Sunday, September 27, 2015

Pope Francis on Families and Their Gifts, John McNeill and Margaret Farley on Fruitfulness of Gay Relationships: Generativity Depends on Ecclesial and Social Support

What Catholic theologian John McNeill is pointing to in the quotation I shared with you yesterday is very much like what Catholic theologian Margaret Farley also pointed to in her recent comments at the Commonweal discussion of whether the church is a fortress or a field hospital. Margaret Farley offered her listeners several examples to illustrate what she means when she speaks of how the tradition of natural law in Catholic moral thinking requires us to attend carefully to concrete reality, to the experiences of others, and to learn from these.

One of these examples is the case of same-sex marriage. Farley states,

And then, finally, another key example is, What kind of key insights could we gain (and many have, but not everyone) about the possibilities of same-sex marriage? We now know it as a legality, but lots of attitudes towards it have not changed because of that legality. But to look to concrete reality, looking at it, and being able to understand it, means that same-sex marriages, those marked by love and commitment mutually pledged, yielding fruitfuilness of many kinds and lived in the very everydayness of just and graced love — they are available for our thinking and our understanding.

In the quotation I highlighted yesterday, John McNeill observes,

Despite their personal suffering, the loving presence of lesbian women and gay men is the oil that keeps the whole human machine running.  If, somehow, gay people were to disappear from the scene, the whole community would be in danger of being seriously dehumanized (Taking a Chance on God [Boston: Beacon, 1988], p. 99). 

Both Farley and McNeill are talking about what the famous developmental psychologist Erik Erikson calls "generativity." Both are arguing that, if we attend carefully to the real-life experiences of committed, loving, same-sex couples, we see "fruitfulness of many kinds," to use Farley's phrase. We see in many societies "oil that keeps the whole human machine running" in the "loving presence of lesbian women and gay men," to use John McNeill's phrase.

Loving, committed same-sex relationships not only have the potential to be generative: these relationships clearly are generative. As both Farley and McNeill note, to see this, we have only to open our eyes and look at the world around us, where the LGBT people we know, many of them in loving, committed relationships (and now, in many parts of the world, many of them in loving, committed marital relationships) are offering abundant gifts to all of us out of the wealth of their own personal lives and of their loving, committed relationships.

One of the founding figures of psychotherapy, Carl Jung, thought, in fact, that homosexual people appear to have a penchant for, a "gene" for, altruistic behavior. He pointed out that gay people quite frequently end up being the caregivers within their families, or they end up choosing the helping and healing professions, or they exercise valuable and creative roles within the religious traditions of the world as mediators of the divine.

If all this is true — and theologians John McNeill and Margaret Farley both say we can see this with our own eyes, if we open our eyes and look at the world around us — then it would seem to follow that those interested in building a better and more humane world for everyone would encourage and support loving, committed same-sex relationships. They would do so because of the clearly demonstrated penchant of those relationships to be generative — to offer gifts to the whole of society that help to build a better world for all of us.

This is not, unfortunately, where the Catholic church has ended up today, at least, vis-a-vis many of its top pastoral leaders. Though the pastoral leaders of the Catholic church have no problem at all marrying heterosexual couples incapable of bearing children, and though the pastoral leaders of the Catholic church recognize that those heterosexual couples benefit from being married because official sanction of their marital relationships enables them to be generative in many other ways than bearing children, the leaders of the church deny marriage to same-sex couples with the argument that same-sex relationships cannot be procreative.

To anyone who thinks carefully about the willingness of the leaders of the church to permit infertile opposite-sex couples to marry while they deny same-sex couples the right to marry because they cannot procreate, the argument that gay couples must not be allowed to marry because gay couples cannot bear children makes no sense at all. And even more nonsensical, unconvincing, and irrational is the new "theology of the body" argument that has begun to circulate in Catholic circles, which insists that the reason the church can allow infertile heterosexual couples to marry but not allow gay couples to marry while citing the norm of procreativity is that, in the case of infertile heterosexual couples, there are at least a penis and a vagina present.

And somehow this complementarity, with its crude biological reductionism, is now the very center of what marriage is about: there can be no marriage at all without a penis and a vagina, even when the couple to which we're pointing happens to be incapable of procreating. Precisely how and why this reductionistic biological simplism has come to be the center of the theology of marriage of many Christians at this point in history, when it's hardly the center of the biblical notion of marriage or hardly rooted in the traditional theology of marriage, is elusive to understand.

I think one has to conclude that, for many Christians, the taboo against homosexuality is so strong — homophobia is so strong — that any argument whatsoever against homosexual people and homosexual relationships, no matter how absurd or far-fetched or irrational that argument is, suffices. Let one argument be dispensed with — e.g., the argument that same-sex couples must be prohibited from marrying because they cannot procreate — and another will take its place, one more reality-bending and reason-denying than the previous one — e.g., the new argument that marriage is really all about a penis and a vagina, even when procreation is not possible for some heterosexual couples.

The point is, quite simply, to bar LGBT people and their relationships as much as possible from the rest of society, because our comfort levels will not allow us to rub shoulders with LGBT people on equal terms, as if they're human in the same way we are human. Our sense of who we are, our sense of self-worth, depends on defining ourselves over against those who are LGBT as a demeaned, despised, othered category.

As I say, the churches bear much responsibility for fostering this hateful attitude in many societies, and all of us are the losers as a result. All of society suffers when LGBT people are barred from forming loving, committed relationships, and are shoved to the margins of society, where, denied rights and privileges everyone else has, they often fulfill the ugly prophecies of the social mainstream that LGBT people behave promiscuously and cannot form committed and loving relationships. 

They cannot do so precisely because they are not offered the social support necessary to sustain loving, committed relationships. Pope Francis has just spoken eloquently in Philadelphia about how families need socieconomic support, including access to good healthcare, in order to thrive. 

While I applaud these fine words, how can I possibly not think, as I listen to them, about how much my partner (now husband) of many years and I have suffered over the years due, quite precisely, to the refusal of one Catholic institution after another to give us any place at all in which to work and to have access to healthcare coverage? Because we are Catholic theologians, our livelihood depends, to a great extent, on the willingness of church institutions to treat us fairly, to offer us employment and health benefits.

Catholic institutions have not been willing to do that for us and many other LGBT folks. They have, in fact, removed from us all access to a living wage and healthcare benefits. They have done so repeatedly. And the leaders of the two Catholic institutions at which we both last worked have now been promoted to the position of archbishop in one case and abbot in another — as if the Vatican rewarded them, in some way, for their overt cruelty to us and to the other LGBT employees of the institutions over which they preside to whom they have shown similar cruelty. 

Though both men have, I'm told by sources I consider very reliable, their own secrets, when it comes to gay issues and gay relationships . . . . 

My point quite simply: until the leaders of the Catholic church recognize that their abusive treatment of LGBT employees in Catholic institutions belies in the grossest way possible the principles about family life the pope defended this weekend in Philadelphia, those principles will fall on dear ears for many of us as we look at how the church deals with LGBT employees its own institutions. 

We cannot be generative — we cannot offer the gifts many of us have in our lives and hearts to offer both the church and society as a whole — when we have to struggle simply to make ends meet, and when we have to struggle to find ways to access healthcare coverage denied to us without stable employment. And for those of us who are LGBT and who work or have worked in Catholic institutions, it's the church and its leaders who are the barrier here.

(If you click the label "generativity" below, you'll find a string of previous postings in which I've talked about this concept and applied it to LGBT relationships.)

The photo of John McNeill is from Elisa's My Reviews and Ramblings blog.

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