Despite Pope Francis's question "Who am I to judge?" and the claims that have been made about how this ushers in a new moment in Catholic history, it seems that Catholic institutions in the U.S. just can't quit their addictive habit of targeting gay folks and people who love gay folks: as Michael Bayly reports at his The Wild Reed blog site this morning, Totino-Grace Catholic high school in Fridley, Minnesota, has just fired English and religion teacher Kristen Ostendorf after she told colleagues in late August that she's a lesbian in a committed relationship. As Jim Walsh notes in the Minnesota Post article to which the last link points, the school's president, Bill Hudson, resigned this summer after he, too, came out of the closet.
I like very much Michael's take on Kristen Ostendorf's courageous decision: he notes that she says she came out of the closet because she simply "can't do it anymore." She's through with the lying, evading, game-playing. She can't and won't any longer pay the excruciatingly high price Catholic institutions exact from gay or gay-affirming employees: the price of a mendacity that eats away at one's soul, one's sense of integrity and self-worth.
As Michael notes,
I think it's fair to say that at a very fundamental level, the vast majority of Catholic work environments are unhealthy environments. How can they not be when, in the final analysis, they must enforce the Catholic hierarchy's dysfunctional and unhealthy perspective on sexuality?
The problem is, then, not gay or gay-affirming employees of Catholic institutions. It's the dysfunctionality of these institutions themselves. It's the way in which they demand rotten pretense as the price of remaining connected to the institution, in a culture that has increasingly dispensed with such pretense when it comes to the question of permitting LGBTI people to reveal their identities and to work without harassment in most work environments.
As Michael notes, for most of us who have eventually chosen no longer to pay that price in order to remain in the good graces of the institutional church, the experience has been ultimately liberating. Despite the initial pain of being fired, the disruption of our lives, the removal of a secure income and health benefits, the clear message to us by our family of faith that our human lives simply don't count for much at all, on the other side of the journey through pain is light and healing. Most of us wouldn't go back for all the world, since we have learned that valuing ourselves as God has made us is foundational to our peace, to a healthy sense of self-worth, to our ability to form strong relationships with others--to our ability to love, which is at the very center of our Christian lives.
As Professor Charles J. Reid of the Law School of the University of St. Thomas recently observed (see also here), if American Catholic institutions take seriously what Pope Francis has said about not judging those who are gay, they'll stop these firings. The church itself is paying an increasingly high price for behaving in this way, particularly among younger Catholics, as Michael Bayly notes, since those Catholics have come of age in a culture that does not respect institutions which target and attack those who are gay.
But as Professor William J. Dohar of Santa Clara University's religious studies department has also noted (and see here), not one single, solitary U.S. bishop stood up and made his voice heard in solidarity with Pope Francis when Francis asked, "Who am I to judge?" Not one bishop affirmed the question and the implicit revolution in pastoral approach to LGBTI Catholics that the question implies.
It would appear that, at an institutional level, the Catholic church in the U.S. has a tremendous amount invested in homophobia. I use the monetary term "investment" quite deliberately. The institutional investment in homophobia that the American bishops have made has been consolidated by the choice of their leaders, notably Cardinal Dolan, to ally the Catholic church in the U.S. with the vociferously anti-gay wing of American evangelicalism in the religious right. Backing out of this alliance is not easy because it is, quite precisely, about money and power. It's about courting the good graces of the people that the religious right believes run the nation--the super-rich elites who stand behind conservative political movements.
Backing out of such devi'ls deals is especially not easy in a state like Minnesota, whose chief prelate, Archbishop Nienstedt of St. Paul-Minneapolis, recently informed the members of the filthy rich, politically powerful Napa Institute that the devil is at work in American culture to promote "sodomy, abortion, contraception, pornography, the redefinition of marriage, and the denial of objective truth"--words that may be music to the ears of the rabid right, but are hardly designed to give LGBTI Catholics and those who love us much solace at all, are they?
The photo of Kristen Ostendorf is by Jim Walsh and is from the Minnesota Post article linked above.