When it Becomes too Radical to Dialogue, Perhaps it’s Time for Reform!
The last election in the USA was a bruiser – leaving both sides licking deep wounds. As never before, political campaigns, churches, and even employers, turned their back on basic democratic principles such as freedom of conscience and the integrity of the individual ballot and sought to not only influence how those under their authority would vote, but sought near absolute control over the dialogue on each issue.
Changes to campaign finance laws have now enabled large corporations and trust funds to “donate” almost unlimited amounts for select campaigns and clever little loopholes encourage churches to take more direct roles in the political lives of their memberships.
In Minnesota, Roman Catholic and Evangelical churches made the most of laws enabling churches to take sides in divisive constitutional amendment battles. While churches are excluded from endorsing political candidates, their potential support of political causes is almost open-ended – in this case, amendments requiring a photo ID for voting (an amendment that most opponents saw as anti-immigrant), and an amendment prohibiting same-sex marriage. Note: In as much as the voter ID amendment campaign was accompanied by dramatic posters conspicuously placed in immigrant neighborhoods which warned potential voters that they could be jailed for voter fraud, the connection seems rather reasonable and the message rather clear – voting is just not worth the chance that you’ll end up in jail.
Not surprisingly, many members of congregations from both sides are now ready and willing to just walk away from churches that seem to be more political and less spiritual.
One of the less reputable reactions is from a priest in Barnesville, Minnesota, near Fargo-Moorhead, who has apparently refused to confirm a 17-year-old Roman Catholic teen on account of the youth’s Facebook photo showing him posing with a strongly Catholic-supported Vote YES! against same-sex marriage poster with the “yes” crossed out and a big “NO!” written over it. Apparently, the youth did not even have access to a proper poster from the Vote NO! campaign in that isolated, church-dominated community.
To place this in context, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese in Minnesota has just gone through a round of closures for schools and churches due to a lack of funds, while coughing up some $5 million for the Vote YES! campaign against same-sex marriage alone, and the Cathedral of St Paul, overlooking the state capital (and yes, the state capitol) proudly displayed large campaign banners reflecting the Archbishop’s proscribed positions. Understandably, petitions have begun to circulate requesting the Archbishop’s resignation – but that is not how the Roman Catholic Church works – especially under such a determined politician as Benedict XVI.
|Lennon Cihak's controversial Facebook (TM) photo|
So when parishioners from Barnesville’s Assumption Church presented Fr. Gary LaMoine with a print-out of Lennon Cihak’s Facebook photo, Cihak’s family claims he was then denied confirmation and his parents have been not allowed to receive the Eucharist (communion) in the church. These are the same tactics the Roman church has used against dissenters and “heretics” in Europe for a thousand years, reactions against such tactics resulting in centuries of religious warfare, adding fuel to the fires of the Reformation and politicizing cities in Italy and Germany, indeed in all of Europe, beyond reconciliation. (This is traditionally the purview of Dante’s Inferno, not normally the Fargo Forum.)
Along with a tradition of footwashing, the “ban” is an institutional tie between Mennonite and Roman Catholic traditions. Being denied access to the sacraments (baptism, the Eucharist, Confirmation, Marriage and Last Rites / Burial) is known as being placed under the ban in Catholic tradition. In Mennonite circles, it means the loss of fellowship and membership rights until one has publically renounced the reason for which one has been banned and then publically repents.
In reality, the Cihak family is claiming that Fr. LaMoine has placed them under a medieval-like ban for their son’s free expression of a political sentiment against which his Archbishop and priest disagree. In the Fargo Forum, Cihak’s father indicates that he’s not even sure that his family will be able to now be buried in the family plot next to his deceased parents.
The priest claims that the family has not been banned nor that Cihak has been denied confirmation, to which Cihak’s mother responds questioning why their son, having met all requirements, remains unconfirmed – a rather reasonable point. The difference in language is that Fr. LaMoine feels that it is perfectly reasonable to censor Cihak and that Cihak would not be banned if he merely recants – a situation entirely under Cihak’s control – so confirmation has only been denied under present circumstances. [This was only clarified late last night, according to news reports.]
Fr. LaMoine isn’t responding to questions – nor is the church’s spokesperson in this story, Crookston diocese’s Monsignor David Baumgartner, who is out of the office until 29 Nov. In fact, in claiming to be heeding the family’s confidential need for privacy, the church isn’t talking at all. Other sources in St Paul indicate that Fr LaMoine has been in consultation with his superiors, including Bishop Michael Hoeppner to determine how best to handle or recover from this situation. Regardless, Assumption Parish is not presently dialoguing on these matters, with the Cihak family or with others.
|Father Gary LeMoine, Barnesville, MN, (c) WDAY, Fargo, ND|
At the end of the day, it seems reasonable to see this as exactly that – a problem with in-church dialogue. Dissent is not allowed and actively discouraged to the point of excommunication or the ban. While this is hardly the spiritual or political threat it was 500 years ago, the pain of such rejection and exclusion from fellowship remains very real – especially for a rural teen. Even if Cihak has not been denied confirmation, many other Roman Catholics have in fact been recently denied communion across Minnesota – especially for expressing self-identity with or sympathy towards the state’s prominent gay and lesbian (same-sex) community or their fight for recognition of non-discrimination rights and same-sex marriage in the state. Even many conservative Catholic friends of mine have begun “parish-hopping” being sickened themselves at the irrationally frenzied politicization of the Eucharist by local priests. Many American nuns were similarly placed under interdict this year for focusing too much on pro-active social agendas including voicing feminist concerns and in outreach to the oppressed.
Unlike most Protestants or Anabaptists, Roman Catholics cannot just switch denominations if they wish to attend a different service but are either stuck in their “home” parish and with its politics or must travel to a different parish to find a less political priest.
But it is not just the Roman Catholics who are having problems tolerating dissent or being unable to worship with fellow Christians holding opposing opinions in politics. Oddly, the ability to participate more freely and openly in secular political debate has seemingly made it more difficult to tolerate one’s fellow Christians. (Could it be that laws and traditions favoring an apolitical separation of church and state are for the church’s own protection as well as that of the state?)
Since Vatican II opened discussion on modern roles for women in the church, the role of women has been not only dividing conferences but forcing many women to leave the churches of their youth feeling rejected from being able to fully participate in their faith community.
I know of at least one family member, a Mennonite, who expressed her disappointment in not being able to vote for Michelle Bachman’s primary candidacy in that while she agreed with Bachman’s policies, she felt that God had not ordained women to be able to take political leadership over men. In other words, she could not vote for Bachman because she is a woman. We no longer discuss politics. This relative found her inspiration in the Bible and “needs no other input.”
In Minneapolis, when churches such as Faith Mennonite and St Paul Fellowship ordained and recognized the pastoral or co-pastoral role of women in their congregations, other more conservative Mennonite groups were skeptical. When those two congregations later dealt also with questions of allowing gays and lesbians into full membership and even holding commitment ceremonies, conservative Mennonites saw it as a natural regression into error and away from a commitment to God. The problem being the mistaken impression that once you engage in dialogue, there is no stopping “change.” That dialogue might actually open one up to positive new understandings and opportunities for fellowship doesn’t seem to occur to them. Fear of change seems too often to win out over being willing to listen and to talk. (While I have not attended a service under Helen Quintella, I can state from experience that Rev. Joetta Schlabach is truly gifted and authentically called to a ministry of teaching and pastoral care.)
Tragically, in my parents’ church, an Evangelical Mennonite Brethren church, Fundamentalists were still arguing with moderate persons such as my mother over the proper role and etiquette of women in their congregation when she, Nancy, died. That argument will now forever remain unresolved and they will never be able to seek forgiveness or re-open fellowship with a woman who had been gifted with a keen heart for social justice. In Nancy’s case, dialogue was too often restricted to the point that to disagree with Mennonite tradition or to hold a differing perspective meant one had to openly and loudly challenge the silence, making one liable to being labeled a troublemaker or “a woman who just did not know her place.”
In Minneapolis, questions of social justice and outreach divided the Mennonite Brethren Church (now closed) – even after celebrating its centennial and founding as an old fashioned urban mission center under the Olfert family.
In this regard, questions of dialoguing and fellowship came to a head at the New Hope Mennonite Brethren Church when they began placing potential gay members of the congregation under restrictions similar to the ban and similar to those placed by Fr. LaMoine on Lennon Cihak. According to the Forum, Bishop Hoeppner has stated that the ban against Cihak and his family will be lifted if Cihak “changes his mind about some things” (actually stated by LaMoine) and “appears before the church and retracts his claims,” (Bishop Hoeppner). This is similar to understood restrictions and constraints against gays and gay supporters placed on them by the New Hope Church since 1998 – both a silencing and a lack of useful or intelligible dialogue. Note that New Hope MB Church closed its doors in 2001 with such members still under the ban with membership issues unresolved. Forcing dissenting members to orally prostrate themselves before their fellow Christians and to speak their repentance is not dialogue, it is borderline bullying. (“Just say ‘Auntie’ and I’ll let you go… give you back your hat… stop twisting your arm behind your back…” and so on.)
Similarly, the Mennonite Brethren silenced and excommunicated Inter-Mennonite Church of Calgary in Alberta for accepting gay members. According to pastoral staff, there was no dialogue or attempt at dialogue, just a query as to whether they intended to welcome the person in question into membership or not with adverse judgment being communicated upon receipt of an affirmative answer – the entire process taking less than a few minutes.
Just last week, Eastern Mennonite Conference, who had been dialoguing and showing signs of potential reconciliation or at least increased fellowship and dialogue with Germantown Mennonite Church, the oldest Mennonite church in the United States, voted to discontinue that dialogue and cut all ties with their eldest congregation. Mennonite Church leaders have since expressed concern that this had less to do with Germantown’s actual situation than with possible disappointment by political conservatives over electoral results earlier this month.
Cihak’s ban, even if there is somewhat more to the story, is bizarre and unacceptable in this age. Remember – not only has Christian-dom undergone a Reformation and Counter-Reformation, but Vatican II was meant to generate and protect dialogue within the church – not to discourage it or to drag up almost forgotten medieval practices to silence dissent and freedom of conscience within its congregations.
Five hundred years ago, such action might have been a call to Reformation in Barnesville. Today, it is increasingly business as usual within Christian churches. And the heirs of the Radical Reformation fare no better. Shame on us. Traditionalists still insist that women should be silent and submissive before their husbands and that same-sex marriage may or may not be a result of man’s fallen nature, but they are unwilling not only to engage in rational, Biblical debate on such matters, but increasingly, seem to turn to avoiding or even preventing such dialogue by shunning, banning or refusing cooperation with those with whom they might disagree.
As a Mennonite, I feel secure in admitting that each congregation has the right and the ability to decide on such matters for his or herself. But… the entire premise of the Radical Reformation, from whom we claim direct spiritual lineage, is that dialogue is positive and must be allowed. Only within the context of proper and honest dialogue will Truth and God’s will be discovered and manifest. This cannot happen if we do not tolerate opposing views and perspectives, or admit that others might have legitimate spiritual experiences that look very different from one’s own. In returning to arcane weapons such as silencing and the ban, the heirs of the Reformers are no better than the former Roman Catholic Church against which their ancestors rebelled, or Swiss Protestants who rejected dialogue with the Anabaptists, threatening them with imprisonment or worse if they did not publicly recant such dissent.
If that is the case, could it be that the Reformation has failed in that the Roman Catholics have failed to reform and still feel free and justified in bullying teenage parishioners over their political stances? Or could it be that the Reformation has failed in that the reformed congregations are increasingly undifferentiated from their former enemies and have now, like 17th Century Lutherans, learnt to turn the same social and spiritual weapons once used against them against others?
As I have said before, “We’re better than this.” Maybe we all need to again learn to communicate – is this not, after all, at least a small portion of the story of Pentecost? As it is, our current situation simply does not work – even if new American campaign laws seem to encourage it.
Note: As of this posting, the Fargo Forum reports further that a second student has also been denied confirmation and that Fr. LaMoine admits that church personnel have been tracking, but not “spying on,” what parishioners have been posting on their Facebook pages regarding election issues.
According to the Forum, LaMoine now admits, “If he [Cihak] hadn’t publicly stated his opinion at that particular time on Facebook, he would’ve been confirmed I’m sure. … Nobody would’ve known about his attitude. However, a woman in the church office has access to “a lot” of the students’ Facebook pages, … So she naturally is able to approach – to go in there and see what they’re doing. We’re curious about what people are writing about the situation. That’s natural that we’d be curious.”
What also seems natural, at least in the new American political scene apparently, is the desire to control what those under one’s authority are thinking and saying – a dangerous and imperious prerogative of manipulation in a society and nation based on the principles of separation of church and state, freedom of conscience and freedom of speech.
Though again, regrettably, Fr. LaMoine seems to be in too good of company. Is this the new ecumenical reality facing the new church, or will Christ’s church stand against such abuse and manipulation of individual belief in the tradition of the Radical Reformation? I think we seemingly have had our answer – and it is not promising.
Note added 19 Nov: Commonweal, or more accurately dotCommonweal, considered by some to be the exo-Vatican dialogue within Roman Catholic intellectualism, contained the following, extremely well-written summation by Luke Hill of the Lennon Cihak story and its lessons:
I strongly encourage the read! um, and a couple of others (same source):
Bugyis, Eric - The Parallel Catholic Church
Hill, Luke - A New Evangelization at Work?
Bugyis, Eric - The Parallel Catholic Church
Hill, Luke - A New Evangelization at Work?
Burgess, Erik - Barnesville Teen Denied Catholic Confirmation after Facebook Posting Supporting Gay Marriage
Catholicculture.org - Report: MN bishop says pro-gay marriage teen can be confirmed when he publicly repudiates position