Friday, January 23, 2009

Gene Robinson Through Catholic Eyes: All about Precious Style

I don’t know America magazine’s political blogger Michael Sean Winters from Adam. I’m far removed from the circles of the power bloggers and power journalists who determine the American Catholic political and cultural conversation—who do so, at least, within the power centers of the American Catholic church.

I know only tidbits of Winters’ biography, insofar as he drops those in postings I have read. If I have read correctly, he has lived in Little Rock and had gay neighbors here. I know, of course, that he has written a book about the relationship between the American left and American Catholics which sees the two as generally at odds due to an inability of the left in its most ideologically rigid manifestations to listen appreciatively to Catholic insights.

I have not read that book, but when I read excerpts from it and reviews of it, I hear a critique that has been around quite a while in Catholic circles, a disdainful critique of the insularity of American leftist intellectuals, along with a barely suppressed glorification of the hard-nosed wisdom of the ethnic working folks lefties purport to represent, but whom the Catholic church represents much more effectively. Of the hard-nosed wisdom of the men of the ethnic enclaves from which American Catholic institutions spring.

As an openly gay Catholic, I have always engaged that critique somewhat cautiously, because I have found that it can harbor no small amount of homophobia, as it relegates gay concerns to the “precious” side of its ledger of cultural critique. I have found that the implicit glorification of the hard-nosed wisdom of workers can also glorify a machismo that is inherently homophobic. It interests me to see that many of the big-name Catholic power commentators of both right and left, who are at war with each other regarding all kinds of other issues, easily find common cause when it comes to this critique of the gay agenda as precious.

I have appreciated Michael Sean Winters’ defense of Douglas Kmiec, who, in my view, promises to open a significant new path for American Catholics in our approach to the public sphere—a path to dialogical involvement with the public square that promises to be far more productive than the conflictual, top-down, haranguing approach we’ve employed for the last several decades. I do have issues with Kmiec’s view on gay rights—as I do with Winters’ views—though I believe that Catholics who want a new approach to the public square can work to find common ground even when we differ on particulars as we engage cultural issues.

I have also found Winters’ reflections on the injustice of Rome’s witch-hunt for gay seminarians to be right on target ( Winters is, in my view, exactly right in his contention that the bishops who have promoted and hidden clerics who have abused minors are the problem, and not gay seminarians. I learn from this piece another biographical detail about Winters: that he was once a seminarian.

I have to part company, however, with Michael Sean Winters’ in his recent reflections on Bishop Gene Robinson and his contribution to Obama’s inauguration ( In my view, these reflections enshrine a strong subtext of homophobia that runs through much that the movers and shakers of American Catholic political discourse say about and to the gay community. There’s a dismissive, scornful, totally unwelcoming little text running through much that Winters and his colleagues write about gay human beings.

And since I am a human being, and one who happens to be gay, I take that little subtext rather personally, as if it's written about me. That subtext serves as a reminder to me of why I have distanced myself—rather, why I have finally shrugged my shoulders and accepted the distance imposed on me by those at the center—from the Catholic church.

To put the point bluntly, the American Catholic church has made a preferential option for men. For men who can at least pretend to be heterosexual if they are not. For machismo. For a particular kind of masculinity, a particular way of being a man, one that imagines itself as the direct heir of the tough, brawling, plain-speaking, hard-drinking manhood of our ethnic forefathers. For a homophobic construction of manhood that demeans gay men and taunts them for being precious, shallow sissies.

Here’s what Winters has to say about Gene Robinson in his recent posting re: the inauguration:

When Bishop Gene Robinson told the New York Times that he was "horrified" that earlier inaugural prayers had been so "specifically and aggressively Christian" you knew his own inaugural contribution would be precious. And precious it was. The Rt. Rev. of New Hampshire managed to misunderstand the historical resonance of the word "tolerance" describing it as "mere tolerance." He commended the "reconciling style" of Abraham Lincoln, as if Lincoln’s style mattered more than, say, his perseverance in prosecuting a horrible, harsh yet necessary war. And Robinson wished the new President to bathe everlastingly in victimhood ("Help him remember his own oppression as a minority, drawing on that experience of discrimination, that he might seek to change the lives of those who are still its victims") even though one of the most remarkable qualities of Mr. Obama’s candidacy was his repudiation of such victimhood.

But, what was most disturbing about Bishop Robinson’s prayer was the image of God he portrayed in his effort to avoid being aggressively Christian. The prayer suggests that instead of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, whom some of us have come to know as the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Bishop Robinson prays to a God who bears a remarkable resemblance to a therapist.

Bishop Robinson has become a household name because he is the first openly gay Episcopalian bishop, but that is not my concern: I can’t get over the fact that Anglicans have married bishops in the first place! The real reason to be suspicious of Robinson is that his inaugural prayer was a walking caricature of a lefty theology that perceives the potential for giving offense so comprehensively that the concern for political correctness, normally a canard of the right, actually trumps all else and we are left with a theology that is merely anodyne. I found Robinson’s prayer myopic in the extreme and remain convinced that this man has very little to say.

Subtext galore. Note how everything is framed by the word “precious.” Now that’s not a word one hears often. It's a word one pulls out for very special occasions, to convey very particular cultural references. It means, of course, in this context, affected, excessively refined, given to posturing and preening.

Can anyone say moues? Angry little shakes of the head? Pouting and stamping of tiny feet? There’s a whole world of affective associations that hang on the use of that word “precious” here. And they’re all deeply homophobic. They all reduce Gene Robinson to a figure of ridicule not to be taken too seriously—someone good at acting, but not so skilled at the kind of substantive discourse in which real men engage. Someone very like Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose stay in a Jesuit community in Ireland was turned into torment, some biographers report, by Jesuit confreres who mocked his "ladylike" ways, his fondness for soft slippers, his penchant for moony poetry rather than manlier pursuits.

Lest we fail to get the point, we’re quickly told that Bishop Robinson inappropriately zeroed in on Lincoln’s style, rather than his substance, in his inaugural comments. All style, no substance: show the gays a bright glittering miter and a drab little black breviary, and they’ll grab the miter every time. Because style is what they do, don’t you know. Theater. Prancing and preening on the stage. Where they can act precious to their hearts’ content.

When, instead, they ought to be focusing on the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the Father God we’ve come to know through Jesus Christ—that is, they should be focusing on that Father God when they're assigned to the theater of liturgical enactment as Robinson is. They should be focusing on the male God who is almighty and sovereign, Winters tells us, as he contrasts Rick Warren’s more appropriately Christian (and manly?) prayer to Bishop Robinson’s precious stylistic one bathed in victimhood. Because, as we all know, the gays do victimhood, too, along with the pouting and the moues and the stomping of their little feet. It’s part of the act, of the grand, precious theater of style without substance.

(Unfortunately—and as an aside that’s not really an aside at all—non-paternalistic images of God get short shrift in Winters’ analysis of what constitutes proper, non-stylistic, substantial prayer. Though Jesus spoke of his concern to hug Jerusalem to his heart like a mother bird sheltering her chicks under her wing, the God Jesus taught us to focus on is, we’re told in no uncertain terms by Winter, Father—the God to whom Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob prayed. Miriam, Ruth, Naomi, Judith, Sarah, Rachel, Mary have all apparently vanished from this text whose subtext we’re reading.)

And here’s the difficulty with subtext: it works because it functions at the powerful subliminal level of wink-nudge, of insinuation rather than direct statement. It works its potent magic because it reassures readers already in the know, those who share the world of associations and assumptions enfolded into the subtest, that what they they already take for granted is reinforced in the text's insinuations. Subtexts consolidate the meaning of a text in a way that privileges the perspectives of a group of insiders, who—so the subtext reassures them—will remain in control of the text and its world of meaning, and in control of the meaning the text makes for the public.

There is something inherently exclusive about any subtext. It excludes from its world of discourse anyone who does not possess the key to unlock the meaning of the text—that is, the meaning for those who count. For those who are already inside the circle of power, those to whom the text is really speaking and for whom it is really written.

The nasty subtext that turns gay men into shallow preening peacocks—precious actors all about style rather than substance, about the soft therapeutic (female/feminized) God of the left and not the almighty sovereign Father God of true believers—this subtext absolutely dominates the approach of many American Catholic political and cultural commentators to the gay community. It is a toxic, excluding subtext that reads out of consideration—from the start—the contributions of gay people and gay thinkers (especially of gay men) to religious, political, and cultural life.

Except, of course, insofar as those gay men conform to the stereotypes imposed on us, and allow ourselves to ornament the margins, to prance amusingly on the periphery of the stage while the important actors—real men with women and women with real men—occupy the center. Except insofar as we remain happily ghettoized inside the stylistic disciplines decreed for us by men with power: hair-dressing, designing, singing, and so forth. Or except (and perhaps best of all), we pretend to be who we are not, learn to butch it up, knock back a few rounds of scotch with the big boys, and develop the cojones to talk over a few cigars about what matters to real men—sovereignty, substance, almighty things that interest almighty men who pray to almighty God.

This dominant subtext that is well-nigh determinative of the attitude of key American Catholic intellectuals of both the left and the right towards gay human beings really, really needs to go. It continues to assure that the Catholic church is anything but a welcoming and safe space for gay human beings. It justifies what cannot be justified by believers in Jesus or by Catholics: cruel exclusion, mocking stereotypes, dehumanizing treatment of people who are as human as those doing the dehumanization.

Churches forfeit the right to speak of all-inclusive love, of welcome that turns no one away—of catholic commitments and catholic beliefs—when they continue to harbor unwelcome at their very heart. And when they actively defend those who produce subtexts of demonization, while silencing those who call for open dialogue about those subtexts and their effects.