“In the early 1980s there was a growing reaction in the Church against the heterodoxy that was rampant in the ’70s. The NFP movement was part of that. Wouldn’t it be great, we thought, if whole communities sprang up where people dissented from the dissent, broke with contemporary sexual ethics, took up home-schooling, etc. etc. It is really disheartening to hear in people who apparently came of age in just such communities the same tone of resentment and bitterness that I heard from older Catholics ca. 1980 about their upbringing in the ’40s and ’50s. I’m not saying I blame you for feeling that way. Quite possibly I would, too, if I’d been in similar circumstances. But it’s really sad.”
That is a comment by my old friend Maclin Horton from the comboxes on the zombie NFP thread, the one that started over two years ago and is still alive. It is a comment that is made more poignant by the fact that Maclin was the assistant editor of Caelum et Terra, a print magazine I edited that was published from 1991 to 1996. It was the remote predecessor to this blog.
And it is poignant because of my personal history.
Maclin speaks of the early 80s, which is when we met. He had written a long autobiographical piece detailing his journey to the Catholic faith for The National Catholic Register, long before it was owned by EWTN, or before that the Legionnaires. It may be hard to believe now, but at that time The Register was a lively paper, full of fine journalism.
When I read Maclin’s tale, I was struck by how much our journeys had in common, and I wrote him, care of the paper. He wrote back, we corresponded for a while, eventually met, became good friends and then in time embarked on our too-brief publishing adventure.
It is hard to express what it was like in those heady days; we were young, newly converted or, in my case, returned to the Church, inspired by the charismatic Pope John Paul II, engaged in what we saw as a great endeavor. The Church was a mess, in a very different way than it is today, and we – we thought – had the recipe for a renewed orthodoxy. We were, we thought, building a vibrant and countercultural alternative.
And in time many grew disillusioned.
People naively had large families, learning too late how difficult this is on one working class income. NFP proved not only a strain on relationships but unreliable to most. Marriages broke up, often shocking friends of the couples. Homeschooling was a bust for many, or typically, resulted in brilliant first and second children reading Tolkien at 5, with the sixth or seventh semi-literate at 12. By 13 or 14 such children often rejected the Faith, as well as the ethos of their parents.
And of course, most of what we thought was going to be countercultural ended up subcultural, uncritical of the American thing except on matters of sexual morality. Republicanism became dominant in so-called “orthodox Catholic” circles and those of us who were more radical were shunned, or at least viewed with suspicion.
And then, at the time of our disillusionment, appeared Pope Francis.
To those who are satisfied, thank you, with the state of the American Catholic Right, he is increasingly seen as problematic. He ignores liturgical rules, he de-emphasizes things that are central concerns to “orthodox Catholics”, instead emphasizing justice and concern for the poor. He is clearly no friend of libertarian economics.
And while all this is fine with me, and his surprise election seems providential, the other day he gave even me pause when he spoke of not judging homosexuals.
Not that I think we should judge anyone; Lord knows that gay people present a real pastoral challenge to the Church, one requiring much mercy and patience. But he was speaking in this context of a gay priest, and his tone seemed very different than the longtime, and long ignored, prohibition on deeply rooted homosexuals seeking ordination.
This oft-breeched ban makes sense to me, both ontologically and practically. If the priest stands in the place of Christ, and the relationship of Christ and the Church is a spousal one, and if grace builds on nature, then the man who is ordained ought to be oriented toward women; a lack of this natural orientation would seem a deficit in the candidate.
And it makes sense practically and pastorally as well: gay priests, at least those with obviously feminine mannerisms, invite derision in young men. We saw this a few years ago, when we attended a liturgy at a Ukrainian Catholic church near us. During the homily the young priest’s mannerisms were so flamboyant that the kids stole glances at each other and snickered. We shushed them, but all the way home they mocked him. To the younger ones he was just goofy, but to the older ones his assumed homosexuality invited ridicule. They still, occasionally, will bring him up.
No, they are not being raised homophobically, but just as they ignore my entreaties to nonviolence, kids have their own agenda and after a certain age parental influence wanes.
This priest later was videotaped in a police station after a drunk driving arrest, and the humiliating video went viral. I stumbled upon it once, and it was so painful to watch I could only view it for a few moments. That so many treated the video, in which a man is destroying his life and reputation, with glee just confirms the fact that humans can be cruel. Fortunately, my kids are unaware of the young priest’s fate.
But of course, as in every Franciscan enigma, the pope is not changing any doctrine, or at this point, even any discipline.
He did not say a word about the immorality of homosexual acts or the presence, among the clergy, of homosexual priests.
He talked about forgiveness.
He talked about Love.
Francis seems intent on recalling us to the heart of the Gospel, of waving away anything that distracts us from the Mercy we have been given.
To many of us, burnt out on American Catholicism and humbled by the way our smug convictions have been mugged by reality, this pope, and his call to love, are a gift.