Crude ideas are not the same thing as a “marketing failure”

Catholic high school students protest the dismissal of a popular gay vice-principal near Seattle

Catholic high school students protest the dismissal of a popular gay vice-principal near Seattle

In widely reported remarks broadcast December 1 on Meet the Press, Cardinal Timothy Dolan explained why the Catholic Church’s opposition to marriage equality has become marginalized this way: “Well, I think maybe we’ve been out-marketed, sometimes. We’ve been caricatured as being anti-gay.

It was easy to ridicule the Cardinal’s use of the term “caricatured” due to the abundance of actual words uttered by church leaders denigrating LGBT people, words that were not put in their mouths by others. His real point, though, was that the church hasn’t yet figured out how to make the denigration pretty and shiny enough to make people want to buy it.

Now an editorial in the Catholic Reporter has responded to the interview, specifically the Cardinal’s regret over the “marketing failure.”

The cardinal, who lives on Madison Avenue, is within walking distance of some of the best marketers the world has ever known. If he looked to them for advice, they might suggest he begin with a focus group.

In a sense, the church has in its questionnaire preparing for the Synod of Bishops on the family a focus group study underway right now. If Catholics honestly answer these questions and bishops’ staffers honestly report their answers, church officials might just learn — among other things — why most Catholics aren’t “buying” the notion that their gay children, parents and friends are “intrinsically disordered” or suffer from a “condition.”

Note that in the interview (full transcript appended below), the Cardinal cites shifts in public opinion specifically about abortion to claim that the Church’s marginalization on sexual diversity can be reversed. What he most definitely does not cite is Catholic opinion on contraception, divorce and remarriage.

As the Catholic Reporter points out, church doctrine on these matters is so widely ignored by the faithful that one wonders if it even comes up in conversation. And the reason for this is precisely the same one that has rendered church teaching on “homosexuality” increasingly irrelevent: it is contradicted by lived experience. The editorial continues:

The church’s teaching on sexuality is unpersuasive because the church advances teachings that actually reduce human sexuality and sexual activity to its most banal, utilitarian and mechanistic level, detaching it from the deepest possibilities of genuine human intimacy.

Exactly. And this teaching takes its crudest form when “marriage” is reduced to a sex act, whether it’s a “natural law” academic coining painfully euphemistic terms like “a specific kind of bodily union,” or a Dick Black telling us far too much about his personal sexual feelings by describing polygamy as seeming “more natural” to him (and similarly, the “Duck Dynasty” guy and his almost child-like subjectivity about the appeal of “a vagina”).

Anyone who has experienced an actual marriage knows perfectly well that marriage is not reducible to that. And when people are exposed to the lived experience of others who are wired differently from themselves, and they are neither too incurious nor too insecure to hear what those others have to say, mere doctrine becomes a meaningless anachronism. Marketing can’t fix that.

This is what happened at Eastside Catholic High School, where there is an ongoing student protest over the dismissal of a popular vice-principal who married his male partner. Yesterday’s walk-out involved most of the student body chanting “Change the church.” They know perfectly well that their vice-principal’s marriage isn’t reducible to a sex act, either.

And of course it’s what also happens when people have children. The Catholic Reporter again:

[Rejection of church doctrine] is quickly coming true on the topic of homosexuality, because among Catholic parents who know their children as all manner of things — curious, funny, loving, mischievous, talented, gracious, annoying, musical, athletic — all the things that parents revel in and come to love, some are also coming to know their children as gay. Thank God that today most parents are not cowering before a catechism characterization of their children and sending them off in a panic to a Courage meeting to be remade into something more acceptable.

We dare suggest that some of the Catholic faithful, particularly the family and friends of gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender persons, might be a bit further down the road in loving as God would have us love, that they might understand Pope Francis’ teaching about encounter to a greater degree than many of us.

The church (AKA the people) is changing, and old doctrines based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the human condition will ultimately follow it.

(BEGIN TAPE)
DAVID GREGORY:
Your Eminence, welcome to Meet the Press.

CARDINAL TIMOTHY DOLAN:
Thank you, David. Good to be with you.

DAVID GREGORY:
And happy holidays.

CARDINAL TIMOTHY DOLAN:
Blessed Thanksgiving. You bet.

DAVID GREGORY:
Thank you very much. Lots to talk about, I want to talk about faith. Talk about some politics. But let’s start with the church.

CARDINAL TIMOTHY DOLAN:
You’re on.

DAVID GREGORY:
And what a remarkable year it’s been with Pope Francis and the Pope France effect. His humanity is something that’s touched people the world over, not just Catholics, and has made him an Internet sensation among other things. How do you describe this Francis effect on the church and as I say on humanity more broadly?

CARDINAL TIMOTHY DOLAN:
Well, all I know David, is I thank God for it. That’s for sure. And I see it every day. I can’t walk down the streets of New York, which I do a lot, without people stopping me. And they’ll say, “Cardinal, I’m not even a Catholic, I’m not even a believer. But I love Pope Francis, and thanks a lot for voting for him.”
Because they love him. You put your finger on it I think when you spoke about the humanity. His simplicity, his sincerity, his genuineness, his humility. We as Catholics believe God came to us through the person, through the humanity of his son Jesus. And I think Jesus’ coming to us as Catholics, and again to the world through the humanity, the simplicity, the sincerity, of Pope Francis.

DAVID GREGORY:
He’s not making any doctrinal changes.

CARDINAL TIMOTHY DOLAN:
Nope. Uh-uh (NEGATIVE).

DAVID GREGORY:
Church doctrine remains the same. By have described it as a change of tone.

CARDINAL TIMOTHY DOLAN:
I would say a change of tone, a change of strategy. Right, a pope by his nature can’t make doctrinal changes. In fact, his sacred responsibility is to protect the integrity of the faith and to pass it on. He can make a lot of changes in the way, the style, the manner in which it’s presented. You know the best analogy of that? John XXIII, who by the way, the Italians are saying Pope Francis reminds them of John XXIII. He was the pope from ’58 to ’63. He said, “Look, we’ve got the gift of faith. That gift can’t change. But it can sure be gift wrapped in a better way to make it more appealing, to make it more radiant.

DAVID GREGORY:
Does it get more confusing though if you do that?

CARDINAL TIMOTHY DOLAN:
It could. But I think one of the appeals of Francis is he said, “We can’t be afraid to take some risks. We’ve got to dare. If we’re just timid, if we’re afraid, if we’re sticking in the sacristy and afraid to go out and engage people and meet people and take some chances in presenting the faith, we’re going to shrivel up and die.”

DAVID GREGORY:
But he said, “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage, and the use of contraceptive methods.” He talked about there being too much obsession within the church about talking about those issues. You have said there’s nobody to the right of you on some of these doctrinal issues. Is that a problem for you, that he believes that?

CARDINAL TIMOTHY DOLAN:
That he would say that?

DAVID GREGORY:
Yeah, that he says that?

CARDINAL TIMOTHY DOLAN:
No, not at all. I gave him a standing ovation when he said that. Because most of the time I say, “I don’t know if it’s so much the church is obsessed with that, it’s the world that’s obsessed with those things.” They’re always asking us about it. I look at myself, David, in my almost 37 years as a priest, rare would be the times that I preached about those issues.
So Francis is right. He’s saying, “First things first. First let’s talk about God, about his mercy, about his love, about his forgiveness, about his invitation, about his embrace, about his promise of life eternal through his son Jesus. You talk about that, and then morals, doctrine, that will fall into place.”

DAVID GREGORY:
But some of the moral debates, this is where there are debates. This is where there is tension.

CARDINAL TIMOTHY DOLAN:
Sure.

DAVID GREGORY:
What is the natural evolution of a change in tone, a change in the packaging of this pope to actual change in church policy on some of these matters?

CARDINAL TIMOTHY DOLAN:
Yeah, I don’t know if that’s too new, though. You know, I would say since the time of Jesus Christ, there’s always been tension, difficulty, conflict in the application of the teaching. I mean, I look at my Jewish neighbors, they have the Torah. Now there’s the law pretty clear. The application is always going to bring some debate and conversation.
We Catholics, we Christians had the eight beatitudes. We got the Sermon on the Mount. The application, that’s where the rubber hits the road. That’s where there’s always going to be some conversation and a little bit of disagreement.

DAVID GREGORY:
So what is his effect on American politics, for instance, on some of these issues, be it abortion or gay marriage? What is the impact?

CARDINAL TIMOTHY DOLAN:
On politicians or on Catholics here?

DAVID GREGORY:
Well, on the public debates, on the political debates in this country around these issues?

CARDINAL TIMOTHY DOLAN:
Well, I would tell you this, for us as I would say for committed Catholics, and thanks be to God, there’s a lot of them, I love them, I’m grateful for them this Thanksgiving weekend, they would say what Pope Francis has done is reminded us of the latitude of Catholic beliefs and Catholic principles. Those who would try to closet us maybe and just what you might call below-the-belt issues, where that be gay marriage or abortion or contraception or divorce, whatever.
And those are important. No doubt about it. The church’s teaching on that is unwavering. But that’s not it. What Pope Francis has said, the way we forgive, the way we help the poor, the way we help the immigrant, the way we reach out to the sick and to the refugee and to the forgotten, those at the side of the road. That is as strong and as cogent a moral imperative as anything else.

DAVID GREGORY:
All right. So let’s talk about a couple of those moral imperatives.

CARDINAL TIMOTHY DOLAN:
Sure.

DAVID GREGORY:
What about ObamaCare? You have voiced your displeasure with certain aspects of it in terms of mandates for hospitals and so forth. What about the overall goal of it? Do you think it will ultimately prevail? Would you like it? Do you think it’s important for the country that universal health care insurance is available?

CARDINAL TIMOTHY DOLAN:
Yup. And I’m glad you allow me to make that distinction, David. We bishops have been really kind of in a tough place because we’re for universal, comprehensive, life-affirming healthcare. We, the bishops of the United States, can you believe it, in 1919 came out for more affordable, more comprehensive, more universal healthcare. That’s how far back we go in this battle, okay?
So we’re not Johnny-come-latelies. We’ve been asking for reform in healthcare for a long time. So we were kind of an early supporter in this. Where we started bristling and saying, “Uh-oh, first of all this isn’t comprehensive, because it’s excluding the undocumented immigrant and it’s excluding the unborn baby,” so we began to bristle at that.
And then secondly we said, “And wait a minute, we Catholics who are kind of among the pros when it comes to providing healthcare, do it because of our religious conviction, and because of the dictates of our conscience. And now we’re being asked to violate some of those.”
So that’s when we began to worry and draw back and say, “Mr. President, please, you’re really kind of pushing aside some of your greatest supporters here. We want to be with you, we want to be strong. And if you keep doing this, we’re not going to be able to be one of your cheerleaders.” And that sadly is what happened.

DAVID GREGORY:
Are you disappointed on another debate, on immigration, that it appears that Republicans in this case don’t see a pathway any longer toward getting this done?

CARDINAL TIMOTHY DOLAN:
I am. And immigration would be one of those issues that shows that those who tried to pigeonhole bishops, pastors, Catholics, are wrong. Because now we’re upset. On healthcare, we might be upset with the Democrats, with the administration. On immigration, we’re saying to the House of Representative, which is dominated by the Republicans, “You guys have got to get your act together.” And this is the best chance we’ve had in fair and just immigration reform. It’s in your lap and it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. And we’re not going to let you off the hook. So yeah, we’re disappointed there as well.

DAVID GREGORY:
Let me touch on gay marriage. Here this week you had Illinois becoming the 16th state, including D.C., to legalize same-sex marriage. Regardless of the church teachings, do you think this is evolving in such a way that it’s ultimately going to be legal everywhere? Or do you believe the opposite, that there will be a backlash and that it, well, the status quo will be maintained?

CARDINAL TIMOTHY DOLAN:
I think I’d be a Pollyanna to say that there doesn’t seem to be kind of a stampede to do this. I regret that. I wish that were not the case for the states to be–
Advertise

DAVID GREGORY:
But why do you think the church is losing the argument on it, in effect?

CARDINAL TIMOTHY DOLAN:
Well, I think maybe we’ve been out-marketed, sometimes. We’ve been caricatured as being anti-gay. And as much as we’d say, “Wait a minute, we’re pro marriage, we’re pro traditional marriage, we’re not anti anybody,” I don’t know. When you have forces like Hollywood, when you have forces like politicians, when you have forces like some opinion-molders that are behind it, it’s a tough battle.
I do think to get back to your question though, David, you know, back in 1973 with Roe v. Wade, everybody said, “This is a foregone conclusion. In a couple years, this issue is going to go away. It’s going to be back-burnered.” To this day, it remains probably the most divisive issue in American politics. And as you look at some of the changing attitudes, you say, “Wow, we’re beginning to affect the young with the pro-life message. So we’re not going to give up on it.

DAVID GREGORY:
So you don’t think the gay marriage debate is over, a settled question?

CARDINAL TIMOTHY DOLAN:
I don’t think it’s over. No. I don’t think it is. Uh-uh (NEGATIVE).

DAVID GREGORY:
I want to conclude with this, because I think of Thanksgiving as I think of the holidays generally as a wonderful opportunity to separate from our lives and to think about gratitude. However, I don’t have to tell you how commercial these holidays become. And we think more about recipes for the holiday. So let me ask you, Your Imminence. What do you think is the right recipe, what’s your recipe for expressing gratitude that you’d like to share with people?

CARDINAL TIMOTHY DOLAN:
Sure. By the way, I’m not against recipes.

DAVID GREGORY:
Yes, no, neither am I.

CARDINAL TIMOTHY DOLAN:
I kind of like them myself. The right recipe is this. I think it comes down to humility, which is the key both for the people of the book. Jews and Christians would always say, “Humility is the key virtue,” in that when we recognize that without God we’re nothing. With God, everything is possible.
When we realize that everything we’ve got, every breath we take is an unmerited gift from a lavishly-loving God, that prompts us literally to fall to our knees and to say thank you. It also reminds us that we’re not the center of the universe. It’s not about me. It’s about Him and it’s about His people. That’s gratitude, that’s faith, that’s humility. That’s thanksgiving.

DAVID GREGORY:
And there could be a round table, as we laugh about it often, but there can be family pain and dysfunction.

CARDINAL TIMOTHY DOLAN:
There can. Uh-huh (AFFIRM).

DAVID GREGORY:
But it’s an opportunity again to separate and say, “Where’s my perspective in my life”?

CARDINAL TIMOTHY DOLAN:
Isn’t it a paradox, David, that every year, there’s pain at Thanksgiving? You think, “Oh my God, my family’s dysfunctional.” But you wouldn’t be anywhere else on Thanksgiving. You’re already looking forward to going back there. And that’s the beauty of family and community.

DAVID GREGORY:
Cardinal Dolan, thank you so much for your time.

CARDINAL TIMOTHY DOLAN:
Thank you, David. Good being with you.

DAVID GREGORY:
Appreciate it very much.

CARDINAL TIMOTHY DOLAN:
Happy Thanksgiving weekend.

DAVID GREGORY:
You too. Thank you.
(END TAPE)

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