Saturday, December 5, 2009

Bearing Witness: Creating Welcoming Spaces to Hear LGBT Catholic Stories of Grace

I’ve been stressing the need to bear witness on this blog recently. And over and over, throughout the time I’ve been blogging here, I’ve noted the disgraceful failure of centrist Catholic publications and blogs to provide a welcoming place in which the church at large can hear the testimony of LGBT Catholics.

I have spent quite a few years of my life as a theologian shut out of almost every “official” discourse space the Catholic church offers, begging the influential American Catholic publications of the center to open a welcoming discourse space in which we who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered and Catholic can bear witness to our lived experience of grace as members of the body of Christ.

My pleas have fallen on deaf ears. As I’ve reported on this blog, when my partner Steve and I first experienced our Waterloo experience with a Catholic institution in which we taught theology, and I approached one of the leading national Catholic publications asking to tell my story there, I was rebuffed. The publication told me that the experience I was recounting was so common in Catholic institutions as not to be newsworthy.

As I’ve also noted, what happened to me in that Waterloo experience was this: after I had taught two years in the theology department of a Catholic college, chairing its theology department, I was given a terminal contract with no explanation. When I asked for an explanation, since I had received an outstanding oral evaluation of my work for the year (this evaluation was never put into writing, despite my repeated request that I have it in writing), I met a stone wall. The president of the institution lied and claimed he had disclosed the reason for my termination to me. The abbot of the monastery that owned the college refused to meet with me, though he later claimed that when I resigned after I had met the stone wall, and did not come to tell him I was resigning, I did so in order to do damage to him!

Two years down the road, the college ended my partner Steve’s employment, claiming it did not have funds to continue his position. The college subsequently filled the position and added others to the theology department. At the same time that it let Steve go, it terminated the jobs of more than 10 faculty and staff members thought to be gay or lesbian. This series of terminations was regarded by the local gay community as a purge of faculty and staff suspected to be gay or lesbian. I have a copy of a letter an alumnus of the college wrote at this time to one of the monks who own the college, protesting the purge of LGBT faculty and noting the widespread discontent of the local gay community at what was taking place.

Since that time, Steve and I have never again been able to find employment in any Catholic college or university. Even so-called liberal institutions, including our alma mater, Loyola University in New Orleans, have closed ranks against us, while claiming to deplore what the right-wing college that terminated our employment for false and specious reasons in the early 1990s did to us. We are personae non gratae in Catholic institutions. We have been made to know and feel the expulsion.

Fast forward to 2009. We now live at a moment of history in which the political shifts of the last U.S. election seemed to portend a certain shift towards greater acceptance of LGBT human beings in both the U.S. and the world at large (since what happens politically and culturally in the U.S. affects global culture in significant ways).

The promise some of us saw in the last U.S. elections has not been fulfilled. To the contrary, we who are gay and lesbian are increasingly subject to a savage backlash both in the U.S. and around the world, which is, I believe, only going to grow worse in coming days. As that backlash occurs, the political leaders of the U.S. keep silence about what is happening, claiming that to touch gay issues is political suicide. The silence invites the backlash.

And right at the heart of that backlash is the Catholic church—or, more precisely, right at the heart of that backlash are the leaders of the Catholic church. Men who profess to be all about doing good and avoiding evil.

Men who are, in fact, doing evil in the name of God. Men intent on harming a targeted minority, in order to deflect attention from their own considerable shortcomings as moral leaders. Men who put the lie to what they teach about God, salvation, the church, communion, human rights, etc., by how they have chosen, at this point in history, to treat their gay and lesbian brothers and sisters.

In the U.S., just as what appeared to be an opening to a new attitude towards LGBT human beings occurred, we saw the removal of the right of civil marriage from gay citizens of California. This was followed by the removal of that right from gay citizens of Maine in a well-funded political initiative spearheaded by the Catholic church, and supported by donations from Catholic dioceses around the U.S. Following both of these events, the Catholic officials who contributed so largely to these assaults on the humanity of their gay brothers and sisters expressed jubilation at what they had accomplished.

And now New York. In each of these areas, we have seen the spectacle of leading Catholic figures deliberately fanning the flames of prejudice against a vulnerable minority, seeking to keep alive hateful old stereotypes of gay men as child predators (even when the heinous record of Catholic clergy in that regard is apparent to everyone), deliberately marginalizing and lying about their gay brothers and sisters. In the name of Christ.

And across the globe, in Uganda, a nation whose Catholic population is over 40%, a nation that is expected to be, by the middle of the 21st century, the sixth-largest Catholic nation in the world, gay and lesbian citizens will, in all likelihood, soon be subject to the death penalty. Solely for being who God has made them to be.

We are living at a moment in history when a retired Vatican official, a cardinal of the Catholic church, can state publicly (and with impunity) that those who are gay or transgendered cannot enter the kingdom of God. We are living at a moment in history when the most significant voice in the church, that of the pope, is completely silent about what is taking place in Uganda, or about the malicious and viciously homophobic statement of his cardinal—though the pope is quick to speak out about other issues, including use of condoms in the AIDS crisis in Africa, a practice he claims (with astonishing mendacity) is causing rather than working against the spread of AIDS.

We are living at a moment in history in which, at an official level, the Catholic church has set its face against all LGBT children of God around the world, even as it claims to speak on behalf of a God who creates every human being out of overflowing love, to experience love and to find God by loving others.

Ideas have consequences. Stating publicly that gay and lesbian people cannot enter the kingdom of God, stigmatizing gay and lesbian people as disordered, lays a rhetorical foundation for actual physical violence against gay and lesbian human beings—violence that seems to be spiking now around the world, violence that can result in the dismemberment and beheading of gay teen Jorge Steven López or a rise in hate crimes in political districts whose leaders have made anti-gay statements.

Ideas have consequences. Hate speech issues in acts of hate. By engaging in hate speech regarding their gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, the leaders of the Catholic church are implicated in the anti-gay violence now roiling many societies in which their words have influence.

And we are living at a moment of history in which Catholics of the center tacitly support this official Vatican pogrom, as they remain completely silent about all that the Vatican and bishops around the world are doing to their gay and lesbian brothers and sisters.

Because we who happen to have been created gay or lesbian cannot expect solidarity from our silent brothers and sisters of the center, it is extremely important that we develop our own welcoming spaces in which to bear witness to the experience of grace in our lives. Our stories not only deserve a hearing, they need to be heard. They need to be heard because our church is sick unto death, and our stories—among many other stories of grace in the church—point the way to the healing of our sick church.

And so, as I look back on this week and the train of thought I’ve tried to summarize in the preceding comments, which reflect what I’ve posted recently on this blog, I’d like to point to some outstanding examples of the testimony—of the stories of grace—of contemporary gay or lesbian Catholics, which, in my view, deserve wide attention and wide circulation.

In a powerful posting entitled “Encountering Christ on the Margins with Joy: Embracing Ourselves as Exiles,” Jayden Cameron bore witness this week to the grace that runs through his life as an openly gay Catholic. I encourage you to go to his Gay Mystic blog and read his testimony. And as you do so, read the similarly deeply moving testimony of Colleen Kochivar-Baker in the thread of comments following Jayden’s statement. Colleen speaks of one of the preeminent gifts that gay Catholics offer the church—our quest to find and emphasize what binds us together with all of our brothers and sisters.

I also highly recommend Terry Weldon’s recent statement (drawing on James Alison) “Amidst the Stones and the Dust” at his Queering the Church blog. Though this posting is not, strictly speaking, Terry’s personal testimony to the grace running through his life as a gay Catholic, it supplements much that he has written on his blog about how he has found grace in his journey as a gay Catholic who came of age during the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, and as a believer grounded in the Jesuit spirituality that stresses our call to offer ourselves totally as gifts for others.

I also find Geoff Farrow’s two most recent postings, “Roman Culture of Death” and “The Question of Outing Priests,” profoundly moving. Out of his own painful experience of repudiation by a hierarchy dominated by closeted gay men, who feel compelled to martyr members of their club who are honest about their sexual orientation, Geoff Farrow speaks transformative truth to power—and his voice would be taken seriously in a sane church concerned to craft a viable future for itself.

I am also impressed by the care that Geoff Farrow brings to the discussion of complex, sensitive moral issues like the question of outing closeted gay priests. Again, this gift of careful, balanced moral thinking, which arises out of the experience of struggling to accept oneself as gay and which predominates in the lives of many gay priests, ought to be cherished, not repudiated, in a healthy church concerned to have a vibrant future.

I am also thankful for and moved by the testimony of Michael Bayly at Wild Reed—in particular, this week, by his tribute to his mother on her 71st birthday, which contains valuable reminders that many Catholic parents stand by and celebrate their gay and lesbian children, and as they do this, also find time to bear witness to authentic Catholic values in other ways, e.g., by participating in protests against militarism. Michael’s celebration of his mother reminds me of Richard Rodriguez’s insistence that a world in which the attitudes of mothers held sway would be a more humane world, particularly for those of us who are LGBT, than a world constructed to serve patriarchal needs.

I’m struck, too, by a statement Colleen made yesterday on this blog, about where hope lies for those of us who continue to believe, despite the savagery of our church leaders towards us now (and the complicit silence of our brothers and sisters of the center). Colleen says,

I believe the response for us at this present time is to let those individuals and institutions wall themselves off while the rest of us move into the future. If this means uniting to create a new form for Catholicism then that's what we do. In the meantime we have to fight the politics tooth and nail because if we don't we betray our own spiritual beliefs and our own relationship with Jesus.

I hear Colleen saying something very similar to what I’m proposing when I talk about the need to create welcoming spaces to allow LGBT Catholics to bear witness to the grace that is in our lives. When a religious institution is intent on building ever higher walls that ultimately not only wall out the unwelcome, but wall in the wall-builders, the only healthy response of those who see religion as all about tearing down walls is to leave the wall-builders to themselves. And to unite and form welcoming spaces without walls, in which everybody’s voice, everybody’s experience of grace, counts and deserves a hearing.

Colleen’s theological, psychotherapeutic insights into what is happening to the Catholic church today—and re: healthy responses to the process of sickness and decay—are extremely valuable. I am grateful for the wealth of compelling, faithful voices of gay Catholics represented by these and many other bloggers and writers. And I encourage anyone reading this who cares about the future of the Catholic church to help find ways to make these voices and their testimony of grace more widely known.