Can Catholic Church Thrive Without 'Obsession' on Gays and Abortion?

Pope Francis Wants To Move Away From Lightning Rod Issues

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By Jay Michaelson

Published September 30, 2013, issue of October 04, 2013.
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Like every other gay person I know, I rejoiced at the recent statement by Pope Francis I that, in his view, the Catholic Church has been overly “obsessed” with homosexuality, abortion and birth control. For one thing, I hope that the pope’s statement ends the massive crusade on the part of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, The Becket Fund and the Knights of Columbus to deny civil rights to LGBT people in the United States. But more broadly, like most progressives, I cheered the pope’s prioritizing of love over dogma, inclusion over judgment, social justice over sexual purity.

I wonder, though, how the experience of the American Jewish community might contain an unwanted cautionary tale for reform-minded Catholics. After all, roughly the same ordering of priorities has animated non-Orthodox Judaism for a century now, as the major American movements have slowly crept toward policies of inclusion and tikkun olam, repairing the world. And yet, everyone in the Jewish community knows the demographic numbers: that only Orthodox Jews are endogamously replenishing themselves, and that the rest of us appear to be sliding toward assimilation.

And of course, Orthodoxy isn’t obsessed with just sexual morality; it’s obsessed with bugs in lettuce, stray threads in suits and every jot and tittle of Jewish law. As I cheer on the Catholic Church from afar, I wonder whether Pope Francis is right that building a more inclusive church will mean building a more robust one. Is obsessiveness a good thing?

When I was Orthodox, I certainly thought so. I thought — or felt — that the fervency with which I cleaned my home for leaven before Passover, checked my pockets before the Sabbath and, yes, repressed my sexuality were the signs of sanctification. Halachic Judaism was beautiful because it governed every part of life, and so every part of life could be holy.

Really, though, all the obsessing was just a species of a more general emotional intensity. It had many faces: the intensity of diligent effort, the intensity of tight-knit community, the intensity of wanting, yearning for things to be right. Ironically, these intense yearnings are often couched in highly unemotive language, especially among Yeshivish and non-Hasidic Modern Orthodox Jews. But they are yearnings nonetheless, and a remarkable form of domestic mysticism.

I wonder if that’s true, too, for some of the conservative Catholics obsessed with “unnatural” — that is, nonprocreative — sexuality. I’ve read a great deal of this philosophical discourse, and there is often a sense of looming doom: If we surrender on this or that point of philosophy, civilization will crumble.

We depend on these absolute, objective truths for stability in a world of chaos. I can relate, I think, to their panic at the notion of a world with contraception, as I once felt it at the notion of a Passover with breadcrumbs in the toaster oven.

Whereas in the world of progressive religion, there’s just not as much juice. Only a few people get worked up about social justice the way that Orthodox Jews get worked up about treyf, or the way conservative Catholics get worked up about gay people.

There is, however, another way — and here we Jews might learn not from the Catholic Church, but from churches of the evangelicals.

After all, mainstream Judaism is not the only major American religion in a period of prolonged decline. Mainline Protestantism (consisting of Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians and a few others) is seeing an even more precipitous drop-off in membership and affiliation. Like the main denominations of Judaism, these old-school Protestant denominations are mired in bureaucracies, committees and boredom. Though there are plenty of exceptions, to most young people, they feel dull.

What has taken their place? In large part, evangelical, charismatic, Pentecostal and other emotionally juicy forms of Christianity that promise a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, a zealous morality and communities of worship that are loud, proud and… loud. Out with the solemn hymnals — in with Christian rock! Out with theology — in with personal experience!

If this sounds familiar, it’s because it is. Similar trends are happening throughout American Judaism: more contemporary music, more spirituality and more experience of a God that, if not as personal as Jesus, is immanent, pantheistic and experientially knowable. We, too, have our evangelical movement, though so far it has barely emerged from the fringes.

Yet if there is to be a third way between “obsessed” Orthodoxies (Catholic, Jewish or otherwise) and the dull mainstream, this kind of emotional, spiritual, gutsy religious life just might be it. Of course, it terrifies rationalists and doesn’t get much funding from the Jewish establishment, which is fixated on peoplehood and other concepts that inspire almost no one. But if there is to be a religious life without obsession, it must be in the neighborhood of the visceral.

Because here’s the secret. While plenty of evangelicals are archconservatives, plenty more are saying just what Pope Francis said: that we shouldn’t obsess over purity laws and should practice love instead. And while plenty of ecstatic Jews are far-right settlers, plenty more are social justice Jews who marry their spiritual vibrancy with social engagement. It is possible to be a progressive, spiritual, soul-on-fire Catholic, Protestant or Jew. And that, not the mealy mouths of the mainstream, is what sticks in the kishkes. Which, I think, is where religion belongs.

Jay Michaelson is a contributing editor at the Forward.


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