Pentecost: The Flaming Dove of Upper Room Roman Catholicism

The Christian Feast of Pentecost fell last Sunday. With its scarlet flora and vestments, translation miracles, chrism and tongues of fire, with its focus on the intersection of courage, words and grace under pressure, Pentecost strikes me as the most poetic of Catholic holy days.

This year, just in time for Pentecost, in Catonsville, Md., four Roman Catholic women were ordained. Proponents of a male-only priesthood are ever quick to point out that such women are not "real" priests. The real question is not whether they are "real" priests, but whether they are "true" ones.

The "They can-call-themselves-priests-if-they-like-but..." logic used to irk me, but now it just makes me laugh. The only way anyone ever becomes a priest is by being "called" a priest by another priest. In conventional, by-the-book Roman Catholicism, this priest is bishop. However, throughout history all manners of priests have presided over ordinations.

"I can wear feathers and call myself a duck," the anti-women's ordination set likes to say. Well, feathers are not vestments, ordinands are not birds and it's the chickens, really, who most desperately cling to the arguments against ordaining women. Their arguments feature semi-syllogistic structure and the illusion of logic but they are not grounded in anything verifiable or even unchanging. Facts are not truths.

A conversation about women's ordination ensued at a dinner party I attended a few years ago at the home of a priest. It was not in the least contentious: A room full of Catholic progressives between the ages of 30 and 85, and our host, were all more or less OK with the idea of female priests. One guy at the party -- not the priest -- had spent most of the party "manning" the grill in the cement yard in 95 percent heat.

"Want me to take over burger duty for a while?" I volunteered to spell the grill master.

An awkward stillness commanded the room. The grill master broke the silence. "A woman on the altar? Fine. But at the grill?" He laughed. "We're not ready for that." A joke, yes, but an illustrative one.

The fear that to share power is to lose, the fear of women's power and the desperation to hold on to what belongs to boys alone -- these are the Vatican's real reasons for failing to honor women's call to ordination. "It's mine" is the thinking. The rest is finely wrought rationalization.

The comfort in believing one's religion is tidy and contains straight immutable answers plays a role, too, but as one of my favorite Catholic friends, who happens to be a proper, "by-the-book" priest, says, "Catholicism is messy." What the "They-can-call-themselves-priests" set fails to recognize is that the same kind of argument they use to defend an all-male priesthood is employed by atheists to debunk the notion that God exists.

"They can say a guy with a big white beard who made everything sits in the clouds..."

"They can say a shrub on fire called out to the crazy changeling Jew in the desert saying 'I am' God."

"They can say the 16-year-old girl conceived without having sex with a man..."

Belief does not come from without. It radiates from within. Teaching is useful, but only when students are thinking.

Canon law prohibits the ordination women but canon law has changed in the course of the history of the church. Canon law is man-made law which comes to us via an apostolic succession that is as lousy with weak links as it is gleaming with saintly paragons and enlightened thinkers. The "They-can-call-themselves-priests" set adheres (as they revere) to rules handed down by a lineup of men who have, throughout the history of the church, broken and altered canon law at will. Some of the popes who passed these laws down were married or polygamous; some were rapists, sluts, pimps, murderers, mass-murderers, extortionists, frauds, indulgence-peddlers, thieves, politicians and cheats. How impeccably beyond all challenging can the codes of such men possibly be?

I find canon law edifying and canon experts intelligent, but they are smart in their own closed system of papist minutiae. To suggest that the letter of canon law reflects the in specific ways Jesus' specifications for his earthly church is idiocy. Canon law is comprised of notions extrapolated from what some of the aforementioned popes and their subordinates imagined select well-translated, mistranslated and re-translated Hebrew and Greek scriptures could maybe reveal about God's opinions on how righteous Christians ought to behave.

Those who find comfort in looking at the church as if it were a corporation or a club often have the view that those who don't want to follow the rules ought to join another club. (Usually, disrespectfully so, they specify the Episcopal Church.) This argument is based on the false premise that the church is a corporation or club. The Roman Catholic Church is home to those baptized into it. The bully of the fourth grade class can say he's the king of fourth grade as often and loudly as he likes; that doesn't make him the king of fourth grade.

On Sunday a mass scheduled to take place in a Roman Catholic Church in Boston was canceled at the last minute by the Boston Archdiocese due to fear that the mass might be seen as a "Gay Pride" mass. Is being proud to be the gay person God created some kind of Roman Catholic transgression? Not according to the Vatican. The Vatican's regard for gay people, gay pride and gay relationships may be hateful (I believe it is), but technically speaking, there are no canonical, dogmatic or doctrinal impediments to celebrating a mass in honor of "gay pride."

A few years ago I would have been outraged by the cancellation of this mass. Now? Not so much. Have I mellowed? No. I have, however, come to believe that this kind of blundering is good for the Church. This kind of cowardice fans the fires of the Holy Spirit in Catholics who are brave. Veni Sancte Spiritus, I say. Bring it on. It gets chilly in the Upper Room.

The "upper room" appears in New Testament accounts of both the first Eucharist and the first Pentecost. In these accounts, the "upper room" functions as the ad hoc temple. The Last Supper takes place in an "upper room." The disciples are visited in an "upper room" by the Holy Spirit on the occasion of Pentecost. The "upper room" is a sanctuary wherein intense fear, love and bravery are transformed into power and faith.

Those who are enjoy the privilege of worshipping in today's Roman Catholic Upper Rooms owe a debt to those who see the Roman Catholic Church as some kind of country club from which poorly behaved members should be expelled. Their misogyny, bigotry, selective quasi-fundamentalism and sexual dysfunction have given way to a perfect storm the likes of which Upper Room Catholics are well-fortified to weather.

The mainstream Church is thriving in the third world, but the money comes from elsewhere. Practicing Catholics are, in dramatically increasing numbers, declining to support parishes financially and leaving the church entirely. This as vocations dwindle. If the ultra-conservative extremists alone are left to bankroll the church, the money will soon run out. In the context of secular, political world affairs, it is the progressive church that lends a papacy that would otherwise lack it, moral authority.

The question of whether to leave or stay always looms, dogging progressive Roman Catholics. Both Catholics who stay and those who leave are affecting positive change in the church. Many of these are hard to see from the outside.

I spent an hour so at a Gay Pride festival table this past (Pentecost) weekend. The table was representing the LGBT ministry of a Roman Catholic Church, and it wasn't the only Roman Catholic Church table at the fair. What surprised me was that for the first time in (my) three years attending this festival, no one stopped at the table to ask, "How can gay people go to a Catholic church that hates them?"

Some loud knuckleheads in the church hate them. Some ignorant Catholics who lack imagination hate them. Some Catholics who are are afraid of their own sexuality and who embrace bigotry beyond that based on sexual orientation hate them. The church does not hate gay people.

Furthermore, some of the Catholics who hated gay people a year ago don't hate them now.

One of the most profound religious experiences I've ever had took place about five years ago in the context my helping to plan an Catholic LGBT ministry event. We had planned to screen the excellent documentary, "For the Bible Tells Me So," in the parish hall of a Catholic church. We had the support of the pastor, who was acting in accord with the policy of his bishop. But on the day of the event, the pastor received word that an enraged Catholic homophobe had seen a poster for the event and was threatening to squeal to the Nuncio.

A group of 15 or 20 gathered that night to watch the film in the home of a member of the group. Huddled around the television screen, we took in the film's belief-affirming message of hope spelled out beautifully in syllables and light. Never before had I been in a sacred space so illuminated, consumed and fueled by religious devotion. Thus, I first experienced the Roman Catholic Upper Room.

The snitch had done us a favor. In this, for every mysterious action there is an equally mysterious reaction. The bullies of the mainstream Roman Catholic Church are feeding the gentle giant that is the Upper Room Church.

When it comes to alienating Catholics, the papacy has been thorough. I think Ratzinger's credibility is shot. The Vatican is fighting the fever, but progressive Upper Room Roman Catholics are becoming a resistant strain.

The number of male priests is declining. The number of female priests is increasing. The Knights of Columbus is squandering its money on losing battles -- fighting equal marriage rights legislation and Planned Parenthood -- while churches and schools shut down due to lack of funds.

Gay civil marriage is here. The Vatican has lost the secular war on abortion.

Meanwhile, the pope is harboring a fugitive of justice who has the blood of thousands of rape victims on his hands. Ratzinger has yet to man up and be held accountable. A papacy that should be begging for forgiveness and offering every nickel the Vatican hoards in secrecy to help its victims become survivors, responds by being self-serving and squirrelly.

Formal excommunication is now reserved for heroes and future saints. (Beatifying people who have been formally excommunicated, as the Holy See did this year when it made a saint of Mary MacKillop, has a way of reducing the designation's potency.) Then there's the lazier version of excommunication: self-excommuniation, whereby one does it oneself. Let it suffice to say that the communion lines are loaded with self-excommunicants.

Some gay men and a women I know won't set foot in Catholic church on Sunday, but attend masses said through Dignity. Some eschew Dignity masses and stick with mainstream parish churches. Some gay people, feminists, survivors of clerical child abuse and those who sympathize with them leave. Some stay, feeling the church belongs to them as it belongs to Ratzinger. I believe it is rapidly becoming more clear to non-practicing Catholics and people outside the Church how monolithic Catholics are not -- or, alternatively, how genuinely "Catholic" we are.

Many leave in a way that looks like staying. And many leave and stay simultaneously. It is the straddlers, as I think of them, who are catalyzing the greatest change in the church. They play both sides against the middle. They are the multitudes of priests of integrity who lend support to Upper Room Catholics in subtle Christlike ways under the papal radar. They are the nuns who work in mainstream parishes during the week and attend masses celebrated by female priests on Sundays. (At great peril. Their devotion and courage astonishes!) They are the married gay parents of toddlers who work as lectors and ministers of Holy Communion.

A tacit, in some ways unfortunate, de facto "don't ask, don't tell" policy is encouraged or tolerated by the hierarchy because it keeps dissenting Catholics a-tithing. Confessing that one supports the ordination of women, is unmarried (in the church) and sexually active, uses artificial birth control, supports legal abortion, renders one unfit for the sacraments. "Don't ask, don't tell" forces penitents to dissemble for their own protection. For many it forecloses upon the opportunity to be authentic in one's religious practice. Another unfortunate side effect is that the need for discretion compromises the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

On the other hand Jesuit Equivocation cuts both ways. It creates license and liberty. Some might think the priest who looks the other way when a remarried divorcee approaches the altar for Communion, the lay minister who leaves out that she takes Communion at a mass celebrated by a woman, the Pre-Cana couple who omit that they are sexually active and using birth control, the lesbian who declines to discuss her marriage with her child's catechism teacher are all disingenuous. Others believe they are saving a degrading church.

Some think a new, more conscious, conscientious Christian Roman Catholic church is gestating. I think it's already here -- an infant church, already flourishing in quasi-stealth. John's "plain truth" is beginning to hide in "plain sight."

No one enjoys the Latin Gloria more than I. When it comes to musica sacra, I prefer organs to guitars. But Roman Catholic masses celebrated in Upper Rooms manage nakedly without such lavishments. Doing without the smells and bells often forces increased focus on prayer itself. Masses in homes were a bit of a trend in the 1960s. They were intimate and simple -- the Vatican clamped down on them. It's easier to control a Catholic when he or she is tethered to a pew.

Because churches are expensive to rent, Roman Catholic female priests often celebrate masses in homes. These masses more than make up -- in purity and reverence -- for any pomp that may or may not be wanting. Roman Catholic Women priests are rigorously trained and bring the kind of Christ-like dimension to ministry that their church leadership needs. They epitomize Roman Catholic Upper Room essence and sanctity.

Not long ago the pope decided it would be helpful to dissuade gay men from joining the priesthood. (Is the pope Catholic? Then certainly he must know that there might not be a Catholic priesthood at all were it not for gay men! ) This hare-brained policy now forces seminarians into "don't ask, don't tell" mode. Many Roman Catholic priests do their best work under "don't ask, don't tell" policy in Upper Rooms of their own design. Onward Christian soldiers with targets on their backs, they try to reconcile primacy of conscience with the call to obey a billy-club bishopric.

The desire to worship authentically is for most worshippers in any faith a cherished ideal, but the Upper Rooms are filled with Catholics forced to choose between primacy of conscience and the luxury of authenticity in worship. For many years priests have celebrated mass at Dignity, have ordained women in secrecy, have blessed gay unions, have gotten married, have administered the sacraments to divorced and remarried or sexually active Catholics, have attended or presided over ordinations of women, clandestinely, but in good faith.

At the mainstream Roman Catholic mass at the diocesan church I attended this past Pentecost Sunday, two prayers for loving acceptance of "homosexual" Catholics were incorporated into the Prayers of the Faithful. A woman active in LGBT ministry served as one of the lectors. Two gay people distributed the Eucharist. After the mass was over, I chatted with Ann, a straight woman and mother of two young children who works also as a teacher and an artist.

"I want to do more to support gay people in the church," she said, connecting this wish to her understanding of the "upper room" featured in the Gospel to which we had listened 20 minutes earlier. I remembered that a few years earlier she had refused to be married in her hometown of New York City. Her husband and she wed in Massachusetts because there gay marriage was legal.

"You're already doing it!" I said. "You're the mother of two Catholic little ones. You're teaching them full acceptance of gay people!" I said. "That is Catholic GLBT activism!"

The flaming dove of the Holy Spirit, the Advocate we associate with The Word, bravery, fortitude and discernment, was already nesting in Ann's Upper Room -- her home.

Ann has a plan to bring her Catholic children to the courthouse on the day civil marriage for same sex couples becomes legal. She and her children will hand out flowers to gay newlyweds. Any day now, kids.

Veni Sancte Spiritus.

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