Is The Church A Cage?

The Church is not a therapist to reassure us of our intrinsic self-worth, nor a theater company giving us opportunities to publicly display who we think we are inside.

Christianity is not a religion of self-creation and the church is not an institution intended to provide a stage upon which I can perform in a safe and affirming environment. On the contrary—it is the conduit of God’s grace. It is not there to tell me that I am OK or to make me happy. It is there to assure me that in myself I am very much not OK, and to make me utterly miserable by confronting me with my dramatic shortcomings and need of a Savior. Only then can I find happiness—in God’s grace, not in the applause of an audience.

 

Is the Catholic Church a cage? The language of a recent New York Times article on the number of gay men in the Roman Catholic priesthood certainly implies that it is. The precise quotation comes from Father Bob Bussen, a priest in Utah: “Life in the closet is worse than scapegoating,” he said. “It is not a closet. It is a cage.”

While Bussen does not explicitly indict his church, the inference is clear: The Roman Catholic Church imprisons its priests because of its teaching on sexuality. The article has many problems, not least an assumption that sexuality equates to personal wholeness. There is also the intriguing question of how these men managed to volunteer for the priesthood without realizing that it would require them to abstain from all sexual activity. Were they perchance absent from the seminary class on the day of that lecture?  But what fascinated me most was the choice of the word “cage.” It reveals that Christians today are not merely struggling with the question of whether gay sex is legitimate or not, or even of what role sexuality plays in the notion of personhood. At a deeper level, they are grappling with the question of exactly what the church’s purpose is.

As a Presbyterian, I carry no brief for Roman Catholicism, but I recognize in Father Bussen’s complaint an attitude toward the church that is just as prevalent in Protestant circles: that the church exists for the sake of the people, and that her task is to serve as a giant therapist or, perhaps more pointedly, to provide a stage upon which people can perform.

The abiding—perhaps dominant—myth of this present age is that personal authenticity requires that I be able to perform for the world that which I feel I am inside. From Rousseau to Reich and beyond, this nonsense grips the popular imagination. If I am to be recognized as me, no thought can go unarticulated, no desire unrealized, no personal idiosyncrasy unexpressed. This is transforming the meaning and purpose of those institutions that have traditionally conducted and transmitted culture. No longer do institutions train us to belong to something bigger than ourselves. Rather they are there to support me in my acts of self-expression.

If I feel I am a woman, albeit trapped in a body of cells coded with XY chromosomes, then I must be allowed to perform in public as such. Medical professionals must aid me in this ambition. Scientists who demur from applauding my performance must be marginalized or expelled from the (formal or informal) guilds that give them status and authority. Schoolteachers who hinder my self-expression must be excoriated as abusive, bigoted, or incompetent. Medicine, education—you name it, it must now facilitate my performances.

Read More