Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Compassion and its role in Spirituality and Justice.

On Monday evening I was invited to attend a meeting of a men’s group at a local Church. This Lent the parish is focusing on the theme of “Compassion.” A panel consisting of accomplished attorneys, financiers, a CEO, a university professor and, an MBA all explained the role that compassion had played in their professional and personal journeys.

After the presentation, the panel fielded questions from the audience. An elderly gentleman raised his hand and asked, “What is the role of compassion in the case of this Sergeant, now held in Fort Leavenworth, for the massacre of sixteen people in Afghanistan?” I sensed that the questioner was prompted not out of a spirit of contrariness; but rather, out of a genuine sense of both frustration and just anger. The moderator answered the man by quoting a passage from the Gospel of Matthew,

“If you forgive the faults of others, your heavenly father will forgive you yours. If you do not forgive others, neither will your father forgive you.” [Matthew 6: 14-15]

Several thoughts flooded my mind. Compassion is a word that comes to us from the Latin language. Literally translated from the Latin, compassion means, “to stand with [someone].” In this sense, compassion is not about “being nice,” compassion is an intellectual and emotional process actively engaged in by a person. Compassion means putting myself intellectually and emotionally in the skin of a person who is suffering.

In the case posited by the questioner, this exercise would entail trying to intellectually comprehend what it means to have lost a loved family member to an evil act of violence. What it means to be a widow in Afghanistan today. I thought of the questions that a widow and mother would contemplate in this scenario. How will I feed and take care of my children? What will happen to our home? Where/with whom will we live? How do I help my children make sense of this, how can I comfort them? What will happen to me? How will I manage, where will I find the strength and means to move forward? Then there is the wife of the Sergeant in Leavenworth and the questions/difficulties she faces.

The importance of compassion is that it is both an intellectual and emotional process, whereby we move beyond ourselves and view reality through the eyes of another person. This has the practical effect of requiring me to consider things from a new perspective, from the perspective of another person.

The danger with the answer from the Gospel given to the questioner is that it can become a forced response. I MUST forgive everyone always. No, you do not. In fact, in the particular case cited, even the widows and orphans of the victims can only offer partial forgiveness, they can only forgive the offender for the hurt he has caused them personally. The deceased cannot voice their forgiveness, or voice their refusal to forgive in this life. The offender would always be left with that question, assuming that he posses/developed the sensitivity of conscience to ask that question.

The other danger with that answer is that it can easily lead to a “contract religion.” Incidentally this is the appeal of religious fundamentalism (literalism), I do “X” and God must therefore, do (give me) “Y.” This is nothing more than an attempt to manipulate God. If you happen to believe in a Supreme Being, such an attempt is simultaneously a delusion and a blasphemy.

The nobility of the sentiments expressed in Matthew, are that they represent a spiritual ideal. This ideal is also beautifully expressed by Shakespeare in The Merchant of Venice, wherein the qualities of mercy are listed; as well as how mercy heals both the offended and the offender. However, mercy is not automatic and should never be presumed.

The following morning, I read an open letter to Cardinal Dolan by Carl Siciliano. Carl is the director of the Ali Forney Center, the nation’s largest organization dedicated to homeless LGBT youth. What Carl has done in his letter to the Cardinal, is to invite Cardinal Dolan to engage in this exercise of practical compassion vis-à-vis LGBT youth. Carl is asking Dolan to place himself inside the skin of a young LGBT person and to view reality through his/her eyes. I invite you to read both the article and the comments that follow below.

Many readers commented that Carl's letter is an exercise in futility, that Cardinal Dolan is so entrenched in his polemics and his personal end game, that these youth would at best merely be seen as unfortunate, but necessary, collateral damage. Perhaps, but Cardinal Dolan’s strength and position do not come from his titles, wardrobe, or connections in the Vatican. Ultimately, they come from the type of people whose donations built Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. Simple Catholics.

The brilliance and the power of Carl Siciliano’s open letter, is that it appeals to what authentic religion/spirituality is intended to be. Its real purpose and power is about honest compassion, putting oneself in another person’s shoes and seeing reality through their eyes. This leads to becoming a voice for the voiceless, seeking real justice, and extending practical charity.

Holding those in positions of high religious office/authority to the spiritual standards that they call others to will either move them to a higher level of compassion, or it will reveal the emptiness of their claims to spiritual authority.


Frank said...

Carl Siciliano's letter was, in my opinion, too nice and polite.

I have about zero faith in church leaders ability to show true compassion for LGBT persons, children or adults.

Father Geoff said...

Dear Frank,

I think the value of Carl Siciliano’s letter is to backlight the reality you allude to with compassion, which is a hallmark of authentic spirituality. His decision to write with civility does credit to our cause and appeals to people of movable middle. More importantly, it helps move them towards pro-equality thinking.

There do exist some church leaders that posses positive qualities. Bishop Geoffrey Robinson of Australia is the author of “Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church.” In that book Robinson explains how the late John Paul II was guilty of a serious sin of omission when, as pope, he failed to discipline bishops and superiors who failed to prioritize the protection of children over institutional reputation and material assets.

Robinson lays out several concrete suggestions for practical reforms of the Catholic Church. Due to his clarity and honesty Robinson was banned from speaking in various Dioceses in the United States, including a ban from cardinal Mahony in Los Angeles. Of course, these “bans” only serve to illustrate the delusional narcissism of these bishops who mistake contemporary America with 13th century Europe.

Had Robinson’s reforms been instituted, many victims would have been spared much suffering; the church would be far healthier and held in greater public esteem.

While I empathize with your frustration and appreciate that your anger is just, I think Carl Siciliano’s approach is inspired.

Anonymous said...

The spirit is so much moving with you
Fr. Geoff and you are doing so much a needed work that so many gay clergy everywhere wish they were free to do. I see a soulmate in you and you give me courage to stand up for how I have been created. Only the Passion of Christ could be inspiring and sustaining you. You are in my prayers.


Joe said...

Father Geoff,

Cardinal Dolan has responded to Carl Siciliano's letter:

Your thoughts?

Father Geoff said...

Dear Joe,

I read both Timothy Dolan’s response and Carl Siciliano’s reply (cf. hyperlink).

My initial reaction was to the very first sentence of Dolan’s letter, “Your letter of March 20, 2012, together with enclosure has been received.” Had Carl Siciliano written his letter to one of the Vatican Curial [bureaucratic] Offices, that sentence would have been the entire text of the response.

I believe that Carl Siciliano’s reply to Dolan’s letter is eloquent and presents a spiritual challenge to Dolan’s intransigence. For a more detailed analysis of the theological schizophrenia posited by “the clear teachings of the Church” on these (and other questions); I would refer you to the writings of Bishop Geoffrey Robinson.

As you meditate on the Good Friday Scripture passages, recall that it was high ranking religious authorities who set spiritual principle aside and played politics to secure their status and power.

Mareczku said...

Thank you so much for sharing this. I also was very touched by Carl Siciliano's eloquent letter. I was horrified by Cardinal Dolan's cold response. (Perhaps someone else wrote it for him.) Instead of expressing sympathy for homeless youth and offering his support by visiting them and telling parents to support and not reject his children, Cardinal Dolan seemed to be mainly concerned with being criticized. The lack of compassion was stunning to me.