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Chill factor trickles down to lay ministers

By most accounts, Anne and Ed Reynolds are not, save for a few pro-life rallies, political activists. They don’t spend their days calculating how to change the church.

They’ve raised eight kids, sent them all through Catholic elementary and high schools, sent most of them through private Catholic colleges. He’s been a dentist for Carmelite nuns for decades, and both have been eucharistic ministers for nearly two decades. They could be the poster family for a how-to-be-a-good-Catholic campaign.

But they have been made to feel uncomfortable in their own parish, asked not to take their usual place as ministers at the table of the Lord, all because of an opinion they expressed. It was an opinion, voiced as parents, that emerged from the very same instincts and consciences that guided them through so many years of family life.

Those instincts and consciences were formed in the church and are deeply human, holy and thoroughly Catholic and will not permit any individual or institution, even one loyally served for a lifetime, to call one of their children objectively disordered.

A few weeks ago, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago made an appearance at the opening of a meeting of the National Association of Catholic Diocesan Gay and Lesbian Ministries. He wasn’t there to welcome the group as much as he was there to instruct them to refrain from criticizing the recent Vatican discipline of Sr. Jeannine Gramick and Fr. Bob Nugent. The two are widely considered among the most significant forces that have shaped church-based ministry to gay and lesbian Catholics.

Nor, he warned, was the group to mount any opposition to what he termed “the recent clarification of the work of Fr. Nugent and Sr. Gramick.”

The scene was at least odd, a good example of being pastor by fiat.

George is emblematic of a kind of leadership in the U.S. Catholic church that has become increasingly common with the appointments of bishops under John Paul II. Their first mission is loyalty to every utterance coming out of Vatican congregations; their hallmark is absolute certainty.

The recent European Synod shows that at the highest levels of the church deep conflict and differences exist over essential issues. Yet John Paul’s bishops insist that all is settled. And they demand that any dissenting voices be silent.

The Reynoldses in their own way represent many other ordinary Catholics -- in this case, parents of gay and lesbian children -- who feel the cold touch of authoritarian decrees. For the Reynoldses that touch came through a pastor who cited “complaints.” We were unable to ask him questions about the complaints because he refused to come to the telephone, offering a “no comment” through a secretary.

It is not difficult to surmise that the pastor had little stomach for this episode and wishes that it would all simply go away quietly.

George and others at the top ought to know, however, that their actions have consequences, that they reinforce attitudes and embolden the complainers and make the local pastors more fearful.

Meanwhile, the church’s decrees on homosexuality and the demands that issue from them -- live a celibate life or change your sexual orientation -- have little standing beyond those who speak of sexual issues from long discredited viewpoints.

Those in the hierarchy who magnify the Vatican decrees and seek to enforce them by quieting any questions or opinions to the contrary will never get close enough to someone like Anne Reynolds to hear her say: “We’re haunted by the idea that people can be killed for who they are. … It doesn’t help when the hierarchy insists on words like evil, disordered and depraved -- words that justify violence. The bishops don’t mean to do that, but I don’t live in an ivory tower: I live with real people in a real house and I can see how harmful that wording is.”

National Catholic Reporter, November 5, 1999