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. Tourismtommy:

    You’re neither ignorant nor a prude and you surely know that. If true you wouldn’t be here with such a thoughtful comment. What you are like all of us to some extent is a product of our conditioning. You have to break that conditioning by analyzing for yourself and that process of learning how to critically accept or reject information that varies or comports with your conditioning takes time. You have to learn from great thinkers how to think. We’re lucky to have such a find cast of thinkers here to learn from. That’s why I’m here early everyday with my pencils sharpened and my desk cleaned off. Prof. Turley has a fine faculty on his blog.

    To answer your question, the public is always the court of last resort in a democracy but the public in the form of a majority can often be wrong when the issue involves emotional social problems. It takes time for progress and the courts have to exercise their traditional role of protecting minorities from getting their rights trampled when those rights are constitutionally protected. It’s worth remembering in one way or another we are all minorities to some majority.

  2. Mespo, I too appreciate your (and most comments) here. You said you “let the decision rest with the public”. I don’t know if the VA constitution was amended but regardless, wouldn’t the “rest of the public” or it’s representatives be the ones who placed the restriction? What about California, which had two votes where the Public said they did not want gay marriage at this time? I do understand that my beliefs and opinions make me an ignorant prude in many intellectual circles but, I hope you and those that disagree will fight for my right to do so, as I would yours.

  3. Not Catholic or Christian, I do not understand if those who are and who choose to not have children or who are unable to bear children OR who don’t marry and have children are condemned by the Church or any churches for not pro-creating.

    And Jane Peters – what’s the “complete waste of time”? Marriage? Not having children? Uncertain what you mean.

  4. Jane:

    The Bible says slavery is right. Is it right in your view then? Infertile heterosexual couples get married all the time. Is that marriage a waste of time?

  5. The bible says it’s wrong. So it is wrong. Same sex marriage isn’t special. No children come into the world as a result. It’s a complete waste of time.

  6. In contrast, the Episcopal Church is reaching out to parishioners like me to help influence the holdouts who won’t get with both the law and the moral imperative of promoting equality for everyone. There was a bulletin a few weeks ago to that effect. I don’t think our parish is going to grumble much. In fact, even though this is a bright red corner of a red state, I have yet to hear any objections from others at the church.

  7. Thanks. Mike A. and the other fine commenters here. I emailed the parish priest with the post and hopefully he will comment. I’m interested to hear what he thinks.

  8. buckaroo:
    I, like Hamlet , still soldier on in the faith of our fathers seeking that better world.


    That wasn’t the faith of my father who thought everyone had the right to be left alone as long as it wasn’t illegal or immoral to a rational mind but I certainly understand if the contrary was the faith of your father. As free citizens, we all soldier on in our positions and then let the decision rest with the public.

  9. It seem our week-end commentator has it all figured out to his satisfaction. However I’m not that fortunate. – I, like Hamlet , still soldier on in the faith of our fathers seeking that better world.

  10. Did the train wreck happen that you expected….. Just amazes me that stupid still gets involved in areas that could cost them tax exempt status….. Excellent job Mark…..

  11. I concur with Larry’s comments and his praise.

    I am Methodist so I don’t know most of the workings of the Catholic Church, yet I wonder if a global confession type of testament where the church would come forward to vet whatever its sins might have been as you had mentioned and some of the issues it struggles with it could offer some relief of the constraints imposed upon individuals and the church itself. Maybe the church can move on from there with the burdens of many generations finally lifted.

  12. Though there is potential for a myriad of problems for a thoughtful person involved in the institution of the Roman Catholic Church, or any denomination that is an institution, is that fact alone. Jesus took express steps not to be an institution during his life and the institutions that have developed around his teachings will always face the hypocrisy that attaches to the mere existence of an institution. Let the great mystery continue, watching is awe and wonder.

  13. “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. ” Under a state’s police power, states do not need specific authority in the Constitution to act. They can act unless there is something in the Constitution that prevents them from acting.

  14. Great job Mark. It is amazing that anyone thinks the government should be concerned about any Church’s teachings. I hope Fr. Mike solves his dilemma. I agree with Fr. Mike that the Catholic Church has a stain on it that dissolves any credibility it may once have had on moral issues.

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