Saturday, February 2, 2008

Do Gays Leave the Church? Or Vice Versa?

Again, this posting is part of an ongoing dialogue on a thread at National Catholic Reporter's blog site, the NCR Cafe. The thread deals with the Catholic church's approach to LGBT persons, and is entitled "The Intrinsic Disorder Revisited (Again)." For anyone reading these postings from the NCR cafe on the Bilgrimage blog, it might be helpful to look at the NCR site to see the context of my remarks: If nothing else, Bilgrimage will document, for anyone interested, the attempt of one member of the gay community as the 21st century begins to open a dialogic space in the churches for honest, redemptive discussion of the impact of church teaching on the real lives of gay folks. Here's my NCR posting:

"Marie, you've addressed Dennis, and I don't want to interrupt. But your post also addresses issues I've raised and names me, so I hope my response won't be intrusive.

I think I glimpse your point--well, perhaps. If I'm missing your point, please tell me. If it's a question of calling on GLBT believers to interact with the church and expect good shepherding, it's a point well-taken.

Still, there are some sound reasons, I believe, that a large number of gay (I will use the term inclusively here) Christians shun the churches. It's because we feel shunned ourselves. Shunning makes it psychologically difficult, if not impossible, to interact with the institution doing the shunning.

The experience of gay Christians in the U.S. varies, of course, depending on one's geographical locale. In large urban areas, especially on the two coasts, many gay Catholics can find a variety of liturgical experiences, parishes, and ministries that allow one to be unapologetically gay and continue to have some connection to the church. That is, if one wants this, when the institution itself teaches at its highest level that one's very nature is intrinsically disordered....

The situation in the heartland (where I live) is, of course, different. There, especially in rural parishes, many Catholics can imagine they have never even met or interacted with a gay person. This imagination reflects the reality of many gay lives in the heartland: many of us cannot safely disclose our identity, and church is one of the least safe places to do so.

I could say a lot more about this, but I might wander from my main point if I do so. To try to say what I would like to say as briefly as possible, I'll tell a quick story. I know a good Catholic family living in the Midwest, in which ten siblings of a family of twelve married, producing 72 children. This is a family without strong anti-gay bias in the older generation. Talk to the ten older folks with the 72 children, and they'll say that they don't believe they ever met gay folks growing up. If they do so today, they do not feel inclined to judge them. Their Catholic faith teaches them not to be inhospitable, and it teaches them that judgment belongs only to the Lord.

I know this family well, and I know that of the 72 members of the next generation, a certain percentage are gay. Several of these are out of the closet and at peace with their identity--though, in each case, the decision to come out has placed them at odds with the church. There is also, in their generation, increasing polarization over the issue of gay folks, and some of their siblings and cousins have chosen fundamentalisms, both Catholic and otherwise, which target the gay siblings/cousins.

Point of parable: I suspect that even in the good Catholic parishes and families of the heartland, there has always been an abundance of gay folks. In previous generations, many of these may have gone into religious life or the priesthood, perhaps without having any notion of their orientation. The tenor of Catholic life was not disrupted in any way by the open presence of gay folks, and many Catholics in this region can still, today, assume they do not know any gay folks.

You ask, 'How can we fault the Church for not meeting the spiritual needs of homosexuals when homosexuals do not present themselves at the churches at all or if they come expecting confrontation?' In the kind of parishes I'm describing, here's what often happens when we try your strategy.

First, we find that if we expect to be visible, we create controversy. For many of us, that alone is a psychological barrier. I'd like very much to go to church and simply pray and participate--period. But with a partner whom I love and will not deny, with whom I share a relationship that God has richly blessed, a graced relationship I'd like to celebrate.

I do not want to go to church and be a gay poster statement. I do not want to make a scene. I simply want to worship along with the liturgical community, feel a part of the family of Christ, pray and bring the resources of liturgical involvement into my daily life. But I want to remain myself as I worship, since who else can worship for me? Certainly not the pretend-straight persona the church asks me to don as a costume when I walk through the church door?

For that matter, I would much prefer being included in a 'regular' parish as opposed to an exclusively gay one. To me, though I understand why some folks go that direction, there's a ghettoization about being within a gay worshiping community. I cherish the reminder of 'ordinary' parish life that we're all in it together: old, young, sick, well, rich, poor, black, white, male, female, gay, straight.

The initial barrier for many gay Catholics who seek a liturgical community, then, is the question of disclosure/concealment. For gay Catholics who are honest about their identity in their daily lives, concealment in the parish is not an option. For those who are still hidden, being hidden in church life can add to the toxic shame one can already feel deeply, as a closeted person. Going to church can rub salt in wounds that are already raw....

For those who are out, there can be a gamut of experiences in church life. I recently read a blog account of a gay couple who went to the childhood parish of one of the partners in Pennsylvania this past Christmas. There, they endured a sermon in which the pastor fomented against gay rights and gay unions, and the leaflet displays at the back of the church were full of rabidly anti-gay literature. Under such circumstances, church can be a direct assault on the core of one's humanity.

I have heard of parishes in the heartland in which some homophobic parishioners have succeeded in having the pastor deny communion to openly gay couples. On Pentecost Sunday, gay or gay-affirming Catholics in some heartland parishes have had fellow Catholics threaten them if they approached the communion rail, or try to prevent them from going to communion wearing rainbow sashes. The media have reported on this.

I go to church only sporadically now. My own experience has included going to church some Sundays to hear rocking and rolling anti-gay homilies, including one not too many months back that pinned the blame for the abuse crisis in the church on gays. I have heard reports from friends and relatives of similar homilies in parishes in my area; some of these folks, who are not gay, have walked out in disgust when those homilies are preached, because they have gay family members and friends whom they cherish and will not see abused.

I'm not sure if this is a turn-the-other-cheek situation, frankly. Of course, one can and must forgive such malice. One can and must turn the other cheek. But what we're talking about is not simply a kind of ignorant doltishness that unintentionally runs roughshod over the feelings and rights of others. As Peter Gomes's recent book The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus notes, we're talking about actual, intentional malice. This abuse of Christian faith and values needs not merely to be forgiven. It needs to be resisted, critiqued, weeded from church life.

I don't think one is compelled to submit oneself on a routine basis to malicious treatment aimed at demolishing one's very sense of self worth. Few folks have the psychological stamina to stand up to such treatment week after week, day after day--especially when it's coming from an institution that claims to represent a God of love and welcome for all.

Finally, there's the question of a kind of uncritiqued heterosexism that is simply the air we breathe, in Catholic parishes. In my experiences of going to liturgy in recent years, I never hear family described, prayed about, spoken of, in any way that does not implicitly assume all families consist of a husband and wife, married for life, with each assuming his/her proper role. This in the face of the sociological reality that not only do parishes include gay parishioners, but they also include divorced parishioners who may or may not be remarried, single folks who may never wish to marry, blended families, and so on.

We still talk about family as if we live in the 1950s. And this is very oppressive for many of us, gay and straight alike.

(As an aside, not sure what you're getting at with the Leviticus holiness code quotation above, unless you mean to say that the Christian experience abrogates the law?)"

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