Is the Catholic Church a cage? The language of a recent New York Times article on the number of gay men in the Roman Catholic priesthood certainly implies that it is. The precise quotation comes from Father Bob Bussen, a priest in Utah: “Life in the closet is worse than scapegoating,” he said. “It is not a closet. It is a cage.”
While Bussen does not explicitly indict his church, the inference is clear: The Roman Catholic Church imprisons its priests because of its teaching on sexuality. The article has many problems, not least an assumption that sexuality equates to personal wholeness. There is also the intriguing question of how these men managed to volunteer for the priesthood without realizing that it would require them to abstain from all sexual activity. Were they perchance absent from the seminary class on the day of that lecture? But what fascinated me most was the choice of the word “cage.” It reveals that Christians today are not merely struggling with the question of whether gay sex is legitimate or not, or even of what role sexuality plays in the notion of personhood. At a deeper level, they are grappling with the question of exactly what the church’s purpose is.
As a Presbyterian, I carry no brief for Roman Catholicism, but I recognize in Father Bussen's complaint an attitude toward the church that is just as prevalent in Protestant circles: that the church exists for the sake of the people, and that her task is to serve as a giant therapist or, perhaps more pointedly, to provide a stage upon which people can perform.
The abiding—perhaps dominant—myth of this present age is that personal authenticity requires that I be able to perform for the world that which I feel I am inside. From Rousseau to Reich and beyond, this nonsense grips the popular imagination. If I am to be recognized as me, no thought can go unarticulated, no desire unrealized, no personal idiosyncrasy unexpressed. This is transforming the meaning and purpose of those institutions that have traditionally conducted and transmitted culture. No longer do institutions train us to belong to something bigger than ourselves. Rather they are there to support me in my acts of self-expression.
If I feel I am a woman, albeit trapped in a body of cells coded with XY chromosomes, then I must be allowed to perform in public as such. Medical professionals must aid me in this ambition. Scientists who demur from applauding my performance must be marginalized or expelled from the (formal or informal) guilds that give them status and authority. Schoolteachers who hinder my self-expression must be excoriated as abusive, bigoted, or incompetent. Medicine, education—you name it, it must now facilitate my performances.
This is where the modern mindset crashes into Christianity and the church. Christianity is not a religion of self-creation and the church is not an institution intended to provide a stage upon which I can perform in a safe and affirming environment. On the contrary—it is the conduit of God’s grace. It is not there to tell me that I am OK or to make me happy. It is there to assure me that in myself I am very much not OK, and to make me utterly miserable by confronting me with my dramatic shortcomings and need of a Savior. Only then can I find happiness—in God’s grace, not in the applause of an audience.
As I have noted before in First Things, I am with Luther and Newman in regarding Christianity as a dogmatic faith. And if the faith is dogmatic, then the purpose of the church is dogmatic too. She is not a therapist to reassure us of our intrinsic self-worth, nor a theater company giving us opportunities to publicly display who we think we are inside. She is, to use Presbyterian terms, a means of grace by which we (and all of the myths we like to tell about ourselves) are confronted and overturned by God.
Of course, it is easy for traditionalists of all stripes to look down on the Father Bussens of this world. How typical (we say) of the sexual revolutionaries, to want to make the church a therapeutic religion and performance venue. We thank you Lord, that we are not like other men. But the view of the church as performance opportunity is not limited to those on the theological left or in the LGBTQ community. Megachurch pastor James MacDonald's recent fall is a case in point: Can those who followed the story or those who saw him preach not see that performance was a central part of what he did? The need for public recognition was palpable. And when more and more evangelical scholars and pastors are caught in plagiarism scandals, can it not be argued that what drives such people is not so much the desire to promote the gospel as the need for public acclaim, the desire for recognition, the necessity of having their performances applauded by an audience?
The “cage” language rests upon a lethal misconception about the church and the faith. The Christian is truly free not because the church provides a safe space of personal affirmation, but because she offers new life in Christ, expressed in her dogmas. Those who think the church is a place of imprisonment because of her dogmas have tragically mistaken their own bondage for freedom. And those who appear to have the dogmas right but use them as props for their own theatrical performances are really no different.
Carl R. Trueman is a professor in the Alva J. Calderwood School of Arts and Letters at Grove City College, Pennsylvania.