Guest commentary by Timothy Palmer Curl
It was a surprising choice — a Roman Catholic cardinal preaching to one of the nation’s largest Presbyterian congregations on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.
Yet there he was on that Sunday, his cardinal’s regalia topped by the red biretta, Timothy Cardinal Dolan, the archbishop of New York, commanding the pulpit and winning the day at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church.
He had us from his opener. (You can hear the full sermon here.)
“Happy anniversary,” he said. “It’s been 500 years since Martin Luther hammered his call to debate on that door. You don’t look bad for 500 years of age! Thanks for inviting me to your party.”
For the next 15 minutes, Dolan was jovial, playful, thoughtful and deeply appreciative of what he recognized as “a historic invitation” to address his neighbors from five blocks north on Fifth Avenue.
After half a millennium of schism, it was a day to put aside differences in favor of cooperation, a day to applaud the first appearance of the Catholic archbishop in a pulpit that has hosted guest preachers from a host of other mainline denominations.
In the moment, I was as won over as any of the thousand or more who filled the sanctuary that Sunday morning. Now I’m struggling with mixed feelings about it all.
I was baptized and raised a Roman Catholic. I am also a gay man, married in the eyes of the law and, as my faith would have it, in the eyes of God. I left the Catholic Church when I came out more than 30 years ago, and in that time the Catholic Church has shown me nothing that might win me back.
As I helped prepare for Cardinal Dolan’s visit, I read up on the man. The internet reminded me that Cardinal Dolan was among the signatories of the Manhattan Declaration, which, among other things, encouraged religious conservatives to defy laws permitting same-sex marriage in defenses of “religious freedom” (theirs, not mine).
With his signature, Cardinal Dolan kept company with the likes of Tony Perkins, Albert Mohler and James Dobson. Were these men to have their way (and they still might), men and women like me would stand outside the law and beyond the blessings of the church. I thought about this when the cardinal walked into our church and shook my hand.
For the cover of our Reformation Sunday bulletin, Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church’s senior pastor Scott Black Johnston chose an icon of St. Peter and St. Andrew in full embrace – Peter, the head of the Roman Church, and Andrew the head of the Eastern Orthodox Church. The ecumenical patriarch Athenagoras presented the icon to Pope Paul VI in 1964 to commemorate their historic meeting. Johnston went on to note that Scottish Christians adopted Andrew as their patron in 1320, and even after the Reformation, “everywhere that you find Presbyterians — in South Korea and Brazil, in Kenya and in California — you will find St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Churches.”
In introducing the cardinal, Johnston reflected on Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane as he made the case for Christian unity.
“At the heart of this prayer,” Johnston said, “Jesus prays that the Father would make all of his followers ‘one.’ Jesus keeps repeating this petition. ‘Make them one,’ Christ pleads. ‘Unite them in their love for each other.’ Curiously, Christ does not ask God to unify the disciples around their beliefs. He asks God to unite us in love — in caring for each other and for the world. This is the bond we see in Peter and Andrew. This is, hopefully, what we are about today.”
For his part, Cardinal Dolan portrayed Catholics and Protestants as partners in reformation, placing Luther in a historical line of reformers stretching from the first Pope Benedict to Erasmus to Dorothy Day.
“Thus today do all of us toast the reformation of Martin Luther as that chapter of renewal that sparked both the Protestant and the Catholic Reformation,” he said. Reformation “hardly began 500 years ago, it continues now, but it will never, I fear, be completed.”
To underscore the point, the cardinal said that shortly after St. Patrick’s completed a multiyear restoration in 2016 a parishioner suggested that the cathedral keep the scaffolding up as a symbol that the church is always in need of improvement.
Cardinal Dolan laughed off the idea as far too expensive in a market like Manhattan. “It’s not like we could sell indulgences to pay for it. We Catholics had to go from indulgences to bingo, thanks to Martin Luther,” he said, in one of his best lines of the morning.
I played a minor role myself in emphasizing this message of cooperation for the greater good. Moderating a panel discussion earlier that morning (our pastors reflected on the meaning of reformation in the modern church), I picked up on the some of the surprised responses to our Facebook announcement of Cardinal Dolan’s visit.
“DOLAN?!?” one commenter said. Another asked, “What does FAPC teach about women’s health and same-gender marriage?” Embedded in the question, I believe, was the suggestion that if our church didn’t agree with the cardinal on those two issues, how could we invite him as a guest in our home?
During my seven years at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, the church has not taken a stand on reproductive choice. But in 2014, the session (with the senior pastor’s support) endorsed the marriage equality resolution that passed the General Assembly later that year. Many members here still remember Johnston’s sermon, “Is same-sex marriage Christian marriage” (answer: yes, it can be) as one of the prouder moments in our history. But rather than playing up that specific theological divide, I pivoted to a collaboration among St. Patrick’s, Saint Thomas Episcopal and Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church that the church is every bit as proud of.
In June, the three congregations pooled their resources to support a full-time social worker, John Sheehan, to do outreach with persons in midtown Manhattan who are experiencing homelessness. Just about every day, St. Patrick’s and Saint Thomas refer men and women to our church so that Sheehan can provide food, clothing and referrals to social services. The cardinal himself referred a woman he found sleeping on the steps outside his residence.
“If we let one issue keep us apart,” I remember saying during the panel event, “we would never have come together on another issue that is just as important.”
I believed those words when I spoke them. I believe them now. But I also wonder: Am I selling myself out?
Putting differences aside sounds noble and fine until it’s your life in the gap. I wonder how many others in our faith community find themselves in the marriage gap, or the “women’s health” gap, or the women’s ordination gap, for that matter. (I was proud that Johnston placed our two female associates on either side of Cardinal Dolan in the chancel that Sunday.)
After the panel discussion, a visitor approached me. She had come to hear the cardinal on this historic Sunday. “I want you to have this,” she said to me, and she handed me three typed pages titled “What the Bible says about homosexuality.” And there they were, the seven “clobber passages,” from Leviticus 18:22 through Jude 1:7.
I thanked her and put the pages in my suit pocket. Ninety minutes later, as I rose with the congregation to applaud Cardinal Dolan, those pages were resting against my heart. A few rows behind me, Sheehan stood applauding, too.
The cardinal ended his sermon with a pointed message to each of us gathered there. “Luther, like Jesus, knew of another object of reform far more urgent, far more compelling, without which neither the church nor the world could ever be renewed,” he said. “That is the reform of myself — personal conversion. To reform ourselves — that’s where Jesus began, that’s where Luther started, this is the most compelling call to reformation of all.”
A visiting Catholic joked with me after the service. “Did he convert you?” he asked. “I don’t think so,” I said. “Maybe we converted him.” Jesus wouldn’t care one way or the other. Reflecting again on Johnston’s message, Jesus doesn’t expect us to be of one mind, but of one heart.
So Timothy Cardinal Dolan walked into our church and extended his hand. I took it. Jesus, you take it from here.
Timothy Palmer Curl is director of communications and development at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City.