Quite often, church officials, when told by parishioners about something that is not in-line with ecclesial norms (even if they agree with it), will say: “Please, don’t tell me…” The issue might center around what they’ve chosen to do with the ashes of a spouse or loved one, that their child is cohabitating with a dating partner, that they attended a gay marriage ceremony, that they consulted a psychic or medium, that yoga is their most meaningful encounter with God, or any number of things which the church frowns upon.
The church has a reputation for burying its head in the sand because its ancient teachings don’t readily adjust to a fast-paced world and its moral code has trouble bending to situations that call for different cultural ethics. Catholicism changes slowly and only reluctantly accepts new ways of thinking. For example, the church holds that self-mutilation is wrong (an objectively moral evil). Objective moral standards are important; like a compass, they direct us. Most would agree that self-mutilation through acts such as cutting, overdosing, or inflicting wounds is bad, even wrong. But most would disagree with the church that getting tattoos, body piercings, or plastic surgery is also evil or wrong. We start with an objective standard so that we can better navigate through the personal situation at hand. “Thou shalt not kill” is a clear objective standard but, in war, self-defense, or defense of others, when it comes down to your life or the assailant’s, killing is not always wrong or evil; it may even be heroic.
Ashes of loved ones are to be treated like a deceased body and buried in a sacred place; that is the objective moral standard given to us by the church. But many people hold on to the cremains, perhaps so that they can be buried with the spouse or buried at the person’s favorite earthly spot. When people reveal this to their priest, he will often say: “Please, don’t tell me.” This is certainly an understandable reaction—even if he empathizes with the act—because it goes against institutional policy. But it is also a reaction that feeds into the church’s tendency not to deal with matters in open, honest, loving ways that can lead us to become a healthier, holier, church. In former decades when parents or church members heard stories about deviant priests, they would also say: “Please, don’t tell me…” Even if they suspected the aberrant behavior, they didn’t want to face it or discuss it. Putting our heads in the sand contributed to horrendous criminal, perverse, and scandalous dysfunctions that crippled the church like nothing else in our lifetime.
The church would function better, I think, if we didn’t shy away from controversial topics or ecclesial directives that separate hierarchy from common people who love the church and want its success and faithfulness while also wanting it to broaden its policies. The objective standard of morality is a good starting place that can help us discuss, debate, and discern difficult issues. Let’s not condemn parents who have a wrist or ankle tattoo that reminds them of their deceased child, parishioners who find God’s grace through yoga, children that bury their mother’s ashes in a sacred place on the family farm, those that seek nontraditional or unconventional means to understanding God or the mysteries of life, or many other church members who don’t align with every current pious standard. If, instead of saying, “Please, don’t tell me…” we said, “Tell me more…” we might become a stronger community of faith that both honors tradition and honors people in our modern times.