I've been spending the better part of the last week among Catholics who communicate. They're people of varied backgrounds and politics who love their church. We're at the annual meeting of the Catholic Press Association, where I've been asked to speak a few times. But what I've been doing more of is listening.
What I've been hearing is an acknowledgment that something's gone terribly wrong. Not that church teaching has to be overhauled, as is so often the assumption in media, but that we need to communicate better. We need to be more consistent witnesses of an alternative to the conventional.
Frank Bruni, writing in his New York Times column, recently excoriated the church for its continued encouragement to men and women with same-sex attractions to live lives of chastity. Bruni focuses on recent comments by New York's Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the best-known of any contemporary U.S. bishop, teaching that sexual love is "intended only for a man and woman in marriage." This, Bruni says, "assigns homosexuals a status separate from, and unequal to, the one accorded heterosexuals: You're OK, but you're really not OK. Upon you there is a special restriction, and for you there is a fundamental dimension of the human experience that is off-limits, a no-fly zone of the heart."
But what's missing here is the fact that there are many men and women who do not have same-sex attractions who are not married, but want to be. I met some of them, as I do just about everywhere, in Denver this week. One young woman talked about her desire for marriage, her desire to know that's her vocation, while acknowledging that she is already serving God as a single woman, at her job, in her community and among friends. She's not going to let what she lacks, and really wants, impede her gratitude.
That one woman I mentioned echoes the thoughts of many young people I've encountered over the past few years: She loves God, she loves her church and she is open to sacrifice to do God's will in her life. There's a sacrificial aspect to our lives. While religious faith is a source of hope and joy, there is no escaping the fact that life can have its share of hell. We don't escape that. We seek to bring good to situations we wouldn't have necessarily scripted for ourselves.
In her memoir, "The Ear of the Heart," Mother Dolores writes: "To enter the contemplative life truly, you have to go through a narrow, lonely place in your being, where you face all your fears and selfish patterns, even when you don't know what these are. I thought I was very grown-up, very mature. You don't realize what a child you are until God tests your heart and you go through that deep place all of us have to go through."
In his Times column, Bruni admits to sadness upon witnessing hypocrisy. That's an overwhelming reality of our day. I'm sorry we are all so damn human, or the overwhelming countercultural witness of real Christianity would be inspiring and uplifting. That's the only successful communications strategy for a church: Be for real.