Denver – I’ve spent the better part of the last week among Catholics who communicate — or at least pray to. They’re people of varied backgrounds and political leanings, who all love their Church. We’re at the annual meeting of the Catholic Press Association, where I’ve been asked to speak during more than a few sessions. But what I’ve been doing even more is listening.
And what I’ve been hearing is an acknowledgment that something has gone terribly wrong. Not that Church teaching has to be overhauled, as is so often the assumption in the secular media, but that we need to communicate better, we need to be more consistent witnesses of an alternative to the prevailing culture.
Frank Bruni, in his New York Times column, recently excoriated the Church for its continued encouragement to men and women with same-sex attractions to live lives of chastity. Bruni focuses on recent comments by New York’s Timothy Cardinal Dolan, the best known of current U.S. bishops, teaching that sexual love is “intended only for a man and woman in marriage, where children can come about naturally.” This, Bruni, says, “assigns homosexuals a status separate from, and unequal to, the one accorded heterosexuals: you’re O.K., but you’re really not O.K. Upon you there is a special restriction, and for you there is a fundamental dimension of the human experience that is off-limits, a no-fly zone of the heart.”
What’s missing here is the fact that there are many men and women who do not have same-sex attractions and who are not married, but who want to be. I met some of them, as I do just about everywhere, in Denver this week. One young woman talked about her desire for marriage, her desire that marriage be her vocation. But, she went on, knowing that she is serving God as a single woman — in her job, in her community, among friends — she’s not going to let what she lacks and really wants impede her gratitude.
It might, in fact, be a bit of an indictment of Catholic communicators — clerics and lay men and women who are called to be witnesses to their faith — that Bruni can so easily write: “Let’s leave aside the legions of straight people, Catholic and otherwise, who aren’t tucking their sex lives into a box that tidy, tiny, and fecundity-minded.” I don’t know about the “otherwise,” but Cardinal Dolan’s primary obligation is to the Catholics, as a spiritual shepherd. And regardless of your sexual attractions, what Dolan said holds for all: Sexual union is a glorious one meant for marriage.
Which gets back to the discussions here in Denver this week. We live in the world. We know that all too many of us aren’t taking what we say we believe seriously. The Catholic governor of New York has made increased abortion access in his state a priority. A Catholic former speaker of the House shut down a legitimate question about brutal late-term abortions, insisting the topic was protected as some kind of “sacred ground.” And how many weddings have you gone to in a Catholic church knowing that the couple had spent months if not years playing house already, living as if married, with only the party delayed? This makes the sacrament look a lot like nostalgia, or something done only for the pictures.
This isn’t a matter of judging anyone so much as it is a challenge to each and every one of us to want, encourage, and support something more.
Being for real is a subtheme here. And it is wedded to sacrament and prayer, which, if entered into in humility, can transform us. They take us out of ourselves. That young woman I mentioned echoes the thoughts of many young people I’ve encountered over the past few years: She loves God, she loves her Church, she is willing to sacrifice in order to do His will for her. There’s a sacrificial aspect to all our lives. While religious faith is a source of hope and joy, there is no escaping the fact that life can have its share of hell. We can’t escape that. But we can seek to bring good to situations we wouldn’t have scripted for ourselves.
Mother Dolores Hart is at this conference. Many know her as “the nun who kissed Elvis.” Dolores Hart had a successful acting career — among other movies, she had starred in two with Presley — but she found herself called to a life of contemplative prayer. She emanates wisdom and peace. But life here on earth simply isn’t heaven. She recalls crying herself to sleep for her first seven years in the convent. Sometimes we don’t understand all the reasons we are where we are, we might not think it fair, but what exactly about Jesus Christ’s life was fair?
I write that knowing that not everyone believes He is the Son of God, one Person in the Divine Trinity. But I do wonder what the world would look like if more of us who say we do really lived as if we believed in Him and in the mysteries of redemptive suffering and mercy (and as people not naturally inclined to forgive, we really can find these a remarkable mystery).
In her memoir, The Ear of the Heart, Mother Dolores writes: “To enter the contemplative life truly, you have to go through a narrow, lonely place in your being, where you face all your fears and selfish patterns, even when you don’t know what these are. I thought I was very grown up, very mature. You don’t realize what a child you are until God tests your heart and you go through that deep place all of us have to go through.”
Contemplation is not just for nuns. A key question of the day, as we have arguments about new “rights,” even while narrowing longstanding, protected, fundamental ones, may just be: What are we here for? We may just be here for one another, but not in the ways the current culture assumes. The Catholic Church, throughout our country and the world, offers all kinds of services and opportunities for spiritual growth and temporal support, for all. The Church is a hospital for sinners, as the saying goes, and that will be all too evident at times, but in her proposals are heavenly alternatives. The Church promises not utopia but a way to journey together to something beautiful, to live lives in union with the Source of all beauty.
Bruni admits to a sadness. That’s an overwhelming reality of our day. I’m sorry we are all so damn human. If we weren’t, the overwhelming countercultural witness of real Christianity would be overwhelmingly inspiring and uplifting in so many lives. But that’s why the Church is for sinners, and the only successful communications strategy is to be for real.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a director of Catholic Voices USA. This column is based on one available exclusively through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.