Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Teachable Moment in American Catholicism, and the Continuing Refusal of the Center to Name the Real Problems

When I broke silence after my week or so of silent soul-searching, I said I might not be posting too often these days.  But then I went ahead and (typically, since I lack wisdom) kept right on posting.

And here's why; here's why, it suddenly occurs to me, I have found it difficult to keep silence in recent days.  Right on the heels of the opening of national discussion about the horrific suicide rate of gay teens in the U.S., a school-board member in my state made asinine, mean, dangerous remarks about the suicides of gay teens, and I felt I had an obligation to speak out.  Because these remarks were made in my own back yard.

And as I think about it, I've kept speaking out, because I sense that we are on the cusp of a national turning point in which a teachable moment is at hand--if we would only attend to that moment.  We are on the cusp of a national turning point in which a teachable moment is at hand for American Catholicism, and it seems important that I (and many others) speak out and keep on speaking out now, no matter how tired people may become of hearing our voices and no matter how imperfectly we put our points.

Four factors have come together to produce the teachable moment in which we now find ourselves, it seems to me:

1. There were first the well-publicized suicides of a number of gay young people, or young people taunted to death because they were perceived as gender-transgressive.

2. This resulted in a national conversation we have not had before, in which the media have played a role they have never played before in the U.S., in making the public aware of this endemic problem--of the fact that gay teens commit suicide at a rate three times higher than that of non-gay teens.

3. Right as media discussion of these suicides peaked (and as many Catholics were noting the absolute silence of the pastoral leaders of the U.S. Catholic church about bullying and suicide of gay teens), a conversation opened up in the American Catholic center about the serious problem of attrition afflicting the American Catholic church.

4. And the internationally publicized remarks of the school-board member in my own state demonstrate what gay teens (and gay people in general) continue to be up against in our society, and point to the urgent need for honest, probing conversation of these issues.

I want to underscore that, as these three factors come together to create the conditions for a teachable moment, the pastoral leaders of the U.S. Catholic church continue to remain shamefully silent about bullying of gay teens and the suicides that often result from such bullying, even as the leaders of many other mainline faith communities--including the Mormons!--have spoken out against the bullying.  The silence of the bishops of the Catholic church in the U.S. underscores how imperative the teachable moment is for American Catholicism, when large numbers of American Catholics are reporting in polls that our church is conspicuously inhospitable to gay and lesbian human beings, and is very much a part of the problem, where bullying of gay teens is concerned.

I continue to speak out, because I think that the factors I've listed above point to both the real need for a national conversation about these issues in American Catholicism, and the possibility of a teachable moment in our church.  I speak out, too, because I do not see some of the most significant vehicles for meaningful conversation in American Catholicism doing an admirable job of fostering that conversation at a moment when it is so urgently needed.

I wrote a day or so ago about my experience of having been censored at the "In All Things" blog at America magazine, a journal I have always respected and have read ever since I became Catholic in the latter half of the 1960s.  America has done much over the years to inform American Catholics, to shape the consciences of educated Catholics in the U.S., in particular.  I want to give this journal credit for what it has accomplished.  And I have pointed to some outstanding blog postings at America in the past year, that have made what I consider valuable contributions to the discussion of the issues I am raising in this particular posting.

Even so, I think it's very important that I point to the censorship I experienced at America's blog site several days ago, and to note the precise topic I raised that elicited the censorship.  As my posting noting the censorship indicated, the comment I made which was later deleted from America's blog challenged a position taken by another poster, on the ground that this poster has persistently argued that heterosexual males deserve a normative and superior status in the sexual ethical thinking of the Catholic church.  I not only asserted this criticism; I provided a reference to substantiate it.

It is no accident that this observation was censored.  This open, honest critique of male-dominant heterosexism is a place to which the conversation at the Catholic center does not intend to go, even as it desperately has to go to that place right now, if it's to understand why people are walking away from the church in droves, and, in particular, why younger Catholics are abandoning the Catholic church in the U.S. due to its homophobia.

The conversation of the center has to go there if it expects to be effective, since the problem confronting us is not just homophobia.  It's--even more deeply, more intransigently, more destructively--a problem of heterosexism, and of the belief in male domination that goes hand in hand with heterosexism.  As a religious community, we have ended up in the almost laughable position--an unbelievable position for a religious community with a long and rich tradition that values the role of reason in theological thought to end up in--of being asked to believe that anyone with a penis automatically has human worth above that of those without penises.  Simply because he has a penis.

And we're being asked to believe that those who have penises, and who are inclined to use them in a "normal" and right way--that is, those who are heterosexuals--set the standard by which those who are not heterosexual are to be judged.  Now matter how blatantly their lives transgress all rubrics of Catholic ethical teaching in all other respects.  And no matter how admirably the lives of gay Catholics point to sanctity in every respect except their God-given "disorder" of homosexuality.  It is impossible to overstate the crudeness, the downright silliness, of the worldview underlying Catholic magisterial teaching in the area of sexual ethics.

That teaching is crudely biologistic.  And it is overtly heterosexist and tilted to male dominance.  It gives superior status to heterosexual males because they happen to be born with penises and happen to imagine using their penises in an approved way that the church wants us to stamp with the stamp of natural law and think of as the goal of nature. 

It is not accidental that huge numbers of Catholics in the educated, developed parts of the world simply ignore this crudely biologistic teaching, with its noxious ethical applications.  It is not teaching designed to captivate the minds of anyone who thinks a great deal about much of anything at all, of anyone who is open to viewpoints beyond the narrow confines of a very parochial Catholicism.

But it is official Catholic teaching, and as official teaching, it replicates itself all through the church as an institution, affecting the attitudes and the hiring and firing practices of Catholic institutions, and affecting above all the rules and regulations for ordination in the church.  At a moment in history when any institution at all that wants to remain viable, given the complex challenges of postmodernity, should be doing all it can to expand its model of leadership to include many kinds of people and many different viewpoints, the Catholic church is making a preferential option for males, for heterosexual males.

And the church is suffering tremendously as a result of that option.  The preferential option for heterosexual males assures that men who are not conspicuously suited to exercise leadership in Catholic institutions have a strong edge on anyone born without a penis, no matter how well-qualified she is to be a leader and how exemplary her character.  And it assures that all men born with a penis who happen to be gay are also automatically disqualified for leadership in Catholic institutions.  Just because.  Because they are born gay.

This preferential option for the heterosexual male damages the church further because it gives to heterosexual males unwarranted, unmerited power and privilege that allows them to exercise leadership without much thought for the experiences of those who have gone through life without such automatic power and privilege., without such automatic, unearned entitlement.  It is never wise for any institution, any human group, to give unmerited exalted status to a particular group of people simply because of some accident of nature that sets that group apart but ought not to merit preferential treatment.  

This exaltation of a particular group due to an accident of nature that does not merit preferential treatment damages the members of the group itself, by giving them the illusion that they are wiser, better, smarter than they actually are--than they are ever likely to become as long as they live within the charmed circles of entitlement and privilege.  We are damaging the church as an institution by making a preferential option for the heterosexual male, because we do not create the conditions for the males we place in leadership positions to develop moral awareness by understanding and empathizing with those who are not in the seat of power and privilege.

And just as we need to discuss the damage we are doing to our institution not merely by clinging to homophobia, but by enshrining heterosexism and male dominance in our official teaching and structures, another leading Catholic publication in the U.S., the National Catholic Reporter, offers us an essay celebrating a new model for leadership in the American Catholic church.

Which focuses on a heterosexual male who has stated repeatedly in public that gay acts and intimate gay relationships are sinful, and who states in the NCR article celebrating him as a role model for young American Catholics that he would not perform a gay marriage if he had pastoral status, but would refer a gay couple wanting to marry to another minister who accepts gay marriage.

Just as we most critically need to engage our heterosexism and the male dominance that is a key part of our heterosexist world view, one of our leading centrist publications is offering us for our Catholic future a role model who espouses an overtly heterosexist (and male-dominant) philosophy, in line with magisterial teaching.  Just as we need to be thinking and talking about models of holiness for our future that include loving gay and lesbian persons, we are being asked to celebrate a model for the future of American Catholicism who is heterosexual, male, and who has spoken in various public forums about "the gay problem" confronting the churches today.

Again, as with America, NCR has taken some outstanding steps to open conversation of gay issues in the church in recent months.  I have pointed in previous postings to a number of significant essays in this publication that make a noteworthy contribution to the discussion of gay and lesbian issues in the Catholic church.

And so why, if this and other centrist Catholic journals are committed to real change in this area, do they continue to recycle the model of heterosexual male domination, and to place that model and its presuppositions off-limits in critical analysis about the problems confronting our church as one in three adults raised Catholic walk away?  Why do they continue recycling this model and placing conversation about male-dominant heterosexism off-limits, when they tell us that their objective is to challenge homophobia--which is rooted in male-dominant heterosexism?

I can only conclude that they do so because their commitment to challenging homophobia is not thoroughgoing--not when it calls on these journals themselves, and the Catholic center they represent, to be authentically self-critical about their own commitment to heterosexism and male dominance.  To question the presuppositions of heterosexism and male dominance in our church is to begin dismantling the system itself.

And the center and its institutions are enmeshed in the system that must be dismantled, if we are to become the kind of church we should be, with the Jesus about whom we read in the gospels as our model.

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