The Last Time a Pope Died (III)

From the October 2005 issue of the Nicotine Theological Journal

The Pastor with the Funny Hat

With the passing of John Paul II Protestants might be able to breathe a sigh of relief. For at least fifteen years, the papacy, through John Paul’s skillful handling of his responsibilities, has emerged as arguably the most prominent voice opposing the sins of modernity. As the veteran evangelical apologist, Norman Geisler, put it, John Paul stood up to the three main foes of evangelicalism, namely, “relativism, pluralism, and naturalism.” The best evidence of this opposition was the pope’s defense of the culture of life, which in the words of Southern Baptist theologian, Timothy George, “provided a moral impetus that [evangelicals] didn’t have internally within our community.” The papacy’s understanding of the sacredness of human life, its teaching on sexual ethics, in addition to any number of other declarations or encyclicals affirming the absolute truth of Christianity, made Roman Catholicism an attractive option for young (and sometimes old) Protestants in search of a church that would stand up for the truth, for what Francis Schaeffer used to call “true truth.” While mainline Protestant denominations descended farther into the abyss of moral relativism thanks to their fear of giving offense, and while evangelicals floundered about trying to find hipper ways to super-size their churches, John Paul II was a popular figure, seemingly approachable like the affectionate grandfather, who also refused to equivocate on some of the most important fronts of the culture war.

At his death, several pundits and journalists assessed the way in which John Paul II changed the face of Christianity around the world, improved the health of Roman Catholicism in the United States, and fundamentally altered the relations between Protestants and Roman Catholics, at least in America. Seldom mentioned is how little the Vatican changed during the deceased pope’s tenure and how much the surrounding situation did, thus significantly altering perceptions of the pope and his accomplishments. Back in 1979 during the pope’s first visit to the United States, evangelicals were still worked up about the doctrine of biblical inerrancy, even having the Roman Catholic conservative, William F. Buckley, give the opening address at one of the assemblies of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy. The Bible was then thought to be the bulwark against relativism, materialism, and atheism, and its cultural significance was such that a prominent conservative spokesman, even from the wrong church, could offer encouraging words to conservative evangelicals.

But in the quarter of a century since then, the Bible seems to have run out of gas for Protestants as an authoritative guide to truth. Instead, the imposing voice of one person in a high-profile office (which happens to be in Vatican City) appears to be more effective in countering the drift of secularism and relativism. After all, the Bible’s truth can be fairly relative depending on the eye of the beholder. Much harder is it for one person to equivocate. This has always been the dilemma of Protestantism – its tendency to speak in multiple and conflicting voices compared to the relative unity of the papacy (some of us still remember church history lectures on the difficulties of Avignon and Rome). Before, Protestants would band together in either the National Association of Evangelicals or the National Council of Churches to try to achieve clarity. Today, the conservative ones seem to be willing to rely on the extraordinary ability and connections of the bishop of Rome.

Yet, for all of John Paul II”s gifted use of his bully pulpit, was he opposing secularism and relativism any more than my local Orthodox Presbyterian pastor? My minister has been no less clear over the course of his ten-year (and still counting) tenure in denouncing relativism and secularism. Nor was he any less forthright in condemning sexual immodesty or immorality. In fact, if anyone in our congregation had slept around or received (or performed) an abortion, discipline would definitely have followed. My pastor may not have had Continental philosophy informing his sermons or speeches at session, presbytery, or General Assembly meetings, but this may have made him even more accessible and clear than John Paul II.

Equally important to consider is whether the pope’s courage in opposing relativism, secularism and sexual license was any more effective than my pastor’s. To be sure, the local Orthodox Presbyterian minister never attracts the front pages of the New York, London, Paris, Rome or even Glenside, Pa. dailies. But that may be a blessing. It may also be a lesson that the much vaunted Roman Catholic doctrine of subsidiarity teaches. That idea says that authorities of higher rank should not do what is necessary for lesser authorities to perform. This is partly an argument, for instance, against a federal welfare system that is inefficient, impersonal, and creates a culture of dependence by either upending the work of local charities and government social programs, or by taking over duties that families and individuals themselves should perform.

The doctrine of subsidiarity, likewise, should warn against becoming dependent on the worldwide, highly orchestrated statements of one church official when what is needed is the week-in-week-out teaching and counsel of local pastors who minister to their flocks. Indeed, it is ironic to this Protestant that many young evangelicals convert to Rome because of the pope’s moral stature and careful reflection and yet find themselves in parishes and dioceses where the application of his moral teaching is very often lacking. Without wanting to beat a proud denominational breast, it does seem probable that any number of small, insignificant and seemingly sectarian denominations like the OPC or the Presbyterian Church in America or the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod or the Reformed Episcopal Church (to try to be ecumenical) are more disciplined in their sexual practices than American Roman Catholics despite those Protestant denominations’ meager public statements or formal teachings. This is not to say that John Paul II’s encyclicals are without merit – far from it. But the point stands that an encyclical is only as effective as the willingness of the local priest or bishop to apply such truth.

Golfers have a saying that you drive for show and putt for dough, which is the duffer’s way of saying that the church universal may be great on paper but is only as faithful as the local church. John Paul II used his powers as the head of the Roman Catholic church to raise the visibility of the universal church’s power and wisdom. Seldom noticed is the unintended consequence of making local clergy, church members and even Protestants dependent on a universal voice when what is most needed is the fidelity of local clergy and church members. The Protestant Reformation was partly a reaction by local churches against religious dependence on Rome. If only evangelicals were more concerned about their ecclesiological heritage and the difficult responsibilities it includes than they seem to be in seeking encouragement and affirmation from a pastor who is as far removed from their churches as Tiger Woods’ drives are from mine.


The Elephant in the Room

Imagine (and you don’t need to try too hard) how some Christian communions might promote their accomplishments and uniqueness.

The hipsters might say something like, “we are the church of the city and for the city.”

Doctrinalists might come up with something like, “we put the strict in confessional subscription.”

The transformationalists (not quite as urban as the hipsters) might talk about “a gospel for all — here Stephen Coulbert’s deep gravelly voice when you read “all” — of life.”

And the social gospelers might promote a communion that is “ushering in Christ’s loving and just reign.”

But what would you say about a communion that touted, “we know how to make effective and gracious use of gay clergy”? I’m suspecting that this would not be the best Call to Communion.

And yet, for all of the Roman Catholic complaint about the sexual laxity of the mainline Protestant denominations, and for all of the teaching about marriage, celibacy, and theology of the body, Roman Catholics ordain homosexuals in what seems to be record numbers.

Please, dear reader, keep in mind that I really dislike cheap shots based on below-the-belt issues. Sex is such an easy way to push the outrage-porn button. So I am not trying — really really trying not to — play any kind of homophobia card. Nor am I knowingly playing on anti-Catholic bigotry. I am seriously curious about how a conservative church reconciles its teaching about sex with knowingly ordaining homosexuals. Not to mention infallibility and certain knowledge. This is a conversation that has been public. It is out of the closet. And yet Bryan and the Jasons went right along — nothing here to see.

How is it, then, that you can promote your communion’s wonderful views of marriage and celibacy, and look to your church as the sensible and chaste alternative to mainline Protestantism, but don’t comment on the numbers of priests that are pretty staggering (even while accusing mainline churches of ordaining lesbians).

Here are a few, scattered and old discussions of the phenomenon (which some might call a problem):

From 2002:

For more than a decade, now, voices have been heard expressing concern about the growing numbers of gay priests and seminarians. Vicars of priests and seminary administrators who have been around awhile speak among themselves of the disproportionate number of gay men that populate our seminaries and presbyterates. They know that a proportionate number of gay priests and seminarians would fall between 5 and 10 percent. The extent of the estimated disproportion, naturally enough, will vary depending on general perceptions, personal experiences, and the frequency of first-hand encounters with self-acknowledged gay priests.

The general perceptions, in turn, are often shaped by various studies and surveys which attempt to measure the percentage of priests who are gay. An NBC report on celibacy and the clergy found that “anywhere from 23 percent to 58 percent” of the Catholic clergy have a homosexual orientation. Other studies find that approximately half of American priests and seminarians are homosexually oriented. Sociologist James G. Wolf in his book Gay Priests concluded that 48.5 percent of priests and 55.1 percent of seminarians were gay. The percentage appears to be highest among priests under forty years of age. Moreover, the percentage of gay men among religious congregations of priests is believed to be even higher. Beyond these estimates, of course, are priests who remain confused about their orientation and men who have so successfully denied their orientation, that in spite of predominantly same-sex erotic fantasies, they insist that they are heterosexual.

Here’s an attempt to turn gay priests into an asset:

Traditional Catholic theology as summarized in the catechism (No. 1578) states that men are called to the priesthood by God. So despite statements that homosexual priests are either a scandal or embarrassment, Catholic belief is that all men called to holy orders are responding to a divine call. (As an aside, it is perhaps unsurprising that in a church that enjoins celibacy on homosexuals, some gay men would choose the celibate life of the priest.) Some have argued that the ordination of homosexuals somehow represents the church in error. But homosexual priests, like heterosexual priests, are ordained through the divine authority of the church, which has that responsibility and right (No. 1578) and, according to traditional Catholic theology, imprints on the priest an indelible spiritual character (No. 1582).

Therefore, one can state that God has called, and is continuing to call, homosexuals to serve as priests in the church and that the church confirms this call through ordination. The question, then, is not whether God is calling homosexual men to the priesthood, but why. Theologically, how might one understand these signs of the times?

The school of suffering. The vast majority of homosexuals in the United States are acquainted with the suffering that comes from being a misunderstood and often persecuted minority. This commences from early adolescence and can continue for the remainder of one’s life. Homosexuals are frequent targets of prejudice, ridicule, rejection from their own families and, sometimes, violence. Here, therefore, are men who understand suffering, stigma and frustrationthe very types of experiences that Christian theology teaches can lead one closer to companionship with the Christ who suffers. To use the words heard during Lent, the homosexual is often despised and rejected by others, a man of suffering…one from whom others hide their faces (Isa. 53:3).

Being schooled in this unique experience of suffering can result in a profound sense of compassion and identification with the most marginalized in society: the sick, the lonely, the refugee, the materially poor, the outcast, the least of my brothers and sisters (Mt. 25).

Then some challenge the statistics:

Fr. Cozzens claims that statistics show that 50 percent of priests and seminarians are homosexually oriented. A gay culture in the priesthood or seminary, he says, makes it very awkward for heterosexuals, who as a consequence doubt their vocations and withdraw. Seminaries must therefore consider the kind of support that is needed for heterosexual seminarians in a gay culture. We are not told whether the prevalence of homosexual orientation and gay expression is bad or good. Fr. Cozzens seems to suggest that it is simply a fact of life with which we must learn to live. This is very unpersuasive on a number of scores.

First, I do not believe the statistics. The very few surveys and studies that have been done on homosexuality among priests are almost certainly flawed by the factor of self“selection. Those who, for whatever reason, are interested in homosexuality among priests respond at a far higher rate than others. Had I received a questionnaire in such a survey, I would not have responded. As for Fr. Cozzens’ depiction of seminarians, I can only say that they must be very different from those whom I have known during fourteen years of seminary work. Are there seminarians who identify themselves as homosexual? Certainly. Are there some who are sexually confused and in need of counseling and spiritual direction? Absolutely. But is there a dominant homosexual culture in seminaries that makes life difficult, if not impossible, for heterosexuals? That does not jibe with my experience.

It is very possible that in the 1970s and ’80s there were a significant number of seminarians who were sexually confused, and were encouraged in that confusion by a sexually charged society. They were not challenged to harmonize their ideas and their lives with the teaching of the Church, and today some of them are priests. Some are effective and faithfully celibate, while some are actively involved in the gay subculture. The latter pose a very real problem, but the incidence of the problem, I am convinced, is nowhere near the figure proffered by Fr. Cozzens. His claims are both unsupported and irresponsible.

I understand that a clergy shortage might be one explanation for these figures and reflections. I also can comprehend that someone who is gay but doesn’t practice may be capable of executing priestly duties. But what is odd is conceiving of the convert to Roman Catholicism who might think first about joining the Christian Reformed Church because of the denomination’s position on homosexualism and homosexuality.

What Would Jesus Do?

Don’t bake those remains. Bury them.

. . . my postmortem body continues to embody memories of who I am. Let’s say that death has come calling for me. What will my wife and children, my parents and sister, see when they see me? They’ll see the man whom they still love. They will not see a shell, an empty husk. My wife will see the face of the man who stood before her and vowed, “I do.” My children will see the hands that held them on the day they were born, and that wiped away their tears when they hurt themselves. My parents will see a scar on my right wrist that I got when barely out of kindergarten. Much of my biography is inscribed upon my body; it is part of who I am, my story, my personality. It is not peripheral to my personhood. A body is not some thing but some one. As such, I want my family to treat my body not as an object I sloughed off upon leaving this world, but as the continuing, meaningful icon of my identity as son, father, and husband. To treat my body with respect, love, and honor is to treat me with respect, love, and honor, for my body continues to be an essential part of who I am.

If this were the sole reason for us to care what happens to our corpses, it would be sufficient. But for those who hold to a theistic worldview, who believe that God created our bodies, there are many more reasons to care. Jews and Christians alike confess that the Creator makes and shapes our bodies from the moment of conception onward. In the words of Psalm 139, “For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” Our very existence is a divine gift; and part of that gift are eyes of a certain color, legs of a certain length, a nose of a certain size—each tiny part of us uniquely fashioned as our own. Our body is a gift while also a continued possession of the Giver. It is not ours to do with as we please.

What we do with these gifts should reflect that they are from God. And what applies when those bodies are alive applies equally when they are not alive. Death does not disown God from our bodies. They continue to be his possession, his gift to us, part of that divine bestowal that marks who we are as created people formed in God’s image and likeness. Thus, even when I’m dead, my corpse matters, because God’s gifts matter. I want my body to be treated not as a piece of meat, or fuel for the fire, but as a blessing from heaven.