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Terry Mattingly's weekly column on religion and the media.
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Voting-box nightmare -- many religious conservatives face 'lesser of two evils'

Monday, May 23, 2016

The nightmare vision focuses on a stark, painful moral choice.

It's Election Day. A Catholic voter who embraces her church's Catechism, or an evangelical committed to ancient doctrines on a spectrum of right-to-life issues, steps into a voting booth. This voter is concerned about the social impact of gambling, attempts at immigration reform, a culture fractured by divorce, battles over religious liberty and the future of the Supreme Court.

In this booth the choice is between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Period.

"That's the scenario people I know are talking about and arguing about," said Stephen P. White of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., author of the book "Red, White, Blue and Catholic."

Many religious conservatives believe they "face a choice between two morally repugnant candidates," he added. "The reality of that choice is starting to drive some people into despair. … I understand that, but I think it would be wrong for people to think that they need to abandon politics simply because they are disgusted with this election."

This nightmare for religious conservatives is especially important since, in recent decades, successful Republican presidential candidates have depended on heavy turnouts among white evangelical Protestant voters and on winning, at the very least, a majority of "swing votes" among Catholics who frequently attend Mass.

While this year's election is in some ways unique, traditional Catholics and other moral conservatives need to realize that they are engaged in a debate that has been going on for centuries, said White. The big question: "Can Christians be good citizens?"

In an interview with the journal National Review, he explained: "The author of the second century 'Letter to Diognetus' addressed this question. Three centuries later, St. Augustine wrote City of God largely in response to the same question. … The question is about the nature and scope of the political good: Is the good of the political community compatible with Christian claims about the nature and destiny of the human person?"

At the moment, the choice is especially painful because religious believers are living, and voting, in an age in which up appears to be down and black appears to be white, said White, in a telephone interview. Suddenly it's controversial to argue that marriage is the union of a man and a woman, that children need mothers and fathers and that human beings are created, by God, as males and females.

So what about that voting-booth nightmare?

In one online essay, evangelical author Tony Reinke of the "Desiring God" website rounded up a list of 12 proposed voting options in 2016. There were, for example, five motivations for not voting -- including a conviction that voting is not a "Christian priority." Others may abstain to "send a message" of some kind.

Then again, he noted, religious conservatives could enthusiastically support a third-party candidate or quietly cast a write-in ballot for a symbolic figure of their choice. Among several "utilitarian options," religious conservatives could vote for the "lesser of two evils," perhaps hoping to negate one vote cast for the candidate they most oppose.

The final utilitarian options in his essay: choosing a major candidate based on faith that they would appoint good Supreme Court justices or that this candidate would "most likely avoid global warfare and the death of civilians."

Finally, Reinke quipped, voters can "pack up and flee before the wall is finished."

More than anything else, said White, distressed voters must realize that there is more to citizenship than voting in the White House race because "that invests in the office of the presidency a level of authority that simply isn't supposed to be there."

It's crucial for believers to pay attention to the "down ballot" national and state races that also affect American life, he said. Today, many voters need to be reminded of their responsibility to take part in practical issues at the local, community level.

Nevertheless, White said it is sobering to try to think about the current state of American politics "from the viewpoint of 30 years from now. … You look at the options we have right now and you have to wonder if our grandchildren will be asking us, 'Why didn't anyone have the courage to do something, to try to offer people some other choices?' "

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A comic book attempt to get inside the head of Pope Francis

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

The grand Basilica of San Jose de Flores usually inspires visitors to gaze up at its Corinthian pillars and soaring 19th century Italianate clock tower.

This landmark in Buenos Aires played a strategic role in the life of a young Argentinian named Jorge Bergoglio. In a new book entitled "The Life of Pope Francis," he is shown shielding his eyes as he stands, stunned, in front of the sanctuary in 1953. His simple exclamation: "Dios mio," or "My God!"

Since this is a comic book, readers are told what Bergoglio was thinking. If this one moment is worth two giant images in a 22-page book, then the author has to show why it's so important.

"My goal is to focus on a few key events that made a person who are, on the forces that shaped them, not just on what they accomplished in some adult role on world stage," said author Michael Frizell, a creative writer who works in adult education at Missouri State University.

"I prefer to write about the personal, quieter scenes in a person's life. … It's especially hard to capture that when you're trying to describe a religious experience."

This private "Dios mio!" moment matters because whatever happened drove Bergoglio inside the church and into a Confession booth. This revelation changed his life.

In comic-book language that sounds like this, framed in thought boxes: "I ... don't quite know what happened. I felt like someone grabbed me from inside … and took me to the confessional. It was on that day that I knew my destiny was preordained."

Comic-book biographies are a niche of their own, covering the lives of public figures in the same punchy, graphics-driven format in which readers -- not all of them young males -- are used to encountering fantasies about super heroes. In Frizell's case, he has produced the texts for comic-book biographies of personalities ranging from Alice Cooper to U2's Bono, from "Superman" actor Christopher Reeve to Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, from Nancy Reagan to three books on Hillary Clinton.

The assignment from Storm Entertainment to write about Pope Francis was intriguing, said Frizzell, in part because his mother was a devout Catholic. As he began his research, it was obvious that the book would have to include some controversial issues, such as a messy 1970s case involving the military junta, two kidnapped Jesuits and Bergoglio.

"When you are writing about religion you have to be extra careful," said Frizell, in a telephone interview. "I find it dismaying all of the vitriol -- especially in online forums -- that surrounds anything that has to do with religious topics and religious people. I almost turned this job down because of that."

While doing research, he quickly decided to avoid topics that were not covered in at least three on-the-record sources in public media, or backed by a clear reference in the writings of Pope Francis, before or after he reached the Vatican. Frizell said he soon learned that the pope seen in news reports was quite different than the man found in earlier coverage of his career or in his own writings and remarks.

The first draft took 40 pages. Frizzell ended up, working with artists Vincenzo Sansone and Ben Gilbert, trying to tell the story of pope's life -- a story arc from birth, through his formative years and career, then his leap onto the world stage -- in a comic book just over half that length, containing 80-plus images. The writer studied an earlier Marvel Comics biography of Pope John Paul II for guidance.

Some colorful details went on the cutting-room floor, such as young Bergoglio's work as a bar bouncer. Then again, two pages focused on the young man's love of a novel -- "The Betrothed" -- in which a priest fights to protect two young lovers threatened by an evil baron who does not want them to get married.

The first-person voice of the future pope offers this narration: "The priest, you see, is the hero. Perhaps that is why I am a romantic at heart. Thus I will answer God's call. I will become a priest."

These kinds of religious experiences "are scary, personal stuff," said Frizzell. "But faith is crucial in so many life stories. Obviously, that's the case with the pope."

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Big shift in modern America: Remember the Sabbath Day, or maybe not?

Monday, May 9, 2016

In the days after Sept. 11, 2001, many news reports claimed that stunned Americans were seeking solace in sanctuary pews and in private rites of faith.

But then the Gallup Poll came out, with its familiar question asking if people had recently attended worship services. The number, which has hovered between 38 percent and the low-40s for a generation or two, had risen to 47 percent -- a marginal increase. By mid-November the Gallup number returned to 42 percent.

That 40-ish percent church-attendance estimate has long been an iconic number in American religion.

Thus, it's significant that a new Deseret News poll asked, "Which, if any, of the following activities do you usually do on a typical (Sabbath)," and only 27 percent of the participants said they regularly attended worship services.

"Something is going on and I think we see that in the 27 percent number," said Allison Pond, national editor for The Deseret News. "There appears to be a kind of consolidating going on among those who are loyal when it comes to practicing their faith. … It appears that more people are losing a kind of appearance of religion, of any connection to what some used to call a Moral Majority. …

"What we are seeing now is that the truly devoted really look different -- as a group -- when compared with other Americans."

The Deseret News poll, conducted by Y2 Analytics and YouGov, is part of its "The Ten Today" project exploring the relevance of the Ten Commandments in modern American life. In this poll the goal was to explore the implications of the familiar, "Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy."

The study was built on questions to a panel of 1,500 participants, with an intentional over-sampling of Jews and Mormons -- resulting in a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percent. The Deseret News is operated by a division of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Some of results of this study, noted Pond, resembled the results of the famous 2012 Pew Research Center study documenting a rapid rise in the number of religiously unaffiliated Americans. At that time, the so-called "Nones" were one-fifth of the American public and a third of adults under the age of 30.

Thus, this Deseret News study found that members of the Millennial generation are less likely -- to the tune of 41 percent -- to believe that the Sabbath has a unique religious significance. Millennials were also much more likely to indicate that their jobs required them to work on the Sabbath.

Meanwhile, 51 percent of Generation X, 56 percent of Baby Boomers and 58 percent of older Americans affirmed a higher view of the Sabbath. In all, 50 percent of Americans said that the Sabbath retains religious significance, which the pollsters contrasted with a 74 percent result to a similar question in a 1978 Gallup Poll.

Broken down by religious tradition 83 percent of Mormons, 79 percent of African-American Protestants and 69 percent of evangelicals said the Sabbath has retained a "religious or spiritual" meaning for them. Among Catholics, 58 percent agreed, along with 56 percent of those attending more liberal Protestant churches and 38 percent of American Jews. Only 16 percent of "Nones" affirmed that statement.

The high Mormon numbers could be linked to a determination among leaders to stress worship, prayer, the study of scripture and "family time" on Sundays. If anything, noted Pond, the church hierarchy has intensified these campaigns in the face of recent trends, seeking to preserve a "tight knot" culture. It is also important, she said, that leaders of Mormon congregations are not ordained, which tends to produce dedicated webs of local leaders, starting at a young age.

"If you have a responsibility in that that Sunday culture, then you simply need to be there," she said. "You're less likely to go shopping or to a sports event. You want to be there with your friends, doing your job."

If there was a surprise in the poll numbers, said Pond, it was that many Americans said they were actually spending less time with "family and friends" on Sundays.

"Americans keep saying that they want friends and community," she said, "but the whole 'bowling alone' phenomenon is out there and it's growing."

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Prayers for the Orthodox bishops of Aleppo, even if #BringBackOurBishops didn't go viral

Monday, May 2, 2016

Once again, the Orthodox bishops of Aleppo ventured into the dangerous maze of checkpoints manned by competing forces along Syria's border with Turkey.

The goal, three years ago, was for Metropolitan Paul Yazigi of the Antiochian Orthodox Church and Metropolitan Yohanna Ibrahim of the Syriac Orthodox Church to help negotiate the release of two priests who had been kidnapped weeks earlier. Then, west of Aleppo, a pack of unidentified armed men attacked.

The bishops' driver was killed in the gunfire. A fourth passenger escaped and then testified -- consistent with other reports -- that the kidnappers did not speak Arabic and appeared to from Chechnya.

The bishops simply vanished. According to a new World Council of Arameans report: "No one has ever claimed responsibility for the abduction, neither has there been a clear sign of life of the bishops since April 22, 2013." Later reports were "all based on unverified rumors, hearsay and false reports which often contradicted each other."

This kidnapping never inspired global news coverage. For some reason, tweeting out #BringBackOurBishops never caught on with hashtag activists inside the Washington Beltway or in Hollywood.

But millions of Eastern Orthodox Christians -- especially those with Syrian and Lebanese roots -- are still praying for the bishops of Aleppo. These prayers escalated with the three-year anniversary of the kidnappings and then, this week, with the sobering rites of Holy Week leading to Good Friday, Holy Saturday and, finally, Pascha -- Easter -- this Sunday (following the ancient Julian calendar).

On April 21, the Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East, Patriarch John X, and the corresponding Syriac Orthodox leader, Patriarch Mor Ignatius Aphrem II, released a joint statement urging their flocks not to lose hope.

"If the intention of the kidnapping event (was) to intimidate us, however, we, Christians, are the descendants of those who, two thousand years ago, put on the name of Christ in this particular land," they wrote. "We mold our bread from this land, and from the strength of our belonging to it. Thus, we preserve our identity as Antiochian Easterners, through whatever difficulties or tribulations. …

"We shall continue to live in this East, ringing our bells, building our churches and lifting up our Crosses."

This kidnapping has, from the beginning, created a whirlwind of unanswered questions. Who kidnapped the bishops? Were the kidnappers linked, as would seem logical, to radical Islamists? If so, what group? What were their motives, since there have been no confirmed ransom demands? Are the bishops alive and, if so, where are they? What about the reports that one has been killed?

If undercover agents with governments linked to the fighting have answers, they have not been communicating with the Orthodox.

Some of the most disturbing news came early, noted the World Council of Arameans report, since multiple sources say the kidnappers were associated with "the Al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda branch in Syria. This terrorist-listed group has been identified more than once as the perpetrator behind Christian massacres such as in the ancient Aramean town of Sadad -- locals testified that Al-Nusra cooperated with the Western-backed rebel group of the Free Syrian Army."

Christians in this battered region have been distressed by the silence surrounding this case, stressed the statement by the two patriarchs. But they said their flocks have been even more troubled by the assumption that it's time to flee their homes and ancient altars to risk "perilous sea travel and ship wreckage" abroad.

"We remain in this land. … We were not a minority, and will never be," proclaimed Patriarch John X and Patriarch Aphrem II. "We appreciate every humanitarian effort of governments or organizations. However, let us put it bluntly: we cannot be protected through facilitating the migration of refugees. We are not petitioning for protection. Rather, we are seeking peace."

Thus, they appealed -- once again -- for the release of the bishops of Aleppo.

"This land of the East is now bleeding, but shall, without doubt, rise again. … Our prayer goes to the Lord of the Resurrection and the Master of Lights to surround with His comforting Light and divine protection all those who are defending their land, and give eternal rest to all the martyrs, and to bring back all the abducted people safe to their beloved ones."

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It's tragic that religious liberty has suddenly turned into something scary

Monday, April 25, 2016

NEW YORK -- Early in his career in Congress, Democrat Tony Hall of Ohio had his politics worked out, but he wasn't sure how to combine them with the convictions of his Christian faith.

Then he took an official research trip to Ethiopia during the great famines of the early 1980s and these two powerful forces in his life came crashing together.

"I saw 25 children die one morning. As I walked among these people, mothers were handing me their dead children, thinking that I was a doctor and that I could actually fix them, take care of them. I was stunned," said Hall.

"I came home from that experience -- seeing death. I had seen so many people die. I thought, this is a way that I can bring God into my work place and not have to preach."

About that time, Hall formed a friendship -- one rooted in decades of weekly "prayer partner" meetings -- with another member of Congress who was equally committed to defending human rights. Together, Hall and Republican Rep. Frank Wolf of Northern Virginia excelled as a bipartisan team focusing on poverty, hunger and religious freedom.

They're still working together, even though Wolf left the House of Representatives in 2014. He currently holds the Wilson Chair in Religious Freedom at Baylor University. Hall left Congress in 2002, when President George W. Bush asked him to serve for several years as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations on food and agriculture issues. Ambassador Hall has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three times.

Both men agreed that it would be harder for this kind of bipartisan, faith-centered friendship to flourish today, in an era in which the levels of anger and distrust on display in Washington, D.C., have reached toxic levels.

To make matters worse, said Wolf, it has become harder to defend basic human rights when they are linked to faith, because "religious liberty" has turned into a dangerous term in public life, one consistently framed in quotation marks in mainstream news reports -- implying that it has become tainted.

"Talking about religious liberty has become something that divides people, rather than bringing us together," said Wolf, after a forum on global religious freedom issues at The King's College in lower Manhattan (where I am a senior fellow, teaching religion and journalism).

At this point, Wolf added, it's "like religious liberty is something that only old white men believe in. I think we are going to have to switch to using language about freedom of conscience, because no one is listening to what we are saying."

Another key element of this problem, said Hall, is that debates about religious liberty have become linked to another linguistic landmine in the public square -- the vague word "evangelical."

At this moment in American politics, he said, media professionals and other opinion shapers see "evangelicals as judgmental and negative," as "fire-breathing people who have no love or mercy in their lives. … Christians and, especially, evangelicals are people that you are supposed to be afraid of.

"So when you start talking about religious liberty, the first thing people say is that this is an 'evangelical' issue and then that's that. … What's happening in our politics here in America is actually making it harder to help suffering and persecuted Christians around the world, and that's tragic."

In all, Hall added, there are currently 40 armed conflicts in the world and many of them are linked to conflicts rooted in religion and, in particular, the oppression of religious minorities.

During visits to Iraq, Hall and Wolf learned that Iraq was home to 150,000 Jews as recently as 2003, but now there are fewer than a dozen. In this same time frame, the number of Christians in Iraq has fallen from 1.5 million to 250,000.

During visits to refugee camps in the region, Wolf said, they heard Christians ask one question over and over: "Does the West care about us?"

But that wasn't the most haunting question, he said. "The most powerful question was, 'Does the CHURCH in the West care about us?' … The church has been relatively silent and we are seeing the end of Christianity in the cradle of Christianity. …

"We used to care. We used to care dramatically."

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Pope Francis and the shipwreck that is marriage in the modern world

Monday, April 18, 2016

Imagine that there is an active Catholic layman named "Bob" and that his complicated life has included a divorce or two.

But there is no one person named "Bob." Instead, there are legions of Catholics whose lives resemble this case study described by Father Dwight Longenecker in an online essay responding to "Amoris Laetitia (On Love in the Family)," a 60,000-word apostolic exhortation from Pope Francis.

The fictional Bob is a 1960s survivor and he has "lived that way." His first wedding was on a beach, after he and his lover got high and also got pregnant. Years later Bob married a rich older woman. Years after that he became a Christian in an evangelical flock, where he met Susan -- a lapsed Catholic.

This is where things get complicated.

Bob and Susan "married outside the church, but then Susan rediscovered her Catholic faith and she and Bob started going to Mass," wrote Longenecker. Then Bob converted to Catholicism in a liberal parish "where the priest waved a hand and said he didn't need to worry about 'all that annulment stuff.'

"So Bob became a Catholic and now 20 years later, he and Susan have six kids, a great marriage and are active members in the parish." After a chat with a new priest they discovered that, under church law, they were living in "an irregular relationship. Bob's second wife -- the elderly widow -- was dead, but he reckoned his first wife (the hippie who was married to him for less than a year) was still living somewhere, but Bob has no idea where she might be."

What's a priest supposed to do?

This by no means far-fetched case is one jagged piece of the "jigsaw puzzle" of modern marriage that Pope Francis tried to address in "Amoris Laetitia," said Longenecker, of Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Greenville, S.C.

Longenecker's own story is also quite complex. He was raised as fundamentalist Protestant, graduating from Bob Jones University in Greenville. Then he studied theology at Oxford University and became an Anglican priest. Eventually, he and his wife and children were drawn to Catholicism and, in 2006, he was ordained under the pastoral provision for married former Anglican clergy.

While media debates rage about what "Amoris Laetitia" does or doesn't say, Longenecker said the key is that it "fully affirms the traditional teaching of the church regarding marriage" while making a "valiant attempt to deal with the messiness of real life" at the level of pastors who "deal with the real life situations of ordinary people. We're the ones who have to help them match up their lives with the teachings of the church."

As always, Pope Francis assumes that confession and repentance are part of the path to God's mercy, said Longenecker, reached by telephone. But the pope knows that bishops and pastors work in radically diverse cultures and that there is "no way he could create some kind of step-by-step general rule that would work for everyone, everywhere."

In his introduction, Pope Francis noted: "I would make it clear that not all discussions of doctrinal, moral or pastoral issues need to be settled by interventions of the magisterium. Unity of teaching and practice is certainly necessary in the Church, but this does not preclude various ways of interpreting some aspects of that teaching or drawing certain consequences from it. … Each country or region, moreover, can seek solutions better suited to its culture and sensitive to its traditions and local needs."

So what is a priest supposed to do with the Bobs of this world and other sinners who are suffering?

Truth is, the real stories of real people in real life are often "even more complex and heartbreaking," said Longenecker. At ground level, modern marriages and families are being torn apart by mobility, no-fault divorce laws, economic challenges, cohabitation, promiscuity, pornography and other global changes, said Longenecker.

"I relate these stories to remind readers that for many complicated reasons marriage in our society is a shipwreck," he said. "It's hit the iceberg and gone down long ago. … The pope has made a good effort to help us sort through the wreckage, salvage what we can and build a raft to sail on."

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Year 28 -- The crux of religion-news coverage in a digital marketplace

Monday, April 11, 2016

No one is surprised when The Wall Street Journal covers Wall Street, Disney releases a princess movie or Apple creates another wonder framed in aluminum.

Some professionals just do what they do. Thus, anyone who follows religion news knew that The Boston Globe's Crux website, which debuted 18 months ago, was going to be bookmarked by legions of Catholic-news junkies. Reporter John L. Allen, Jr., was going to do that thing that he does.

Alas, as so often happens, an online journalism project that drew millions of computer-mouse clicks failed to generate the stream of advertising revenue Globe executives needed to keep the cyber-doors open. This has led to a partnership -- raising many Catholic eyebrows -- between Allen and the Knights of Columbus, producing a "Crux 2.0," which opened on April 1.

This kind of union is becoming increasingly common. The goal is to marry a commitment to real journalism with financial support from a cooperative nonprofit group.

For this to work, the "people on the other side of the deal have to believe in what you are doing and see the wisdom of becoming part of your brand," said Allen, reached by telephone in Rome. "Your partners also have to be smart enough to realize that a key part of your brand is that you are seen -- by your readers -- as being truly independent."

The Crux project is crucial to anyone who cares about the future of journalism and, especially, quality reporting on specialty news topics like religion. That certainly includes me, after decades of work in this field. That includes, as of this week, 28 years writing this syndicated "On Religion" column.

Those who follow Catholic news know that Crux is not Allen's first journalism rodeo. The former Catholic high school teacher is best known for his 16 years of work with The National Catholic Reporter and as CNN's top Vatican analyst. He is also the author of nine books including, in recent years, "The Global War on Christians: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Anti-Christian Persecution" and "The Francis Miracle: Inside the Transformation of the Pope and the Church."

Allen said he learned three sobering truths about covering religion news online, while fighting to keep Crux alive.

* For starters, "It's a hell of a lot of work" to feed the online-news beast -- especially with a small staff. But the readers are out there, said Allen, as demonstrated by the million-plus readers that Crux drew in a typical month. Put Pope Francis and Donald Trump in the same story and "we went well north of a million-plus."

Obviously, this pope is "a very compelling story. … We are not having trouble finding eyeballs. I'm having trouble, right now, finding the time and energy to keep putting information in front of those eyeballs, hour after hour, day after day."

* Everyone knows the bottom-line question for websites such as Crux: How does one fund -- in an age when journalism's old advertising-plus-subscriptions revenue model has broken down -- a team that can produce news about Catholic events and trends around the world, 24 hours a day, seven days a week?

Allen stressed: "You have to find people who believe in what you're doing, people who want to support quality journalism and they want to do it for the right reasons."

* Like it or not, the key to finding readers and maintaining a network of supporters is social media, such as Twitter and Facebook. "That's the reality, now. That's just the way things spread," said Allen. "The problem is that no one really understands how that works."

The other problem is that when news "goes viral" online, this often happens because networks of like-minded activists are pushing a particular cause. It would be easy, admitted Allen, to keep pushing these buttons with waves of opinionated prose that preaches to the same choir day after day.

After all, opinion is cheap, while producing truly independent and well-sourced reporting is, and always will be, much more expensive.

"It is our delusional conviction," said Allen, that "we can keep covering Catholic news for readers who are pro-information and don't want to settle for an approach that polarizes everything that happens. … But whatever happens, we are not losing interest in the Catholic story."

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United Methodist vows, the Sexual Revolution and the fragile doctrinal ties that bind

Monday, April 4, 2016

When the United Methodist Church ordains ministers, the rite includes the kind of vow that religious groups have long used to underline the ties that bind.

In this case, the candidate for ordination is asked to accept the church's "order, liturgy, doctrine, and discipline, defending it against all doctrines contrary to God's Holy Word, and committing yourself to be accountable with those serving with you, and to the bishop and those who are appointed to supervise your ministry?"

The candidate replies: "I will, with the help of God."

These vows may create problems for some clergy -- as noted in a remarkably blunt letter published recently by the independent Methodist Federation for Social Action. The context was the U.S. Supreme Court debate about a Health and Human Services mandate that requires most religious institutions to offer employees health insurance covering sterilizations and all FDA-approved contraceptives.

Currently, actual churches and denominations are exempt. And there's the rub, for the letter's anonymous author.

"I chose to go on birth control because I didn't want to get pregnant and I wanted to have sex. Because I am a clergywoman in The United Methodist Church, and I'm single, that information could get me brought up on charges, and I could lose my ordination," she wrote.

"Luckily, we don't have an insurance plan that requires the church to sign off on the prescriptions that my doctor writes. … However, because I value my job, I have to remain anonymous in writing this. It strikes me as ridiculous in 2016 that this is necessary, but being a person who is sexually active while single is against the rules. I'm very grateful that … I don't have to justify my prescriptions to my Bishop. I don't think it is any of his business. I hope the US government agrees."

Meanwhile, the UMC Book Of Discipline remains clear on premarital sex, requiring clergy to maintain "personal habits conducive to bodily health, mental and emotional maturity, integrity in all personal relationships, fidelity in marriage and celibacy in singleness."

The letter -- no surprise -- drew strong comments in social media, with United Methodists defending or attacking their church's teachings.

"You body, your sexuality, and your safety are your decisions and I applaud you for your willingness to share, even anonymously," stated one writer, with a "Future UMC Rev." identification. "My fiancé and I (he's going to be a Rev. too) started having sex a couple of years ago and were thrilled with our decision, and it wasn't one we made lightly. … As for the promises of ordination -- perhaps it's time to take a second look at those."

In a typical orthodox response, one UMC employee replied: "I agree, one woman to another, that your body is your business. Your sexual choices are your business." However, she added: "Your 'job,' or part of it, as pastor -- as leader -- is to set an example for your congregation. … If you choose the path of ordination you have to follow the rules set forth in the Discipline. You made a choice to do that. But if that has changed and you are now at conflict with your vows then it may be time for you to reassess your career choice."

This isn't the first time a United Methodist pastor has posted this kind of critique.

A few years ago, the denomination's official General Board of Church and Society published a letter arguing that the church was confused by "years of theological tradition and imaginative biblical reflections on: the 'perpetual' virginity of Mary, a supposedly celibate Jesus. … Imagine a Church without the attitude that a wedding or a hymen is the dividing line between moral and immoral."

These doctrinal debates have been raging for decades, noted John Lomperis, United Methodist Action director for the conservative Institute on Religion and Democracy. However, it's "rare to see someone be this blatant when supporting premarital sex," he said. "There has been a kind of understanding that when people openly support an 'anything goes' ethos, it doesn't make their lives any easier."

Thus, he added, "many bishops use a 'don't ask, don't tell' approach at the local level. … But every now and then people say what they actually believe. It's important to pay attention when that happens."

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