Monday, April 15, 2013

Homeless Jesus and a Reflection on Gender Politics in the Catholic Church

In the Toronto Star, Leslie Scrivener tells the story of how a statue of Jesus the homeless was itself made homeless when both St. Michael's cathedral in Toronto and St. Patrick's cathedral in New York refused to provide a home for the sculpture after having expressed an interest in it. The "Jesus the Homeless" sculpture by artist Timothy Schmaltz "punctures the illusion of normalcy," according to theologian Thomas Reynolds of Emmanuel College in Toronto, who adds,

In certain ways, Christian communities have been privileged and considered themselves the norm in society and that has made Christians comfortable in our complacency.

Timothy Schmaltz says that he intended that his homeless Jesus be seen as either male or female--and as I read that line, I wonder, of course, whether the statue's transgression of gender is what made it a dangerous item for those acquiring artwork for the two Catholic cathedrals. I remember the brouhaha that ensued in my years studying theology in Toronto when an image of Jesus crucified as a woman was exhibited by some churches in the city.

The statue now stands outside the Jesuit college in the Toronto School of Theology, Regis College. This is where I spent much of my time as a theology student, though I was enrolled at the other Catholic college in the TST consortium, St. Michael's. My dissertation director Roger Haight was on the Regis faculty, and the college's library and lunchroom were a daily gathering place for a number of us students in the years I was in Toronto.

As I read this story, I can't help thinking of Colleen Baker's wise observations at her latest Enlightened Catholicism posting. Colleen says that she likes what Pope Francis has done up to this point, his apparent willingness to walk his talk, but she feels an "undefined nebulous angst" regarding Francis that she hadn't put her finger on until she realized that the angst arises from her sense that, even with a reforming pope, in the Catholic church "[w]omen will be players, but never coaches."

Colleen also asks if Catholic theology in general can adapt to the rapidly changing notions of gender and gender roles that are now strongly apparent in our culture. In her view, up to the present, the answer to this question is a resounding NO. Catholic theology--Catholic theologians--remain stuck in a cultural model re: gender roles that mirrors assumptions no longer normative for the culture in which we now live.

I think Colleen's absolutely right, and I "read" the "Jesus the Homeless" statue and what has happened to it as a reminder that my Catholic church--and this includes its theological academy (and its journalistic commentariat)--remains a heteronormative boys' club that gives astonishing unmerited power and privilege to men, and, in particular, to men who are either heterosexual or who posture as heterosexual. I find the dialogue about gay issues at various Catholic blog sites lately deeply disheartening for this very reason.

As I've noted in a previous posting, one of the people who has been holding forth at various National Catholic Reporter discussions of gay issues, a seventy-something Catholic married man who calls himself Ontheocean, and who is a former seminarian now living in New Jersey, has repeatedly slammed my first-hand testimony about my experience as a gay man in the Catholic church with dismissive peremptory statements like, "Polemic." "Propaganda." "Whatever." "I do not choose to engage you." I know some details of Mr. Ocean's biography because he shares them on NCR threads.

Here's what I find particularly distasteful--and, yes, painful--about this behavior. Mr. Ocean's clear message, repeated in statement after statement about gay issues at the NCR site, is that he himself embodies the norm within the Catholic church, and those who are gay are somehow aberrant, abnormal, defective--and should shut their aberrant gay mouths and listen to him as he instructs them on the normal way to live. He wrote recently that many Catholic seminaries in the latter part of the 20th century became "oppressively gay," and in the past day or so, he has written a statement to the effect that gay men can't be relied on to reason or discuss issues sanely, since their minds flit everywhere at the drop of a hat, unlike his sane, well-grounded, eminently rational heterosexual male mind.

His response to what Bishop Murphy did to Nicholas Coppola has been to say that Coppola is an adroit political operator who somehow set the situation up to entrap poor Bishop Murphy, and that the gays are using this event (and have staged it) to get national publicity for their argument that gays are not treated with dignity and respect in the Catholic church--though Mr. Ocean has repeatedly informed his NCR dialogue partners that this is a lie, and that gay folks are treated very well in Catholic institutions. The rest of us don't know the behind-the-scenes story about Murphy and Coppola as insiders like Mr. Ocean do, he maintains.

Mr. Ocean invites Nicholas Coppola to continue doing his ministry outside the Catholic church, since, as Ocean maintains, the church has to move at a "glacial pace" regarding these issues, because its mission is to conserve its heritage, not to change with every wind blowing through secular culture. Ocean also chides the gays for being angry at what they imagine the church does to them, and he maintains that the anger of the gays impairs their health and undermines their credibility as they testify to what they imagine the church does to them. (Mr. Ocean himself is not angry at anything at all, of course.)

Why do I focus on these comments by a reader using a pseudonym at the NCR thread? I do so because Mr. Ocean also tells readers of his postings that he has taught theology at seminaries in his area, has been a consultant to several seminaries, has sat on the governing boards of several Catholic schools, and is a published theological writer who has had editors helping to weed out mistakes in his theological work in the past. He also states that he has been in discussion groups with Cardinal Pell, whom he finds as sharp as a tap and a wonderful man (ditto for Cardinal Chaput, Cardinal Dolan, and EPope BXVI, all heroes of Mr. Ocean).

Mr. Ocean is somebody, that is to say. And as Mr. Somebody who teaches theology Mr. Ocean is (and clearly sees himself as) the official voice of the Catholic church to whom others, and especially gay folks, ought to listen with deferential respect, while he refuses to listen with any respect to first-hand testimony of gay folks as he barks, "Polemic! Propaganda! Whatever!" and "I do not choose to engage you." Mr. Ocean is, in short, one of those obtuse elderly men who "control so much of the public face of the church," as Jayden Cameron succinctly describes the brutal dynamic women and gay folks face in trying to obtain a respectrufl hearing within the institution and its theological academy.

I'd submit that not much can or will change as these obtuse elderly men continue to set the standards for  the Catholic theological academy, and so I agree with Colleen Baker's analysis of what is likely to happen under Pope Francis, vis-a-vis the discussion of issues of gender and sexual orientation in the Catholic church. How can anything happen, when the rules of dialogue are set up in such a way that those who are gay are stigmatized from the outset as abnormal, unjustifiably angry, self-interested, deceitful and conniving, and when their first-hand testimony about their gay experiences in the church is dismissed out of hand by powerful heterosexual men who control the dialogue space within Catholic theology, and who flatly declare that things are wonderful for the gays in the Catholic church? 

And that gay folks should shut up and listen to those men, who know what they're talking about, because they're normal and not angry and have no agenda? 

This is hardly a recipe for change. It's a recipe for continued oppression that has turned itself into a n impermeableTeflon fortress in which the oppressor is allowed to depict himself as sweet, kind, and well-intentioned when he's absolutely the opposite. He's allowed to posture in this way because he controls the definitions, the rules and regulations, of the dialogue space that determines what is normal and what is abnormal. And the unmerited power and privilege he has enjoyed his entire life have blinded him to the most elemental questions of justice raised by those he beats down and relegates to silence in order to maintain that position of power and privilege.

Some things change, in some institutions, only when generations pass and certain dynamics die as cultural shifts that those dynamics can no longer resist occur. In my view, it is going to take quite a bit of generational passing on, still, and quite a bit of cultural shifting before the heteronormative boys' club controlling things in the Catholic church opens its doors even a crack to women and gay folks. And we won't see this taking place under the new pope.

P.S. I appreciate how Colleen continuously links homophobia to oppression of women and to misogyny. I think this analysis is absolutely correct, and that the twin issues of defending women from abuse and oppression, and defending LGBT people from abuse and oppression, have to be kept together always, because the oppression of gay folks (and gay men in particular) is a manifestation of misogyny.

In many Catholic circles, unfortunately, the two are played against each other both by those opposed to full inclusion of LGBT people in church and society and those advocating for women's rights. In my view, it's a serious miscalculation for those in the latter group to attack and undermine gay folks seeking rights. It divides groups that have every reason to be united in their attempt to claim their human rights.

I experienced this kind of division and undermining just this past week when I contributed to an NCR thread discussing the abuse of gay folks in the Catholic church, and someone logged in to chide me for not mentioning women--with the implication that gay men deliberately exclude women from their scope of concern as they seek rights, and that the Catholic church is dominated by hidden gay men who actually promote other gay men while denying rights to women.

I think this analysis is woefully wrong-headed. It's also politically unwise. Seeing it offered again and again in liberal-centrist Catholic circles convinces me that those seeking both women's rights and gay rights in the Catholic institution are up against some tremendous odds, not merely from the hierarchy, but also from the centrist group controlling the Catholic academy and the journalistic commentariat, who are very adroit about playing women's rights against gay rights as if the two are not inherently linked. And who are adroit about defending their own unmerited heterosexual power and privilege and never critiquing it, apologizing for, or even analyzing it as they slice and dice the lives of their gay fellow Catholics . . . .

For a footnote to this posting later in the day, please see this subsequent posting.

Thanks to the Hear Our Voices blog for linking to the "Jesus the Homeless" story in the Toronto Star.

The graphic is a photo by Carlos Osorio in the Toronto Star article linked above.

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