Thursday, September 16, 2010

Two Snapshots of the Future of American Catholicism: Younger Catholics Dealing (or Not) with Injustice to Gay Brothers and Sisters

It's interesting (and very instructive, I think) to read these two articles as a diptych: two side-by-side snapshots of the future of American Catholicism. Michael Sean Winters reports at National Catholic Reporter on a new generation of Catholic theologians in the U.S., who, we're told, want to transcend the polarization of the post-Vatican II church, bring everyone to the table, and craft a Catholicism in which fundamental disagreements about "secular political categories" no longer divide the church into camps.

At the same time, Michael Jones writes at about grassroots movements among younger American Catholics to challenge the church's oppression of gay and lesbian human beings. As Jones notes, at a moment when Pope Benedict has yet again identified gay marriage as an incomparable threat to the fabric of humanity, and when Catholic leaders have insisted that homosexuality is a more serious danger than climate change (or drug trafficking), younger Catholics are intent on making their voices heard: for justice, human decency, and equality.

Which of the two snapshots represents the future of American Catholicism? For my money, the second does. Not the first. I say this because I don't hear in any of the reports regarding the rising generation of Catholic theologians in the U.S. much concern at all about the continued dehumanization of LGBT people by the church they want to preserve. I don't see gay and lesbian faces at the large table they want to set, where all of us can come together and overcome our polarization.

And yet the problems about which I blogged yesterday haven't by any means vanished in the Catholic academy in which these young theologians work. Throughout Catholic colleges and universities in the U.S., gay faculty and staff remain largely invisible—because they have to do so. They dare not show their faces for fear of losing their jobs. Catholic theological societies in the U.S., including the Catholic Theological Society of America and the College Theology Society, continue to function, for the most part, as though gay and lesbian people simply aren't in the room. We don't exist.

Out of sight, out of mind.

And as though we are not represented in the Catholic theological academy. And as if the Catholic commitment to human rights and justice for all has no bearing at all on how gay and lesbian brothers and sisters are treated in the church and its institutions.

Meanwhile, Sara Lipka has just reported in the Chronicle for Higher Education on a study undertaken by the Q Research Institute for Higher Education (and here), which finds gay and lesbian students and employees at American colleges and universities noting widespread harassment on college campuses. The kinds of problems my double posting yesterday reports in the American Catholic academy have certainly not vanished, as a new generation of theologians claims it is transcending polarities and bringing everyone to the table.

In the reports I have read about the recent international gathering of Catholic ethicists at Trent in Italy (e.g., here), there has been much stress on how the inclusion of younger married couples in the professional discipline of Catholic theology is reshaping that discipline. But if gay and lesbian theologians were anywhere in sight at this international conference—if they were visible at all—I've read nothing to that effect.

The opening of the boundaries of the academic discipline of theology to lay married folks is certainly a valuable accomplishment. But if that opening goes hand in hand with the continued invisibilization of gay and lesbian brothers and sisters in the church in general and the Catholic academy in particular, it is hardly an unambiguous development. At the very least, it undercuts the utopian claims of many of those writing about this new development as the achievement of a Catholic theological academy that is finally inclusive and representative of all members of the church. And it can even be read as a further entrenchment of homophobia in the Catholic academy, as a celebration of heterosexual power and privilege (and visibility) that by its very nature underscores the marginalization of those who are gay and lesbian. 

When Maureen O'Connell reported on the Trent conference back towards the end of July at America's "In All Things" blog, she noted something that I thought was extremely valuable—and which I haven't seen reported in other recent accounts of the conference such as James Keenan's at National Catholic Reporter, to which I've just linked, or John Allen's in the same newspaper. 

O'Connell reports that when the distinguished American Catholic moral theologian Charles Curran addressed those gathered at Trent, he "dramatically turned the tables" on his audience by noting that it's too easy to blame the bishops alone for the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic church. According to O'Connell, Curran "called moral theologians to task for our silence during the decades of sex abuse in the U.S. and Europe. Rather than blame bishops, he encouraged us to accept our vocational responsibility to speak out against injustice and support victims."

In my view, Charles Curran is absolutely on target with this critique. And that was one of the primary points I wanted to make in my double posting yesterday. The purge of gay and lesbian faculty and staff from some Catholic universities following Ex corde ecclesiae, in the name of preserving doctrinal purity, the attacks on women supporting women's ordination and the dismissal of a number of women theologians from Catholic theological faculties without any due process: these have all taken place as Catholic theologians have remained relatively silent. These purges could not have been accomplished without the active support of many American Catholic theologians—including ones who write about solidarity with the oppressed and our obligation to stand up for justice.

Beyond making grand statements of solidarity in official meetings, the Catholic theological academy has not been conspicuously courageous in pushing back against the injustices done to various groups in the Catholic academy in recent years—notably gay and lesbian persons—in the name of preserving orthodoxy and remaining true to magisterial teaching. And so I hear the centrist call for a new post-partisan era of Catholic theology with jaded ears.

If this call means that we can now celebrate the formation of a post-partisan Catholic academy or Catholic faith community in the U.S. in which gay and lesbian people remain invisible and in which church leaders continue, without opposition from lay Catholics, to attack gay and lesbian human beings, it is hardly seemly celebration.

P.S. I'm grateful to my e-friend Julie Arms for sharing with me the article about younger Catholics combating Catholic homophobia.

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