A recent article in the Baltimore Sun gave a wonderful example of how the media view traditional Christianity. Under the headline “Vatican Orders Activists’ Silence,” the Sun presented the latest installment in a local saga that is beginning to rival one of the national soap operas in its duration.
In the 1970’s, a Catholic priest and a nun started a ministry targeted at homosexual men and lesbians. It took the Vatican administrative machinery many years of discussion to reach a decision, but last year the two were ordered to stop their work. The Sun story—concerned a recent meeting in Rome, at which the two were further instructed not to talk about die ministry or the reasons for its termination. If they broke the ban, they faced dismissal from the religious life: She would no longer be a nun; he would be laicized.
The priest bowed to the discipline of his order. The nun, however, flouted her instructions, telling reporters that the gag order was “a violation of the basic human right to self-defense.” She added, “The part that I think is particularly unfair is to say to someone, ‘You are forbidden to speak about this experience.’ How else are we to grow as a church, as individuals or as a community unless we can speak about and reflect on our experiences? That part I found particularly offensive.” One cannot appreciate the humor of her remark without knowing that the process of bringing the two into line with Church teachings took 11 years, during which the nun vigorously defended herself both within the Church and in public. The Church finally decided that there had been enough talk, and it was time for the two to do as they were told. Any parent of a quick-tongued adolescent should be able to sympathize with the Church’s stance: Sometimes, enough is enough.
The rest of the article also resembled the skillful imitation of an outraged teenager. A woman from Dignity USA, a homosexual pressure group, said, “To force them to make a choice between their life in community and their call to ministry is a kind of abuse.” A former coworker of the two called the Vatican’s move a “cover-up,” and added, “I can’t help but to ask, ‘What is it the Vatican is afraid of?'” (Ah, now I see: It was nothing but fear all along.)
Characteristically, the Baltimore Sun presented no rebuttal to the view that the Vatican was wrong and cruel. I presume that the reporters involved in this story, like those they quoted, have chosen to ignore the fact that no “human right” has been violated; the two can speak about their situation all they wish, and no jail, no fine, no worldly punishment will descend on them. If they wish to continue their ministry, they can do so. However, what these two cannot do is defy the discipline of the Church and violate its beliefs while continuing to function as a Catholic priest and nun.
A view of this comedy that those who do not hate all religion might understand is that this is not an issue of rights, but of keeping a contract. (I make this argument with great ambivalence, as it avoids the substantive issues that are involved. But a contractual argument might succeed in the arena in which our arguments are now conducted.) When someone joins a voluntary association — and membership in the Catholic Church is voluntary—he agrees to follow the rules. Both the nun and the priest knew when they entered the religious life that the Church took its rules seriously. Moreover, in the Catholic Church, the hierarchy sets the rules: What they decide is binding. It’s not a democracy. If conscience dictates that those decisions cannot be followed, you are free to leave; sometimes, perhaps, you should do so, but fundamentally a deal is a deal. The priest is keeping his side of the bargain. The nun refuses to do so.
American Catholics frequently say such things as “The Church can’t do that” or “It’s my Church, too.” One could reply, “It isn’t yours, it’s Christ’s,” but, of course, the dissident would respond that he knows the mind of Christ better than the Church does; and, in the past, there have been dissidents who, the Church has finally concluded, did in fact know better. However, the Church has listened to this priest and the nun for quite some time and has decided they are wrong.
Americans today are frequently confused about authority. Usually we despise it, and many of our woes stem from our refusal to exercise it when it is needed. We construe everything as a matter of rights, by which we often mean some kind of license. But when we choose to belong to an institution, we owe it things in return for membership. (Socrates had something to say about this.) Sometimes we may owe silence; at times, even an American may owe someone obedience. These reasonable points escape this nun, the Sun, and many others with an adolescent mindset of rebellion.
What many Americans, including this nun, cannot understand is that some hierarchies take themselves seriously: The leaders of the Catholic Church intend to follow Her rules and enforce them. Fear does not motivate them; sincerity does. They are not trying to “cover up” something; they are trying to maintain the integrity of their organization. An institution’s authorities may assert their power not because they are cruel or because they want to exercise power over other people, but out of devotion to the institution, the people in it, and even, sometimes, their love of God as they understand Him. Rather like good parents.
If this farce evolves in the way such things so often do, the next step will be a federal court. There, the nun’s claims about freedom of speech might conflict with freedom of religion: Do traditional believers have the right to run their own organization? In a country in which the Boy Scouts narrowly escaped being forced to accept gay leaders because the organization is a “public accommodation,” I fear that, in the courts, this issue would move in the wrong direction.