Friday, March 5, 2010

Cognitive Dissonance: When the Church's Behavior Belies Core Church Teachings


Cognitive dissonance: I have been insisting in recent days that the Catholic church is now exacting, as a membership fee from those who remain affiliated with it, a cognitive dissonance that is increasingly intolerable.  The word “intolerable” echoes Latin roots that mean “not able to be carried.” 

The Catholic church today increasingly places a burden on the backs of those who remain Catholic that is impossible to carry.  It is impossible to carry when one adverts to the most fundamental affirmations of Catholic belief, which are increasingly at odds with what the church demands that Catholics think, do, say, and believe at this point in history.

A case in point: the ever more vociferous insistence of the leaders of the Catholic church that “ordinary” Catholics participate in actions against those who are gay or lesbian, which society itself has begun to recognize as inhumane and socially destructive—as actions unworthy of thinking, ethical people.

Catholic Charities in Washington, D.C., has recently announced that it will no longer give health benefits to spouses of heterosexual couples when one member of those couples begins to work for Catholic Charities.  This is in response to the legalization of gay marriage in D.C.

The Catholic church has a long (and admirable) tradition of teaching that every human being has a right to health care, and that we harm an entire society when we permit anyone to lack access to basic health care coverage.  Increasingly, how the Catholic church chooses to behave in its dealings with—in its relentless attack on the humanity of—LGBT persons belies what the church itself teaches, as its core values.

Catholics at large are more and more conscious of the growing gap between what people have come to recognize about the humanity of LGBT persons, and what the church wants us to think and do.  Our culture is currently at a tipping point in its recognition that gay and lesbian persons are human in precisely the same way and to precisely the same extent that everyone else is human.

At this tipping point, the leaders of the Catholic church have chosen to make common cause with Christian evangelicals of the political and religious right, who gleefully defend discrimination against gay persons, on the grounds that some kinds of discrimination are morally justifiable—even when the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches (§1935), “The equality of men [sic] rests essentially on their dignity as persons and the rights that flow from it,” citing Vatican II’s pastoral constitution on the church in the modern world, Gaudium et spes (§29.2), which states,

Every form of social or cultural discrimination in fundamental personal rights on the grounds of sex, race, color, social conditions, language, or religion must be curbed and eradicated as incompatible with God's design.

Cognitive dissonance: Catholic pastoral leaders today imagine that those who read the Catechism and understand its teaching about the indefensibility of discrimination will turn a blind eye to discrimination against LGBT people because they will assume—as their pastoral leaders assume—that the humanity of LGBT persons is a case apart.  That gay and lesbian persons are human in a different way than the rest of us are human, human in a way that diminishes the humanity of those who are gay and lesbian and makes discrimination against them acceptable.

Instead, many “ordinary” Catholics are waking up to the recognition that the pain they inflict on their brothers and sisters who are gay and lesbian, in the name of  Christ and through the church they support, is pain that sears—pain that sears in precisely the same way it would sear anyone else subjected to discriminatory treatment.  Many “ordinary” Catholics increasingly recognize with Karen Armstrong that the brutal lesson the Holocaust taught Christians of the West in the 20th century is that we can be dead wrong, when we nurture longstanding prejudice and the hatred such prejudice fosters, and when we justify such prejudice and hatred in the name of Christ:

Since Auschwitz, the civilized West had become the culture that had massacred its Jewish inhabitants, and this act of genocide tarnished all our other achievements.  If we had cultivated a vicious hatred of both Judaism and Islam for so many centuries, what other mistakes had we made and what other misapprehensions had we nurtured? (Karen Armstrong, Spiral Staircase [NY: Random House, 2004], p. 257).

If we were wrong about anti-semitism and Islamophobia, if Auschwitz has taught us that we can be so wrong that we put people to death because we are assured of the legitimacy of our hatred, what else might we be wrong about, when we are so certain that we are right?

I suspect many “ordinary” Catholics are asking questions similar to this now, as the cultural tipping point re: the humanity of those who happen to be gay or lesbian unmasks the church as a demonic, inhumane, anti-Christian institution insofar as it continues to dehumanize these children of God.  I suspect more and more “ordinary” Catholics are troubled now, as the pastoral leaders of the church seem not to be troubled, about the pain we inflict when we:

1. Withhold health benefits from heterosexual couples to retaliate against those who are gay;

2. Use money donated by Catholics for works of mercy to remove the right of civil marriage from a targeted minority;

3. Inflict misery and pain on the lives of those who happen to be gay or lesbian, and who are trying to maintain healthy, committed, longstanding relationships;

4. Destabilize those relationships by refusing to grant them any public recognition or rights;

5. Collude with those who want to prevent members of a gay couple from bequeathing property to each other, from visiting each other in hospitals and making medical decisions about each other, from having any legal standing that recognizes and protects their shared lives and their contributions to the community, etc.

6. Destabilize families headed by same-sex parents raising children, thus inflicting misery not only on the parents of such families, but on their children, as well;

7. Cause grief and pain to the millions of American families who have gay or lesbian brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, and so on, and who suffer when their loved ones suffer.

8. Tacitly encourage and even actively elicit brutal violence against those who are gay or lesbian by speaking of these human beings as disordered in their very nature;

9. Offer no support, but, indeed, place heavy burdens on the backs of vulnerable gay or lesbian teens struggling to come to terms with their nature, teens who are the leading segment of American adolescents committing suicide.

10. Support and practice discrimination in the hiring and firing practices of Catholic institutions, so that gay employees can be fired and have their health benefits removed solely because they are gay, resulting in misery not only to these employees but to their life partners, as well.

All this in the name of Jesus.  As society at large continues to have the scales lifted from its eyes and begins to see the humanity of those whom it has traditionally regarded as less than human, churches create cognitive dissonance for those who recognize that cultural trends combating dehumanization of despised minorities are more in line with the church’s fundamental ethical teachings than is the behavior of the church itself.

When that cognitive dissonance becomes unbearable, insupportable, people begin to walk.  They have no choice except to do so, if they want to continue believing what the church teaches about human rights, about the indefensibility of discrimination.

And about the centrality of love.

The graphic for this posting is a teaching aid used in many Catholic schools and parishes today to summarize what the Catholic church teaches about human rights.