Friday, January 16, 2015

Pope Francis and the Throwaway Culture: Treatment of Gay Catholics Undercuts Pope's Critique of Global Economic System

Pope Francis identifies the "throwaway culture" created by rapacious global capitalism as the cause of some of the world's most serious problems. Our profit-driven economic system necessarily and by design makes some human beings dispensable, worthless, people to be thrown away. This dynamic feeds violence: the cold violence done to human beings by our economic system elicits the hot violence of reaction that reaches for guns, knives, bombs.

At the very time the pope offered these observations several days ago, Chris Hedges wrote

The terrorist attack in France that took place at the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo was not about free speech. It was not about radical Islam. It did not illustrate the fictitious clash of civilizations. It was a harbinger of an emerging dystopia where the wretched of the earth, deprived of resources to survive, devoid of hope, brutally controlled, belittled and mocked by the privileged who live in the splendor and indolence of the industrial West, lash out in nihilistic fury.

I find the analysis of both Pope Francis and Chris Hedges illuminating. But here's the thing: the Catholic church itself throws human beings away. The Catholic church is not the solution to the problem of the throwaway culture. It's part of the problem.

It's part of the problem, above all, in its ongoing abuse of gay and lesbian human beings, who are still being targeted by Catholic institutions and thrown away: denied a livelihood, treated as social pariahs, removed from healthcare coverage, smeared so that finding future employment is difficult  or impossible, told that their very nature and love are warped and that it's better for them to slink away from the community of the good and whole and seek community elsewhere. 

All these are the messages that yet another Catholic high school and diocese — Charlotte Catholic High School and the diocese of Charlotte, North Carolina — have just given yet another teacher, Lonnie Billard, after Billard posted on his Facebook page a statement that he intended to marry his partner. I empathize with Billard in a particular way, because my life-changing throwaway experience with the Catholic church, and that of my husband Steve, also occurred in the diocese of Charlotte.

And, when we asked why we were being expelled from community, denied a livelihood, removed from our vocation as Catholic theologians, blocked from receiving healthcare benefits, treated as pariahs and smeared with lies, we were told the very same kinds of things Lonnie Billard is now being told by the diocese of Charlotte: Oh, it's not really about the gay issue at all. Then, as with Billard, when we dared to speak out and challenge what was being done to us, the diocese and Belmont Abbey College, which were collaborating (as in Billard's case Charlotte Catholic and the diocese are collaborating) in ending our careers as Catholic theologians, brought out the big guns and began to blast away at us.

They began to blast away with the collusion of the local media: within weeks after I resigned my position in the theology department of Belmont Abbey College after having been given a terminal contract for which the college refused to offer me any rationale, the abbot of the monastery that owns the college informed the media that the college's Catholicity had been challenged by growing numbers of lay faculty, and it had to do something to reassert its Catholicity. The media ate this story up.

They did nothing at all to report on the abbot's decision, not long after this, to fire a slew of faculty and staff members, all considered to be gay, though none of them were openly gay, because they could not work at this Catholic college and make their gay identities known. Yet the local gay community saw full well what was taking place at this Catholic college in the early 1990s, and named it what it was: a purge. I have a copy of a letter a Benedictine oblate who was a graduate of the college wrote to the monk directing the oblates at this time, informing that monk that he was resigning from the oblate program because he was repulsed by the abbot's purge of gay faculty and staff members, a purge under wide discussion in the local gay community, even when the media refused to discuss it.

The media blackout extended to the national Catholic media. The same folks who two days ago published a lede in National Catholic Reporter's "Morning Briefing" column blaming gay rights activists for bullying right-wing Catholics refused to touch the story of what was done to us at Belmont Abbey College, when I approached NCR and asked if they would tell the story. "Happens all the time," they told me. "Not newsworthy."

This response permitted the diocese of Charlotte and Belmont Abbey College to throw away several Catholic theologians without being challenged to offer any explanation at all — to end their careers definitively, to smear them so that they could not find employment in Catholic institutions ever again, to remove their daily bread from their mouths and take away their health insurance coverage as they were caring for an aging parent suffering from dementia. The response of NCR and of the local media, which gave these Catholic institutions carte blanche to treat several Catholics, several human beings, in this conspicuously inhumane way, did not address the problem of the unique throwaway culture vis-a-vis gay folks in the Catholic church: it contributed to the problem.

So I know what Pope Francis means when he says that a throwaway culture creates serious problems in the world at large. I know from the inside what it feels like to be thrown away. It hurts. Every day after it happens. The hurt — the feeling of total worthlessness — never goes away. Because it can't go away.

It can't go away because those thrown away remain thrown away. The long string of teachers and ministers in Catholic institutions in the U.S. thrown away in the past several years because they are gay and refuse to hide that fact remain thrown away by the Catholic institution. Their lives and careers have been turned upside down and will never be put rightside up again, as long as the church continues behaving this way and offers no justice or restitution to those it treats this way.

Most of all, in a world characterized by inhumanity and prejudice towards those who are gay, we who have been thrown away in this particular way have been told definitively that we must not look to our church family as any kind of family, as a refuge from the inhumanity and prejudice we encounter in the world around us. 

Many of us within the Catholic context know full well what Pope Francis means when he talks about how a throwaway culture violates the dignity of human beings, creating serious social problems because of the festering, unhealed wounds of those who have been thrown away. I wonder, though: does Francis, and do Catholics in general, know what those of us the Catholic community have thrown away understand what we mean, when we describe our experience of being thrown away by the church itself and ask for the church to address our needs?

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