Sunday, January 30, 2011

Kate Childs Graham on Don't Ask, Don't Tell Policy of Catholic Institutions: Continuing an Important Conversation

Yesterday, I wrote about my experience teaching theology in a Catholic university in the 1980s.  I noted that, like me, every gay or lesbian faculty, staff, or administrative person at the school of which I had any inkling was strictly closeted, as were almost all gay or lesbian students I encountered.  I also stated that there was (and still is, in most Catholic workplaces) no other option for gay faculty, staff, or administrators (and for gay students in a large percentage of Catholic universities).  Though, increasingly, gay and lesbian students at Catholic universities are refusing to live in the closet, and are beginning to challenge the institutionalized homophobia of these universities.

For those interested in following this story up to the present, I recommend Kate Childs Graham's latest piece at National Catholic Reporter on how a don't ask, don't tell policy remains firmly in place in many Catholic parishes and workplaces in the U.S.  Gay and lesbian folks remain closeted in many Catholic workplaces because the reprisal for those who come out of the closet in these workplaces can be swift and painful.  Acknowledging who one is as a gay person, and coming to terms with one's nature as a gift given by God to oneself and the community of faith, can result in the loss of a job, in the loss of health-care coverage, in financial struggles that can even have the ultimate outcome of the loss of one's home.  It can result in the experience of finding oneself slandered, lied about, falsely accused of all kinds of maleficence, and forever blocked as one seeks employment in any other Catholic institution in the future.

Last summer, the Wall Street Journal published an essay which tried to rebut claims that virtually all Catholic colleges and universities in the U.S. have glass ceilings in place in their approach to gay or lesbian faculty, staff, and administrators.  The Wall Street Journal article claims that a number of Catholic universities in the U.S. have openly gay or lesbian people in leadership positions.  

I have seen no evidence at all to confirm this claim.  And those who maintain that they have such evidence are apparently unwilling to disclose it--precisely because, as they indicate, the administrators about whom they're speaking aren't out of the closet at all  in their workplaces.  Gay and lesbian employees at most Catholic workplaces throughout the U.S. remain closeted because they know what the consequences will be if they come out of the closet.  And many people cannot afford to lose their jobs, health-care coverage, houses, etc.

I thought of the preceding Wall Street Journal article, with the disinformation it sought to spread about how gay and lesbian human beings are actually treated in U.S. Catholic colleges and universities, when I read Marci Hamilton's recent essay on how the conservative media suppress (and distort)  information about the abuse crisis in churches.  Hamilton states flatly, 

The Wall Street Journal, FOX News, Bill O'Reilly, and Sean Hannity, among others, routinely skew reporting on religious issues, and suppress stories that might put religious leaders in a bad light. As they read this, they are puffing themselves up and declaring that they do no such thing. That would be incorrect.

In the essay published in the Wall Street Journal last summer, and in Kate Childs Graham's recent essay about the hidden but powerfully active DADT policy that requires gay and lesbian persons to remain closeted in Catholic workplaces and many other Catholic institutions including parishes, we have two diametrically opposed pictures of how Catholic institutions in the U.S. today treat those who are gay and lesbian.  One of these, I want to maintain, is an accurate picture based in the real-life experience of a young Catholic journalist who has walked through the fire of discrimination in Catholic institutions.  The other, I would suggest, is spin control offered to us by a conservative journal with a history of suppressing information that is not flattering to various churches, and of distorting its reporting on issues that raise unsettling questions about how various communities of faith deal with those on the margins.

It is all to the good--it is a sign of hope, I think--that a national Catholic publication like NCR has chosen to give a voice to openly gay or lesbian Catholic writers, for the first time in the history of the American Catholic church.  This is a sign of a growing maturity within the church in the U.S.  

There will definitely be fierce pushback as the voice of openly gay and lesbian Catholic journalists, thinkers,  and theologians begins to emerge in the American Catholic church.  If you doubt that, read some of the vicious comments, almost all of them written by that busy reader called "Anonymous" who seems to be everywhere on Catholic blogs, already popping up in response to Graham's essay.  They accuse her of flaunting her sexuality (straight folks never do that, of course), of reducing everything to sexuality, of having nothing to say except gay, gay, gay, of not "fitting into nature."  You name it, and she's guilty of it.*

Yet Kate Childs Graham keeps writing, and Jamie L. Manson keeps writing, even when these tired attempts to shut the conversation down predictably roll forth on many Catholic blogs anytime any of us who happen to be gay or lesbian and Catholic, and who think it's important to discuss these issues honestly, write about our experience as LGBT people in the Catholic context.  And no matter how hard some Catholics work to stop this conversation, or how low they are willing to go with their slurs and insinuations and their conversation-detonating tactics, the conversation is going to continue.  Because it's part of an ongoing, necessary conversation in the culture at large.

And unless the Catholic church is going to find some way to live in a hermetically sealed museum entirely cut off from the world at large, important moral conversations in the secular world will continue to find their way into intraecclesial conversations.  And will keep making us think about what we take for granted, and what seems so clear and so simple to us when we live only in a world defined by narrow Catholic viewpoints and narrow Catholic presuppositions.

*I can easily recognize the dynamics at play here, because I experience them, too, when I contribute to Catholic blog discussions.  Look, for instance, at how two of my Catholic brothers and sisters, Mark and Kathy, seek first to box me in in this discussion, and then, when they imagine they've gotten me to reduce my range of points to a one-note song, how they imagine they can simply dismiss me and the range of points I'm making about how Catholic positions on life issues can't be credible when Catholic people and Catholic institutions treat some real-life human beings with conspicuous lack of respect. 

The name of the game here is to tag someone in a demeaning way ("a practicing homosexual"), while implying that the demeaned person has an "agenda" (being "guaranteed employment" in Catholic institutions).  With the ultimate goal of putting the person raising questions you don't intend to answer and issues you don't intend to discuss out of the conversation.  With the ultimate goal of putting a person you don't intend to respect as a human being in any shape, form, or fashion out of sight and out of mind.  As you go on talking about the need for respect for life in the culture at large.  And about love, communion, salvation, and all kinds of other high-flown theological concepts you don't intend to live, when it comes to some of your own brothers and sisters.

And, of course, the end result of this ugly dynamic that is all about claiming the Catholic church as a purist enclave only for me and my kind and putting everyone else outside is to weaken the very argument that these folks tell us they want to make persuasively in the public square.  Where the lack of respect of some ardent pro-life Catholics for the real human lives of some of their own already-born Catholic brothers and sisters is obvious to many non-Catholics, and where that lack of respect for real human lives calls into question the claim of these pro-life Catholics to be all about respect for life, when it comes to abortion and pre-born human beings.

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