Sunday, December 12, 2010

On the Acceptability of Homophobic Discourse in Mainstream Culture, and the Complicity of the Catholic Center

I wrote yesterday, 

Something about the way even "good" Catholics of the center are dealing with their gay brothers and sisters these days seems just not right.

And today I'd like to tackle that thought again.  

As Frank Rich does in his New York Times op-ed piece today about the recent gay-bashing activity of the Smithsonian.  Faced with mean-spirited, manufactured screams from Bully Bill Donohue of the Catholic League and a congeries of Republican puppets whom Bill the Bully was able to set into motion with claims of anti-Catholic bigotry, the Smithsonian recently removed from an exhibit about the AIDS epidemic a short video by artist David Wojnarowicz.

And as Rich notes, what is noteworthy about this action of censorship is that it elicited hardly a peep of criticism.  Because " . . . even in a time of huge progress in gay civil rights, homophobia remains among the last permissible bigotries in America."  Gay people remain the one minority group in our society against whom one may vent open, vicious prejudice with impunity.

And as my posting yesterday about the unchallenged claim of a blogger on a well-regarded Catholic blog that gay men are amoral beasts capable of mass murder notes, when that open, vicious prejudice masquerades as religious conviction, it receives even more of a free pass in mainstream culture.  People of faith have only to claim that their homophobia--no matter how destructive and ill-intentioned, no matter how many gay youth give up on life as they are bombarded with rhetoric about how God hates them--is rooted in profound religious conviction, and the social mainstream seems to bend over backwards to accommodate them.

As it does not do (and rightly so) when people of faith claim that their anti-semitism or their misogyny or their disaffection for people of color has scriptural and theological warrant.  Society doesn't permit open venting of these prejudices, though some people of faith still shop around theological and scriptural warrants for them.   Society doesn't permit these to be expressed openly, because long ago, most pluralistic democracies in the developed part of the world decided that people may believe any arrant nonsense they wish--including that the sun revolves around the world and the earth was created some 4,000 years ago--but when they use their religious beliefs to dehumanize others, subject them to discrimination, and create barriers to their full inclusion in pluralistic democracies, they are illicitly crossing lines separating church and state, and illicitly imposing religious viewpoints on secular practice.

As he reflects on what the Smithsonian has done, Rich concludes:

It still seems an unwritten rule in establishment Washington that homophobia is at most a misdemeanor. By this code, the Smithsonian’s surrender is no big deal; let the art world do its little protests. This attitude explains why the ever more absurd excuses concocted by John McCain for almost single-handedly thwarting the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” are rarely called out for what they are — “bigotry disguised as prudence,” in the apt phrase of Slate’s military affairs columnist, Fred Kaplan. Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council has been granted serious and sometimes unchallenged credence as a moral arbiter not just by Rupert Murdoch’s outlets but by CNN, MSNBC and The Post’s “On Faith” Web site even as he cites junk science to declare that “homosexuality poses a risk to children” and that being gay leads to being a child molester.

And so we now face the baffling spectacle of watching the Senate refuse to endorse the decision of the House to abolish discrimination against openly gay service members, with a sitting president who claims that he opposes this discrimination, with a study of the issue by the military finding no obstacles, and with a huge majority of American citizens noting that they want this discrimination to end.  And those members of the Senate who are colluding in this charade get away with it.  There is no way to call them to accountability.  They are permitted to continue posturing as respectable, principled people. There is no great hue and cry at what they are doing to a vulnerable minority group.

It simply does not seem to matter--not to those who have the power to make a difference--that a whole group of human beings, of fellow citizens, and, in the case of faith communities, of brothers and sisters, continues to be treated as subhuman.  With no penalty at all for this treatment.  And with a free pass for those who claim that their dehumanizing treatment of this minority group arises out of sincere religious conviction.

I keep trying to get my mind around this reality.  As I've noted in several postings recently, this has been a week of dipping into old journals, a week in which I've been transcribing bits and pieces of those journals, to make the material in them more accessible to me now.  

And as I read a passage like the following, laboriously copied into one of my past journals, I wonder all over again how faith communities manage to produce believers who seem incapable of imagining what it must feel like, these days, to belong to a minority group that finds itself all over again slapped in the face as its basic human rights--its very humanity--are once again debated, voted on, and denied, while no one lifts a finger to do anything about the discrimination: Amy Tan writes, in The Opposite of Fate: Memories of a Writing Life (NY: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2003):

Imagination brings you close to compassion.  Practice imagining yourself living the life of someone whose situation differs entirely from yours—living in another country, having another religion—and the more deeply you can do so, the more you become that character you write (p. 297).

If moral tutelage, if the formation of conscience, depends utterly on the inculcation of the ability to place oneself in the skin of another, then most communities of faith in the U.S. seem to be failing spectacularly in one of their most fundamental charges today--the charge to produce morally adept believers--when it comes to the question of gay and lesbian human beings.  To the question of imagining one's gay or lesbian neighbor as human, as a brother and sister deserving the same humane treatment one expects for oneself.

And then I come on another passage I've copied--Peter Steinfels, in his book A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America (NY: Simon & Schuster, 2003), stating:

In many respects, the society’s anxieties surrounding homosexuality are really only a projection of issues surrounding heterosexuality—once the tight link between sex and procreation is broken.  Homosexuality becomes the obvious battleground for addressing questions about nonprocreative heterosexuality.  The relatively small gay and lesbian portion of the population bears the brunt of unresolved moral and cultural questions facing the more than 90 percent that is heterosexual (p. 273).

And I wonder how Peter Steinfels can have written that in 2003 and can write, in 2010, an essay implying that the Catholic church needs to develop an ethic open to the use of contraception by married couples, while it continues to reject "the drastic separation of sexuality from procreation."  How can one propose such a reading of the Catholic magisterial teaching on sexual ethics and not be implying that married, heterosexual Catholics deserve concessions and privileges that should be denied to all one's brothers and sisters who are gay, for whom sexual intimacy is, ipso facto, always going to fail to meet a procreative ideal?

And how is it just to propose that married couples deserve to be blessed by the magisterium when they choose, in some circumstances and for reasons that seem morally right to them, to thwart conception, when at the same time one clings to and puts front and center a sexual ethic that automatically and always excludes all gay and lesbian persons from intimate relationships?  Using the same norm?  The same norm for which one is asking a concession and a blessing in the case of heterosexual Catholics?

How can a system that appears to make one group of human beings normative and human, and another subnormal and subhuman, ever be considered just?  Or loving?  Or merciful?  When this judgment is being made solely on the basis of who one group happens to be by birth, and who the other group happens to be by birth?

How can the sexual ethic at which Catholics of the center have now arrived--it is right and good for us as heterosexual Catholics to thwart the procreative goal of sexuality when we judge that it is right and good, because we are heterosexual; but it is not right and good ever for gay and lesbian Catholics to do so, because they are not heterosexual--ever be considered acceptable on grounds of justice?  Or love?  Or mercy?

Something about the way even "good" Catholics of the center are dealing with their gay brothers and sisters these days seems just not right.  And until those good Catholics of the center admit what they are doing and start engaging their own injustice and inhumanity critically, situations like the Smithsonian situation will happen over and over again, and gay people will continue to be denied fundamental rights by groups like the Senate, with impunity.

And good Catholics will continue to suggest on good Catholic blogs that gay men are amoral beasts capable of mass murder, even when young Catholics seeking desperately to understand their God-given nature may read such comments and wonder if life is worth living.  And as other Catholics trying to make a dent in the cruel rhetoric on these same blogs find their words erased.

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