Dennis Caeton

Schlepping over the Rainbow

By: Dennis Caeton

The Questions

It is in the trenches of Catholicism where the real clash of faith and the world goes on. That is where the priests are. And that is where the children are, floating in the amniotic fluid of the faith. I did not ask to be a Roman Catholic. But Catholicism embedded itself into my body and soul from infancy. Then I drew the Joker—Exile. But that is a different story.

This story addresses what priests think about in those trenches. Setting aside infallible dogma, do they think the Church has any source of truth other than the conscience that we all have? Do they think the Church is arrogant and reckless in teaching what its conscience reveals rather than teaching us to find what our own reveals? Does the Church miss the greatest opportunity for human liberation, encouraging that exodus to the headwaters where the Word is written? Is this kind of thinking just too dangerous? Are morals like multiplication tables to be memorized? (e.g., 2 × 2 = evil, it is always evil and if we find it to be so within, suppress it, keep it a secret and end up hating ourselves)

It was these subjects that I wanted to discuss with Father Benji: abortion, premarital sex, birth control, same-sex love and marriage, even masturbation, all within the context of conscience.

About Father Benji

Black is my favorite color, and I thought it would be the same for the priest I was interviewing, Father Benji. After all, when the colorful vestments come off, isn’t a priest’s idea of kicking back slipping into something black? I was wrong. Father Benji showed up in comfy denims and a silky, wine-colored shirt.

OK, I had the color wrong, but could this priest who comes off like Bing Crosby in Going My Way see the untenable position of the Church as I see it—rigid, fiercely exclusive and stuck in medieval logic? Could he explain to me, a layman, how Catholic theologian Hans Kung can write that God’s only desire for us is our well-being, but the Church lacks this same vision? I mean, how many theologians in Abrahamic religions does it take to screw in a light bulb… or to reconcile their exclusion of the very people for whom Jesus came, or to recite, without choking, the words of Isaiah, “My house is a house of prayer for all people?” If anyone could answer these questions, it had to be a priest from the trenches.

Father Benji is a Roman Catholic priest living in the San Joaquin Valley and working in the Diocese of Fresno. Fresno is a place with more churches than you can shake a stick at. With its abundance of poverty and alien population, one does not have to look far to deliver compassion, justice or love—if one wants. Father Benji “wants.” My research revealed he is well known for an active ministry doing just those things.

Holding steaming cups of coffee he had made, we settled within the canyon of books stacked everywhere. I felt comfortable but still cautious. Benji was known for a wit and charm that could turn your agendas into paper airplanes. But “saints preserve us.” As we talked, it became clear our opinions were not that far apart.

The Answers

I broke the coziness with a newspaper article about what I considered the latest antics of the Bishoprics. I asked Benji: “What about these bishops who threaten to withhold sacraments from the likes of Sen. John Kerry and Reps. Pelosi and Kennedy?”

He interrupted his sip of coffee with, “They should tell those bishops to go to hell.”

This one remark, given so casually, released most of my apprehension. No doubt, this guy was a trench fighter, and somehow he sensed where I was going. “Can I give you a little background?” he asked.

I nodded.

“There are two premises of the church that at least in application are conflicting. Some would even say the Church blissfully plinks away on its ragtime moral-piano, soft-pedaling one premise while laying a heavy foot on the other.

“Conscience gets soft-pedaled: The Church acknowledges that we must always obey the certain judgment of our conscience—conscience has primacy, it is where the voice of God echoes. Because there is no other source of communication with God, all the Church’s teachings must be no more than the expression of someone’s conscience. Yet the Church tends to invite the abandonment of one’s own conscience in favor of following the Church’s.

“It is certainly true that the resort to conscience can be used to excuse any behavior. However, the Church teaches little about the process of forming our conscience, especially in those cases when it seems everyone else is against us. Just one example is the failure of many Christians to find God’s word during the Third Reich. But lesser replications of that Holocaust occur around the world, and Christians have revealed the same failure.

“The Church is so focused on how important its teachings are that it overlooks that any teaching based on human conscience can be wrong. If there is primacy in conscience, then each must learn to explore his/her inner being for that Word/Truth written within.”

I had plenty of questions, but I did not interrupt.

Benji went on, “The other premise concerns procreation.”

Ahh, finally, I thought, we get to sex.

“The Church’s rationale goes like this,” Father Benji said. “Church theologians claim they have found God’s orders regarding sexuality. Our responsibility, according to the Church, is to follow those orders. The premise for these orders is that procreation must always be the primary objective of any sexuality.

“Any sexual conduct for which procreation is not an objective and any conduct which precludes or impairs procreation violate the Divine Cosmic Order. Such conduct the Church calls disordered.”

“So,” I break in, “disordered conduct sounds like it is unnatural and if it’s unnatural it must be pathological.”

“It is really unclear what the Church is saying,” Benji says. “Supposedly, the phrase does not refer to physical or psychological disorder but to an interference with the cosmic plan—which makes it immoral.”

I could not stop: “But the Church in 1986 said, referring to homosexuality, ‘the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder.’ What scientific data is the church relying on and what is the objective symptomatology of this ‘disorder’?”

Benji smiled: “It doesn’t get better. The Church says that those that regularly practice a disorder are considered intrinsically disordered.”

What did he put in that coffee? I again break in, “That would mean that married heterosexuals who use prophylaxes in the privacy of their bedroom have an objective disorder, even someone masturbating in their bathroom.”

Benji shrugged again, “There is no question this Augustinian logic has some flaws that tend to be, again, blissfully ignored. Homosexuals qualify to be burned at the stake. The manufacturers and sellers of birth control devices or the users, like millions of good married Catholics, including those with vasectomies, tubal ligations and those who marry knowing they are infertile, are ignored.”

I asked, “Don’t Catholics who practice the rhythm method have the conscious objective of avoiding procreation?” I received another nod.

“But,” I said, “it seems that, flawed or not, it is this premise upon which opposition to homosexuality rests and drives the massive effort against same-sex marriage.”

“But imagine,” Father Benji, sparked, “a nature whose objective is far more fundamental than simply the creation of a little bundle of joy. Imagine procreation being infinitely fundamental, its only objective the creation of love. What if we think of procreation as being an act of love that gives birth—to love?” He looked at me as if it were the first time even he had heard that question.

“Yes,” I said, “the intimacy of two people, any two people, can give birth to feelings of love, security, comfort and joy between them?” He nodded in agreement. I went on, “And couldn’t it spread to the nuclear family, and then even out into the community, being expressed in more kindness, feeding the poor, clothing the naked, visiting shut-ins and prisoners, comforting all who are strangers to us and, ultimately, radiating peace, brother- and sisterhood throughout the world?”

It was reminiscent of a Coke commercial, but it was brilliant in offering a reconfiguration of the entire subject of sexuality. No one need be excluded. Brothers and sisters, driven into exile for what they are or have done, would be welcomed back into the human family. It might never happen and would not so long as religion condemns faithful, loving relationships and supports brutal murderous governments. But all it takes is a will to celebrate, honor, respect and cherish love in all its forms, wherever we find it. Is that so hard?

Out on rain-wet streets, gold with fallen leaves, I was dizzy from Benji’s energy. I was happy again. Happy to be part of a faith that had, even if only one, Father Benji.

  • Community Alliance

    The Community Alliance is a monthly newspaper that has been published in Fresno, California, since 1996. The purpose of the newspaper is to help build a progressive movement for social and economic justice.

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