Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Bearing Witness: Healing the Tear in the Soul of American Catholicism--A Call for National Dialogue (1)

This is a post I find difficult to write.  Part of the reason for the difficulty is that this is a story that can be told from several different angles.  And because I have a tendency to go all over the map with a narrative line, and to try to connect every possible dot, I hesitate to launch into the narrative.

I also intend—as with everything I write on this blog—to tell the gospel truth.  And that means watching every word I write, like a hawk, to be sure it rings with the truth I know I’m called to tell here.  And which is exceedingly slippery, because that’s the nature of truth: it’s elusive.  And we’re self-serving and see only the shining edges we want to see.

Maybe the best entry point to this story is to note that I tend to regard my life journey at a spiritual level as a series of tasks.  And I’ve lived long enough to know that the tasks keep circling around.  I don’t ever quite finish a task, and as a result, it pops up again in a new context somewhere down the road, and I have to work at it again.

(The task metaphor comes, I have no doubt, from some deeply ingrained Puritan place inside myself, but that’s a dot I will try to avoid connecting here, because it’s not central to the narrative line to which I need to hew, if that line is to be clean and revelatory.  And the Puritanism has gradually been tinged with recognitions about karma and her cyclical role in our lives, as well as with an increasingly strong recognition of what is, for me, the central gospel truth of my life—one I do have to tell cleanly and with as much revelatory force as my words can muster.  Because my salvation depends on it.)

I’ve been feeling itchy lately (another metaphor that surfaces in my consciousness when one of those unfinished tasks presents itself to me all over again) with the recognition that I have incomplete business with the Catholic church—with anything Catholic at all.  I don’t like these itchy periods because, well, they are, precisely, itchy.  I can’t get rid of their nagging claim on me.  I can’t rest until I confront the task inside the discomfort whose source is sometimes not apparent to me.

And here’s what has become clear lately about the source of my present task—the nagging voice telling me to deal, once again, with the Catholic thing, with what the church has become for me, with what it now means for me: my awareness of the task before me has something to do with the fact that I’m doing some writing for a Catholic group, a wonderful opportunity to contribute to a dialogue that I consider important.  But as I struggle to get that work underway, I am increasingly aware that I can’t quite picture “the” Catholic audience for whom I’m writing.

I’m writing as an outsider to a community in which I don’t find myself welcome.  And that recognition skews what I try to write, and casts shadows over what I see with a clarity that seems absolute to me—but a clarity that I’m not sure the audience for whom I’m writing will share.  Not because I am the master of clear vision.  But because what appears shining to me often doesn’t appear shining at all to many of my Catholic brothers and sisters.

I’m aware as I begin this writing project—and here’s the real heart of the task I’m now facing again in my life journey—that I can write with ease for almost any audience except a Catholic audience.  And I wonder what that awareness is about.

In part, it arises from a recognition that I have never been censored (and ignored) so ferociously by any audience—whether secular, academic, or another faith community—as I have by Catholic audiences.   I have never faced the kind of overt, often draconian, obstacles in writing for any other community that I’ve faced when I’ve written for a Catholic audience.

When I wrote my little book Singing in a Strange Land, and asked the office of the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ Conference overseeing the Catholic translation of the bible, the New American Bible, for permission to use the NAB in the book—and to use gender-inclusive language in passages that lacked that option—I got back a hostile, exceptionally ungracious letter from the USCCB.  Which essentially said, “Not in any lifetime we control.  And don’t even begin to think that you can make our text gender-inclusive.”

And so I politely chose simply to drop the NAB from my book and to use the New Revised Standard (NRSV) translation, instead.  It had built into it the gender inclusivity at which I wanted to aim.  And I had only thought (stupid me) that I was doing a courtesy to my Catholic faith community in asking to use the NAB translation.  A courtesy for which I was repaid with arrogant, stupid discourtesy which no one marketing a product that has attractive competitors should ever dole out to a consumer—not if he wants his product to remain strong in the market.

This is one among many experiences I could recount, in which I’ve had to contend with downright childish and malicious critiques of my written work from Catholic audiences, which I haven’t ever encountered with any other audience for which I’ve written, including top-level academic audiences that are unsparing with their criticism.  I’ve sent academic papers to Catholic journals, receiving back critiques that were, essentially, ad hominem attacks on me, which didn’t try to engage the argument or scholarship in any shape, form, or fashion.  Attacks that were absent from the response I got when I sent the same papers to non-Catholic religious studies journals, which were eager to publish the papers.  And attacks whose authors I could easily identify, since they came to me on typewritten sheets of papers with the names of the priest scholars who wrote the attacks thinly whited out, and visible from the back of the page.

And when I wrote a textbook in fundamental ethics for a graduate program in lay ministry sponsored by an American Catholic university back in 1989, I had the bizarre experience of being assigned a real censor, a Jesuit priest, several years after the 1989 version came out, and after the crackdown on Catholic universities precipitated by the papal document on Catholic education Ex corde ecclesiae began to make administrators of Catholic universities and their theology/ministry programs exceptionally anxious about issues of theological purity.

And this is where we get to the dark heart of this particular story.  I’ve told this story in bits and pieces on this blog before.  I’m telling it again for two reasons, one of which will be apparent in a moment.  The other, overriding reason I keep telling this story is because I’m convinced it has to be heard—it needs to be heard so much that I need to risk boring readers to tears as I sing the same tired old song over again on this blog.

We have to hear the real-life stories of real people who have lived through the period in Catholic educational life that began with Ex corde ecclesiae, in order to understand what the focus on retrieving a purportedly waning Catholic identity in American Catholic educational institutions (since the papal document was aimed at American Catholics in particular) has really meant for the life of our faith community.  Really meant.  In the real lives of real human beings, many of them impacted in radically negative ways as Catholic educational communities drew their boundaries tight following Ex corde, and began monitoring, badgering, scapegoating, and expelling brothers and sisters perceived as threats to Catholic identity.

This has not been the bright and shining period of retrieved Catholic identity that many apologists for restorationist Catholicism would have the world believe.  It’s been the start of a new dark age in American Catholic education.  And some of us are still alive to tell that story.  And the Catholic community needs to hear our stories, if it really has the interest it professes to have in maintaining authentic Catholicism and building a promising future for Catholicism.

Part two of this posting follows . . . .

No comments: