Misunderstood

by Rebecca Curtin

I’m just a soul whose intentions are good


Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood


–Nina Simone

Sometimes I feel, as a Catholic who regularly expresses dissatisfaction and frustration with some Church teachings, like I am caught between trying to express hope for a different future for the Church with love and dedication to fundamental Church principals, while also trying to express sufficient anger with the Church to really catalyze change, without getting too angry to be written off by more contented Catholics who believe I should “just leave” if the Church makes me so unhappy.

Some more conservative Catholic bloggers and the United States Council of Catholic Bishops insist that those who disagree or are dissatisfied with Church teachings about certain issues are actually just misunderstanding (or, haven’t read/haven’t been taught/don’t appreciate) Church teaching.  It is not the error of dogma and Church teaching, but the error of those interpreting it, that leads to dissension in the Church.

The author Anne Rice recently left the Catholic Church claiming: “In the name of Christ, I refuse to be anti-gay. I refuse to be anti-feminist. I refuse to be anti-artificial birth control. I refuse to be anti-Democrat. I refuse to be anti-secular humanism. I refuse to be anti-science. I refuse to be anti-life.”  Some Catholics have responded that if Anne Rice truly believed her claims then she hasn’t fully understood Church teaching.  In support of this view they cite various pastoral letters and documents from the USCCB and the Vatican.


While I do not agree with all of Rice’s claims about the Church, I think the discrepancy between her sadness and frustration and the shock expressed by some Catholics that she could believe what she says about the Church demonstrates a disconnectedness between what the Church thinks it’s saying and what many Catholics hear them saying.  Take for example, the USCCB’s pastoral letter Always Our Children, which reaches out to “parents trying to cope with the discovery of homosexuality in their adolescent or adult child”.  The USCCB sees this letter as an expression of love for our gay brothers and sisters.  The letter does indeed insist on God’s love for all his children no matter of sexual orientation, and admits that sexual orientation cannot (the Church adds, always) be changed.  The bishops state: “The teachings of the Church make it clear that the fundamental human rights of homosexual persons must be defended and that all of us must strive to eliminate any forms of injustice, oppression, or violence against them.”

However, the letter also re-emphasizes “traditional” ideas of marriage and sexuality: “First, it is God’s plan that sexual intercourse occur only within marriage between a man and a woman. Second, every act of intercourse must be open to the possible creation of human life. Homosexual intercourse cannot fulfill these two conditions. Therefore, the Church teaches that homogenital behavior is objectively immoral, while making the important distinction between this behavior and a homosexual orientation, which is not immoral in itself.”

I am heterosexual, but I still read this letter like a hug followed by a slap in the face.  It is difficult to misunderstand what the Church is saying here.  The bishops try to express compassion and even emphasize the urgency of directing compassion and understanding toward those of a “homosexual orientation” while at the same time denying a fundamental act of personhood to that portion of the population by labeling it “immoral”.  I’m not sure how compassionate that is.

Some in the Church may say I am lost and misdirected.  This is one of the easiest and most irresponsible ways to write off Catholics dissatisfied with the way things are.  It is irresponsible because it denies the fact that dogma was once – even if it does not seem so now –flexible and new, or, as was the position of Vatican II, it can be revealed over time.  Hope for change is therefore not unreasonable.

There is so much about the Church that is beautiful, worthwhile, and, yes, often misunderstood.  But, I think it is not useful to tell ourselves that there is an equal place in the current Church for homosexual and heterosexual Catholics while teaching that the practice of physical expressions of love in a committed homosexual relationship (even within marriage) is fundamentally wrong.  And yes, I get that the emphasis on chastity is related to the Church’s idea of sex and marriage and is extended as well to heterosexual couples who are unmarried or using artificial birth control.  The Church’s teaching on sexuality in general and homosexuality specifically is not often misunderstood.  In fact, it is quite simple to understand, if nonetheless problematic and unfit for a complicated world.

Rebecca Curtin is a contributor to From the Pews in the Back and is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame and Harvard Divinity School. A native of Southern California, she now lives in Somerville, MA.

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2 Responses

  1. Fear, shame and embarrassment. – Should I Tithe?-…

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