Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Margaret Farley's Just Love: Theological Reflections

A month ago, when I told readers I had begun Elizabeth Johnson's book Quest for the Living God, was finding it very rewarding to read, and might share some impressions of it on this blog, I also noted that I intended to follow up by reading the other book by a U.S. nun that the U.S. Catholic bishops have condemned of late, Margaret Farley's Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics (NY: Continuum, 2006).  I've just now begun Margaret Farley's book, and as with Elizabeth Johnson's, am finding it powerful.  I haven't read much of it yet.  I ordered the book through my local library's ILL service, and it has just arrived.

I like how Margaret Farley grounds her book's argument in the preface to Just Love.  She states, 

All along I have been struck by the urgency of contemporary issues in sexual ethics not in spite of but along with the many other urgent ethical issues that demand our attention today.  What happens in the sexual sphere of human life is not isolated from what happens in other spheres--whether familial, religious, social, political, or economic.  The possibilities for human flourishing in general are nurtured or hindered by the ways in which we live our sexual lives.  Everyone is aware of not only the fulfillment and joy promised through human sexuality, but the harm, violence, and stigma that unjust actions, relationships, and attitudes bring to our sexual selves.  Perhaps never before have words of healing and hope been so needed, especially from the churches (p. xi).

That brief prolegomenon packs a lot of dense and highly significant ideas into five sentences.  Here are some of my reflections about it:

1. It is very important that Christian theology recognize--as Farley argues--that contemporary issues in sexual ethics be considered "not in spite of but along with the many other urgent ethical issues that demand our attention today."  There's a kind of . . . well, let's call it a fiction . . . among many people of faith including many theologians of the solid center in mainline churches that issues of sexual ethics and the profound questions of justice these issues raise can be quarantined from the rest of theology.  That they can be quarantined from the discussion of issues of marginalization, oppression, and injustice we consider, say, when we talk about the abuse of the poor by the super-rich, or of the peoples of the developing nations by those of the developed nations.

2. The fiction is, I suppose, that sexuality is a case apart, that people don't experience real oppression on grounds of sexuality or sexual orientation, and so it's safe to ignore the kinds of oppression that some people report due to their sexual orientation.  It's safe to pretend that these first-hand reports of oppression are overblown and manufactured, and that those providing them aren't worth listening to.

3. This is an attitude I've long encountered in the Catholic theological academy, and it's baffling.  When Steve and I found one door after another slamming in our faces as we tried to obtain and keep jobs in Catholic institutions following our graduation from a Catholic theology program, we were repeatedly told that we really had no right to see any of this as oppression or injustice.  Because gay folks simply aren't oppressed or treated unjustly--especially not in Catholic institutions!

4. One of those who told us this was a former professor of ours with whom we shared our stories frankly, and who reciprocated by telling us that he himself was gay, though he had left the priesthood and married heterosexually.  In fact, he also has repeatedly told us that he is openly gay and his sexual orientation is a matter of public knowledge, and this is why I share this story here (though without sharing his identity).  I would not otherwise share it for fear of outing someone who does not consider himself out of the closet.

5. This professor has long told us that he has never experienced any oppression at all as a gay person in the Catholic church, and that when he was a priest, he found it very easy to live an openly gay life along with many other priests who were openly gay--and who thrive within the church.  He has also told us that real oppression is what people in the developing world experience, or what people of color experience, or what the poor experience, or what working-class folks experience, or what women experience.  Gay folks, especially gay men, are privileged, he maintains, and have no clue what oppression or injustice is about.

6. And yet this former priest did, in fact, choose to marry--a former nun--and to live in a way that would, of course, not predispose him to experience any oppression at all as a gay man in the theological academy or the Catholic church.  He has been privy to all the privileges and goodies that the academy and the church dole out to those who appear to be heterosexual, and to none of the injustice that Steve and I and many others report experiencing due to our sexual orientation in the academy and in church settings.  He has also refused repeatedly to assist us to find jobs in Catholic institutions.  (All of this has resulted in quite a breach between me and this man whom I once highly admired, though Steve, who is far more irenic and patient than I am, still maintains close ties with our former professor.)

7. His attitude is, I find, normative in the Catholic theological academy, and this is what I was trying to tease out when I critiqued the lacuna I find in Elizabeth Johnson's work (a lacuna that, in my view, reflects the normative position of the Catholic theological academy) when she speaks about the experience of God in marginal communities around the world: there is scarcely any mention at all in her work of gay and lesbian human beings and of the gay community.

8. As I've noted often on this blog, in the days in which I attended the annual national meeting of the Catholic Theological Society of America, I sat through one keynote address and one workshop after another and listened to one paper after another reciting a litany of those who are marginalized and oppressed in our world today: those in developing nations, the poor, women, people of color, Latinos/Latinas, and so on.  I never once heard any mention of LGBT human beings when these litanies were read.  It was as if we simply did not exist, as if we were not in the room.

9. As if we were beneath notice.  As if no one in these rooms full of priests, nuns, and lay theologians was gay or lesbian.  We weren't there.

10. I once wrote a Latin American liberation theologian about this, after having heard a paper of his at CTSA on themes of marginalization and oppression, and asked him why there was no mention of the oppression of gay and lesbian persons in Catholic cultures.  His response to me was full of anger that I dared to raise this question with him--with him, who understands real oppression as a Latino.

11. But as Margaret Farley rightly notes, What happens in the sexual sphere of human life is not isolated from what happens in other spheres--whether familial, religious, social, political, or economic.  All structures of oppression are interwoven and interconnected, as Beverly Wildung Harrison's classic collection of essays entitled Making the Connections (Boston: Beacon Press, 1985) powerfully demonstrates.  As Harrison argues, there are compelling, unavoidable links between various "-isms" including racism, militarism, homophobia, and misogyny. All derive from a worldview in which men—straight men—take for granted that they have the unquestioned right to rule everyone else and to punish those who will not submit to their rule.  

12. To concretize the point: those voting for Romney-Ryan in the coming U.S. election due to, say, their economic agenda are almost certain to support, as well, their anti-gay agenda, their attempt to keep women in their places, their hyped up machismo and militarism, and so on.  All these matters are interconnected, and none can be adequately considered in isolation from the other.

13. And this is to say that the normative fiction maintained by the Catholic theological academy (and, truth to be told, by the academy in general and by many mainline Christian communities)--that gay and lesbian people and gay and lesbian issues can safely be quarantined when the academy or the churches discuss issues of marginalization and injustice--violates a recognition that is intuitively obvious to most people who give any thought at all to these matters.  This is the recognition that human sexuality is not some case apart from everything else, but that what we think and do in that area of life has implications for how we view family, religion, social networks, politics, and economic life, as Farley aptly notes.  Homo economicus = homo politicus = homo sexualis.

14. As a result, as Farley notes, our approach to the area of human sexuality has the potential either to nurture or hinder "the possibilities for human flourishing."  And both the experience of sexuality and how people are defined due to their sexuality can issue in either fulfillment and joy or harm, violence, and stigma--as Farley also aptly notes.

15. Which means that the churches are necessarily implicated in questions about just love, since where there are possibilities for human flourishing (or for the opposite, for thwarted, unfulfilled lives), and for fulfillment and joy or harm, violence, and stigma, the churches are absolutely required to be on the scene.  Right at the heart of the mission of the Christian churches is what the Jewish tradition calls tikkun olam, healing the world--helping human beings to flourish and find fulfillment and combatting what thwarts human flourishing and fulfillment.

When people are harmed, stigmatized, done violence due to their sexuality, the church has a prima facie obligation to be there as healer and redeemer, due to its most fundamental mission of all, which is the mission of walking in the footsteps of Jesus, who went about healing and doing good.  Conversely, when the church and its leaders not only do not bind up the wounds inflicted by injustice in the area of human sexuality, but actively inflict wounds, the church and its leaders betray the church's most fundamental mission and become a countersign to the gospels.  

As Catholic leaders have conspicuously become at this point in history, as an archbishop in Newark, New Jersey, tries to shove Catholics supporting justice for gay folks from the communion table, as an archbishop in San Francisco provides an ugly slap in the face to a brother bishop of the Anglican communion who stands for welcome and inclusion of gay folks in the Christian community, and as an archbishop in Minneapolis-St. Paul tells the mother of a gay son she's headed to hell for supporting and loving her son.

No comments: