Thursday, June 30, 2016

Following Papal Statement About Apologizing to Gay People, U.S. Lay Catholic Leader John Gehring Calls for Listening Sessions with LGBTQ Catholics

When I posted several days ago about Pope Francis's statement that the Catholic church should apologize to gay people (and others it has targeted and harmed), I wrote that the Catholic institution "has a quite serious problem on its hands," adding,

It has done almost nothing at all at an institutional level to respond to the problem of hatred vented openly against LGBTQ people at Catholic blog sites and other Catholic venues. And it cannot do so effectively until it decides to ask some LGBTQ people what our experience with the church has been — and to ask widely, beyond the structures of the "official" Catholic-plus-LGBTQ organizations, I'd maintain.

In the same posting, I stated:

At the head of this posting, I cite Father Jim Martin's tweet about asking LGBTQ people how we feel and what we think about our treatment at the hands of many Christian communities including the Catholic community. I do so because, to me, it continues to seem imperative that any faith communities really serious about addressing the kind of hatred that pours forth when a Christian leader makes even a mild statement about accepting and loving LGBTQ people is not effectively going to stanch the flow of hatred until faith communities move beyond nice talk to effective action to address this hatred — which is a pronounced feature of some Christian communities at this point in history. 
I haven't seen any movement at all in the direction of establishing such structures for dialogue within the American Catholic church — structures allowing Catholics throughout Catholic institutions to hear the first-hand testimony of LGBTQ human beings about what Catholic institutions have done and keep doing to us. As I've also said repeatedly here in the past, I don't think that even the "official" organizations promoting pastoral outreach to LGBTQ people within the Catholic church have succeeded in encouraging open, wide dialogue between the LGBTQ community and the Catholic community.

And now I'm very interested ("heartened" is the word, really) to read John Gehring, Catholic program director for Faith and Public Life, writing yesterday,

Catholic clergy can institutionalize the pope's words of solidarity by creating real opportunities for what Francis calls "accompaniment" and "encounter." 
Pastors in the 195 Catholic dioceses across the country could take a first step by hosting listening sessions with gay Catholics and LGBT leaders. There would be disagreement and room for civil debate, but this posture of humility and respect would send a powerful signal that the nation's largest church wants to learn from the varied experiences of gay, lesbian and transgendered people.

This is precisely what I was proposing with my comments on Monday cited above. It's what I've been talking about for years now, as I've issued this call to the Catholic church and other churches engaged in ministry to people with AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s, which seemed willing to minister to gay men as they died, but conspicuously unwilling to talk to those same men about their experiences with churches and to learn how those experiences quite frequently fostered the kind of self-destructive behavior that led to the AIDS crisis.

One reason I've been so aware of the importance of such face-to-face encounter in dialogue is that — as I've recounted here a number of times — when my career as a Catholic theologian was definitively destroyed by Belmont Abbey College in the early 1990s, when I asked to meet with the abbot of the monastery that owns that Catholic institution, Abbot Oscar Burnett, to discuss what was being done to me, Abbot Oscar refused to meet with me — though he later accused me of seeking to "kill" him when, as he claimed, I refused to meet with him after he informed me in no uncertain terms that he would not meet with me!

He would not look me in the face, as the chief Catholic pastoral leader of that particular Catholic community, when that Catholic community was destroying my theological career. I also asked to meet with the bishop of Charlotte, Bishop William J. Curlin, to seek his pastoral counsel about what was being done to me. Bishop Curlin refused ever to meet with me, rebuffing me as I made repeated requests to him for such a meeting.

When I wrote him a letter to ask why his door was always open to rich and influential men (I knew it was: I heard stories about this) but not to a hurting member of his flock, he had his young priest-secretary contact me to upbraid me and tell me I had been disrespectful to ask such a question.

Still, Bishop Curlin refused ever to meet with me. He never saw my face as my theological career was destroyed by a Catholic institution in his diocese. Not once. 

It's important that the pastoral leaders of the Catholic church look LGBTQ people in the face and hear our reports to them about how they have dehumanized us, made our lives living hells, while preaching love, mercy, and justice to the world at large.  It's important that they hear the years of anguish they create for us when they fire us without cause, rip up our lives, careers, and reputations, subject us to extreme economic uncertainty and deprive us of healthcare coverage.

As Bob Shine reported for Bondings 2.0 and as Sarah Mac Donald noted in National Catholic Reporter several days ago, German cardinal Reinhard Marx recently told a conference of journalsts in Dublin that societies need to develop structures to assure that the rights of LGBTQ people are respected, and the Catholic church should not oppose such structures. As Bob Shine notes today in response to Cardinal Marx's observation,

Marx's words about society are welcome, but also raise an important question:  If society must go beyond apology to provide structures that protect LGBT people, why doesn’t the Church follow suit? In the wake of the pope’s call for an apology to gay people by the Church, many organizations and individuals, including New Ways Ministry, called for the pope to establish structures to promote dialogue and further advancement of LGBT equality in the Church. It would be wonderful if Cardinal Marx, a papal adviser, would apply his own reasoning to the ecclesial situation, and suggest to Pope Francis that the Church establish structures that will make apology a more impactful reality.

In discussing these matters with friends on Facebook, I've noted that I've long felt like a voice crying in the wildnerness as I've called for such safe spaces for dialogue and encounter between Catholic institutions and queer people, and for structures to support the creation of such safe spaces and to assure that LGBTQ rights are respected and protected. I doubt I myself will live to see much accomplished in this area.

I've lived through the long, long silence of the leading Catholic theological society in North America, the Catholic Theological Society of America, about these matters — though perhaps things have changed in recent years, after I finally gave up on CTSA after I sat for years through endless litanies of all the people on the margins of church and society with whom Catholics ought to stand in solidarity, and never heard a single world about LGBTQ people. Following the destruction of my career and that of my husband (then partner) Steve by Belmont Abbey College, when neither Abbot Oscar Burnett of Belmont Abbey nor the bishop of Charlotte William J. Curlin would meet with me to discuss what was happening to me, I then sought the pastoral counsel of the abbot of Mepkin Abbey in South Carolina, Abbot Francis Kline.

I met with him (I had previously met him and he had invited me to return to the monastery and seek his spiritual counsel if I wanted it), told him that Steve and I were a gay (but closeted, in conformity to the expectations of the institution) couple and that our careers were being destroyed by Belmont Abbey College in a conspicuously cruel way that was also destroying my connection to the Catholic church and threatening my faith in God. Abbot Francis offered to be my spiritual director and to help me walk through these experiences.

I returned home from that meeting and wrote him a letter. And never heard back from him . . . . He, too, turned his back on me, just as Abbot Oscar and Bishop Curlin had done.

This was the "official" Catholic word to Steve and me — the turned back — in those unimaginably horrific years in which our income was taken from us while we were providing care for my aging mother as her dementia increased, our healthcare coverage was ripped from us, our careers and reputations were shredded. And as this happened, there was not a single word of support from groups like CTSA, though some of the members of its board had been theology school classmates of ours.

In his recent remarks to Irish journalists, Cardinal Marx stated, 

The history of homosexuals in our society is a very bad history because we have done a lot to marginalize them. It is not so long ago and so as church and as society we have to say sorry.

It is not so long ago, indeed. And a church that expects to be credible when it proclaims the good news of the gospel and states that it stands for love, mercy, and justice, needs to do more than say pretty words, words of cheap grace, to address the misery it has deliberately, callously, with great cruelty inflicted on LGBTQ human beings.

Because the words aren't going to open the doors of heaven to us: at those doors, we'll be asked what we've done for and to the least among us. Not what we've said to and about them . . . . 

(As a footnote here, I want to note the pioneering work of the Catholic Committee of Appalachia last year as it wrote its people's pastoral. As I noted when I discussed that fine document last December, one of the steps the Catholic Committee of Appalachia took as it prepared its pastoral letter was to conduct listening sessions with LGBTQ Catholics — something the church as a whole could also do, if it were willing to learn from people in Appalachia.)

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