Monday, November 16, 2009

The Conversation Centrist Catholics Do Not Intend to Have, Continued

It's political. And it uniquely singles out gay human beings for hostile, cruel treatment not accorded other Catholics--including the more than 90% of married Catholics in developed nations using contraceptives--who reject the teaching of the church on sexual ethical issues.

It is clear to me that something more than concern to protect ethical standards and theological norms is at work in the decision of the Catholic church today to focus exclusive, and exceptionally hard-hearted, attention on the supposed moral lapses of its gay children. In asking what a gay Catholic is to do, Fr. Martin is asking how gay Catholics can live within an institution determined to drive us out at all cost, a cost that includes the church's egregious violation of its own teachings about human rights and justice.

A number of outstanding recent postings at other blogs in the past several days also respond to Fr. Martin's posting. These include Colleen Kochivar-Baker's Enlightened Catholicism, Michael Bayly's Wild Reed, and Terry Weldon's Queering the Church (and here).

I find the discussion that followed Fr. Martin's posting frankly daunting. Much of it consists of ill-considered, theologically illiterate attempts of those who imagine they're defending church teaching to add to the burdens those of us who are gay are already carrying. The comments of many of those who logged in not to talk with but to inform those of us who are gay that we are hell-bound are a crystal-clear demonstration to me of how much damage John Paul II and Benedict's program of restorationism has wrought in the Catholic church. The last two papacies have succeeded in dumbing down the church to a remarkable degree, and with bishops in place across the board who have been appointed by the last two popes, and who reflect their ideology, I don't look for a reversal of this process anytime soon.

Meanwhile, I remain deeply saddened by the lack of any meaningful response to what is taking place in the church, vis-a-vis its gay members, from the one sector of the church that remains theologically literate, its lay intellectual class of the center. This group has the power to make its voice heard, if it chose to speak out.

It does not intend to speak out, though, even when the norms being used to ground the ugly political attack on gay Catholics are the same norms used to condemn artificial contraception, a practice long since accepted by most members of the intellectual elite of Catholicism in the developed nations of the world. This group does not intend to involve itself in a struggle that moves theological conversation about sexual ethical issues beyond safe abstraction to painful analysis of the effects of theological ideas on real human lives. Catholics of the center intend to go on sitting on the fence as they claim some superior vantage point in what they depict as a struggle between a left and a right that both lack objectivity. This is, of course, a ploy of those at the center to remain on the side of power.

Meanwhile, people are being seriously hurt, and the rhetoric of both the church and its intellectual elite about God, church, salvation, communion, justice, human rights, and so on is very seriously undermined by what church leaders are doing, and by the complicit silence of many educated lay Catholics who know better.

And so I posted the following on Fr. Martin's thread this weekend:

As I’ve noted, I appreciate Fr. Martin for opening space for this much-needed conversation. There are almost no such spaces open for this conversation in the Catholic church in the U.S. today. In my view, the church is suffering significantly as a result.

I see a somewhat disjointed national conversation taking place now about these issues on various Catholic blogs, and that suggests to me the need for more extensive conversation—if the church is really serious about pastoral outreach to gay persons. It is impossible to have this conversation at an abstract level, without hearing people’s real-life experiences, because the church’s current stance has real-life implications for real people. And so the conversation is necessarily messy, particularly for those who think that theological discussions can or should be abstract and avoid the messiness of real-life experience.

And the conversation will necessarily be passionate for many of us. Our lives — how our humanity is defined — are at stake here.

Fr. Martin began this conversation noting that those who work for the church in any official capacity find it well-nigh impossible to be open about their identity as gay or lesbian. He also noted that those who work for the church and are open about their identity sometimes find themselves fired.

These seem to me to be important theological data. If Fr. Martin is correct, it strikes me as crucial for theological discussion of homosexuality to take these data into consideration. Are openly gay people commonly barred from working for the church in any official capacity? Do Catholic institutions fire people who are gay and become open about their identity?

At another blog where part of this disjointed conversation is now taking place — at Commonweal, where Margaret O’Brien Steinfels has posted
“Tom Reese on DC” — I find Margaret O’Brien Steinfels stating something that appears to move in the opposite direction of Fr. Martin’s statement. She suggests that “in many places around the country dioceses and archdioceses do not discriminate in hiring [i.e., on grounds of sexual orientation].”

It seems important to ascertain the truth here, and to do so in a national American Catholic conversation. Does the church discriminate prima facie on the basis of sexual orientation in hiring? And if it does so, does it go on to discriminate in other ways when its employees become public about their identity—e.g., does it fire people without due process, deny health benefits to them and their partners if they are gay, remove them from their livelihood solely because they are gay?

In my experience — admittedly limited — the church does, in fact, engage in prima facie discrimination against gay people, solely on the basis of sexual orientation. And it does frequently violate its own teachings about justice in the workplace in its treatment of its gay employees. In my own Waterloo experience with a Catholic institution in this regard, I turned to a national Catholic publication, asking to recount the experience. I was told that the story of discrimination I sought to tell is so common in Catholic institutions, it’s not newsworthy.

Another piece of this disjointed conversation: a respondent at Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish blog yesterday (
“Charity and Justice in Washington, DC”) suggests that the church’s teaching about gay folks positively appears to demand discrimination. This poster notes that if we follow the logic of the church’s teaching, this teaching appears to demand that gay folks may well end up without various primary goods - homes, jobs, food, medical care, health insurance, etc. – when the church itself is the employer of those folks.

Where does the truth lie here? What is the experience of gay and lesbian folks in the American Catholic church? If that experience comprises manifold forms of discrimination from the church itself, then one would want to ask why it is so hard to bring those experiences to light and discuss them openly within a Christian institution. If it does not comprise manifold forms of discrimination, then one would want to ask why some of us seem to think it’s well-nigh impossible to be openly gay and work in Catholic institutions.

If Fr. Martin is correct when he says that it is “close to impossible” to be openly gay while working in most Catholic institutions, and that those who are open run the risk of being fired, then it seems American Catholics ought to consider this issue, and listen carefully to the experiences of those affected by this reality, for two reasons. First, it’s impossible to carry on effective pastoral work while ignoring people’s testimony about their lives. Second, if the church’s behavior as an employer belies its teachings about justice in the workplace – or about human rights – then the church significantly undermines those teachings when it fails to adhere to them.

Personally, I have concluded that the Catholic church in the U.S. would simply like for its LGBT children to go away quietly, because the issues we raise are too volatile. I have also concluded that this tacit “pastoral” choice is causing incalculable harm to the church.

Is this national conversation going to take place? I seriously doubt it, not even if the U.S. Catholic bishops issue a pastoral letter about marriage at their current meeting which makes faint noises about Catholics using contraception and heterosexual couples living together before marriage. I doubt there will be much national conversation of what the church is doing to its gay members because we all know that the bishops do not intend to divert millions of dollars into political attacks on cohabiting heterosexual Catholics or Catholics practicing artificial contraception.

And when their own lives are secure, why should the majority care about what is being done to a tiny minority, in any case?