Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Calls for Honest Catholic Conversations About Contraception: What Are We Really Talking About?

As the date for the final meeting of the synod on the family called by Pope Francis approaches, it's interesting to see calls being made by various lay Catholics for honest discussion of the issue of contraception. Certainly the entire church would benefit greatly from such honest discussion of this issue.

What strikes me as I read various proposals for such discussion is, however, the extent to which lay Catholic conversations about important issues have been balkanized — often, by the very same lay Catholics now calling for honest dialogue about the topic of birth control. I'm struck, too, by the recognition that closed, parallel conversations that would benefit tremendously by opening to one another have long been going on and continue to go in Catholic culture, even as calls are made for honest lay theological conversations. 

There is a self-defeating, clubbish impulse in Catholic culture, which is strongly represented in American Catholicism, in which Cabots and Lodges have long spoken only to each other when they aren't talking to God, and this tribalistic impulse, which runs directly counter to the catholic imperative, has resulted in a very impoverished discussion of moral issues on the part of lay Catholics. So that Catholic laypeople frequently talk among themselves in hermetically sealed circles, but not circle to circle in any way that is in the least authentically catholic . . . .

To be specific: in a number of proposals for frank exchanges among lay Catholics and the hierarchy about the contraception issue, there's an overriding assumption that discussions by and about gay Catholics have nothing at all to offer straight, married lay Catholics interested in the topic of contraception. It's as if two moral universes exist side by side in contemporary Catholicism; one of these is labeled the gay universe, and is regarded as completely separate from the other, the straight universe, in which the issue of birth control is a pressing moral concern.

This way of approaching the discussion of contraception by lay Catholics completely overlooks the important contributions any gay Catholic can make to all discussions of the issue of sexual ethics in the Catholic context — contributions derived from hard-earned experience, from (in many cases) years of struggle to reconcile conflicting moral imperatives in the Catholic tradition, notably ones that tell us love is the most important goal of the Christian life, and others that tell us to choke off our natural impulse to love because it is, the magisterium wants us to imagine, "disordered."

To be more precise: there's an astonishing tendency in many contemporary lay Catholic discussions of the issue of contraception spearheaded by heterosexual married Catholics to pretend that the issue of contraception has not been openly discussed in the church precisely because it's an issue of interest to heterosexual people, who have been marginalized in Catholic culture due to the dominance of (hidden) gay clerics and (closeted) gay hierarchical figures in Catholic institutions and theological conversations. This twisted attempt to claim an entirely unmerited victim status for straight Catholics strongly twists theological discussions of the topic of birth control that build models of separate universes for straight and gay Catholics.

It does so because it is based in ugly insinuation and not in reality. It entirely elides the fact that heterosexual, married lay Catholics working in Catholic institutions are not being targeted and fired today by those who run these institutions. It's gay Catholics who are under the gun, whose lives can be turned upside down at any moment by Catholic employers citing catechetical formulae as their salaries, benefits, and vocations are snatched from them in an instant — as many of their straight, married colleagues remain completely silent about the injustice of such behavior on the part of the institution.

It's strange, for me as a gay Catholic, to read essays calling for open discussion of the issue of contraception which imply that there has been a conspiracy of silence on the part of the (hidden and closeted gay) Catholic hierarchy, when it comes to the topic of birth control — a conspiracy of silence that demeans heterosexual Catholics. On the face of it, it would appear to me that whatever silence has existed in Catholic institutions about this issue for some years now has served — and served very well — the interests of heterosexually married lay Catholics using contraceptives.

The silence has not been, as some lay Catholics proposing that we talk about these issues want to maintain, due to a refusal to discuss issues of importance to straight, married Catholics. It has been due, rather, to a sober recognition on the part of the hierarchy that such discussion is useless in a world in which the vast majority of married lay Catholics are contracepting and do not consider their use of contraceptives immoral. 

If the more or less absolute silence of the hierarchy about this issue in the period following Humanae vitae —while that same hierarchy has been very vocal about the issue of homosexuality — represents a conspiracy of silence, then it represents a conspiracy of silence that colludes with married Catholics using contraception, and protects those Catholics in a way in which gay Catholics are not protected in Catholic institutional life. And so it's rather puzzling to read essays calling for unfettered discussion among lay Catholics of the topic of contraception which imply that straight married Catholics have been at some kind of disadvantage as the issue of contraception is considered by the pastoral leaders of the Catholic church, and have been victimized by those pastoral leaders.

It's even more startling to read arguments that the issue of same-sex marriage (or divorce) should not claim the same attention that the issue of contraception should claim among lay Catholics because same-sex marriage and divorce and remarriage fly in the face of centuries of biblically grounded tradition forbidding extra-marital sex, while the topic of contraception is, for goodness' sake, a topic that's about what happens in the bedrooms of validly married, sacramentally united, lay Catholics. These claims in no way recognize that gay Catholics cannot marry sacramentally, do not have the option to marry sacramentally.

Nor do these claims recognize that the heterosexist slant of magisterial teaching about sexuality and of Catholic culture grant astonishing unearned privilege to all heterosexual Catholics, while disadvantaging — marginalizing, demeaning (since what can be more othering and demeaning than to tag an entire group of human beings as intrinsically disordered in their very constitution?) — every Catholic in the world who happens to be born gay. And there's the real rub, for me, as a Catholic theologian who happens to be gay and married, when I read the various proposals for honest conversation of the issue of contraception now circulating among lay Catholics in preparation for the synod on the family.

The real rub: as I read many of these proposals, with their mind-boggling taken-for-granted assumptions about the superiority of heterosexuals to homosexuals, and with their baffling inability to recognize or grapple with the manifold inbuilt perks Catholic teaching and culture provide to those born straight, I have to ask myself what kind of moral system produces such glaring moral blindness on the part of so many of its educated, thinking adherents?

What kind of moral system does not challenge us — always and everywhere — to think about our unmerited power and privilege, and the way in which our unmerited power and privilege disadvantage others? What kind of moral system does not call on us to meditate about how much we lose, by way of moral insight, when we do not admit despised Others  to our powerful, privileged conversations — so that we stand no chance of learning from them?

While we assert our unwavering commitment to principles of catholicity that positively demand that we include everyone, and, in particular, those on the margins . . . . What kind of moral system picks at the specks of biology-as-fate, of how penises and vaginas behave themselves, while ignoring the really weighty moral matters — the moral beams — of love, justice, and mercy?

How have we gotten to this point, I ask myself as I read many of the lay Catholic proposals for us to talk about the topic of contraception as the synod on the family approaches? Hint: we've ended up here because, when all is said and done, we're far more tribalistic than catholic, far more Cabots talking only to Lodges and God than catholic people who value the contributions of everyone as we discuss important moral issues.

And in the American Catholic context, our lay leaders — our leading intellectuals and journalists, our dominant lay Catholic journals — have actively helped us to continue our tribalism, to maintain our exclusivism, to look down on and shove aside the very people who hold the most promise to break open our moral conversations to reality (and so to the Holy Spirit).

So that it's disturbing to hear those very same leading intellectuals and journalists now lecturing us about how we need to talk more openly about contraception, since this is a topic that concerns those who are really married, while excessive attention is being devoted to the secondary, minor issue of gays wanting to "marry" . . . . It's disturbing to imagine that many of our leading Catholic intellectuals and journalists expect us to take such proposals seriously, when they neither engage the anti-gay prejudice that animates such proposals, nor deal adequately with the way in which unearned power and privilege have long given a leg up to the very same heterosexually married lay Catholics who now want us to believe they've been marginalized as the issue of same-sex marriage has come on the radar screen of our culture.

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