In your comments about "the ideological warfare and spin-control struggles" that have broken out at the synod on the family over the word "welcome" (the fine phrase about warfare and struggles is Peter Montgomery's, in his valuable overview of this week at the Vatican), several of you (e.g., mgardener) have asked what folks are so afraid of with the word "welcome." What about the clear, unambiguous statement that human beings made gay by God are welcome, for God's sake, in the Catholic church is so threatening to some Catholics?
As I think about this question, I'm reminded of something that Catholic moral theologian Lisa Sowle Cahill told Frank Bruni several weeks back, as Bruni put together his piece on the church's gay obsession and the firings, right and left, of gay employees of Catholic institutions — while heterosexual Catholics who also disobey magisterial teaching about sexual ethics are not subjected to the intense scrutiny, public shaming, and political attacks the leaders of the Catholic church deploy against those who are gay. I discussed Bruni's essay here.
Bruni says that Cahill told him the following:
"The bishops have picked up gay marriage ever since the 2004 presidential election as a special cause that they are against," Cahill noted. She said that they were "staking out a countercultural Catholic identity" that doesn’t focus on "social justice and economic issues."
This is a valuable observation, though if I were pinpointing when the U.S. bishops made their turn in this direction, I'd push the clockhands back a bit in time to the early 1990s, when Patrick Buchanan, a right-wing Catholic, gave his famous saber-rattling culture-war speech at the Republican national convention. It was in this period that the bishops made their fateful decision to cement a politico-religious alliance with the evangelical right and to frame their presentation of the gospel message as an expressly political, expressly partisan message revolving around culture-war issues — above all, around attacks on gay rights and women's rights.
The bishops made that fateful turn knowing full well that it had the blessing of Rome. Two years before Buchanan gave his saber-rattling speech about the culture war, Pope John Paul II had issued his document Ex corde ecclesiae, which began a crackdown in Catholic theology departments that induced a grand chill in Catholic theology, causing theologians everywhere to begin guarding their words carefully, and to curb the critical soundings and critical discourse that are the very soul of the vocation of theologians in the church. A year after Buchanan gave his culture-war speech, John Paul II issued his encyclical on moral theology, Veritatis splendor, which placed in the hands of anti-gay culture warriors important tools to use in their battles against liberal political leaders and fellow Catholics with liberal leanings, tools like the claim that truth somehow subsumes love in the life of Christian discipleship, that we exercise love when we use "the" "truth" as a weapon against people we have chosen to demonize in the name of our religious "truth."
And that the men running the Catholic church own religious truth in some unique and unilateral way, and even their non-infallible utterances about issues like contraception, homosexuality, abortion, or women's ordination have quasi-infallible status, and must not be discussed, examined, questioned in any way . . . . In 1994, John Paul II would flatly decree that all discussion of the possibility of ordaining women was at an end, and Catholic theologians who dared to defy that decree, including my classmate and friend Carmel McEnroy (pdf file), began to be fired.
But whenever we want to pinpoint the turn the U.S. bishops made away from social justice and economic issues to gay issues as their primary focus, I think Cahill's point about that turn is very well-taken, and deserves careful thought. She's suggesting that the U.S. Catholic bishops have made a conscious and calculated decision to focus on the issue of same-sex marriage, as they try to craft a countercultural Catholic identity in a culture they believe is awash with godless secularism. When they could just as well, and perhaps with far more theological reason on their side, have chosen to focus on the rich, powerful socioeconomic teaching of the Catholic tradition, as they try to carve out a place for Catholic disccourse in the American public square in the early 21st century . . . .
They had, after all, issued important statements in the latter decades of the 20th century about key socioeconomic issues, statements that place that rich, powerful tradition of socioeconomic teaching on full display in the public square. These include The Challenge of Peace (1983) and Economic Justice for All (1986). But, as they chose to make gay people and gay marriage, in particular, their whipping boys in the crusade to preach a countercultural Catholicism in the 1990s, the U.S. bishops would tacitly repudiate these two significant pastoral letters, and begin to act as if they had never been written.
What Cahill is suggesting, it seems to me, is that it has been useful for the bishops to demonize gay people and gay marriage for some time now, as they claim to be retrieving countercultural Catholicism. It's useful to do this, in the first place, because it allows the bishops to transfer the weight of Catholic moral teaching away from socioeconomic issues and towards the issue of homosexuality. The former issues demand something of all Catholics, bishops included. They demand a kind of costly grace that requires us to think about our own complicity in structures of socioeconomic injustice and socioeconomic sin.
The latter issue allows us to claim a kind of cheap grace way of being Catholic at this point in the history of the church. It allows us to focus obsessively on someone else's sin, on a sin alien to us and easy to demonize, since it has long been decried and held up as an example of incomparable sin. This issue allows us to ignore even the claim charity itself makes on us to try to understand the demonized other as a human being like ourselves.
It allows us to posture as models of Christian virtue when, in fact, we are actually living as the elder brother of the parable of the prodigal father. It allows us to use a despised minority group who are, after all, our fellow human beings and fellow Catholics, to prop up our claim to a special kind of righteousness — a righteousness derived from that splendid truth that we and our tribe possess in some unique way — without even having to examine that claim, since it's obvious that sin resides over there, among gay folks, and not among us the splendidly correct.
What are Catholics who think this way afraid of? They're afraid, it seems to me, of having a useful culture-war tool taken from their hands, one that sharply defines themselves as the righteous, and everyone else in the world — but above all, those who are gay — as the unrighteous. People don't give up ideologies like this without a fight. Because these ideologies make life easy, even if the ease is bought at the expense of demonizing certain despised others . . . .
And as Bonhöffer reminded us a long time ago, easy is what a lot of us expect from the life of Christian discipleship, after all. Though it may not have much at all to do with what authentic discipleship is all about . . . .