The Role of Dissent in the Catholic Church


August 15, 2010 by D Stack

This blog has been pretty silent of late. It’s been a rough summer. Beyond some family matters, I’ve spent a lot of time wrestling with my Catholic faith. The past few months have had me dealing with…

There’s been some discussion on the internet of late about Ann Rice’s decision to leave the Catholic Church due to these kinds of issues. I’ve been wrestling with it quite a bit myself. I think the church is mistaken in these and many other issues. I don’t see love, I see fear and hate. If I remain a Catholic do I contribute to this fear and hate?

First of all, it is important to discuss why I think the clergy is mistaken. For this blog post I’ll be focusing on a single issue, that of same-sex marriage. But I feel similarly on other issues which I may discuss in the future.

Now one thing that Catholic doctrine states is that it is an imperative to follow one’s conscience. It also dictates that there is, however, a grave responsibility for one’s conscience to be informed. You can, to give a gross exaggeration of an example, be quite sincere in believing that it is good and just to murder strangers and take their money. You’d be grossly mistaken and following a grossly misinformed conscience. So what of same-sex marriage?

To simplify the Catechism of the Church, the purpose of sex is for procreation. This is why same-sex marriage, artificial birth control, sterilization, etc. are all forbidden. It states: “By its very nature the institution of marriage and married love is ordered to the procreation and education of the offspring, and it is in them that it finds its crowning glory.” It also says “Married couples should regard it as their proper mission to transmit human life and to educate their children.”

I have trouble with these statements. It is a matter of papal infallibility, something which no Catholic is allowed to dispute, that Mary, mother of Jesus, was eternally a virgin. Why? Wouldn’t it have been proper for Mary and Joseph, as husband and wife, to have had a sexual relationship? It has long seemed to me that the declaration of Mary being an eternal virgin to be part of a consistent thread of discomfort with sexuality, going all the way back to Saint Paul who advised that while marriage was ok, it would be better to not be married.

Going beyond that I could find other reasons to nitpick. Is sex forbidden for a couple expecting a child? What about for post-menopausal women or for couples who have had a medical condition rendering them sterile?

Regardless, there are people who are gay. Like the people listed above, they cannot produce a child via sexual intercourse. The Catholic Church therefore commits these people to a vow of celibacy more strict than that taken by priests, as a priest can leave the priesthood in good standing, but the only “out” for a homosexual man or woman is “curing” their homosexuality. What kind of horrible god is this who creates people with homosexual urges for which there is no outlet? Some people try to link this to pedophilia, saying “well by your standard, if someone is a pedophile and that’s how they were created, that’s ok.” The difference is a homosexual relationship is not, by its nature, a relationship with someone incapable of giving consent. A pedophile is engaged in an abusive relationship with one who is not, by standards of society and often anatomy, capable of giving consent. I don’t know why some people are heterosexual, some are homosexual. I don’t know why some people are rapists, pedophiles, stalkers, etc. But I do know that there a world of difference between a consensual and a non-consensual relationship.

And everything I’ve experienced and learned in my life tells me that people are built with a certain inclination. There was no day I made a conscious decision to be attracted to women. As I entered puberty, it just happened. And I’ve seen same-sex couples. And I’ve seen their children. And they seem like everyone else. There are some gays and lesbians I’m quite fond of, some who get on my nerves. As it should be. We’re not talking about another species, we’re talking about people of a different sexual orientation. But what I most often see, as a person with two young children and based on the social circles I am in, is people trying to be the best loving parents they can be. People who try to do the best for their kids. Not always succeeding, just like my wife and I don’t always succeed, but trying. And this is supposed to be a mortal sin. But this flies in the face of the Gospel:

Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but underneath are ravenous wolves. By their fruits you will know them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Just so, every good tree bears good fruit, and a rotten tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a rotten tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. So by their fruits you will know them.

– Matthew 7:15-20

Is a loving family a bad fruit? Are children of good character a bad fruit? Not that every family is a loving one, but if there is love, how is that inherently sinful, much less a sin worthy of damnation for. Eternal torment in the fires of hell. For ever and ever.

Do I know better than the pope? The American Bishops, the Pope, they all say I’m grievously mistaken.

What I’ve decided is this. It is possible I do. Not just me, but many others. Does the pope have or had gay co-workers, friends, family members? People he runs into at childcare drop-off? For that matter, I have nearly 14 years experience at being a husband and over 8 being a father. I’ve worried about my wife. I’ve been in the emergency room with my daughter, terrified as to what could be hurting her so badly that she can’t open her eyes. Are these experiences that most Catholic priests, bishops, cardinals, or popes have had?

That is how I got to where I am. It’s not a place I would have pictured myself a decade ago. As I’ve walked along life my experiences have shaped me. And I think it is unfortunate that the hierarchy of the Catholic Church is denied of these experiences. Jesus walked among the people. Spoke with the lowest of the low. The lepers, children, Samaritans, Romans, tax collectors, prostitutes. One of the longest bits of dialogue in the Bible is Jesus speaking with the Samaritan woman at the well, where he reveals he knows she has had several husbands and is living with a man not her husband. Yet he speaks to her of the waters of eternal life. Was she a sinner? No doubt. But we’re all sinners to some extent. My marriage is imperfect. I’d like to say I do the best I can, but I can think of times I did things I’m not proud of. So can, I imagine, everyone else. None of us is without sin.

This took me, not to a crisis of faith, but one of religion. I’ll be honest. I think of myself as a pretty bright guy. But I don’t fully understand the whole idea behind the death and resurrection of Christ being linked to the salvation of man. That is, perhaps, more a matter of faith for me. But the man Jesus is one I greatly admire. Not the fact that he worked miracles. That’s standard for any religious protagonist. But who he worked them for, who he chose to be with, what he said to them. A message of love. Of forgiveness. Of charity.

Does my religious accomplish that? To be honest, for all my problems with the Catholic Church, I do believe it does a lot of good. It is one of the greatest advocates for the poor, the immigrant, the forgotten. It’s not something I want to give up. At the same time, I found I could no longer be relatively silent. Many times in my blog I’ve indicated my problems with aspects of the Church. But I think I need to do more. I’m just one voice but I need to use it as best I can.

I wish I could say with certainty that I’m right about everything I believe. But no one can. But I spent the past few months wrestling with this, foregoing attending mass for the longest time I’ve done as an adult Catholic. I finally dragged myself back today. In no small part it was due to me being scheduled to be a lector at today’s mass – me, the heathen lector… It felt good to be back – it was time in any case. At a meeting after mass I found myself speaking with others and discovered that I’m far from the only person in such a place. Which shouldn’t be too surprising – one of the things that have made this a difficult journey is that I really love my individual parish. But it is part of an organization that I think has forgotten how to walk among the people.

I’m not certain how to help change things. But I’ve decided I deliberately want to do it. Does that make me a cafeteria Catholic? I don’t particularly care. I don’t think agonizing thought is being a cafeteria Catholic. I think it’s trying to follow one’s conscience, trying to inform it both with knowing doctrine and applying one’s own experiences.

My wife is a teacher and tells me if one person asks a question there are probably more people wondering the same thing. So I hope I can serve some people who may be wrestling with the same things I am. I make no claims at perfection, just being a person who wants to leave the world a better, more loving place.

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One thought on “The Role of Dissent in the Catholic Church

  1. Doug Burke says:

    As a lapsed Catholic myself (even though I live in a predominantly LDS location), I have had the same thoughts. Unfortunately, I haven’t had a parish that I have attended regularly since I was in high school, so I less of a grounding in the religion than you, Dan, but I wish I had the nerve to do what you are planning to do. I salute you, sir, and wish you the best of luck.

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