Friday, September 12, 2014

Roads, Gospel Signposts, and New Survey Showing Catholics Moving Backwards on Inclusion of Gays: Choices Facing U.S. Catholics on Eve of Synod on Family

Everything begins with a story, right? 

Mary Oliver:

But there are few stories in the world, after all. There is the story of Wickedness, the story of Good, the story of Love, and the story of Time. It is the telling that is the charm, for it is the expression that gives to the imaginations the experience of the tale (Long Life [Cambridge, MA: Da Capo, 2004], p. 62).

In any human life, in all of our lives, there really are only a handful of stories, after all, aren't there? These are the stories we find ourselves called to tell over and over again — over and over again to ourselves, first of all — as we try to unravel new meaning in them with with each new telling.

And so I inevitably find myself retelling stories on this blog, after I've told them before. I find myself retelling them to myself, first and foremost, because some new turn in my life journey suddenly casts new light on one of my old stories, and so I drag it out for inspection all over again.

My story:

It's 1991, Steve and I have just taken jobs at a Catholic college in North Carolina which assures us that it is eager to have us as part of its Catholic academic community, and is delighted, just overjoyed, to have our talents as theologians to help this college build a center for dialogue about Catholic thought and values in a region whose Catholic population is burgeoning as new people move there from outside North Carolina.

In this period in which I feel elated about being told I'm wanted and my talents needed, I send an essay in to a national essay contest. I receive word back that my essay is a contest winner, and I'm to attend a conference (1992) at which I will present a synopsis of it to a distinguished audience. There are . . . oh, I don't remember precisely: some 7 or 8? . . . winning essays. 

Each winner will read a condensed version of his/her essay, and then there will be a respondent. I'm honored, indeed, to have had my essay selected as a winning essay. I know several of the other winners by name and reputation, and know them to be first-rate scholars with impressive reputations.

I fly off to the event and read my précis. The experience is disastrous. The conference organizers have set the event up so that each essay winner presents a synopsis, and then the respondent is allowed to tear the essay up in a lengthy response.

To which the essayist is not permitted to respond.

All the winning essays lean to the left side of the spectrum of American religion. All the respondents are from the rabid right. The whole thing is a set-up to place scholarly commentary on religion in America from a left-wing perspective on public display so that it may be ridiculed in front of panelists who interpret religion in the media for the American public.

While the scholars presenting these "prize-winning" essays are not allowed even to answer back . . . . We're expected to stand there mute, watching the undisguised glee on the faces of those in the distinguished audience (almost every one of them a man, I recall) at seeing us savaged — almost all men, most of whom are big-name voices in the world of religious journalism. The kind of men who interpret religious matters for the American public in major newspapers and magazines . . . . 

One good thing did come from that conference: I had the opportunity to meet and develop lasting friendships with several fellow religion scholars who share my interest in open, honest public discourse about religious issues in the American context. And who were just as outraged as I was at the shoddy set-up the conference organizers had crafted for us, with its pretensions to "fairness" and to hearing "both sides," but its clear, unconcealed objective of subjecting left-leaning religious analysis to public ridicule . . . . 

One of the people I met at that conference has become a friend whom Steve and I have visited, and with whom I have had a lively letter-and-email exchange for over 20 years now. My friend is an ordained Presbyterian minister who spent her academic career in a United Methodist seminary of which she became dean. 

One of her primary interests as a scholar of religion is the question of how the media, both the secular press and religious publications, appropriate and transmit religious ideas. Her prize-winning essay was a brilliant exposé of how the political and religious right worked to subvert a statement on human sexuality for the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA) that my friend helped to draft in the late 1980s. She discussed the way in which copies of the draft were leaked to right-wing political and religious groups before the draft had been completed, and how those groups then worked with religion reporters to shoot down the statement even before it reached the church's deliberative forums.

My friend argued in that essay (which was ridiculed and torn to shreds by its right-leaning respondent, as with all the other winning essays) that there's a very serious need for informed religious commentary in the United States — and that far too many religion reporters both in the secular and religious media do not meet the mark. This is a topic we've continued to discuss for over 20 years now, with little hope, for a variety of reasons, that things will ever be different. (And we both recognize that there are, indeed, some distinguished and well-educated religious journalists out there, though we both think they're distinctly in the minority.)

At the time this friend and I met, I had no idea that she has a lesbian daughter, and that her experience with that daughter was part of what prodded her to collaborate on a document calling on her church, PCUSA, to recognize that Presbyterian families and congregations do, in fact, contain gay sons and daughters, and the church needs to start talking about family in a way that frankly recognizes this fact. And to stop talking about the ideal family as a middle-class shibboleth, a unit headed by a father to whom a mother and children submit, when the majority of people within the church aren't even living that ideal, so that it has become a kind of idol to which Christian people are expected to bow down and pretend to worship even as their own practice moves in the opposite direction. . . . 

So that's one of my stories. Why tell it now? Well, as I indicated yesterday, I've spent quite a bit of time lately asking myself precisely what possessed me to choose the Catholic church when I was a young teen. And why I've stood by a church that refuses, in its institutional incarnation, to stand by me. I've been thinking a great deal lately about roads taken and roads not taken, about forks in roads.

It strikes me that many media commentators who parse religion for the American public, who control the "official" dialogue spaces of religious publications, haven't done nearly enough to help people recognize that the Christian churches have always come to forks in the road regarding major cultural, moral, and doctrinal issues. And that the fork in the road to which the churches have come regarding the humanity (and full inclusion) of LGBT human beings is not an unprecedented one: it's, in essential respects and mutatis mutandis, not different  at all from the fork in the road at which the churches arrived in the 19th century regarding the issue of slavery.

Over the course of their complex histories, the Christian churches have always come to forks in the road at which they can no longer pretend that gospel values point in the direction taken by both forks, but at which they have to make a clear choice: it's either this road or the other one. We can't walk both. Not without splitting ourselves in two. Because both aren't equally signposted by the Christian gospels and by the example and teaching of Jesus.

With regard to the issue of the full humanity of gay folks, we have, I'd maintain, already passed that fork in the road, in fact. When I say "we," I'm speaking of "us" as a culture, of many of us as lay Christians — of many of us as lay Catholics, specifically — who have long since negotiated this particular fork in the road and recognized where the gospel signposts clearly point us. 

However, not a few media interpreters of religious matters for the American public continue to collude with the leaders of various churches in pretending that we've only now arrived at this particular fork in the religious-cultural road, and that there are legitimate reasons to continue engaging in endless, fruitless debate about whether this fork or that one moves in the direction indicated by the gospels. To be blunt: many of those interpreting religion for the public square want to continue validating the road that is increasingly no longer taken by the culture at large and by growing numbers of Christians, the one that denies the full humanity of gay human beings while claiming to represent in some irreducibly authentic way the good news of Jesus Christ to the world.

Where does this duplicitous discourse, discourse originating with some church leaders and then echoed in the media, leave Christians who have long since taken the fork affirming the full humanity of gay people and their full inclusion in church and society? In the Catholic context, clearly it leaves many of us high and dry. It leaves many of us on the outside looking in. It leaves us on a road that we chose some time ago because we saw signposts marking that road as the road of the gospel, the good news, in which our faith is grounded. While the church walks down the other path, which, from our perspective, is the path moving away from gospel imperatives . . . .

At a point in the history of American Catholicism in which the results of the National Congregations Study's latest survey released yesterday show the Catholic church moving backwards in comparison to other religious bodies on the question of accepting and including gay members — from an inclusion rate measured at 74% in 2006 to one that has now fallen to 53% in 2014 — where does this leave Catholics who have taken that fork to full inclusion of gay people that they believe the gospels mandate for them?

It leaves us here: while we're asked to pretend that living and breathing fellow human beings who happen to have been made gay by God do not really count — not as full human beings to be treated with the respect accorded to all other human beings — we're simultaneously told that the conceptus, the union of the sperm with the ovum, has ultimate value. We're told that the zygote is to be treated with all the dignity and respect we should accord to any human being, even when the ontological status of the zygote continues to be debated by those who know that Catholic teaching came to the conclusion that the conceptus is  to be treated with ultimate personal value only very recently. And that a noteworthy percentage of all fertilized ova are aborted naturally by the female body, making God appear to be an abortionist, if each of those zygotes has the ontological status of a person . . . . 

Here's where many of us find ourselves today, in the Catholic communion: the people telling us that just-fertilized eggs have ultimate value are almost always the very same people who demonstrate to us that they find it easy to treat their fellow Catholics and fellow human beings who happen to have been born gay as something closer to dirt than to human beings. Even as they ask us to swallow their ludicrous, counterfactual claims about zygotes, which appear ultimately to be rooted more in sentimentality and cheap grace than in any system of religious belief that costs them very much at all . . . . The very same Catholics who demand that we accept the ultimate human value of a conceptus as a litmus test for belonging in the Catholic communion align themselves with political movements and political players of the rabid right intent on diminishing the humanity of those who are gay, and on creating misery for gay people and their families.

And so I ask again: where does all of this leave the many Catholics in the U.S. (and elsewhere) who have taken the fork in the road leading towards full inclusion of gay people in church and society, and who are convinced that it is the gospels that have pointed them in that direction? As the leaders of their church, particularly in the U.S., march the church backwards regarding these matters. And as Catholic institutions follow suit and begin to tighten their control of forums set up for public discussion of these issues, thereby actively assisting the church's leaders in shutting down open, free discussion . . . .

For many of us who are Catholic, this appears to leave us with a dismal choice between the church or the good news of Jesus Christ. Especially when the road has already forked and we've been walking for some time now on the path not taken by our church's leaders, who continue to insist, no matter where the signposts appear to point many lay Catholics, that they and they alone have the prerogative of discerning where the good news of Christ points our church in the world today.

It leaves us, frankly, where gay Catholics have lived a long time now, without much conspicuous support or sympathy from many of their fellow Catholics until fairly recently — notably, without much support of sympathy from their fellow Catholics who are the intellectual arbiters of the public conversation of American Catholicism in the media and academy.

None of this provides much promise or hope as the synod on the family prepares to convene next month, does it? Especially as that gathering of church leaders professes to be rooted in wide listening to the people of God.

P.S. For more on the National Congregations Study's finding that Catholics are going backwards on inclusion of gay folks while other religious bodies are moving forward, please see this subsequent posting.

I find the graphic used at numerous blog sites, with no attribution of ownership. If any readers have information about its origins, I'd appreciate knowing that information.

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