I'm very grateful for the good conversation that has developed here around the topic of Dan Berrigan's witness to Catholic values of social justice and peacemaking in his pastoral outreach to LGBTQ people, especially people with AIDS. I blogged about this issue this morning, and want once again to make a statement of thanks to both BronxVoter and Bob Shine for correcting what is perhaps an excessively negative or critical focus in my own thinking about this legacy. Both Bronx and Bob pointed me to valuable resources that help me reframe what I think about this legacy.
And now wild hair — someone else I respect very much — has added important information to this conversation in a comment responding to my posting earlier today. Wild writes,
This morning I came across Bob Shine's article at the Bonding's site about Dan Berrigan and his work with AIDS and the GLBTQ community. I was moved enough by the Bonding's article which linked to a Huffington Post piece by Carl Siciliano; "Remembering Daniel Berrigan, a Forgotten AIDS Hero" and checked it out. The link is here and I recommend it.
Carl Siciliano details some reasons for that blind spot that some Catholic peace and social justice activists have when it comes to sexual minorities. In the article Siciliano offers a first hand picture of Dan Berrigan's peace and justice work as well as his work with AIDS and the gay community. There are many references taken from Berrigan's book; "Sorrow Built A Bridge; Friendship and AIDS."
Bill, you are looking for reading. I am hardly as prolific reader as you. I am not a big reader of novels and prefer reality stories. I was almost set to order Berrigan's "Sorrow Built A Bridge" this morning until I read this comment by Siciliano. I decided that I probably could not handle the grief. Here is his comment.
"I googled Dan’s name and AIDS. I learned that in 1989 he had written a book about his care giving, 'Sorrow Built A Bridge: Friendship and AIDS.' I rush ordered it, and have been reading it over the past days. It is slow going; what Dan writes is so painful, raw, so overwhelming, that I have a hard time reading more that a paragraph or two before I begin to weep. I walk back and forth until the tears stop flowing from my eyes."
Today I have even greater admiration for Father Dan Berrigan.
Bob Shine had also recommended the article by Carl Siciliano that wild hair recommends in his comment. I had not yet had a chance to read the article after I posted early in the day because I am, as I mentioned in my earlier posting, doing a bit of vacationing with Steve right now, and haven't had much time to spend with this blog lately as a result.
I find what Carl Siciliano has to say in this article very important. In the first place, he adds a valuable corrective to the many eulogies of Dan Berrigan that never mentioned his years of pastoral outreach to people living with HIV and AIDS, which he frames through the concept of friendship:
Dan responded to the suffering and ostracism of people with AIDS with loving kindness, compassion and friendship. A friendship in which there was no place for the pharisaical moral judgement of so many church leaders. A friendship of persons made equal though love, helping each other through a terrible time.
Siciliano also notes that, though he knew Dan Berrigan personally (in that he heard him speak in 1982 when Siciliano was a high school student and he then participated in religious services Berrigan led at the Catholic Worker house at which he lived and even helped Berrigan plan one of his acts of civil disobedience at a nuclear-weaponmaking facility), he did not know of Berrigan's ministry to people with AIDS. And as he goes on to observe,
When Daniel Berrigan died many tributes to his remarkable life swiftly appeared in the media. Rightly, there was a great deal of focus on his life of resistance and non-violence. But to my sorrow, I read almost nothing of his work with people with AIDS. At most a single sentence: Berrigan volunteered with those dying of AIDS in the 1980's and 90's. Such work required much of one's heart and soul, and yielded much suffering and sorrow. Dan's heroic care giving throughout the plague years deserved far more recognition that a sentence.
Part of the reason for this silence, Siciliano thinks, is the hostility of not a few people involved on the Catholic left, of Catholics involved in peace-and-justice issues, to LGBTQ people. He writes,
Dan's audience was primarily the Catholic left. I can attest, from having spent several years in the Catholic Worker movement in the 1980’s that there were strong currents of homophobia in that environment. There must have been a great deal of discomfort with the fact of Dan’s immersing himself so thoroughly in the world of openly gay men. Frankly I suspect that his doing so raised troubling questions among some of his Catholic admirers about Dan's own sexuality. (I wondered how much this discomfort informed the fact that among the many speeches at his wake and funeral service, at which I was present, there was not one mention of Dan's years of AIDS work). Even in the compilation of his "essential writings" assembled by a brother Jesuit, there is no inclusion of the searing writing about his AIDS work.
These things so much need to be said! These observations are so correct. There are deep currents of hostility running through sectors of the Catholic left towards LGBTQ people. Some peace-and-justice Catholics play women and women's rights (a good cause, one Catholics can promote, they say) against LGBTQ rights (an ignoble cause, one not worthy of our support — and aren't those gay men hostile to women in any case? Why would we ally ourselves with men who hate women and have produced the misogyny within the Catholic clerical system as a result?).
Others within the Catholic left have drunk deep from ideological springs within Marxist-socialist thinking which regard the promotion of LGBTQ rights as a bourgeois concern that diverts attention from the "really" poor, from people who are "really" suffering and who deserve Catholic compassion. I have met both of these forms of disdain for LGBTQ people and their rights among many so-called liberal Catholic theologians in the Catholic academy, including many of the founders of the liberation theology movement in Latin America — who tended in the foundational period of that movement to have deep assumptions informed by machismo about the place of both women and LGBTQ people in the world, a place inferior to that of heterosexual males.
Several years ago, I had to block someone from visiting my Facebook page who is a regional (in a large city in the Southeast) leader of the Pax Christ movement. This fellow is strongly committed to Catholic peace-and-justice activism.
When he hopped onto my Facebook page to attack me personally, he told me in no uncertain terms that he disdains me and other LGBTQ people connected to the Catholic church who dare to imagine that our cause in any way intersects with the Catholic promotion of peace and justice in the world. Not long before I had this unpleasant encounter online, when Steve and I were living several years in Florida where there was an active local Voice of the Faithful chapter, I contacted the leader of that chapter, thinking I'd join this VOTF group and attend its meetings.
And then just as I made email contact with this VOTF leader and was placed on its email list, a discussion came along about allegations against a priest in the area, allegations that he had sexually abused minors. In that discussion, more than one member of this local VOTF chapter made quite ugly homophobic comments about how the only way to resolve the abuse situation within the Catholic church is to rid its priesthood of the gays — who, as we know, always abuse children.
To repeat, to underscore: these are all Catholics working out of peace-and-justice models to build a better world and to reform the Catholic church. Homophobia is alive and well not only in right-wing circles in the Catholic church. It's alive and well among "liberal" Catholics who are richly represented in the Catholic theological academy, and among peace-and-justice Catholic activists.
It's alive and well because the institution itself is deeply committed to heterosexism and to heterosexual male entitlement, and these core commitments of the Catholic institution are seldom critically engaged by these groups of Catholics — since they are comprised largely of people who themselves benefit from these commitments to heterosexism and to heterosexual male entitlement. Their continuing commitment to the Catholic institution goes hand in hand with their inability or refusal to critique its heterosexism and its commitment to heterosexual male entitlement. It goes hand in hand with their refusal or inability to critique their own unmerited power and privilege as heterosexual people.
Nor is this true only of an older generation of Catholic theologians and Catholic activists. When Pope Benedict stepped down and there was speculation about who might succeed him, I was connected via Facebook and Twitter to a wide circle of younger Catholic theologians and younger peace-and-justice Catholic activists, many of whom fervently wanted Cardinal Peter Turkson to be made pope and hotly resented any criticism of Turkson as a papabile. They hotly resented that LGBTQ Catholics and Catholics committed to working for the full inclusion of LGBTQ people within the Catholic community feared a Turkson papacy and pointed to Turkson's homophobia as something that disqualified him from being made pope.
"Stop pursuing your one-issue agenda for church reform," I heard many of them say. "Stop expecting non-Western churches to bow to the LGBTQ agenda: Turkson is good on every other peace-and-justice issue that matters," they said to fellow Catholics who saw Turkson's well-known opposition to LGBTQ rights as a serious obstacle to his being made pope.
As Carl Siciliano notes, all of this — the incessant hostility, the way in which those of both left and right who remain institutionally embedded in the Catholic church so readily perceive LGBTQ human beings as the enemy — has resulted in an understandable and entirely predictable counter-reaction against the Catholic institution within the LGBTQ community. As he also concludes, the friendship model of pastoral outreach that Dan Berrigan practiced bridged the two communities and did much to heal some of the pain felt by LGBTQ people at our treatment by the Catholic church.
I honor Dan Berrigan's outreach to people living with AIDS, and his willingness to extend a hand of friendship to them in a period in which, as Siciliano indicates, top Catholic leaders in his own diocese like Cardinal O'Connor did everything in their power to attack and humiliate the LGBTQ community. As someone who himself was involved in AIDS ministry in this same time frame — in the 1980s and 1990s — I know the steep walls that had to be climbed in order for someone like Berrigan to extend a hand of friendship to gay couples and people living with AIDS.
In working in AIDS ministry in those years, I also observed, however, how quick many churches in that period were to reach out to sick and dying gay men, while they adamantly refused to engage those same men — or the LGBTQ community in general — when they were not sick and dying in any kind of conversation about precisely why so many of us felt hurt, abandoned, attacked by our communities of faith. Even while telling us that they loved us as many of us lay sick and dying, they refused to engage us in any productive conversation about how their condemnatory teachings and unjust practices regarding us contributed to the very conditions that produced the lack of self-regard which issued in the AIDS epidemic.
We deserved better then, and we deserve better now. If Dan Berrigan's commitment to AIDS ministry is now to be recognized and added to the reasons Catholics should admire him, then I'd propose that his example be viewed as a starting point for a model of Catholic pastoal engagement with the LGBTQ community that goes beyond noticing LGBTQ people only as they are sick and dying.