In last week’s episode of the hit TV series Glee, the acerbic cheerleading instructor Sue Sylvester revealed to her Down Syndrome-afflicted sister that she stopped believing in God because of the way she, the sister, had been treated by people who saw her as “less than perfect.”
“You were perfect in my eyes,” Sylvester said.
“God doesn’t make mistakes. That’s what I believe,” the sister replied.
That wasn’t a bad answer, but a better one might have been, “I was perfect in God’s eyes, too.”
We live in an era where very few people with Down Syndrome are being welcomed into the world. Some studies suggest that perhaps 90 percent of extra-chromosome babies are aborted by parents fearful of both the challenges and societal “discomforts” that they and their babies will face.
We also live in an era where gay teenage boys and straight teenage girls commit suicide in alarming numbers due to rampant bullying. Bullies, either because they are deficient in recognizing their own God-created uniqueness, or too frightened to own it, inflict sheer hell upon the “others” around them—those vulnerable people who, for one reason or another, cannot easily reside in the increasingly brittle “norms” established within generations, cultures, neighborhoods, or even classrooms, and who cannot, or simply will not, hide their “otherness.”
The recent, tragic, suicides of eighteen-year-old Tyler Clementi and fifteen-year-old Phoebe Prince—both bullied beyond their endurance by contemporaries, both unable or unwilling to admit into their confidence an authoritative person who might have helped—have generated a great deal of ink about bullying and how to combat it. We hear that children must be more emphatically taught “tolerance and kindness,” and that awareness must be raised.
That’s all well and good, but it bears mentioning that this generation of teenagers has been raised on near-daily lessons in tolerance and “everyone is specialness” from their first Sesame Street episode to their Senior Proms; there is a disconnect, somewhere, between theory and practice, and that disconnect is a killer.
Part of the disconnect is a society-wide inability to walk that tolerance talk. Everyone pays lip-service to the Golden Rule, but it is easy to find an intolerant anti-Catholic bigot on Huffington Post, and MSNBC or an anti-secularist one on Free Republic.com or Fox News. Our decades-long grounding in Political Correctness allows anyone to proclaim their noble, “tolerant” instincts while huddled in insulated enclaves where the limits of their tolerance are made all too plain, extending only to the like-minded.
Children and young people are not stupid. If they encounter a teacher, or a preacher, talking love and acceptance in one breath and then bad-mouthing the impolitic “other” of their own prejudices (and they do) they will reject the talk, and find their own “other” to speak against, jeer at and hate.
Throughout history, the humanly-thus-imperfectly administered Catholic Church has made its share of errors—some deep and grievous—but in her savior and saints she has also been the institution most willing to take risks, and to suffer, in order to be the voice, the hands, the feet, the eyes, the ears, and the mouth of Christ, the only and True Tolerator, the man of sorrows, acquainted with grief and despised, the Necessary Other who gives dignity to every cast-aside, displaced, socially-unfit “other” in every age.
I wonder if the Church, currently led by a courageous man with a tender heart, will have to do something daring in order to save our imperfect “others” from being shredded in utero, save our vulnerable, sensitive “others” from destroying themselves, save our bullies from the confused fear that resides behind their vicious aggression.
I wonder if her bishops and religious leaders will, for example, have to acknowledge with loving support the numerous celibate homosexual priests who, throughout history and still today, serve her faithfully, courageously, and with great joy. Such an acknowledgment could go a long way repairing that disconnect that keeps everyone talking about tolerance while walking away from it.
It would speak to the value of the human person as he is created; it would reinforce the church’s own teaching that the homosexual inclination is not in-and-of-itself sinful; in a sex-saturated culture where “gay” has become in some minds synonymous with “promiscuous” and both heterosexual and homosexual couples see no particular value in chastity, it would present the radical counter-narrative.
Most importantly, such an acknowledgment would be call of olly-olly-oxen free for the church herself. Battered by the revelations of the past decade, poorly served by past psychological studies suggesting that child abusers could be “cured” and therefore distrustful of more recent findings that homosexuals are no more inclined to pedophilia than heterosexuals, the church has reflexively pulled the curtains over a number of her priests, and in doing so, she has hidden the idea of “acceptable otherness” from a flock that is sorely in need to see some of it.
It is a self-protective move—and given the way the church is portrayed in media, a somewhat understandable one—but in making it, the church is being dishonest. Worse, she is contradicting the message—the very consoling and urgently needed message—that we are created perfect in God’s eyes, and therefore must be acceptable to each other, no matter the extra-chromosome, or the physical imperfection, or the “other” way of feeling and looking and being.
A generation in turmoil needs to hear it. A church that survives by the grace of the Holy Spirit needs to breathe it.
Elizabeth Scalia is a contributing writer for First Things. She blogs at The Anchoress.