It is my experience, through my decades on the religion beat, that liberal Catholics genuinely love talking to mainstream news reporters. That said, I have also observed -- click here for a classic example -- that liberal Catholics, especially if they are wearing collars or have the word "sister" in front of their names, do NOT enjoy answering doctrinal questions in the vicinity of recording devices.
Off the record chats? Sure. Background material for those wonderful paraphrased passages in The New York Times that go on and on with no hint of on-the-record attribution? Go for it. Discussions of "reform" in the church, with the questions all framed in precisely the terms they want to see them framed? You betcha.
You see, there is this place called the Vatican and, from time to time, non-liberal Catholics (many of them laypeople who own recording devices or know how to use Internet search engines) have been known to send troubling verbatim transcripts to the powers that be in Rome or to the headquarters of any local Catholic dioceses that happen to be quite loyal to Rome.
You can see this religion-beat reality, methinks, lurking in the background of the recent St. Louis Post-Dispatch article about the openly gay Catholic priest who is doing what authors tend to do -- doing lots of interviews and speeches about a book that he wants to sell. This book -- "Hidden Voices: Reflections of a Gay Catholic Priest" -- used to have the word "Anonymous" on the cover, but Father Gary Meirer has put his name on a new edition.
So here is the opening of this news feature:
ST. LOUIS -- Standing in front of a stained-glass window on the campus of the University of Missouri-St. Louis earlier this week, the Rev. Gary Meier addressed a congregation of sorts. It had been nearly a year since the Roman Catholic priest had stood before a flock.
That was last June, when Meier told his parishioners at Saints Teresa and Bridget Church in north St. Louis that he would take a leave of absence “to discern what ministry God was calling me to do.” Meier, 49, had talked to St. Louis Archbishop Robert Carlson and told him that he could no longer teach the Catholic church’s stance on homosexuality.
“I have tried over the years to reconcile my silence as a gay priest with that of the Church’s increasingly anti-gay stance. I have been unsuccessful,” Meier writes in his book “Hidden Voices: Reflections of a Gay, Catholic Priest.” “I was hopeful that I could find a way to have integrity while remaining part of a hierarchy that is anti-gay -- I was unsuccessful.”
Now, this story does include a brief, accurate, summary of what the Catholic Church teaches about homosexuality. As always, the key is that the church draws a bright red line between issues linked to "sexual orientation" as a condition and the moral status of homosexual acts. This has obvious implications for debates about the priesthood. Thus:
The church does not have an official position on gay priests, but bishops in the past have mostly argued that celibacy is celibacy and a good priest is a good priest. In recent years, however, some bishops have expressed concerns about the priesthood. In 2002, Archbishop Wilton Gregory, then bishop of Belleville and president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, spoke of the difficulties in seminaries with “a homosexual atmosphere or dynamic that makes heterosexuals think twice” about entering the priesthood.
“It is an ongoing struggle to make sure the Catholic priesthood is not dominated by homosexual men,” Gregory said.
The catechism of the Roman Catholic Church calls homosexual acts “acts of grave depravity” and “intrinsically disordered” because they “close the sexual act to the gift of life.” But the catechism also says that homosexuals “must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity.”
So what, in my opinion, is the problem with this story?
Well, it's right there in the overture. The key is that Meier went to his bishop and, in a candid move that some on the Catholic right would even praise, openly confessed that (as paraphrased in this report) he "could no longer teach the Catholic church’s stance on homosexuality."
That's the heart of the story. So what's the logical next question? What's the key information that this story needs to provide, in order to understand the future of this man's ministry in a canonical Catholic context?
Right, that question is: "So, Father Meier, what are your beliefs about homosexual orientation and, especially, homosexual activity? How do they differ from the teachings of the church in which you have taken vows?"
Now, if asked these kinds of questions, would this priest answer on the record? I would say that, based on my experiences through the years, the odds are good that he would not.
The closest this story comes to addressing this central issue is this:
Since his public declaration of his sexual orientation, Meier said, he has received a lot of support on his Facebook page. One woman, though, scolded him for accusing the church of a “lack of love.”
“That’s not at all what I’m saying,” Meier told his audience. “But I am accusing the church of a lack of tolerance and acceptance.”
It should be noted that Meier stressed that he has maintained his vow of celibacy. However, I would trust that he also took vows to defend the teachings of the church. Once again, this doctrinal question is at the heart of this story about his future. As the story does note:
The Rev. John Beal, a professor of canon law at the Catholic University of America, said that if a priest rejected the idea that “homosexual acts are gravely immoral, that would be a reason they can’t continue in ministry, because they’re dissenting from the teaching of the church.”
Might I suggest that this is another case in which it would have been good for someone involved in this story to have asked the questions in the "tmatt trio," that set of three basic doctrinal questions that I have often used when interviewing clergy and other Christian leaders during this era in which the whole liberal vs. conservative thing has become so rooted in the language of politics, as opposed to doctrine.
Once again let me stress that I developed this set of questions in the mid-1980s as a journalistic tool. The goal, when asking these questions, is to listen carefully to the answers. It is especially interesting, of course, to note when people remain silence or try to find a way to maneuver around the questions without answering. Different types of believers, of course, have different answers. The goal is to listen carefully and then respond with follow-up questions that yield nuggets of on-the-record doctrinal, as opposed to political, information. The goal is to transcend mere labels.
Here are those questions, once again:
(1) Are the biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus accurate? Did this event really happen?
(2) Is salvation found through Jesus Christ, alone? Was Jesus being literal when he said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6)?
(3) Is sex outside of the Sacrament of Marriage a sin?
In this case, question three is the key.
Please read the whole Post-Dispatch report then ask this question: What, precisely, does Father Meier believe? What parts of his church's moral theology is he struggling to teach?