Stop Judging, Start Listening

The headline in the Chicago Tribune announced: ” ‘Stunning change, say local Catholics.” The following article about the preliminary report of an international assembly of Roman Catholic bishops convened by Pope Francis to discuss church policy and attitudes regarding divorce and remarriage, same sex relationships and marriage, and heterosexual sexual relations before marriage, was remarkable simply for making it onto the front news page. Not much religion is thought to be page-one material. Even more remarkably the report signaled the possibility of a dramatic change, at least in tone, of the Church’s position on the issues. Historically, Church doctrine regards marriage as permanent, divorce and remarriage serious moral sins and, in its practice, excludes divorced and remarried persons from the Church’s sacramental ministry. It also holds that any sexual relationship outside the bounds of marriage is seriously sinful. Predictably, conservative bishops are pushing back and suggesting that the report should be shredded. The fact that the Church’s traditional positions are increasingly removed from the way human beings, including faithful Roman Catholics, actually behave, became an embarrassment to some, but to others indicative of the importance of maintaining traditional church values and standards in the face of growing secularism and moral relativism in society.

Local church pastors, Protestant and Catholic, have always been on the front lines of the conflict. Protestant denominations have mostly regarded traditional, heterosexual marriage as the only appropriate context for full sexual relations. But, in the privacy of the pastor’s study, the gap between what the church says and the way people are living became increasingly apparent. Pastors experienced, first hand, the vast societal evolution in attitude and in practice during the course of talking with couples planning their wedding. In the process of gathering information for church records I asked the couple for the addresses where each were living, and over the years could not help but observe that, more and more, the address was the same. They were living in sin – at least that’s what the church said. Should I terminate the interview at that point and deliver a lecture on traditional church values and practice? I never did, nor did many, if not most, others of us, Protestant or Catholic. Part of the reason is that I have five children and witnessed first hand that they were living in a world vastly different from the one in which I came of age. Studies continue to suggest that the rate of pre-marital sexual activity has remained fairly stable over the years and relatively high. The only difference is where it happens. Lawrence Finer, Director of Domestic Research for the Guttmacher Institute said recently, “The reality is that most people had premarital sex, and it’s been that way for several decades.” In any case, pastors learned that the couple were living together, filed the information away and proceeded with the conversation. Near the end of my ministry it seemed to me that what was once an unusual circumstance had become almost universally the norm.

Pastors uniquely understand the tension between traditional values and reality. Human beings are created with the capacity, need and desire for fully expressed sexuality long before marriage is possible or practical. As the average age at which people marry rises, for a variety of reasons, the tension becomes even more intense. For a cardiology resident working 90 hours a week and an equally busy beginning attorney, deeply in love and faithfully committed to each other, marriage may not be a possibility. With a congregation full of people like that a pastor must decide whether to espouse traditional church doctrine or extend understanding of the very real human situation in which one’s people live.

I have wrestled for a long time with the idea that the world may have the better part of wisdom in situations like this and something to teach us. We are not in the popularity business, of course. There are many situations in which the church has a prophetic word to speak which confronts and challenges societal vales and practices. I’ve concluded that this is not one of them or at least that our situation is so new that old, simple mandates are no longer relevant or helpful or, for that matter, faithful to the gospel. I’ve concluded that we are called to be less judgmentally certain, and more understanding.

Robert Putnam and Charles Campbell, in American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, confirm that one of the reasons young adults have fled the church in unprecedented numbers is because of the church’s judgmental, harsh and exclusivist teaching about human sexuality. My own five now adult, middle-age children, all church members, when they hear that I am embroiled in yet another battle about sex in my church, roll their eyes and say in unison, “Dad, are you still talking about that? Don’t you know that we don’t care about it anymore, that we moved on a long time ago?”

Maybe it is time for the church to stop talking, proclaiming, judging for once and listen to the world and its own people.

Comments

  1. Edith G. Andrew says:

    AMEN!

    Sent from my iPhone

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