05/09/2012 12:31 pm ET Updated Jul 09, 2012

A Real Conversation for the Rest of Us Catholics

"If I were not a Catholic and knew what I know today, would I become one?" That was the question asked a few weeks ago by a member of the gay men's group at a local Catholic parish. He had just come back from a colloquium sponsored by New Ways, a ministry founded to serve LGBT Catholics. And yet there he was, posing a very uncomfortable question.

For some cradle Catholics, it's an unthinkable question. But Americans are spiritually restless. This man was baptized more than 80 years ago. The fact that after more than eight decades he could consider leaving the Church is a sign of serious tension.

This tension is not just the vertical struggle between LGBTQ Catholics and the Church hierarchy. It's horizontal as well. It plays out within parish councils, as they argue over differing styles of liturgy and differing types of ministry. It plays out within dioceses, as Catholics increasingly choose the parish in which they will worship on the basis of ideological affinity rather than geographical proximity. Parishes and religious communities end up competing against each other for members and support. Divergent approaches to the broader world only fuel the bitterness of this competition. When parishes and religious communities ask the hierarchy to settle their disputes, it's enough to make me feel sorry for the bishops -- even if the efforts of those bishops to enforce theological and political uniformity are wrong-headed.

You can see this horizontal strife in media responses to conflict between the Leadership Council of Women Religious (LCWR) and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). This will be obvious to readers of Andrea Ryan, a Catholic laywoman who crows that "the Holy See's five-year plan will sweep the Catholic church clean of Leftist nuns." But it is no less true of Nicholas Kristof, who opened a recent op-ed piece proclaiming that, "Catholic nuns are not the prissy traditionalists of caricature." In fact, there are a number of Catholic nuns who describe themselves as "traditional," and by most accounts "traditional" orders of Catholic women religious are growing. Ignoring their existence won't make them go away. Ms. Ryan's talk of "five-year plans" recalls the rhetoric of the Stalinist era, but in the final analysis she might be more honest about her final vision of the Church than Mr. Kristof.

If you really want to see someone making an honest attempt to address the horizontal tensions within the Catholic Church, read the speech of Sister Laurie Brink that drew the fire of the CDF.
(A copy of that speech can be found at Patheos.) Addressing the LCWR, Sister Laurie outlined four options open to women religious communities confronting the crisis of declining membership. Communities can stop accepting new postulants, make arrangements for their remaining members, and die with dignity. They can return to pre-Vatican II forms of ministry and community life. They can decide to move "beyond the Church, even beyond Jesus" and become "in most respects Post-Christian." Or they can engage bishops who object to their approach to social justice and spiritual life and work toward "Reconciliation for the Sake of Mission."

Three things stand out in this speech. First, Sr. Laurie argues that the situation demands a deliberate choice -- divided communities risk paralysis and an ugly end. Second, she refuses to dictate uniformity in that choice -- each community must decide for itself. Finally, while she might not accord them as much warmth as she does to other women religious communities, she acknowledges the flourishing of "traditional" religious orders, and even defends them from the accusation of being nothing more than "the nostalgic portrait of a time now passed." This shows for more Christian charity than Ms. Ryan, Mr. Kristof or the CDF, for that matter.

If we want to practice "reconciliation for the sake of mission," we first have to acknowledge the people with whom we need to be reconciled. For some Catholics, the presence as an openly gay man in the Church is a scandal -- an old fashioned word meaning "a stumbling-block," something that stands in the way of other persons' faith in Christ. If I reject the bishops' teaching on sexuality, what else will I reject? And if I seem to give in to sexual temptations, why should others resist their own? But if they can acknowledge that insistence on absolute conformity on all points of theology is as much a scandal for me and for others as my sexuality is for them, if we all put aside the threat of canon law and come to the table, we might have a real conversation. We could even invite the bishops. It might set a good example for the World. It might even convert some people.