Return of the Ratzinger

Conclave is coming, and by hook or by crosier, we’ll have a new Pope before Passover. Papal elections can spell change for the congregations of the world’s largest church, so we talked to a priest to get a handle on things. Joseph Palacios is an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and the founder of pro-gay-marriage group Catholics for Equality. He is on leave from his diocese in Los Angeles.

You founded Catholics for Equality in 2010—did the timing have anything to do with the way Pop Benedict's tenure was going?

It’s a ‘both and’ answer. Because the energy coming from the Vatican under Benedict’s rein was to quash any pro LGBT quality legislation around the world. And the bishops were given the charge to put their resources into stopping marriage bills, adoption bills. But also they have fought fair employment, housing, and other access/accommodation issues around the world.

When he was running the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, [Benedict crafted] the “Intrinsic Moral Disorder” doctrine regarding homosexuality. It is about Benedict’s reign, and it goes through all the years that he was in charge of the CDF, all the way up through his Pontificate. And then the timing was right in terms of founding Catholics for Equality. [I was in] Washington, DC, working on the marriage bill here, in a group that I formed called “Catholics United for Marriage Equality” [and], because of the success of that, I helped convene a national grouping of leaders from around the country, of Catholics for LGBT rights [in January 2010].

I know you were ordained while John Paul II was still in office—did the transition from one relatively conservative Pontiff to another make a difference at the time?

I think—yes. When I was ordained in 1987 in Los Angeles, it was just the beginning of the Ratzinger influence in the CDF. At the time, the cultural climate was an open one, with the bishops trying to have the best pastoral approach to serving LGBT persons and their families. In Los Angeles where I worked as a priest for many years, Archbishop Mahoney—now Cardinal Mahoney— began one of the country’s first really full ministries to the LGBT community, which still exists today.

So those kinds of things, all of the LGBT efforts among different dioceses, bishops willing to attend conferences, even of Dignity USA, all of that shifted particularly under Benedict’s reign. Now you won’t find a single standing bishop that would be going to a Dignity conference.

So we have this bifurcated Catholic institutional culture that’s operating right now regarding LGBT people. All the polling shows that Catholics have completely trended toward understanding that there’s a gay reality. The gay reality that the Vatican is trying to deny, people look at that and they say, “What world are they living in?” If the Church wants to speak to something, it has to speak to some truth for people’s reason to motivate their faith.

What I’m saying is that as Catholics, at least in traditional teaching, you’re raised to know that God created you with a mind and you should use it, and so rationality has a purpose and our faith should have reason, that’s why we study theology and not just the Bible. We study philosophy and not just the Bible. Our warrants for ethical decision making are not all biblical, we use reason…especially American Catholics, we understand that being gay is a physical reality, a biological reality, a social reality, a cultural reality. All those realities coming together point to evidence that there is gay life, gay identity.

Many Catholic groups have been advocating for greater lay involvement in the Church. Do you see any opportunity for the advancement of those goals?

I just don’t see it. A sitting pope, with a new pope, that’s just—it’s like having a chairman of the board that’s retired sitting on the board and being at every meeting. I just don’t see it happening. All of the appointees and mentionables for Pope right now are all super conservative in their doctrinal approaches to things...I think that if the candidate has had a widespread pastoral experience … there’s a kind of saying in the Church—doctrinally conservative, but socially progressive. That I could see happening.

But the pastoral angle is so diminished when a person gets trapped in the Vatican, I don’t see change then. So with all due respect to my friends in Dignity and in Call to Action and in other organizations, I am not as optimistic as they are. I mean just structurally it doesn’t seem possible.

Do you see your own story as the future of Catholic progressivism—having to stand up to the Church and putting oneself in danger of retribution from the hierarchy?

The Church is local. Bishops have a lot of leeway in terms of how they handle the local issues, so in Brazil, or in the excommunication of the nun in Phoenix, Arizona at a Catholic hospital, all of that. By and large, I think a lot of those decisions are made by bishops that think that they’re following Roman dictate, and given the conservative political culture of the Church, I can understand why they want to look like they’re players with the conservative doctrinal positions of the Church, so there’s a relationship between the political culture in the Vatican and with how bishops at the local level make decisions.

We can point out a whole variety of cases of people being excommunicated or being removed from office for their outspokenness about women’s ordination or abortion … I’ve been waiting for something to come down on LGBT and I personally did not want to be the test case. I have nuanced my public statements in the sense that as a sociologist, these are the trends of the Church. I’m only talking about what’s really going on with the trends of the Church. I’ve never spoken from the pulpit against any doctrine of the Church, to the best of my knowledge.

If there are so many problems with the Church, why not break away entirely?

My position on this is that I do not want to be pushed out of my own Church. This is my Church as much as their Church, I’m a product of Vatican II, I don’t see anything I’m doing as contrary to the core teachings of the Church…

Where do you see progressive Catholicism in general heading in the next 10-15 years?

Benedict is a brilliant man. But he thinks of things in black and white, and the signs of the times that I think he saw in the eighties were that the liturgy, the democratizing effect of the altar being turned around, the vernacular language, more cultural songs and ways of expressing oneself, would shift the way that people think about fundamental parts of who is God, who are we as a community, what are the sacraments, etc. And certainly they did.

I see his restorationist approach as methodically silencing theologians for two generations now. We’re in the second generation of Ratzingerians and John Paul II’s appointees as bishops. Dissertations in Rome, I don’t know if you know this, but all of them have to be cleared by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith before a PhD can be granted, so there’s been a chilling effect in intellectual life over the last twenty five years.

The way I see things from a political angle is that the good ideas from below, the injustice that people live and experience, out of that flows our relationship to God, where we cry out to God. This is deeply Old Testament, where like the cries of Hosea or any of the prophets, cries have to be addressed. And so the cries of the people, the cries of the poor…are going to have to be answered by the Church. They can close the windows and put the conservative lock on doctrine, but they can’t keep it all locked. People are going to have to breathe, the Church is going to have to breathe.

But the time frame is as long as I live at least. I don’t see it forthcoming. Catholics will say, “You never know when the Holy Spirit will just pop up.” Fine, fine. But if I were betting, I wouldn’t bet on it.

What do you see as the place for dissident Catholics in America? Institutions like Georgetown, which fall between banning contraception and defying Ex Corde Ecclesiae organizations like Voice of the Faithful, striving to be included under canon law, or somewhere else entirely?

I wish well people who want to do reform in the Church, and there’s very few avenues for it—when I helped form Catholics for Equality, we were not a reformist Catholic organization, we were strictly political.  Being a realist, I have no expectations of changing my Church whatsoever. I was there to change Catholic votes, and I’m still of that opinion. I will put my energies into public life issues where Catholics have already made their change, and I’m going to help them make that change in society. Then as society moves, the Church moves.

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