In a recent column Margaret Renkl, a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times, announced that she, a cradle Catholic, has finally left the Church (“The Meaning of Lent to This Unchurched Christian”). She loved her parish, but evidently that was not enough to keep her tethered to the larger Church. Instead of attending Mass, she’ll make do spiritually with “a walk in the woods alone.” Renkl, a native Southerner and long-time Nashville resident, often writes about nature, but has occasionally vented her frustrations with the “institutional Church” and Catholicism’s teachings on sexual morality. She finds nature more uplifting, more in communion with the transcendent, than the faith of her youth. The Church’s refusal to ordain women she regards as a kind of original sin. Besides, her “conception of the divine had enlarged beyond any church’s ability to define or contain it.” Personally, I think the Incarnation is about as “beyond” as it gets.
Renkl’s frequent pantheistic reveries in the Times remind me of Chesterton’s warning that “Nature-worship is more morally dangerous than the most vulgar man-worship of the cities; since it can easily be perverted into the worship of an impersonal mystery, carelessness, or cruelty.” Renkl, her husband, and two sons were on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court building when the decision legalizing same-sex marriage was announced (“How to Defy the Catholic Church”). “Love had actually won,” she wrote of the decision. She went on to denounce the archbishop of Indianapolis for insisting on the dismissal of a teacher for entering into a same-sex marriage. The bishop’s action was nothing more than a “witch hunt” and “breathtaking” hypocrisy. Consistency, Renkl argued, would require the dismissal of teachers who use birth control or who divorce and remarry without an annulment. But those other violations of Church teaching, whatever one thinks of them, are usually less public and therefore less confrontational than the act of entering into a same-sex marriage. You don’t have to agree with the bishop to recognize his quandary. How is one to make sense of Catholicism’s traditional anthropology and sexual ethics if marriage, long solemnized as an act performed by “a man and a woman” before God, is no longer defined by such God-given identities? Even Andrew Sullivan, someone who was instrumental in bringing about “marriage equality,” concedes that the Church probably cannot coherently take such a step. To be sure, there are plenty of Catholic theologians who think otherwise, but that debate has only just begun.