Monday, November 30, 2009

From the Sickbed: Greetings and Apologies

Dear All,

I'm here--just not able to write very much at present. For going on two weeks now, I have been struggling through my annual bout of bronchitis, which has been more enervating this year than ever before. Today, I finally broke down and went to the doctor (after a week of night coughing that prevents much sleep), only to learn that, yep, I have bronchitis--a nasty case of it.

Rest. Fluids. Aspirin. All those good remedies, along with some cough medicine that, I hope, will now let me get a night's rest and restore my energy.

I haven't been blogging these days because I'm frankly too tired to do much at all except read (or try to do so) and nap. We did carry through on plans to visit a friend in North Carolina at Thanksgiving time, and I'm glad we did so, though it was a stretch to travel. It's a while since we've seen this wonderful friend, and being with him over Thanksgiving was a gift.

And en route, I had the additional gift of bumping into a high school classmate whom I haven't seen in 41 years. It was a privilege to reconnect and share our stories from high school to the present. I had known that Bob went on from high school to become a distinguished educator and writer in the field of geriatric psychiatry. When I recognized him in Atlanta, I was a bit abashed to introduce myself, since I have far less to show for my life and the years since high school then he does.

I'm glad I screwed up my courage and approached him, though. We shared memories of experiences unique to our little time and place in the late 1960s, and were able to add to and correct each other's memory of the gruesome murder of an African-American youth in our last year of school, for which several of our classmates were charged, and of the assassination of Martin Luther King and, Bob reminds me, the jubilation most of our classmates seemed to feel at that horrendous event.

And now I'm going to focus on getting over the bronchitis, and will then return to blogging on a regular basis. I apologize for leaving readers in the lurch, but it's not as if I really say much that's unique here, in any case.

I hope no readers of this blog are dealing with this same nasty bug, which seems to be making the rounds in our area. If so, please take care of yourselves. It can leave you feeling pretty drained, if you don't combat it with a bit of rest.

Friday, November 20, 2009

What Can Catholics Do? Questions about Action for Catholics Opposed to Homophobia

A week ago, I blogged about some action steps that Catholics concerned about the misuse of church donations to attack gay people might take to counter such misuse of funds.

The question, What’s to be done?, remains in my mind as another week ends. I’d like to open the floor to anyone reading this blog and who may have suggestions about action by concerned Catholics to share those suggestions here.

I’ll be forthright and say that I feel a certain despondency right now about the path the church is choosing. As I said yesterday, in my view, the Catholic church has made a deliberate decision from the center to rebrand itself as one of the most emphatically anti-gay organizations in the world at this point in history.

I have found the Catholic church toxic for me as a gay person for some time now, and I’m finding it even more toxic right now. As a result, I have made a decision to distance myself from liturgy and any other involvement in church activities. I long since made the decision (and my brother and his family have followed suit, as have other Catholic relatives of mine) not to donate anything to the church, as long as our money is used for causes we don’t support and there is no transparency about how donations are being used.

I honor and respect the decision of gay Catholics who remain active. I think it’s important that we not accede to the demand of some of our more savage homophobic brothers and sisters that we walk away. This is what they want, and when we walk, we give them cause to rejoice—and we leave the church even more decisively homophobic than it previously was.

At the same time, I also understand the decision of those who distance themselves because the level of toxicity is so high that they harm themselves when they come into contact with the church. I understand those who have sought liturgical hospitality in other churches that are more welcoming and inclusive of LGBT persons (and of women in ministry).

These decisions are, to a great extent, tactical decisions that have much to do with where we find ourselves geographically. For many gay Catholics across the nation, there simply are no welcoming liturgical options in their local areas. For gay Catholics living in large urban centers, there is often a “gay” parish or a politically and religiously progressive one in which one may worship without expecting to encounter the toxins in a homily, in the attitudes of other parishioners, and so on.

I’d also note that things seem to be getting really bad in some areas of the country, not just in terms of how Catholics treat gays, but in general. In my view—and this is a very personal observation based on limited personal experience in an area of the country not known for its progressive attitudes—we’re in a period of strong backlash that portends the return of the extreme right to power in the next election cycle.

This is what I feared when the new administration did not act decisively from the outset to enact its progressive agenda. And it’s what I now see happening. The lack of decisive action has opened the door for the far right to regroup, and I think we will all be paying the price in the future for the hesitancy of the new administration to move forward decisively from the day it came into office.

I blogged earlier this week about an ugly incident that took place in my city recently, in which a group of wealthy doctors’ wives publicly attacked our local Congressman because he voted for the health care reform bill. There’s another good account of and good commentary on that incident by Ernie Dumas in this week’s issue of our statewide free paper, Arkansas Times. Dumas notes that the “bile and rank partisanship” of the town hall meetings this summer are turning into menacing action on the part of some citizens.

The religious right seems to be in overdrive in my area right now, as well. Recently, our Democratic senator Mark Pryor collaborated with our Republican former governor Mike Huckabee to sponsor a huge religious rally in North Little Rock, the city across the river from us. This rally targeted Latinos and African Americans. It seemed designed to keep these minority groups in the right-wing fold (Pryor is decidedly a blue dog), at a moment when there’s obviously fear that the increasing browning of America will result in more progressive political options down the road.

This rally violated church-state separation in troubling ways. The city of North Little Rock provided $10,000 to help sponsor it, and around the time it took place, bibles were distributed in public schools in the same city. I went to one of our few national chain bookstores last weekend to do some shopping, and was very surprised to see that the two displays one encounters when one first enters the store are prominent large displays of books conspicuously marked as “Christian” books.

These signs speak to me of backlash. They portend the triumph of the political and religious right in 2010 and 2012. And they go hand in hand with social turmoil—with the recrudescence of old social hatreds—that is truly frightening. People in my area are up in arms about the fact that a jury here chose recently not to give the death penalty to a black man convicted of raping and murdering a white woman. The jury “only” sentenced the man to life in prison without parole. People want blood. And it would be naive to imagine that this blood-lust has nothing at all to do with the election of the first black president in our history.

I thought of all of this today—and of my continued insistence that, as things grow worse, the center, which could effectively challenge the slide towards savagery, remains ominously silent, when I listened to Rachel Maddow’s recent interview with former religious-right leader Frank Schaeffer. Alternet has a transcript.

Schaeffer states:

And what surprises me is that responsible—if you can put it that way—Republican leadership and the editors of some of these Christian magazines, et cetera, et cetera, do not stand-up in holy horror and denounce this.
You know, they’re always asking, “Where is the Islamic leadership denouncing terrorism? Why aren’t the moderates speaking out?” Well, I challenge the folks who I used to work with, that I talk about in my book, Patience with God, and I would just say to them, “Where the hell are you? This is not funny anymore. And be it on your head if something happens to our president, if you are going to go around supporting and not speaking out against this stuff.”

It‘s just not a question of who’s doing it. The bigger question is: Where are the people speaking out against these things? I don’t hear those voices raised in the evangelical fundamentalist community. And until I do, I—and my opinion is, they are culpable.

Why aren’t the moderates speaking out? That’s the question I continue to ask, as Catholic leaders ratchet up their vicious, cynical attack on their gay brothers and sisters. I don’t by any means want to equate what is happening to gay citizens of the U.S. with the potential for horrific violence against our president that Schaeffer so convincingly discusses.

Still, as the recent murder of Jorge Steven López in Puerto Rico and the initial response of some police officers to that murder illustrate, there is a clear correlation between the ratcheting up of anti-gay religious rhetoric and actual physical violence towards gay citizens.
Why aren’t the moderates speaking out in the Catholic church, as their gay brothers and sisters are made more decisively unwelcome? And what can those of us who care about this situation do?

Any suggestions? I'll welcome them, and I feel sure readers of this blog will, too.

The Mormon Church's Shift on Gay Rights: Lessons for the Nation

There was a point I intended to make when I discussed the recent Mormon shift about gay rights a few days ago. And then I forgot to make it.

Friends who live in Utah tell me that there’s an interesting immediacy about ensuing actions, when the leaders of the LDS church make a decision about matters like the church’s response to a gay rights ordinance. When the church instructs its members to adopt a position, they tend to do so immediately and with seeming unanimity. Or so my friends who have lived in Utah for many years, some of whom are Mormon, observe.

This behavior is probably at least in part an expression of the communitarianism of the Mormon tradition about which I blogged when I talked about the shift in the church’s stance on gay rights. As a persecuted minority with beliefs regarded by the mainstream as peculiar, Mormons have tended to draw together and hold a united front.

My friends tell me the sudden response when the church makes a decision about almost anything can be astonishing. When it was decided, for instance, that the word “genealogy” is off-putting to many Americans because it is academic-sounding, and when the LDS Genealogy Library changed its name to the LDS Family History Library, my friends tell me the change was immediate.

One day, people were saying “genealogy.” The next, they were using the phrase “family history.” There was not a grandfathering-in stage. It had been decreed, and people responded accordingly.

And here’s the point I want to make about this pattern of behavior and gay rights: I seriously doubt that a majority of Mormons have suddenly developed new minds and hearts vis-à-vis their gay brothers and sisters. But they have shifted their behavior externally through their support for the Salt Lake City gay rights ordinance. And that’s significant.

I’ve noted before that a lesson which growing up in the Civil Rights movement taught me—this lesson is carved into my bones now—is that people will not alter their viewpoints about deeply held convictions with moral and religious overtones, until outside forces, shifts legislated by governing bodies and courts, demand that they change. And even then, what will change is not the internal disposition of people about the issue re: which they’ve been truculent. What will change is their external behavior.

You cannot decree or legislate morality. But you can decree and legislate that people adhere to canons of justice and decency, which are grounded in the public morality of civil society and essential to the well-functioning of civil society. You cannot legislate changes in how people choose to read their holy books. But you can legislate and hand down judicial decisions about what people are permitted to do on the basis of those holy books within the context of civil societies based on canons of just and decent behavior towards all citizens.

I suspect that many Mormons will take a long time to reassess what they think about and how they treat those who are gay. I also think that the implementation of a decision by the church, acting with the city, which forbids discrimination is extremely important—and that this model provides an instructive lesson to the rest of American society, at a time in which people have conveniently forgotten that almost every time the rights of a targeted minority have been subjected to popular vote over the course of American history, people have predictably attacked those rights.

This is, unfortunately, simply how people behave, given the chance. It is important to many people—many people have built their entire self image around this presupposition—to have the “right” to attack and demean those tagged as other. Something fundamental to the human psyche predisposes people, if they’re given the chance, to identify minority groups as other in a threatening way, and then to savage and exclude those groups.

I’ve noted before on this blog that, when it comes to theological positions on civil society, I lean in an Augustinian direction. I am convinced that Augustine was essentially correct when he called human societies, in the City of God, dens of thieves and thugs, latrocinia.

Augustine believed that, given the sway of sin in human nature and human life, social groups left to themselves inevitably permit the powerful to oppress the weak. In his view, the state exists primarily to mitigate the effects of original sin in the behavior of human beings in social groups. The state’s primary function is to assure that society not degenerate to the level of a latrocinium in which the powerful will be permitted to treat the weak as despised objects.

As Reinhold Niebuhr (a strong Augustinian) once said, the doctrine of original sin is the one empirical doctrine in the church’s teachings. There is abundant empirical evidence that Augustine was absolutely right when he noted that, left to our own devices, we will invariably build societies in which the wealthy and powerful are permitted to treat the poor and powerless like despised objects.

Just as there is abundant evidence that, given the “right” to vote away the rights of targeted minorities, the majority will predictably exercise its “right” to do precisely that. There is even abundant empirical evidence, sadly, that minorities that have previously been subjected to this excruciating humiliation will turn around and subject another vulnerable minority to exactly the same treatment, given the chance to exercise their “right” to bash. Until someone with the authority to demand that the majority adhere to the fundamental norms of justice and decency essential to civil society comes along and stops the exercises in minority-bashing.

I argued the other day that the Mormon church may well have supported Salt Lake’s gay rights ordinance not only because doing so is good for the gay community. I noted that the LDS church may have taken this step because it recognizes that building a society in which the humanity and rights of all are respected is good for everyone—and that building such a society is fitting for a religious group that believes it is building Zion in the world.

American society in general could learn a lot from the step the Mormons have just taken. Unfortunately, those in whose hands power resides at the federal level—those with the power to spur legislative and judicial regulations that prohibit the continued (and atrocious) public referendum about the rights and humanity of gay citizensseem oblivious to their responsibility to challenge such behavior.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Bishops Assert Their Authority: U.S. Catholic Bishops Tell Us about Marriage

As expected (and as Colleen Kochivar-Baker has noted with insightful analysis), the Catholic bishops of the U.S. have approved the marriage pastoral drafted for this USCCB meeting, with a number of revisions.

Those revisions include the deletion of language about cohabitation outside marriage and use of artificial contraception as “intrinsically evil.” The final draft says, instead, that these violations of natural law are “objectively wrong” and “essentially opposed” to God’s plan. By contrast, the bishops want to maintain that same-sex marriage poses a “multifaceted threat to the very fabric of society,” though the same natural-law norms used to forbid contraceptive use and cohabitation before marriage also forbid homosexual acts.

I don’t really have anything new to add to what I’ve said previously about this eminently unpastoral—this eminently anti-pastoral—letter. Instead of analyzing the text anew, I’d like to offer a smorgasbord of thoughts about where the U.S. Catholic bishops are leading the American Catholic church with statements like this.

These are desultory, not organized and polished, thoughts, more a set of aperçus than careful analysis. Frankly, I’m not sure that this pastoral statement deserves more—and that’s where I’ll begin my set of reactions:

▪ A majority of American Catholics will simply ignore this pastoral letter, except insofar as it provides further ammunition to the religious and political right to bash gays, and the bishops know that this is the case and intend for the letter to be received in this way.

▪ The really pastoral response to the situation in which U.S. Catholicism finds itself due to the lack of leadership by its current bishops would be, instead, to ask why large numbers of Catholics are leaving the church and will continue to leave, and what the bishops ought to do about that reality.

▪ The choice to issue a marriage pastoral is a political choice that reflects a number of political realities.

▪▪ This choice reflects a church-political reality: the bishops are dancing to Rome’s tune, and they have no effective autonomy to look at the situation of the national church they are leading, and to respond to its pastoral needs from within the American context, independently of the tune played by Rome.

▪▪ It is extremely important to the current papal regime that all national bishops’ conferences say exactly—no more and no less—what Rome intends for them to say, and so statements like this pastoral letter are being dictated and imposed by Rome, regardless of what the bishops of a particular bishops’ conference want or think.

▪▪ There’s also a secular political reality at work here: this is the bishops’ intent to remain aligned with political groups (and wealthy donors within these groups) for whom it remains crucial to stigmatize and marginalize gay persons and to have religious support as they do so.

▪▪ I take a remark of Archbishop Kurtz of Louisville, head of the subcommittee that drafted this pastoral letter, as an indicator of the extent to which political considerations are driving this pastoral statement: Kurtz stated that the document will serve the American church well “for the next three years.”

▪▪ This suggests to me that there is an overwhelming need on the part of the bishops (acting in conformity to instructions from Rome) to address a political situation in the U.S. in which gay rights, including the right to same-sex marriage, may move forward dramatically in a short period of time, until a new election cycle calls this trend into question.

▪▪ The bishops aren’t defending marriage so much as they’re acting in concert to roll back the tide of gay rights in every way possible. This is a tactical, present-oriented political move that has nothing at all to do, in the final analysis, with reintroducing the majority of American Catholics to teaching about marriage from which they have strayed.

▪ In fact, the bishops don’t care much about the use of artificial contraceptives and about premarital cohabitation. They know full well that these are social trends that are impossible to reverse, and that they would pay a very high price if they began to preach against, attack, and organize politically against Catholics cohabiting before marriage and using contraceptives.

▪ This “pastoral” letter is an overwhelmingly political and overwhelmingly anti-gay move on the part of Rome and the U.S. bishops—a cynical move that may one day be seen by historians as a shocking abdication of pastoral responsibility on the part of the bishops.

▪ As Fr. Geoff Farrow points out on his splendid blog this week, the bishops (taking their orders here from Rome) are making a cynical “market” calculation by hinging more and more of the Catholic “brand” on homophobia. They believe that in doing so, they are playing to the cultural mindset of developing nations in which the Catholic population is growing rapidly.

▪ If gay people happen to be the price that has to be paid in this cynical transaction to consolidate the church’s hold over the populations of developing nations, then it is not, after all, such a high price, considering 1) that gay people are a small minority, and 2) that many people will actively support the violation of the human rights of a despised minority even, or perhaps particularly, by religious groups.

▪ This calculating and cynical political strategy runs the risk of bringing short-term gains at a very high price, however, for the Catholic church in the developed portions of the world.

▪ It will not reverse, but will instead increase, the tendency of more and more younger Catholics to walk away from the church.

▪ As a result, the church in the developed nations will be left with a core of hard-line, ill-educated younger believers who are incapable of communicating Catholic values to the culture at large, because 1) they have rejected key aspects of the culture, and 2) their educations do not equip them for such dialogue.

▪ And none of these actions will conceal what is really at the heart of the exodus of many Catholics from the church today: the bishops’ (and Rome’s) complicity in and responsibility for the sexual abuse crisis in the priesthood.

D.C. Board of Elections Refuses to Put Human Rights to Vote: Statement of Faith Leader Rev. Cedric Harmon

I just blogged about a major news story that is being skewed by some media outlets with a vested interest in suppressing information that they do not intend to disseminate—to be specific, information that undercuts homophobia. I’d like to turn now to another major news story of the past week that further illustrates how such distortion of news undercutting homophobia takes place.

Tuesday, the Washington, D.C., Board of Elections rejected a proposed referendum that would have permitted citizens to put the right of marriage of gay citizens to a vote. The referendum was proposed by Stand for Marriage and Maryland clergyman Bishop Harry Jackson.

The D.C. Board of Elections rejected the referendum because it violates the Human Rights Act of the District of Columbia. As Michael Crawford, co-chair of D.C. for Marriage, noted in response to the Board’s decision, the equality of a particular group of citizens should never be put to a popular vote and decided by referendum.

What I really want to emphasize here is the reasoning offered by a member of a group of D.C. faith leaders to support the Board’s decision. Unfortunately—and this is something I also want to emphasize in this posting—the following statement by a member of D.C. Clergy United for Marriage Equality has, to my knowledge, appeared in absolutely no mainstream media outlets.

In fact, the decision of the D.C. Board of Elections has not been widely reported in the mainstream media at all (AP carried a brief statement, and the Washington Post and New York Times did stories), though it comes right after the Maine initiative, in which the right of gay citizens of that state to marriage was put to popular vote. And what happened in Maine has been analyzed and analyzed again by one media source after another, as a statement about the impossibility of implementing same-sex marriage in a nation resolutely opposed to it.

The only media outlet that I’ve found reporting on the following significant statement of Rev. Cedric Harmon of D.C. Clergy United for Marriage Equality is the 365Gay news site. Following Tuesday’s decision that putting the right of gay citizens of D.C. to a vote would violate the district’s Human Rights Act, 365Gay reported that Rev. Harmon made the following statement:

It is shameful when religious leaders fail to uphold the Christian teachings of our faith by trying to institutionalize a second-class citizenship on our neighbors. People of faith have worked for generations to achieve social justice for all people — regardless of race, creed, class, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. We serve our entire flock, and there is no justification under God that we should discriminate against any of God’s children.
The District of Columbia has not voted on the civil rights of a minority since the Civil War, when a majority prevented freed male slaves from gaining the right to vote. Today, the Board of Elections and Ethics reminded us that human rights should never be put to a vote. As members of the clergy who support equal rights for all citizens, and who struggle to achieve social justice in the District of Columbia, we applaud the BOEE for standing up for human rights in the face of discrimination.

It is shameful for people of faith to work to turn a minority group into second-class citizens. People of faith should work for justice for all people. The last time D.C. put the civil rights of a minority to popular vote was following the Civil War, when a majority vote withheld the right to vote from freed male slaves.

These are significant points, aren’t they? And pertinent points, in a nation with the soul of a church, where media coverage of issues like homosexuality is saturated with religious viewpoints. And where, with no historical memory at all about how popular referendums have been repeatedly used over the course of American history to deny rights to minority groups, many Americans are perfectly comfortable with the thought of voting away the rights of gay citizens today.

But Rev. Harmons statements entirely undercut one of the conclusions about religious affiliation that the mainstream media want to promote, when it comes to discussion of gay people and our place in American society today. The predominant meme is that to be church-affiliated is to be opposed to the human rights of gay folks. The predominant meme is also that to be African American and a member of a faith community is necessarily to stand in opposition to gay rights.

In the story unfolding in D.C., African Americans like Rev. Cedric Harmon and Michael Crawford stand on opposite sides of the fence from African Americans like Bishop Jackson. To be a person of color and a person of faith is not necessarily to stand against the human rights of gay persons.

In fact, the faith commitment of many churched people is precisely what compels them to stand in solidarity with their LGBT brothers and sisters. Whereas Rev. Bernice King, the new president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, says that her “sanctified soul” tells her to oppose gay rights, Rev. Eric P. Lee of the Los Angeles SCLC notes that his experience in the black church impels him to work for justice for his LGBT brothers and sisters:

While many disagree with same-sex relationships based on their respective faith-beliefs, it is those same beliefs that once justified slavery, segregation, legal discrimination and miscegenation laws. Our faith should not be used to discriminate, oppress or marginalize any group of people. Our faith should be used to affirm the dignity of everyone's humanity. Our faith should be used as a vehicle to justice, equality and freedom for all of God's people.
As African-Americans, we have long relied on the biblical stories of Israel's deliverance from oppression and slavery as our own story of deliverance from Western European slavery, segregation and discrimination. As civil rights advocates, and as bearers of the mantel left by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference must continue to advocate for justice for all people, regardless of social status, religious belief, gender, sexual orientation, or ethnicity.

Rev. Cedric Harmon’s statement about the refusal of the D.C. Board of Elections to put the rights of a vulnerable minority to the vote deserves national attention—and it’s telling that this statement is being ignored by the mainstream media. Speaking out of the experience of historic oppression and reading the bible through the optic of this oppression, many African-American people of faith find it impossible to justify faith-based exclusion and faith-based oppression of other minority groups.

The memory of oppression endured by Christians of color in the U.S. also comprises the bitter memory of having one’s rights repeatedly put to popular vote, always with the same deplorable outcome. When the rights of minority groups are put to popular vote, one can predict that the majority will, in all likelihood, deny or remove the rights of the minority. In a nation whose entire political system is grounded in foundational documents that assure rights to all human beings simply because they are human, it is obscene to permit the rights of any targeted minority to be put to a vote.

And it is particularly obscene when those pushing for such an action are people of faith who claim that they are acting in fidelity to scriptures that are all about love, mercy, and justice, and healing the wounds of the world. Not making them deeper.

John Jay Study: No Correlation Between Sexual Orientation and Catholic Clerical Sexual Abuse

One of the noteworthy developments of the meeting of the U.S. Catholic bishops this week has been the release of results of a $1.8 million study the bishops commissioned to find the cause of the clerical sexual abuse situation. (The study didn’t focus, of course, on the bishops themselves as the possible cause of the situation—about which more in a moment). The study is being conducted by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

What the study has found is causing consternation in some quarters. It contradicts the widely held belief, massaged by the Vatican and many bishops, that gay priests “caused” the abuse crisis.

David Gibson offers a good summary of the report and its implications at Politics Daily. As he notes, two John Jay researchers, Margaret Smith and Karen Terry, presented their findings to the bishops this week.

Smith states, “At this point, we do not find a connection between homosexual identity and an increased likelihood of sexual abuse.” And Terry notes the obvious: pedophilia and sexual orientation are entirely distinct phenomena. The question of the sexual orientation of an adult sexually abusing a child is a red herring, which does not take into account the abundant evidence that pedophilia is not about erotic fulfillment at all, but about power, and the need to have total control of a minor one has turned into a fetishized object to display one’s power over and control of others.

Smith concludes that trying to solve the abuse crisis by barring gay men from the priesthood is likely not going to have any effect on the crisis. Those—including Rome and many bishops—who have sought to lay the blame for the abuse crisis on gay priests and have spent millions of dollars to discover the obvious have been walking down a dead end. The attempt to scapegoat gay priests has brought us no closer to understanding the real problem at the heart of the crisis: the abuse of power by Catholic leaders, and their use of secrecy and deception to shield the clerical system from critical questions that might expose how it fosters injustice and abuse of power in the church.

I’m interested not so much in these findings—what the John Jay study is finding has been obvious to me for some time now—as I am interested in the aftermath of the report. Two developments strike me as significant, now that these data are on the table.

First, the deception continues. Key Catholic news sources and the secular media they influence are already seeking to bury the finding that gay priests are not the cause of the abuse crisis. Terry Weldon alluded to this development in a very good posting yesterday at his Queering the Church blog.

Go to the “official” summary of the John Jay report on the website of the U.S. Catholic bishops’ conference, and you won’t find a single word about the John Jay study finding that there is no causative connection between gay priests and the abuse crisis. Zilch. Nothing. That significant finding, which is attracting media attention all over the place, has simply vanished from the official summary of the report.

Head over to the Chaput News Agency—excuse me, the influential Catholic News Agency that operates out of Archbishop Chaput’s diocese—and read its summary of the John Jay report, and you’ll find precisely the same. Not a single word about the report’s flat contradiction of a bogus causative correlation that CNA has done everything in its power to promote for some years now.

Check out some mainstream media outlets that lean to the right (and have a history of kowtowing to the Catholic hierarchy), and you’ll discover the same suppression of the most significant finding of the John Jay study. The Clerical Whispers blog picked up the Voice of America report on the study a day or so ago.

As does the USCCB summary and the CNA article on the John Jay study’s findings, the VOA report totally ignores the study’s discovery that there is no correlation between sexual orientation and the abuse of minors by Catholic clergy. The VOA report notes that it is summarizing a press release from USCCB.

I’m struck, then, first and foremost by the—well, let’s be frank, the dishonesty—of the response of key Catholic groups that have been promoting the gay-priests-are-the-problem analysis of the abuse crisis, to careful empirical research that explodes this analysis of the crisis. One would think that the moral obligation of Christians to tell the truth in all circumstances and even when it’s inconvenient would come into play now as these groups report on a study that undercuts an ugly tactic they have sought to use to scapegoat a vulnerable minority as the source of the crisis of clerical sexual abuse.

And that leads to my second observation: it’s fascinating to watch how some Catholics, notably those who profess to be the most concerned to uphold traditional moral values (like truth-telling) are now refusing to accept the findings of the John Jay study. Read the responses of some of these traditionalist Catholics (many of them apparently representing the JPII generation) on blogs that are commenting on the study, and you’ll find that they are entirely unwilling to give up their analysis of the abuse crisis as a gay thing.

They’re unwilling to give up a nifty little weapon they’ve been using to bash gay folks in general, that is. Truth seems not to matter to some of these watchdogs of morality and orthodoxy. What matters intently is obviously their need to score points against their gay brothers and sisters and to continue to tell us that we are morally defective and ought to be shoved out of the body of Christ.

For a taste of commentary in this gay-bashing vein, look, for instance, at the comments following Fr. Jim Martin’s posting about the John Jay study at the America blog. By around 8:45 last evening, things had gotten so bad that Fr. Martin deleted a number of comments from the thread, with the following questions:

Can we talk about homosexuality without injecting venom and contumely into the discussion? Can we treat gays and lesbians with, as the Catechism says, respect, sensitivity and compassion?

A number of those now posting on this new America thread are the same folks who posted in response to Fr. Martin’s recent thread asking what gay Catholics are to do, given the climate of homophobic hate (my word, not Fr. Martin’s) now prevailing in some sectors of the church. Their agenda is clear: it’s to reserve to themselves the unilateral right to “instruct” gay people in our sinfulness while the instructors claim that they are doing a spiritual work of mercy. Those promoting this agenda seem astonishingly unaware that they may have sins that ought to be corrected, too, or that the sole “sin” on which they are focused with laser-beam intensity may not be nearly so egregious as the sin of self-righteousness, since Catholic spiritual theology has long taught that sins of the spirit reach deeper inside us than sins of the flesh.

They seem to have forgotten that another spiritual work of mercy is to instruct the ignorant, and that they themselves may need some instructing in areas about which they have defective knowledge. They seem woefully ill-informed about how refusal to accept the truth and distortion of truth in the service of political ideologies are also sinful behaviors that deserve attention. Some of these JPII-generation posters are so enmeshed in right-wing political movements that they shield their identity as they hop from blog to blog, promoting their defective version of orthodoxy while serving political causes antithetical to authentic Catholic values—causes and affiliations they do not want to have exposed, as they shift usernames from blog to blog and never reveal their true identities.

For another example of the phenomenon I’m describing here, look at the thread of responses to Michael Bayly’s discussion of the John Jay findings, where you’ll find one blogger proposing that the empirical data are “immaterial,” and he’ll believe the abuse crisis was not a gay thing only when he finds out that the priests engaging in abuse had subscriptions to Playboy. This blogger goes so far as to accuse the highly regarded John Jay College of Criminal Law of playing politically correct games.

Don’t confuse me with the facts. The gays have been tried and found guilty, and no amount of evidence you can advance to disabuse me of what I know because I believe it and intend to keep believing it is going to change my mind. But I do represent the resplendent fullness of Catholic truth, and don’t you dare tell me that a dirty gay might have any insight into the gospel that belongs exclusively to me.

The sanest response to the John Jay study, the one that asks the right questions—because this response comes from the people who really know what the abuse crisis is all about—is the press statement that the Survivors Network of Abuse by Priests (SNAP) released two days ago in response to the study. Three SNAP leaders, Barbara Blaine, Barbara Dorris, and Peter Isely, all of them survivors of clerical sexual abuse, collaborated on this statement.

They issue the following valuable reminders about the real causes of the abuse crisis:

1. Pedophile priests molest both boys and girls.

2. About half of SNAP’s members are women, and SNAP has documented a longstanding tendency of the criminal justice system to minimize sexual abuse of females by clergy.

3. The real issue that demands study—the real cause of the abuse crisis—is “complicit church officials,” and the culture of secrecy in which cardinals, bishops, priests, nuns, and other church employee have ignored or concealed crimes of child sexual abuse.

SNAP reminds us that we still don’t know the scope of the crisis, how it has unfolded, how it has been concealed, because “bishops want everyone but themselves studied and blamed for their massive, historic and on-going refusal to protect children.” The red herring of gay priests as the cause of the abuse crisis is yet another way the Vatican and bishops have chosen to shield from scrutiny the clerical system itself—the horrific system by which power is routinely abused in the structures of the church.

Open that system to public scrutiny, do a careful study of how it operates and of its effects on the church, and we might begin to get to the heart of the abuse crisis. Meanwhile, it’s simply easier and far more convenient to blame the gays. And a lot of Catholics who have everything invested in maintaining their right to attack their gay brothers and sisters, and who have been encouraged and protected in this unholy crusade by Rome and the bishops, don’t intend to question that right anytime soon, no matter what the facts demonstrate.

Or whom they hurt in the process.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Critical Reflections on the Catholic Pastoral Response to Gay Persons: The Murder of Jorge Steven López

I’ve just written about what happens when Christian groups stereotype their LGBT brothers and sisters and then use those stereotypes to justify spiritual violence towards these brothers and sisters. I’ve also noted that those who employ bogus stereotypes to justify spiritual violence towards their gay brothers and sisters often make the spurious claim that they are acting out of pastoral concern for those they define and dismiss with language about the “gay lifestyle.”

When the present pope, Benedict XVI, writing as Cardinal Ratzinger, issued his infamous “Halloween Letter” entitled Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons in 1986, he professed concern that the church condemn violence towards those who are gay. Cardinal Ratzinger stated,

It is deplorable that homosexual persons have been and are the object of violent malice in speech or in action. Such treatment deserves condemnation from the Church's pastors wherever it occurs. It reveals a kind of disregard for others which endangers the most fundamental principles of a healthy society. The intrinsic dignity of each person must always be respected in word, in action and in law.

But then Cardinal Ratzinger went on to note (this next passages follows immediately on the statements above),

But the proper reaction to crimes committed against homosexual persons should not be to claim that the homosexual condition is not disordered. When such a claim is made and when homosexual activity is consequently condoned, or when civil legislation is introduced to protect behavior to which no one has any conceivable right, neither the Church nor society at large should be surprised when other distorted notions and practices gain ground, and irrational and violent reactions increase.

When such a claim [i.e., that being gay is not a matter of “intrinsic disorder”] is made and when homosexual activity is consequently condoned, or when civil legislation is introduced to protect behavior to which no one has any conceivable right, then one should not be surprised if violence is the result.

As many theologians and psychologists noted when Ratzinger issued his 1986 pastoral letter, what the first passage offers with one hand, the second statement takes away with the other hand. The letter states clearly that if gay human beings expect to have the same rights as everyone else in civil society and if we reject the church’s attempt to define us as disordered, we might as well expect to be attacked.

The letter implicitly justifies what it condemns, then. It makes the atrocious violence that gay people have long experienced and continue to experience in many places in the world thinkable, and it attaches that violence to their coming out of the closet. The letter suggests that gay people should expect violence if we ask for the full range of human rights and contest the church’s definition of us as intrinsically disordered, when those formulating the definition of intrinsic disorder refuse to take our graced experience and our testimony about this experience into account as they define our humanity.

And how does what Pope Benedict wrote in 1986 differ, I wonder, from what Puerto Rican police officer Angel Rodriguez said recently after the body of a 19-year old openly gay young man, Jorge Steven López, was found decapitated, dismembered, and partially burnt? Rodriguez stated,

When these type of people get into this and go out into the streets like this, they know this can happen to them.

What Rodriguez states in response to López’s unthinkable murder sounds uncannily like what Cardinal Ratzinger states in his 1986 pastoral letter: when gay folks become public, when “these type of people” choose the gay lifestyle and become public, what can you expect? We deplore violence. But violence is what will happen if gay people ask to be treated like other human beings and refuse to accept the church’s definition of their “type of people.”

Sometimes the news has an eerie way of illuminating the mendacity of texts that say one thing but mean another. What happened to Jorge Steven López, and the reaction of Angel Rodriguez to this murder, appear to confirm the insights of those who began to argue as long ago as 1986 that the church’s claim to be above violence towards gay people, and to deplore that violence, is questionable at best, and dishonest at worst.

Defining people as “intrinsically disordered”—as a “type of people” who should expect violence if they expect to live free and with human dignity—is an act of spiritual violence that elicits actual physical violence towards gay and lesbian persons. The Catholic church’s “pastoral” approach to its gay and lesbian members is not a solution to the problem of the violence LGBT people encounter in many societies. It is a huge part of the problem.

Reflections on the Churches and Pastoral Outreach to Gay Persons in Light of the Ex-Gay Movement

Michael Bayly’s Wild Reed blog has a good posting yesterday on the “ex-gay” or reparative therapy movement, which has a Catholic component, Courage. This is one in a series of excellent analyses of this movement Michael has posted on his blog. I’d like to comment on this topic in light of my recent discussion at the America blog, to which I’ve been linking my postings in the last several days.

As I’ve noted, the America thread began with Fr. Jim Martin at America asking what gay Catholics are to do, given the church’s horrendous treatment of us today. I read Fr. Martin’s question as a pastoral one—an expression of pastoral concern for the many gay Catholics who indicate that the church is harming rather than helping us, and who are choosing to distance ourselves from the church as a result.

The question, What are gay Catholics to do?, and the pastoral way in which it was framed naturally invite the honest input of those of us who are gay and Catholic. The set-up invites us to tell our stories—deeply personal stories that often contain pain (and joy and celebration).

Several of us responded with such statements. Most of us who did so identified ourselves. We were, after all, telling our stories. We obviously wanted those stories to matter and to be taken into consideration, because we want our lives to matter and to be taken into consideration. This is what happens when an institution that claims to be about compassion, love, healing, and welcome invites people to share where they are coming from in any honest way.

And what was the response when several of us put ourselves out there in this way, opened our hearts in this risky way, dared to hope that our stories (and lives) might begin to count for the church today? What happened was predictable. This dynamic repeats itself over and over in dialogues that invite gay Christians to share authentically about our experiences in a setting designed to produce pastoral interaction with us and our brothers and sisters who may not hear these stories or think about what it means to be gay in many churches today.

What happened when some of us responded honestly and at a deep level to the question, What’s a gay Catholic to do?, identifying ourselves and using our own names, was that a number of our LGBT brothers and sisters who claim to have been “cured” of the “gay lifestyle” weighed into the discussion to inform the group that being gay is not about living lives of authentic love, but about living in sin.

These posters, whose identities were not fully disclosed (though one did have a full name attached to his posting, but one about which I haven’t been able to find any specific information), informed the group that there is something called the “gay lifestyle,” and that it is all about promiscuity, drugs, and loneliness that results from the refusal to accept God. They used bogus clinical terms to refer to a syndrome called SSA—“same-sex attraction,” a clinical term that has been invented by religious-right groups to try to rehabilitate the long-rejected American Psychiatric Association classification of homosexuality as a mental disorder.

This is where the conversation (which is really a non-conversation) finds itself today in many churches that wish to retain stigmatizing language about and understandings of the “homosexual lifestyle.” It is because such non-conversations can never go anywhere meaningful (and because fundamental dishonesty is at work in these conversations) that Episcopal Bishop Shelby Spong recently declared that he will no longer engage those who want to continue talking about homosexuality in the churches as the great problem to be solved, the big crisis to be faced by a church torn between fidelity to the scriptures and fidelity to its pastoral, healing mission.

As long as these non-conversations continue to take place while people of good will, who should know better, stand on the sidelines saying nothing, treating this as a battle between equals –the gays and their critics, both with legitimate viewpoints—nothing productive is going to happen. In fact, the conversations will only continue to demonstrate the power that those who misrepresent and stereotype gay human beings still have to define norms within the churches. The the contributions of the latter group to these conversations are clearly all about continuing to claim that right within the churches.

The right to define those who are gay as other, aberrant, less human than everyone else, uniquely sinful, worthy of being excluded, not worthy of being heard, because gays are, by nature, deceptive and, well, you know the shtick . . . .

Because the dynamic I’m describing has gone on so long and been used so effectively by the religious and political right, and because it has resulted in the breakdown of any honest, transformative conversation about these issues within many churches, I think it’s important to probe this dynamic carefully, with good analytical tools. I do not by any means intend to lambast any particular person who logged into the America thread recently to share his/her story of being converted from the sinful gay “lifestyle.”

At the same time, I want to note that, until we reach some accurate critical conclusions about what is taking place in these non-conversations, and until we stop using spurious norms about charity to all to offset such critical analysis, we won’t get to the bottom of what these interchanges between ex-gays and gay believers are all about, when churches open conversation spaces to discuss the pastoral situation of those who are gay.

I’d like to note several points here. Those who claim to have been healed of homosexuality frequently enter these pastoral dialogues armed and ready to shoot. They bring with them “literature” that supposedly “proves” that there is a sinful gay lifestyle and that all who happen to be LGBT fit the stereotype. They are there to discredit the stories of gay Christians, even when they profess to be there out of pastoral concern for their brothers and sisters who are gay.

And this is to say, those who enter these dialogues with the stated intent of sharing their own personal stories to counter the stories of those of us who are gay believers often have ties to right-wing political and religious groups, which they do not wish to disclose in these dialogic spaces. This is, in part, why those who claim to post true stories of their ex-gay experience in these dialogues often shield their identity.

They also frequently have ties to other posters in the group who are there with a primarily political motive, rather than a pastoral one. They are acting in collusion with these posters, whose intent is to keep these dialogic spaces all about their right, in the name of God and the church, to define and dismiss their gay brothers and sisters.

What should make this behavior particularly troublesome to fence-sitting Christians of the center is not just the willingness of organized anti-gay movements to lie about “the” gay “lifestyle”—about their gay brothers and sisters. As these groups lied over and over in the Maine campaign . . . . As it turns out Ms. Prejean has distorted the truth while claiming moral superiority over her gay brothers and sisters . . . .

What ought to concern fence-sitting Christians of the center, I would propose, is the obvious intent of these anti-gay political and religious groups to prevent any open, honest, pastorally oriented interchange between the churches and gay persons. People like Fr. Martin work to open dialogic spaces in which gay stories might be heard by the whole church.

Organized groups who have invested everything in declaring homosexuality as sinful, the most egregious sin in the canon, the one on whose basis the churches stand or fall, do not intend for these dialogic spaces to remain open. Not even when they enter the dialogue with fulsome assurances that what they are really all about is saving souls, expressing pity for poor, misguided gays who do not realize that our drug use, promiscuity, and loneliness are all due to our refusal to admit that we are sinners standing in the need of repentance.

Keep asking for honest, respectful dialogue that takes your experience as a gay believer into consideration, and allows you to define the meaning of that graced experience as freely as other Christians are allowed to discern the Spirit in their lives, and they'll eventually tell you to move on. Just move on. Join the Episcopalians. Don't expect any honest and respectful hearing here, though we do love you and have all the pastoral concern in the world for you! And we're all about promoting Catholic ("here comes everybody") values and letting you know you are not authentically Catholic because we really care about what being Catholic means.

Those entering conversations about the pastoral approach of the church to gay persons with a gay-bashing intent don't intend to listen respectfully to gay voices and gay experiences, because they have already predetermined that the only voice and experience that count is theirs. They enter the conversation with a total lack of respect for the human beings they claim to be led by the Spirit to save.

It is very important—it is the most crucial thing in the world—for some Christians today, that they retain the right to define their gay brothers and sisters, and to exclude them from the Christian community, even while professing pastoral concern for these sinful brothers and sisters. And that is what is going to continue to happen in dialogue spaces about the churches' pastoral response to gay persons, until Christians of the center make it their business to challenge the dishonest and uncharitable behavior of their anti-gay brothers and sisters.

Or until LGBT persons simply walk away from the churches altogether—which is the real agenda of these anti-gay groups, no matter how much they express pastoral concern for their gay brothers and sisters. And which totally undermines the claim of their churches to be about God, love, compassion, communion, catholicity, etc.

Addendum, 9:30 A.M.: a perceptive reader of this blog has helped me, in an email exchange, too recognize that I need to clarify what I mean when I keep talking about the fence-sitting and silence of centrist Catholics. As this reader notes, many good Catholics are involved in activities to counter the homophobia in the church, and it's impossible to know about all of these, since people don't always choose to act by writing letters or blog postings, but in other ways.

And that's a significant point. I don't by any means want to overlook all of this activity. I know it's going on, and that, for example, quite a few Catholics in Maine worked long and hard during that recent battle to offset the church's homophobia.

My critique is really focused on what I sometimes call the intellectual elite of American Catholicism, on some leading moderately liberal American Catholic bloggers and journalists who remain utterly silent in the face of the church's savagery towards its gay members, or worse, who defend the church's treatment of LGBT persons. These folks have voices that count, and could have an influence, if they chose to speak out. They and the sector of the American Catholic church they represent—well-educated, well-represented in professional circles in important cultural and demographic centers in the U.S.—also do not, in my experience, have significant problems with the use of artificial contraception. Yet even though the same moral norm used to forbid that practice is the norm used to bash gay Catholics, they remain silent about the gay-bashing, and about the disparity between how the church treats its gay members and its straight members using contraception.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

JPII Catholics, the Dumbing Down of the Church, and Gay-Bashing: Making the Connections

I wrote earlier today about the dumbing down that has been taking place following the imposition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church as a doctrinal playbook in the Catholic church, a Catholic answer book intended to quell questions (and suppress thought), to provide mind-numbing answers to every question one might ever possibly entertain.

If you’d like to see the effects of that process close up, I’d direct you once again to the thread that Fr. Jim Martin recently began on the America blog to discuss what gay Catholics are to do today, given Rome’s (and bishops’) unremittingly negative approach to the humanity and lives of gay believers. I’ve linked two previous postings to that discussion.

Since more replies poured into the thread up to the point at which it was removed to America’s archives, I want to encourage readers of Bilgrimage to check the thread again. I’m struck, in particular, by the dismal lack of theological education—let’s face it, by the plain lack of education in general—of many of those who logged in to remind us who are gay that we’re the foulest of sinners. But that they love us, of course. And intend to pray for us, as they admonish us since the Catechism's list of spiritual works of mercy tells them that they're doing a noble thing when they admonish sinners.

(Never mind that it also requires us to instruct the ignorant, which may have been among Fr. Martin’s intents in opening a conversation space in which these oh-so-certain but oh-so-woefully-ill-informed JPII Catholics might hear, for the first time, what it’s like to live inside gay skin. Little of that dialogic exchange, in which the ignorant are instructed, took place on the thread, unfortunately. It can’t take place when those intent on doing the instructing and admonishing already know the answers, and have not a scrap of respect for the humanity and experience of the “sinners” they’re admonishing.)

What might not be evident to some readers of this thread, but is obvious to me, is that the large majority of the zealots logging in to remind us who are gay that we are dire sinners, in case we’ve forgotten that, are young Catholics. They’re JPII Catholics. They have come of age in the papal reigns of John Paul II and Benedict. They are, in the flesh, what JPII and Benedict and their minions in episcopal palaces have wrought in the church. They are the church that JPII, Benedict, and their minions want for the future.

They have cut their teeth on the Catechism of the Catholic Church, these JPII Catholics. They have, many of them, been home-schooled (in many cases, because their parents see any other form of education, including parochial school, as corrupting and as less than orthodox). They have, many of them, attended the handful of Catholic colleges and universities in the United States that the Cardinal Newman Society declares to be the only authentically Catholic universities left in the country.

And they’re abysmally educated. In just about any area to which you can point. Their grasp of the tradition they claim to defend in exemplary ways, of church history and the process of doctrinal development, is so tenuous that they don’t know, for instance, that the Catholic church taught for centuries that usury is a mortal sin, and changed its mind about this issue only as important medieval theologians began to question this teaching when capitalist economies developed in that period.

I’m particularly interested in the responses of several zealous young JPII Catholics on the America thread who wanted to convince me that Jesus wasn’t about healing at all. He was about correcting sin. Sin’s what it’s all about—sin and souls. Not healing and bodies. Not this world. Jesus was all about the next world. He was all about correcting sinners so that they could save their souls, avoid hell and attain heaven.

I hardly know where to begin with this misrepresentation of Catholic teaching, which verges on heresy. So much good theological and biblical work has been done in recent decades on this topic, and the church has said so much about it in key documents in the period of Vatican II and afterwards, that I’m amazed at what a hold the pre-Vatican II understanding of the life and ministry of Jesus (and the mission of the church that follows Jesus) has on the minds of young Catholics of this generation, despite Vatican II and despite the hope for more cogent and effective religious education that that council opened for many of us.

I'm amazed at the grip that this biblically and theologically inadequate understanding of the life and teaching of Jesus and the mission of the church that flows from that life and teaching now has on the minds of the self-professed guardians of orthodoxy in the church today. Of graduates of Catholic schools that tout themselves as more orthodox than any other Catholic schools.

It seems not to occur to several of those who instructed me in these matters on the America thread that, in denying that Jesus healed the sick, they’re actually combating what the gospels themselves say. In scorning the term “therapeutic” and denying that the church inherits from Jesus a therapeutic mission, these brightest and best young American Catholics seem to have not a clue that the term “therapeutic” harks back to a Greek root that means “to heal,” and that it’s impossible to follow in the footsteps of Jesus without intending to heal.

In reducing Jesus’s life and significance to a decidedly non-therapeutic paradigm of admonishing sinners and saving souls, these brightest and best young American Catholics make the gospels meaningless. They ignore something that is central to Jesus's teaching and ministry: namely, the insistence that we love people in their bodies, in their hunger, thirst, sickness, indigence, or we don't love at all.

It's deeply sad that many JPII Catholics cling to a false, spiritualized notion of Jesus's ministry and the church's mission primarily because it is so important to them to score points against their brothers and sisters who happen to be gay. All to retain the right, so essential to these young Catholics and their understanding of what it means to be Catholic, to keep informing their gay brothers and sisters that we’re defective, headed for hell.

When Jesus healed. And when Jesus never said a single word about homosexuality.

The church’s guardians of orthodoxy today have ended up in a strange place—a place akin to heresy—in their intent to reserve to themselves the right to demean their brothers and sisters who happen to be gay. The divorce of body from spirit, the claim that one can reject the God-given embodied existences of those who are gay, even to the point of denying fundamental rights like the right to a job or health care coverage, to those who are gay, while one claims that one is acting out of love, is profoundly false. And profoundly disingenuous.

The claim of those who are making the bodily existence of their gay brothers and sisters a living hell in order to save these brothers' and sisters's souls is downright wicked. This claim departs from what the gospels say and would have us do every bit as much as did the claim of the Inquisitors of the Middle Ages that, in burning the bodies of heretics and witches, the church was saving these sinners’ souls. And acting out of love for those they tortured and then burned.

We haven't come very far down the road in some religious groups in recent years, have we? Unfortunately, I look for us to keep heading backwards rather than forwards in the foreseeable future, in the Catholic church, at least—and in the political process, insofar as the Catholic church continues its alliance with the religious right around key issues, and bolsters the religious right's ugly influence in our political process. More on that later.

U.S. Catholic Bishops Announce: Love Is What It's All About

It’s a strange world out there, and it’s getting stranger.

Cardinal Francis George gave his presidential address yesterday to the U.S. States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) meeting in Baltimore, and proclaimed that it’s all about love, not control. George noted that the bishops are intently concerned to “strengthen” their relationship to Catholic universities, the media, and Catholic-sponsored organizations.

And then he went on to say,

Relations do not speak first of control but of love. If there is a loosening of relationship between ourselves and those whom Christ has given us to govern in love, it is for us to reach out and re-establish connections necessary for all to remain in communion.

Translation: we want to reach out and pull you in, enfold you in the maternal bosom of the church and our episcopal embrace, because we love love love you. It’s not in the least about control.

If you’ve gotten out of hand, you Catholic universities and Catholic organizations and Catholic media, it’s because we just haven’t loved you enough. We haven’t embraced you as warmly as we might have done. We’re going to ratchet up that warm maternal embrace in coming days because we love you. It has nothing at all to do with our need to control.

Several things are interesting about these claims. The first point to note is that the claim that Catholic universities are getting out of the warm and loving episcopal embrace is nothing new. This claim has been rolling forth from the bishops and their right-wing promoters since the end of the 1980s, as the restorationist agenda of John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger, with its assault on Vatican II, moved into full gear. Then, it had everything to do with the diminishing percentage of priests and religious teaching in Catholic universities, and the rising number of layfolks in the faculties of these universities—including, neuralgically, their departments of theology.

The response of the bishops and many right-wing Catholics to that sociological phenomenon was to tighten the screws, in order to assure that, insofar as possible, bishops would have direct control over what was being taught in theology departments of Catholic universities. Along with this screw-tightening (excuse me: enhanced warm and loving embrace) went the entirely bogus claim that Catholic schools were losing their Catholicity, because priests, brothers, and nuns no longer exercised as much direct control over these institutions as they had done in the past.

It was during this period that the new Catechism of the Catholic Church was formulated, in a top-down process that bypassed theologians, and was imposed on Catholic institutions as an unprecedented doctrinal rule of thumb. I say “top-down process that bypassed theologians,” because I know several theologians who were asked to vet drafts of the catechism. They tell me that, invariably, the text they were asked to read and comment on was sent to them with a turnaround time of a day or so. The process was rigged, in other words, to assure that theologians asked to review the text would not have time to do so carefully, but so that claims could still be made that the text had had theological review and input before it was finalized.

I say “unprecedented doctrinal rule of thumb,” because catechisms—which are, after all, culturally conditioned, partial and selective, mutable compendia of a complex, rich, and vast tradition that far surpasses what can be comprised in such a compendium—have never been regarded as the final arbiter in matters of faith and morals in the past. But that is precisely how the CCC is now being treated: as an answer book to which those on the right (who pressed for this text as a weapon they could use against fellow Catholics) can turn to find texts to declare that all and sundry are lacking in orthodoxy. All save themselves, of course.

The consequences of this approach to teaching the Catholic faith and to understanding scripture and tradition are lamentable. They include a significant dumbing down of Catholics that will take generations to correct, if it is ever, indeed, corrected. Catholics whose formation in faith now consists primarily of memorizing a handful of ill-digested texts, imperfectly understood and carefully selected, and then spouting these texts back out as a demonstration that they are formed in the faith. Those claiming to represent orthodoxy in all its fullness and complexity rarely have even a passing acquaintance with the fullness and complexity they claim to represent as they spout out their handsful of ill-digested and imperfectly understood texts.

But I digress. As I say, I’m fascinated with Cardinal George’s offer to American Catholics of a new warm maternal embrace as we, poor things, wander in the wilderness of godless postmodern secularism, not knowing where to turn. Not knowing where to find the authentic Catholic voice and the bona fide Catholic embrace.

I’m fascinated with what this means right now, with why it’s being offered once again at this USCCB meeting. My suspicion is that what is looming larger in the episcopal mind right now than that hoary old charge of waning Catholicity in Catholic universities (where the episcopal embrace is now tight, and effective, and exceedingly smothering) is the concern to rein in (excuse me: embrace with maternal affection) online Catholic discussions. To rein in Catholic newspapers and journals, and, in particular, their online components that permit at least a modicum of open discussion.

This new sociological phenomenon—one that surpasses in its effects what a few mouthy (and always timid) lay theologians seemed to represent in the final decades of the 20th century—is, it appears, exceptionally troubling to Rome and the bishops. With what some Catholic media gurus and power-brokers are now calling its “aggressive” tendency to level the playing field, to democratize the conversation, online discourse about matters Catholic poses a very serious challenge to those intent on controlling everything from the center.

The fact is, Rome and the bishops simply cannot control everything that is now being said by Catholics, about Catholics, on behalf of Catholics, in the name of Catholic identity. The internet allows the plurality of voices that the center has (with the active complicity of centrist Catholic media gurus) done everything in the world to suppress to speak freely in a way unprecedented in Catholic history. To demonstrate to the world what being catholic is all about—to remind the world that being catholic is about embracing the everybody that comes along when we issue a truly catholic invitation to the world.

And the bishops don’t like that one bit. Ironically, the absolute control they believed they had effected over Catholic discourse in the final decades of the 20th century has slipped from their hands at precisely the moment at which it seemed to be reaching its peak.

History has a way of doing that to us, of snatching from our hands what we clutch to ourselves with the absolute certainty that we’ve finally gained total mastery, at precisely the moment when our mastery seems most secure. History has a way of demonstrating to us that we aren't, after all, in control at all.

And Rome and the bishops don't seem to like that recognition. And so the need for a warmer, more effusive, more all-encompassing and all-defining embrace now. And if the enfolding arms feel just a wee bit like the embrace of the iron maiden, well, it's important to keep in mind that love does hurt, after all.

Because the bishops love, above all. That's what they're all about. And they're offering the renewed embrace as a sign of their warm and compassionate love. It's not about control at all.

Strange World Out There: Doctor's Wife Represent Real America, Upbraids Congressman for Supporting Health Care for All

It’s a strange world out there, and only getting stranger.

Here in Arkansas, our latest little tempest in a teapot is an email circulated by a doctor’s wife following an incident at a wannabe upscale Little Rock restaurant several days ago (wannabe, because we dont know from real or fake, good or bad, food in Little Rock; we assume, not knowing any better, that $$ equals fine cuisine). Doctor’s wife and a group of her friends were out for a big boozy fling on the town when our local Congressional representative Vic Snyder and his wife Betsy Singleton, a Methodist minister, came into the restaurant.

Doctor’s wife and a friend of hers take it on themselves to assault—verbally—Rep. Snyder and his wife, because Snyder voted for the health care reform bill. He is, doctor’s wife avows, “so out of touch with America !,” and she and hers are determined to see him run out of office for daring to support health care coverage for all Americans.

It’s a strange world and only getting stranger. These ladies who represent the real America make this claim to understand and represent everyone while knocking back pricey drinks and eating what passes for high-priced haute cuisine in Arkansas. They’re the real America. Not the thousands and thousands of citizens of their state and nation who have no access to ongoing, quality, affordable health care.

In 2008, doctor’s wife and her doctor husband were featured in a local business paper’s discussion of citizens of our county who had paid over $1 million for their houses during that year. You know, the real Americans, the kind our Congressional representative is out of touch with as he votes for health coverage for all citizens. The kind of Americans who can afford to pay top dollars of a weekend on wine- and martini-laden dinners of badly prepared osso bucco and messes of blackened this or that.

Doctor’s wife’s email boasting that she had really given it to Rep. Snyder and his wife Betsy (whose health is, I’m told, iffy right now as she and her husband raise triplets born to them recently) also notes that she has served on the board of Arkansas Hospice. An organization whose mission is to provide the best possible health care to those in the final stages of their lives. An organization headed (and yes, this matters for me, as I assess this woman’s behavior and the values implied in her boastful email) by a former priest. Who has an M. Div. degree.

Foolishly, perhaps, naively, I tend to look for a strong connection between the professed and lived values of those who serve on the governing boards of non-profit institutions, and the values of the institutions on whose boards they serve. When I see a radical disconnect—and I often do, in our little city in which having your face in the paper and your name attached to governing boards counts far more than education, expertise as a board member, or fidelity to the values of the institutions you govern, I tend to shift my financial support elsewhere.

I’m not seeing that connection in this case, and so the letter I recently received from Arkansas Hospice asking for another donation from me is going to go into the wastebasket now.

It’s a strange world out there, and only getting stranger. How have we gotten to this place, in which up is down and wrong is right, and the brassiest, most belligerent, and least considerate among us claim to be the most sterling representatives of religious values, I wonder?

And what role have people of faith and religious leaders played in getting us here?

Monday, November 16, 2009

Will Phillips Speaks His Mind: Liberty and Justice for All

The Conversation Centrist Catholics Do Not Intend to Have, Continued

It's political. And it uniquely singles out gay human beings for hostile, cruel treatment not accorded other Catholics--including the more than 90% of married Catholics in developed nations using contraceptives--who reject the teaching of the church on sexual ethical issues.

It is clear to me that something more than concern to protect ethical standards and theological norms is at work in the decision of the Catholic church today to focus exclusive, and exceptionally hard-hearted, attention on the supposed moral lapses of its gay children. In asking what a gay Catholic is to do, Fr. Martin is asking how gay Catholics can live within an institution determined to drive us out at all cost, a cost that includes the church's egregious violation of its own teachings about human rights and justice.

A number of outstanding recent postings at other blogs in the past several days also respond to Fr. Martin's posting. These include Colleen Kochivar-Baker's Enlightened Catholicism, Michael Bayly's Wild Reed, and Terry Weldon's Queering the Church (and here).

I find the discussion that followed Fr. Martin's posting frankly daunting. Much of it consists of ill-considered, theologically illiterate attempts of those who imagine they're defending church teaching to add to the burdens those of us who are gay are already carrying. The comments of many of those who logged in not to talk with but to inform those of us who are gay that we are hell-bound are a crystal-clear demonstration to me of how much damage John Paul II and Benedict's program of restorationism has wrought in the Catholic church. The last two papacies have succeeded in dumbing down the church to a remarkable degree, and with bishops in place across the board who have been appointed by the last two popes, and who reflect their ideology, I don't look for a reversal of this process anytime soon.

Meanwhile, I remain deeply saddened by the lack of any meaningful response to what is taking place in the church, vis-a-vis its gay members, from the one sector of the church that remains theologically literate, its lay intellectual class of the center. This group has the power to make its voice heard, if it chose to speak out.

It does not intend to speak out, though, even when the norms being used to ground the ugly political attack on gay Catholics are the same norms used to condemn artificial contraception, a practice long since accepted by most members of the intellectual elite of Catholicism in the developed nations of the world. This group does not intend to involve itself in a struggle that moves theological conversation about sexual ethical issues beyond safe abstraction to painful analysis of the effects of theological ideas on real human lives. Catholics of the center intend to go on sitting on the fence as they claim some superior vantage point in what they depict as a struggle between a left and a right that both lack objectivity. This is, of course, a ploy of those at the center to remain on the side of power.

Meanwhile, people are being seriously hurt, and the rhetoric of both the church and its intellectual elite about God, church, salvation, communion, justice, human rights, and so on is very seriously undermined by what church leaders are doing, and by the complicit silence of many educated lay Catholics who know better.

And so I posted the following on Fr. Martin's thread this weekend:

As I’ve noted, I appreciate Fr. Martin for opening space for this much-needed conversation. There are almost no such spaces open for this conversation in the Catholic church in the U.S. today. In my view, the church is suffering significantly as a result.

I see a somewhat disjointed national conversation taking place now about these issues on various Catholic blogs, and that suggests to me the need for more extensive conversation—if the church is really serious about pastoral outreach to gay persons. It is impossible to have this conversation at an abstract level, without hearing people’s real-life experiences, because the church’s current stance has real-life implications for real people. And so the conversation is necessarily messy, particularly for those who think that theological discussions can or should be abstract and avoid the messiness of real-life experience.

And the conversation will necessarily be passionate for many of us. Our lives — how our humanity is defined — are at stake here.

Fr. Martin began this conversation noting that those who work for the church in any official capacity find it well-nigh impossible to be open about their identity as gay or lesbian. He also noted that those who work for the church and are open about their identity sometimes find themselves fired.

These seem to me to be important theological data. If Fr. Martin is correct, it strikes me as crucial for theological discussion of homosexuality to take these data into consideration. Are openly gay people commonly barred from working for the church in any official capacity? Do Catholic institutions fire people who are gay and become open about their identity?

At another blog where part of this disjointed conversation is now taking place — at Commonweal, where Margaret O’Brien Steinfels has posted
“Tom Reese on DC” — I find Margaret O’Brien Steinfels stating something that appears to move in the opposite direction of Fr. Martin’s statement. She suggests that “in many places around the country dioceses and archdioceses do not discriminate in hiring [i.e., on grounds of sexual orientation].”

It seems important to ascertain the truth here, and to do so in a national American Catholic conversation. Does the church discriminate prima facie on the basis of sexual orientation in hiring? And if it does so, does it go on to discriminate in other ways when its employees become public about their identity—e.g., does it fire people without due process, deny health benefits to them and their partners if they are gay, remove them from their livelihood solely because they are gay?

In my experience — admittedly limited — the church does, in fact, engage in prima facie discrimination against gay people, solely on the basis of sexual orientation. And it does frequently violate its own teachings about justice in the workplace in its treatment of its gay employees. In my own Waterloo experience with a Catholic institution in this regard, I turned to a national Catholic publication, asking to recount the experience. I was told that the story of discrimination I sought to tell is so common in Catholic institutions, it’s not newsworthy.

Another piece of this disjointed conversation: a respondent at Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish blog yesterday (
“Charity and Justice in Washington, DC”) suggests that the church’s teaching about gay folks positively appears to demand discrimination. This poster notes that if we follow the logic of the church’s teaching, this teaching appears to demand that gay folks may well end up without various primary goods - homes, jobs, food, medical care, health insurance, etc. – when the church itself is the employer of those folks.

Where does the truth lie here? What is the experience of gay and lesbian folks in the American Catholic church? If that experience comprises manifold forms of discrimination from the church itself, then one would want to ask why it is so hard to bring those experiences to light and discuss them openly within a Christian institution. If it does not comprise manifold forms of discrimination, then one would want to ask why some of us seem to think it’s well-nigh impossible to be openly gay and work in Catholic institutions.

If Fr. Martin is correct when he says that it is “close to impossible” to be openly gay while working in most Catholic institutions, and that those who are open run the risk of being fired, then it seems American Catholics ought to consider this issue, and listen carefully to the experiences of those affected by this reality, for two reasons. First, it’s impossible to carry on effective pastoral work while ignoring people’s testimony about their lives. Second, if the church’s behavior as an employer belies its teachings about justice in the workplace – or about human rights – then the church significantly undermines those teachings when it fails to adhere to them.

Personally, I have concluded that the Catholic church in the U.S. would simply like for its LGBT children to go away quietly, because the issues we raise are too volatile. I have also concluded that this tacit “pastoral” choice is causing incalculable harm to the church.

Is this national conversation going to take place? I seriously doubt it, not even if the U.S. Catholic bishops issue a pastoral letter about marriage at their current meeting which makes faint noises about Catholics using contraception and heterosexual couples living together before marriage. I doubt there will be much national conversation of what the church is doing to its gay members because we all know that the bishops do not intend to divert millions of dollars into political attacks on cohabiting heterosexual Catholics or Catholics practicing artificial contraception.

And when their own lives are secure, why should the majority care about what is being done to a tiny minority, in any case?