Friday, July 10, 2015

Down the Road from Obergefell: A Personal Reflection from a Catholic Theologian (I.e., Yours Truly)

I keep trying, these days, to write a post-Obergefell reflection for you. To be precise: what I keep trying to capture are my own tumultuous roller-coaster feelings following this historic event, towards which many of us have so long lived with great expectation, and which has seemed to so many LGBT people of my generation an unthinkable thing for which to hope.

I’m stumped, though, as I try to gather my thoughts. To begin with, I’m not sure I have much that’s new to tell you, much that I haven’t already said at many other points on this blog.

The welter of contradictory emotions I feel now is also, frankly, bewildering and therefore hard to articulate. On the one hand, there’s the clear, unmitigated joy I feel in the Supreme Court ruling. Nothing can take that away, and it’s reinforced every time I now go to a doctor or dentist, for instance, as I did just yesterday, and proudly report that I have healthcare coverage I did not have the last time I saw these folks, due to my husband’s healthcare plan.

But I also live in the belly of the bible-belt beast, and – more than those of you who live in more enlightened and progressive places – I have to continue to see and deal with, very close up, the naked bigotry of many of my fellow citizens, who are determined to find new ways to inflict pain on me and others like me in the name of their Jesus. Just this week, a county clerk in my state (who happens to be on her fourth traditional marriage with three traditional divorces under her belt) announced that she will not issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, because bible and defense of traditional marriage.

She quickly backed down when some state legal official with whom she consulted reminded her of her oath of office and the governor’s determination to see that our state remains in compliance with the Supreme Court ruling. Later that day, however, in a snit, she plastered her Facebook page with a big picture of a rebel flag.

Though she lives in the mountainous half of Arkansas, which had almost no slaves prior to the Civil War, since its thin, rocky soil was not conducive to a plantation economy . . . . This half of Arkansas wanted to secede from the other, the slaveholding, half at the time of the war. It now turns out to be the half of the state most intent on waving a Confederate battle flag it refused to wave when the Confederacy was a real thing, and intent on defying the Supreme Court ruling about marriage – perhaps because it’s historically the half of the state also long committed to the Republican party (and to an ideology of white supremacy that allows the poor white citizens of this part of the state to proclaim their pigment-based superiority to the many African-American citizens of the lowland half of the state).

So there’s all that. There’s the ongoing battle that is more acute in some parts of our country than others, which will not be over soon – and which the four Supreme Catholic men deliberately sought to egg on with their dissenting opinions in Obergefell.

And then – speaking of the four Supreme Catholic dissenting men – there’s the Catholic reaction to Obergefell. Which deeply saddens me . . . . 

Oh, I know that a majority of American Catholics support the right of LGBT citizens to marry. When I speak of my deep sadness, I’m speaking of the typical very ugly response of the pastoral leaders of the church, who chose this past Sunday to prepare an insert to be placed in parish bulletins around the country, a statement full of astonishing apocalyptic lies about the dangerous (and entirely fictitious) threat that civil marriage for gay citizens poses to the religious liberty of Catholics. 

None of this rhetoric is new, of course. What’s dismaying is that the bishops have chosen to respond to Obergefell – to a human rights breakthrough for a despised minority group, many of whose members are part of the bishops’ own flock – by disseminating the same old pack of lies they have disseminated for years, in an attempt to prevent this human rights breakthrough. 

Some pastoral leadership.

What’s dismaying is the juxtaposition of the joy so many of us, Catholics included, feel about the Supreme Court decision with the bitter determination of the church’s pastoral leaders to keep resisting (and lying) at all cost. Even when they have clearly lost a battle in which they have wasted untold amounts of Catholic money . . . .

To say I’m disappointed with this response would be an understatement. Saddened, yes. And appalled, for sure.

I think I began to confront just how disappointed and appalled I feel about the official Catholic response when I engaged, this last week, in a heated battle of words with a right-wing Catholic on Facebook. This is a youngish man (a straight white one who proudly bills himself as a member of the dude bro club of American culture, American Catholic culture not excepted) whom I had credited with some intelligence. He maintains a Catholic-themed blog that I’ve tried to follow even when I almost never agree with anything he says, because it seemed to me to stand out among right-wing Catholic blogs for the quality of its writing, which had suggested to me that there was a brain working somewhere in the background of the blog.

And then I heard his angry, petulant, immature response to the Obergefell ruling, and began to realize that, as with the bishops with whom he stands, he ultimately has nothing. Nothing, that is, of any substance with which to justify his stance, as a privileged heterosexual man comfortable within the heterosexist boys' club that is, in his view, the Catholic church per omnia saecula saeculorum, against the human rights of LGBT people . . . . 

Nothing but the same old threadbare, insubstantial, totally unconvincing arguments the bishops have offered us for years now: Let this single barrier fall, and all of Christian civilization will fall. Etc.

My erstwhile Facebook friend bombarded me with "The church has never changed and never will change"; "You and your sort believe only in power"; "I talk theology and you respond by talking sociology." In that arrogant know-it-all way so many ill-formed Catholics of the JPII generation have, he condescended to me, who happen to have a doctorate in theology with a concentration in the history of Christian thought, and who have long understood that the history of the church clearly demonstrates that its teaching can and does self-evidently change. 

We self-evidently don't live in the world of Paul or the catacombs, so self-evidently something has to have changed over the years in how we do church, and it is mind-boggling to hear someone whom I'd credited with having a brain arguing that nothing has changed or can change in the church's way of doing business or its teaching.

Pat answers. Canned, unpersuasive arguments that rest solely on mere assertion, and not on any kind of seriously considered thought at all. Arguments that skate over the thin surface of thought instead of engaging thought. Formulaic responses that come right out of the shallow catechetical formation of his generation of John Paul II Catholics.

I feel sad, I think, as I look at the "official" Catholic response to Obergefell as represented in the bishops' ugly bulletin insert and my former Facebook friend's response echoing the bishops' response, because these responses show me in a new, unavoidable way, just how little the official Catholic position ever had going for it, despite the power it has long exerted in the public square. I suppose I had expected these folks to have had their eyes opened by Obergefell, and to recognize that they've simply been on the wrong side of history's moral arc. 

I expected them to reassess their positions, to admit that those positions were about little more than sustaining sheer, untenable bigotry, and that, in propping up prejudice and discrimination, these positions have done a lot of serious damage to a great many people who did not deserve to be damaged. 

I suppose that, silly as I am, I still expect some kind of apology from the leaders of my church for the destruction of my career as a theologian and that of my husband — especially when the Benedictine abbot at the very center of that horrific story has been caught by the media in a very embarrassing public lie about his knowledge that the priest he hired to replace me had a history of sexually assaulting seminarians.

But that apology is obviously not forthcoming. Not now, at least. Not in my lifetime. Not for me. Not for other gay Catholics badly hurt by many Catholic pastoral leaders during this dark period of Catholic history.

For LGBT Catholics, Obergefell is a moment of hope akin to a tiny glimpse of the eschaton as it breaks forth in history. No such glimpses seem ready to break forth within our church, however. Hope for us lies outside our church.

And, yes, that makes me sad.

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