Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Future of American Catholicism: Barbara Johnson, Centrism, Power, and Taking Sides

Many of the articles to which I've linked today implicitly ask an important question: where does the future lie for American Catholicism?  In the Boston Globe article to which I link in my posting about Santorum, Charles Pierce cites influential right-wing Catholic commentator George Weigel of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, who tells a gathering of the Legatus group, 

[L]iberal Catholicism is out of gas intellectually. They haven't had a new idea in 20 or 30 years.

As Pierce notes, Legatus is "a national network of traditionalist Catholics that is open only to top business leaders."  Because Weigel's thought, his theological analysis, his political musings, are embedded in structures of power and wealth that have dominant influence in the media, it makes sense for him and his fellow right-wing Catholics to imagine they they control the future of American Catholicism.

They have successfully marginalized Catholics supporting Vatican II, after all.  And they have such power and influence that when they say jump, centrist Catholic academics and media commentators who profess to be liberal ask, "How high?"

Money.  Power.  Influence.  The right connections.  The right pedigrees.  The right locations, the right people.  Why would right-wing Catholics and their centrist epigones have any compelling reason to doubt that when they say liberal Catholicism is out of gas intellectually, it really is out of gas? 

It has lost the battle for the future of American Catholicism.  And as Fr. Richard McBrien tells Pierce in a section of Pierce's article that I excerpted in my comments about Santorum, virtually all the leaders of the American Catholic church right now are in the pocket of the powerful and well-heeled right-wing minority that calls the shots for the whole church: as McBrien states,

That's where the leadership and the power of the church are right now, no question.

It's foolish and self-defeating to argue with power, right?  In my view, this is why liberal centrists predictably end up on the side of power.  They don't intend to engage in self-defeating arguments with those who have the power to make or break their own centrist careers, which depend on keeping in the good graces of the rich and powerful who also control the careers of those on the right. 

And so when events like the recent controversy regarding Barbara Johnson and Fr. Marcel Guarnizo occur, one can see an interesting breakdown of side-taking, of who stands with whom, of who is willing to make solidarity with whom.  Of just how far solidarity stretches among members of minority communities who are divided in other ways, according to their affiliation to power and wealth.  Side-taking and solidarity-calculating all based (in my humble opinion) on calculations about who has the power to make the future, about where the future lies, about who has real power and who doesn't . . . .

When controversies like the Johnson-Guarnizo controversy happen, and when they test the solidarity of members of a particular marginalized group against the sway of the powerful, one often finds that not all members of a marginalized community are willing to stand together, to make common cause with each other--when a great deal of power seems to lie on the other side.

Because I have learned this political reality early in my life, because this understanding of how people behave vis-a-vis structures of power is woven into my bones after I grew up in the midst of the Civil Rights movement (and in a very marginal part of the nation), I am never surprised to see centrists who belong to a marginalized community taking the side of power, when decisions about winners and losers haven't been completely finalized.  When we don't yet know where the real power and real future lie.

And so I was not really surprised, though I was saddened, when, in a recent discussion of these matters at Commonweal, one of the regular contributors to the Commonweal blog site who is openly gay, David Nickol, concluded that Barbara Johnson has behaved "vindictively" towards Fr. Guarnizo.  This is far from the first occasion on which David has refused to stand in solidarity with fellow LGBT Catholics (including me) in Commonweal blog discussions, and I have long since surmised that where David stands as a gay Catholic, I myself don't stand. 

Where Mitt Romney appears to David to be be a "Massachusetts liberal" who doesn't scare him, to me he appears to be an unprincipled tool of the super-rich who will do anything at all to remain in the good graces of the super-rich (a group to which he himself belongs).  And I see him as anything but a friend to women and to LGBT human beings.

There's David Nickol, one kind of American Catholic who's openly gay.  One who appears to find it easy to live comfortably at the comfortable center.

And then there's Barbara Johnson, the fellow gay Catholic whom David has just called vindictive, who just addressed the recent New Ways Ministry symposium, and who told those gathered there that, in publicizing what a pastor did to her at her mother's funeral, she was motivated not by the vindictiveness that the right-wing Catholic commentariat has wanted to see in her actions, but out of love and respect for her Catholic mother.  And that who she is is Barbara Johnson, daughter of a Catholic mother who taught her to stand for what is right and good, "and not 'Barbara Johnson, lesbian denied communion' or 'Barbara Johnson, Buddhist Catholic.'"

When you have these kinds of divisions in a faith community--David Nickol, a gay Catholic of the center who characterizes Barbara Johnson, a gay Catholic denied communion at her mother's funeral, as vindictive--you have to stand somewhere.  As Tevye concludes in "Fiddler on the Roof," they can't both be right.

You have to stand with Barbara Johnson or apart from her, as David Nickol has chosen to do in characterizing her as vindictive.

I myself stand with Barbara Johnson.  I do so because my instinct as a gay person in a world often hostile to gay people is to stand with other gay people.  This makes a world of political sense to me.  When power is amassed overwhelmingly on one side, the only way in which the side targeted by such power can fight back effectively is by building solidarity among its members.

I stand with Barbara Johnson, as well, because, to put the point as simply as possible, her testimony rings true to me.  I have the sense that she is telling the truth about what happened at her mother's funeral.  I'm admittedly predisposed to think this, and I am not naive enough to imagine that people within communities to which I have given my loyalty are incapable of deceit, manipulation, indefensible behavior.  My solidarity is not blind.  It's not amoral.

But one also develops a certain level of gut-driven instinct as one listens to this side or that side, in disputes such as the Johnson-Guarnizo dispute.  And one learns to trust that instinct in sorting out conflicting he-said, she-said claims.  My basic instincts tell me there's more truth to Johnson's story of what took place at her funeral than to Guarnizo's story.  And so I stand with Johnson.

Finally I stand with Barbara Johnson for another reason.  In my view--as foolish as this may seem, when so much power, money, and influence lie on the side of the Catholic right, of Fr. Marcel Guarnizo who is thickly connected to very powerful and very wealthy people in that sector of the church--the future of Catholicism lies with the Barbara Johnsons of the world.

Not with the Marcel Guarnizos and the David Nickols.

Why do I believe that?  Because, foolishly, I believe that in his passion and death (and so in his resurrection) Jesus makes absolute and total solidarity with the nobodies and nothings of the world.  And that his Spirit is poured out on the nobodies and nothings of the world.

And that the Spirit is poured out on their struggle simply to have a voice, to exist at all, in the face of power and wealth which wants to make their lives non-existent, and their voices null and void.

The photo is Chuck Colbert's photo of Barbara Johnson and her partner Ruth from the Rainbow Times article to which I link above.

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