Families, like church congregations, are supposed to get along. Perhaps more than other affiliations, Catholics view themselves as a family—one body—in Christ. As we all know, however, Catholics today are no longer in lock step. We dare to disagree with the Pope, even to reject revealed truths of the faith, and still sit comfortably in our pews each Sunday. Within my own family, a recent volley of e-mail messages between my husband and his parents brought this reality home. I was struck by how clearly their exchange mirrors modern differences within the larger family, the Catholic Church.
I’ve edited out family chit-chat, but otherwise the thoughts are original. This dialogue between a son and his parents began when my husband expressed his opinion that the Boy Scouts of America should not be forced by a court of law to accept practicing homosexuals as troop leaders. He said if the Boy Scouts were no longer free to pursue their own private ideals and goals, then it would no longer be an organization to which he wanted our sons to belong.
Mom: I was surprised, as was Dad, unless you were being facetious, about your attitude toward gays regarding the Boy Scouts. Wow. What is the big deal? If you are serious, I for one am disappointed. But if you are, you must know that heterosexuals commit ninety-five percent of molestations. You would be surprised at the very fine people who have passed through your life and you never knew. Judge not and all that.
Son: As I told Dad, an avowed, practicing homosexual has no place in the Boy Scouts. It would be like a woman sharing a tent with a teenager; it would not be right. The Bible presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity (Gen. 19:1-29, Rom. 1:24-27, 1 Cor. 6:10, 1 Tim. 1:10). Our Church views homosexual acts as intrinsically disordered. They are contrary to the natural law, and the sex act is devoid of the opportunity of the gift of life. The Church says under no circumstances can they be approved.
There is a difference between being homosexual and deciding to openly act on it. That’s where the Boy Scouts have a right to draw the line. If a person who has homosexual tendencies decided to live a chaste life, then perhaps the Boy Scouts should accept such a man into their ranks. Certainly, as a private organization the Boy Scouts has every right to decide who to accept.
Homosexuals should always be treated with respect and compassion. But once they decide to cross the line of chastity and openly promote their choice to live with a person of the same sex as man and wife, that’s where we as Catholics must also stand up and voice the Church’s view: Love the sinner, hate the sin.
Mom: I, of course, expected some doctrinaire stuff from you, my dear son. The fact is that I have had homosexuals in my family, I have taught and worked with them, I have had some as students, and I find intolerance rooted in right-wing conservatism a real shame.
One can find Scripture that defends many positions. Love thy neighbor as thyself, for example. You sound so righteous, so sanctimonious, on almost every human issue. Not one of the gays or lesbians I have known or know is a threat to anyone. Individuals come first; their sexual orientation is secondary. Chastity does not necessarily have to do with sexual conduct—it can have to do with many behaviors and moral issues. And let him who is without sin cast the first stone. Dear old chubby Pope John XXIII let in some fresh air a few years back, but sometimes I think you are gasping for air. Thank the Lord that he is not as judgmental as you are. Once again, I got the clarification I asked for and, of course, I am incredulous that you have become so insulated—no response needed—just as our previous dialogue a few weeks ago, I see your position, I hear it, and I deplore it, but I do not want any unpleasantness. Let us just say that we have communicated, and we will have to disagree totally and wholly on this or on any issues that touch this fundamentalism.
No more preaching please. I got what I asked for and appreciate the time you took. I, for one, am sure there are homosexuals in the heaven you are charting for—Michelangelo and Oscar Wilde among them.
Son: I know you don’t want a response to your last letter, but I must.
When you want to determine the definition of a word you consult a dictionary. The dictionary tells you what the word means. You cannot say a word means something you want it to; the dictionary remains the authority. It is the same for our Catholic faith.
The views I expressed in my last e-mail were taken directly out of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It is not "right-wing fundamentalism" that I preach, it is the authoritative body of our faith. It is not mean-spirited. You cannot decide what you want to believe and be a Catholic. This is not doctrinaire, this is God’s teachings handed down to our Church. I am not preaching, I am following what the Catholic Church teaches.
What would you have me do, write to the Pope and tell him, "Well, my mom says Jesus and you are wrong, so I am not going to follow or listen to some of your teachings anymore, but instead follow my conscience; however, I wish to still be called a Catholic"?
I know you are only following your conscience, which is what our faith calls us to do. But this assumes our conscience has been formed correctly. If what our conscience tells us is contrary to what the Church teaches, then it stands in the way of the truth. We don’t make the rules, God does, and the Catholic Church presents them to us. Any other way is to rationalize our thoughts and actions.
"Let him who is without sin cast the first stone" is only part of it, Mom. The Catechism says, "We have a responsibility for the sins committed by others when we cooperate in them by approving them. . . . Sins give rise to social situations and institutions that are contrary to the divine goodness" (1868–69). It is therefore a social sin to us as Catholics to not disclose these sins when we have an obligation to do so.
Mom: Am so sorry that you want to have the last word on this matter of gays in the pup tent. Wouldn’t it make more sense to teach your children how to deal with such situations rather than insulate them further from reality? That is really a rhetorical question. Of course, I read what you write, sometimes to my dismay, as on these issues where you are intractable. Quoting from the Catechism is really interesting. But I am happy for you that you take such comfort from your references. Truly. Do you think we are not capable of rational decisions? Do you really think that we are bad Catholics, doomed at best? As I said before, I really thought there was some facetious reasoning in what you were saying. Now I accept how you feel—don’t agree—so let’s drop it. Let’s stick to the weather. Still love you and always will whoever you are.
Son: I am disappointed that we cannot have a dialogue on anything, it seems, of substance. Any time there is a disagreement—whether it be abortion, Clinton, home schooling, or homosexuals in the Boy Scouts—you want to cut off discussion. It seems that unless I agree with you, there is nothing to talk about. I find that rather perplexing.
I don’t expect that we would agree on everything (what a boring prospect that would be). I try to defend my positions with data and references. You resort, it seems, to name-calling—"right-wing fundamentalist," "intractable," "narrow-minded," etc.
You have your version of how the world should be and I have mine. You live in a different world than we do, so that would be expected. But it seems to me that you don’t want to debate these issues, you want me to say, "Mom—and I guess Dad, although I’m not clear where he stands on a lot of this stuff—are right and I am wrong."
You challenge me with your observations, and I try to respond with thoughtful, researched answers from my point of view. Isn’t that what a dialogue is all about? We have made some decisions as adults about how we will raise our children, the values we hold important, and the religious beliefs that we have decided are correct. They may grow up and come to different conclusions, as they are entitled to when they are adults. I certainly hope and pray that I will be able, though, to listen to their viewpoints and continue to challenge them with mine, if they go off on a different path than the one we set them on.
It is not easy for us (despite what you may think of North Dakota and its insulation from the "real world") to make some of the decisions we have. We are one of just several families in our parish that home school, and we continually hear about having six children as "being a lot, too much to handle." Patti makes big sacrifices financially, emotionally, and intellectually to stay home and raise our children, but we believe it is the right thing to do.
And the values and morals we are intent on teaching our children do not come willy-nilly. We read the Catechism of the Catholic Church and other Catholic publications and try to listen to what they are saying. It may not be popular, it may not be "mainstream," it may not be what you want to hear, but it is sincere and honest.
Dad: Mom and I received your e-mail inquiring about my viewpoints. I will be as brief as I can be. I am a Democrat—I feel they are more for the middle- and lower-class. Republicans are upper-class and trickle-down. Home schooling: Mom and I were good teachers, maybe great. We talked this over with you and Patti, and I thought my stance was clear. I, like Mom, respect your rights, but home schooling deprives kids of nine hundred hours annually of social interaction and education. Team sports and debates do not make up for all that. Let’s bury this subject. Abortion: I am pro-choice and pro-life. Society does not counsel its women to abort, and the Catholic Church must say to these mothers, "Don’t abort; we’ll take care of your child." It doesn’t happen.
Lastly, on the Boy Scout issue. You tell me about your concerns about one of your boys being in a tent with someone who is gay and that you would ditch scouting. That is throwing the baby out with the bath water. I didn’t give you my answer on how I felt about this situation, but I find it no threat at all except to the gay boy’s rights. Teaching your sons how to deal with the situations you envision should be part of their compassionate but responsible upbringing.
There is nothing in the Scout manual or in the oath that precludes homosexuals from participating. The Pope has not spoken ex cathedra on the subject. A gay Boy Scout is not a practicing gay Boy Scout necessarily. Pedophiles are a danger, and they are usually heterosexual—the priesthood is full of them, if you are up on that research. And if there is inappropriate behavior among Scouts, there should be expulsion just as there should be in the priesthood, although the Church persists in lagging on this.
Let us get beyond this business of you instructing us—no one expects you to agree with us and you are beating a dead horse. I know that you enjoy debate. We certainly argue, Mom and I, and we discuss many issues with friends. But if your only purpose is to pound us into the ground with Scripture and righteousness, you are not perceptive about where we stand.
Mom: A couple weeks ago, I called you after our e-mail exchange. I told you that I wasn’t interested in unpleasantness, I just wanted us to disagree amiably. I repeatedly asked what your purpose is in your persistence in telling me where we were remiss in our opinions. Actually, I never heard a purpose from you other than, I assume, the purpose of persuasion. I told you that wasn’t going to happen. Now I am again getting this barrage of defensive instruction on several other regurgitated issues, and you are obviously unhappy with me—perplexed, you say, at my lack of respect for your positions and how you are raising your family. You are all over the place in your grievances. Why are you rattling these cages over and over? Why do you question us on these issues and then wind up saying that we don’t respect your well-researched opinions? You have no monopoly on reading and examining materials to support your positions. As I have told you, I believe in reading more than one position and that is apparently where some of the difficulty comes in.
I see no point in discussion that turns into this kind of exchange. You take highly conservative political positions, pronounce these to us as gospel, then object when I say you are coming from the far right. That is not name-calling.
I respect the Catholic Church in this day and age because there is genuine dialogue occurring, there is room for this discussion in many corners, and the judgmental stuff takes a back seat to reason and understanding. It is a thinking church, and the few positions that deal with faith and morals from the Vatican are acceptable. You want to label me a troublemaker when I "resort" to name-calling and to opinions that possibly Dad hasn’t got the guts to pronounce for himself.
I have repeatedly said that I respect your right to do what you choose to do in your life. Why is it so necessary to look for some kind of approval? I don’t want you to say, "You’re right, Mom," but I will not be disenfranchised in my religion or my politics because you quote this and that.
I don’t have a version of how the world should be. Over and over, I have told you of the joy I take in having philosophical discussions on all sides with quite a few friends. I am not challenging you on any positions, I am just not allowing you to discount what I believe, who I am, what I hoped for you in raising you, what I focus on in my life and so forth. There are some issues covered in Sirach, especially chapter 3, that might be of interest.
Son: I am not attempting to "pound you into the ground with Scripture and righteousness." I am sorry if that is how you view the situation. I am trying to understand how two very intelligent people can reach certain conclusions. If we all consider ourselves to be Catholics, we can’t all be correct. The Catholic faith is specific about certain issues. Don’t take that statement to mean that I believe only Catholics are "saved" or have a monopoly on "truth," but why bother being one if you don’t want to follow the teachings of the Church?
Dad, you said you are pro-choice and pro-life. The Pope and the Catechism are clear on this issue. The commandment "Thou shalt not kill" is clear. This is not a political issue, this is not about choice—how could it be? Since the first century the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every abortion. The Church says human life must be "protected and respected absolutely from the moment of conception." The Pope has said infanticide is an abominable crime. Furthermore, Catholics who procure an abortion incur excommunication immediately.
Dad, you mentioned "home schooling deprives kids of nine hundred hours of social interaction and education." I wonder how anyone ever got an education before there were government schools? George Washington never went to school, neither did Thomas Jefferson. How did they get so smart? And as I recall they had some social skills.
I am sure these days of metal detectors, negative peer influences, the throttling of creative thinking, the whitewashing of history, and schools that open at 7 a.m. and close at 6 p.m. provide wonderful learning opportunities and social skills.
Home schooling deprives no one of anything. It is an alternative form of education that was around for centuries before the proliferation of the last hundred years of public and private schools. The more we home school, the more convinced I am that we made the right decision.
If Catholics are a body of faith and teachings have been handed down for centuries unchanged, I am curious—how we all can be Catholics? If abortion is okay, is stealing? If the Church’s teachings about homosexuality are incorrect, is adultery okay? Are there no absolutes?
Mom, you said, " I respect the Catholic Church in this day and age because there is genuine dialogue occurring. . . . It is a thinking church, and the few positions that deal with faith and morals from the Vatican are acceptable." This sound to me like what St. Paul warned in his letter to the Romans, 16:17–18: "Take note of those who create dissensions and difficulties in opposition to the doctrine which you have been taught; avoid them. For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by fair and flattering words they deceive the hearts of the simple-minded."
I believe that dissenters in the Church today want to undermine the one holy, Catholic, and apostolic Church and remold it in their own image—a Church that is not of God, that is not the one handed down by Jesus, but only one of many.
What I hear you and Dad saying, I think, is that Catholicism can evolve from what it was to reflect contemporary issues—that Catholic life and theology must be something dynamic, and there should be dissent and dialogue and a changing of the rules and beliefs. However, once there are no absolutes, once we cannot determine what is right and wrong, we are lost in a world of moral relativism and there is no hope that we can discern the objective truth handed down by our Church.
Mom: We got your last e-mail but just ran out of energy. Everyone has made his point. Dad wasn't real thrilled to hear that his opinions were laughable, and I’ve already said that we will just disagree. You want more discussion, I guess, but we just differ, and that should be recognized without damage to our relationship. What works for you is all that matters. Just mark us down as two doddering itinerants who love you and are just not going to beat this issue into the ground.