Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois recently leveled charges of blasphemy against a group of Catholic advocates for gay rights who were planning to pray in the cathedral before a 5:15 pm Mass. These members of the Rainbow Sash Movement intended to wear the colorful sashes and pray a rosary in protest against the Roman Catholic Church’s opposition to gay marriage. The bishop, however, with the backing of law enforcement, prohibited anyone with sashes from entering the cathedral. In a statement given the morning before the planned protest, Bishop Paprocki said, “People wearing a rainbow sash or who otherwise identify themselves as affiliated with the Rainbow Sash Movement will not be admitted into the cathedral and anyone who gets up to pray for same-sex marriage in the cathedral will be asked to leave.”
For those familiar with the gay rights movement in the Roman Catholic Church, Paprocki’s response is far from unique. Time and time again, those publicly trying to raise questions about gay rights have been stopped from entering churches, often under the threat of violence, or denied Communion, an explicit condemnation of their advocacy. The bishops’ message is unambiguous: the church is no place for political statements or doctrinal challenges. Public displays of dissent are not permitted.
Outsiders to the Catholic Church may wonder at the bishops’ strong reactions to the Rainbow Sash Movement. What causes such heavy-handed responses to the questions raised by members of their own religious communities? What is so dangerous about dialogue? Paprocki, in his statement, explains the high stakes: “It is blasphemy to show disrespect or irreverence to God or to something holy,” the bishop says. “Since Jesus clearly taught that marriage as created by God is a sacred institution between a man and a woman (see Matthew 19:4-6 and Mark 10:6-9), praying for same-sex marriage should be seen as blasphemous and as such will not be permitted in the cathedral.” For Paprocki and other bishops, speaking against church teaching on gay marriage is akin to speaking against God.
Strong rhetoric has long been used by bishops to counter perceived threats to Christianity. Dissent within the church, after all, has a long and illustrious tradition. For as long as there has been a faith, believers have expressed their differences over doctrines and practices. Bishops, concerned as leaders for the church’s unity and the preservation of Gospel tradition, often respond to these differences by claiming that opposition to their own authority is opposition to God’s established law. Those who rebel against the church’s interpretation of faith, they say, rebel against God.
Cyprian of Carthage, for example, a bishop writing on baptismal controversies in the mid-third century, claimed his opponent degraded the faith and shared in the spirit of the antichrist. Cyprian writes, “If we are in Christ, and have Christ in us, if we abide in the truth, and the truth abides in us, let us keep fast to those things that are true. But it happens, by a love of presumption and of obstinacy, that (my opponent) would rather maintain his own evil and false position, than agree in the right and true which belongs to another.” Using rhetoric similar to Bishop Paprocki’s words, Cyprian charged that his opponent, who had expressed a different belief, was separated from Christ by holding a theological position contrary to God’s revealed truth. Ironically, in Cyprian’s case, his opponent was Stephen, the Bishop of Rome and pope, whose position on the matter at hand would later become the normative belief of the church. Still, Cyprian’s rhetoric easily characterized the pope as a heretic intentionally deviating from Christian faith.
A cursory knowledge of Christian history reveals how bishops and inquisitors have consistently used biting rhetoric against “rebels” or “dissenters” in the church. In 357, Pope Liberius condemned and excommunicated St. Athanasius, the church father who would later be considered a chief architect of the Nicene Creed and called the “father of orthodoxy.” In 1277, Bishop Etienne Tempier condemned the works of St. Thomas Aquinas by claiming that the angelic doctor’s appropriation of Aristotelian philosophy was inimical to Christian truth. In 1431, Bishop Pierre Cauchon led a trial against St. Joan of Arc, which ended in her execution based on charges of heresy and involvement with demonic powers. In 1871, Bishop Laurence Sheil excommunicated St. Mary MacKillop, an Australian nun, for insubordination to his episcopal authority. In the 1980s, Pope Benedict, when he was head of the Congregation for the Defense of the Faith, condemned theologies of liberation such as those put forward by Gustavo Gutierrez. More recently, Gutierrez’s work is undergoing a renaissance of popularity and acceptance under Pope Francis. Clearly, the boundary separating sainthood from blasphemy or heresy from orthodox truth is never so clear as some episcopal rhetoric presumes. Even if it takes much time, perspectives that differ from accepted teachings and traditions often become the later rule of faith.
For Catholic supporters of gay marriage, history proves that their dissent, along with the corresponding criticisms and condemnations from bishops, is part of a long tradition of dialogue within the body of faith. Often the condemned minority becomes the accepted majority, and church teaching evolves. Christianity is not a static set of rules and doctrines, but a living practice of faith within a community that includes both laity and hierarchy guided by the Holy Spirit. In order for this community to function in accord with the Holy Spirit’s moving, it is vital that all believers have the freedom to express themselves and be heard. At a moment in time when church participation and confessional belief seem to be in sharp decline, the concern that the Rainbow Sash Movement shows for the church’s spiritual health and relevancy in society is a provocative force within the rich and diverse Catholic tradition.
For the bishops, allowing dialogue to take place within the church may allow room for the Holy Spirit to work. New beliefs and practices, which with time take on the force of more established traditions, often start through movements of dissent. Though the bishops are wise to exercise caution in what they perceive to be innovations, or even threats, to the faith, the discernment of these questions must take place within the entire community of belief. Christian religion rightly evolves slowly, allowing time for the testing of new ideas in dialogue with tradition, but it does, in fact, evolve. The way that faith is practiced today is far different than the way it was practiced at the time of the apostles. These accepted changes are not the negation of the Gospel, but rather the confirmation that God is still active in the church and guiding believers through their interactions with the world.
Jason Steidl is a second year PhD student in systematic theology at Fordham University.