We’ve all got dirty hands

Yesterday I read about an episode in New York’s archdiocese that both saddened and angered me.

In response to a blog post by Cardinal Dolan asking sinners to metaphorically “wash their hands” before being fully welcomed by the church, a group of LGBTQ Catholics and their allies stood outside St. Patrick’s Cathedral with dirty hands. They were turned away.

I have a feeling that the operations manager who asked them to leave didn’t mean for his words to be taken literally, but Cardinal Dolan’s message was heard loud and clear: until you clean up your act, you aren’t really welcome here.


Photo credit: Huffington Post

Below is a passage from Dolan’s post, titled “All are Welcome!” (Exclamation mark!!).

“It was a lesson I began to learn when I was seven or eight . . .

My buddy Freddie from across the street and I were playing outside.  Mom called me for supper.

“Can Freddie stay and eat supper with us?”  I asked.

“He’d sure be welcome, if it’s okay with his mom and dad,” she replied …

I was so proud and happy.  Freddie was welcome in our house, at our table.  We both rushed in and sat down.

“Freddie, glad you’re here,” dad remarked, “but . . . looks like you and Tim better go wash your hands before you eat.”

Simple enough . . . common sense . . . you are a most welcome and respected member now of our table, our household, dad was saying, but, there are a few very natural expectations this family has.  Like, wash your hands!…”

Cardinal Dolan goes on to discuss how it’s natural for a community to have certain expectations, and he gives the example of how Jesus forgave the adulterous woman but told her to “sin no more.” Just as the church would love and respect an alcoholic, but not condone his behavior, Dolan argues, the church should love gay and lesbian people but not approve of their actions.

Many progressives don’t give conservatives like Cardinal Dolan the benefit of the doubt. I want to. I don’t think he’s trying to spread feelings of isolation and rejection on the part of the gay community, but that’s what’s happening. So I want to address this difficult topic and emphasize that the last thing I would want is for people to read this and feel hatred toward those who label “homosexual acts” as sinful.

The most obvious problem with Dolan’s column is that the church in the broadest sense disagrees over what even constitutes sin. Living with someone who is not a spouse and engaging in same-sex acts are two examples he gives of anti-Biblical behavior. But many of the individuals he’s addressing don’t believe that these kinds of actions are sinful, or at least don’t believe it’s on the same level as one of the other examples he gives of a wealthy employer taking an advantage of his employees. One of the first steps in engaging in a successful debate is defining terms, and it’s apparent that Dolan and a huge portion of the church, including the LGBTQ community, are nowhere near the same page.

Sidestepping this admittedly huge issue for a moment, there’s another problem with the simplistic analogy Dolan gives to introduce this topic. Washing your hands is something you do in a couple minutes. You go to the sink, turn on the faucet, scrub your hands, and pat your palms dry. It’s something you do to yourself, it’s something that’s done without even a thought.

But who among us can say they’ve washed themselves of their sins? Even if you believe that “homosexual acts” are a sin–and personally, I don’t believe they are–it’s not in anyone’s power to quickly “wash up” before coming to the Lord’s table. Having clean hands is something that’s done to us–it’s an act of Christ himself. And that’s precisely why we need the table and the confessional, because we know all too well that without God’s grace and mercy, we’re at a complete loss. The LGBTQ community only hears the “but” in the statement “all are welcome,” and naturally, many of them feel they’re not welcome at Mass.

Moreover, it almost goes without saying that the Church has had its fair share of scandals, and so Dolan’s condescending language comes across as utterly hypocritical. Examining the proverbial plank in one’s own eye is often more productive than pointing out the speck in someone else’s. In other words, we’ve all got dirty hands.

I want to end this post on a sweet note, not a sour one. The best example of Catholic love for the LGBTQ community I’ve seen is in my own parish I’ve been able to attend since the summer, the Church of the Ascension. The church has a gay fellowship, and Ascension as a whole is very vocal about the fact that all are welcome. No buts. Perhaps in their fellowship sessions parishioners wrestle with who they are, and with what’s right, and how they are called to live. But no one tells them they’ve got to clean up their act before we welcome them, because that’s their own journey. Instead, we all go to the table together, because we know with God’s grace our dirty hands will be made clean.


6 thoughts on “We’ve all got dirty hands

  1. I agree with your point that if Cardinal Dolan was attempting to be pastoral specifically towards the LGBTQ community, with regard to the difficulty of applying “love the sinner, but hate the sin” and the specific question of who is able to receive communion, the mere fact that he got this response means he failed to persuade. However, these are nuanced and difficult questions to answer, and one can’t fault him for trying, and I would emphasize that he was doing this out of love and respect for all people.

    Maybe he chose the wrong analogy, but I hope you realize that, as a seasoned theologian, he would obviously agree with you that 1) everyone has dirty hands, and 2) people will not be able to wash their hands clean of sin in a jiffy right before mass. His basic point of using the analogy was about standards, and thus, beyond the connection with the Jewish ritualistic cleansing and sin, I strongly suspect he did not intend his analogy to go further than that and imply what you or the LGBTQ community seem to think he implied. The police and the cathedral official’s response notwithstanding (which I strongly suspect is being misrepresented by Amodeo and HuffPost and all of the other commentary; even if there was wrongdoing in how they responded, Cardinal Dolan was not present), I’m sure Cardinal Dolan, if he was present during the demonstration, would not have responded with the coldness these demonstrators felt. Anyone who has met the man would know this.

    So, first of all, we all must wrestle with the fact that, though there are many people within and outside the church (including you, it seems) who disagree with the church’s position on sexual morality, the church’s position on sex is defined doctrine that is not going to change, lest the Church stop being herself. Another part of church teaching that we must wrestle with is that we are receiving Jesus Christ in the Eucharist, and therefore we must be very careful and reverent in how we approach the sacrament (think 1 Corinthians 11:26-29 for Biblical discussion of the issue, and ).

    Second, given that all of us are sinners (even the saints commonly say, like Paul, that they are chief among sinners), the importance is the attitude with which we approach Church teachings and the Eucharist, the fullest expression of expressing our *full* unity with the Church and with Christ Himself. All that is asked of us, if we struggle with a certain teaching, or (as is the case with me personally) struggle with a sin, is not to “clean ourselves up before being welcomed”, but to respond with openness to God and His Church and continue to wrestle with these things, as Jacob did, even if takes us our entire lives to do so (though hopefully sooner). It’s an acknowledgement of a need for God’s grace in all aspects of our lives (and not just some), and the sacrament is one way of receiving that grace.

    • Hi Warren, Thanks for the time you’ve taken to comment thoughtfully. I agree with you that I don’t think Cardinal Dolan meant for his message to come across this way. As I mentioned, I want to give him the benefit of the doubt. I’ve attended a Mass he presided over, and he seemed like a genuine person. Nevertheless, he certainly wants it to be clear that he and the majority of other Catholic leaders do not approve of these actions, and as long as that stays the way it is, people in the LGBTQ community won’t be invited to be in full communion with the Catholic Church. I think we’re just at different places as to whether that’s a problem.
      I also agree with you that more than likely, Cardinal Dolan didn’t sit down and hash out all the implications of this analogy, but it’s this obliviousness to how the message comes across to his audience that’s part of the problem. It’s not hard to imagine how the phrase “All are welcome” in this context doesn’t sound sincere to people who have been marginalized and discriminated against over and over.
      I second Fellow Catholic’s thoughts that there’s a way to preach within the authority of the Church without implying that gay men and women acting within the dictates of their conscience shouldn’t approach the Lord’s table. I’ve given an example of a parish where our priest doesn’t preach anything that is against Catholic doctrine, but instead he chooses not to emphasize certain topics over others, saying explicitly at each Mass that all truly are welcome, regardless of sexuality, ethnicity, divorced/separated, etc. A point I didn’t make extremely clear is that I don’t have a problem with Catholics or evangelicals who have more conservative views on these issues: I know a whole lot of lovely conservatives (including you!) who don’t go around trying to put everyone in their place, and don’t argue that those who act outside of a few church teachings aren’t real Christians. I appreciate these people for their desire to follow the Church’s teachings and scripture, I just happen to disagree and think that many who follow the same teachings take them too far to the detriment of those around them.
      You’re right that these issues are quite complex and I admit to not understanding every aspect of them, but if more people were willing to focus on the grace of the gospel like you do in your approach, we’d all be a lot better off!

      • Hi Rebekah! Sorry for the delay in responding. I apparently didn’t finish the process of signing up for email notifications, and didn’t notice your response until today.

        First off, thank you for your kind words! I hope it’s clear that I think very highly of you, your blogs, and your thoughts on the matter, even when we disagree. I’m looking to continuing what has turned out to be quite an excellent discussion. 🙂

        Ok, to say a few words in response, I have to be honest and say I was, initially, at once perplexed and saddened by the decision to hold the demonstration. My thinking, along with some commentators, was to ask, “Are they suggesting that they should be allowed to the Lord’s table and partake without ‘washing their hands’? Is that what they wanted to say?” I didn’t understand their point. I’m thankful to have found a recent article by Joseph Amodeo, the guy who led the demonstration, that provided some deeper insight to the matter: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/joseph-amodeo/the-day-cardinal-dolan-hugged-a-gay-man-me_b_3230061.html

        Basically, Joseph was *not* trying to suggest what I thought he was. He had made it clear to his demonstrators that they were to not talk to anyone, and that they were to wash their hands before partaking of Eucharist. Thus, though I’m still not sure what his aims are in terms of the church’s position on sexual morality, he at least was trying to make it clear, as we’ve discussed, that all have “dirty hands”, and are welcome anyway in God’s eyes.

        What I think was unfortunate were two things: 1) Cardinal Dolan dropped the ball on a promise he had made to Joseph, which was to send a letter of “welcome” to the LGBTQ community only after he had sent it to Joseph for feedback (was this blog post at the center of this incident that welcome letter??), and 2) the cathedral staff, understandably enough, misunderstood the point of the demonstration. I can easily imagine their thought process was, “Oh goodness! There’s a group of people who are going to protest at the cathedral (and probably disrupt mass in the process)? After seeing what happened to Archbishop Andre-Joseph Leonard, we can’t take any chances! There may be 100s of them, so let’s get the police involved to make sure order and peace are maintained… Oh, there’s only 10? Whoops, that was overkill… Ok, well, you can join in if you wash your hands because this still appears to be a protest…” Anyway, I’m not making excuses for the cathedral staff, but I think at the root of this incident was miscommunication and misunderstanding of the demonstrator’s intent.

        Now, what to do about the messy issue of proclaiming the truth to people who are so marginalized and hurt by what’s happened in the past? It would probably take another post to really hash out my attempt at answering it, but in the meantime, I think this might be a good article to reflect on, as it focuses on the theme of “Judge Not”: http://www.crisismagazine.com/2012/judge-not

  2. Whaddup Warren? We meet again! If Cardinal Dolan had responded to this issue as thoughtfully as you just did, this specific problem might have been avoided. While I strongly disagree with the Catholic Church’s position on homosexuality, you are right that it is a natural product of their thinking about sexuality more generally, doctrine that has been laid down over the last 2000 years, and is unlikely to change (barring some sort of enormous sea change in how we understand ourselves as a Church and the infallibility of our established doctrine – again, incredibly unlikely).

    Where you and I might part ways, however, is that I believe Dolan has to preach the doctrine of his church, but he should allow each Catholic to follow the dictates of his or her own conscience when choosing whether to come to Mass/receive the Sacraments. Dolan has no means of knowing enough about the personal lives of anyone who takes Communion that he should be stopping them, or attempting to stop them, from participating in the life of the Church. By his rhetoric, unfortunately (“Wash your hands”) he’s doing exactly that. Given that the teaching of the Catholic Church is quite clear that everyone must follow his or her conscience — even if that conscience is in error — this should be an absolute no-brainer for Cardinal Dolan. Of course he must preach the doctrine of his faith. But that should be where his involvement in deciding who is or is not eligible to participate ends. He shouldn’t be checking hands at the door, so to speak. It’s especially unfortunate that Dolan chose this analogy, given the fact that Jesus was also criticized for dining with sinners who hadn’t washed their hands.

    • Hello again Fellow Catholic! Thanks for your kind words and thoughtful response; I’m trying my best to walk that thin line of finding truth and then speaking it with love 🙂

      The two issues you’ve raised is with regard to the issue of who may receive Eucharist, and the issue of conscience. With regard to the former, my understanding of the Church’s teaching on the matter is the following:
      1) If someone is publicly committing mortal sin (w/e it may be, sexual sin or something else) and has been admonished about it before without any sign of repentance, then the priest or bishop may bar that person from receiving communion until they make an attempt at repentance (as far as I can tell, Cardinal Dolan was not directly aiming his comments at any particular person or persons in this manner)
      2) For everyone else, it is indeed a matter of conscience to approach the sacrament, knowing within your own heart whether you’ve committed mortal sin that requires repentance. In this vein, I interpret Cardinal Dolan’s blog post to remind people of what the church teaches is a mortal sin, and then re-invite people to the table. As a commentator noted, a favorable interpretation of the “dirty hands” analogy is that Freddie (the kid in the story) had nothing wrong with him intrinsically, but was just asked to submit to the “house rules”; in the same vein, Cardinal Dolan said explicitly, “The Church loves, welcomes, and respects a woman or man with a same-sex attraction, while reminding him or her of our clear teaching that, **while the condition of homosexuality is no sin at all**, still, God’s teaching is clear that sexual acts are reserved for a man and woman united in the lifelong, life-giving, faithful, loving bond of marriage.” (emphasis mine). Further, the commentator says, “if you are going to translate Cardinal Dolan’s “All Are Welcome” post into “the cardinal told gay people to wash their hands,” he directed a whole lot of other people to the water, too. I think a better translation is: ‘Open your hearts to the fullness of Catholic teaching. It might just be everything you’ve been looking for. It might just bring you a joy greater than you can ever imagine.'” (source: http://www.nationalreview.com/corner/347513/all-are-welcome-%E2%80%A6)

      Thus, he’s not checking hands at the door, as you suggest, but rather he’s reminding people of what the house rules are and allows people (who know themselves whether his comments apply) to act on their conscience in this way. He’s trying to balance truly being as welcoming as Joseph perceived in the article I linked to above with speaking the truth with love (for, would it really be loving to allow people to heap on themselves a further mortal sin by approaching the sacrament without examining their conscience?)

      This gets into the issue of conscience. Though you are correct that Catholics are encouraged and indeed required to follow their conscience, they’re also encouraged and required to form it under the tutelage of Scripture, prayer, reason, and the teachings of the Church (see Catechism 1783-1785, 2039). Thus, it’s not enough to say “follow your conscience”; it’s our responsibilities to form our consciences in agreement with the Church, even though it is a lifelong process. So, to facilitate that for this particular issue, have you read Theology of the Body? Or read anything from the Steve Gershom, Daniel Mattson, or Eve Tushnet, among others (Steve identifies as gay, Daniel self-identifies as having SSA, and Eve identifies as a lesbian; all of them, in various ways, are trying to live out Catholic teaching and reconciling that with their identity)?
      Steve: http://www.stevegershom.com/
      Daniel (article, with link to his blog): http://www.firstthings.com/onthesquare/2012/07/why-i-donrsquot-call-myself-a-gay-christian-1
      Eve: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/evetushnet/

      Looking forward to further discussion. 🙂

      Peace, Warren

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