Sunday, December 29, 2013

Our Pilgrimage to Assisi and Rome Summed Up

So, all things considered, a very interesting pilgrimage: 

1. There was the experience at the convent guesthouse in Florence, which, to my way of thinking, strongly underscores the need for the prayer I kept bringing to each holy place at which we prayed along the way:

May the church repent of its savagery toward gay human beings.

That's the same prayer I prayed over and over in 2006 when we made our pilgrimage to shrines across southern England and Wales, from Walsingham to St. David's. I wrote it on pieces of paper and slipped it into the prayer intention boxes at each shrine we visited, tucked it into the little shrine of St. Non out by the sea near St. David's.

How the nun received Steve and me in Florence--right before Christmas, when (as a good reader of this blog has noted) we remember the inhospitality shown to Joseph and Mary when God came among us in flesh--vividly illustrates, it seems to me, that something is fundamentally awry in how many churches today treat those who are gay. In how my Catholic church treats those who are gay . . . . 

This is not just an incidental issue, something that contemporary Catholics can validly regard as a peripheral concern: it strikes to the very heart of our ability to proclaim the gospel with any credibility. The abuse of gay folks, the ugly singling out of those who are gay for special contempt, is now on full display all over again for U.S. Catholics at Eastside Catholic school in Seattle, where, as Mark Joseph Stern has just pointed out for Slate, the response of the school's president, Sister Mary Tracy, to the same-sex marriage of vice-principal Mark Zmuda, is astonishing in its moral obtuseness.

Tracy wanted Zmuda, who was forced out of his job as vice principal when he married his same-sex partner, simply to renounce and nullify his marriage. Stern writes,

That offer, made by the school’s president herself, isn’t just some well-intentioned but thoroughly misguided effort to hold onto Zmuda. It is a vile and morally repulsive act of iniquity. No straight person in this decade would ever face such a twisted dilemma, nor should they have to; no human, gay or straight, should have to choose between his spouse and his job. That Tracy placed Zmuda in this painful position suggests an alarming lack of ethics, a total blindness to basic morality on her part. For a church that speaks so highly of love, its mouthpieces at Eastside seem surprisingly eager to stamp it out for the crass purpose of avoiding a PR disaster.

Something is very wrong--something is fundamentally wrong--with an institution whose institutional mouthpieces can display such astonishing lack of moral perception, over and over again, about the institution's treatment of a targeted minority group. And about its core values and what those values imply about how we receive one another as human beings. All of this demands ongoing prayer.

2. And then there was the truly surprising development of having a religion journalist whom I highly regard, Sarah Posner, quote me in a publication I also esteem, Al Jazeera America, on the very day we reached Rome, the day we left Assisi, where I'd prayed that prayer I recite above at the shrines of Francis and Clare. Sarah notes that I told her in my interview with her that I think Pope Francis's call to stop marginalizing the poor will be credible--really credible--only when the Catholic church stops marginalizing women and those who are gay. As long as openly gay Catholics and gay employees of Catholic institutions are shoved to the margins by the church, and as long as women are systematically excluded from governing power within the church, the papal message about marginalization of the poor will continue to sound hollow to many of us.

Again: I have long felt a strong call to pray constantly about, to give constant voice on this blog and elsewhere to, the need for justice for gay Catholics (and women) because these issues seem to me so absolutely fundamental. The credibility of the Catholic church in its proclamation of the gospel hinges today on how the church chooses to deal with these issues (and these groups of human beings).

3. And then there was my experience yesterday, which may seem trivial to many folks--and I may seem petty for reporting it: a leading Catholic journalist, the go-to man for the secular media when the media need a Catholic journalist to parse papal statements, shoves me and my partner, and a young woman of color, out of the way as we start to walk through a door that he apparently regards as his door. It's not an overstatement to say that this is what happened.

It is, in fact, precisely what happened, and all three of us who experienced the shoving (I got the brunt of it, as the person closest to "his" door when he intended to go through it) remarked on it in precisely those terms. In some ways, this experience summed up rather powerfully, it seems to me, the need for that prayer I recite above: May the church repent of its savagery toward gay human beings.

The experience sums up the need for my Catholic church to stop shoving those who are considered less than the movers and shakers of the world to the margins, to stop shoving them out of the way as doors reserved for the powerful are opened and closed. How can I possibly not ask myself, given what I know of this journalist and his work for years now, if yesterday's story is not really a story about the astonishing sense of entitlement that my Catholic church and its leaders provide for heterosexual men, particularly white ones, when those men deal with their fellow human beings who are gay, or women (or, as in the case of the young woman we met yesterday, who's Sri Lankan, people of color)?

I remember so well my futile attempt in the early 1990s to interest National Catholic Reporter in the story of what Belmont Abbey College did to Steve and me, in the story of how that Catholic college simply destroyed our careers as Catholic theologians, never providing any honest or convincing reasons for its violation of our human rights. I told National Catholic Reporter that the issue of sexual orientation was at the very heart of this story.

The response I received from one of the top people at the paper, a white heterosexual man: we can't write about this story, because it's a story that is so common in Catholic institutions, it's not newsworthy. The response of NCR reinforced the message that Belmont Abbey College itself had given to Steve and me: we're nobodies. We're the kind of people who can be shoved around with impunity. Our human rights don't matter in the least, as Catholic institutions talk about human rights.

As I exchanged letters with the senior NCR person with whom I'd been dealing about this story and the paper's refusal to tell the story, I also told them that, in my view, their top reporter--the man who shoved me aside yesterday (as the person nearest "his" door, and so the one who got the bang from his luggage as he swept around us to reach the door ahead of us, just as we started to walk through it)--displayed more than a little anti-gay bias in his reporting for the paper.

I asked if perhaps NCR needed to deal with its blind spot regarding gay folks at that point in the journal's history. I asked if that blind spot might have much to do with the sense of entitlement that privileged heterosexual males often seem to us non-entitled types to have in such abundance, which may make them unable or unwilling to view the world through the eyes of those who are gay (or through the eyes of women). 

I was informed by the NCR person with whom I was corresponding that the reporter in question wasn't homophobic in the least--though I could cite chapter and verse to back up my assessment that he seemed to have quite a blind spot when it comes to the issue of gay rights (and to women's issues). 

Thankfully, a great deal has changed with NCR since the early 1990s. Much has changed in American Catholicism since the early 1990s, when it comes to affirming those who are gay and advocating for gay rights. I thank God for these changes and I celebrate them.

But I still maintain that there's a powerful need for a paradigm shift that has so captured my attention as a gay Catholic shoved to the margins, that the call for this shift seems to imbue everything I think or write about the Catholic church. One of the recognitions I take from this latest pilgrimage and reflection is that I'll perhaps always be set apart from people like the mover and shaker of the church I encountered yesterday, because I insist so strongly on a paradigm shift that seems fuzzy or even crazy to many of those with more power and prestige than I happen to have.

The need for this paradigm shift is eminently clear to me: the church very strongly needs to start viewing the world through the eyes of those on the margins. And the new way of seeing that results from viewing the world through the eyes of those on the margins can't be grafted onto the old paradigm that has given preëminent power to white heterosexual men. The paradigm shift demanded of the church today will result in a displacement of those who have long been at the center--and who, if we're honest, remain at the center even now, even as we talk anew about marginalization and exclusion under the pastoral leadership of Pope Francis.

The paradigm shift we so imperatively need in our church will require, in fact, a displacement of the center itself--to the margins. The center can no longer hold, if the church expects its proclamation of the gospel to be meaningful in postmodern culture.

My experiences as a gay Catholic theologian shoved to the margins because I celebrate the gifts God has given me as a gay human being have often made me feel as if I've been plugged into an electric socket--and this entirely against my will or wishes. An energy courses through my life as a result of what has happened to me in the church, and it's by no means a pleasant energy to feel coursing through my veins, my body, my experience of things. 

It's an energy that doesn't let me rest, in fact. It's an energy that makes me keep repeating over and over again a message--a call to a fundamental shift in the paradigm of how we do business as church--in a way that makes me appear downright odd to many people, I suspect. It's an energy that keeps me speaking and writing about these issues when I'd far rather be speaking and writing about many other things that require less of me.

Unfortunately, nothing about my recent pilgrimage diminishes this energy. Instead, the  events I recount above, each of which seems integral to the experience of pilgrimage Steve and I just shared, and which are perhaps the "meaning" of this pilgrimage, serve to reinforce my sense that there's something the church needs desperately to hear at this point in its own pilgrimage, which is at the very heart of the gospel message and therefore has everything to do with the church's credibility as it proclaims the gospel in the world today:

May the church repent of its savagery toward gay human beings.

To my way of thinking and seeing, there's a kind of spiritual logic about what happened to Steve and me on this pilgrimage, which may not be self-evident to others. And it reinforces a spiritual logic that has run through our lives for some time now, which revolves around issues of marginalization and exclusion, issues that seem to me very central to the message of the gospels.

(The photo is a photo of Santa Maria in Aracoeli church in Rome that Steve took on Christmas eve; the church is the church of Rome's city council. Medieval pilgrims sometimes climbed its "staircase to heaven" on their knees. Because Steve and I were confused by maps leading us to the church, we ended up--perhaps typically--climbing the wrong staircase to heaven, and found ourselves at the back and not front of the church when we sought it out on Christmas eve.)

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