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Pondering premise that some things cause confusion among the faithful


Every week I see them go down the aisle to Communion, the parents teaching all the way: “Fold your hands. Like this.” “Hold your hand out straight for the priest.” The children are about 7 and 8 now. The little boy cranes his neck out of his stiff shirt. The little girl touches the bow in her hair lightly, lovingly, her light cotton skirt swishing as she walks. They all receive Communion every Sunday. You can see the delight on the children’s faces as they come back up the aisle. You can hear their parents’ pride in them at the coffee klatch after Mass.

The parents are professional people who couldn’t conceive, so they adopted two minority children. They only intended to take the boy but when they saw his little sister, they couldn’t bear to separate them. It’s a joy to watch them grow. It is a “Catholic Family of the Year” vignette.

I can never help but wish, as I see them, that some other children we are watching grow -- such as Malachy and DJ and Daniel -- had a home even remotely like this one. Their mother has been married three times. The last father, a policeman, picked the children up by the hair on their heads when they were small and held the muzzle of his big gun against their temples to terrorize them. When the boys were in their early teens, the latest husband threw one of them down the stairs and then put them out of the house. They have nothing: no clothes, no training, no religion, no love.

Neither vignette is fictional. Both of them involve real people in real places. The second couple is heterosexual; the first couple is gay. Tell me again about what it is to be “intrinsically evil” and “essentially disordered?” I’m confused.

I’m confused about more than that. I’m confused about the fact that the keepers of the faith in the Vatican can possibly tell Jeannine Gramick of the School Sisters of Notre Dame and Salvatorian Fr. Bob Nugent to cease their ministry to the homosexual community, not because they are not teaching Catholic doctrine on the subject -- something the Vatican has not been able to prove, apparently -- but because Jeannine and Bob will not reveal their own personal, internal, conscientious position on it (NCR, July 30).

In what other ministry is a person asked to declare public assent to ecclesiastical documents on moral questions in a church that has traditionally forbidden any superiors to demand a manifestation of conscience from those whose lives they touch? In what other ministry must the minister declare an opposition in conscience to the underlying issue of the ministry at hand? What military chaplain is asked to declare a personal opposition to nuclear weapons? What prison chaplain is asked to say that all killing is morally evil when the state has sliced the act up into first, second and third degrees? Are these invasions of private conscience where we’re going?

For hundreds of years, we had something “intrinsically evil” -- slavery -- that the church argued was “the natural order of things.” Then we discovered that it wasn’t. So who sinned? Those who said it wasn’t natural or those who said it was? Surely conscience is part of what enables change.

Conscience questioned the naturalness of male supremacy and the natural inferiority of women long before this pope did. Conscience changed its mind about the nature of nature, too, after centuries of our destruction of the globe. Is conscience a thing of the past in the Catholic church?

In fact, is ministry a thing of the past when people are told not to minister even to the parents of those someone somewhere calls sinners? Or are we to understand that the parents are “disordered,” too, and that’s the reason their children are homosexual? Are we saying woe to the parents whose children do not meet someone else’s standard of perfection? No help for them? No support for them?

Most of all, what kind of signal is this to those, already homophobic, who now see themselves as having been given the moral right to hate? How many more Matthew Shepards of the world will be left to die on redneck fences thanks to this kind of rejection by the churches, the systems that should most reveal the love of God for them?

It is a sad moment, this investigation not of doctrine but of conscience. It is sad not just for the gay community that stands to lose hope of the spiritual home carved out for them by Jeannine and Bob. It is a sad moment, as well, for any of us whose conscience is still forming on so many subjects -- cloning, surrogate motherhood, nuclear weaponry, genetic engineering, women’s ordination, the nature of life, Eastern religions -- and who before the end of the 21st century will be taxed on so many more. Can we all be marshaled out of ministry in the church because of questions of conscience? What do we do in a case like this to show support for Jeannine, Bob, the gay community and the sanctity of the human conscience at a time like this?

They tell a story about the king of Denmark at the time of the Nazi invasion that may give us all a clue. Orders came from Hitler that every Jew in Denmark was to wear the Star of David in order to be singled out for social control. Jews were naturally evil, the Nazis said. The morning after the proclamation, it is told, the king of Denmark appeared on the balcony of the palace wearing a yellow star. That’s conscience.

I am planning to have a pink triangle, the symbol of homosexuality, made with a pendant on it that says, “Don’t ask.” Think about it. Maybe you’d like to wear one, too.

Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister lives in Erie, Pa.

National Catholic Reporter, August 27, 1999