The following is a letter written to a parish priest in New York City after the Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time, 2012. It responds to a sermon which—for the second week in a row at that church—largely dealt with a conflict between the Catholic bishops and the Obama administration over a mandate to provide contraception coverage in Catholic-affiliated institutions. The gospel reading was from the first chapter of Mark, in which Jesus tells a leper who asked to be made clean, “I do will it. Be made clean.” And then he continues, “But go, show yourself to the priest.”
I feel a bit of a need to explain my feelings from yesterday further—most of all because I’ve woken up in the middle of the night and seem unable to do anything else. It can be hard to express oneself clearly and critically to a priest in the aisle of his church after he just served one the Body of Christ; the power imbalance can feel quite daunting. I hope I can do a little better here in writing, perhaps more as a brother in faith than as a son in church.
I’m still trying to understand the mandate issue in more detail, and to reflect on it. My first impulse of course is to side with the church on a matter of freedom and conscience and moral urgency. This is made a bit harder by the fact that the mandate (which, I gather, is already in place in New York and a number of other states anyway) covers only institutions of the church that serve and employ the general public, and that it may be construed as a matter of Catholic and non-Catholic individuals making individual choices about how to spend their earned income, of which health care is a part. Is one conscience being traded for another (with the church’s conscience trumping that of individuals)? I was disappointed to hear in the sermon that the president’s attempted accommodation has been deemed unacceptable, and I hope that both he and the bishops will continue to negotiate in good faith.
The thing that made the sermon hard for me later on was precisely the way in which it got off to such a beautiful start. Talking about leprosy to the kids. Bold! Amen. And so it continued. While I’m not persuaded that it’s a good idea to lend so much of our religiosity to the glorification of American government or its bloody history, I did deeply appreciate your reminder about the tradition of American religious dissent. These are tremendously important stories, but also complicated ones, for they remind us not only of courageous (and often very messy) resistance but of the all-too-common general complacency. They’re also stories of disempowered people in struggles for justice against a brutally oppressive status quo, not political tug-of-wars between powerful politicians and powerful bishops. Both kinds of struggle might be important, but they’re very different.
So I guess it felt like the former kind of struggle was being co-opted, and that the opportunity to speak to other profound crises was missed. (I was even tempted to feel a bit co-opted myself when Brown was mentioned.) The power of the earlier part of your sermon brought to my mind so many of the things our church doesn’t talk about as loudly as others—the church’s often “guilty silence” that Pius XI warned of in reference to matters of sexual morality seems to apply elsewhere as well, perhaps elsewhere even more. During the sermon, thoughts of modern-day lepers very close to home kept pressing on my mind. I thought maybe I’d share some of the examples that occurred to me, and which are keeping me awake this morning. Each of these presents a difficult dilemma—like leprosy, one with no simple solutions. Yet each clamors on the Christian conscience. Consider this, perhaps, a possible addendum to the many true things you already said.
- The NYPD’s Stop and Frisk policy. This seems to be one of the main civil rights issues in our city today, one which disproportionately targets our non-white neighbors. While it appears to be a matter of mere crime-prevention—and it may even have some short-term effect in that regard—the deeper impact is of treating people in certain communities and not others as if they’re guilty before being proven innocent. (While we’re talking about the NYPD and religious freedom, we might also think about the NYPD’s special surveillance of mosques in our neighborhood.)
- Immigrants’ rights. As you noted to me after mass, this is one of the church’s most prophetic stances right now, one that deeply affects the lives of millions of fellow Catholics, including many in our parish, though I don’t recall this ever being the main subject of a Catholic homily since I moved here from California. The parallel with leprosy is strong—these are people clearly carrying a legal stain, often having violated laws, yet their humanity seems to demand a better response than the law allows for. As I said, I’d like to learn more about what the church in New York is doing in this arena and how I can support it.
- Victims of environmental disasters. Despite our pope’s repeated pronouncements on the moral urgency of protecting the planet and those we share it with, we’ve heard far too little about this from Catholic leaders in the country whose population on average contributes more to the pollution of the earth than any other. Environmental crises—from oil spills to droughts to catastrophic mining projects—tend to affect those least able to prevent or sustain them. Yet our society appears to be unable to take many meaningful steps toward averting them.
- Those suffering foreclosure. This bears striking resemblance to the condition of a leper in that such situations put a blight on a person’s credit while taking away their home and community. In order to counter this, some churches are developing eviction-defense teams, equipping the community to do principled civil disobedience on behalf of one of their own. The Catholic Church, thank God, has a long history of preaching against the evils of profiting from excessive debt and predatory lending.
- Prisoners at Guantanamo and Bagram. After 10 years last month, the United States has still not been able to end its programs of offshore detainment that elude the basic principles of our justice system. The people there are being held without charge, on the basis of an undeclared war. The Catholic Worker movement has for years been leading the fledgling effort to draw attention to these lepers—again, I’m not contending that all those being held are without blemish—even making a failed attempt to visit them in Cuba, but with little progress or sustained public support from church leaders. Sadly, it now appears that 70 percent of Americans have become accommodated to this policy, and the latest NDAA further enshrines it in law, together with allowances that such a policy might be applied to US citizens.
- Transgender people. The only Catholic religious in the country with a full-time ministry devoted to serving transgender people is a semi-retired nun who happens to be one of the most astonishing Christians I’ve ever known. The people she works with are considered to be so leprous that her order—already facing scrutiny from Rome—permits her to do this important work only if she does so without attracting any notice whatsoever. The time I’ve spent with her and the remarkable, heavy-laden people she ministers to has given me one of the most challenging and ultimately enriching experiences of my life.
- Legal and illegal sex workers. Consider, for instance, the recent push on the part of the multi-billion-dollar pornography industry to prevent condoms from being mandated on the sets of films, condoms that would protect actors from STDs. No side of this debate is pretty, but that seems to be exactly the kind of situation where, in the gospels, Jesus kept finding himself.
There are so many more.
Maybe you assume in all this that I’m really standing up for my man Barack. The problem, though, is precisely that I’m not. Politicians are politicians, and especially in the current climate I see little reason to expect much in the way of moral leadership from them. Nor, obviously, do I expect ordinary politics from the pulpit; on the contrary, I deeply value the fact that you and I seem to have such divergent political starting points yet can worship together in the same church. It is to this Catholic community of faith that I look for the moral guidance which underpins politics—I look to you, and to our whole communion, lay as well as religious, both living and in glory. (Our particular parish is rich with saintly older women, from whom I’ve learned a lot.) I’m not expecting the church to provide answers to all these difficult problems I’ve raised. Jesus didn’t prescribe a cure to leprosy; as you pointed out, he simply noticed it, refused to be afraid of it, and healed the underlying relationships. I similarly tend to think that our calling as a church is less to present policy prescriptions (though they may start to seem obvious in certain instances) than to prophetic noticing, healing, and reconciliation—perhaps a fuller form of exorcism.
All this said, and as I hope I’ve said before, I have always appreciated your preaching talents and your sophistication and your openness. I wouldn’t have written this if I didn’t. I hope our conversations continue.