Thursday, November 8, 2012

The Challenge Now Facing American Catholics: Paying Attention to What Bubbles Up from Catholic Sewers

Meanwhile (this is a postscript to what I just posted about the important, much-appreciated contribution of Catholics too numerous to mention to the victory for human decency and human rights in four U.S. states two days ago), things got really ugly at many of the National Catholic Reporter threads yesterday.  I'll be blunt and say that they got downright vile.  

And the vileness was obviously bubbling up from some of the sewers of American Catholicism in direct response to the elections.  NCR has thankfully and wisely chosen to scrub many of these comments now, and I won't even try to link to the places at which I saw some of them.  This is only a smattering, a cross-section of the vileness that persistently bubbles up out of the sewers of American Catholicism at this point in history--in sharp contrast to the grace, compassion, and justice-doing exhibited by many other American Catholics:

1. One contributor to a thread about the election results insisted on calling the nuns on the bus the c-nts on the bus.  When challenged and reprimanded by other  contributors, he simply bore down on the vile language.

2. Another contributor to a thread about marriage equality chose to insinuate that all gay men practice anal sex, and this results in excrement being shoved into their heads.  Yes.  He did say that, though I'm paraphrasing.  And he's a regular contributor to NCR and other Catholic blog sites under a well-known username.

3. Another contributor began posting at NCR in the past week or so, when he first seems to have created a Disqus account with his current username.  He claims to be a 23-year old man from Eritrea.  I have serious doubts about this claim.  His sole purpose for logging into NCR discussions appears to have been to spread slander and downright lies about gay human beings as the marriage equality votes approached.  As of this morning, in the several days in which he's been leaving comments at NCR, he had left 108 comments.  Every single one of these is a rant about gay folks.  Many are full of outright lies.  He is obviously very angry now that marriage equality prevailed in several states in the election and many Catholics contributed to its victory.

People have asked me in the past why I pay any attention at all to this kind of discourse, and why I think we need to shine the spotlight on it.  I do so for a variety of reasons:

1. Perhaps if someone had listened carefully to what a small minority of Germans (and, following them, citizens of many other European countries) began to dare to say in the 1920s and 1930s, they'd have recognized the potential of the vile discourse bubbling up out of the social sewers of that period to result in mass murder of Jews, Gypsies, Slavs, the physically and mentally challenged, gay folks, political dissenters, and so on.

2. I grew up in the midst of the Civil Rights struggle of the American South.  I grew up in a community in which a tiny minority of citizens who hid their identities under white sheets and hoods burned crosses on the lawns of families who dared to show non-conformity with the racial rules those citizens wanted to enforce.  This same tiny minority of citizens plastered my high school, as it was poised to integrate under a federal mandate, with flyers depicting blonde white women dancing with black men, and predicting the end of "white Christian civilization" due to "race mixing."

These folks were a minority.  Many of us preferred to pretend that they did not represent the rest of us in any way, and that they were effectively powerless.  But they murdered civil rights activists in several states with impunity and bombed churches, killing black children attending services.  And their pernicious effects ran through our whole society, as "nice" white people who professed to eschew overt racism collaborated with, protected, and even assisted these purveyors of racial violence.

Someone needs to listen to and monitor the vile discourse that bubbles up out of the sewers of every society, especially at times of intense social conflict and social transition like that through which the U.S. is now living.  Someone needs to do so if only to keep ringing warning bells about the potential for violence that will ensue as long as we ignore the vile discourse from the sewers and pretend that it has nothing to do with us.

It's also important to me to note that the particular kind of vile discourse I'm discussing here claims the title and heritage Catholic: it claims my religious title and my religious heritage.  And it should therefore concern me, because it radically betrays everything that is right and good about my tradition.

But it has been allowed to masquerade as authentic Catholicism, and it has redoubled its force under the current pope and his predecessor and the bishops they have set in place as leaders of the church, especially in the U.S.  This vile discourse is, I would argue, a direct result of the pastoral strategies of the previous pope and his predecessors and the bishops they have appointed.

In an important passage I excerpted from her book Just Love a week ago, theologian Margaret Farley notes (pp. 291-2) that, while many church leaders may have been persuaded not to oppose legislation that secures the basic civil rights of LGBT persons, nonetheless "the continuing significant societal resistance to this legislation and even more so to legislation regarding domestic partnerships is lodged in the vehemence of the negative judgment that continues to be made [i.e., by many religious communities] regarding homosexual activity and relationships."  Farley notes that this negative judgment is not rooted in reason, but has the power of an "unreasoned taboo" in society at large, as it reinforces "the kind of unreflective repulsion [i.e., against homosexuality and LGBT human beings] that must be addressed if we are to move forward socially and politically on these issues."  

She concludes that faith communities could play a significant role in various cultures by looking critically at the unreasoned taboos reinforced by much traditional faith-based thought and rhetoric about those who are gay.  She also says that faith communities could then carry their own critical self-reflection about these matters over into educational programs that help to "demythologize popular beliefs that create false fears regarding same-sex behaviors." 

This is a big task.  But it is an absolutely imperative one for American Catholicism, given the kind of toxic, hateful rhetoric about LGBT human beings (and women, and people of color) that routinely masquerades as Catholic in American culture at present.  The church is itself a huge part of the problem.  The choice of the American bishops to target a vulnerable, stigmatized minority actively foments social hatred and social violence against gay persons.

And so the disclaimer that the Minnesota Catholic bishops have just issued following the defeat of their marriage amendment, which says that they never intended to target or hurt anyone, but only to uphold the value of "traditional" marriage, is not believable.  It's, in fact, disingenuous.

Spending millions of dollars to amend a state constitution in a state that already has a law on the books outlawing same-sex marriage is an act of violence against a targeted minority.  This kind of religiously fueled rhetorical violence spills over into actual physical violence against the targeted minority.  It also gives a clear signal to those who want to wear the badge Catholic while attacking their LGBT brothers and sisters that they have the blessing of the pastoral leaders of the church as they do so.

I have had emails in the past two days from several friends or e-acquaintances who tell me that they're astonished at the vehemence of the reaction among many Catholics whom they know to the re-election of President Obama.  One friend tells me of someone he knows who is struggling with his conscience because he admits that he actually hates the president and regards him as anti-Christ.

Another tells me of a message he received from a friend who tells him of another friend who went to Mass yesterday, and had to listen to an astonishing rant from her parish priest about how America will now stand under the wrathful ire of God due to its re-election of the president.  The priest stated that from this day forward, the Catholic church will be subjected to persecution and violence by the president.

Both of these reports come from blue states in New England with sizable Catholic populations.

We have a problem, we American Catholics.  That problem stems from choices our church leaders have been making for some years now.  A rhetoric of hate, disdain for targeted Others, and outright violence now bubbles through even our normative Catholic discourse, and claims a bona fide Catholic identity and a bona fide Catholic heritage.

If we American Catholics don't choose to do something about this--if we don't choose decisively to repudiate and delegitimate this pseudo-Catholic rhetoric and behavior even when it emanates from the very top levels of our church--it may soon be too late.  We have to demand better of our bishops.

And we have to insist that they begin the process of critical self-reflection that will be a preliminary to starting the hard task of educating far too many Catholics who have been very badly educated in recent years, to the point that they imagine that standing for what is directly counter to the gospels and to the best in the Catholic tradition makes them squarely Catholic and even more authentically Catholic than everyone else in the world.

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