On the same day that I read the Associated Press report that I referenced yesterday regarding the new Pew Research about same-sex marriage there was another report from Great Falls, Montana. This story struck me as one filled with profound pain and difficulty.
Roman Catholic Bishop Michael Warfel of the Diocese of Great Falls-Billings conducted a meeting with about 300 parishioners from St. Leo the Great Catholic Church in Lewistown on Saturday, September 20. There is a huge controversy inside the St. Leo congregation. Fr. Samuel Spiering, the priest at St. Leo’s, has decided to prohibit a gay couple from receiving the Eucharist unless they take three steps. First, they must legally divorce. Second, they must live separately. And third, they must write a statement affirming that marriage is between a man and a woman. The 300 people from the parish who met with their bishop were said to be evenly divided about the counsel of their priest. (Note: This is not an urban center where large numbers of gays might live in communities.)
The same-sex couple, in this particular instance, involves a man who is 66 and his 73-year old partner. Both have attended St. Leo since 2003 and both sang in the church choir. One is the church organist. The men have been in a “committed” relationship for over thirty years according to various reports and were legally married in Seattle in a civil ceremony in May 2013.
So how does the church, generally speaking, address this problem? I cannot speak for the Catholic Church in particular, though I have some understanding of how this can be addressed canonically and pastorally at the same time. I can speak broadly about the issue and believe that we have here a clear case of “the 900-pound gorilla in the room.”
I am persuaded that there are three concerns for the church in this matter. First, there is a political issue. What is the right response morally and what role does the church have within the culture regarding the debate over marriage? We are clearly divided at many points as touching this issue of the political. Some will fight against same-sex marriage for years to come. Others will focus much more on the issue of what the church can and cannot do morally and shift the focus there rather than upon the cultural debates.
But what I am deeply concerned about is that there are two other important areas of concern for the church as we face this issue in the years ahead. There is the issue of pastoral practice and then the issue of missional church. Both seem to have been lost to most conservatives who stand strongly against same-sex marriage. In reading the story of division at St. Leo’s I sense that both of these are missing from the debate. Let me explain.
Whether you agree with same-sex marriage or not the church must have a pastoral response to real people. This involves caring for them where they are, loving them with the love of Christ and shepherding them with private and public care. This does not mean there is no place for moral courage or personal confrontation about sin. It does mean this must be done in a proper context, with deep concern for the person(s) involved. Pastoral care is never about the political. I care for people who hold many views about many things that are very different from my own moral and spiritual standards.
The third concern I have in these debates is missional. The church is to be a colony of heaven in the midst of the world. It is to be a community of love where people can feel safe, seek help and find community. The mission is to corporately reflect Christ’s grace and love to the world so that people will see us living in relational unity so powerfully that they will conclude that surely the Father who sent the Son into the world to save it is love (cf. John 17). I rarely hear a good discussion about the missional implications of the church’s response to the same-sex issue. Most of what I hear sounds like a harshly discordant note in terms of what the world hears us say about grace and forgiveness. We have reduced the church’s mission to being a moral force in the culture, not a hospital and lighthouse for sinners who want to find their way home to the Father.
I believe more and more younger Christians will push the church to deal with the pastoral and missional issues related to this contentious issue. I do not have simple and easy answers for what this looks like but I am sure that we will never know until we consider all three of these concerns in addressing the same-sex issue inside the church. No issue more threatens to redefine us, and impact our mission negatively at the same time, as this one.
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“I believe more and more younger Christians will push the church to deal with the pastoral and missional issues related to this contentious issue.”
And I would add that more and more of us older folks (>40) will add to that pressure. Whatever our position is on this issue, the response of this parish is clearly not Christ-like. Christ ate and drank with prostitutes. He allowed many to become drunk from the wine he made at a wedding. And more importantly, he turned the OT blessing/curse paradigm inside out and upside down, flabbergasting the good and upright people of his time. He gave us a new way to be blessed, the way of love and the way of peace.
I heard from a pastor recently, an excellent story. A man who was had issues, thought he was a women. The “woman” then dated another man, I believe. The woman attended a church service, asked the pastor if “she” and her man could get married and a couple other questions. The pastor said “Let me think about that.” The pastor got to know the “woman,” who realized the sin in their lives. The “woman” went back to being a man, became a Christian and died within 6 months. If the pastor turned the “woman” away, who knew what might have happened.
BTW, as a Catholic I do agree it is right for a priest to deny someone Holy Communion. It’s a step that shows a person they are in serious sin, and they need their lives changed. In my opinion, it’s like taking they car away from a person who is intoxicated and can’t drive home.
Jodi, what you describe sounds a lot like the OT priesthood system. In the OT, one role of a Jewish priest was to determine who was sinning and was “out” of the community, and who was not sinning and was allowed “in” the community.
I accept that priests can and should exist today, but why is their role the same as before Jesus? Didn’t Jesus fulfill the entire priesthood,saying I am the One Priest? The old way of religion was to have a priest who determined sin according to the written law and oral tradition. The new way Jesus ushered in was to follow the One Priest with His law of love written on our hearts. What am I missing here?
When did Christianity get so wrapped up in rebuilding the very things Jesus fulfilled? Why do I need to have a priest/pastor/shepherd figure telling me when I am sinning and when I am not sinning? Why do we need such a gatekeeper in the doorway of the kingdom of God? Is it not Christ’s kingdom? Is not He the Lord of the Sabbath?
If I am going to jump off a cliff to end my life, and you were next to me, would try to stop me. Not serving communication is a wake up call.
Was St. John the Baptist’s message to sinners pastoral?
“Repent, for the kingdom of the Lord is at hand! Repent for your wickedness, the Lord is at hand! Cast away your sins! Corruption and idolatry are the way of men, money and sexual pleasure are your gods.”
Canon Law would seem to warrant a loving but firm and unambiguous pastoral intervention for such couples:
“Can. 915 …[those] obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to holy communion.”
It’s not about punishment. Whenever communion is withheld, it is a sign to the person from whom it is being withheld and to others aware of the situation that souls are on the line owing to deadly sins and the danger of scandal. The other side of it is that reception in such cases would amount to sacrilege, and priests have a grave pastoral duty to prevent that if at all possible.
Jodi, if you were going to jump off a cliff I would show love to you be being a friend and listening to what you say. I would not try to stop you. I would try to lead you away from the cliff.
Michael, yes St. John’s messages is pastoral. Priests, who have been disarmed by Jesus, should be very very careful about binding something like that on earth. What we bind now will be bound in heaven. What you describe, the working of the law, sounds like what is called a cursed way of life by Scripture and an usurping of the Spirit’s role in sanctification.
Brian, we should listen, far more than we speak, and we ought to pray daily for an increase of grace to listen well and to grow in the virtue of patience.
However, admonishing sinners is one of the spiritual works of mercy, and is a serious obligation for all Christians. When a person or persons have gone hard over to proclaiming that “evil is good” – by word and/or deed – then there is a very serious obligation, especially for a pastor, to teach and correct so as to save souls and to prevent as far as possible others from going down the same path owing to temptation, confusion, etc.
Brian, I have great trouble understanding your last comment in light of the example and teaching of that great pastor of souls, the Apostle St. Paul. See, for example, Galatians 5:13-21; 1 Corinthians 5:1-13; 1 Corinthians 11:27-30.
I’m not sure I understand your misunderstanding 🙂 My point is that priests now have a different role than in the old covenant.
Those verses you mention, indicate to me that not a single one of us will inherit the kingdom of God. According to Jesus, I fit every one of those categories listed even thought I have not committed most of the actions listed. How can my righteousness surpass that of those who were the best at keeping themselves morally clean? What is your understanding of those verses?
Brian, you cannot continue to do those things and expect to go to Heaven. You must repent of them, be reconciled to God through the ministry of His Church so as to live in a state of grace, and then do your best to not commit them again. If you fall into them once more, then you will need to start over – repent, be absolved, try again… The good news is that with the help of God’s grace and the working of the Holy Spirit, it *is actually possible* to grow in virtue and to stop committing mortal sins altogether. It’s not easy – dying to yourself will never be easy – but that’s what you must do, with God’s help. God be praised, if you die in a state of grace, then you will inherit the kingdom of God. If you die outside of a state of grace, then you will burn alive in Hell for all eternity. That’s the awful truth, but nonetheless a great motivator in begging for God’s help to turn away from sin and grow in sanctity, i.e. in love of God and neighbor.
Michael, that is the most elegant description of what I call the hamster wheel gospel I’ve read yet. My claim is that it we all will die outside of what you call a “state of grace” Using your terminology, not a single person who ever lived, apart from Jesus, died “in grace”. Jesus died outside the gates and we will find Him only by going outside the camp where He is.
The gospel has nothing to do with dying in a state of grace. The gospel Jesus and Paul taught has everything to do with living in a state of grace. Heaven has already begun in my soul, my righteousness already has surpassed that of the Pharisees and my conscience is clean regarding my eternal state due solely to what Jesus has already done and is doing and will do, according to His promises and His last prayer from the cross.
Brian, peace of Christ be with you. Your ideas are contrary to the truth revealed by God, lived and taught and explained by Christ’s Church and her Saints over 20+ centuries. I pray in time you will consider forsaking them in order to make a true embrace of Christ and His Church. And why? Because I want to spend eternity in Heaven with you. Now, I am a sinner, but I hope in God’s mercy and by Divine Grace I hope to make it through those pearly gates. I am concerned that your false beliefs are hardening your heart to the graces of repentance and growth in true sanctity, and thus you are on the wide path to everlasting unhappiness. God bless you.
“We have reduced the church’s mission to being a moral force in the culture, not a hospital and lighthouse for sinners who want to find their way home to the Father.”
So back to John’s article. Michael, you expressed what I suspect is at the heart of the division in the local church mentioned in the article. The surface issue is same-sex marriage. The deeper issue is the gospel. Are we not free to work out our understanding of the gospel?
I am certain I will stand before God on Judgment day with flawed theology. We all will. But I won’t stand there without having loved, even having loved those who condemn my theology and understanding.
Although John and I have nearly opposite ideas about this issue, I fully agree with all 3 concerns raised in the article, especially your third point, that we’ve left out the missional aspect of all this:
“The third concern I have in these debates is missional. The church is to be a colony of heaven in the midst of the world. It is to be a community of love where people can feel safe, seek help and find community. The mission is to corporately reflect Christ’s grace and love to the world so that people will see us living in relational unity so powerfully that they will conclude that surely the Father who sent the Son into the world to save it is love (cf. John 17). I rarely hear a good discussion about the missional implications of the church’s response to the same-sex issue. Most of what I hear sounds like a harshly discordant note in terms of what the world hears us say about grace and forgiveness.”
You can and should grow in a personal understanding of the Gospel, but it must be guided by a sure authority which is outside of and above yourself, namely Christ’s Church, which is the pillar and foundation of truth. You don’t need perfect theology; but if you drift into error, then you must be willing to be corrected by the Church’s authoritative teaching. A gospel which does not lovingly but pointedly distinguish good from evil and cry out for men to repent of evil thoughts, words and deeds is not a gospel, but rather a death sentence.
Michael, I’m out of words. I just have a song from my gay rights blog:
That’s a pretty song, Brian, thank you for sharing it with me.
Thanks, John. This is helpful and wise.
Michael, just for future reference, in case you share your gospel, this good news with someone not as strong in their Christian faith as I am, someone not as familiar with the grace and truth of God as I am, someone not as knowledgeable about the bible as I am, your gospel sounds like the message of the Cybermen in Dr.Who — either upgrade or be deleted:
Peace of Christ be with you, Brian. The True Gospel will always be challenging to hear, even for those with ears.
How many walked away from our blessed Lord when he spoke of the Eucharist of his flesh and blood? (cf. John 6) And our Savior himself said: “Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few. Not every one who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” (Matt 7:13-14,21)
More than one 900 pound gorilla in this room, it seems to me.
John – I so much appreciate your heart for missional ecumenism. Time and time again I agree with your assessment. The area I struggle with you state quite well, “I do not have simple and easy answers for what this looks like.” How do we love and yet proclaim God’s truth? Even the examples set by Jesus makes it difficult for me to know how to proceed when dealing with these complicated issues. Jesus warned us that by being His follower it will bring division; it will even split families apart. The words of our Savior at times brought unity and at other times they brought division. I think of the rich young ruler walking away saddened by the command of Jesus, “Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come follow me.” The very words that bring life drove him away. The adulterous woman experienced our Lord’s mercy by His comment, “Then neither do I condemn you”. But, those words of grace were followed by, “Go now and leave your life of sin.” And finally, Jesus was very clear when he said, “The world cannot hate you, but it hates me because I testify that what it does is evil” (John 7:7). What a great challenge is set before the Church today.
I have a theory (perhaps a bad one). It appears to me that the power of Spirit of God, that brings great conviction of sin, is nearly absent in most churches today. If God is at work in our churches, how can people be spiritually asleep and unaware of sin in the lives? When the conviction of the Spirit is absent, we are left with “sin police” to point out the errors of others. When God is present, in all His glorious majesty, man has only 2 options: run and hide, or fall upon his face and repent.
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