Saturday, November 20, 2010

Jamie Manson on Need for "Elder Prophets" to Mentor Progressive Young Catholics: Where Are Elders to Be Found?

Jamie Manson's  latest posting at National Catholic Reporter about the need for "elder prophets" to mentor young Catholics who are part of progressive Catholic movements touches on something I was trying to get at with my last posting about the young "urban monk" Shane Claiborne and NCR's persistent advocacy on his behalf.  Manson notes that though she has long admired Claiborne, she's saddened by the fact that, when the annual Call to Action conference took the rare step of inviting a keynote speaker from her generation, it chose someone who wasn't born and bred Catholic to deliver this keynote.  Call to Action is, after all, all about promoting progressive change in the Catholic church.

She also notes that Claiborne's work among the urban poor, while it's clearly admirable and deserves praise and publicity, is heavily promoted by a strong network of mentors like Tony Campolo and Jim Wallis from within evangelical circles (and, I'd add here, by journalists, particularly married males, within the circles of the American Catholic center).  Yet--and she's absolutely right to note this--progressive young Catholics tend to lack such mentors as they launch their vocational lives.  

And she puts her finger on one reason young heterosexual male Christian activists like Shane Claiborne may find such strong support and find it easy to step into the spotlight, where progressive young Catholic activists--especially women and gays and lesbians--lack such entree, even or especially within the purportedly progressive circles of their own church:

Like Wallis and Campolo, Claiborne is pro-life and still struggles to view same-sex relationships as sanctioned by God. There is little doubt that holding up these conservative teachings helps him to maintain a larger, steadier following.

And this is precisely what I was getting at in the posting to which I link above, when I asked whether the editors of NCR (or Mr. Claiborne himself) have ever given thought to how much male heterosexual power and privilege enables some people to walk into the limelight, and how lack of such power and privilege bars others from ever walking onto center stage.  Manson is putting her finger on the problem I wanted to sketch in that previous posting.  And she's on target to ask why progressive young Catholics lack mentors.

This is an ongoing concern of mine, and it's one I've been discussing all year with a group of other Catholic bloggers who share my interest in the progressive wing of Catholicism.  And at the end of a year of discussion, I have to report that we really don't have a firm, conclusive set of answers to the question of why it's difficult for progressive Catholics to form strong networks of support for younger Catholics.

Part of the answer to the question is obvious: unlike those on the political and religious right, those writing about and promoting progressive political and religious causes lack strong economic support.  Period.  It's exceptionally hard to organize and fund institutes, think tanks, blogs, etc. with a progressive bent, because the money that flows to conservative causes does not flow to progressive ones.

Many of us who blog day in and day out about these issues have no outside means of support at all to undergird our blogging, the research that lies behind it, the networking that it demands, etc.  We blog as a labor of love and expression of our sense of vocation in response to the Holy Spirit--and we're often hampered by our lack of resources and support.

In the case of progressive religious movements promoting the human rights of those who are gay and lesbian, the problem is compounded both by the overt opposition to this activity on the part of many conservative Christians, and the silent homophobia of the center, which tacitly supports the overt homophobia of the right and allows it to posture as "the" bona fide Christian response to gay and lesbian persons.  

It's undeniable that a young Christian activist (in particular, a male one) promoting a "traditional" understanding of sexuality and gender roles will find it far easier to garner support from the mainstream media, but also from faith-based journalists with strong ties to the mainstream media, than will a young Christian activist who happens to be gay or lesbian.  Or promoting the rights of gays and lesbians.  

In the eyes of the mainstream media, one of these two sets of people represents "the" Christian position about gay and lesbian persons.  The other doesn't, and therefore doesn't deserve support--and, often, doesn't even deserve the tag "Christian."  And heterosexual males have written the rule books for the mainstream media, after all, and even religion journalists largely play by those rule books, no matter the particular values of their particular faith communities.  Like every other powerful institution in our society, the media have long been dominated by an old boys' network that is largely impervious and often resistant to women and openly gay or lesbian persons.

It would have made a world of difference to Steve and me, when we began our career as theologians, if we had had the support of even one strong mentor within Catholic academic circles.  But that support was totally lacking to us, and we felt the lack of support keenly when the blows began to rain down as, the longer we remained together, the more obvious it became that we were a gay couple.  In fact, the one theologian to whom we were both closest during our graduate studies, a priest who had left the priesthood and married, but who happened to be gay (as I later discovered, though Steve knew it when we were this professor's students), made it very clear to us as we began searching for jobs that his support was conditional and limited.

It was conditional on our walking the fine line Catholic institutions demand of gay employees, in which one never makes open gestures of one's identity as a gay person.  Where he had no problem at all going to bat for young heterosexual male graduates of our theology program, particularly married ones, he had strong reservations about promoting us.  Because doing so would implicate him.  It would shine a spotlight on his own partly hidden gay life, which he both assumed was an open book for those who care to read the book, and simultaneously did not want to have opened to inspection.  Or why else would he marry a former nun?

And as a result of our experiences, I'm astonished when married centrist Catholics who continue tacitly defending the homophobia of the church and its institutions tell me that there's a strong network of tutelage and support for gays within the Catholic church, which shuts heterosexual and married Catholics out.  If that network is there, I have surely never seen it at work.  What I have persistently seen is a network that may shield some gay priests and bishops, insofar as they remain strictly closeted and very silent about any of these issues of justice . . . .  And I've seen an equally strong network of married Catholics, many of them former priests and nuns, in the American Catholic theological academy, that deliberately shuts openly gay and lesbian folks out of its inner circles of power.

I don't entirely fault our grad school mentor-friend.  I understand the strictures that confined (and still confine) him as a Catholic theologian.  I understand the hesitancy of priests and nuns anywhere to step up to the plate and openly defend those who are gay and lesbian.  The penalties for such solidarity are swift and harsh under the current Catholic regime.  And this kind of open solidarity with those who are gay and lesbian attracts unwelcome scrutiny of what the clerical elite and religious communities do not wish the public to inspect: that is, of the hidden gay and lesbian life of priests and nuns.

At the same time, this game-playing leaves young Catholics like Jamie Manson in the lurch, and those young Catholics are right to ask critical questions about it.  As they are to wonder why the support of Catholics of my generation is often not there, when the injustices doled out to us by Catholic institutions have strongly undercut our ability to offer support to a new generation of Catholic thinkers and activists who eminently deserve that support.  

Meanwhile, the powerful Catholic thinkers, academics, and journalists of the center who could make a world of difference, if they would stop giving a free pass to Catholics of the rabid right while tacitly discrediting those of the left, do not intend to be of strong assistance to younger Catholics like Jamie Manson, either.  They will continue to parachute into any discussion of gay and lesbian issues that tries to probe the harsh, insupportable inconsistency and outright cruelty of official Catholic positions with diversionary questions about why women and children are being left out of the discussion.  They will, in other words, continue tacitly to promote the savage homophobia of the institution.

Since asking about women and children and implying that they are left out of discussions about the justice gays and lesbians deserve suggests that honest discussions of gay issues are somehow inherently anti-children.  That gays have nothing to do with children.

And that the real agenda of these discussions is promoting privileges of an already privileged class: gay men, who are, it's claimed, an economic elite and not really susceptible to discrimination at all.  And so discussions about the injustice gays experience are not discussions about the kind of real injustices that ought to preoccupy liberal Catholic attention, but are illicit ways to offer even more privilege to an already privileged elite of anti-children, anti-women males in the church.

This is, unfortunately, what American Catholicism and its mentors have to offer Jamie Manson and her generation at best.  At worst, there's Timothy Dolan and the crowd with which he is associated through the Manhattan Declaration, which wants to make open culture war against her.

Not much of a choice, is it?  And I honestly don't see a positive solution in sight right now, though I continue to search for one, in the hope of having something better to offer to the next generation.

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