A friend once remarked that every view of the church, whether colored with praise, criticism, admiration or disdain, is the articulation of a personal relationship with the person or persons who have come to represent church in an individual's life. He said that during his career as a Catholic priest, he spoke with countless numbers of people who trace back their love of the church to caring nuns or priests. Sadly, he also heard from those who spend years and lifetimes holding on to anger and resentment because of the unkind words or actions of others who represent the church to them.
Now consider for a moment the words and actions of two of America's most notable Catholic figures: New York's Archbishop Timothy Dolan used increasingly incendiary language to fight the legalization of same-sex marriage, and Boston's Archbishop Sean O'Malley directed his officials to postpone a Mass celebrating a theme of "All Are Welcome" at a parish that is home to many gay and lesbian Catholics.
Dolan wrote on his blog that granting marriage rights to same-sex couples constitutes "Orwellian social engineering" and likened the elected assembly of New York to communist regimes in North Korea and China for debating same-sex marriage. But perhaps even more distressing, the affable archbishop used a homily during Mass to further relegate gay and lesbian Catholics to the margins, when he stated that gay marriage would lead society to "peril."
An archbishop's preaching easily personifies "church" to many people, and Dolan employed language that left some feeling abandoned, isolated, and hurt. When asked to comment on parishioners who walked out during the service, Dolan coolly responded, "We're used to that. People have been walking away from God's law. They even walked away from Jesus so we're kind of used to that."
In Boston, St. Cecilia's parish planned a Mass of welcome, set to coincide with the city's gay pride celebrations. When local right-wing bloggers found out, they launched a mean-spirited campaign to cancel the Mass. The chancery then directed the parish to postpone it. Parishioners, with the encouragement of their pastor, held a prayer service on the sidewalk in front of the church, reminding participants that all are welcome in Christ's church. O'Malley, who has tried valiantly though ineffectively to promote respect for gay and lesbian people while calling their actions sinful, used his office literally to shut a marginalized group of faithful Catholics out of the church and relegate them to the sidewalk.
Why are the words and actions of these two archbishops so troubling? If my friend is correct that personal relationships have an abundance of power in shaping one's views about the church, then there is trouble ahead for the Catholic church. Americans today have siblings, parents, friends and co-workers who are openly gay and lesbian. Christians are increasingly willing to live their lives fully and wholly, rather than hide their orientation to fit in at their churches.
Rightly or wrongly, Dolan and O'Malley, and others in positions of authority in any denomination, most easily personify church to the faithful. Their words and actions can poison one's image with the church, and like a video of a sneezing baby panda, this experience goes viral. A parishioner who musters up the courage to walk out of a church where the archbishop is preaching will undoubtedly lament to loved ones and friends. They perhaps begin to question their views about the church. A snide comment or deflated sigh offers clues to others about their thoughts on the church, and the cycle continues.
What is the antidote to this institutional downward spiral, where the church is viewed not as the defender of the weak and vulnerable, but as the enforcer of an antiquated morality? The hope lies in the truth that relationships hold unparalleled power in helping individuals find self-acceptance through God's radically unconditional love. For every rigid religious doctrinaire, there are scores of individuals, lay and ordained, and even some Catholic bishops, who strive daily to protect and care for those who hurt. Relationships have the power to transform how people relate to the church. Those who long for an inclusive and loving church, to witness prophetically with the hopes of a constructing peaceful and just world, can realize this goal through the power of their relationships. These relationships need not be filled with heroic acts. Rather, simple, kind words and gestures, especially from a friend or pastor, do much to combat the harmful words hurled from the powerful.
Read more from Michael O'Loughlin at America magazine and follow him on Twitter: @mikeoloughlin.