Friday, December 27, 2013

A Travel Report from Rome (With Thanks for Your Responses to My Florence and Assisi Stories)

I haven't had much to say here in the past several days, because Rome is so overwhelming with all that it has to offer that I haven't had time or energy, frankly, to blog very much. We return home tomorrow, and as I gather my thoughts after our return, I may have a bit more to tell you about our time in Rome.

Thank you all for your very welcome good wishes on the trip, none of which I've yet had a chance to acknowledge, and for your thoughtful and helpful responses to my postings about our experiences in Florence and Assisi. I appreciate all of them. What I want to stress about the experience in Florence, which may not have been clear in the story I told about the finger-wagging, frowning nun who "welcomed" us to a guesthouse there, is this: we didn't have our huge AMERICAN GAY COUPLE sign with us when we checked into the guesthouse.

We'd left it at home, along with all of our flaming gay apparel and merit badges and toaster ovens for converting thousands of people to the gay lifestyle. We were just two tired men of mature age checking into a Christian guesthouse after a long journey in a foreign country whose language we don't speak. We arrived bone-tired after dark on a cold day, and the very last thing on our minds was checking into a room with a big double bed in which we could roll around and commit intrinsically evil acts.

And this is why I simply don't get the lack of kindness and welcome on the part of the nun who greeted us. I understand that she had a printout indicating we'd reserved a "matrimonial" room, and that pushed some kind of button for her. We had no such document; the printout we had from the reservation service that handles bookings in these convent guesthouses indicated only that we'd reserved a double room--and that suggested to us that we'd reserved the kind of room we had in Assisi, one with two beds, and in Assisi, no one asked any questions about this arrangement.

Think about it: any unrelated men or unrelated women traveling together might appear on the doorstep of one of these convent guesthouses, asking for a double room, and be treated as we were. The treatment need not depend on their carrying the huge intrinsically evil gay couple sign. 

And so I very much appreciate the response of RELinNC suggesting that we might have asked the good sisters if they had a stable we could use for the night. And wild hair is absolutely right when he says we should simply have informed the good sisters that we were a bishop traveling with his secretary, and then we'd have been given the double room, no questions asked. I know this is correct, because I've heard more than one story from credible sources about the travel arrangements certain bishops make with their young priest-secretaries or longtime male companions. 

The hypocrisy within Catholic circles about these matters is rather stomach-turning, and I personally think it's important that gay couples carrying signs or not carrying signs, as well as non-gay pairs of guests of the same sex keep showing up at these guesthouses, asking for rooms--asking to be treated with decency and respect, regardless of who they are. We who are gay need to keep showing up, demanding simply by being there to be treated like human beings.

Because the church should be about what it professes to be about: welcome of everyone. Respect. Affirmation. And, above all, love. When gay folks turn their backs on the church (and this is a gesture I perfectly understand and respect), we make it very easy for people like Sister Extern and Sister Sub-Extern in Florence to claim that they and they alone own the Catholic church.*

Simply by showing up at their doorstep as two old men tired from a day of travel, Steve and I challenged that claim, it seems to me. They had no reason at all to imagine we were seeking to shove our gay lifestyle down their throats, or to test the boundaries for gay couples renting rooms in Catholic guesthouses in Italy. They had every reason in the world to treat us with human dignity--and I suspect they'd have treated any heterosexual couple arriving at their door under similar circumstances with a dignity they failed to accord us. I'm also certain that wild hair is correct: if we'd been two priests or a bishop and his secretary, we'd have been treated very differently, if we'd reserved a room with two beds.

This has to stop, the way that Catholic institutions keep singling out those who are gay or even those they presume to be gay--the way they keep overlaying our lives with wild fantasies about our intrinsically evil acts in the bedroom, on which their imaginations seem luridly fixated. In Steve's and my case, those lurid imaginings are ludicrously misplaced. Here are the kind of acts (acts: the word to which right-wing Catholics always recur when they talk about gay people and gay lives) they'd see almost any evening, if they had a window into our bedroom:

• sleeping

• snoring

• shaking the snoring bedfellow in the hope that you can stop the snoring

• coughing

• farting

• sleep-talking

• reading when we can't sleep

• sighing (Steve says I do this, while I complain of his snoring)

• sleeping

Those are the kind of intrinsically evil acts that take place in our bedroom on almost any given night, and which would have taken place in the guesthouse in Florence, double bed or double room or not.

It's because we've learned what it feels like to be treated as less than human and as second-class citizens that I completely understand what Danno and Mary Huber say in response to my Florence posting. One of the reasons I immediately understood--from the outside looking in--the experience of survivors of Catholic clerical sexual abuse, and immediately made solidarity with abuse survivors, is that the accounts I've read of their experience with the pastors of the church were so uncannily like my own experience. I could easily build a bridge from my own experience of a different kind of abuse by the pastors of the church, and the experience of abuse survivors.

I'm not referring to abuse survivors' accounts of their horrendous sexual abuse by Catholic religious authority figures. I'm referring to their accounts of how they routinely get treated by Catholic pastors when they ask for a hearing about that abuse.

From 2002 forward, when the abuse stories began to break in the media, I found the reports of abuse survivors that bishops and other Catholic pastors refused to meet with them--revictimized them by abusing them further when they asked for pastoral support--entirely believable because this is the very same thing I myself had experienced as a Catholic theologian fired from his job, who then came out of the closet when it was clear to him that he and his partner would always pay a price in Catholic institutions for being a gay couple, whether they were closeted or not.

After I received an unexplained terminal contract at Belmont Abbey College in 1993, I asked first that the abbot of the monastery which owns the college meet with me, and then, when he refused me a meeting, I asked if the bishop of the Charlotte diocese would meet with me. Both adamantly refused to meet with me. The bishop of Charlotte never even saw my face, never even met me at all, though my letters to him (as to the abbot) explained that my faith was very badly shaken by my unjust treatment in a Catholic institution, and I was seeking pastoral counsel.

I was treated as a non-person by these pastors of the Catholic church. And so I found it immediately believable when I read that abuse survivors were treated this way, and I understood the anguish this causes for abuse survivors, because I had experienced similar anguish in my own dark night of the soul in 1993-1994.

This kind of thing has to stop! People should not show up at the doors of Catholic guesthouses and be treated as Steve and I were treated by the nun in Florence. Survivors of abuse should not be treated as they have been treated when they have sought compassion, healing, and justice from Catholic pastors. 

I keep telling my story, the story I share with Steve, in the hope that the telling and re-telling of the story will force Catholic institutions and those who continue uncritically to defend those institutions to give more careful thought to the discrepancy between what we proclaim and what we actually do to the lives of many folks. Wishing all of you a good holiday season!

*Something that deserves attention in my Florence account: it was two Indian nuns who behaved in an ugly way the night of our arrival in Florence. But those nuns are, in their own way, exploited by the Italian-based, Italian-founded order to which they belong, and it's entirely possible that in abusing others they regard as beneath them, they're passing on their own experience of exploitation at the hands of the nuns with whom they live. Catholic religious communities in Europe and the U.S. now actively solicit vocations from the developing sectors of the world.

The candidates they bring in from the developed part of the world are often treated as second-class citizens in European and North American communities, however. For many of these people entering European/American religious communities or seminaries, entering religious life or the priesthood is regarded as a means of attaining social status and a level of comfort not easily accessible otherwise in their culture. All of these dynamics, coupled with the experience of exploitation if not outright abuse within the communities they choose to enter in Europe and North America, can result in a kind of unconscious looking for someone "beneath" oneself to beat up on or look down on--and that dynamic can be reinforced by the strong conservatism of many of these candidates to the religious life and priesthood, who made their vocational choices in the period of John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

The graphic: a photo we took of the rainbow Christmas lights along the Via del Corso in Rome, which were installed as a statement about homophobia following the suicide of a gay teen, but which were controversial for that reason. 

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