And so reform, the reform of the Catholic church about which so many people are speaking as the pope's advisory council of eight cardinals prepares for its first meeting: how does it touch my own life? As I think about what's taking place in Rome (and Assisi) this week, the following bullet points flash through my mind:
• I think of how little has really changed for me (or for my partner Steve) with the new pope and his kinder and gentler tone about gay folks: we were shoved to the margins of our church before Francis came on the scene. We remain shoved to the margins after Francis became pope.
• I think of how I feel so distant from the intense hope some of my Facebook friends and online contacts share for the new pope--as distant as I feel from those who adamantly refuse to see any possibility of hope in Francis or in religion itself. I'm in some in-between place, vis-a-vis both sets of friends.
• I feel just as much distance from my friends who continue to find a comfortable place in the institutional church as I do from my friends who are bitterly opposed to religion in general, after bitter experiences with the Catholic church. In fact, I think I feel more distance between myself and the former set of friends than between myself and the latter group.
• The distance I feel between myself and friends who remain institutionally connected is especially strong when those friends have never once raised their voices to deplore the institution's gay-bashing, have never once tried to open a door for Steve and me to return to the institution, have never once sought to lift a finger to see justice done to us. Liberal Catholics who manage to turn a blind eye to the toxic homophobia of the institution particularly dismay me, when they spout tired platitudes about rights and justice while remaining cozy with a homophobic institution conspicuously violating the rights of its LGBTI members.
• I think of what a reader of Bilgrimage said to me in a recent email: what will folks do, she asks, when Francis inspires them to want to check out Catholic parishes, to return to the practice of Catholic faith, and they encounter the kind of real-life parishes available to most Catholics around the U.S.? Won't they be spectacularly disillusioned, she wonders?
• I think of how Steve and I have been effectively blocked from working as Catholic theologians--from teaching in Catholic institutions, doing scholarship supported by Catholic institutions--for some 20 years now, and how we remain effectively blocked from that work. Nothing Francis has said has changed anything in this regard.
• In fact, as Jim Smith notes in the Minneapolis Star Tribune this morning, things are getting worse rather than better for gay employees of Catholic institutions right now. The list keeps getting longer, Smith writes--the list of openly gay employees of Catholic institutions fired from their jobs, of those supporting gay folks fired from jobs in Catholic institutions.
• Smith notes that while Catholic institutions freely fire openly gay folks or those who openly support gay rights, claiming that they have to protect Catholic moral values, they never fire Catholic heterosexual employees who marry civilly but not sacramentally; they never check up on divorced Catholic employees to see if they've remarried; they never nose into the bedrooms of heterosexual married couples in the employ of Catholic institutions to ask if they're contracepting.
• As a priest-theologian friend of mine told me after Steve and I were definitively fired from our last jobs as Catholic theologians in the early 1990s, Catholic institutions--especially those run by male communities like the Benedictine one that destroyed our careers as theologians--reserve a very special venom for gay folks. That particular kind of deadly venom is injected by Catholic institutions into the lives of no other groups of Catholics working in Catholic institutions.
• What happened to us in the early 1990s is still going on, and it's actually accelerating in Catholic institutions. At the time Belmont Abbey College fired the two of us, spreading around rumors that a theology department just can't have gay theologians teaching in it, since this violates Catholic morality, two leaders of the faculty who were instrumental in supporting our firing were divorced Catholics, a heterosexual couple, who were romantically involved with each other. One of those two hotly defended what the monks of Belmont Abbey did to us, on the ground that, well, I just stated her argument . . . . .
• So reform? What reform?
• What reform for me and my kind, those of us who are gay and Catholic? What welcome? What place? What parish community in which to pray and find church family?
• Steve and I have never even had an apology from the community of monks who turned our lives upside down and ruined our careers as Catholic theologians--let alone any kind of justice, no matter how rough and rudimentary, for the intense pain they inflicted on us, the disruption of our lives just as we began providing care for my aging, demented mother.
• When Steve's siblings send him poison-pill letters telling him how much they love him but what dire, black sinners he and I are, what Catholic parish will provide a home for us, in which we can find balm for the wounds that such ugly treatment in the name of Christ inflicts on our souls and psyches? When his nieces marry and send him invitations to their weddings, pointedly excluding me and citing the Catechism as they work their cruelty, where can we find a Catholic parish that will be a field hospital to bind up the wounds these devout Catholic family members inflict on us?
• As Jamie Manson powerfully and wisely states in a recent essay at NCR, for LGBTI Catholics, the wounds will not heal if the teachings of the Catholic church that allow such cruel stigmatization of us by fellow Catholics are not changed. The teachings themselves are at the very root of the problem.
• On his Facebook page yesterday, Tony Adams wrote the following stellar observation (and I hope I'm not violating Tony's privacy in sharing this publicly):
In the course of this weekend in Cleveland with my fellow LGBT journalists, whenever the pope interview was mentioned, there was polite listening to my reasons why I think Francis is a real improvement, but the universal response was a disinterest in anything generated by a church that has been oppressive and hateful for too long. Basically, the truths and goods that Francis espouses are being acquired elsewhere by LGBT folks. It's as if Catholicism has been a really inferior and infuriating vacuum cleaner, that made households resent its purchase and introduction into the domestic routines. Having gone on to other brands and improved technologies, the fact that the bad one is promising to resolve its problems is nice but disinteresting. The world has moved on, and spirituality in lives marked by plague, loss and bullying has evolved beyond Catholicism's LGBT product line. Francis may have more to do than a simple rebranding.
Tony has recently written about his reasons for finding Francis a "real improvement," as he says.
The truths and goods that Francis espouses are now being acquired elsewhere by LGBT folks. For a long time now, Catholicism has presented us who are gay with a really inferior and infuriating vacuum cleaner. Once we've found brands that work effectively for us, we've moved on to those new, better brands. Why stick with a vacuum cleaner that pinches the fingers as you hoover your rugs, leaving dog hair and dirt everywhere due to its inferior make? The spirituality of LGBTI Catholics in lives marked by plague, loss and bullying has evolved beyond Catholicism's product line.
Francis may have more to do than a simple rebranding.
Tony's analysis here strikes me as eminently sensible, and absolutely correct. If any kind of reform represented by any kind of pope and cardinals is to make any kind of sense to me in my very little life far from the power centers of the church (and of the media, and of the socioeconomic structures that rule the planet), that kind of reform is going to have to go well beyond rebranding.
It's going to have to accentuate gospel words like "love," "heal," "embrace," "mercy," and "justice." It's going to have to make those gospel words real for me.
In my real gay life and real gay committed relationship of over 40 years now.