Partisan Politics Preventing Pastoral Practice

Imagine it is 1930, and someone has established a “pastoral outreach” to the Jewish people of Germany. One group hears about this program and insists that if it does not involve attempts to convert these Jews to Christianity, it will be “un-Christian.” The most charitable thing one can do for those who are separated from Christ, it is said, is to ensure that they enter upon the path of their salvation. To leave them in their ignorance and error would be “un-Christian.” And besides, since the whole “Jewish question” is roiling the country, wouldn’t it help the problem go away if these Jews simply agreed to become Christians?

Another group insists that the only way to deal with any Jewish person is to affirm them in their Jewish identity. Any attempt to “change” them would be bigoted. Yes, there are Jews like Edith Stein who converted, but she is an embarrassment to this group because her example complicates what they believe is “true ecumenism” and a “healthy dialogue with the Jewish people.” This healthy dialogue would not, in their view, involve any mention of the Christian faith – something they believe would be inimical to the respectful relationship that ought to exist with this traditionally victimized minority. The only way to deal with the political issues swirling around the Jews, this group argues, is to highlight the horrible victimization they have suffered at the hands of Christians and to make “being Jewish” something that everyone in the country honors as noble. Anything else would be “un-Christian.”

The first group hates the second and considers them to be abandoning their duty to spread the Gospel and win souls for Christ. The second group hates the first, considering them to be ignorant racists, bigots, and hypocrites who lack the sophistication and education to understand how to deal with Jewish people.

The person who establishes this 1930 pastoral outreach is in neither camp, it turns out, and decides that the best thing to do is to start by just getting people together to talk – Christians being very clear about their Christianity listening to Jews talk about their experiences dealing with Christians. He invites Edith Stein to speak, not as a model of the path everyone should take, but as a person with experience of both worlds who can help Christians understand Jews and Jews understand Christians.

The first group hates him because he isn’t trying to convert all participants to Christianity, thereby leaving them in ignorance and error. The second group hates him because he is very open about his Christianity, which they assume will alienate Jews, and because it goes against their political agenda of giving the Jewish people special honor in society. To them, inviting Edith Stein, a Jewish convert, just shows how little the pastoral outreach understands since her conversion is a scandal to Jews they know. In the end, neither partisan group converts many Jews or decreases the abuse of Jews in Europe.


Now consider another case. A young man in the prime of his career is invited to take a leadership role in Courage, a Catholic outreach to men and women with same-sex attractions. The group neither attempts to “convert” people from homosexual to heterosexual, nor do they keep their Catholic moral convictions about the immorality of same-sex sexual activity a secret.  Although they accept their Church’s teaching fully, they also believe that too many Christians have treated men and women with same-sex attractions badly; that the Church cannot merely wish the problem away; and that it is important to engage in pastoral outreach to people who are often hurting, frequently misunderstood, and who need the Church’s love and spiritual guidance.

The analogy here, just to be clear, is not between Jews and those with same-sex attractions; it is between the partisan reactions to the first pastoral challenge and the partisan reactions to the second.

Everyone talks about “dialogue,” but what this too often means is dialogue on my terms. For group 1, it means these people must come penitent and ready to listen to us Catholics tell them how bad they are. For group 2, it means these people should come ready to listen to us be penitent for how bad we Catholics are.

I wonder why anyone would go to either group. As for group 1, even people feeling guilty about something don’t want repeated condemnation. They go to a support group to listen, learn, and reflect in the company of others. As for group 2, why would anyone go listen to people whine about their guilt? How does this help me? Such people have simply turned my problem into their problem. People who are hurting don’t want to be told they have no reason to be hurting. And, of course, no one should lie about what the Church teaches under the guise of “building a bridge” – and make himself look and feel “more-sensitive-than-thou.”

So what about our young friend invited to work for Courage? Will he take the job? If he does, will he be pigeonholed by both sides – treated with suspicion by partisans on one side because of his work with homosexuals or as an ignorant bigot who worked with one of those groups obedient to the Church by partisans on the other? If you were his friend, what would you advise?

Is the partisan posturing over “the best way” to help gay Christians really helping anyone? Or should we let people dedicated to the Church’s teaching do the best they can, and let gay men and women searching for guidance from the Church help us sort it all out? We can be honest about what the Church teaches, and they can be honest about who they are and how they hear what we’re telling them. If we as a Church say we care about gay people, about their lives and well-being, then we need pastors to help by being willing to both tell and listen to the truth.


*Image: The Calling of St. Matthew by Caravaggio, c. 1600 [Church of San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome]

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.