Monday, August 13, 2012

Letter to a Young Catholic Considering Leaving the Catholic Church (After Mike and Cathy's Chick-fil-A Cheerleading Stunt)*

I understand.  Believe me, I do.  At least, I think I do.

I think I understand why you are thinking about leaving the Catholic church right now—about  distancing yourself from a religious community which claims to offer you the living memory of Jesus, but tells you in the name of Jesus that your humanity is less than that of all other human beings.

That you don’t count.  That you aren’t wanted.  That Catholics would be happier if you kept your mouth shut, or barring that, simply vanished from the earth.

I think I understand why you say that there is no place for you in the Catholic community—and that this recognition has grown in recent weeks, as leading Catholic “liberals” like Mike and Cathy, both of whom have written breast-beating articles about how painful it is to see Catholics leaving the Catholic church in droves, gleefully inform the world that they’ve lined up to wolf down chicken sandwiches for Jesus.

And to kick the gays in the teeth.  To kick you in the teeth.

I understand quite specifically your confusion about what Mike and Cathy represent.  Because they both present themselves to the world as intellectually insightful liberals and as exemplary spokespersons for what it means to be Catholic in America in the 21st century.  Because both profess fervent concern for Catholics leaving the church and ask how we might more effectively evangelize.

Like me, you were raised in another Christian tradition and deliberately chose to be Catholic.  Because you believed (as I did) that claim that I mention in the second paragraph above: that the Catholic community enshrines the living memory of Jesus in the world.  And offers the living flesh and blood of Jesus to believers in its liturgical celebrations.  

You believed, you took a leap of faith to join the Catholic church, and now you’ve been rewarded for your leap of faith by hearing leading Catholic media commentators like Mike and Cathy—people the New York Times relies on to parse Catholic identity for the nation, or people Stephen Colbert invites to tell the world what it means to be Catholic—tell you that your own human flesh and blood, your gay flesh and blood, have no place in the Catholic church.

The flesh and blood of Jesus offered in the eucharist daily isn’t for your gay flesh and blood.  It’s for faithful Catholics.  It’s not for mouthy gay Catholics who refuse to shut up when told to do so.  It’s for Catholics like Mike and Cathy, who are willing to profess authentic Catholic faith, to give body to it, by lining up with other faithful Christians to eat chicken sandwiches to keep Jesus alive in American culture today.

But before you take your leap of faith out of the Catholic community you chose because you believed that the flesh and blood of Jesus are given for all, there are a few things I hope you might understand about Mike and Cathy and the club of which they’re members.  What counts for Mike and Cathy above all is power.  Not the gospels.  Power.  Their power.  Their empowerment by those who have power.

Not your voice and that of Catholics like you and me, who are inconsequential to them.  We grew up on the wrong side of their tracks, after all.  We don't have their privileged positions at high-profile Catholic institutions or their media entrée.  They can pretend we don't even exist, and do so with impunity, even as they define for the culture at large what it means to be Catholic (i.e., catholic)!--about what it means to embody the values of a church that says to the world, Here comes everybody.

Where power is, Mike and Cathy go.  Where they sniff power (and more power for themselves), there they cast their lot.  Where power promises to reward them for letting their mouths be filled with the words of the powerful for whom they make themselves mouthpieces, there they end up.

Mike and Cathy and their club (and such folks are legion, always have been legion throughout history) are essentially power-mongers.  They test the wind before they speak, to ascertain the direction in which the wind is blowing, and then they speak confidently in that direction.

They blow with the wind.  They blew with the powerful wind they sensed blowing on Rev. Mike Huckabee's Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day.

They call themselves liberals.  I call them centrists.  I do so because their power-brokering game is to situate themselves—always—in any center that promises to allocate power to them.  No cafeteria Catholicism for them, thank you very much.  They themselves (and imagine anyone making this claim with a straight face: but Mike and Cathy do so) embody the whole Catholic cafeteria, and they exist to tell the rest of us, right and left, that we're eating only a portion of what's on offer there.

Mike and Cathy live for power, as in the power to draw insider-outsider lines that tell some folks that they count and other folks that they don’t count.  Because that’s ultimately what power is always about, isn’t it, when it’s exercised in worldly and not spiritual terms?

I call Mike and Cathy centrists because their favorite political game has been for some time now, as Catholics political commentators, to broker between the empowered right and the disempowered left, while claiming to stand apart from and in objective critique of both sides.  (We own the cafeteria, after all, they inform us; we have objective truth.  Both sides, right and left, betray the objective truth of the Catholic cafeteria that we own as objective, full-cafeteria centrists, offering fried chicken sandwiches and all the rest of the fullness of Catholic truth to you defective believers outside the objective center.)

But what you need to notice about Mike and Cathy’s “objectivity” is this: the further to the right the center moves, the more blithely to the right they themselves move.  All the while calling themselves liberals!  And objective.  And standing on squares of unvarying Catholic truth.

And so their “liberalism” becomes more and more—it has to become—a denunciation of other liberals who aren’t choosing to dance rightward with Mike and Cathy.  With Mike and Cathy, who dance rightward in cheap, cost-nothing symbolic gestures like eating Chick-fil-A sandwiches with the righteous in order to partake of the liberal helpings of power, influence, media access, and, yes, financial security doled out by the powerful political right to “liberals” who serve the right.  By keeping other liberals, real liberals, out of the political conversation and out of the Catholic conversation.

The Chick-fil-A controversy was a prime example of this old, ugly dynamic which has now become par for the course for pretend “liberals” like Mike and Cathy.  They smelled power when the controversy arose, and they knew precisely how to access that power.

They did so by turning the tables on those who wanted to point to Chick-fil-A’s active involvement in funding discrimination against gay and lesbian persons, and on religious groups asking that this question be seriously considered as a live question in American cultural and religious debates today.  They turned the discussion into a discussion about imperious liberals trying to dictate to people of faith what they might believe, say, and do.

This allowed Mike and Cathy to posture as liberals eating chicken sandwiches for Jesus who were simply giving voice to valid liberal Catholic concerns about religious freedom, and certainly not lending support to bible-belt homophobia and discrimination against gays.  Mike and Cathy couldn’t possibly have partaken of their chicken sandwiches in order to partake of bible-belt homophobia and discrimination, since they’re liberals from places that just don’t have such homophobia and such discrimination.

What do they know of the crude beliefs of crude people in crude places like Arkansas, where Rev. Mike Huckabee put together the game plan for the national Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day (and where at least one fellow Catholic, whom Mike and Cathy have treated as beneath their notice and their contempt, sought to offer on-the-ground testimony about this event and what it really meant from the epicenter of the event--testimony about what Mike and Cathy were really celebrating when they published their own Chick-fil-A Appreciation Pieces.)

But what have Mike and Cathy to do with Arkansas or with fellow Catholics from Arkansas?  Or with crude bible-belt ideas from Arkansas?  They’re educated, media-savvy liberals from places like Connecticut and Massachusetts, for goodness's sake!  They're from places where people instinctively know that eating chicken sandwiches for Jesus is eating them to defend religious freedom.   Not to kick the gays in the teeth.

(And just never you mind mind that every penny put into the coffers of Chick-fil-A increases the corporation’s donations to those very groups that actively foment homophobic discrimination.  Out of sight, out of mind: what we in the power-mongering center choose not to discuss simply doesn't exist.)

Mike and Cathy were positively gleeful about the recent table-turning with the Chick-fil-A controversy, because it provided them a cheap and easy way to score points once again with the powerful right against other liberals.  To keep pesky liberals who ask pesky questions about what liberalism really means out of Catholic conversations.

And to position themselves more firmly than ever in their favorite centrist position: those who do the ugly work of the right by keeping liberals out of the political and Catholic conversation, while claiming unique “objective” authority to parse Catholic identity for the culture at large, and for other Catholics.  As “liberal”-minded Catholics who just happen to enjoy seeing the right empowered.  Because their power base as “liberals” parsing Catholic identity from a center point determined by the right is never so solid as it is when conservatives have control of church and society. 

I’m encouraging you, in short, to forget about Mike and Cathy as you make your choice right now, whether to stay or to leave the Catholic church.  They truly aren’t worth your anguish—though what they did last week, their choice to trumpet to the world their glee about supporting Chick-fil-A—did shock.

And it did hurt.   I understand that hurt.  I feel it in my own tired old bones.  And I can well imagine something of what your younger Catholic bones might feel about all of this, since you still have years left to live within the church Mike and Cathy are working to create--a church that does not welcome you and will not speak your name.  (And, yes, some members of the Mike and Cathy club are themselves gay.  But you won't find them ever talking about that in print or making their gay identities known in any open, accessible way as they parse what it means for everyone to be Catholic at this point in time.)

Mike and Cathy aren’t worth your anguish because they are essentially empty power-mongers who will suffer the fate that all empty power-mongers always suffer when the moral arc of history moves in a direction they do not and cannot calculate: they’ll be bypassed by history and its moral arc.  As important as they imagine themselves and their voices to be right now, they won't even be a blip on the radar screen of historical narratives in the future.

Because they chose to play the games of empty power-mongers, letting the powerful put empty words into their mouths.  And they did not choose to side with the disempowered, the nobodies, those on the margins, some of whom will inevitably end up at some point in history becoming somebodies, as the moral arc of history opens doors for them to realize their full humanity.  And they will then write history and will tell true stories about who stood with them and who stood against them, as they struggled for humanity in an inhumane world.

Meanwhile, there’s this to consider: we’re all essentially exiles in our spiritual journey through life.  The belief that any institution at all, any group identity, shelters us from the need to live in exile is an illusion.

I’m not in the business of giving absolute directives to anyone as he or she journeys through her or his own spiritual wilderness.  From where I stand, the connection of each soul to God is a unique connection, and one that must be nurtured by the soul itself as it connects to God in its unique way.

I’m loath to offer you absolute directives because I know precisely what it feels like to be offered those by people who don’t know me and my unique spiritual struggles (and unique spiritual insights) in the least.  As someone who blogs about religious and spiritual issues on a regular basis, I can tell you what that feels like, since it happens to me constantly:

I am bombarded by emails or comments at this site telling me that I'm 1) an unfaithful, sinful (read: openly gay) Catholic and I need to repent or the devil will have my sorry skin at the end of my life; 2) an uneducated Arkansan who couldn't possibly know anything about Jesus or the bible or Catholic theology because I'm, well, you know, from Arkansas; 3) a gay dabbler in matters spiritual who needs to give up “foppery” and become a good, manful Quaker; 4) a foolish believer in God, who is a mythic being, and therefore someone entrapped by intellectualism that smarter people in smarter places have long since known how to ditch.

On and on and on.  And almost always, I note (by the way, and this does interest me): these imperious commands to set my foot in someone else’s spiritual path come predictably from heterosexual married men.  Who cannot possibly know what it’s like to journey through the world as a gay person seeking a spiritual path, in a world in which many religious traditions have often been actively hostile to gay human beings.  It's straight men who have all the rights, privileges, and power our society accords to heterosexual married men who want to set me straight on my own spiritual path.

I’m not in the business of telling you what to do now.  What I will tell you is what I myself would do if I were, like you, a younger gay Catholic now awakening to the reality of the exile in which we find ourselves today:

I’d say, Run.  As fast as your feet can carry you.  Run away.  Into the wilderness.

Run away from the empty, power-mongering Mike and Cathy club and the whole pompous Catholic institutional show that empowers them.  Because, though they’re walking in the wilderness every bit as much as the rest of us are, they’ve deluded themselves into thinking their little club, with all its access to power and privilege, enjoys a security in the desert that no one can have as one traverses its barren, dry, trackless spaces.

Their security depends on the illusion of ample fleshpots offered to anyone who will dutifully keep trampling out bricks from Pharoah’s mud and Pharoah’s straw.  Their security depends on the illusion that Pharoah will give them the coveted overseer's place as you and other nobodies like you keep trampling out those bricks at their overseers' commands—at their “objective” centrist demands.

Run from those illusions of security and the toxic personalities that offer them to you.

And as you step into the wilderness, you’ll find, I promise you, that there will be other people and other groups journeying through the wilderness along with you, for whom the price of eucharistic hospitality, spiritual solace, and community solidarity won't be trampling bricks from the mud and straw at the command of "objective" centrist overseers.  And who will offer you real food and not the fleshpots slopped out to those who dutifully trample out the bricks.

You may find it's worth spending time with those people and those groups as you journey through your wilderness.  They reveal themselves like manna falling hidden in the night or springs of water gushing forth in the most unexpected places just when we stop expecting security from Pharoah's club and begin crying out to God for light to lead us through the desert.

*This is not a letter to a single individual.  It is, though, my considered and heartfelt response to several brother and sister Catholics, all younger Catholics, who have made their pain and doubts and sense of alienation known to me and others in recent weeks, particularly following Mike and Cathy's cheerleading for Chick-fil-A.  It's a letter to a composite group of younger and increasingly alienated LGBT Catholics, several of whom actually are now thinking of leaving the Catholic church after the Mike and Cathy straw broke the camel's back of their commitment to the church.  And several of these are converts to Catholicism, as I am.

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