As I get older, I find I am spending almost as much time reading the obituaries in the morning newspaper as I am reading the sports page. The obituaries can be dull, inspiring or frustrating, much like the people whose passing is being noted. But I've gotten very fond of scanning them daily.
Premonitions of my own mortality abound there, of course, so the obituaries frequently produce reflection and resolutions for action. Occasionally, men or women I've known will be written about, their lives detailed (or expurgated tactfully) and their deaths and burials published so they can be remembered.
And there are wonderful, concise family dramas shared with the world on that page, dramas that can move even we who might not have ever known the participants. That's what struck me about a recent notice about the life and death of a man whom I had never personally met, but whose obituary spoke volumes.
Coincidentally, a couple of weeks later, I read another article about this same man's passing, this time in People of God, the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe. It went over much of the same ground ... but the omissions were glaring and, I'm afraid, sadly revealing of what can only be called an ecclesiastical character flaw developing within the Catholic Church.
The Albuquerque Journal's obituary described the death of a man who for years served the archdiocese as a member of a religious order but who was later called to a different ministry. He became musical director for the Metropolitan Community Church and for the archdiocese. His funeral mass was celebrated by the archbishop. He is survived by several family members and a longtime companion and he requested that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the Metropolitan Community Church.
In the archdiocesan newspaper, much the same life and death are detailed, except there is no mention whatever of the Metropolitan Church or of the longtime companion. No suggestions for where donations might be sent were given.
You don't have to be homosexual to be a member of the Metropolitan Community Church, but it is one faith community that has long opened wide its doors to all persons, regardless of sexual orientation, and has long been a bastion of tolerance and understanding in a society that too often fears homosexuality.
I choose to write about this abridged version of a life not to embarrass anyone, but because I read last week in a New York Times wire peice that the new pope has decided to send a crack team of theologian ghost busters to all U.S. seminaries in the next few months to root out heretics and homosexuals. No kidding.
Leaving aside for the moment the mind-boggling images that suggest themselves when trying to imagine how in the world this investigation will determine which of the young men studying to be priests are truly gay and which ones are simply “artistic,” “musical” or gifted with a keen sense of color and design (to play victim to some popular stereotypes), this seems like a decidedly weird effort for many other important reasons.
The key point is that heterosexual orientation is not a question of individual choice but is something that throughout the ages and across all cultures, a predictable number of men and women inherently do not share. And until now the church has acknowledged that unavoidable fact of nature.
The practice of recent centuries in the Catholic Church has been to hold the priesthood to the standard of celibacy, that is, a life without sexual relations of any sort. That there are many men currently ordained as priests who are homosexual in orientation has never caused concern to the hierarchy ... as long as they are celibate.
So why is there now a refocus of attention, not on the behavior of the individual seminarian or priest (which can be determined with great clarity) but on their orientation (which the individual might not even be clear about)?
I know the church has the image of being a monolithic, doctrinaire institution, but in practice, until now, it has always been amazingly tolerant of human foibles and weaknesses—at the individual, personal level. That toleration is threatened by a tough-guy papal attitude that we are going to be a leaner, meaner faith machine and if you don't like it you shouldn't let the cathedral door hit you on the butt on your way out.
Ironically, the Vatican assures us that the ban on homosexuals will only apply to those studying for the priesthood, not to any gays who might have already been ordained. That logical inconsistency might be motivated by the fact that if all currently ordained gay men were to be forced out, there would be a ton of empty rectories around the world.
I have known a great many homosexual priests during my life. There have been some miserable people among them and some great ones; pretty much just like all the rest of us. Short ones, fat ones, bald ones, too; all shapes and sizes. Their sexual orientation has never been an issue for the people they serve, but then, we never really know, do we?
I propose the Vatican should reconsider its proposal. Adopt instead the Bill Clinton approach towards gays in the military: “Don't ask, don't tell.” Forbidding gays the priesthood is foolish—just as is forbidding it to women and married men.