Friday, October 15, 2010

Continued Silence of U.S. Catholic Leaders: Conversation about Gay Teen Suicide (and Lack of Moral Leadership) in American Catholicism

I’ve noted in recent postings the discussions that have been taking place at a number of U.S. Catholic blog sites about the recent suicides of one gay teen after another, and what might constitute an appropriate Catholic response to these.  I’ve noted, for instance, David Gibson’s posting about this at the Commonweal blog, and Fr. Jim Martin’s statement at America’s “In All Things” blog.  Bryan Cones also has an outstanding reflection at his blog at the U.S. Catholic site.

As I direct readers’ attention to these statements, I also want to emphasize that the conversation occurring in response to each of these postings (and others I’ll mention in a moment) is, in my view, significant—as a snapshot of the struggle of a major religious community in the U.S. to come to terms with a pressing moral issue, about which there is almost no guidance at all coming from that community’s pastoral leaders.

As I’ve also noted, Michael O’Loughlin followed Jim Martin’s posting at America with a posting linking to Martin’s, asking what messages the Catholic community is sending its gay youth when it offers them the best the tradition now has to offer—magisterial statements about the disorder of gay human beings and gays as threats to human existence, policies forbidding gays from entering the priesthood or denying gay people job security in Catholic institutions, denial of communion to gays and non-gays wearing rainbow pins or sashes,  choices to shut down Catholic charitable organizations rather than allow same-sex couples to adopt children, and political decisions to spend millions of dollars attacking the right of gay citizens to civil marriage while people go hungry and lose jobs and their homes.

And David Gibson has complemented his Commonweal posting with one analyzing Carl Paladino’s response to gay folks as a Catholic response (to whose thread I’ve been contributing this week), along with two postings (and here) comparing the discussion of these issues (and of bullying of gay youth, in particular) in the Catholic and Mormon communities.

And now Mike Sweitzer-Beckman has weighed in at National Catholic Reporter with a posting calling for the Catholic church to “get on the bandwagon” when it comes to proactive, charitable responses to the phenomenon of bullying of gay youth and the suicides that sometimes follow such bullying.

As others are doing, Sweitzer-Beckman decries the absolute silence of key Catholic pastoral leaders as these suicides receive international media attention.  As he notes, while our top pastoral leaders continue to ignore bullying of gay teens, they also ratchet up attacks on gay citizens of the U.S. and gay church members that strike many Catholics (along with many members of the public at large) as a step backwards in time and moral sensitivity):

Who is missing from this list? I have not heard any prominent Catholic Church clergy speak out on this catastrophe.

It is time for church leaders to stop waiting for the bandwagon to pull on past and to take a stand to lead the charge.

Who really wants to be known for affirming a woman’s right to vote after 1919, or for promoting the Civil Rights Act after 1964? Do we want our church to pull another Galileo and get it right some 500 years later?

The church has a mission to be prophetic, to listen to the social and natural science experts around us and it is time to start living out that vision that Jesus taught us.

Instead, it seems that the Church is going backwards.

As with the threads at America and Commonweal, I encourage readers to read not only Sweitzer-Beckman’s posting about this issue, but, as well, reader responses to the issue.  In each of these threads, anyone who wants to see close-up and on full display the sharply divided mind of contemporary American Catholicism about these issues will find the exhibit he/she is seeking, in all its bloody detail.

There is, as with any such thread at centrist Catholic blog sites, a strong, well-represented cadre of Catholics for whom the treatment of their gay and lesbian brothers and sisters is a clear issue of human rights—of human rights, about which the church itself has formed their consciences.  And so their informed consciences and their commitment to church teaching itself pull strongly against the magisterial teaching that gay and lesbian persons are intrinsically disordered, in their very natures, and the atrocious attacks on the dignity of gay people and gay relationships that follow from that teaching.

But there is, as well, in these threads an equally strong, very vocal contingent of Catholics who are adamantly opposed to full inclusion of gays and lesbians in their church and in society at large, and who share the prejudices (and have adopted many of the homophobic tactics) of their brothers and sisters in the religious right, of American religionists from non-Catholic Christian traditions strongly opposed to gay and lesbian people and rights.  Polls indicate that these naysayers are a minority in the American Catholic church.

But their influence on the thinking of the hierarchy and on the direction the Catholic church in the U.S. has taken is out of proportion to their numbers, for several reasons.  First, they are politically organized, loud, and determined to squelch opposition.  They do not hesitate to engage in bullying tactics to try to silence those within the Catholic community who push against what they define as orthodoxy.

They are also well-connected and well-funded, with ties to powerful political figures and corporate leaders who have the ability to lean on the Catholic hierarchy and enforce conformity to their right-wing views.  And here are the predictable charges with which they plaster threads like the ones I’ve cited above:

1.    Gays are sick.  They are psychologically disordered and to be quarantined, especially from children.  We need to pity them but not to normalize their sickness.

2.    Gays are a threat to children, and have targeted our children for recruitment.  Young people who commit suicide after having been bullied due to their perceived sexual orientation were seduced by gay propagandists, and killed themselves when they found they had chosen a sick lifestyle.

3.    The sickness of the homosexual "lifestyle choice" leads to actual physical sickness: gays infect society with disease and dirt, and die at early ages due to the dissipated lifestyles they have chosen.

4.    Anyone who disagrees with magisterial teaching about homosexuality needs to leave the Catholic church and join one of the rapidly vanishing mainstream Protestant churches that have caved in to prevailing cultural mores of tolerance and acceptance of gays.

5.    The bible is clear about these issues, and church teaching merely upholds the clear biblical teaching against homosexuality.

These are the prominent characteristics of the Catholic anti-gay attacks that I encounter on these and similar threads.  Please read for yourself and decide what you think.  Am I missing something of importance here, in the response of Catholics opposed to full inclusion of gays and lesbians in church and society in the U.S.?

There is also, clearly, the gays-as-enemy meme of right-wing Christians in general.  As Adelle Banks notes in a recent Religion News Service article about the soul-searching now taking place in churches of the Christian right following the suicides of recent weeks, even Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, is now willing to admit that some Christians have unfairly made gays the enemy, and is calling for a cease-fire in that particular battle.

Mohler states,

"Christians have got to stop talking about people struggling with sexual issues as a tribe apart."

And this is one of the primary points I hoped to make, as I criticized the strong tendency of mainstream Catholic media coverage during the papal visit to the British Isles to lump gays and lesbians with secularists and atheists, as “enemies of the church” out to embarrass and attack the pope.  This malicious analysis completely overlooks the considerable opposition to homophobia within the Catholic community, precisely because of Catholic teachings.

One of the puzzles of much right-wing Catholic resistance to gay people and gay rights in the U.S.—and a significant indicator of the great extent to which this resistance has imbibed evangelical Protestant viewpoints that have little to do with a Catholic worldview—is the almost total lack of awareness of those on the attack about how significantly they are violating the communitarian ethic of the church they claim to defend.  Hospitality to strangers is a core Judaeo-Christian value, one  constantly upheld in the Catholic tradition as a strong moral imperative, an overriding imperative for the behavior of Catholic communities of faith.

The clear signal of unwelcome that right-wing American Catholics intend to give their gay brothers and sisters—you’re sick and not wanted here; join a liberal church that accepts the likes of you—runs absolutely counter to some of the most significant things that the Catholic worldview wants to affirm, and that Catholic apologists want to claim as marks of Catholic distinctiveness.  The rabid, mean-spirited shoving of gays and lesbians to the social and ecclesial margins by members of the Catholic right violates the communitarian ethic of Catholicism in the most egregious way possible, and radically undercuts what Catholics want to proclaim about the significance of the sacrament of Communion.

And as all of this goes on—and as the Catholic bishops of the U.S. continue to be silent about it (because gays are, after all, enemies of the church, and showing any concern for them is abetting the enemy)—here’s what continues to roll forth against gay and lesbian human beings, in the real world in which we all live.

Here’s some of the stuff we who are gay and lesbian have to contend with right now, from the mouths of people who claim to speak for God:

1.    In his recently published book Gesprekken met Monseigneur Léonard (Conversations with Archbishop Léonard), Archbishop André-Joseph Léonard, who was appointed by Pope Benedict last January as the Catholic primate of Belgium, states that the worldwide AIDS epidemic is a “matter of eminent justice”—that is, AIDS is God’s and nature’s punishment of gays for their dissolute lifestyles.

2.    And Cindy Jacobs, who describes herself as a Christian prophet, and who heads the influential Generals International movement with her husband Make, has issued a call to prayer for God’s “blood-covered justice and judgments” to fall on all Americans who entertain the cause of the “minority homosexuality community,” a cause she reduces to gay attempts to infiltrate schools.

Many Catholics—certainly those of the center, but also even many of those on the right who vehemently oppose welcome of gays in church and society—would claim that they see a large difference between what the Catholic church is now saying and doing to gay citizens of the land and its gay members ,and what folks like Cindy Jacobs would like to see done.

But I confess that, as the bishops remain stubbornly, deliberately silent about the homophobia that runs rampant through the Catholic church in the U.S., and as one suicide after another of gay youths gains national attention, I don’t see much difference at all.  And it is hard to imagine that a religious tradition with the intellectual breadth and rich heritage of Catholicism would bring itself to this point, to this moral no-exit.

But this is precisely the moral and intellectual dead end into which the current crop of bishops have led the Catholic church in the U.S.—at the behest of the Vatican itself.  And the situation is not going to change until Catholics of the center become alarmed enough about the significant erosion taking place in their church’s moral authority in the public square due to its savage treatment of gays and lesbians that they begin to push back.
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