Tuesday, February 5, 2008

The 2008 Compendium: Whys and Wherefores

Readers of the preceding compendium might think I’m stretching, finding an anti-gay agenda in numerous current initiatives of the Catholic church at its highest levels of leadership.
Yet there it is, a scarlet thread running through the heart of the chronicle, weaving together disparate “pastoral” statements and political actions of the church as 2008 gets underway to form one coherent narrative: a decidedly anti-gay one. Everywhere one looks, there is a concerted effort to turn back attempts to accord LGBT persons human rights.
The concern is certainly about more than gay marriage. Though the official teaching of the Catholic church decries violence against LGBT persons, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church states that “every sign of unjust discrimination” towards gay/lesbian persons must be avoided, the actual record of the Catholic church—at its highest levels of pastoral leadership—has been deplorable for some time now, re: human rights for LGBT persons.
In the 1980s and 1990s, bishops in many places actively resisted the implementation of laws protecting LGBT persons from discrimination in areas such as employment and housing. At its top leadership levels, the Catholic church has resisted not merely gay unions or gay marriage: it has intentionally kicked against (often bitterly so) legislation of any sort designed to protect the human rights of LGBT persons. Money has flowed out of bishops’ coffers (which is to say, out of the pockets of the faithful) to movements opposing laws forbidding discrimination against LGBT persons. Bishops have sought to coerce Catholic political leaders to vote against legislation protecting gay/lesbian citizens from discrimination.
Still today, few Catholic institutions have policies protecting LGBT persons from discrimination. In many Catholic institutions, LGBT persons in fact still experience overt or subtle discrimination, including the possibility of being fired if they are open about their lives and relationships.
To anyone reading the preceding chronicle, the question that must be asked is the one my astute reader and friend, colkoch, raises in her comments about my 3 Feb. posting, Why now? Why has the Catholic church decided to up the ante re: gay rights at a time when almost every Catholic nation in Europe has accepted the anti-discrimination covenant of the European Union, and many Catholic countries outside the former Eastern bloc area—across Europe and in Latin America as well—have legalized gay unions or even sanctioned gay marriage?
What’s going on with the heightened hostility the Catholic church seeks to demonstrate, at its highest leadership levels, to LGBT persons and to gay rights at this particular movement in history?
It must first be noted that it’s no secret that, at its top levels, the Catholic church, has been at war with gay persons for some time now. Certainly many in the church would place the blame for this on the shoulders of LGBT people. For several decades, now, right-wing Catholic publications and websites have carried screaming headlines about ACT-UP members desecrating the Eucharist, about the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence daring to receive the Eucharist while wearing drag, about the alleged dissoluteness, immorality, and wicked intentions of an organized gay conspiracy to undermine Christian civilization.
But to most LGBT people—and in particular, those of us who had hoped to receive an authentic pastoral response from our church—this rhetoric is not merely overblown, but deeply malicious. From where the church has placed us, things seem entirely different: we have been demonized by “pastoral leaders,” told to remain closeted, that we should not be surprised to find ourselves susceptible to violence if we claim our identity and stop living in shame, that we are disordered in our very nature, and that that we are simply unwelcome as we are within Catholic parishes and institutions.
From one standpoint, the 2008 Catholic anti-gay war is hardly a new story: it is another chapter in an ongoing story. For many of us who have followed that ongoing narrative carefully, it’s clearly rooted in the theological and political penchants of our current pope, Benedict XVI. Here are the main features of the plot, which will be well-known to many LGBT Catholics. Because they may perhaps be less familiar to many other Catholics, they deserve to be recounted by anyone attempting to unravel the text of homophobic hostility that currently seems to govern the official Catholic response to the gay community:
1 Oct. 1986: Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict), as head of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDC), issues a fateful document purporting to be about pastoral care of gay/lesbian Catholics. Because of the publication date, this “Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons,” has come to be known as Ratzinger’s “Hallowe’en Letter.” The CDC document decries violence against LGBT persons, but it simultaneously emphasizes a phrase that had first appeared in a 1975 CDC document, “Declaration on Certain Questions Concerning Sexual Ethics.”
Ratzinger’s 1986 document defines the “homosexual inclination” as “an intrinsic disorder.” It states, “Although the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin, it is a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil; and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder.”
The “intrinsic disorder” language—which is new to the Catholic tradition as it examines the morality of homosexualityhas come to represent, for many LGBT Catholics and our allies, a gross abdication of pastoral leadership on the part of the church. As many theologians have noted, the phrase ups the ante re: the Catholic moral analysis of homosexuality.
Previously, a longstanding pastoral tradition well-rooted in classic Catholic theology had noted that one’s sexual orientation is morally neutral. The tradition speaks of homosexual acts, rather than persons, as disordered.
The introduction of the term “intrinsic disorder” has had fateful—and dismal—consequences for many Catholics wishing to retain some positive connection to the Catholic church. In speaking of gay/lesbian persons, rather than acts, as disordered, official Catholic teaching now draws a clear demarcation line between LGBT human beings and the church community as a whole.
In tagging one group of believers as, in their very nature, “intrinsically disordered”—a term not applied to any other group of believers—the church sets up a social mechanism that justifies the dehumanization of LGBT believers. This social mechanism has fueled a strong exclusionary impulse within contemporary Catholicism, which drives gay/lesbian believers out of the Christian community. With the “intrinsic disorder” phrase dominating its “pastoral approach” to gay/lesbian believers, the Catholic church has come to be seen as an ally of the most viciously homophobic movements within Christianity today—including the “religious right” in the United States.
1986-1990: Cardinal Ratzinger’s introduction of the “intrinsic disorder” distinction at the highest levels of Catholic teaching immediately results in acts of hostility on the part of many Catholic organizations against LGBT believers. It results in an increasing hardening of lines between the Catholic community and the gay community in many areas of the world.
Immediately following the publication of the 1986 document, the organization Dignity, which had been formed to create a safe pastoral space for gay/lesbian Catholics, is evicted by bishop after bishop from Catholic premises. Throughout 1986 and 1987, one Dignity chapter after another finds itself barred from meeting in Catholic churches or church halls in which it has, up to 1986, found welcome.
1997: Despite the increasingly belligerent attitude the Catholic church displays to gay/lesbian persons from 1986 forward under the leadership of Cardinal Ratzinger as CDC head, some U.S. bishops continue to seek ways to engage in positive pastoral outreach to gay/lesbian Catholics. In 1997, the U.S. Bishops Conference (USCCB) issues a pastoral document entitled “Always Our Children,” which encourages Catholic parents to accept their gay/lesbian children, and Catholic communities to affirm gay/lesbian members and refrain from discrimination against them. This pastoral document is noteworthy for avoiding the phrase “intrinsic disorder,” which gay/lesbian Catholics continue to identify as an assault on our human dignity.
▪ 1999: Despite the Catechism’s appeal to Catholics to refrain from discrimination, this appeal strikes many LGBT Catholics as nonsensical in an institution whose definition of gay/lesbian personhood relegates gay/lesbian persons to a sub-normal status, and in which active discrimination against LGBT persons continues unabated. Many LGBT Catholics by this point are simply giving up on the church; in some cases, high-profile gay/lesbian Catholics move to the Episcopalian or Anglican church, whose approach to gay/lesbian members seems more just and humane. In some places, when Dignity is expelled from Catholic premises, entire chapters of Dignity move to the Episcopalian church.
The sense that the church simply wishes to wash its hands of gay/lesbian members—particularly those who refuse to remain closeted and ashamed—grows sharper in the gay community throughout the final decade of the 20th century. In 1999, Sister Jeanine Gramick and Father Bob Nugent, founders of a ministry called New Ways, which had continued to seek a positive pastoral space within the church for gay believers, are silenced. Many gay/lesbian Catholics shrug, noting that this is what we have come to expect from the church, with Cardinal Ratzinger heading the CDC.
19 April 2005: Cardinal Ratzinger is elected pope. For LGBT Catholics, this implies that his approach to LGBT persons, and his enshrining of the phrase “intrinsic disorder” in official Catholic teaching, will dominate the church’s approach to the “pastoral care” of gay/lesbian Catholics.
19 Sept. 2005: the media in the U.S. announce that they have received copies of a 12-page document from the Vatican calling for an apostolic visitation of the 229 Catholic seminaries in the U.S. Investigators are instructed to review seminaries for "evidence of homosexuality." This is viewed by many theologians and by the LGBT community as an attempt to suggest that the sexual abuse crisis—which has dominated news about the Catholic church worldwide since 2002—is due to the purported increase in numbers of gay seminarians and priests. LGBT Catholics and their allies are outraged by the overt scapegoating of gay priests for the abuse crisis, which has been going on for many years in the church, with priests abusing both male and female minors.
▪ 14 Nov. 2006: In conjunction with their annual meeting, the U.S. Catholic bishops issue a document entitled "Ministry to Persons with Homosexual Inclinations." The USCCB document uses the “intrinsic disorder” distinction, seeking to distinguish inclinations from person. The document states, “It is crucially important to understand that saying a person has a particular inclination that is disordered is not to say that the person as a whole is disordered. … Nevertheless, while the particular inclination to homosexual acts is disordered, the person retains his or her intrinsic human dignity and value.”
This statement is viewed by many theologians and most LGBT Catholics as excruciating parsing of the now commonly used “intrinsic disorder” phrase. The 2006 USCCB document employs tortuous logic to try to rehabilitate a phrase that, in its very intent, is an assault on the human dignity of those defined as intrinsically disordered. The USCCB document confirms the intent to preserve a status of second-class citizenship for gay/lesbian Catholics by stating, “In the context of parish life, however, general public self-disclosures are not helpful and should not be encouraged.”
This injunction to gay/lesbian Catholics to remain invisible in the heart of the Christian community echoes a statement in Cardinal Ratzinger’s 1986 letter that had already struck LGBT Catholics as ominous: “But the proper reaction to crimes committed against homosexual persons should not be to claim that the homosexual condition is not disordered. When such a claim is made and when homosexual activity is consequently condoned, or when civil legislation is introduced to protect behavior to which no one has any conceivable right, neither the Church nor society at large should be surprised when other distorted notions and practices gain ground, and irrational and violent reactions increase.”
The 1986 statement is widely viewed today by LGBT Catholics as a warning of what we are to expect, if we ask to be visible within Christian communities, and to claim personal dignity in the face of definitions of our personhood that regard us as uniquely disordered members of the body of Christ. Though the church professes to deplore violence against gay/lesbian persons, in its very definition of us and in how it treats us, it engages in violence—and at a very profound level.
And so back to the question: Why now? Why is the Catholic church, at its highest levels of leadership, ratcheting up anti-gay activity in 2008, when it has seemingly already successfully “managed” gay/lesbian Catholics, and when few self-affirming gay/lesbian persons even seek inclusion any longer in a community in which we have been made so conspicuously unwelcome? I’d like to suggest several brief reasons that the Catholic church is making anti-gay initiatives a central aspect of its political thrust in 2008:
▪ It’s about the political utility of LGBT persons, not about pastoral care. Throughout the final decades of the 20th century, particularly in the U.S., gay persons have been very useful political footballs in a game that is not really about us at all. Up to the 1980s, the right wing in the U.S. explicitly and adroitly used race to create the political momentum to gain control of the nation.
As the 20th century ended, it became less acceptable to be openly racist, and the divide-and-conquer tactics used by right-wing political operatives to create momentum for their movement shifted to the LGBT community. It is still useful to employ demonizing, scapegoating, fear-mongering, and hate-baiting tactics re: the gay community.
▪ It is becoming less acceptable, however, to engage in these tactics—even in the U.S. They have, by now, become far less acceptable in Europe, largely due to the human rights covenant governing the EU. It is interesting that, with acceptance of gay human rights a de facto accomplishment all across Europe and just as the politics of gay-bashing wanes in the U.S., it is picked up by the Vatican. What is going on here?
In the first place, the religious right is in disarray in the U.S. as the 2006 election approaches. That means that, for the first time in several decades, the U.S. bishops do not have a clear candidate to promote as “the” candidate for Catholic voters to elect. There is a growing sense (a covert one) of alarm in the circles of the religious right (and I place the Catholic church in this camp, in its levels of highest leadership) about its ability to control the political sphere. There is the need to float new wedge issues, or to try to retrieve the utility of ones whose utility has been waning.
▪ The fear of loss of control that is at the very heart of current attempts to revitalize anti-gay sentiment in some Catholic countries in Europe is clearly being fed by currents of American political and religious thought that are no longer so viable in the U.S. as they have been. When embattled, reactionary movements quite frequently try to replicate patterns that have worked in the past, but which may no longer work in the future. Since reaction is about resisting change, there is a hidebound determination to try control mechanisms that were useful in the past. There is little imagination, among reactionaries, about any other social possibilities: determination to hold the line at all costs reigns supreme.
▪ Finally, underlying the rather perfervid reaction of the Catholic church, at its highest levels of leadership, to the worldwide extension of LGBT rights as the 21st century begins is the fear that, with a shift in the political climate in the U.S., there will be increasing scrutiny of the files of the Catholic church, in the U.S. and abroad, re: cases of clerical sexual abuse of minors. Everywhere, but particularly at its highest levels of leadership, the Catholic church is resisting such disclosure—such accountability and transparency. The leaders of the church do not want information to come out—re: how they handled abuse cases in the past, re: the sums of money spent to pay off complaints, about what they knew when, about how they were protected by governmental authorities and wealthy donors, and so on.
Nor do the highest leaders of the church want information disclosed about the fact that some of the most rabidly homophobic leaders in the Catholic church are themselves leading hidden gay lives....
In Sept. 2005, Pope Benedict was named as a defendant in an American lawsuit seeking to force disclosure of information about what the Vatican and dioceses around the world have known about the abuse crisis for years, and how they have handled the information available to them. When this suit was filed, the current American administration granted the pope immunity. A change in the political leadership of the U.S. could well change what happens in such legal actions in the future.
In the person of its chief dignitaries, the church wants to resist accountability and transparency at all costs. Hounding LGBT persons is a brilliant—if tragically unchristian and deeply unpastoral—attempt to divert attention from the real problems the church should be addressing. This is the church behaving as a political entityand not a redemptive political entityrather than as a pastoral one.

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