Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Bearing Witness: Healing the Tear in the Soul of American Catholicism--A Call for National Dialogue (2)

This post continues the one preceding it:

So here’s what happened.  When I wrote the first edition of the ethics textbook in 1989 and the Catholic lay ministry program that commissioned the work published it, the program director told me he had sent the textbook in draft to various American bishops around the country.  All of whom (or their chancellors), without exception, wrote back to tell him the textbook was a fine, sound foundation for teaching fundamental ethics to Catholic lay ministry students.  The only negative letter, I was told, came from a chancellor in a diocese on the East Coast who had a long history of attacking this particular lay ministry program.

Then came Ex corde.  And suddenly, the textbook that had previously been splendid was now problematic.  It had to be revised.  I needed, in particular, to lard it with lavish quotations from John Paul II’s work, especially his encyclical Veritatis splendor.  Or so I was informed.

Meanwhile—and this was, in some ways, a direct result of Ex corde ecclesiae: the college president told me so—a Catholic college at which my partner Steve and I were both teaching theology, Belmont Abbey College, fired first me and then Steve.  At the time Steve was fired along with a slew of other faculty and staff, almost all of whom happened to be unmarried and most of whom were rumored to be gay or lesbian, the abbot of the monastery that owns this college informed the media that the catholicity of his college was under assault, and needed to be retrieved.  Hence, it seemed, the purge . . . .

I later learned that my ethics textbook had been circulating among the monks during the two years I taught at Belmont Abbey, and that some of them—men without doctorates in theology, but who considered theology their discipline because they were ordained, and not mine because I am a layperson—had written comments in its margins about the “errors” the text contained, as they passed it from one hand to another.

And so I was told by the lay ministry program that had published the text only five years or so prior to this time, and which had received glowing reviews of the text from all the bishops to whom they sent it prior to publication, that I had to re-write the textbook.  And make it more Catholic, more papal.  More John Paul II-ish.  More restorationist.  Put more splendid truth into it than it already bore.

And enter the censor: as I wrote, I received back critiques from a Jesuit appointed to review the text before it was finalized.  The first time I wrote the textbook, after it was drafted I had met with the whole faculty of the lay ministry program, who responded to the text and gave me suggestions for improving it in the dialogic way that communities of scholars usually employ when they critique the work of a peer.

Not this go-round.  This time, I was expected to read long diatribes, single-spaced pages full of instructions from the censor.  And to incorporate his “suggestions” in the text.

And, interestingly enough, these were all directed to only one chapter in the book—the chapter dealing with sexual ethical issues, including homosexuality.  That chapter elicited a spate of those single-spaced pages full of instructions: you can say this.  You must not say that.  The church teaches this.  The church does not teach that.

Why did I put up with this intrusive censorship, you may well ask?  As I’ve noted, by this point, both Steve and I had been fired by Belmont Abbey College, and neither of us has ever had a foothold in the Catholic academic world since that time.  We have not taught theology or had any institutional support to do theological scholarship since the first half of the 1990s.  The academic work we did find to do after that time was in non-Catholic colleges and universities.  And it was in the field of administration, not in the classroom.

My connection to this lay ministry institute was my sole remaining academic connection to the Catholic church, following Belmont Abbey’s firing of us.  It was also a connection to my alma mater.   It symbolized for us, in short, the last entrée either of has ever enjoyed in Catholic academic life.  I did not want to lose this precious, tenuous thread of life connecting me to the vocation for which I had trained, for which I had struggled hard to obtain academic credentials, with no support at all from the institutional church as I put myself through a theology program.

The job also brought sorely needed income while we battled to keep afloat during years in which we had the responsibility of providing care for my aging, increasingly demented mother, whom Steve and I took to live with us shortly after my firing by Belmont Abbey.  I was also grading papers for the lay ministry program—in which I had taught courses previously, and on whose academic advisory board I had sat.  That work brought a bit more income, and also kept alive our sole fragile connection to Catholic academic life.

And so I did what my censor told me, insofar as I could do so without violating my conscience.  I erased this sentence and larded the text with that sentence—most frequently, with a pithy line from one of John Paul II’s encyclicals.

And I finished the work, and, insofar as I have ever known, it was promptly ditched by the lay ministry program and never used as a textbook.  Within a period of some five years, a textbook that had been regarded as a solid, useful introductory foundation to the field of Catholic ethics for lay ministry students had gone from being acceptable to being inadmissible.  And the only thing that had changed was the climate of Catholic educational institutions.  The only thing that had changed was the stunning, brutal impact of Ratzinger and John Paul II’s restorationist agenda on the American Catholic church.

And the willingness of those administering these institutions and their programs to go along with the purge.  To participate actively in the kind of dehumanizing attacks on their brothers and sisters that I’ve just described.  Even when—as in my case—they had every reason to know that I had been fired unfairly by another Catholic college whose academic soundness they questioned, that my partner and I had the responsibility of providing care for an aging mother, that we could barely make ends meet financially and had no health care coverage, that we had had the door slammed decisively in our faces by the Catholic academy.

While they themselves continued to thrive.  And to enjoy entrée and privileges of which we could only dream now that we’d been shown the door.

Why bring this up right now, in the context of my current struggle to write some educational materials for a Catholic audience?  Here’s why: sometimes when my innards are alerting me to the need to revisit a past task that I haven’t yet successfully dealt with, things happen that confirm, externally, the particular inner sense that is gnawing at me.

Two days ago, as I was once again mulling over these questions about how to write anything at all for a Catholic audience when I have been told I am not welcome in the Catholic academic community, I open the page of one of the social networking sites to which I belong, and see a comment by the same director of the lay ministry program about which I’m writing here.  By the same director who fired me as I finished the textbook for which I had been assigned a censor.

She ended that one final connection I had to the lay ministry program after I completed the revision of my ethics textbook—grading papers for the program—in an exceptionally peremptory and disrespectful way, through a phone call that told me the grade I had given a paper was unacceptable, and she intended to change the grade.  The topic of the paper?  It was a defense of the firing of a lay minister in a parish in Salt Lake City, solely because he was a gay man who had come out of the closet.

As I told the person writing this paper, it never rose to the level of developing a sound ethical argument, because the paper’s conclusion—it is just and right to fire Catholic lay ministers who announce that they are gay—rested on only one assertion: the church teaches.  And therefore we must believe.

I would not accept that ethical argument in any paper written about any topic in a course in foundational ethics, because this is precisely the approach that foundational courses in ethics are designed to correct.  Asserting that the church teaches and therefore we must believe is not ethical thinking.  It is not weighing sets of conflicting moral norms and defending one application of those norms as the most ethically sensitive approach to an issue.

This approach eclipses ethical thinking.  And a course in fundamental ethics that allows a student to get away with such eclipsed ethical thinking is not doing any parish or other Catholic institution in which this person will later minister a favor.

Because I had written words to this effect on this student’s paper and had given it the grade it deserved, I was dismissed by the lay theologian heading the lay ministry program for which I was grading papers.  My final tie to the Catholic academic community was cut.  And as I listened to her lambasting me for having given a low grade to the student who wrote the problematic paper, it hit me: the person cutting the tie had, in the dialogue session re: the first edition of my ethics text, also tried to argue—and this is hardly unrelated—that the decision of the American Psychological Association to remove homosexuality from the APA manual of mental disorders was a political decision resulting from lobbying by the homosexual community.

She had a bee in her bonnet, in other words, about gay issues and gay people.  And as she harbored that bee, she was not challenged by her other lay colleagues on the faculty of this Catholic lay ministry program.  In fact, the majority of them had expressed nervousness about the original text’s treatment of the Catholic debate re: artificial contraception—though, insofar as I could determine, most of these married lay Catholic colleagues were themselves practicing contraception.  And those who were single were, insofar as I knew, fairly nonchalant about the fact that they pursued sexual relationships outside of marriage—but heterosexual ones, of course.  And one of them, I have later learned, a married lay man who has also directed this lay ministry program, routinely tells students that they should be skeptical of the APA declassification of homosexuality as a mental disorder, since the declassification took place primarily due to gay lobbying in the APA.

And these are extremely important points to bring up here, for the following reasons: it matters not a whit to me whether my lay Catholic colleagues in any academic setting are obeying or violating Catholic teaching about contraception or premarital sex.  It’s not my business to monitor—or even to care about—what they do in their bedrooms.

But my Catholic colleagues in academic settings have not extended the same courtesy to Steve and me—and this is the norm, this lopsided extension of courtesy to heterosexual lay employees with the denial of a similar courtesy to gay ones, in Catholic colleges and universities.  Administrators of Catholic colleges and universities routinely look the other way when ostensibly heterosexual faculty and staff flaunt the norms of Catholic moral teaching re: sexual issues.

They do not look the other way when gay or lesbian employees do so.  And the double standard is cruel and exceptionally destructive for those who happen to be gay or lesbian and employed by Catholic institutions.

So here’s how I felt when I logged onto my social networking site two days ago and saw a comment by the lay woman who ended my tiny job grading papers for the Catholic lay ministry program she headed in the 1990s: when I read that she was talking about how something had refreshed her soul, I wanted to throw up.

The comment was on the social networking page of an e-friend of mine whose theological work I admire.

Here’s what I want to say to the person who is talking about how her soul is refreshed, after she fired me as Steve and I struggled to deal with the doors of Catholic institutions slamming in our faces, with the challenge of staying afloat financially, with worries about our lack of health insurance, and with the daily task of caring for an aging parent suffering from dementia: you have forfeited the right to talk about souls.

You don’t own the language of soul.  Not any longer.  You lost ownership of that term—and of terms like God, salvation, communion, justice, human rights, and catholicity—when you called to tell me you were firing me because I challenged a student’s right to rest an ethical case, in a course designed to challenge students to think about ethical issues, on a bald assertion of “the church teaches and so I believe.”

You lost the right to use the language of soul when you engaged in a corrupt attack on the souls (and livelihood) of two of your colleagues in the Catholic theological academy whose only crime has been being gay.  And refusing to apologize for being gay.  And celebrating their years of graced love for each other.

And in saying this to you, I am speaking to the Catholic academy as a whole, and to the entire Catholic community, insofar as it continues to visit this kind of utterly despicable, dehumanizing, soul-robbing treatment on its gay brothers and sisters. And on women who refuse to stop talking about women’s ordination.  And on survivors of clerical sexual abuse who will not leave that issue alone.

It’s time for honesty about these issues.  It’s time for real dialogue.  In which you hear our real stories and the effect of your craven and immoral behavior, as leaders in Catholic institutions, on us.  In which you set aside the pages of single-spaced instructions about what the church teaches and listen for a change.

To real people with real stories.  To real people with real stories that implicate you.

As you talk about refreshing your soul.  And about God and the church and salvation and human rights and justice.

Because until you are willing, you who continue to identify yourself as Catholic and who continue to imagine that you speak on behalf of the church, to engage in such uncomfortable dialogue with the brothers and sisters you’ve shoved to the margins, with the brothers and sisters you’ve watched walk out the door—one in three adults in the U.S. who were raised Catholic—you cannot be credible witnesses when you talk about the soul.   Or about the Catholicity you have professed yourself so intent to save, in ridding the church of the rest of us.

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