By Orlando R. Barone
The bishops have sent my Thanksgiving plans into a tizzy. Who gets a seat at dinner this year? Who won't receive an invitation? How are the guests to be treated? How, for example, do I treat a sinner?
Catholic bishops wrangling for two weeks in Rome during a synod on the church and families got all bollixed up over that last question. They know that divorced and remarried people are sinners - just like those of us who have married and never divorced. They know that gay couples in a faithful partnership are sinners - just like my wife and me, a straight couple in a faithful partnership. We're sinners all.
The difference, I think, is that the remarried couple are showing off a particular sin, ending a valid marriage and then marrying someone else. The gay couple are showing off their sin by being a gay couple. It's all very visible.
A draft document issued by the bishops after week one seemed to urge real-world understanding of nontraditional family arrangements, including gay and divorced couples who have "gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community." The revised draft found no gifts or qualities that gays had to offer Christians.
"There is no foundation whatsoever," states the revision, to compare homosexual marriage to heterosexual marriage. However, "gay people should be welcomed with respect and sensitivity."
I guess that means I can put out those two extra plates this Thanksgiving for my lesbian friends, a couple who have been in a faithful relationship for 30 years. If they mention that relationship, I am instructed to make clear that there is no foundation whatsoever to compare their decades-long partnership to mine - even though about a dozen points of comparison come immediately to mind. Over the years of our friendship, nary a problem or issue my wife and I have confronted has failed to find a parallel in my friends' experience. Their support and advice have been shockingly relevant, considering the total lack of foundation to compare our relationships.
The Vatican document does make a comparison, though. When it refers to my partnership, it uses the term marriage. My gay friends' partnership is called marriage, but the word is put in quotes: "marriage." I have tried to imagine a more disrespectful way to characterize the love bond uniting my good friends, and I cannot. That paragraph actually insists that the church's pitched battle against same-sex marriage will be fought without let-up.
Divorced and remarried couples are treated a bit better in the revision. Hope reared its head in a vague statement about objective sin and extenuating circumstances that might allow these sinners access to the sacraments of reconciliation and the Eucharist.
I've known many remarried Catholics, all welcome at my Thanksgiving table but prohibited from the church's. Am I worse than the church . . . or better? Or is that question bogus? After all, I am not trying to hold my relatives and friends to specific standards in their choice of partners. And, even if I were, it would not occur to me to starve them if they fail to meet those standards.
Yet such a devastating punishment does occur to the church. During his closing comments, Pope Francis spoke of several temptations to which the bishops must not fall prey. One is "to transform the stone into bread to break a long fast, heavy and painful, and also to transform the bread into stone and throw it against the sinners, the weak, and the sick, namely to turn it into 'unbearable burdens.' "
This is perhaps the most powerful image to emerge from the synod, so central is the Holy Eucharist to the spiritual lives of Catholics. My imagination falters in its efforts to conjure anything more awful than lifting the Bread of Life and turning it into a rock to throw at the lost sheep, the prodigal son, the woman caught in adultery.
I could never allow such a horrible thing to happen at my Thanksgiving table. I pray the church, following its pope's lead, will not allow such a thing to happen at its Thanksgiving table, the Table of Jesus, the Bread of Life.