Sunday, April 28, 2013

Dirty Freddie and the Gays: Cardinal Dolan Explains Catholic Welcome of LGBT Persons

I get the feeling that the leader of the U.S. Catholic bishops, Cardinal Dolan, may not have been taught much about manners as he was growing up. Or any time since then, for that matter.

As Jayden Cameron points out in a comment here this morning, His Eminence has just issued his very first follow-up statement to his Easter proclamation (on a Sunday television talk show) that the Catholic church absolutely loves the gays! The statement is a posting at his blog site entitled, "All Are Welcome!"

And then he goes on to talk about dirt. And dirty hands. And dirty people.

He goes on to talk about Dirty Freddie, who was welcome at his family's table when His Eminence was a boy, on the condition that Dirty Freddie wash his hands. Gay and lesbian human beings, fellow Catholics, as an uncouth little boy with dirty hands forced by His Eminence's father to wash the dirty hands before he showed up at the welcome table . . . . 

All Are Welcome! But . . . .

And so here's what makes me wonder whether His Eminence has learned much about good manners in his adult life, or whether he learned good manners from his parents as a child. I ask that because I suspect--I know!--that if I had informed any guest at my parents' table that she or he was welcome, but!, I'd have been promptly smacked upside the head when I was a boy. As I was when I once closed the door in the face of a neighbor who was an alcoholic, fearing his alcoholism would activate my parents' alcoholism if I welcomed him into our house . . . .

Welcome is welcome. No buts. That's a lesson I was taught in no uncertain terms as I was growing up.

You made people feel welcome at your table, regardless of whether they had dirt on their hands, face, or clothes, smelled ripe, were wearing rags. Regardless of whether they had a big red pimple on their big red nose or a louche eye that never seemed to angle in your direction as they talked to you. That's the lesson I learned as a child, with one damning qualification, a glaring but! that I'll discuss in a moment . . . . 

Welcome is welcome.

It is the antithesis of welcome to tell Freddie that he's welcome at your table, but. It's the antithesis of welcome to invite Freddie to your welcome table and then inform him that he's dirty, and that a precondition of his sitting at the welcome table with all the other clean folks is to wash.

It is the antithesis of welcome to single out a guest you've invited to your table and inform him that he's dirty. But he's welcome all the same (if he washes his dirty hands before he sits at table)!

It's the antithesis of welcome for the Catholic church to inform a whole segment of the human community that it's a little boy with dirty hands who must be instructed to wash his hands before he sits at the table with the washed and saved. It's the antithesis of welcome (and of love and of justice) for Catholic folks to inform gay folks that they're Dirty Freddie.

All Are Welcome! But.

As Francis DeBernardo replies to His Eminence in the posting to which Jayden directs our attention in his comment linked above (Francis's statement is on the New Ways Ministry blog, and was picked up by the Clerical Whispers blog),

Cardinal Dolan has a long way to go to learn about welcoming not only LGBT people, but all people, too.  We all have to continually learn this lesson for ourselves, and practice it fearlessly and generously.

And as Colleen Baker says in an equally hard-hitting response at her Enlightened Catholicism site

Someone needs to sit down with Cardinal Dolan and spend some time explaining to him that Jesus did not have a contingent form of love.  Jesus did not relate to people as if they were seven or eight year old children and he was some uber parent.  Jesus referred to his followers as his brothers and sisters not as his children and there is nothing in the Gospels where Jesus refused to feed people if their hands were dirty.  

This is a point Francis DeBernardo also makes adroitly:

I recommend to Dolan (and to others) to read the ground-breaking book, Jesus, An Historical Approximation (Convivium Press, 2009), in which Spanish theologian Jose Pagola, proves the idea that Jesus’ model of ministry was to welcome all people–even those the religious authorities called sinners–and tell them that they are loved by an all-gracious God, regardless of whether or not they will decide to refrain from what others might consider sin.   That  is what welcome is all about.  Welcome with no “buts” or conditions.

And this is one reason I ask what His Eminence has learned about manners (and welcome, and love, and much of anything that has to do with becoming a fully-formed human being) in his adult life, if he can so glibly and condescendingly inform his gay brothers and sisters that they're welcome at his clean table, but! It appears His Eminence hasn't had much education at all about the gospels and the life and ministry of Jesus--above all, about Jesus's penchant for eating with dirty sinners precisely because they were dirty, thus taking on himself their dirt and never reinforcing the judgment of his society and his religion that women and publicans and tax collectors and lepers were dirty and beyond the pale.

Jesus's penchant for eating with dirty sinners and taking their dirt on himself became such a marker for his public ministry that his critics taunted him for being that man who liked to eat with outcasts, and who loved to drink wine at their tables. His critics taunted him for being that man who held an open table and invited to his own table those who were not welcome at the tables of the clean and righteous--who invited to his table precisely the Dirty Freddies of his culture, those excluded from the tables of the clean and righteous because the clean and righteous believed that eating with the dirty would sully them and their clean, righteous tables.

I also suspect that His Eminence's education hasn't comprised much reading of scholars like Mary Douglas, the eminent British social anthropologist (and Catholic) who wrote the classic work Purity and Danger. A work which demonstrates that cultures which regard themselves as embattled, cultures passing through vexing social or economic changes, quite commonly select a despised and subjugated group in their midst as a scapegoat group that they identify as dirty, and whom they then expel from their midst in acts of ritual abuse designed to give the culture of the majority the illusion that it's clean, upright, and stable . . . .

It appears to me that His Eminence hasn't studied with any care the truly filthy history of Christian anti-semitism, where he'd learn that the constant and unvarying charge Christians have made against Jews in culture after culture over the course of Christian history is that they're dirty. They're carriers of disease infecting clean Christian cultures, Christian anti-semities have maintained over and over again for centuries. Before the Nazis targeted Jews, rounded them up, and gassed them to death in concentration camps, they mounted propaganda campaigns to convince the German people that the Jews were dirty, unhygienic, a threat to the hygiene of the Aryan culture.

Tagging despised minorities as dirty is a prelude to violence, because it is in and of itself already an act of violence. It is a precursor for actual physical violence and other forms of social violence because it creates the precondition for regarding those who are attacked as subhuman.

I doubt that His Eminence has read George Orwell's Road to Wigan Pier, either. It's an autobiographical work in which Orwell says that the upper classes among whom he was raised persistently spoke of the working classes as dirty. It was the dirt of the "lower" orders that set them apart from the clean and upright people at the top of society, Orwell was taught as a boy. And because they're dirty, the lower classes deserve to be on the bottom of society where, after all, they don't feel the pain of subjugation as we with finer feelings, who live at the top of the world, might feel it.

When I first read Road to Wigan Pier, Orwell's testimony about these matters gripped me, because what he had to say about the British class system and its use of the tag "dirty" to subjugate working-class people was, I realized, precisely the way I myself had been taught to regard African Americans as I was growing up. In the culture in which I was raised, it was strictly forbidden for a white person to sit at table with a black person, because--we insisted; we were told from childhood forward--black people were unclean. They were dirty.

The taboo that separated us into hierarchical classes, into upper and lower classes, was reinforced by stigmas about dirt, which were, in turn, strongly reinforced by the use of the table, the ultimate symbol of welcome and family, as a weapon to keep the dirty apart from the clean. When one of my mother's sisters persisted in disobeying her father's orders not to spoon sugar onto her beans during her childhood, she was commanded to eat in the kitchen with the cook, an African-American woman, as a punishment until she stopped the sugar-spooning.

The cousin of my cousin about whom I wrote a day or so ago, with whom I had interesting conversations at my uncle's funeral last week, told me that one of the eye-opening experiences of her childhood was having her grandmother slap her across the face when she dared to sit down in the kitchen and eat with her grandmother's African-American cook and housekeeper. "We don't eat with Nigras!"* her grandmother informed her as she dealt the slap to her face.

Dirt; dirty people; Dirty Freddies: the category of dirt, of uncleanness, applied to groups of people whom those in power intend to subjugate, to keep firmly in their place--and, if they begin to get "out of their place," to expel, abuse, and, under some conditions, even kill . . . .

Jesus ate with the Dirty Freddies of his society. He deliberately transgressed the rigid boundary lines separating clean from unclean, in order to make those boundary lines null and void in his community of disciples, whose mission was all about proclaiming a God whose love was unrestricted. He challenged the categorization of some people in the world as Dirty Freddies, with its attendant--and isn't this an astonishing notion?--assumption that by treating some folks as unclean, the rest of us make ourselves clean and good.

Jesus preferred to become unclean in the eyes of the clean and good of his culture, rather than to confirm the self-righteous assumption of those who imagine that they build their righteousness and humanity on the backs of others, by demeaning others. The uncleanness he took on himself by eating with the unclean was a direct repudiation of the judgmental, self-righteous, exclusive, and unwelcoming behavior of the arbiters of religious truth in the world in which he lived.

This is the gospel. His Eminence's notion of welcome is anti-gospel, and Catholics seeking to reform their church, to make it a clearer sacramental sign of the gospel message--of God's all-encompassing love for all human beings, and of God's preferential love for those on the margins--would, in my view, be well-advised to ignore His Eminence and his eminently unwelcoming (and ultimately  very filthy and exclusive) "welcome" table, and to seek to create alternative spaces of real welcome for the Dirty Freddies of the world in which we live today.

When it comes to Cardinal Dolan's "welcome" table, and to the dirty message he offers his LGBT brothers and sisters and the dirty way in which his church treats those of us who are gay: Just count me out. Please.

*I don't intend to give offense by writing this word. I'm replicating what my cousin's cousin said she was told by her grandmother.

The graphic: in 1989, I had a fellowship to do a semester's research at the Center for the Humanities at Oregon State University. During that semester, I wrote my book Singing in a Strange Land: Praying and Acting with the Poor. As I was writing the book, I happened to see an exhibit of the work of Oregon artist Margaret Puckette, and liked it very much. I gave her the manuscript of my book and asked if she would paint something inspired by the book, which drew together its themes. This painting is the result of that request. It has hung in the dining room of every house in which Steve and I have lived since the early 1990s, when I had finally paid Margaret, bit by bit, for the painting.

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