Friday, February 27, 2009

Reconsidering the Holy Alliance: Reagan and John Paul II

Colleen Kochivar Baker has had two wonderful postings on her blog the past two days (here and here), which tie into the theme Brian began with his reply to me several days ago . Since my response to Brian (here) is framed as a dialogue with those reading this blog, I'm posting here some comments I have made to Colleen in reply to her postings--a continuation of the dialogue. Colleen notes at the end of her posting today that she's thinking through issues similar to those discussed in my response to Brian.

Here's my reply to Colleen,

Colleen, I read your postings yesterday and today. I want to provide a bit more background to why I brought up John Paul II and Reagan in my response to Brian. I have two primary reasons for bringing them into the discussion.

One is that, in my view, they are not manifestations of some kind of "natural" pendulum swing following Vatican II and the 1960s, to correct Vatican II and the sixties. They often get treated that way in the media, and I think this is because the right has succeeded in scripting the history that way, and in doing so, dominating our discourse about the decades following the 1960s. I think it's time to challenge the iconization of Reagan and John Paul II because their elevation to iconic status by the right is part of a bigger right-wing narrative that needs to be challenged if we're to move forward culturally and religiously.

The second reason I bring them up is to try to shine light on some of the fundamental ideas of that period that have now become normative in our discourse, and which are fundamentally wrong-headed. One of these that I keep harping on is the government-is-the-problem shtick of Reagan. I'm not convinced that Reagan ever really believed that. It was selective rhetoric on his part, to attack political ideas and movements he wanted to stop dead in their tracks. Reagan was perfectly willing to invoke government in the most heavy-handed way when it served his interests to do so.

John Paul II also had more faces than the one that appears in his iconic representation in our media, under the spell of the right. That iconic face stresses his battle against the state communism of the Eastern bloc nations, his defense of freedom of conscience against state repression, and so on.

Our media have also conveniently chosen to overlook that the principles John Paul II applies in his battle with state communism are principles he refused to accept in the life of the church itself, as well as in the church's relationship to cultures where his model for confronting Eastern bloc communism did not work. Rather than endorsing the central role of conscience within the church itself, or the kind of critique of dictatorship he encouraged in the Eastern bloc nations, John Paul II willingly repressed dissent in the church. He also refused to permit involvement of priests in political struggles in Latin America, while encouraging such involvement in Poland.

Our media have chosen to ignore, as well, John Paul II's critique of capitalism. His writings on political and economic issues balanced his critique of state communism with an equally stringent critique of our capitalist economic model. Insofar as he's been turned into a kind of religious counterpart of Reagan (and he has, in the iconic representation of the right), his complex, multi-faceted thought on political and economic issues has been distorted.

And where he richly deserves critique among those who claim to defend the right of conscience to come to informed judgment about complex issues, he is rarely critiqued. This is a testament, I believe, to the way in which the right has succeed in shaping our discourse about these two iconic figures, and also about all cultural, political, and religious developments in the latter half of the 20th century.

This dominant discourse of the right, which now masquerades as centrist, needs to be challenged if we're to move forward. The conversion of the political figures you and Brian have enumerated (and I keep wanting to add Erik Prince to the list) signals the continuing intent of powerful right-wing political and economic groups to use the Catholic church as a shelter as they keep trying to dominate the cultural and religious discourse of the 21st century.

And to his shame, Benedict is permitting this to happen, as witness his decision to bring the SSPX crowd into the fold. And he will continue to permit this to happen, unless Catholics who see the sell out to the right as a betrayal of our tradition insist that it is our church, too.

Collusion of the Catholic and Political Right: The Martino Story Continues

Again, I’m using this blog space today to respond to a comment from a reader—to Colleen’s extremely valuable observations re: what I posted yesterday in response to Brian (here). Colleen recounts a shift she has seen happening in the Catholic college she and her daughter attended.

She took courses in Vatican II that were intellectually demanding and required real thought and engagement. Her daughter took courses—same university, same professor—in moral theology in the period in which the restorationist agenda began to roll through American Catholic theology departments. She was able to pass the course while hardly attending class. The syllabus spelled out in detail what the professor would teach. When Colleen asked about the shift in his pedagogical style—from challenging students to think, respond, and critique, to spoon-feeding them with “truth”—he told her he was being monitored in class and lived in fear of being reported to the authorities for saying anything that transgressed the restorationist canon of truths.

This is a significant testimony. Part of what I hoped to do with yesterday’s posting is to capture a “moment” in American Catholic theology, in which a decisive shift took place. That moment is not so distant in time. It took place decisively in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It had everything to do with pressure from the current pope, Benedict, when he headed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith as Cardinal Ratzinger.

As head of the CDF, the current pope deliberately created within the academic life of Catholic universities a chill that began to affect how and what theologians thought, and how and what they wrote. This shift moved Catholic intellectual life away from a post-Vatican II engagement with contemporary society in which Catholic thinkers listen to and learn from secular disciplines as they offer Catholic insights, values, and teachings in a process of dialogic give and take. Now the model for Catholic intellectual life—and for theologians in particular—became one of receiving “truths” from on high and handing these down to anyone who cared to listen.

And that model was attended by severe punishments for those who sought to be faithful to the Vatican II model of dialogic engagement and respect for the wisdom of secular traditions, or even of non-Catholic Christian traditions and the contributions of other world religions.

Why focus on this shift? Because it needs to be remembered. History is written by the victors, and to a great extent, the restorationist agenda (and its right-wing political counterpart) has “won.” It has succeeded in determining the dominant discourse to such an extent that the center has moved decisively right. Now forward movement is permitted now without engaging the stop-gap arguments of those intent on standing astride history and shouting no. And by forcing us to bow to their "centrist" arguments as we try to move forward, they are effectively keeping us from the forward movement they intend to resist at all costs.

We have to struggle to remember the history from which we have just come, or we will never be able to move beyond the stalemates the religious and political right wish to produce in our imaginations and our discourse. We also have to know this history, to tell it in all its gory detail, because if we ever do budge from the stalemate position in which the right has deliberately placed us, we will not know how to budge, where to go, without understanding where we come from.

As the preceding notes suggest, the move against Vatican II—the move to the right, the deliberate dumbing down of Catholic intellectual life and the punishment of thinkers—was not merely a religious phenomenon. It was allied to and tied to a thrust within our political life and culture to stop critical reflection and force us into a right-leaning ideological conformity. It is part of a broader (and very deliberate) dumbing-down process in our culture at large, which is intended to cause us to reduce complex discussions to simplistic soundbytes, and to view iconic figures (e.g., Reagan and John Paul II) as heroic assurances of the virtue of the right-wing soundbytes we're being fed as gospel truth.

The watchdog groups monitoring what Catholic theologians teach and write today are hardly confined to the Catholic right. The political right has a keen interest in suppressing critical thought in Catholic life and a continuation of the project of Vatican II because the dialogical engagement with the world and with secular intellectual traditions has the possibility of retrieving the many critical strands in Catholic tradition that stand against neoconservative political and economic positions. The right does not want this to happen, and will not tolerate it happening.

I’m interested to hear Colleen’s testimony on the heels of the latest developments with Bishop Joseph Martino in Scranton. The phenomenon she describes at her alma mater—the monitoring of syllabi, the reporting to bishops and other authorities about any lapse in the “truths” taught in theology classes—is still going on. And I suspect that those involved in current movements to attack open theological discussion in Catholic universities are that same nasty nexus of right-wing Catholics and their well-funded, powerfully placed political allies who have been doing this monitoring for years now, a nexus that has attracted the kind of converts Brian notes in his comment on this blog’s posting several days ago—which I highlighted in yesterday’s posting.

Clerical Whispers is reporting today that Martino is seeking to force Misericordia to shut down its highly regarded and very successful Diversity Institute (here). Martino and the Scranton diocese are asking that the school report in very specific terms about what is taught in its theology courses, particularly in the area of morality. Martino and the diocese are demanding course titles, catalogue numbers, precise statements about content (i.e., syllabi), etc.

Now. Hand it over now. Convince me now that you are truly Catholic. When did you stop beating your wife? The menacing approach of those mounting this purge has already found Misericordia guilty as charged. The heads of the Sisters of Mercy who own the school are already on the metaphoric chopping block. Those engaged in this hunt for heretics and witches will have blood.

And they clearly include not merely the Catholic right, but highly placed members of the political right who are interested in seeing this contest take place as a proof of their continued ability to stir Catholic ire around hot-button issues like homosexuality—to keep Catholics voting “right.” Rick Santorum (remember him? the defeated Republican senator of Pennsylvania who loved to try linking homosexuality and bestiality?) weighed in yesterday on the editorial pages of the Philadelphia Inquirer (here).

His angle? Martino is the teacher who enforces. The enforcer who teaches. Mind-boggling analysis, if you stop to think about it, because it speaks volumes about the intent of the right to force people to accept the “truth,” and to use force against them if they do not accept the “truth” of the right. The word “enforce” says it all.

Teaching that compels, that demonstrates its persuasiveness by its arguments and its sound reasoning, does not have to use force. Only teaching whose arguments do not stand up to careful inspection needs to use force to make us swallow its “truths.” Begin teaching by force, and you are really admitting that you have lost the battle: your truths aren’t compelling. They aren’t true.

Google Martino’s name along with Misericordia, and you’ll see that the right-wing blogs are all over the Martino story. This has the smell of a witch-hunt mounted by some of those powerful right-wing political groups, with right-wing Catholic allies, mentioned by Brian in his posting several days ago. Their dirty fingers are all over this story, especially with the grossly insulting demand that Misericordia hand over—right now!—details about what it teaches in its theology courses.

As if what is taught in a curriculum could ever be reduced to what appears in a course listing or syllabus. As if what happens in the classroom itself, through dialogue and the collaborative search for truth, is not at the very heart of the educational process. As if Catholic values aren’t embedded throughout the curriculum of a Catholic university in ways that can never be boiled down to words in a syllabus. As if students don't learn values and moral insights primarily by who the teacher is rather than what she says—by the life he lives in their plain view rather than by the words he utters in class.

JudiPhilly notes something extremely important to this whole saga on her Truth, Justice & Peace blog today (here). As a Scranton native with strong ties to the Catholic community there (though she’s had enough of Catholicism), she has an inside track to news about Misericordia. She says that Martino did not once contact Misericordia or the Diversity Institute to discuss his concerns with them before releasing his statement calling for a witch hunt.

Instead, he went to the media. He issued a press release demanding that the Institute respond to him. This smells. To high heaven.

And I suspect he will get away with it. The speed with which this story is burning through the blogs of the right tells me this is orchestrated, as does Martino’s choice to lambast Misericordia in a press release without seeking to talk to the university in advance.

As I say, the right has won in both culture and church, insofar as it has succeeded in normalizing its far-right presuppositions as centrist presuppositions we all must engage now when we put together religious, cultural, political, or economic arguments. What is going on with Martino and the right, vis-à-vis the Diversity Institute at Misericordia, is muscle-flexing to show us the continued power of the political and religious right.

The target is well-chosen. Mark my words, they will find a way to make Misercordia suffer for its choice to invite an openly gay speaker to its Diversity Institute. This is a well-chosen tempest in a teapot, because the right knows it can almost always win, when the topic is engaging the reality of gay lives within the academic framework of Catholic universities. This punishment of Misericordia is being developed by the right as a symbolic demonstration that it continues to have power in Obama’s America, particularly when it comes to gay human beings and the Catholic church.

The only thing that will effectively halt such tragic diversionary wastes of time and energy by faith communities being used as tools of the political and economic right will be the choice of members of those who resist the right-wing cultural captivity of their churches to stand up, stand together, and insist that it is our church, too. And that the captivity to the political and economic right is betraying all that we stand for and believe in, and have stood for and believed in for centuries, with the best of our tradition.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

A Reader Writes: Did Vatican 2 Happen?

A very astute reader of this blog left a wonderful response to my posting yesterday about Bobby Jindal’s response to President Obama’s recent address to the nation (here). Two other astute readers have added valuable replies to that response.

I’ve been thinking all day about the points these readers are making. It strikes me that there’s something very important about the questions this thread is raising, and they deserve extended conversation. I do not have all the answers to the significant questions the reader who began this thread is asking.

So I’d like to offer this space as a space for further discussion of the reader’s response. My hope is that by doing this, I will open a conversation to which many voices contribute. My own perspectives here are limited and partial, and need other perspectives to complement them.

First, here’s what Brian has to say:

In the last decades of the 19th century and first decades of the 20th century, the Episcopalian Church (Anglicanism in the USA) grew by 300%. I read this stat in Nicholas Lemann's book, The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy.

Responding to the many waves of mostly non-Protestant, Eastern and Southern European immigration that America welcomed in the late 19th century, it seems that many white Americans were looking for some conservative, respectable institution with cultural gravitas that would serve as a redoubt for "American" values or, in a variation, "Anglo-Saxon Civilization". In this way, the ECUSA, which was known as "the Republican Party at prayer" back then, became the spiritual home for the Establishment.

My feeling is that throughout the 1990s and up until late, this phenomenon has been happening on a smaller scale in the Catholic Church in the US.

Let us consider some well known converts to Catholicism in the USA in recent years:

the late Richard John Neuhaus (not as recent, but deserves mentioning), Senator Sam Brownback, reporter Richard Novak, former Governor Jeb Bush (brother of you know who), conservative talk show host Laura Ingraham, Governor Bobby Jindal, Fox News Supply-Sider Lawrence Kudlow(!), one-time Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork, and the sleazy ex-literature professor Deal Hudson, now a full time GOP booster... oh and (drumroll please) this Easter 2009, Newt Gingrich will enter the Catholic Church.

Basically, they're all GOP activists and operatives who, other than opposing abortion, don't seem to espouse the Catholicism I was taught. I don't know much about Jeb Bush, but, well, he's got some baggage, let's just say that.

Most of these names are found within or around the Beltway in DC. I've read that one of the biggest sources of these right-wing conversions is the Opus Dei center in DC, where a priest named C. John McCloskey works. It seems to me that these converts have retained their authoritarian nature, apparently seeing nothing but good in throne-and-altar politics where people know their place. Oh, and they've expanded their "liberal bias in the media" agitprop to include "anti-Catholicism in liberal media/politics".

Is the Catholic Church in the USA to become the new "Republican Party at prayer"? On the bright side, there are too many people of other stripes already involved in the Church for it to become an establishment sect (fingers crossed).

Furthermore, it's unfortunate that bishops like Chaput, most prominently, are basically the personal chaplains for these new converts.

Is my analysis incorrect? I'm just wondering why all these right-wingers are deciding that the Catholic Church is the church for them. Did Vatican 2 happen at all?

In response, Carl notes the ties of beltway politicians and some of the right-wing Catholic groups named by Brian to money. And Colleen suggests that there’s a “sort of Trojan horse strategy” at work in the conversion of these neoconservative political figures to the Catholic church, as their former allies in the evangelical religious right go up in flames (many of them) in various scandals.

I think Brian and the respondents are onto something. And I think this phenomenon of right-wing political leaders crossing the Tiber deserves analysis.

Brian’s insights are powerful:

▪ “GOP activists and operatives who, other than opposing abortion, don't seem to espouse the Catholicism I was taught.”

▪ “Found within or around the Beltway in DC.”

▪ “Authoritarian nature, apparently seeing nothing but good in throne-and-altar politics where people know their place.”

▪ “Did Vatican 2 happen at all?”

Here are some initial points that strike me as I try to deal with the question Brian is raising here:

▪ With regard to progressive social movements, I shy away from the pendulum-swing explanation of history, in favor of action-reaction theories. As I’ve stated on this blog, in my view, the project of Vatican II has deliberately been stalled by strong reactionary forces within the church—and strong reactionary political groups have colluded with that reaction because they do not want the Catholic church to have a progressive face in social movements.

▪ What happened culturally with the 1960s was a moment of opening to a future that some powerful groups within our society (and in the churches) did not wish to entertain. In particular, there was exceptionally strong resistance within the churches to the emergence of women onto the stage of history as free agents and actors, rather than taken-for-granted decorative stage props reflecting the refulgent glory of preening heterosexual males (or males capable of convincing us that they are heterosexual).

▪ A counter movement occurred following the 1960s, in which the political and religious right cooperated to close the door to the future that had been opened in the 1960s.

▪ I have enormous respect for Bishop Geoffrey Robinson and his book Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church. One aspect of his analysis of Vatican II does not persuade me, however. He speaks of a pendulum movement in which reaction to Vatican II was necessary, in order to correct the out-of-control movement that had taken place in the church after Vatican II.

▪ I have a different memory of the period after Vatican II. The Catholic right have been adroit about developing a spurious discourse of outrageous liturgical violations and kooky cultural practices following Vatican II. I do not remember such developments—not anywhere to the degree to which they are “recreated” in the discourse of the Catholic right.

▪ What I observed was a deliberate throttling of the Council and its reforms, a deliberate murdering of the spirit of hope that the Council engendered in many Catholics, and an iron-fisted, draconian return to the fortress church in which those who did not like what was taking place were invited to leave the church.

▪ One anecdote to demonstrate the process I’m describing here: in the mid-1980s, I was invited to write an ethics textbook for a graduate program in lay ministry sponsored by a Catholic university. When I wrote the textbook, the director of the program told me he had sent the draft to bishops and theologians all over the nation, and had gotten glowing reviews (except from one theologian)—including from most bishops who had written in response.

▪ Several years later, as Ratzinger’s restorationist agenda emanating from the CDF with the blessing of John Paul II began to have a strong chilling effect on Catholic universities across the U.S., I received a request from the same lay ministry program (now under a new director) to re-write the ethics textbook. I was told that it no longer adequately reflected the consensus of the best Catholic moral theologians writing today. In particular, I was told to incorporate John Paul II’s writings as much as possible into my text, especially “Splendor of Truth.”

▪ I labored for months on the revision, receiving back letters of single-spaced critiques, page on page, from a Jesuit appointed to read and comment on the text as I composed it (there had been no such censor when I wrote the first edition). These focused almost exclusively on sexual ethics, and on homosexuality in particular.

▪ My point? Within less than a decade, a textbook used in a graduate lay ministry program sponsored by a Catholic university had become problematic; it had moved from being an outstanding representative of the best Catholic thought on fundamental ethical issues, to being flawed—especially in what it had to say about sexual ethics. Nothing in the text itself had shifted, except that I flooded it with deferential quotes from John Paul II. The shift took place outside . . . .

▪ This movement from the mid-1980s into the 1990s corresponded with my finding myself without a job in any Catholic theology departments, after I was given a one-year terminal contract with no disclosed reason in the early 1990s at the Catholic college at which I taught. Steve and I have now been permanently outside the Catholic academic world--as in unemployed and apparently unemployable--for over a decade now.

▪ In the same period, one theologian after another (all certainly more important than me—in mentioning myself and Steve, who suffered the same fate, I’m pointing to a wide trend emanating from Rome) was removed from his or her teaching position, silenced, pushed out.

▪ As this went on—a very important point to make—there was hardly a peep on the part of the Catholic academic community in the U.S. There was not the strong movement of outrage and reaction one would expect from scholars. The academy, the center of the American Catholic church, was part of the problem—and, a fortiori, the liberal center was very much part of the problem, because it demonstrated no solidarity at all with theologians being robbed of their vocations in this period, no concern for the effects of this movement on the lives of those subjected to this shameful treatment.

▪ Why that lack of solidarity? Liberals want to be on the winning side. As the reaction set in (a point I want to insist on: it was deliberate and was manufactured from the center of the church; the pendulum did not swing of its own accord), what constituted the center moved ever more to the right.

▪ Consequently, there is a generation of American Catholic thinkers and commentators—our intellectual class of the center—who have grown up in a culture and religious milieu in what is considered centrist is well to the right of center. Whereas I remember the “installation” of John Paul II and Reagan by powerful groups of resistance to the movements of the 1960s and to the open door those movements created for us, this generation of centrists takes for granted that John Paul II and Reagan are admirable, praiseworthy role models for church and society who came on the scene through their own merits and dominated things through the force of their personalities and ideas.

▪ In part, they take this for granted because the religious and political right has succeeded for several generations in dominating political and religious discourse to such an extent that they have made the unthinkable thinkable, and have mainstreamed right-wing ideas that were once on the margins of church and society.

▪ Brian mentions Richard John Neuhaus. He is a shining example of the movement—the deliberate, cultivated, calculated movement—I am describing. I have written extensively on this blog about the Institute on Religion and Democracy. Since its founding in the early 1980s, that group has worked without cease to undermine progressive movements in mainstream American Protestant churches, and to shut the door to the progressive moment represented by the 1960s (culturally and politically) and Vatican II (religiously).

▪ Interestingly enough, though IRD targets non-Catholic churches, among its most influential founding members were Neuhaus and Michael Novak. It has always had a sizeable Catholic presence.

▪ Groups like IRD are predominantly concerned with the economic implications of some of the progressive movements of the 1960s. What they are combating, as they drive wedges into mainstream churches regarding the role of women and gays and lesbians in the church, is the social application of the gospel in a way that critiques the prevailing ideas of neoconservative capitalism.

▪ Because of their appeal to wealthy economic elites, groups like IRD are extremely powerful and well-funded, and have strong clout in our government. They attract the kind of politicians Brian is discussing. They are part and parcel of the cultural move that has been bringing those political (and economic—Erik Prince comes to mind) leaders into the Catholic church.

▪ What do these new converts to Catholicism see in the Catholic church? They see, in part, an institution that does not intend to critique their neoconservative economic ideas or practices. They inhabit a closed inner circle of the church impervious to the economic critique of traditional Catholic social teaching. They see an institution whose rich, powerful intellectual traditions have been co-opted (in their circle, at least) by a “Catholic answers” approach to religious truth that banalizes and trivializes and ultimately betrays the tradition—though they are very loud in their claim that they alone represent the tradition.

▪ These groups have been adroit about disseminating their soundbyte “Catholic answers” everyplace they can, about claiming the center for their eccentric, politicized, a-traditional theology, and about silencing and marginalizing critical voices. They appeal to authoritarian political activists who front for wealthy economic elites.

▪ They gleefully assisted in the dumbing down of the American Catholic church through their assault on the catechetical movement that sprang up following Vatican II, and through the imposition of a catechism now regarded not as a starting point for theological reflection or for study of the tradition, but as an instant-answers approach to catechesis that has robbed a generation of Catholics of the tradition, while convincing them that knowing the answers constitutes better catechesis than ever occrred in the past.

▪ And as they carry on in this way, there have not been powerful resistance movements within American Catholicism—certainly not (and this is shameful to me as a theologian)—in the theological community, and not in parish life, which has been gutted by the restorationist movement, on the whole, with the complicity of bishops appointed by the previous pope and the present one, and parish priests who are increasingly of the John Paul II generation.

Others will perhaps see things different, and I welcome responses. As I note above, my perspective is limited and partial. I was not part of the Reagan revolution. I have never been persuaded by any aspect of neoconservative ideology, whether in religion or politics. My understanding of Catholicism militates against that ideology in a fundamental way, and always has done so.

So I do not reflect (or perhaps even fully understand) the perspective of those who were infatuated with John Paul II and Reagan and have made a gradual journey away from neoconservatism when its flaws became too glaringly apparent to ignore in the Bush presidency. I have always seen John Paul II and Reagan as the religious and political face of one cultural movement, which was all about shutting doors and following the lead of William F. Buckley when he said that the obligation of conservatives is to stand astride history and shout stop.

But history cannot and does not stop, and the obligation of believers (it seems to me) is to participate in the movement of history and try to influence it to positive goals . . . .

Points for Meditation: A Table Where All Have a Name

And, as Lent gets underway, two points for meditation, from a journal entry of mine dated 30.8.95:

Lillian Smith, undated (perhaps Oct. 1957) letter to the New York Times:

"When we become mute, in the name of moderation, we slide towards barbarism with shocking rapidity" (cited in Margaret Rose Gladney, Letters of Lillian Smith: How Am I to Be Heard? [Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 1993], p. 214).

+ + + + +

Marcus Borg, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time (NY: Harper, 1994):

"The meals of Jesus embodied his alternative vision of an inclusive community. . . . Ultimately, the meals of Jesus are the ancestor of the Christian eucharist" (p. 56).

+ + + + +

Cyrus Cassells, "Down from the Houses of Magic," Soul Make a Path Through Shouting (Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon, 1994):

"O grant us strength to fashion a table / Where each of us has a name."

The State of the Catholic Church, Lent 2009: A Photo Essay

For today, a photo essay--an interesting snapshot of the state of the Catholic church as Lent begins, 2009 . . . . The first two photos are from the Carnival parade in Düsseldorf on Monday, 23 February. The armband of the dignitary with the red wings reads (in case you cannot make out the lettering), "Bischof Williamson.

And then a photo of the real Bishop Richard Williamson, as he left Argentina this week for England, Argentina having demanded that he leave the country when his anti-Semitic views became known. Bishop Williamson is the gentleman in the ball cap raising his fist to a reporter:

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Jindal on Obama: A Betrayal of Catholic Tradition about the Role of Government

Returning for a moment to Andrew Sullivan’s blog today (here): Sullivan links to a discussion by David Brooks at Direct Democracy of Bobby Jindal’s response to President Obama’s speech last night (here):

Brooks argues against Jindal, and for government—and in doing so, he demonstrates the deep fissures developing these days between the hidebound ideologues of the intransigent right, and more moderate conservatives like himself who realize that the intransigence is a manifestation of intellectual bankruptcy on the right.

Brooks states (re: Jindal’s response),

But to come up at this moment in history with a stale "government is the problem," "we can't trust the federal government" - it's just a disaster for the Republican Party. The country is in a panic right now. They may not like the way the Democrats have passed the stimulus bill, but that idea that we're just gonna - that government is going to have no role, the federal government has no role in this, that - In a moment when only the federal government is actually big enough to do stuff, to just ignore all that and just say "government is the problem, corruption, earmarks, wasteful spending," it's just a form of nihilism (my emphases).

Precisely. This is why I’ve drawn attention to the rich strand of thought within some Christian traditions, including the Catholic tradition, about the necessity of government in a fallen world. As I noted some time back when I compared Mike Huckabee’s use of the two-cities metaphor of St. Augustine, Huckabee does not have a clue re: what Augustine was talking about in his classic City of God (here).

Augustine argued that, in a fallen world, the powerful will always try to lord it over the weak. In his view, the only safeguard against that tendency is to create strong governmental structures that hold in check the arrogance, greed, and inhumanity of the powerful, and that defend the weak.

The story I told in my first posting today, about how people of color were treated throughout the American South in the Jim Crow period, as the majority trampled on the rights of the minority and used law to justify its abuse: that’s a story about what happens when there is not a strong central government structure in a society committed to defending the rights of the weak against the powerful. It was not until the federal government stepped in and forced the Southern states to accord civil rights to black citizens and to integrate schools that things began to change.

In key respects, Catholic conservatives of the right who have bought into neoconservative ideology about government as the problem in recent years have betrayed Catholic tradition, though they frequently paint themselves as the only authentic Catholics left in the nation. Jindal is Catholic. He is a Catholic who would, it appears, refuse resources provided his state by the federal government to help those in need in his state, to prove an ideological point.

This is obscene. It is morally indefensible. It is a form of idolatry, a worship of a bloody idol who asks us to sacrifice the lives and future of those in need to uphold the claims of the ideological figure we worship.

It is not what the gospels are about, or what Christian tradition is about, at its best. As David Brooks says, only the federal government is big enough to get us out of the mess that several decades of hidebound neoconservative ideology have gotten us into, with the foolish claim that government is the problem, and the fatuous trust in the rich that this claim implies. It's a pity, indeed, that it has taken some of us so long to see this, while well-nigh irreparable damage has been done to our democracy and its institutions.

More on Lent and the Tears of Things: Andrew Sullivan on James Alison and Gay Believers' Pain

And now I see, having blogged earlier today (here) about Lent and taking pain into one's depths to confront it and perhaps transmute it into greater compassion, that Andrew Sullivan has posted on a similar theme (here).

Andrew Sullivan talks here, as I did, about the specific pain gay believers bear in relation to the church, and our hope that this pain can be made redemptive. He notes that gay believers may ultimately offer the church a gift through our struggle with pain: the gift of helping the church as a whole to understand more accurately what it means to be church.

He puts the question of this specific pain of gay believers vis-a-vis the church in a developmental context. The human community is slowly coming to understand the truth about gay human beings and gay lives, and as it does so, the continued commitment of many in the churches to lies now exposed as lies becomes more painful for gay believers to bear. As he notes, "As the truth about homosexuality struggles to the surface of our consciousness as humans, the depth of the cruelty and lies imposed on gay people for so long can sting even more acutely . . . ."

Sullivan links to a wonderful essay of James Alison on this topic, which I actually read some days ago and which (I now see) has clearly influenced my own thinking on the topic in my previous posting, and so I ought to have acknowledged it. Joseph O'Leary linked to the essay last Friday (here), and it can be found in full at James Alison's blog (here).

I don't dare summarize someone as nuanced and complex as James Alison. I'll say here, only as a teaser for those who may want to read the essay (and I highly recommend it) that it argues that, as things grow better (in the sense that the concsicousness of the human community about the truth of gay lives grows more accurate), those of us who are gay and who remain in connection to communities of faith may actually experience more and new pain.

And that is certainly my case as I continue reading American Catholic blogs of the center, and encountering there the same tired, recycled arguments--with no gay voices invited in at all--that I began to encounter in the 1980s as I entered my years in Catholic academic circles. It vexes to see we have moved so little towards light.

And, even more, it hurts--and the sense of bafflement that accompanies that hurt at our exclusion grows deeper when one listens to the same voices talking about love, compassion, catholicity, inclusion, and justice. Among themselves. In their tight circles that do not represent the church as a whole.

With their gay brothers and sisters as silent bystanders who have been made silent by these guardians of the door to the center. Who even, God help us all, talk about us as if we are not there. Without ever asking what we think about ourselves, what we have to say about ourselves, and how we might frame the questions quite differently, if we had a voice. If we were given a voice.

More Light: Presbytery of Arkansas Votes Against Ordination Discrimination

Here's a bit of local news that deserves national attention: last Saturday (21 February), the Presbytery of Arkansas voted by a large majority to approve a change to the constitution of the Presbyterian Church USA that would permit the ordination of openly gay people. The vote was 116 in favor and 64 against.

At its General Assembly last June, the Presbyterian Church USA (to which churches of the Presbytery of Arkansas belong) passed a resolution calling for a change to Paragraph G-6.0106b of the denomination's Book of Order.

In order to change the Book of Order, two-thirds of the church's presbyteries have to approve this amendment.

The presbyteries of many Southern states (and some Midwestern areas) have historically resisted this change. And, true to form, presbyteries in states like Virginia and Alabama have voted the amendment down--as well as in south Arkansas, where Presbyterian churches belong to the Presbytery of the Pines, which also comprises Presbyterian churches in north Louisiana.

The vote of the Presbytery of Arkansas, to which churches of central and northern Arkansas belong, is surprising many observers. I can't say I am all that surprised. There has been a quiet revolution going on for some years among many Presbyterians in this part of the state, in which these thoughtful and well-educated folks are sifting through the arguments advanced against ordaining openly gay church members, and finding them insufficient. And downright discriminatory.

Though the media and right-wing mavens would like for us to think that the discriminatory language in the Presbyterian Book of Order has the force of longstanding tradition, it was placed in the Book of Order only in 1997. Anti-gay legislation like this in the Presbyterian and United Methodist churches is a recent phenomenon. It represents the attempt of right-wing political operatives in groups like the Institute on Religion and Democracy to split these mainline denominations by politicizing the discussion of gay human beings and gay lives.

I take heart in the fact that many Presbyterians are moving courageously against discrimination in their church life, and are combating the influence of right-wing political pressure groups like IRD. Paragraph G-6.0106b is inherently discriminatory. There never has been a tradition of examining non-gay candidates for ordination in the way gay candidates have been examined in recent years--a tradition of inquiring into the most intimate details of their lives, to assure that they were celibate as a prerequisite to their ordination.

And note that the requirement to remain in celibacy as a precondition to ordination affects gay clergy very differently than it does straight ones. As the present language of the Book of Order makes very plain, a single straight person who is ordained may then go on to marry. But a single gay person who is ordained is expected to live in celibacy for the rest of his or her life. No provision is made for recognizing gay unions ( see here).

This is arbitrary. And it is cruel. Kudos for the Presbyterian citizens of my state (well, at least of the central and northern parts of Arkansas) for recognizing the arbitrariness and cruelty of the stipulations the Book of Order places on gay lives, in its current wording, and for voting to change things. Perhaps one of the surprising effects of the overt racism expressed by many Arkansans in the last federal election, and of our shameful vote to deny gay citizens the right to adopt their own children, will be to make thinking, ethical citizens begin to work harder against prejudice in their back yard.

Lent and the Tears of Things: A Meditation on Mourning and the Spiritual Life

Sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt . . . .

I have been struggling with sadness lately. I continue struggling with sadness as Lent begins. I’d like to reflect on sadness today as a theme for this season of preparing the heart to receive more of God.

The particulars of the grief are perhaps not so important as its facticity: its simply being there as a universal human experience, with which we must cope and of which we struggle to make sense in our spiritual journeys. One root of my current bout with melancholy is our discovery that one of the two pups we rescued through an animal shelter in the winter before last is apparently seriously ill.

Our two little brother dogs have never been separated from the time of their birth, so, of course, I worry about the pain inflicted on one if the other dies. I also struggle with watching a tiny, innocent creature (he’s not yet even two years old) so full of life and mirth begin to endure the torments of cancer. The mother inside me wants to hold him, cuddle him, and croon away the pain.

I lie down to nap, and wake up with that line from Jonah ringing in my head—the divine statement near the end of the book, in which God tells Jonah that if Jonah grieves for the gourd vine that has wilted above his head, Jonah’s grief is but a shadow of the compassion God feels for all the citizens of Nineveh whom Jonah scorns. And for their animals . . . .

I have always loved that affirmation of a divine compassion that encompasses our brothers and sisters in the animal kingdom, over whom we have long thought it our right to exercise lordship. If God’s love is so broad, then surely our hearts need to expand to encompass more of those we exclude from the scope of our compassion.

I’m morose these days, too, after I have finally completed my work on the first stage of a project I’ve discussed on this blog before. I’ve just written an article that will, I hope, eventually turn into something more substantial. It sketches the history of a branch of my family that crossed the color line in 19th-century Mississippi and Arkansas—the story of a white planter who lived his entire adult life, almost fifty years, in a marital relationship with a woman of color by whom he had six children whom he acknowledged and to whom he left his property.

I say “marital relationship” because this couple could not marry, of course, in the 19th-century South. Their being together, their having a family together—their very love for each other—was regarded by the vast majority of their fellow citizens as immoral, disgusting, illegal, something to be scorned and outlawed. The fact that they were able to maintain a family life at all under the conditions with which they coped is remarkable in itself—a manifestation of grace, it seems to me.

As Arkansas moved towards enacting legislation (it passed in February 1859) that demanded the immediate expulsion of all free people of color in the state—if they did not leave, they would be returned to slavery—these parents managed to get their children north, to see them well educated and set up on farms. All three of the children (three had died young) married into white families with strong abolitionist ties, with strong ties to churches that supported abolition. One of these families was closely related to Harriet Beecher Stowe. The families of these children of color crossed the color line from that point forward.

But they suffered. The oldest son, who had married first and who lived apart from his siblings—who continue to appear on the census as mulattoes in some decades, while he is always white on the census from the time of his marriage to a white woman—did not return home for over thirty years. He did so finally in the months before his mother’s death. He could not do so, as a biracial man living white in the North. He was susceptible to violence if he returned South.

The letters of his parents are full of laments over the years, as they endure separation from their children: sunt lacrimae rerum. They want to see their children. They tell their children of their love for their sons and daughter. The letters state over and over that their mother sighs for her children who have been exiled from her.

When the father of the family died in 1883, he left his considerable landholdings in south Arkansas to his youngest son. That son returned from the north to live on and farm the land. And in 1899, as he was riding horseback on his land, he was shot in the back, killed instantly. A mysterious black man whom the newspapers call “General Washington” was charged with the crime.

It is hard not to believe this was a lynching in which a hapless black man was framed for the terrorist murder of a man of color whose white father had dared to leave land to him, and who returned from the north to live on that land. In the week in which he was murdered, there were multiple lynchings of black men all across south Arkansas. The 1890s were a reign of terror for black citizens—unbelievable horror—in which the state enacted laws to disenfranchise black voters, to return African-American citizens to quasi-servitude.

And as this happened at the governmental level, lynchings escalated—violence as a tool of repression designed to put black folks back into “their places” as government and law created a legislative framework for such humiliation, for the denial of rights and of justice. Reports from this decade say that hundreds of black citizens were fleeing the state, taking steamboats north as quickly as they could to escape the reign of terror.

And so I feel a well of sadness inside me as I think about this story. I have pictures of these people. Their eyes are sad—the eyes of the children sent north. The eyes of the daughter, in particular, are pools of sadness. Her letters constantly employ the word: sad, she writes, heavily underscoring the word.

It is painful to know that your humanity is the same humanity others enjoy and celebrate, but is not regarded by others as humanity equal to theirs. It is painful to be told that a part of yourself, of your God-given nature, is unacceptable, is beyond the pale, is to be parsed and controlled and put into its place by laws.

It is painful to know that these attitudes not merely exist, that they are not only enshrined in longstanding custom, but that they have the force of law. It is exceedingly painful to think that a majority of your fellow citizens not only agree with your dehumanization, but that they believe that their majority opinion captures the divine mind: that might makes right.

It is painful to me to know that these racial attitudes have persisted into my own lifetime, to discover how little I know of the draconian history of my own state—in its gory, ugly, inescapable details—vis-à-vis treatment of a racial minority by the majority to which I belong.

It is also exceedingly painful to live my own version of the preceding story, as a gay man whose humanity is demeaned and even denied by large numbers of my fellow citizens. Who put the name of God into their mouths as they legislate against me—as my foreparents did when they legislated against people of color and their families and their loves. It is painful to be told that majority rule makes for right when the decisions of the majority clearly contravene the most elementary canons of human decency—not to mention the most fundamental moral insights of the world’s religions.

I have experienced a particular kind of pain—a kind that runs across the skin and scalds it—in the past few days as I have read comments about gay lives by the arbiters of taste, the knowledge class, on centrist Catholic blogs. I cannot believe what I am reading. I cannot believe that educated people can say such things, and apparently not think seriously, ever, about the effects of their words on real human beings who are their brothers and sisters in Christ.

It is painful in the extreme to read discussions of the theology of James Alison that are prefaced by considerations of his “errors”—when no such preface ever finds its way into the discussions of the theology of any non-gay theologians, of any ideological stripe, on these blogs. It is painful (and ludicrous) to read that Alison’s “error” lies in his attempt to combine the gospels with bacchanals. James Alison. Bacchanals.

Can someone making such an absurd comment even have read Alison’s complex, thoughtful, anything-but-bacchanalian theology? Why would anyone's mind even go there—to the bacchanal—when they hear the name of James Alison? Why do our brothers and sisters persist in distorting our real lives to such an astonishing degree, as they entertain salacious fantasies about who we are and what we do that they would not entertain about other human beings?

Why do they not invite us in and let us talk, so that they can hear our real voices and have those fantasies decisively dispelled?

It is also exceedingly painful to read the clownish remarks of other centrist American Catholics on these blogs, in which they defend the choice of Catholic institutions to fire and/or deny rights to openly gay employees. With a straight face, these arbiters of opinion in the American Catholic church seek to argue that gay employees in Catholic institutions represent the “face” of the church to the public, and so the church has a right to enforce its moral positions by firing such persons when it chooses to do so.

I have worked at Catholic colleges in which this tawdry little argument has been advanced to justify ongoing abuse of gay employees. And those justifying it were divorced Catholics who were dating other divorced Catholics. And in some cases they were unmarried Catholics living with other (but—all-important point—heterosexual) unmarried Catholics in an intimate relationship. And in many cases, they were Catholics who were, one had to assume, using artificial contraception, since they were not producing a child every year and a half or so.

What would have been outrageous to them—and should have been outrageous to them—the decision of their employing institution to delve into the secrets of their bedrooms, was not considered outrageous at all, when it came to gay employees. Their personal lives were off-limits. One did not, and should not, make assumptions about those personal lives that went beyond what those living these lives chose to share.

But these same advocates of Catholic morality did not choose to extend the same decency to their brothers and sisters who happened to be gay. Nothing was off-limits. The most lurid imaginings possible regarding our sex lives—our bacchanalian sex lives—were perfectly defensible, since Catholic morality, the face of the church, was at stake.

How can educated people entertain such arguments and not recognize that they are engaging in discrimination of the grossest sort? That their concerns are not about upholding Catholic sexual morality in all its intricate detail, but in excluding gay human beings from their circles?

And that’s what it’s all about, in the final analysis: exclusion, pure and simple. While the occupants of the inner circles at the center of the American Catholic church fire up their cigars to celebrate their triumphs (yes, they do talk this way, unabashedly and without a hint of awareness of what cigars mean, of their use as symbols of heterosexual male exclusion and domination), many of us stand outside in the cold, looking in. And those celebrations are, to all appearances, as shamefully unaware of our exclusion—and our existence—as I find I have been, when I examine in detail the history of racially discriminatory legislation and actions in my own home state.

In fact, to some of us, it begins to appear that the cigars and cocktails are actually in celebration of our exclusion. That the victory being toasted is a victory over us, and the heterosexual manhood being asserted is asserted at our expense.

And so Lent. And sadness. I have pondered for some years now the insights of Thomas Moore regarding the place of mourning in spiritual life. There is a wisdom in what Moore says against which I rail, but which I have to try to find ways to incorporate into my own soul-making process.

Moore notes that we skim the surface of experience, by denying the place of sadness in our lives. We do anything possible to avoid confronting our mourning. We rant and rave—and I am exceptionally good at that. We cast blame: ditto. We tell ourselves we are not sad.

Because we do not want to go there. We do not want to go to the place to which mourning takes us. We do not want to go down into those dark, chthonic depths in which the roots of sadness reside in our souls.

We do not want to die.

Lent is a time to remember that things are full of tears. A time to remember that in the midst of life, we are in death. A time to go into the depths of our own sadness and simply be there, with the sadness, with the mourning.

Because that journey to the depths is a precondition to our participation in the healing of the world. In which life and death constantly tango together, and the practical compassion that changes things in the lives of others arises out of my willingness to come to terms with the depths of sadness in my own soul.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

John McNeill's Prophetic Witness to the Churches: Enough of the Denial of Gay Love!

Jesuit theologian John McNeill has long been a hero of mine. When I could not find a vocabulary to name the love I experience as a gay man in a committed relationship, or to claim that love or the grace I experienced in my life and relationship, John McNeill paved the way for me to speak of my experience of love in theological terms. He paved a way for me to claim my love as a gay man love, to welcome my experience of grace as grace.

I suspect that for many Catholics of my generation, as for me, John McNeill's courage in writing about gay love and testifying to the experience of grace in gay lives has been foundational. It has allowed us to respect ourselves in a way that the church as a whole refuses to make possible. Almost singlehandedly in his generation, John McNeill opened up a discursive space within the Catholic church for some of us, at least, to talk about gay love and gay experiences of grace as redemptive, as worth hearing about, as part of the drama of universal salvation.

For this reason, I was delighted to hear from John McNeill lately, and grateful that he drew my attention to a document I hadn't yet read. This is an updated (January 2009) version of an open letter he wrote in November 2000. The first version of the letter was addressed to the U.S. bishops. This version is addressed to Pope Benedict, Cardinals Levada and George, and all the Catholic bishops of the world.

A copy is at the Soulforce website (here). I'm highlighting the following excerpt with permission from John McNeill:

At this point, the ignorance and distortion of homosexuality, and the use of stereotypes and falsehoods in official Church documents, forces us who are gay Catholics to issue the institutional Church a serious warning. Your ignorance of homosexuality can no longer be excused as inculpable; it has become of necessity a deliberate and malicious ignorance. In the name of Catholic gays and lesbians everywhere, we cry out “Enough!”

Enough! Enough of your distortions of Scripture. You continue to claim that a loving homosexual act in a committed relationship is condemned in Scripture, when competent scholars are nearly unanimous in acknowledging that nowhere in Scripture is the problem of sexual acts between two gay men or lesbian women who love each other, ever dealt with, never mind condemned. You must listen to biblical scholars to find out what Scripture truly has to say about homosexual relationships.

Enough! Enough of your efforts to reduce all homosexual acts to expressions of lust, and your refusal to see them as possible expressions of a deep and genuine human love. The second group you must listen to are competent professional psychiatrists and psychotherapists from whom you can learn about the healthy and positive nature of mature gay and lesbian relationships. They will assure you that homosexual orientation is both not chosen and unchangeable and that any ministry promising to change that orientation is a fraud.

Enough! Enough of your efforts through groups like Courage and other ex-gay ministries to lead young gays to internalize self-hatred with the result that they are able to relate to God only as a God of fear, shame and guilt and lose all hope in a God of mercy and love. What is bad psychology has to be bad theology!

Enough! Enough again, of your efforts to foster hatred, violence, discrimination and rejection of us in the human community, as well as disenfranching our human and civil rights. We gay and lesbian Catholics pray daily that the Holy Spirit will lead you into a spirit of repentance. You must publicly accept your share of the blame for gay murders and bashing and so many suicides of young gays and ask forgiveness from God and from the gay community.

Enough, also, of driving us from the home of our mother, the Church, and attempting to deny us the fullness of human intimacy and sexual love. You frequently base that denial by an appeal to the dead letter of the “natural law.” Another group to whom you must listen are the moral theologians who, as a majority, argue that natural law is no longer an adequate basis for dealing with sexual questions. They must be dealt with within the context of interpersonal human relationships.

Above all else, you must enter into dialogue with the gay and lesbian members of the Catholic community. We are the ones living out the human experience of a gay orientation, so we alone can discern directly in our experience what God’s spirit is saying to us.
These powerful words richly deserve a hearing--especially by anyone seeking seriously to hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches today. So much hinges, in the final analysis, on love. In the final analysis, everything depends on love. What a pity that the churches today invest so much energy in denying powerful, redemptive love between people of the same sex, in a world starved for love.

Human Rights and Solidarity: The Soft Underbelly of the Obama Administration

Amnesty International is shocked at Secretary of State Clinton’s statements about human rights in Seoul this week (here). Clinton told reporters that the United States will continue pressing China on human rights issues, “"But our pressing on those issues can't interfere on [sic] the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis and the security crisis.”

T. Kumar of Amnesty International USA (rightly) regards the stance as a sell-out. He notes, “The United States is one of the only countries that can meaningfully stand up to China on human rights issues.”

Yes. And I am not shocked.

This is the point I’ve sought to make in posting after posting about the soft underbelly of the Obama administration, and about the pallid commitment of American liberals to solidarity and human rights (here) and (here). The commitment of liberal individualists to human rights is strategic. It is not principled—not in the sense that the commitment to human rights for all persons everywhere at all times is an overweening moral principle driving political decisions and agendas.

Liberals commit themselves to human rights struggles only when they have calculated that, in this or that discrete struggle, they are likely to win—and to further their own self-interest and that of their friends. This is what Clinton means—and is stating frankly and clearly—when she subordinates the quest for human rights in China to the global economic, climate change, and security crises. Human rights take a back seat to those pragmatic issues. We will deal with human rights only after we have dealt with the “really” pressing issues before us.

This is why I have insisted from the time the new president took office that this presidency may well turn out to be a disappointing sojourn for gay Americans. Running through this administration, there is not a strong and overriding commitment to human rights and solidarity. There is, instead, a commitment to calculation and political expediency that subordinates questions of human rights to pragmatic considerations.

This is not new. It is not unique to Barack Obama or to Hilary Clinton. It is what we experienced with President Clinton. It is why he was able to take our money during his campaigns and depend on our votes, and then throw us under the bus immediately with don’t ask, don’t tell—and then with DOMA and the truly vile ads Mr. Clinton placed in the “Christian” media at that point in his presidency, trumpeting his commitment to the sanctity of marriage.

Such behavior is about calculation, not principle. Liberals do not see themselves in those to whom they deny fundamental rights when they refuse to make solidarity with the oppressed. If they did see themselves, their own faces, the faces of their family and friends, among the oppressed, they could hardly stand aside and counsel patience while “real” problems like the economic crisis are solved, as human beings struggle with the continued denial of their claims to basic justice.

Solidarity sees things differently. It does not envisage the body politic as a set of competing interest groups in which the strongest naturally win and the weakest fall by the wayside. It sees that we are all in it together. Denying rights to you undermines my own claim to rights—and to humanity. Undermining your rights or standing by in silence while they are being undermined threatens my human rights and frays the ties that bind us in the body politic (not to mention the human community).

Liberal individualists are kissing cousins to neoconservatives. We have, in the American two-party system, only two options that are essentially mirror images of each other. We have two versions of individualism that are both classically liberal, in that they maximize individual freedom and achieve social harmony by playing interest against interest as they seek to manage and mitigate the conflict that arises in such clash of interests.

Both ideologies arise out of an individualist social philosophy in which competition is everything, and in which “winners” and “losers” reflect the divine stamp of approval on the final outcome: the strong and righteous prevail and the weak and immoral fail, with the sanction of nature and God. The primary difference between these two ideologies has to do with the extent to which they believe in governmental controls on the rapacious behavior of the “strong” vis-à-vis the “weak.” That, and their penchant for either a “natural” (classic liberalism) or a religious justification (neoconservatism) for their belief that the rapacious behavior of the “winner” is praiseworthy and morally justifiable . . . .

To see our society through the optic of human rights and solidarity would call for a radical reconfiguration of many of the most fundamental preoccupations of our culture. It would require a commitment on the part of our federal government to serve the common good by giving priority to human rights in all contexts, in all places and all times. This reconfiguration would entail a re-ordering of our church life, such that churches refuse any longer to serve as ideological fronts for an immoral economic and social philosophy that permits the powerful to trample down the powerless in the name of God.

Such a profound cultural revolution needs to be signaled from the top, by the leaders of our federal government. Mrs. Clinton’s statements in Seoul signal, instead, that we can expect business as usual, when it comes to human rights and the Obama administration. And that expectation should be of serious concern to gay citizens of this nation and anyone standing in solidarity with those citizens in their question for justice.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Rick Santelli and the Gospel of Greed

I’ve been thinking about stockbroker Rick Santelli’s rant on CNBC this week (here). About Rick Santelli’s sermon on CNBC this week, to be more precise. Because that’s what it is: a rootin’, tootin’ reaffirmation of the core principles of old-fashioned hard-line American Puritanism in the face of the current economic crisis and federal attempts to address that crisis.

The message is loud and clear. In fact, Santelli shouts it, in case we don't get it, sounding every bit like a fire-and-brimstone preacher struggling to get us to the mourners’ bench: God prospers the good and punishes the bad. Poor people are bad. Rich people are good. Taking from the rich to give to the poor reinforces the immoral behavior that got the poor into their mess in the first place. It’s righteous to ignore the needs of the poor because otherwise we’d be implicated in their immorality.

Santelli’s sermon-rant is replete with all the old Puritan buzzwords: “bad behavior,” “losers,” “prosper,” “reward,” “moral hazard.” Moral language. Religious words. Dressing up a message that is essentially economic, but masquerading as theological. Listen to it—again, if you’ve already done so—and listen for those words. Imagine you’re hearing a sermon. Because you are hearing one, one as old as the nation itself.

And one’s that at the very heart of our current economic crisis, which is as much a moral crisis as an economic one. We are where we are now economically and morally because we have let ourselves believe lies for years now—lies about how people get into poverty and how people achieve wealth. Remember Reagan’s welfare queen? The woman who engaged in “bad behavior” and created a “moral hazard” for our nation?

The one who took without giving back, who wanted to be “prospered” and “rewarded” without going through the hard work of earning and saving? The immoral woman who did not do what righteous folks do, but wanted to cut moral corners?

The woman who never, in fact, existed, but whom we needed to invent to justify our callousness towards the poor and our greed? The mythical person Reagan made up to assure us that we do not have to apologize for our greed, because greed is the oil that causes the economic machine to turn smoothly, so that it will magically produce wealth for us while spitting out enough resources to take care of those we ignore if we focus unashamedly on our own advantage . . . .

The economic philosophy underlying the Reagan revolution, the revolution that has now brought us to our current state of economic collapse, is rooted in a mythical theological system in which selfishness is honorable and good and blessed by God, and wealth is a sign of God’s blessing on the selfish. And poverty is a sign of God’s curse, a sign that one has not given oneself to the virtuous life of hard work and scrimping, and therefore does not merit prosperity. What Rick Santelli is seeking to do in employing that loaded religious language is to get us to create new welfare queens, in the midst of our current crisis: to imagine that those we are bailing out are lazy, immoral parasites taking hard-earned money out of the pockets of the righteous.

It’s all so neat. It’s all so clear. And so simplistic. And so cruel. And so twisted. And so very American. So it’s no wonder what Rick Santelli’s rant-sermon has now run like wildfire through the media and pop culture. That’s what it was designed to do, after all. This sermon emanates from a group of people—the very stockbrokers who have worked hardest of all to place us in economic crisis, who have been the most brazen about their greed—who are adroit about using quasi-religious language to whip up our indignation about the “bad behavior” of the lazy, immoral poor.

So that we don't recognize what is really going on in our economic system: that it never benefits all of us in that magical way Reaganomics promised, but only the rich. So that we don't recognize that the folks we have already been bailing out (and the ones who always get bailed out) are those at the top who keep telling us that God placed them there due to their virtue, and that they deserve what they get, unlike the immoral poor at the bottom of society.

These folks—the greedmongers of our culture—and their allies in the churches have been working fast and furious to refashion the scriptures of faith communities to turn them into messages about the virture of wealth and the immorality of poverty. They have done all they could to undercut movements within faith communities that remind us of our solidarity with each other—that we are all in it together, that the downfall and failure of my neighbor implicates me. That we cannot live morally while ignoring the needs of the less fortunate.

And to our shame, we keep listening, even as the sermons blare out at us from the trading floor. From the lips of those who have profited most largely from our willingness to believe their lies and to pretend that greed is honorable and morally admirable, and will save the world.

Friday, February 20, 2009

The Smaller, Purer (Leaner, Meaner) Church Rattles Again: Martino's Back

Martino's back. And with a vengeance. You know, the Scranton, Pennsylvania, bishop who made a big splash during the presidential election last October when he stormed into a parish where the faithful were discussing the obligations of Catholic citizens. Martino shut the discussion down, stating, "There is one teacher in this diocese, and these points are not debatable” (here).

The points to which Martino was referring were principles for Catholic voters in “Faithful Citizenship,” a document issued in 2007 by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. When he shut down that parish discussion last October, Martino brandished “Faithful Citizenship,” announcing, “No USCCB document is relevant in this diocese. The USCCB doesn’t speak for me. The only relevant document . . . is my letter.”

As a number of sources including Whispers in the Loggia (here) are reporting the past several days, Martino rapped Sen. Bob Casey of the Scranton diocese early this month for voting against reinstatement of the so-called Mexico City policy.

And now this week, Martino has inveighed against the decision of Misericordia University to invite openly gay speaker Keith Boykin to give a presentation at the university. Martino expressed his "absolute disapproval" of this decision and opined that the Sisters of Mercy-owned institution is "seriously failing in maintaining its Catholic identity" because, well, did I say it?, Mr. Boykin is gay. Openly so.

And the latest: Martino's auxiliary John M. Dougherty has informed several Irish-American associations in the diocese that Martino will shut down the cathedral during the St. Patrick's celebrations this year if the groups include any elected officials supporting abortion rights in the St. Pat's parade. Martino also threatens to withhold communion from any such officials involved in the St. Patrick's festivities.

Martino's hard-line approach failed to sway Catholic voters in his diocese in the November presidential elections. The diocese's central county, Lackawanna, voted nearly 2-to-1 for the Democratic ticket.

Oh, and as Rocco Palmo notes at the end of his discussion of Martino's latest pastoral overtures, late last month, the Scranton diocese announced that the falling numbers of priests in the diocese and straitened resources are forcing the diocese to close almost half its 209 parishes.

What's wrong with this picture? The smaller, purer church is definitely meaner, for one thing. And also definitely leaner.

And"pastoral" leadership of the ilk of Martino doesn't seem to be producing any noticeable renaissance in his church, despite the loud protests of Catholics of the right that the agenda of the purer and truer church is filling pews, seminaries, and religious houses.

Readers Respond . . . .

As I blog here, it occurs to me that I don't invite suggestions about topics to discuss--and perhaps I ought to do so. In the past two weeks, I've had the refreshing experience of having a score of folks contact me through the email feature on my profile page. These include some people with whom I've lost contact over the years, and with whom I'm very glad to renew acquaintance. They also include some people I'm honored to have reading the blog, and whose feedback I appreciate.

In the comments section on the blog, my recent posting about the effects of the restorationist movement on one American Catholic family provoked interesting responses, and I'm thinking of doing a follow-up to that posting. In particular, I want to engage a question some of those comments implied, about how extensive the influence of this movement actually is in the American Catholic church.

All of this to say: I always welcome feedback and value it. One can have the impression, when blogging routinely, of talking in an echo chamber in which the only voice sounding is one's own. That's a disconcerting impression. Comments and feedback help correct me and point me in directions of interest to readers. I'd dearly love to know, for instance, what the sudden readership this blog has picked up in places like Rome want or expect to hear from me . . . .

And as I talk about recent postings on this blog, it occurs to me to mention two outstanding reflections on Vatican II that have appeared recently on the Queering the Church blog, and which provide a valuable counterpart to what I've said on that subject. They're (here) and (here).

Standing on the Promises: Mormons and Catholics Say, Mormons and Catholics Do

Remember how, in the wake of prop 8’s victory in California, leaders of the LDS church assured us (here) that, in blocking gay marriage, they did not want to roll back civil rights for gays? That they would even consider civil unions for gay couples?

On 5 November, the Salt Lake Tribune reported that Elder L. Whitney Clayton of the LDS Presidency of the Seventy had stated that Mormons wanted to reach out to their gay brothers and sisters battered by the LDS spearheading of prop 8 and “heal any rifts caused by the emotional campaign by treating each other with ‘civility, with respect and with love’” (here).

Around the same time, Cardinal Francis George, head of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops wrote to the new president, Mr. Obama, saying, “We stand ready to work with you in defense and support of the life and dignity of every human person” (here). This despite the fact that the Catholic bishops had supported the initiative to remove the right to marriage from gay citizens of California . . . .

We also received reassurances in December from Catholic Archbishop George Niederauer, who actively solicited the involvement of the LDS church in the prop 8 battle in California, that his support for prop 8 did not represent “an attack on any group, or . . . an attempt to deprive others of their civil rights” (here). Archbishop Niederauer assured us that, even with the removal of the right to marriage, “same sex couples who register as domestic partners will continue to have ‘the same rights, protections and benefits’ as married couples.”

Well, guess what? It appears that something has gotten lost in the . . . transmission . . . of those church dignitaries' noble ideals regarding human rights, to those who make the laws respecting said rights. As of this week, every initiative to assure the rights of gay citizens of Utah has been turned back by the Utah legislature (here) and (here). The bills are not even making it out of committee—bills to prohibit discrimination against gay citizens in housing and employment, to allow adoption rights to gay couples, and so forth.

One more initiative remains in Utah: a bill to protect the right of same-sex partners to each other in the hospital, bequeath property to each other, and make medical decisions on each other’s behalf. Given the track record of these bills standing on the promises of Elder Clayton and the Mormon church, I don’t have strong hopes that this one will make it through, either.

What’s going on here? Well, as I’ve been writing for some time now, these promises by leaders of the religious right regarding respect for the human rights of gay persons are smokescreens. They’re lies. The ultimate goal of the religious right is not to outlaw gay marriage while respecting other rights of gay citizens. It is to roll back all human rights for gay citizens, everywhere in the nation, whenever this is possible.

As I wrote last November,

The goal of these initiatives against gay marriage is to roll back as many rights as possible from gay citizens. We who are gay would be foolish in the extreme if we did not recognize that this is the game plan of those using gay lives and gay human beings to make political points . . . . [T]he ultimate objective of those using gay persons in these ugly political battles is to tell us that we are unwelcome, and should return to the closet in order to make our fellow citizens comfortable (here); see also (here).

This is why, in my view, all American citizens concerned about the protection of the human rights of any of us ought to be interested in the recent ramping up of the assault on gay citizens by the religious and political right, about which I have been blogging. As Pam Spaulding reports today, the Washington Blade published an article about this development yesterday, noting that “[a]nti-gay conservatives are increasing their rhetoric and activities . . .” (here) and (here).

In my view, we haven't begun to see all that the political and religious right are capable of, in this regard, in 2009. Times of economic downturn are times in which toxic political groups seeking to undermine democracy adroitly fuel fires of social anxiety, and work up animosities against groups easily targeted to further their anti-democratic campaigns. It's time to keep our eyes wide open.

Churches and the Ethic of Life: Facing the Human Cost of Employment Crisis

The AP is reporting Labor Department statistics that show a current all-time high for job losses in the United States (here). The human fallout of this situation has been on my mind this week, after I received an email from a friend telling me of the suicide of a friend of his family. It appears that this man took his life due to the economic downturn.

I fear that we may see skyrocketing suicides with further job losses. And as I think about these issues, I realize my optic on them was shaped early in my life by a tragic family story that I encountered sooner than I would have liked. It has to do with the suicide of my mother’s half-brother.

My mother’s brother Carl was the son of my grandfather’s first marriage. Carl’s mother died within days of his birth. For a number of years after that, my great-grandmother kept house for my grandfather and raised his son along with Ella, the daughter of my grandfather’s oldest sister Arabella, who had died young.

When my great-grandmother died, my grandfather was sorely in need of a housekeeper-nanny, and he married my grandmother, who was twenty years his junior, and from a social background different from his own. I mention this because it may be a dynamic that plays into the story of Carl’s life, something that added to his sense of being alien in the family in which he grew up. My grandfather had been born on a plantation in Alabama, and grew up on what remained of an old plantation in Mississippi following the war (he was born just after the war, in 1869). Though his family had no resources to speak of in that period in which every Southern family struggled merely to get by, they had a history of . . . well, something they never quite put into words: status, education, social dominance.

My grandmother, by contrast, grew up on a small, self-sufficient farm in central Arkansas. Growing up, she never traveled further than Little Rock, a twenty-mile trip that took all day on the rare occasions when her family took a wagon into the city to buy or sell goods or conduct other business. Her husband went off to school after he completed the standard eight years of education provided by public schools then. My grandmother had only the eight years of schooling.

When she reached marriageable age and had fallen in love with a young man she liked—the brother of her sister Fanny’s husband—my great-grandmother chose to interfere with my grandmother’s happiness and heaped guilt on her for wishing to leave home. My grandmother was the youngest daughter in a family of sixteen children, and her mother expected her to remain at home as long as my great-grandmother lived, to care for her mother and the younger brothers still unmarried at that time.

When their mother died, the “children” remaining at home (all adults by then, but unmarried) were parceled out to the homes of various siblings. My grandmother spent several miserable years living with her sister Alice, whose husband would complain bitterly in her hearing about the cost of boarding Hattie.

So when my grandfather asked for her hand, she jumped at the chance to marry, though she had no strong attraction to this older man whose mother and sisters had long treated her with disdain, due to the social distance they imagined between their families. The marriage was a ticket out: out of the misery of a dependent, unmarried woman in a society in which being married counted for everything in the life of a woman, and in which opportunities to marry as one pleased were few and far between. My grandparents spent almost two decades together, not in a loveless marriage, but not in one that happened due to romantic love. And they were, as far as I have ever heard, happily married, having six children, with Carl, the step-son from the first marriage added to this brood to make seven.

When my grandfather died in 1930, the Depression was just getting underway. Needless to say, this produced major trauma for my grandmother and the family she was left to provide for as a youngish widow of forty-one. In later years, she would often mention her horror when the banks closed and she realized only a nickel for every dollar she and my grandfather had saved. They had opened small accounts for each child; those, too, were wiped out, leaving their daughter Margaret in a fear that lingered throughout her adult life, of the sudden closing of banks and the unreliability of the economic system.

This was the situation in which my mother’s half-brother Carl grew up—the son of a widow who was not his mother, with six half-siblings who were the children of the woman raising him. I have heard nothing but high praise of my grandmother for her commitment to mothering this son. When she spoke of Carl to me in her late life, she always did so with tears in her eyes, as she said, “It cuts to the quick to lose a parent, but losing a child is unthinkable.”

Still, I imagine Carl has to have felt alien in a family that was not quite, not totally, his family. And his struggles with his demons, as he came of age, did not help matters: he apparently had a serious drinking problem, and he was the kind of drunk who rampaged when he drank, so that the family endured embarrassing scenes in their small town, in which he caused so much trouble that my grandmother would take the other children to the fields behind their house and sleep outside on nights when he was uncontrollable.

Some of this rage may have been fed by the sense of guilt that children whose mothers die at their birth are sometimes said to endure. Part of it had to do, I suspect, with Carl’s realization that he was intellectually gifted, but had no venue in which to pursue his gifts in a small Arkansas town in the grip of the Depression, with a widowed mother struggling to make ends meet for her large family. The professor who headed the local high school said that he had never encountered a student of the brilliance of Carl and one of his first cousins on my grandfather's side of the family.

My grandmother confirmed the judgment: she was amazed at the scope of Carl’s knowledge, much of it gleaned from his wide, constant reading of any book he could get his hands on. He would lie by the fireplace at night, reading by its light after the rest of the family had long ago gone to bed, oblivious to everything around him.

With little opportunity to do anything with his intelligence, Carl joined the army when the war came along, though he was older than most of those with whom he enlisted—he was in his thirties. The war gave him something to do, places to go. It also scarred him. He came home speaking with horror about the bodies he saw lining the roads into Russia when his cavalry unit marched there, of the hunger they saw in Italy, where people in small towns would rush out to cut up any horse that died on the streets, cooking and eating the flesh as soon as they were able to do so.

When he returned home, Carl could not find his way. Everything had changed. My grandmother had sold the family’s small general merchandise store and had moved into the city, into Little Rock, where her adult children could more easily find work. All of his siblings now had jobs, good ones, ones that paid well and seemed secure.

From what I’ve been told, Carl spent weeks on his return scouring ads for jobs, going to job interviews, never finding a job. I have not been told this, but I suspect he was drinking heavily as he was job-hunting, and this added to his lack of luck at securing employment. It was a particular shame to him that all of his sisters were working, as teachers and secretaries. As the oldest son, he felt obliged to support them and his step-mother. He felt worthless when he could not find a job.

And so he shot himself. In the weeks before he took that step, he carefully cut his face from almost every picture the family had of him, so that we now have very few pictures of him at any period of his life. On the night he chose to kill himself, he returned to his boyhood house in the small town twenty miles southeast of Little Rock, took a shotgun shell and removed most of the pellets so that the act would not create too much of a mess, put the barrel of the gun into his mouth, and pulled the trigger.

My grandmother’s niece's husband found Carl’s body the following morning. My mother—always regarded as the strong one, the one daughter who, as a neighbor told me many years later, was not a flighty Southern belle—had the unhappy duty of identifying her brother’s body at the morgue. She told me years later that when she did so, she saw blood running from his ear. She had nightmares the rest of her life, in which her brother would knock at the door and she would open it to find him drenched in blood.

I didn’t know all of these details as I grew up, but I did know of Carl’s suicide—sooner than I would have preferred to be burdened with such knowledge. When I was four years old, my parents had a huge row one evening. The next morning, my father sat my brothers and me down in the breakfast nook and solemnly informed us that my mother had had a half-brother who had shot himself. That was his less than mature way of getting back at my mother for whatever was the grievance between them.

This made a huge impression on me not only because of the sensational nature of the news, but because, from the time I was tiny, I had been compared to Carl by various relatives. We shared the same name: his first name was William, after the great-grandfather for whom his father was also named, a name that marks us in that family line, since it passes down from generation to generation, from the first generation of the family to settle in Maryland in the early 1700s. I loved to read, and read voraciously, with the same total absorption in whatever I was reading that the grown-ups told me my uncle had had.

I suppose this is, in part, why I am telling his story in such detail. He died unmarried, and those who knew him are now themselves dying. Soon, there will be no one left who remembers these tragic details of a promising life cut far too short. In remembering Carl, I am, I tell myself, making his life count. And I’m carrying on a commission that, without ever declaring it so, his sister, my mother’s oldest sister Kat, bequeathed to me.

When Kat died in 2001 and her remaining sister Billie and I cleared out my grandmother’s house, I found a trove of materials Kat had gathered about her brother: letters from soldiers with whom he served, who told her that his IQ test showed him having the highest IQ in their unit, and so they could not understand his suicide; scrapbooks full of articles tracking the movements of his unit, insofar as those at home had any information about this during the war; report cards and medical tests. Kat never accepted Carl’s suicide. On the day she received the news, she took a train home from the school at which she was teaching and collapsed across the front gate of the old homeplace, where the family had gathered. To the end of her life, she believed that he had shot himself because he had learned he had cancer: hence the preservation of any of his medical records she could find.

It’s clear, though, that Carl’s inability to find work after the war played the major role in his deliberations to end his life. I’ve noted, as well, that Carl was unmarried. Towards the end of her life, my mother chose to talk more frankly about questions of sexuality than she had ever done as I was growing up. Since I wanted to take advantage of this new openness to real dialogue about important issues before my mother lost all mental acuity (as she rapidly did in her final years), I can remember asking her whether her brother Carl had ever dated or had serious relationships with women.

She told me he hadn’t, not that she could recall. No, none at all.

And, of course, I can’t help wondering about that, too, and about the possibility that one of the additional burdens my mother’s half-brother carried around in that small town with limited opportunities was the burden of knowing that he was gay—and with no vocabulary at all with which to speak about this recognition, since no words existed to identify or define gay members of the community.

Unemployment takes a toll. When those dealing with the impossibility of finding work struggle as well with other issues that affect their self worth, joblessness can become an impossible burden to bear. For men, who define themselves according to what they do, not having a job can be lethal.

I am intently concerned about the effects of the job crisis in which we now find ourselves—about the real-life effects of the abysmal statistics on real human beings. Someone—all of us—need to be helping to pick up the human pieces, to prevent stories like Carl’s from happening now.

I continue to think—and have blogged about this previously (here)—that the churches have an obligation to assist in this regard. They do so because it is part of their mission, part of their calling as redemptive presences in the world.

They do so as well because the churches—many of them—have helped get us into this mess. Many church leaders worked very hard to place in office the leaders who walked us into our current economic crisis. It is the obligation of churches to help now, to provide safety nets for people struggling with unemployment. These could include seminars on dealing with unemployment, services to support families struggling with job crises, and outright assistance—church-sponsored health care, meals, loans through credit unions, and so on.

I will not hold my breath as I wait to see churches face this obligation. But I continue to wonder how churches can talk about themselves as churches, and not face such obligations. Or how churches can talk about the ethic of life and expect to convince anyone of its importance, without accepting such obligations . . . .