Thursday, November 18, 2010

Wonder of Wonders: Mormons Step Forward as Catholics Leap Back

Joanna Brooks writes today at Religion Dispatches about a self-styled Mormon "Martin Luther" who has just uploaded the Mormon Church Handbook of Instructions to the internet.  The CHI is apparently a guidebook to everything you need to know about being Mormon, which has previously been restricted to church leaders.  The decision of one Mormon to make this document available online (and the church itself followed suit soon after this by posting the latest copy of one volume of the CHI online) is part of a growing movement within the LDS church on the part of some lay members demanding greater transparency of their leaders.

I'm struck, naturally, by the parallels between these developments and what's happening in the Catholic church these days.  I've long found these two churches very similar in structure, and, in some respects, in ethos.  Both have extremely top-down leadership structures, with heavy authoritarian tendencies reinforced by patriarchy, since both hierarchies exclude women.  Both tend, as well, to emphasize absolute obedience to the powers that be, with excommunication as an ultimate penalty for those who disobey in both churches.  And in both churches, the threat of excommunication is serious because it carries a claim to exclude the excommunicated from heaven.

The Catholic church in the U.S. is also moving in the same overt countercultural direction that Mormons have long chosen--though, in both cases, the countercultural tendency is restricted largely to gestures about sexual morality, marriage, gender roles, definitions of doctrinal purity, and so forth.  In both cases, the claim of these churches to be authentically or thoroughgoingly countercultural is called into serious question by the willingness of their leaders to bless and collude with some of the most unsavory mechanisms of unbridled capitalism.  

For much of its history in the U.S., the Catholic church stood at a critical distance from big business, its violations of human rights and dignity, and the political party that has historically stood on the side of corporate leaders, the Republicans.  But in recent years, an increasing number of U.S. Catholic bishops have more or less overtly anointed the Republican party as God's chosen party, and the election of Timothy Dolan to the head of the U.S. Catholic Bishops' Conference consolidates this trend, and will only strengthen the alliance.  It's no accident at all that one of Dolan's chief cronies, Robert George, finds himself on the editorial board of a Mormon newspaper, as the alliance of the U.S. bishops with the religious right and God's chosen political party continues to play out, particularly in battles such as the battle to remove the right of marriage from gay citizens of California, in which the Catholic archbishop of San Francisco, George Niederauer, invited the Mormons into the fray to fund and provide foot-soldiers for the anti-gay war.

A war in which both religious communities may have won a pyrrhic victory, but in which there appears to be more awareness among Mormons than among Catholics (or among Catholic leaders, at least) of the high cost of that pyrrhic victory . . . .

And so in that quintessentially American religious community, Mormonism, there's now a movement of strong pushback: against the imperious, authoritarian, highly patriarchal leadership style of Mormon officials; and against the nasty politicized homophobia that is giving the LDS church a very bad name in many American cultural and political quarters.  Though--precisely as with the top leaders of the Catholic church--top LDS leaders seek to engage in image management and to control the messaging emanating from the top of the church (as well as messaging about the church), the entire Mormon community, from top to bottom, has now been sensitized to new questions about message and image by the fierce reaction of many folks to Mormon involvement in the prop 8 battle.

As well as by fierce reaction within the Mormon community itself, where many lay Mormons resent the request of their church leaders to donate money to remove civil rights from a targeted minority (a targeted minority that often includes beloved family members and friends), and resent what this activity communicates to the outside world about their church.  So, as Joanna Brooks notes, though the LDS church is built institutionally "around centralized hierarchy, a strong chain-of-command, and highly-disciplined top-down messaging," and though (again, like the Catholic church at an institutional level) its leaders claim that they would never dream of being influenced by public opinion or the views of lay Mormons, something fascinating is now happening in the Mormon church--precisely as a reaction to the strong, politically oriented homophobia of some Mormon leaders in recent years. 

Here's how Brooks describes what's happening:

Just since September, we've seen a significant amount of movement in the official discourse of the LDS Church on LGBT issues. From the controversy surrounding Elder Boyd Packer's Conference talk to the changes in the CHI, every single step of it--indeed, every phrase, every bit of punctuation--has been tracked on the Internet, minute-by-minute, by communities of LDS people and those who report on Mormon experience and issues. I've never seen anything like it before.

Folks in some on-line LDS communities winkingly call it  "Kremlinology." (Not that the LDS Church is, well, the Soviet regime.) But a Church that prizes the opacity of its inner workings is experiencing an unusual level of uninvited transparency.

And there's no putting the genie back in the bottle.

Information wants to be free.  Stories want to travel.  And our Mormon faith teaches us that over time, at the intersection of multiple processes human and divine, new truth is revealed.

As long as that new truth makes the Church a more welcoming place for my LGBT Mormon brothers and sisters, I don't care how it gets here.

I only want it to hurry.

Interesting, isn't it?  Particularly when the LDS church's religious-right sister church, the Roman Catholic church, is moving in precisely the opposite direction right now in the U.S., with the election of Timothy Dolan and Joseph Kurtz as president and vice-president of its bishops' conference.  One highly authoritarian, top-down patriarchal structure is opening up to the world around it in unprecedented ways, with increasing awareness of the mixed message the church gives when it professes to be about love and then targets a vulnerable minority and works to remove rights from that minority.  While the other is closing in, intent on digging in its heels and giving to the world a message of final, brave resistance to  shifting cultural norms, no matter how high the cost.

Intent, that is, on driving away increasing numbers of its adherents for whom authoritarian messages to pray, pay, and obey no longer work, and threats of damnation for disobedience are no longer effective.  Intent on communicating to the world that the Catholic church is now the brand of choice for those who resist women's rights and who dislike gays and lesbians, except when gays and lesbians are closeted and self-loathing.

And perhaps this rebranding will work and, even as the Catholic church becomes the new refuge of heterosexist males among American religious groups, it will not only remain viable as a religious community, but will attract growing numbers of new adherents, particularly from the neoconservative politically conservative world and the big business leaders to whom that world caters. Perhaps.  Perhaps the old boys will prove to be saviors of the church made for old boys and their comfort.

We'll see if Dolan and Kurtz will succeed in pulling off the re-branding, and convincing a majority of Catholics and the public at large that, though the society they head is exclusive and backwards-looking and far from just as judged by contemporary ethical standards, it's nonetheless loving and kind and gentle.


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