Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Catholic Attrition and the Need for Better Hymns: A Centrist Catholic Discussion at Commonweal Blog

At the Commonweal blog, Grant Gallicho summarizes an article by Peter Steinfels on the crisis of attrition in American Catholicism in the latest issue of that journal.  As I've noted in numerous postings here, Pew Forum data in February 2008 show a third of adults raised Catholic in the U.S. having left the Catholic church.  One in ten American adults is now a former Catholic.

And, of course, this raises questions about why, and about what to do re: the attrition.  I'm intrigued by one strand of the conversation that has developed to discuss Steinfels's article in response to Gallicho's posting.  A regular contributor to the Commonweal blog discussions, Kathy, who's a hymn writer, logs in to say,

Obviously we need better hymns.

And Peter Steinfels logs in to agree.

Plausible analysis, this analysis that sees the U.S. Catholic church devoid of a liturgical beauty it once had, which presumably will draw disaffected Catholics back to the church through the sheer force of the beauty--if we can but recover it from the ravages of post-Vatican II liturgical reform.  Or so the conventional argument seems to go.  It's one that Kathy has made frequently at the Commonweal blog.

Unfortunately, this argument does not appear persuasive to me.  It seems to reframe (and restate) the question of why American Catholics are leaving the Catholic church in droves, rather than to provide a compelling solution to the problem.  As I noted in a posting about this issue back in July, in my view, Catholics can't sing now because we don't have conspicuously much to sing about right now.

People sing--and people will sing--given something worth singing about.  And as the history of song in cultures around the world--including cultures of faith communities--suggests, people will sing when they experience joy, welcome, liberation, sorrow, grief.  People will sing when they are moved by these profound passage-moment and transcendent experiences of human life, and they'll sing in communal settings when those experiences are shared in a communal setting.

Many of us are leaving or distancing ourselves from the Catholic church today for one quite particular reason: we do not find in the Catholic community today any significant or meaningful welcome that leads us to joy and a sense of liberation through the shared religious life offered by that community.  To the contrary, many of us--in particular, many of us who are gay and lesbian--are told quite decisively by our Catholic brothers and sisters that we are not wanted and are not welcome.

And so we leave, having nothing to sing about.  We leave or distance ourselves, having nothing meaningful to sing about, and having found the hymns that supposedly enshrine the experience of the joy Catholics feel within a welcoming community offering us grace and liberation tinny, utterly distant from our real, lived experience as gay Catholics.

Which is largely an experience of exclusion and of unwelcome,  of being singled out as sinners in a unique way that overlooks the shared sinfulness of all members of the Christan community.  Which is largely an experience of being in the room and being treated as if we are not there, when discussions arise of topics like this: why are Catholics leaving, and what should we do about the exodus.

And then, when we do share our experiences of unwelcome and ask for dialogue about them, we are very likely to be told in one way or another by those who profess to be concerned about the exodus of their brother and sister Catholics that we are political activists who have a political agenda, not a Catholic one.  Not a Catholic one like their Catholic agenda, which defines the contours of Catholic identity.

That we are shrill and strident insofar as we speak the truth in these conversations about welcome and unwelcome, about those who stay to sing hymns and those who now sing their songs of joy and liberation outside the church, with other communities that more adequately and honestly enshrine the experience of joy and liberation, of welcome and unwelcome, for those of us who are gay.

I've had a number of dialogues with Kathy at the Commonweal site over the past several years, (e.g., here: the quote below is from this thread), and they inevitably end with precisely this message to me: thanks for sharing.  But you're simply making political points that have nothing to do with me as a Catholic.  I, by contrast belong, and here's my non-political Catholic agenda:

I would prefer it if all of the teachers in Catholic universities, seminaries, and all chancery workers were willing and ready to teach the truth in its fullness and implement programs to help the People of God grow in holiness according to the truth.

I belong.  You don't.  I am with the magisterium.  You are not.

And, of course, Kathy's right.  She's a regular--and a known commodity--at Commonweal.  I'm not.  She is far more likely to be sent gestures of welcome from the Commonweal crowd as a known commodity who also stands in the heart of the church than I am as a marginalized gay Catholic fighting for his life, spiritually speaking, in a community that wants to lay claim to being a welcoming community while it adamantly refuses to entertain the testimony of one gay or lesbian Catholic after another about precisely how we are made unwelcome.

And so after trying once again to engage in meaningful conversation at this centrist blog, and after having failed yet again, I remind myself again of why I tend to avoid these going-nowhere conversations at the center.  Nothing ever really gets resolved, in these discussions--in these discussions that skate across the surface of civil discourse, throwing intellectual pyrotechnics about Evagrius and Jerome here, sprinkling weighty conversations with Aquinas and Augustine there.  In these entirely parochial conversations that want to discuss the most non-parochial issue of all--why are so many of us leaving, and what do they have to say about their reasons for leaving--in an entirely clubby, in-group, parochial way.  As if the club itself is not right at the heart of the problem!

Nothing gets resolved, because there is no intent of resolving anything--particularly when the discussion is who is welcome and who is not, who is visible and who is invisible, whose agenda merits a dismissive political tag and whose doesn't.  Who is Catholic and who is not.

Having engaged in yet another of these self-defeating conversations in which the very people intent on excluding me from communion, and the centrists defending their behavior, try once again to convince me that I am the malefactor and their gestures of cruel unwelcome are golden signs of  tender love, I distance myself again, and decide not to throw my insights away in another going-nowhere conversation of why Catholics are leaving.  I grow weary, indeed, of that soul-gnawing feeling of having to defend myself against charges of special pleading, when I try in vain to convince my brother and sister Catholics of what is as plain as the nose on anyone's face, if they wish to see and talk about noses and not Evagrius: that the Catholic church is one of the least welcoming social spaces in American society right now for those of us who are gay and lesbian.

And that it's impossible to claim that one is acting in love when one constructs such social spaces for some of one's brothers and sisters, simply because those brothers and sisters happen to have been born different from oneself.

Make the hymns and the liturgy as beautiful as possible.  And keep telling yourself, if you wish, that this will bring us back.  It won't.  As Johann Baptist Metz notes in his memoirs about coming of age in a Bavarian Catholic community during the Nazi period. one can gather in church and sing triumphant hymns of joy, and still be entirely on the wrong side of history--and, more importantly, of God and the moral arc of the universe.

Metz says that his deeply Catholic village gathered day after day and Sunday after Sunday to sing hymns in its Catholic church while Jews were being incinerated at concentration camp near the village.  An act of mass murder about which the villagers simply remained silent, which they pretended was not taking place, as they sang the beautiful, rich hymns of their liturgical Catholic tradition.

Hymns alone don't suffice, when we're talking about who counts and who doesn't, about who stays and who walks.

Perhaps in the final analysis the question is not whether people should be singing this hymn or that hymn, but whether what we celebrate through song is worth celebrating or not.  No matter how loud, impressive, and beautiful the hymnody of the restorationist church that my dialogue partner and sister in Christ Kathy the hymn writer promotes, I suspect that many of us who are gay and lesbian are going to keep our distance from the celebrations.

Because it's not our welcome that's being celebrated in these hymns.  Or at centrist Catholic blog sites.  Quite the contrary.

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