Friday, January 30, 2009

Benedict's Smaller, Purer Church: Room for Antisemites, Misogynists, Homophobes . . . But Not for Us (5)

I’ve been struggling with the conclusion to my series of postings on connections between the March for Life and Benedict XVI’s rehabilitation of the Society of St. Pius X. I’m finding myself unable to bring that series to a close, and I suspect the reason is this: I’ve been writing in a voice that is too self-conscious. I’ve (unconsciously) been struggling to to convince those I’m implicitly addressing with my critique—those I call the knowledge class of the center of American Catholicism.

So I’ve adopted an artsy-fartsy theological language that convinces no one, and which causes me to second-guess everything I say. And all to no avail, I suspect, since I doubt that those I’m trying to address are listening, anyway. In my experience, they are too busy talking to each other, and only each other, to pay much attention to voices like mine.

So I’m just going to say what I have to say bluntly, and, if no one else may be convinced or pleased by what I say, at least I will have the satisfaction of having had my say. Here’s the point to which I’ve been driving in this series of postings: while the educated elite of the American Catholic church faintly (and all too faintly, in my view) decry the decision of the pope to readmit the SSPX crowd to communion, there are millions of us, their fellow Catholics, who have been even more decisively shoved out of communion in the past few decades. And I hear very little concern among the leading thinkers of the American Catholic church—its most influential journalists, theologians, prestigious bloggers, and so on—about this development.

In fact, as I read what that group of leaders has to say about the March on Life, I find many of the same ecclesiological assumptions that govern the way the SSPX folks do business. To the extent that the leaders of the American Catholic church (certainly its bishops, but also its leading theologians and journalists/bloggers) have mortgaged the future of American Catholicism to the fight against abortion, and to that fight alone, they seem to share the view of SSPX that the church should return to a pre-Vatican II fortress mentality, a lean, mean fighting machine. And should, in the process, ruthlessly weed out all those of us who had heard something different in Vatican II’s ecclesiology, and who do not share the ecclesiological presuppositions of those at the center of the American Catholic church.

It’s dismaying to me to read accounts of the March for Life which tacitly assume that all American Catholics buy lock, stock, and barrel into the anti-abortion movement as it has been developed by the leaders of American Catholic church. Hidden in that assumption is a nasty assumption about who belongs and who doesn’t—a nasty defense of what seems to me to have been a completely insupportable purge of many faithful Catholics in the last several decades.

There’s a hidden assumption in the rhetoric of many leaders of American Catholicism—and I’m focusing primarily here on the lay leaders of the center, not the bishops—that those of us now on the outside looking in have put ourselves there. We’ve been unfaithful, disloyal; we’ve questioned what may not be questioned, if one wishes to remain a faithful Catholic. We haven’t played the game right—not so adroitly as have those who continue to occupy seats of power at the center.

My reason for directing this critique to the lay leaders of the center? Because, while they often depict themselves as critics of the bishops who have led the way to a smaller, purer church, they are actually playing the bishops’ game in writing off many of their fellow Catholics.

It’s about far more than abortion and politics. It’s about what it means to be church. In my view, the failure of the American Catholic church of the latter half of the 20th century to convince most American citizens of the importance of the abortion issue points to a serious failure of the American Catholic church to be church in a way that compels the attention of American culture.

I stated in my previous posting that the American Catholic church has failed to produce a convincing, coherent discourse about abortion. It has failed to produce such a discourse because the ecclesial life of American Catholicism is itself unconvincing and incoherent. When there can be such mass oblivion to the situation of exclusion in which millions of us find ourselves—and oblivion on the part of those whom one would most expect to be preoccupied with that reality—something is radically wrong.

Something is radically wrong with a church that claims to be all about communion, about catholicity, about living as a sacramental community that demonstrates God’s all-inclusive and all-affirming love in the world, and which has so little concrete concern for millions of tacitly excommunicated brothers and sisters. Something is radically wrong—at the very heart—of our church when millions of us find ourselves pushed outside communion, not by our choice but by the choice of those at the center, and those who profess to be all about thinking through catholic claims utter not a chirp about this situation.

In the final analysis, we American Catholics have failed (and will continue to fail) to convince the American public of the seriousness of the ethic of life because we ourselves do not live as though life counts. We are not conspicuously pro-life in how we go about doing business as an ecclesial community—in how we organize our parishes, in what we do in our schools and hospitals, and, above all, in how we treat each other.

There are ethic-of-life implications, and very strong ones, involved when one human being writes off another human being. I have linked the situation of gay and lesbian Catholics to the issue of life, for instance, for precisely that reason. The multitude of LGBT American Catholics who have no place at all in the church and its parish life—because we have been shoved away by those at the center—are human beings with human lives, after all. We have human minds and human hearts.

Being told that one does not belong hurts. Being told that one has somehow earned one’s place as an outcast stings. Watching the knowledge class of American Catholicism dissect Richard Williamson’s antisemitism—and it should be dissected and resoundingly repudiated—while that same set of leaders never denounces the equally gross homophobia of Richard Williamson affects us. It has implications for our self-esteem, for how we view ourselves, we who are gay and Catholic. And those implications have everything to do with an ethic of life.

And with the inability of the American Catholic church to sustain an ethic of life, and therefore to convince other Americans that life issues are of supreme importance. We cannot convince anyone of what we do not live, and we clearly do not live the ethic of life as a church—not in how we deal with each other. Not in whom we admit and whom we exclude. Not when our best and brightest can remain supremely unperturbed by the fact that one in ten Americans today is a former Catholic and one in three American adults who were raised Catholic no longer belong to the church.

And I daresay that, among that truly shocking percentage of former Catholics, there's a significant proportion of gay folks who know full well we do not belong, as well as others who are fed up with seeing their church dehumanize and bash gay human beings while proclaiming that it respects life and values the rights of all human beings.