Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Kate Childs Graham on Making American Catholicism a Welcoming and Safe Space for Gay Persons

I blogged yesterday about a recent article of Peter Steinfels at Commonweal discussing the alarming attrition rate in American Catholicism (and here): a Pew Forum study in February 2008 found that one in three American adults raised Catholic have left the Catholic church, and one in ten American adults is a former Catholic.  As this happens, the pastoral leaders of the American Catholic church, its bishops, have been totally silent about the problem, its causes, or a solution to the problem.  Though the gospels are insistent that one who walks in the footsteps of Jesus as a good shepherd seeks each and every sheep that has strayed from the flock . . . .

My postings yesterday focused on the facet of the attrition that grabs my existential attention: the signal of pronounced unwelcome given to gay and lesbian Catholics by the church's magisterium, its pastoral leaders, and by lay Catholics who defend the magisterium and support the behavior of the pastoral leaders in this regard.  Though some of our brothers and sisters defensively insist that we who are gay and lesbian are imagining the message of unwelcome we are being given, that message is loud and clear--to anyone with ears to heart it.

I keep citing Michael O'Loughlin's recent enumeration at America's "In All Things" blog of the message of unwelcome the church gives to gay and lesbian Catholics, beginning with the statement, "Something is wrong with you," and ending with the statement, "You are a threat to human existence."  Is it possible, I wonder, to give any group of human beings a more unwelcoming message than the message for which these two statements constitute the alpha and omega?  You are made wrong, and you are a threat to my existence and that of everyone else in the world.

O'Loughlin builds on a posting of Fr. James Martin at America about a year ago,  in which he asks what a gay Catholic who remains with the church is to do, given the "welcome" messages the church offers to us who are gay.  As Fr. Martin notes, the church tells us that we who are gay cannot )1 enjoy romantic love, 2) marry, 3) adopt a child, 4) enter a seminary, or 5) work for the church and disclose our gay identity.

Is it any wonder that, given this message by a community that portrays itself as all about welcoming all of God's children at its table, as offering love and salvation to everyone, many gay and lesbian Catholics simply remove themselves from the source of such dehumanizing messages and of the inner turmoil that ensues when one is told simultaneously that one is loved and welcomed, and that one is disordered and a threat to human existence?  When the church's message to gay and lesbian persons is framed by the affirmation that every gay or lesbian person ever born is disordered--"Something is wrong with you"--and when that message moves to the conclusion that every gay and lesbian person in the world is a threat to human existence, is it any wonder that many gay and lesbian persons simply choose to walk away from the Catholic church?

And when our brothers and sisters of the center, the intellectual class that shapes the opinion of tchurch leaders, either remain silent about this problem or tacitly (and even overtly) defend those giving their gay brothers and sisters this message . . . ?  When there is, as a result, no dialogue about these issues in the publications of the powerful centrist opinion-making sector of the church, even if the topic on the table is the question of why attrition is occurring and what to do about it?

Given my preoccupation with these issues and my attempt--at the risk of appearing obsessive--to foster dialogue about these issues in American Catholicism in the past several years, I'm delighted to see that National Catholic Reporter published a first-hand statement by one courageous lesbian Catholic writer yesterday, shortly after I posted my two postings about the problem of unwelcome of gay and lesbian Catholicsin the U.S. (and the problem of eliciting honest conversation that takes seriously the testimony of gay and lesbian Catholics).  

NCR's essay is by Kate Childs Graham, a graduate of Catholic University of America (CUA). The essay is powerful, honest, valuable testimony about Childs Graham's experiences in the church, particularly at CUA, where she was told, when she entered, that CUA provides a welcoming space for gay and lesbian students, but found out immediately that the reality is quite different: she was called a fag in class, hounded by the ministry staff of the school, barred from participation in campus ministry activities, and forced to resign as leader of a women's prayer group.

As I wrote yesterday, "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 Childs Graham provides corroboration of that claim, though, as she rightly points out, there is a large and increasingly vocal group of American Catholics who push back against the attempt to demonize and exclude their gay brothers and sisters, and this pushback points the direction of hope.

Out of her experience of being made unwelcome at one of the flagship universities of American Catholicism (an experience that, based on my own experiences with the Catholic academy in the U.S., is likely to be very common for students in American Catholic universities), Childs Graham appeals to the leaders of the church to craft a welcoming church, to make the Catholic church and its institutions safe spaces for gay and lesbian people (and especially gay and lesbian youth) today.  And to speak out against bullying of gay youth.

She also addresses bloggers and those commenting on gay issues at Catholic blog sites, and asks that Catholic bloggers refrain from online bullying, from spreading messages of hate and condemnation of their gay and lesbian brothers and sisters at Catholic blog sites.  Check any thread at any Catholic blog site today, from the center to the far right, and notice the poison that Catholics feel free to inject into these discussions--free in the name of God to inject into the veins of their gay brothers and sisters--and you'll quickly conclude that Childs Graham is on target to issue this appeal.

To Catholic youth, Childs Graham says, "It does get better."  And,  there are safe and welcoming spaces in the American Catholic church: seek them out.  To Catholics in general, Childs Graham's message is simple and clear: "Standing together, we can create a church that is truly welcoming of all people."

This is a very important piece of testimony, and I'm delighted that NCR chose to publish it.  If nothing else, the appearance of this testimony in one of the major publications of the American Catholic center represents a new level of willingness on the part of the center to make room for openly gay voices, and to hear the first-hand testimony of  those voices.

This is an indispensable first step, if we really do care about why so many Catholics are walking away today, and if we want to do something about that problem.  Certainly, the reasons for the exodus go far beyond the question of how gay and lesbian Catholics are received by the Catholic community.  But this is also not an insignificant question to discuss, when the topic on the table is who is leaving and why they are leaving.

As I've noted in previous postings, when the 1986 Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith letter of the current Pope Benedict, then Cardinal Ratzinger, on the pastoral care of gay and lesbian persons, was issued, that pastoral letter began a purge of gay and lesbian Catholics from the church that has  never stopped.  The letter broke new ground by defining gay and lesbian persons as objectively disordered--a statement that had never been made by the magisterium in the past, and which is never applied to heterosexual Catholics even when they engage in "disordered" sexual behavior such as use of artificial contraceptives or masturbation.

The assault on the human dignity of gay and lesbian persons represented by the teaching on disorder, which has now been enshrined in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, was followed by an immediate, savage purge in which the Vatican urged bishops to bar groups engaged in pastoral outreach to gay and lesbian persons from Catholic facilities.  The message of this purge was clear: you are not wanted.  You are not welcome, with your disordered lives.

As I've noted a number of times on this blog, in my hometown of Little Rock, when this purge took place--when the local chapter of Dignity was barred from meeting on Catholic premises--the entire chapter chose, en masse, to join the Episcopal church.  In our area, the Episcopal church has been conspicuously welcoming to those who are gay and lesbian.  The Catholic church has not.

Much hard work remains to be done, if the courageous appeal of Childs Graham to the Catholic community in the U.S. to create safe and welcoming spaces for gay and lesbian persons is to have any real effect.  Despite the claims of apologists that the church does not practice discrimination, openly gay and lesbian persons are unwelcome--almost across the board--as employees in Catholic institutions throughout the U.S.

In late August, the U.S. Catholic Bishops' Conference sent a letter to Congress demanding, in fact, that Congress continue to uphold the "right" of religious groups to discriminate in hiring and firing practices.  This letter seeks protection for Catholic institutions, quite precisely, to continue longstanding practices of barring openly gay persons from employment, and from legal liability if they choose to fire a gay employee simply because he/she is gay.

And, though Anne Hendershott challenges my report that openly gay or lesbian leaders on faculties of Catholic universities in the U.S. are almost nowhere to be found (and here),  I have seen no credible evidence to support the contention that most American Catholic universities are welcoming spaces for openly gay or lesbian faculty members, or to discredit the conclusion of scholar W. King Mott that "[t]here is no way the current hierarchy will allow a gay person to hold a position of authority [in a Catholic university] unless they are closeted and self-loathing."

As I am writing this posting, the Catholic bishops of North Carolina are lobbying to prevent legislation that would crack down on school bullying, as these bishops maintain that such legislation would be a Trojan horse to bring a "gay agenda" into schools.  And the Catholic bishops of Minnesota have accepted a sizable donation from a hidden donor to send a video attacking gay marriage to every Catholic household in the state, on the eve of an election in which only the Republican gubernatorial candidate is campaigning against same-sex marriage.

When the Catholic diocese of Portland, Maine, worked actively against the right of gay citizens of that state to have civil marriages, Catholic bishops from across the country sent money to Maine to assist in this battle.  That money was taken from donations given by Catholic parishioners in the expectation that the donations would be used to keep churches and schools open, to feed the hungry, tend to the sick, etc.--not to fight political battles in a state in which these Catholic donors did not even live.  Those donating these funds diverted to political use were not asked about the political diversion of their donations, or told that the funds were being used for this political purpose.

In the archdiocese of Denver last year, a Catholic school informed a same-sex couple who are practicing Catholics that their children are not welcome in Catholic schools.  When Catholic charitable organizations like Catholic Charities have been challenged to place children for adoption in households headed by same-sex parents, bishops have threatened to close those organizations and stop all their charitable work rather than to comply with requirements to place children in such households.

There is much work to do.  And the work goes right to the top, to the pastoral leaders of the Catholic church, who, over and over again, belie their claims to be interested in welcoming and loving all sons and daughters of God through their mean-spirited, unjust, harmful attacks on gay and lesbian persons--and, now, their refusal to speak out against bullying of gay youths.

I share Childs Graham's hope that the Catholic laity can make a real difference in this situation.  If they do so, it's clear to me that the path to real change lies in fiscal pressure by the laity, whose money funds these mean-spirited attacks, on the pastoral leaders of the church.  And the path to real change lies in the willingness of the powerful opinion makers of the center of the American Catholic church to admit, finally, that the church has a real problem on its hands, with its treatment of its gay and lesbian sons and daughters, and that no solution to the problem of attrition in American Catholicism that ignores this problem will be productive.

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