June 2008


When i was working on a paper on mental health and theology, i had some questions about how churches have dealt with suicides in the past. i asked around a little, and started to expect a fairly disappointing answer. I read stories about refusals to inter bodies or even conduct the most basic of services.

A true moment of light was when Fr. Pat Malone talked to me about the options that a priest has when facing that decision. As of now, the preference is to bury and to give rites. But even prior to those reforms, a priest always had a choice to declare the matter private, of the internal forum. What amazed me was the strength of belief in a system of resolution beyond that of hierarchy. Not exactly my pre-conceived notion of Catholicism.

Simply, as I understand it from his explanations, there are matters of faith and personal life that cannot be expected to be resolved by church courts or strict adherence to teaching. Like Christ, the church too must be merciful and responsive to the individual soul.* The most common use of internal forum today is to allow Catholics to return to the sacraments after getting divorced. As long as they come to understand through prayer a reconciliation of their actions and their faith to God. It might be repentance of sin or it might be the finding of a clear conscience, doing what was truly best.

This simple notion has come to underscore my entire theology of queerness and the church. Queer issues are primarily pastoral, not theological to me. There is nothing about the character of God or the scriptures that are at stake for me. I know God to be loving, and I understand the witness of the Bible as reflective of that love.

The question is not transcendent. It is entirely immediate. What are we doing, pastorally, to care for those who are in pain?

This is where Father Pat comes in. When a family is in pain because of suicide, a sudden and traumatic loss occurs, he tells me that the clear choice is to move matters out of dispute and into the care of the church. To address the human need to know that God is with them in their pain, the priest has a wide authority to do what they need. Most often, it came in the form of burying the deceased and offering blessings and prayers that gave the family hope. Despite a ostensibly clear teaching that suicides were damned, the reality of the church has been a steady move towards a more humane approach. Many times, this was done quietly. Other times, it came in the form of a public burial that served to reconcile the deceased, the family, and the community.**

So what do we do in the face of queer issues in the church today? Protect people, care for the hurt, and do what we can in a broken world.

The time to break with tradition is when the application thereof leads to more pain, not the grace of the Kingdom. And even if we cannot, as a whole Body come to an agreement, individual pastors still have an obligation to provide care in the interim.

If that means blessing a marriage so that couples have a greater chance of being able to see each other in the hospital….then that’s what we do.

If that means publicly fighting transphobia to try to stop the violence…then we have an obligation to do so.

If it means trying to address the concerns of those who are leaving the church because they are conservative…then, as church leaders, we do that too.

Grander theological concerns notwithstanding, a clear pattern emerges. The conduct of the church on the local level can have real effects of the quality of people’s lives. Do they feel as if God loves them? Can they be protected by the social privilege given to the church?

Even when Christendom as a whole fights over what to do, these remain pastoral issues. This is not revolutionary, this is a move to compassionately meet people where their lives are. That’s gospel, right there.

This post is dedicated to a wonderful ally in the Lutheran Church who has given me much to think about.

-sly

*Mark 2:27
**The teachings and law on internal forum are varied on this point. Many authorities point to the need for the resolution obtained in internal forum not to damage the rest of the faithful. This might outlaw any public recognition of variances, but that hinges on the definition of damage. I, for one, think there is plenty of theological room for seeing the pastoral needs of the harmed and the dishonored coming before the strong. 1 Corinthians offers an extended vision of what it means that God has sought out what has been despised, to show the full breadth of grace and reconciliation made known in Christ Jesus.

Well, probably more than one. But it’s hard to put these kinds of losses to numbers.

The PM of Canada, Stephen Harper, is scheduled to make a formal apology for the residential schools in which first nations children were taken away from families, subject to abuse and neglect, and robbed of their culture.

Lest you mistake this for worthy progress, the churches who ran these schools began closing schools and making formal apologies about 30 years ago.

-sly