Wednesday, September 25, 2013

“Avoiding controversy risks your relevancy.”

Barry Gordy wasn’t defending religious controversies when he said, “Avoiding controversy risks your relevancy.” Gordy was defending Elvis’ music when it got caught up in the debate over racial equality. The quote works whether talking about musicians or church leaders who try to avoid controversy. Elvis didn’t shrink from it. Neither should we.

Recently Rev. Paul D. Etienne, Wyoming’s Catholic Bishop, responded to my column on the Pope’s assertion that gays shouldn’t be marginalized. The Bishop argues I was in error reading the Pope’s words as a change in Catholic doctrine. He acknowledged why the Catholic Church has withdrawn its membership from the Wyoming Association of Churches, citing disagreements, “such as (WAC’s) lack of support for the unborn or any kind of defense for traditional marriage.”

The Bishop added, “Happily, we as Catholics share a number of beliefs in common with other Christian denominations. Sadly, we still have strong disagreements regarding the application of our belief in Christ and his teachings to the social issues of our day.”

Having made that argument, the Bishop said, “I will not argue those differences in a forum such as this. The dignity of our faith is above such public banter.”

That’s an odd assertion from a representative of a Church that involves itself fully in very public “bantering” on issues ranging from immigration reform to marriage equality and, of course, abortion rights.

As for me, the “dignity” of my faith requires such “public banter.” Those we seek to teach and lead, and even more so, those who are impacted by our teaching are entitled to a public debate. There is far more dignity in a public discussion than one targeted only to those in your pews. Questions, such as those named by the Bishop, have answers that create winners and losers and impact what lawmakers and judges decide.

Take for example, the issue of ending job-related discrimination against the LGBTQ community. The Bishop’s quoted Section 2358 of the catechism “in which chastity and homosexuality are addressed. In referring to people with homosexual tendencies, it states, ‘They must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.”

Regardless of your position on the nature of marriage, it seems elementary that permitting employers to fire someone because of sexual orientation is “unjust discrimination” which under the catechism “should be avoided.”

Yet the US Conference of Catholic Bishops told Congress job-related discrimination can’t be equated with ‘unjust discrimination,’ because the teaching is based on fundamental truths about the human person.” They worried that if Congress denied employers the ability to fire good workers because of sexual orientation, following Church teachings would be penalized.

I suppose that’s true just as when Congress and the courts finally determined that following religious teachings about inter-racial marriage, racial segregation, and the treatment of women should be penalized.

There’s a limit in a democratic society on the reach of church teachings. They might well be used to control who can join and remain a member of your faith and receive communion (though even Judas received communion just before betraying Jesus). But once you get beyond the church door, the US Constitution prevails.

However, that line continues to be blurred by lawmakers seeking to impose their beliefs on others and by Church leaders who use their pulpits to either endorse political candidates. Recently Detroit Archbishop Vigneron said receiving Communion while supporting same-sex marriage would “logically bring shame for a double-dealing that is not unlike perjury.”

Raymond Leo Burke, of the Vatican’s highest court, said it’s impossible for politicians to be in good standing as a Catholic and support “the killing of children in the womb.”  

A debate over the use of such tactics, aimed at making or changing public policy is much more than “public banter.” The dignity of our flock requires a thoughtful dialogue.

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