A Church in exile

My wife and I helped our daughter study for her high school freshman finals the week before the vote on the marriage amendment at the Statehouse in Boston on June 14. Her theology exam covered the Old and New Testaments. As we were going through the preparation questions, I began to wonder -- Is this a premonition about the upcoming vote? The theology topics included the Assyrian and Babylonian conquests suffered by the Jewish people, sending the chosen race into political and religious exile.

These defeats challenged the people’s faith, causing them to doubt God’s covenant promises. Prophets such as Ezekiel and Isaiah were forced to grapple with the meaning of these terrible experiences. Have the chosen people lost favor with God? Why did this happen? What more is to come?

The words of the prophets at first were severe. God did not abandon His people--He and His law were abandoned instead, and the political upheavals flowed from human, not divine, waywardness. The desolation of exile, intended by the victors to destroy the Jewish culture, was used by God as a chastisement.

But then there were more consoling words--promises of a “suffering servant,” a redeemer, heralding future and everlasting joy. From the stump of Jesse, a savior shall spring. From defeat, victory.

With an odd combination of dread and solace, such reflections on exile accompanied me in the days and hours leading up to, and following, the marriage vote in the Massachusetts Legislature.

On June 14, the constitutional convention opened, the yeas and nays were called quickly, and the proposal to define marriage as the union of man and woman went down by a total of 45 in favor to 151 against. Five votes shy of the required 50 votes and now there, in my soul, is utter sadness. The marriage amendment is dead, despite the petitions of over 170,000 citizens.

In the days that followed, there appeared little stirring within the circles I traveled. No mention of the vote at church, no huge outcry in the streets, no lamentation and mourning beyond small groups of committed souls here or there.

On occasion during this period, thoughts about exile kept arising. It appears to me that those in Massachusetts who defend marriage as the union of man and woman and oppose its redefinition as just a relationship between “two adults” now live as cultural exiles in occupied territory.

After the vote, the Church in Massachusetts, more particularly the Catholic Church, was left with just as much political influence--none--as, say, the Amish, with one important difference: No one hates the Amish.

Whether through indifference, fear or a desire to accommodate political correctness, more than half of the Catholic parishes in the Commonwealth could not be so bold as to even publish a bulletin blurb urging parishioners to action before the vote. In all too many cases, pastoral leaders did not lead.

In a political loss, however, no one is exempt from complaint. I could have done more, and so judgment cannot be selective. All should remember, however, that the marriage vote in the Legislature was a matter bigger than any individual, organization, or even this particular debate. A culture battle has been raging for a long time, and the negative outcome on Flag Day is only the latest flowering of a deeply rooted attack on spiritual and moral values. There can be no illusion about the severity of the exile we now face.

Yet the sting of failure should not cause good works to be overlooked. The 45 legislators who hung true in the face of unprecedented political pressure exhibited uncommon courage. Those citizens who called their legislators in favor of the marriage amendment, sometimes repeatedly, and who urged their family and friends to do the same, showed conviction and resolve.

Still, the loss hurts, especially when the fate of our children and successive generations is held in account. In the overall picture of woe, where is the promise, the consolation, the victory?

During the Assyrian and Babylonian exiles, the Jewish leaders faced the prospect of losing all that was distinctive about their community, their history, and their faith. The tumultuous times forced them to go back to their religious roots. Oral stories and sacred manuscripts were compiled, creating a permanent record of teaching, inspiration and divine law unique to Jewish identity, now called the Pentateuch or Torah. Everything from creation to devastation was reinterpreted in the light of God’s revelation. This process of remembering strengthened the people, and renewed their faith.

The disastrous vote on June 14, if it forces the Catholic Church in Massachusetts to address its inability to form minds and change hearts on crucial social issues, then will not be a complete loss. Deep and earnest reflection is needed to shape the stories and craft the lessons that again will inspire acceptance of Church teaching in such matters as the meaning of marriage and the dignity of human life. Here then lies the redeeming silver in such dark times as these. Are we fit for the challenge?

Daniel Avila is the Associate Director for Policy & Research of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference.