When asked on Meet the Press this weekend about Michael Sam, the University of Missouri football player who recently announced his homosexuality ahead of the NFL draft and could soon become the NFL’s first openly gay player, Cardinal Timothy Dolan responded, “Bravo.” Whatever did he mean by this? some wondered. Coming just days after news reports suggesting Pope Francis had endorsed civil unions (he didn’t), many wondered what signals these pastors are sending.
Pope Francis and Cardinal Dolan are shepherds who defend marriage as a union between one man and one woman who are open to life at a time when laws, culture, and many people seem to be living in a different reality. Not as well reported, Cardinal Dolan also made clear in his Meet the Press interview that understanding marriage as between “one man and one woman forever leading to life and love” is of more than religious concern, as it is “a building block of society and culture. So it belongs to culture.”
“If we water down that sacred meaning of marriage in any way,” he said, “I worry that not only the church would suffer, I worry that culture and society would.”
So, again, what did he mean by “Bravo” when asked about Sam and his announcement?
On his Sirius XM radio program on The Catholic Channel on Monday, Cardinal Dolan admitted that he had never heard of Sam prior to being asked about him by Meet the Press host David Gregory. It’s not like it was baseball news, he joked. Then he’d know!
Perhaps like many other Americans going about their lives, the cardinal had missed this latest public confession. Sometimes we in the media have a skewed sense of what most Americans, even cardinals, have the time to stop and pay attention to.
Despite not knowing Sam or the details of his story, Cardinal Dolan responded as a pastor with an open door for further discussion. Here he was very much following the lead taken by Pope Francis, who famously asked, “Who am I to judge?” in response to a question involving same-sex attraction on the plane ride back to Rome after World Youth Day in Rio.
Cardinal Dolan also took the opportunity in his interview with Gregory to talk about the virtues of chastity and fidelity in marriage. The same Bible that teaches us well about these also teaches us not to judge people, the cardinal said. We are to treat people with “respect, compassion, and sensitivity,” as the Catechism of the Catholic Church instructs.
And, yes, he said Bravo. It was an invitational Bravo, pregnant with uplifting possibilities, an open door to hear more. Know “you’re a child of God,” Cardinal Dolan explained on his radio show the following day. That goes for Michael Sam or anyone else listening in.
With his Bravo he wanted to communicate thanksgiving for “honesty” and “courage,” he said Monday. He said Bravo with a father’s encouragement. Bravo: “I hope you’re living a virtuous life,” he added.
He said Bravo as a pastor, well aware that he wasn’t merely talking about a political or cultural issue but about a man and his life, and would be heard by other people who are seeking to live good lives filled with love. Bravo, too, he said, if you surround yourself with friends who are going to love you whatever you say in freedom.
He did also caution that he was “uncomfortable” with the cultural insistence that we define ourselves by our attractions or struggles. Again, the most important fact about an individual human being, from a Christian perspective, is that you are a beloved child of God.
Bravo that you know you have that freedom, and we who pray must pray that we all seek to use that freedom well. We’re here to help one another do so. A year into the papacy of Pope Francis, that’s the message that’s wowing people and taking them off guard: that we are sinners who are loved with an eternal love by a Creator who wants us to know mercy and redemption and who gives us the grace to live ever-increasingly conformed to Christ, to live as people of true transformative love.
In the media, in politics, and in our lives, people aren’t always overwhelmed by the love Christians show for one another. And we know about, say, the work of the Little Sisters of the Poor because of a political issue – the Obamacare mandate that has them in court – not because we tend to hold up those who model self-sacrificial love, serving those who are often forgotten, as we live our “busy” lives. With his Bravo, Cardinal Dolan sought to lead with the love that draws those women to service, to the love that called him to service as a priest — the love of God.
Cardinal Dolan also made the point that the “gay rights movement” once rallied for some privacy. “Leave us alone” to make choices, he recalled, was the proposition about freedom. Now that same movement – and the culture more broadly — seems to not tolerate much privacy about the most intimate choices. So much so that now laws and conscience are being fashioned to validate those choices. A movement that once talked about freedom now insists that others are not free to believe that there are truths about men and women and marriage that are not only ordained by God but make some good sense for family life and society. You’re free to disagree! And we can respect and love one another in disagreement. But where are we? if it’s insisted that believing that marriage is a commitment made in self-sacrificial love, embracing life, between one man and one woman is not tolerable in the public square?
That question can’t be answered in a sound bite. It’s answered in images, in witness — an overwhelming witness to joy.
That’s why Rolling Stone puts Pope Francis on the cover – because people see a genuine love about him, an authenticity. He clearly isn’t just about rules: He offers something attractive, even if it’s not entirely clear from the headlines what that something is. He’s opening a door. Anyone is welcome to listen in more. And if you do, in fact, listen, you’ll find he’s pointing to the sacraments and the Beatitudes. Talking with new cardinals a few weeks ago, he quoted from the Sermon on the Mount: Blessed are the peacemakers. But the words aren’t the most important story of the past year with Pope Francis, the instruction he gives by his witness is. Be peacemakers already. Live in Christ’s love and open doors to it.
This is a Gospel mandate. Lead with love. That might require a disarming Bravo now and again that invites people in for more. People have to see love and joy and sacrifice, or they will walk right past us and miss the sacramental grace. We can never be too busy to live in that grace and mercy and extend it to others.
These are surely confusing times. In the last year, the Holy Spirit (or so I trust) has given us some pointers in a Holy Father and his daily life: Lead with love through Him, in Him, with Him. This is of utmost importance in living the Gospel. Defend and protect and teach, absolutely. But healing has to happen. And that healing can only happen if Christian hearts are open to being instruments of Divine Mercy, living prayerful, generous lives in union with the Trinity that draws people into that divine life.
Living this may mean, as a communications matter, a Bravo here and there as an exclamation of invitational joy. Even in the cultural, legal, and political fogs, thanks be to God we’re still brothers and sisters, children of a loving Father. This is what I believe and it is my joy. Know you are welcome at the same table of hope where God himself lives.