-wiring for compassion.  We know now that even babies –without the sine qua non of religion, moral instruction — have intuitions which reveal to them societal mores concerning right and wrong. According to  Paul Bloom, the Brooks and Suzanne Ragen professor of psychology at Yale University in his new book, Just Babies:

 Humans are born with a hard-wired morality, a sense of good and evil is bred in the bone. I know this claim might sound outlandish, but it’s supported now by research in several laboratories. Babies and toddlers can judge the goodness and badness of others’ actions; they want to reward the good and punish the bad; they act to help those in distress; they feel compassion, guilt and righteous anger.

Which brings me back to today’s homily at St. Mary’s Parish. As I listened to our priest I had the distinct impression — without one iota of verifiable proof, mind you, just those intuitions formed long ago — that I was listening to a man who had serious misgivings about what he was saying. I thought he was obliquely apologizing for the hypocrisy that was ever so apparent from an institution railing against the homosexual lifestyle it perceives as immoral but failing to come to grips with the moral cesspool it had created for itself with lies, denial, and protecting the abominable acts of its priests. I thought that must be a terrible way to live one’s life — if that was truly what was going on.

As a lawyer and one dedicated to the victory of reason over religious intolerance, I thought I would leave church feeling angry about the homily I  thought was sure to come. I walked out feeling a little sad.

Sources: The Clergy Project; CNN

~Mark Esposito, Weekend Contributor

58 thoughts on “On The Wrong Side, Again … But Maybe Some Self-Growth”

  1. Thank you C.S.! I suspect it was my use of three hyperlinked URLs, then, which begged for a little less emphasis. “Everything in moderation,”… right?

  2. Dr. Matt
    There are three things that can happen to a comment:
    1) Askimet identifies it as spam and sends to the spam folder. You should know that Askimet is often set to “extra grumpy” by the people that run it. No one knows the algorithms they use, but we have discovered that really long comments, especially those that may contain formatting, are often snagged.

    2) if it says “awaiting moderation” that means you violated one of the settings. For example, the limit on links in a single comment is two. Three or more links and it goes to moderation.

    3) You used one of the four naughty words on the blocked list and it goes either to the moderation folder or to the trash. Some comments (very few) are sent to the trash manually. Those include revealing somebody else’s personal information, ugly personal attacks with no redeeming social value, or the comment was so offensive as needing to be hidden from view.

    As for moderation, the weekend front page bloggers used to be able to help with moderation, but when the format of the blog was revised, the new settings made guest writers “authors” instead of “editors.” We can’t even retrieve our own comments from the spam filter any more. At the moment, Professor Turley and his son Ben are the only moderators.

    Hope this helps.

  3. Well, in my book, whether or not Emily Post was seated at his dinner table, unawares… Dahmer’s dining on the evidence of his own criminal homicide is pretty bad, no matter how you slice it. It seems a contradiction in terms to the word “manners.” Jeffrey Dahmer (aka “Milwaukee Cannibal”)

  4. mespo:

    In all fairness, I don’t know that we know enough about Mr. Dahmer’s sense of etiquette to suggest that he had bad table manners.

  5. Here’s the subject comment, verbatim (Part I):

    Dr. Matt

    Your comment is awaiting moderation.

    More “Virginia in the News”

    To all legal minds in the room: In re. above references to the 13th Amendment, what say ye in defense or opposition to the position that the 13th Article of Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was legally ratified when Virginia published it, but was removed from wide national publication for political reasons? (I am referring here to the Amendment known as the “Titles of Nobility and Honor Amendment.”



  6. Thank you, Charlton (if I may), and as to the reason I asked… one of my earlier comments seems to be trapped in a queue, Askimet’s, I presume, since “awaiting moderation” appears in plain view,

    I’d just edit the text rather than writing anew, but editing comments isn’t in my purview. Perhaps you can see mine between those of David and you, it’s pegged to be censored. Why? I haven’t a clue.

    Unaware of the hours I should leave allowance to pass, certainly more than enough have more than already lapsed. (I posted it 3 minutes past half past evening’s eight, last.)

    [That’s awful!].

  7. Giovanna De La Paz:

    “Mr. Esposito,
    You ridicule not only the Catholic Church, but other Christian institutions, and the Bible for believing in the “supernatural.” You invite them to abandon their beliefs by reading a book by Richard Dawkins, an atheist, as well as to seek a “safe haven,” in his flock. I see that you enjoy slapping the face of those with whom you don’t agree.”

    I’ve done no such thing. I never advocated any book nor invited anyone to do anything at all. I merely observed that the Catholic religion is reeling from the internal conflict of preaching morality while not practicing it itself. A point made not by me first but by my parish priest. In that hypocrisy, the Church has lost the right to any moral authority over anyone and is losing both followers and clergy alike. Thus its pronouncements about the so-called “sins” of the secular world fall on deaf ears. As to slapping faces, I note with irony such an assault is likely the mildest form of abuse levied on the children under the care of the Church fathers whom you so vigorous defend. Dismissing the scandal of child rapes and subsequent institutional coverups as merely a “humiliating stain” is akin to describing Jeffrey Dahmer’s crimes as simply bad table manners.

  8. Dr. Matt,
    There is no “moderator” per se. Askimet is the spam filter, and it is as quirky as the rules of figure skating.

  9. Mr. Esposito,
    When one looks at a subject matter, s/he can twist and manipulate that subject matter to fit his/her comfort zone. You have done just that. You ridicule not only the Catholic Church, but other Christian institutions, and the Bible for believing in the “supernatural.” You invite them to abandon their beliefs by reading a book by Richard Dawkins, an atheist, as well as to seek a “safe haven,” in his flock. I see that you enjoy slapping the face of those with whom you don’t agree. Yet, your telling many Christian Churches to abandon their supernatural beliefs to suit the modern concept of gay marriage. To do that would be to abandon their moral beliefs.
    The whole idea of a gay marriage is simply a legality that allows a partner to reap the benefits that ordinarily go to a spouse.
    The act of matrimony was built upon the promise to God to love and care of a man and a woman for each other, as well as all the children brought into the household. Marriage is also a purpose of birthing children and continuing the creation process as handed down by God. Through marriage, the man and woman are to live their promise to God to love, nurture, and secure the rights of the children they bring into the world. This is what is taught and believed in most faiths, not just Christian faith.
    You are telling Christian’s to “move beyond their supernatural beliefs,” which is impossible to do and remain faithful to God.
    Lastly, you ridicule the Catholic Church for the immoral acts that have taken place–something that has been a humiliating stain on the church. But those acts are created by people who, like other human beings, have twisted and manipulated their faith to fit their own personal agenda. Lay your stones down Mark, for you, nor I, are stainless and cannot justify throwing the first stone.

  10. As a third generation member of the ordained clergy (my dad and his dad were both ordained clergy), I have a simple way to deal with “the supernatural.”

    Whenever anything comes to my attention that appears to me as though supernatural, I simply enlarge my understanding of what is natural to include it.

    By so doing, I never encounter anything whatsoever that is supernatural.

  11. More “Virginia in the News”

    To all legal minds in the room: In re. above references to the 13th Amendment, what say ye in defense or opposition to the position that the 13th Article of Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was legally ratified when Virginia published it, but was removed from wide national publication for political reasons? (I am referring here to the Amendment known as the “Titles of Nobility and Honor Amendment.”




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