More Episcopal Polarization: A Sign of the Times?


According to the New York Times, the U.S. Supreme Court on Friday (January 16, 2015) agreed to decide whether all 50 states must allow gay and lesbian couples to marry. The court’s announcement made it likely that it would resolve one of today’s great civil rights questions before its current term ends in June.

If indeed same-sex marriage becomes legal across the United States, what will be the reaction of our U.S. Catholic bishops? My guess would be even more of a stormy and polarizing polemic, if recent developments in Miami are any indication.

Same-sex marriage became legal in the State of Florida on January 6, 2015. Immediately, Thomas Wenski, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Miami, went into action and sent a memo to all church employees reiterating that any expressions of support for gay marriage — even if only a tweet or a Facebook post — could cost them their jobs.

Archbishop Wenski is convinced that those in favor of same-sex marriage are doing so “solely for adult gratification” and has said that same-sex marriages “will lead to polygamy.” How that works, I don’t understand. In any event, he has no tolerance for people advocating an expanded understanding of marriage.

“Whatever the role in which you serve within the Archdiocese, you publicly represent the Catholic Church and the Archdiocese in everything you do and say,” Wenski wrote to church employees and included an excerpt from the Archdiocese of Miami employee handbook, stating that all archdiocesan workers “are expected to conduct themselves in a moral and ethical manner consistent with Catholic principles.”

The handbook goes on to state that conduct inconsistent with Catholic teachings could lead to an employee’s being fired, “even if it occurs outside the normal working day and outside the strict confines of work performed by the employee for the Archdiocese…..Employees should exercise discretion when posting on social media sites, and note that online activity indicative of prohibitive behaviors may subject an employee to disciplinary action or termination.”

Archbishop Wenski chairs the USCCB Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development. Is there some irony here? Justice? Human development?

Across the Atlantic in Belgium, Johan Bonny, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Antwerp, sees life differently.

The official teaching that the Catholic Church can only recognize male-female committed relationships has to change, Bishop Bonny said in 2014 a few days after Christmas. “There should be recognition of a diversity of forms,” he said. “We have to look inside the church for a formal recognition of the kind of interpersonal relationship that is also present in many gay couples. Just as there are a variety of legal frameworks for partners in civil society, one must arrive at a diversity of forms in the church….The intrinsic values are more important to me than the institutional question. The Christian ethic is based on lasting relationships where exclusivity, loyalty, and care are central to each other.”

Bonny made headlines in September 2014 when he issued a letter to the Vatican in preparation for the Synod on the Family in October. At that time, Bonny stressed that the church urgently needs to connect with contemporary society, showing more respect for homosexuality, divorced people, and modern kinds of relationships.

“In his or her life,” the Belgian bishop said “everyone has to deal with relationships, friendship, family, and children’s education. We should not deny that dealing with these issues within the church has brought injuries and traumas. Too many people were excluded for a long time.” Bonny said the open-minded spirit and pastoral focus of Pope Francis have given him the courage to speak out about issues that are important and pressing for today’s believers.

The Catholic bishops of Germany, according to various news reports, will soon approve a change in policy that will allow people in same-sex marriages and people divorced and remarried to still work for church agencies. Archbishop Stephan Burger of Freiburg im Breisgau said that the German bishops would change their existing policy to preserve the “credibility” of the Church. The German bishops had scheduled a vote on the policy for their November 2014 meeting, and reportedly were prepared to endorse the change; but the vote has been postponed until April 2015.

Polarization. It won’t disappear tomorrow. Some of it is quite serious. Some of it is courageously prophetic. Some of it is silly but nonetheless frightening…..Cardinal Raymond Burke, formerly of St Louis, Missouri, warned a few days ago about the feminization of the church. He blames altar girls for a shortage of vocations to the priesthood; and he blames women for clerical sexual abuse. How that works I don’t understand either.

Cardinal Burke has launched a program called “the new eMANgelization” of the church (my emphasis…). Burke wants to put more (more?) men in charge and get women out of the sanctuary. “Apart from the priest, the sanctuary has become full of women…” Burke said, and continued “…the activities in the parish and even the liturgy have been influenced by women and become so feminine in many places that men do not want to get involved.” I call this cardinatial gynophobia. It is a serious disease.

One thing for sure: the Catholic Church will not be dull in the coming months.

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