They Love the Church But Not the People

A few weeks ago, I found myself wishing like never before that I was Catholic.  May sound strange, but I believe that it is really easy to criticize that which you are not a part of and I didn’t want to come off as just another Protestant criticizing the Catholic Church because I have some really close Catholic friends and there are a lot of things I like about the Catholic Church, such as their care for the sick and the poor and their reverence for the mystery and holiness of God in ritual and worship.  But boy, have I wanted to criticize the Catholic Church over the past month!  You see, I’d received a text message from my sister telling me that the Catholic Church made a declaration that ordaining women was as grave a sin as priests molesting children.  Seriously?  So I had to check it out.  And what do you think I found?  An article from the Catholic News Service stating, “The Vatican is preparing to update the 2001 norms that deal with priestly sex abuse of minors…  At the same time, it will include the “attempted ordination of women” among the list of most serious crimes against church law, or “delicta graviora,””[1] Of course, such a declaration caused quite a stir among many, including members of the Catholic Church, so I looked for another article that addressed this concern:

As expected, the Vatican also updated its list of the “more grave crimes” against church law, called “delicta graviora,” including for the first time the “attempted sacred ordination of a woman.” In such an act, it said, the cleric and the woman involved are automatically excommunicated, and the cleric can also be dismissed from the priesthood.

Vatican officials emphasized that simply because women’s ordination was treated in the same document as priestly sex abuse did not mean the two acts were somehow equivalent in the eyes of the church.

Oh!  Well, that’s a relief!  And then…

“There are two types of ‘delicta graviora’: those concerning the celebration of the sacraments, and those concerning morals. The two types are essentially different and their gravity is on different levels,” said Msgr. Charles Scicluna, an official of the Vatican’s doctrinal congregation.[2]

I’d like to point out that while it did state that in some cases, a priest who abuses a child can be laicized (or de-frocked), there was no mention of abusive priests being excommunicated.  And let’s face it, in practice, the abusive priests are generally just reshuffled to another assignment.  Which says to me, admittedly an outside observer of the Catholic Church, that a sin against the celebration of sacraments is dealt with more harshly than a sin against a child.  Is the sacred ordination of a women so bad?  And if so, what does that say about the Church’s opinion of women?  The handling of the ordination of women and the abuse of children tells me they love the church but not the people.  And I wonder, what would Jesus think of that?  Well, the Gospel lectionary selection for this week is a gift in light of this decree from the Catholic Church.  Travel back with me to first century Palestine, to creatively reflect upon the life of an unnamed woman…

She knew it couldn’t be right.  Yes, they had promised to love one another through thick and thin, through good times and bad, through plenty and want.  But surely this was going too far.  Surely she wasn’t meant to love him through the black eyes, the broken teeth, the cracked ribs, the belittling words, the berating comments.  And so she went to the only place she knew to go.  She went to the religious authority in her town.  She was certain he would help her.  After all, he had known her for most of her life.  He had to know of some way out for her, some way that didn’t cause her so much physical pain.  Unfortunately, that wasn’t what he offered her.  No, he just offered words of sympathy and then sent her back to her husband with advice to try a little harder at doing what he asked, and to perhaps just stay out of his way if he seemed to be in a rage.

And so that’s what she did.  Because if that’s what her synagogue told her to do, that’s what she would have to do.  Who was she to question the religious authority?  He was speaking for God, right?

Now she had been married for 18 years.  And over those 18 years, the burden she bore crippled her.  She couldn’t even stand upright.  No longer could she feel the warm sun on her eyelids as she lifted her face to the sky.  No longer could she look people in the face when they spoke to her (which she must admit, wasn’t very often as people tended to avoid a woman crippled like her).  For eighteen years this spirit (which bore the specter of an abusive husband and a silencing religious institution) weighed upon this woman until it became the only way of life she knew.  She forgot what it was like to walk upright.  She forgot was it was like to be able to see the trees along the path rather than just the dust of the road.  She forgot what it was like to feel the sun on her face or to see the look of kindness upon the face of another.

So imagine her surprise when she walked into the synagogue one day and a man walked up to her and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.”  Jesus had seen her enter the synagogue as he taught that Sabbath Day and the pain of her disfigurement was more than he could bear.  He was moved with compassion and had to go to her.  “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.”  They were the first words she had heard uttered to her rather than about her in quite some time.  And before the import of what he said had time to sink in, he lay his hands on her in a touch that said, “Be silent no more.  Endure your burden no longer.  You are free from all that has brought you low.”  The woman stood upright and praised God!

Ah, but the story does not end here.  Because Jesus did something naughty in the eyes of the church when he healed this woman on the Sabbath.  Such work on the Sabbath is forbidden!  Who are you Jesus, to fly in the face of the rules of the church?  Don’t you know these rules and regulations, these rites and observances are built into the very fabric of our lives and cannot be disregarded so frivolously?  Jesus, don’t know you we need these rules to keep authority in tact, to keep order in the world, to keep people in their place?  They loved the church but not the people.  And that enraged Jesus.

And so it has continued through the centuries, only now the religious authorities claim to appeal to Jesus in their silencing of abused women.  They have been told, “You should rejoice in your sufferings because they bring you closer to Jesus.  Jesus suffered because he loved us.  If you love Jesus, accept the beatings and bear them gladly, as Jesus bore the cross.”[3] But really, would Jesus tell the abused wife to endure her suffering?  Would he say to her, “But I died on the cross, so you should gladly bear your cross?”  ABSOLUTELY NOT.  And yet, women are raped by men and when they report it, they are questioned, “Did you do anything to provoke him?  What were you wearing?”  Women have endured abuse and been made to feel as if they deserved it.  The story of Eve in the Garden of Eden has become a jumping off point for the Bible to be used over and over again to sanction this abuse, turning women’s sexuality against them, demoting them not only to second class citizens, but to property.  Just think of the tenth commandment, in the list of things you are not to covet, where your neighbor’s wife is lumped in with his house, his ox and donkey, and his male and female slaves.

But things are better now, right?  Women and men are equal right?  Especially in the United States, right?  Well, we may like to believe that, but when we see data in 2010 stating that women make 77% of what their male counterparts make, it gives us pause.  And even in our church, the Disciples of Christ, there are more women than men graduating from our seminaries, and, yet, as Phil mentioned last week, more men are being offered the big steeple senior minister jobs, often relegating women who want to be a senior minister or solo pastor to small rural churches that don’t pay as much as their big city counterparts (because you see, you don’t have to pay a woman as much as you have to pay a man, making a woman  more affordable for a church with a small budget).  It’s important for us to remember that we can’t relegate such action to just the Catholic Church.  That would be unfair and untrue.  Because religious people from the dawn of time and into the present day have sided with the rules and regulations of the religious institution over the needs of the individual person.  We love the church but not the people.  We pledge allegiance to the church and silence the people.  We uphold church doctrine and slam the door in the faces of those who need the love of God the most.

But Jesus reminds us of something very important in the reading from Luke.  Jesus reminds us that the people are the beloved of God.  It is not the rules and regulations that we need to be accountable to, it is our fellow human beings.

When we want to know what God looks like, we look to Jesus, not the church.  We look to Jesus, not to the ones who have a vested interest in power staying exactly where it is located.  We look to Jesus, not to the rules and the regulations that keep people silent, that keep people out.  When we look to Jesus, we love the church, but we love the people more.

Jesus looked at the crippled woman and saw one thing and one thing only: a person in need.  He didn’t see the rules that told him to stay where he was and continue his teaching.  He didn’t see the rules that had been twisted away from their original intentions of liberation from the bondage of slavery.  He didn’t see the rules that told him this woman wasn’t worth breaking the rules over.  He saw a human being and he acted.  And when the religious authorities didn’t waste a moment before jumping all over Jesus for what he had done, he was reminded of the grave need for his work in the world.  As Jesus said in the gospel text from last week: “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!  I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!  Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”  Jesus is making good on his promise, bringing division for those who refuse to acknowledge what their blind adherence to the rules and the institution is doing to people like the woman in our story, bringing division for those who love the church but not the people.  So what kind of Christians are we?  Are we those who value the silence of the suffering over the challenging up the status quo?  Are we those who value peace and quiet over the laughter and squeals of exuberant children?  Are we those who value order and predictability over the shaking up that differently-abled people bring to our surroundings?  Are we those who value power in the hands of the few over equality and dignity for all?  Oh, we love our peace and quiet, we love our order and predictability, we love our power, we love our rules, and yes, we love our church.  But we are called to love people more.


[1] http://www.catholicnews.com/data/stories/cns/1002827.htm

[2] http://www.catholicnews.com/data/stories/cns/1002901.htm

[3] Quoted from Proverbs of Ashes pg. 23 by Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker

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