of dialogue and theological trump cards

In the wake of yesterday’s Supreme Court decision regarding marriage, I’m re-posting a link to a blog post I wrote ten years ago about what works — and what doesn’t — when in dialogue about hotly contested issues:

pulling out the theological trump card

A snip:

I’m aware that the Church’s teaching about sex and marriage is not received as “good news” by many in the homosexual community. And my personal view is that the Church has not been very effective in demonstrating how her teaching does not oppress, but actually liberates the person with same-sex attractions. To do so, I think the conversation has to shift from the sinfulness of certain acts to the question of what, intrinsically, a sin is (missing the mark) and how the activity in question misses the mark. It has to address the question: what is the goodness, truth and beauty of striving toward that mark? Sin has become such a loaded word, carrying a heavy emotional payload not because of what it means, but because of the way it is sometimes used, as leverage over and against other people, as a spiritual trump card of sorts in an argument. It would be helpful to move beyond this way of talking about sin, which is surely not producing much in the way of fruitful dialogue.

The rest is here.

joy and sadness: a world turned Inside Out

Joy and SadnessI saw Inside Out last night. It is a remarkable work of cinematic art. I don’t have time at the moment to write the review I would like to, but Steven Greydanus has more than ably said many of the things I would want to mention, and some that had not occurred to me. As I began thinking about the movie’s themes this morning, a passage from Henri Nouwen came to mind, which I had written down in my journal some twenty-four years ago.

“I tell you most solemnly, you will be weeping and wailing while the world will rejoice; you will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn to joy. A woman in childbirth suffers, because her time has come; but when she has given birth to the child she forgets the suffering in her joy that a man has been born into the world. So it is with you: you are sad now, but I shall see you again, and your hearts will be full of joy, and that joy no one shall take from you.” (John 16:20-22)

Our life is a short time in expectation, a time in which sadness and joy kiss each other at every moment. There is a quality of sadness that pervades all the moments of our life. It seems that there is no such thing as clear-cut pure joy, but that even in the most happy moments of our existence we sense a tinge of sadness. In every satisfaction, there is an awareness of its limitations. In every success, there is the fear of jealousy. Behind every smile, there is a tear. In every embrace, there is loneliness. In every friendship, distance. And in all forms of light, there is the knowledge of surrounding darkness.

Joy and sadness are as close to each other as the splendid colored leaves of a New England fall to the soberness of the barren trees. When you touch the hand of a returning friend, you already know that he will have to leave you again. When you are moved by the quiet vastness of a sun-covered ocean, you miss the friend who cannot see the same. Joy and sadness are born at the same time, both arising from such deep places in your heart that you can’t find words to capture your complex emotions. But this intimate experience in which every bit of life is touched by a bit of death can point us beyond the limits of our existence. It can do so by making us look forward in expectation to the day when our hearts will be filled with perfect joy, a joy that no one shall take away from us.

Henri J.M. Nouwen, Out of Solitude, “In Expectation”

A few further thoughts: Toward the end of the movie, there are moments that, while not in the least didactic, are instructive not just for children, but for all of us who share the human condition. Our lives are constantly marked by the reality of being in statu viae — “on the way”… In this life, we are never at home in the sense of a place of final rest. Our lives are shaped continually by hellos and goodbyes of various kinds — with other people, with places, and with places within.

While this is true of all people without exception, we sometimes feel isolated, believing that, while we can celebrate the hellos together, we cannot grieve the losses together (even with those we love and who love us). Yet sadness expressed can be isolation overcome. Paradoxically, grief shared can become sadness transformed and touched by joy, because our greatest need as humans is not to experience unqualified and perpetual joy, but to experience life in communion with others. If we understood this, and lived this, our relationship to the sick, dying, poor and elderly might be transformed. And with those relationships transformed, our world could be turned inside out, in the best possible sense.

communicating the family: a privileged place of encounter with the gift of love

The VisitationThis year, World Communications Day takes place on May 17.

My observation is that special days in the Church — such as the World Day of Peace and the World Day of Communications — often pass us by without making even a ripple in the Church or in the culture. It seems to me that we often do not make a proper preparation for the celebration of these days. And yet the Church does suggest a time of preparation; the Pope’s messages for these events are released months ahead of time.

With that in mind, for the month of May, I’ve decided to dedicate my blog to the theme of this year’s World Communications Day: communicating the family: a privileged place of encounter with the gift of love.

Here’s a short passage from the message, as a teaser:

We can draw inspiration from the Gospel passage which relates the visit of Mary to Elizabeth (Lk 1:39-56). “When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the infant leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit cried out in a loud voice and said, ‘Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb’.” (vv. 41-42)

This episode first shows us how communication is a dialogue intertwined with the language of the body. The first response to Mary’s greeting is given by the child, who leaps for joy in the womb of Elizabeth. Joy at meeting others, which is something we learn even before being born, is, in one sense, the archetype and symbol of every other form of communication. The womb which hosts us is the first “school” of communication, a place of listening and physical contact where we begin to familiarize ourselves with the outside world within a protected environment, with the reassuring sound of the mother’s heartbeat. This encounter between two persons, so intimately related while still distinct from each other, an encounter so full of promise, is our first experience of communication. It is an experience which we all share, since each of us was born of a mother.

Click here to read the entire letter.

the church as mother, and the fruits of dialogue

This is a bit unusual as a Mother’s Day post, but since I recently offered a tribute to my mom on her birthday and the day of her burial, I’m writing about something slightly different today.

Via blogs, e-mail correspondence, and a few in-person meetings over lunch during the past ten years, Michael Bayly (presently of Catholics for Marriage Equality MN) and I have exchanged ideas and been engaged in an ongoing dialogue about the Church’s teaching on homosexuality.

The most famous of our exchanges was this:


The differences have been largely irreconcilable in the subsequent years.

Recently, after I sent him a link to a new online documentary called The Third Way, he replied, thanking me for forwarding him the link. And a day or two later, he sent me a friend request on Facebook.

In response, I wrote to him to explain why I didn’t think a friend request made sense at this point (excerpts below):

I received your Facebook friend request the other day. I wanted to wait until I had some time before replying.

There are, of course, all kinds of friends in life, such as friends from childhood, friends within one’s family, friends through one’s workplace or place of worship, or simply those who share a common interest or goal — fellow bloggers, etc.  Facebook friends may overlap any of those forms, depending on how one uses the platform.

I tend to be fairly liberal in who I friend on Facebook (although limiting it, in most cases, to those I have at least met in person).

I’m hesitating with your request for one reason, and one reason only. It’s not easy for me to bring this up, but I feel compelled to be candid with you about it.

I have a hard time trusting you, and trust is essential to friendship of any stripe.


The obstacle for me is not that you object to some of the Church’s moral teaching, but the way you have expressed it over the years through lobbying against the Church’s pastors.

While I can respect that you see things differently than I do, I cannot lie and say that it’s a matter of indifference to me that we disagree about essential matters of faith and morals. It’s been very painful to witness your persistent attacks on the church’s pastors and her teaching, and I can’t pretend otherwise.

For me, the church is a mother. Though I may not agree with one or other way that some of her ministers carry out her mission, I believe her teaching on faith and morals to be without error, and also feel the duty of a son not to cause her pain by publicly airing her dirty laundry. I desire to be a son who is both honest about what I perceive to be her shortcomings, and at the same time loyal to her as a person, and as my mother.  I have sought the same attitude to my earthly mother as well.

Returning to the original point: A basic foundation of trust is essential to friendship of any kind. I wish I felt I could trust you, but I’m not finding myself capable of that at present.

I am willing to carry on correspondence and discussion with you in the public forum, as we have in the past via our blogs and our occasional meetings, though at this point I don’t intend to initiate more of the same.

With my sincere best wishes, and my prayers.

Since our conversation in the past years has primarily taken place in a public forum, I wanted to mention the latest development here, as a kind of book-end to our ten year dialogue.

I have no regrets about the effort to engage with Michael on this matter; on the contrary, I am grateful to him for his willingness to engage, and I have appreciated the chance to get to know him, and to begin to understand him as a person, and not just as someone who carries along or broadcasts certain ideas. I believe that the real-life encounters we have had over the past ten years have grounded the dialogue, even though they have not produced much in the way of common ground.

In the letter that Pope Francis has prepared for World Communications Day 2014, he writes:

In a world like this, media can help us to feel closer to one another, creating a sense of the unity of the human family which can in turn inspire solidarity and serious efforts to ensure a more dignified life for all. Good communication helps us to grow closer, to know one another better, and ultimately, to grow in unity. The walls which divide us can be broken down only if we are prepared to listen and learn from one another. We need to resolve our differences through forms of dialogue which help us grow in understanding and mutual respect. A culture of encounter demands that we be ready not only to give, but also to receive. Media can help us greatly in this, especially nowadays, when the networks of human communication have made unprecedented advances. The internet, in particular, offers immense possibilities for encounter and solidarity. This is something truly good, a gift from God.” (source)

Through the conversation with Michael, I’ve learned something about what it means to grow in understanding and mutual respect. Agreement is not necessarily the fruit of every dialogue, nor friendship. But hopefully, at the very least, dialogue via the new means of social communication can help foster a climate of mutual respect, on the basis of authenticity and honesty.