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Issue Date:  November 2, 2007

Closing the door on ourselves

When the musical “Fiddler on the Roof” first opened on Broadway back in 1964, few could have predicted that this tale of a Jewish father struggling to preserve tradition and at the same time to love his five tradition-breaking daughters would become a metaphor for families coping through the 1960s and ’70s with shattering social and religious change.

Recently another father and daughter struggling to resolve differences -- a lesbian lifestyle that challenged his Catholic beliefs -- were barred by archdiocesan pressure from telling their story at a welcoming Catholic parish in Minneapolis. Besides generating publicity for the book that recounts the painful father-daughter exchange, the official decision raises again some equally painful questions about the relationship between struggling Catholics and their church.

Church leaders, of course, have boxed themselves in with tortuous logic on homosexuality that strains to reconcile loving the sinner, hating the sin, accepting those with the orientation (albeit “intrinsically disordered”), and then inviting them to make peace with their church -- once they have renounced their need for sexual intimacy.

The church once viewed itself as a home for everyone and its children as works in progress. The church once had room for all who were a day late and a dollar short of the ideal, whose private lives were compromised by infidelity, racism, addictions, larceny and deception. Sunday Mass was the gathering place for the seven capital sinners, dressed up, mixed up, and trying their best, it was assumed, to navigate life’s contradictions.

Tevye comes to mind again. What guided him in his quandary over his daughters was the image of the village fiddler on his precarious rooftop perch, playing away as the father soliloquized “on the one hand” to “on the other hand,” finally resolving that, whatever his daughters did, they would always be his children, always be loved.

Unfortunately, today’s Catholic leaders, in pursuit of “Catholic identity,” are increasingly less likely to view the church as a gathering place for the faithful-but-flawed. As episcopally fueled battles heat up over who can approach the altar, and who will sort out the sinners from the worthy at Communion time, the locus of exclusion has widened to include not only the altar, but “church property.” Any parish, Catholic high school, college or university, retreat center or medical center had better think twice about hosting controversy, frank discussion, perceived criticism of church policy, prayer services for unapproved themes or any ecumenical event that attracts vituperative e-mails or faxes from those who see scandal and blasphemy everywhere.

In 1997, the U.S. Catholic bishops’ Committee on Marriage and the Family -- in the best of Catholic tradition -- issued a pastoral letter for Catholic families dealing with homosexuality. They called it “Always Our Children.” Its concluding paragraph, addressed to Catholic homosexuals, says:

Though at times you may feel discouraged, hurt, or angry, do not walk away from your families, from the Christian community, from all those who love you. In you God’s love is revealed. You are always our children.

The text would make a wonderful note taped to the church door for returning gays and lesbians trying to resolve their sexual orientation and their faith in stable, productive lives. Except that in an increasing number of cases, they find the church doors locked.

So where then, when our lives get complicated, when our children turn out different from what we thought they would, when controversy invades our homes, do we go? If Catholics can’t turn to their churches as the most appropriate place for hearing one another’s stories and, through them, finding balance and compassion, where will we do the work of reconciliation that makes us church?

National Catholic Reporter, November 2, 2007

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