By Mark Esposito, Weekend Contributor
It’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.
~Mark Esposito, Weekend Contributor