Saturday, January 9, 2016

Michael Sean Winters on Bishops' Treatment of LGBT People: "Affirmation of the Dignity of Gays and Lesbians Is Usually More Rhetorical Than Real"

Several days ago, when I took note of National Catholic Reporter columnist Michael Sean Winters' soft selling of a statement by Cardinal Donald Wuerl defending the firing of LGBT employees of Catholic institutions who contravene magisterial norms, I zeroed in on the glaring gap between Catholic leaders' entirely rhetorical statements about "welcoming" LGBT people, and how those same leaders actually treat LGBT people. I wrote,

What Catholic leaders are doing to LGBT human beings as they fire them right and left when these human beings choose to marry legally is shameful, and it's shameful for Catholic journalists like Michael Sean Winters to defend all of this and try to pull a rhetorical veil over it with the word "welcome."

And then, in response to Wuerl's and Winters' claims that what the church is doing when it fires LGBT employees who contravene magisterial norms is defending the church's teachings, I asked,

What meaning can Catholic foundational teachings about the call to make love, mercy, and justice primary in our lives of discipleship have in the real world and not the world of self-serving rhetorical fantasy, when LGBT employees of Catholic institutions are being fired right and left?

As I made these statements about how the reality of Catholic officials' treatment of LGBT people undercuts the rhetorical claims about "welcome," I did also note the following:

Winters concludes his defense of Wuerl by saying that if the church is too heavy-handed in dealing with LGBT people, it will play into the hands of those who want to attack church teaching on marriage. 

In a subsequent essay he has published about these matters, Michael Sean Winters fleshes out what he means by those observations. He frames this discussion by responding to an argument by his friend Notre Dame law professor Rick Garnett at the Mirror of Justice blog. As Winters notes, Garnett is preoccupied by what he sees as the need of Catholic leaders to defend the church against its perceived "enemies" — that is, LGBT activists who contest magisterial teaching about homosexuality.

Winters grants Garnett's point: he maintains that there are LGBT activists who want to banish Catholic moral teaching and Catholic moral teachers from the public square. But he then counters Garnett's argument with the following analysis:

But, it is also true that the leaders of the Church in this country have to take their own share of the responsibility for the creation of the animus, especially on the LGBT issues. Yes, the Cathechism and most statements by the bishops call for respect for the human dignity of gays and lesbians, but did I miss the USCCB statement endorsing some version of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act? Did they approach the issue of civil unions with a bias that led them to conclude it was a slippery slope, rather than a means of recognizing and affirming the dignity of gays and lesbians while maintaining the distinctiveness of marriage? At USCCB meetings, do you realize how many bishops will not even use the words "gay" or "lesbian" but revert to the phrase "persons who experience same-sex attraction," as if saying the word "gay" would give them cooties. Sadly, the affirmation of the dignity of gays and lesbians is usually more rhetorical than real. The approach of the bishops as a whole and of most bishops individually has been the standard culture war approach, we vs. they, and they bring civilizational catastrophe.

Sadly, the affirmation of the dignity of gays and lesbians is usually more rhetorical than real. The approach of the bishops as a whole and of most bishops individually has been the standard culture war approach, we vs. they: I think this analysis is absolutely correct. In fact, this was my primary point in my response to Winters about these matters several days ago. 

If they do even exist outside the fever-swamp imagination of Catholic clerics, those LGBT "enemies" of the church have been made enemies. They've been treated as enemies. And they've responded as people generally respond to hostile behavior and unjust treatment: they've responded by fighting back. They've asserted their human dignity in response to seriously dehumanizing attacks on that dignity by religious leaders claiming to act on behalf of a merciful and loving God who desires to see justice done in the world.

The ecclesiology on which the claims of Rick Garnett rest and on whose basis the Catholic bishops of the U.S continuously attack LGBT human beings is an ecclesiology locked — permanently, it appears, to the woe of the entire church in the U.S. — into the fortress-church mentality of the pre-Vatican II church in which "enemies" were everywhere. The Jews; Freemasons; liberals; proponents of democracy; Modernists; heretics; suffragettes; theologians and exegetes; Protestants: you name it. They were out there, and the obligation of the church and its leaders was to hunker down, bolt the doors, and put the trébuchets and ballistae into action.

What Vatican II recognized, of course, is that it's very hard to speak credibly — which is to say, in a more than rhetorical way — about being a church that envisages the salvation of everyone in the world (in response to a God who loves and calls all to salvation) when the church's leaders behave this way, making "enemies" right and left, treating some folks as less human than other folks. As Michael Sean Winters points out (and he's correct about this), the Catholic bishops and Rick Garnett claim that Catholic institutions have no choice except to fire LGBT employees who contest magisterial teaching, because these employees weaken the mission of Catholic institutions by making their positions public.

And yet, when have Catholic institutions ever fired people who advocate cutting federal programs designed to provide healthcare for everyone, or who advocate the dismantling of social safety nets that provide food to hungry people, clothes to the unclothed, better educations and jobs for those on the margins of society — core goals of Catholic social teaching? When have Catholic institutions claimed that they must fire employees who defend unjust wars, though Catholic teaching about war and peace is heavily weighted in the direction of peace and against war? When have Catholic institutions claimed that they need to fire employees who publicly advocate all of these things, because those employees weaken the Catholic mission of Catholic institutions?

For that matter, when we have long known through one study after another that at least 90% of married heterosexual Catholic couples in the U.S. use contraceptives, when has any Catholic institution in the U.S. sought to weed out heterosexually married employees using contraceptives as people weakening the Catholic mission of these institutions by contravening magisterial norms about human sexuality? When heterosexual Catholics contravene the very same magisterial norms that LGBT Catholics contravene as they choose to marry, why are the latter treated as enemies who must be vanquished if the teaching of the church is to remain strong, while the former are ignored?

The disparity is telling, isn't it? Is it any wonder that people treated with such conspicuous injustice might begin to respond to the Catholic church and its leaders in the way those leaders have predisposed them to act — as enemies? Where, in this theology of a fortress church confronting its enemies, is there any shred of pastoral concern for all those human beings whom the church and its leaders have alienated, kicked to the curb, treated like human refuse?

And how can a church that treats a targeted minority group in this ugly, hateful way expect to be believed when it talks about "welcoming" everyone and about practicing "mercy"? These are the questions Catholic leaders need to be asking these days, it seems to me, if they expect their church to thrive in the 21st century — not how to make the trébuchets and ballistae more effective.

The drawing of a counterweight trébuchet by an unknown artist is from Konrad Keyser's Bellifortis (1405) by way of Wikimedia Commons.

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