John Ramos-Hazlet

A sparrow's passage

“A person who has that condition”

I think it’s time for a Pope Francis reality check. As a former Roman twice over I generally hesitate to comment on matters Vatican, since anti-Roman bias or a failure to grasp Roman teaching could easily (if, I believe, falsely) be alleged. But the unbridled enthusiasm of progressively-minded folk for His Holiness’s several hints in the direction of greater inclusiveness toward gay people (most recently this one) moves me to venture a few remarks.

Let’s be clear (and a little graphic) about Roman teaching on this point: the only context in which sex can be morally good is marriage between a man and a woman, and in that context sex must be directed toward both uniting the two spouses more intimately (through shared pleasure) and begetting a child. Sexual desire that does not fit this paradigm is, though not immoral in itself, nevertheless disordered.

It will be noted that what this rules out touches the lives of a lot more people than gay women and men. Even within a straight marriage much is forbidden: birth control in any form (except – bizarrely, from a moral theology point of view – the “rhythm method”), oral and anal sex, mutual masturbation, and withdrawal before ejaculation (if done with the intent of preventing conception). Outside straight marriage sex is entirely forbidden: sex between a married person of whatever gender with someone of whatever gender who is not his or her spouse (of course), sex between unmarried persons of whatever gender, and masturbation.

The only element of this dogmatic package from which Pope Francis has hinted at the possibility of softening is in a very restricted way the bit about contraception, with an eye toward curbing the spread of sexually transmitted disease.

A gentler pastoral attitude toward gay people is neither negligible nor new. The Catechism produced during John Paul II’s notoriously gay-unfriendly pontificate insists that such persons “must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity” in the same paragraph in which it renders the “objectively disordered” verdict on gay desire.

And this is precisely where Pope Francis, with all his charm, stands: even as he calls for an ecclesial apology to the gay community he speaks from within the paradigm of homosexuality-as-disordered-desire. This is what lies beneath his description of the gay person as someone who “has that condition.” He does not by any means propose that the Roman Church apologize for the impact of its teaching on gay lives, but for the effects of a pastorally insensitive or perhaps inadequately nuanced implementation of that teaching.

Can one instruct gay persons that their desires are disordered and that the only morally good use of their sexuality requires abstinence from intercourse and masturbation while also “accepting” them with “respect, compassion, and sensitivity”? There was a time when I thought this possible and tried very hard to do it. I no longer do and I now belong to a catholic church not in communion with Rome in which the attempt is no longer necessary. There are people I respect who are still trying and Pope Francis is one of them. But I would argue that such a view of sexuality, however approached, does harm.

Thoughts on The Heart of Twenty-First Century Anglican Catholicity

(This post is intended as a contribution to #TractSwarm Four on the blog of the Society of Catholic Priests)

The deep core of the catholic tradition seems to me to be the sense of sacramentality. Catholic Christianity is about a very material world that is saturated with the divine and whose story has a Paschal shape: it leads through struggle, suffering, and death into fullness of life, into fulfillment beyond rather than instead of dissolution. As St. Irenaeus puts it, the story of Jesus “recapitulates” this cosmic story; his story sacramentalizes or performs in microcosm the story of the world in which his own is deeply rooted. Jesus as divine Logos is intimately present to every being, drawing us all toward a completion that is nothing less than fully Trinitarian life.

The story of Jesus has very clear contours, easy to ignore or suppress because of their difficult implications. It is about the ancient human tendency to patch up estrangements by singling-out and victimizing an “other,” on whom those divisions are spuriously blamed – and who, in the narrative of the Gospel, turns out to be none other than God, present as paradoxically triumphant victim in the midst of the world he created and sustains.

Jesus’s story is about a circle of compassion widening indefinitely and scandalously. It is about a world saturated by holiness rather than a holiness that is set apart from the world.

The story of Jesus is essentially liturgical: it cannot simply be told, it must be celebrated.

Liturgy is essentially gift.

No gift is fully received until it has been reciprocated. So liturgy is essentially thanksgiving and essentially moral: it is about how we as Christ’s disciples are called to live in the world as much as it is about how the world, in Christ, is and shall be. We have not fully celebrated it until we have embraced Our Lord in this world’s victims, gathered the despised into our embrace, and honored by our way of life the holiness of all creation: until, in other words, we have begun to work toward justice and, beyond justice, love.

The relationship between this sacramental approach to everything and the institutional forms of the catholic churches is not arbitrary, though neither is it flawless. It is nothing if not concrete, as befits the sacramental world-view I’ve tried to describe. Liturgy; sacraments; Scripture; apostolic succession; bishops, priests, and deacons; creeds; ecumenical councils; the legacy of Fathers and Mothers of the Church – the whole architecture of catholicism, a bit haphazard but essentially graceful and ruggedly enduring, stands at the service of the sacramental Church which kneels to wash the feet of the world Christ has always pervaded and was born human to die and rise in. The catholic – the sacramental – tendency is toward concreteness as much as it is toward universality.

***

At the heart of the early Oxford Movement was an argument about Anglican identity more than about Anglican practice: Pusey and his allies insisted that the Church of England was a catholic church, heir to the tradition of St Augustine of Canterbury with a continuity that the Reformation had not broken. The Movement was so far successful on this point that few in the Communion today would dispute this Anglo-Catholic axiom, but it is well worth remembering and its implications merit fresh pondering. Anglo-Catholics are all too ready to regard themselves as a kind of clique within the Communion, defined in terms of liturgical style and extra-liturgical devotional practice, an attitude that serves no one well. It behooves us to emphasize that our distinctive aim is above all to accentuate an aspect of Anglican identity and heritage that is common to all within the Communion.

This is by no means to say that questions of liturgical practice are unimportant. They may be easy to caricature (even by ourselves!) in terms of gin-and-lace but our Ritualist forebears were motivated by more than mere love of incense and brocade. The sacramental understanding of Christianity and of the world – emphasizing as it does Our Lord’s Incarnation – has liturgical implications which are classically expressed in terms of the beauty and sensuous richness of the Church’s rites, just as these rites and our participation in them have implications about how we are called to live. The early Ritualists understood this deeply and their ministry was especially effective among the very poor. (One is always in danger of patronizing the young when one singles them out for churchy discussion but there is value in recognizing how important this incarnationally-driven liturgical confluence of the aesthetic and the ethical is to many young people today.)

***

If, then, the distinctive note of catholic Christianity can be summed up as “sacramentality,” and if the twofold contribution of the Anglo-Catholic movement to the life of the Anglican Communion is the recognition of Anglicanism’s catholic identity and an approach to liturgical celebration that, by its appeal to the senses and the imagination, gives special emphasis both to the roots of sacramentality in the Incarnation of the Logos and to the ethical implications of the celebration of this mystery, then perhaps an appropriate aspiration for twenty-first century Anglo-Catholics might be to focus our attention afresh on liturgy and justice – or, in other words, on liturgy as a way of life.

#TractSwarm Logo

On the convenience of chaos

My attention was arrested today by two reviews of Hermione Lee’s new biography, Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life, one by James Wood in the New Yorker, the other by A. N. Wilson in the TLS.

Wilson writes, of Fitzgerald,

“This is the core of her mystery, since she always – evidently – knew that she had it in her to write, but left the words unwritten, just as she had left so much unsaid in her emotional history. You can’t put it down to chance. It is impossible to believe that much in Fitzgerald’s writing, or in her life, was really left to chance – much as her tone would like us to believe that sentences, like a string of unsatisfactory jobs and living arrangements, came about faute de mieux. The diffidence masked, not lack of confidence, but its opposite. She knew exactly what she wanted to do as a writer, and it suited her to have a series of chaotic outward circumstances to explain how she failed to achieve them. Yet, in those books that hit the bull’s-eye, the hit is so palpable that we cannot suppose it was accidental.”

Whether or not this is a fair assessment of Fitzgerald’s life, I find myself wondering if aspects of it might apply to my own. Especially the penetrating bit about how “She knew exactly what she wanted to do…, and it suited her to have a series of chaotic outward circumstances to explain how she failed to achieve” it.

The outward circumstances of my life have not exactly been chaotic, and the sort of thing I imagine I might otherwise have achieved is not literary greatness but an accumulation of good pastoral work, beautiful liturgical ministry, and thoughtful preaching and teaching as a priest. But there have been what from one point of view might be seen as derailments at key points, and the work I had once aspired to do I have not (yet, with God’s help) done.

The principal derailment I have in mind is my return, from the Anglican Communion in which I had chosen after much thought and prayer to be confirmed, to the Roman Catholic Church into which I had been baptized as a child. This is not to indicate any disrespect for the Roman tradition, nor is it to undervalue the great good that arose from the dozen years I spent back in the Roman fold.

It is reluctantly to admit that in retrospect the reasons I adduced at the time for having (rather suddenly) made this change don’t seem persuasive, and I am left to conclude that for the real motives of this decision I must look elsewhere. Must look, perhaps, to the residue of a subconscious homophobia that made me recoil from my increasingly firm conviction that gay relationships are as blessable as straight ones; or perhaps to the great (and as it turned out unwarranted) fear I felt at the prospect of “coming out” to my family; perhaps even to the fear that I might never find someone with whom to share my life.

A return to Rome would bring with it a return to the tortured comfort of accepting that my orientation marked me out for a single life. It would also render the sabotage of my personal aspiration (to a spousal relationship with another man) a byproduct of my pastoral one (since in this context priesthood would require singleness regardless of my orientation). I would be spared the unknown shock of coming out of the closet to my family in exchange for the known anguish of remaining inside.

But I had already rather thoughtfully accepted the catholic claims of Anglicanism, I had already (if in a preliminary and underdeveloped way) come to think in terms of a theological anthropology that had room for embracing the goodness of same-sex relationships and the ordination of women, and none of this magically disappeared when I decided to return to Rome. I made a muddled conscientious effort to embrace the views of these matters propounded by the Roman magisterium, trying to see them as part of an indivisible “whole” to which I needed to adapt my personal views. But really these views of mine only became more settled as the years went by and I continued to pray, to study, and to encounter people in pastoral situations. I continued to regard the Anglican Communion as essentially catholic; I continued to regard as indefensible the idea that same-sex desire is “disordered”; I continued to see the ordination of women as an implication of classical Christology. I just kept quiet about these (and other) matters except in private contexts; or (eventually) discussed my views publicly in such a way as to distance myself from them, described them as strictly private speculations, and expounded them in contradistinction to the official views of the Roman magisterium on the same subjects.

Moreover, I had felt immensely at home, very much “in place” in the Episcopal Church and the Church of England, in a way that I never managed to do back in the Roman Catholic Church. I struggled with this for years – with the sense of being out of place; of being unable really to accept (despite my best efforts) the exclusive claims of Rome and the positions of the magisterium on certain controversial issues; of being impeded in the realization of my aspirations as a human being and as a Christian.

The result was more derailments: my sudden departure from the seminary, the crumbling of my monastic life.

The title of James Wood’s review is “Late Bloom.” Penelope Fitzgerald, it seems, never really extricated herself from her “unsatisfactory jobs and living arrangements,” but she did manage, eventually, to write. I’ve managed, somewhat earlier in the unfolding of my own story, to find another person with whom to forge a loving partnership, and to find what has perhaps been my real ecclesial home all along. Perhaps I’m a late-bloomer too.

Protected: Why I left the monastery, Part 5 of 5

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A locked path?

“I’m interested in how people understand things in present tense, and not how they tell the story back to themselves in the past. That’s why I’m not that interested in interviews. People create these narratives of themselves, and it becomes a kind of locked path. All the uncertainty and danger and risk and decision-making are ripped from the telling.”

Laura Poitras

Reading this in an article in the New Yorker last night got me thinking about what I’ve been attempting in recent (long!) posts about my monastic experience or, maybe more accurately, my life so far. I’ve been trying to build a narrative in an informal way (informal because I see this blog as a literary sketchbook; my posts here are not finished pieces). But I’ve done so with a kind of background awareness of the danger (if that’s what it is) of what Poitras calls (and I had not found words for) the “locked path” that stories we tell about ourselves can become. I could almost go as far as to say that reading the article helped me to realize that my not-quite-conscious awareness of this danger is what motivated me – or is part of what motivated me – to attempt this narrative to begin with. Paradoxically.

I want to make sense of what has happened to me and of what I’ve done. I want it all to fit into some sort of more or less coherent (if ineradicably eccentric) story. But at the same time I’m suspicious of my past attempts to do that very thing. At each stage of my life, or at each major turning-point, I’ve built a narrative to account for what led up to that point, generally in such a way as to privilege that point and make it seem definitive. But of course no moment of a human life is ever really definitive. Bl. John Henry Newman could have told me that (and had done).

So I guess what I’ve been doing here is narrative-building that is a little suspicious of the “locked bath” that our narratives can build us into. Maybe that’s why I keep insisting that this is a sketchbook. I’ve tried not to polish what I’ve written very much, maybe in the (until now) subconscious hope of catching hold of something unexpectedly true in the narrative wilds before I lock myself into a particular narrative path. Or in the hope of allowing more than one such path through the wilderness of my own story to remain open.

Despite the dangers of getting locked into a narrative path that might flatten the realities it tries to describe, narrative is extremely important in the lives of persons and communities. One might even say it is definitive of persons and communities as such. It occurs to me that there is an ancient example, native to the Christian tradition, of how to negotiate the tension between the importance and the pitfalls of story: the four Gospels. Each traces a remarkably distinct (and one traces an entirely idiosyncratic) path through narrative territory common to all four. Rather than a “locked” path, here are four paths, and the tradition insists that a familiarity with them all is needed in order to take in the lay of the land.