Sunday, February 6, 2011

Inviting Strayed Catholics Back Home and Continuing the Gay Bashing: Can We Have Both?

Michael O'Loughlin (implicitly) asks the right question at America magazine's "In All Things" blog: if the Catholic church is serious about inviting former Catholics back home, why are the pastoral leaders of the church continuing to invest so heavily in attacks on the humanity and rights of gay and lesbian persons?  O'Loughlin links to an article in which Robert Putnam and David Campbell summarize the findings of their recent book American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us.

As I noted in a number of postings last fall (e.g., here) when that book appeared, Putnam and Campbell find the entanglement of many churches with right-wing politics--and, above all, their investment in gay-bashing--the single most important factor cited by 20-somethings who are leaving the churches.  Young people are moving away from church life due to the toxic homophobia of many communities of faith.

Here's what Putnam and Campbell say about this in the article to which O'Loughlin links: 

This backlash was especially forceful among youth coming of age in the 1990s and just forming their views about religion. Some of that generation, to be sure, held deeply conservative moral and political views, and they felt very comfortable in the ranks of increasingly conservative churchgoers. But a majority of the Millennial generation was liberal on most social issues, and above all, on homosexuality. The fraction of twentysomethings who said that homosexual relations were "always" or "almost always" wrong plummeted from about 75% in 1990 to about 40% in 2008. (Ironically, in polling, Millennials are actually more uneasy about abortion than their parents.)

Just as this generation moved to the left on most social issues — above all, homosexuality — many prominent religious leaders moved to the right, using the issue of same-sex marriage to mobilize electoral support for conservative Republicans. In the short run, this tactic worked to increase GOP turnout, but the subsequent backlash undermined sympathy for religion among many young moderates and progressives. Increasingly, young people saw religion as intolerant, hypocritical, judgmental and homophobic. If being religious entailed political conservatism, they concluded, religion was not for them.

Sociologists Michael Hout and Claude Fischer of UC Berkeley were among the first to call attention to the ensuing rise in young "nones," and in our recent book, "American Grace," we have extended their analysis, showing that the association between religion and politics (and especially religion's intolerance of homosexuality) was the single strongest factor in this portentous shift. In religious affinities, as in taste in music and preference for colas, habits formed in early adulthood tend to harden over time. So if more than one-quarter of today's young people are setting off in adult life with no religious identification, compared with about one-20th of previous generations, the prospects for religious observance in the coming decades are substantially diminished.

As I read this analysis, which rests on unimpeachable empirical evidence, I wonder how it is that the pastoral leaders of the Catholic church in the U.S. think they can simultaneously invite straying brothers and sisters home, and continue a large investment in an anti-gay political strategy that is at the heart of the disaffection of a growing number of younger Catholics from the church.  Why are we not having the conversation we need to have right now in American Catholicism, if we're truly concerned about enshrining in our lives and practices the kind of welcome of everyone that ought to characterize any community of disciples of Jesus?

This is one conversation among several that we American Catholics are determined not to have.  We do not intend to talk--not really, not seriously, not widely--about why the leaders of our church are committing our resources, the funds we are donating for the upkeep of our parishes and schools and for works of mercy, to attacks on our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters.

And we do not intend to talk about what this is doing to us--to  us as a church--as a result of this sinful allotment of our resources to a political cause designed to dehumanize and inflict pain on a vulnerable minority community.  We do not intend to talk about what this sinful allotment of our resources by our pastoral leaders does to what we stand for and who we appear to be in the world today.

We also do not intend to talk seriously about the gender presuppositions that underlie and feed our hostility and injustice towards our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters.  One of the not-surprising--but nonetheless deeply disturbing--developments following the recent revelations about Father Thomas Euteneuer's abuse of pastoral authority in his ministry of exorcism has been the extent to which those in the solid liberal center of the American Catholic church want to spin the Euteneuer story as a narrative about the victimization of a good heterosexual priest by a vicious, closeted gay hierarchy.

One of the reasons the Euteneuer story is not being discussed openly right now is that there is a strong whisper campaign afoot among Catholics of the solid liberal middle who are suggesting that, after all, Fr. Euteneuer's sins were only the sins of a real man doing what real men should do.  And the problem in the church is a woman-hating closeted gay hierarchy that makes it impossible for real men to enter the ministry, and keeps blocking women from positions of power in the church.

Underlying this analysis are strong gender presuppositions--presuppositions about who men are and who women are, about what men should do and what women should do, above all, about who gay and lesbian people are--that lead to all sorts of shocking disconnects between what we profess about ourselves and what we actually embody in our actions, in our life of communal witness to God's welcoming embrace of the world.  That disconnect is particularly evident among the liberal elite who have controlling influence in our Catholic theological academy in the U.S. and in our Catholic media, where there is an overarching but never really acknowledged assumption that gays are the real problem in the priesthood.

With attendant, fallacious assumptions that gay men in general are hostile to women, and the misogyny of many clerical leaders stems from their homosexuality and will vanish if we let manly men back into the priesthood.  And so the solution to our problems is to remasculinize the priesthood and bring real men into the center of our clerical life again.

This analysis entirely overlooks some key issues that demand serious attention, if we want to be a community that heals social wounds and embodies love, justice, and mercy.  It overlooks the fact that, if the hierarchy of the Catholic church is dominated by closeted gay men, it is precisely those closeted gay men who are most inclined to attack other gay and lesbian people.  It is precisely those closeted gay men who are driving the gay-bashing political crusade of the Catholic church today, which seeks to deny human rights to gay and lesbian persons at every juncture.

It is precisely those closeted gay men who ensure that openly gay or lesbian people find no home in Catholic workplaces, and to a considerable extent, in Catholic parish life in many places.  And so the problem is not, as the simplistic (and culture-embedded rather than culture-transforming) analysis of liberal Catholics would have it, gays: it is the twisting of attitudes about gay and lesbian human beings and about gender.  It is the closet itself.  And it is the fallacious belief that bringing real men back into the priesthood will cure misogyny.

Because Fr. Euteneuer was, if anything, a real man--a former Marine whose clerical masculinity is rock-solid.  Who has scored points for the side of rock-solid clerical masculinity by knocking his gay brothers any chance he can get to knock them.

And--again, contrary to the narrative framework that the liberal intellectual elite of American Catholicism is already seeking to place around the Euteneuer story--Fr. Euteneuer has not stumbled because he developed a healthy adult relationship with another adult, with a woman.  He is not being hounded by a misogynistic closeted gay hierarchy because he and an adult woman chose to engage in a consensual relationship.

He has stumbled because he used a woman or women in the exercise of his ministry.  He took advantage of a woman or women under his control.  His misogyny is not a misogyny that flows from homosexuality.  It is a very particular kind of misogyny--one woven into all the structures of our society--of heterosexual men.  It is a very particular kind of misogyny that stems from the widespread, deeply embedded cultural belief that women exist to be used by real men. 

It is that kind of misogyny--a heterosexual, taken-for-granted misogyny--that the hierarchy of the Catholic church is actually defending when it bashes gays.  Bringing manly men back into the priesthood (if, indeed, they've ever been banished) is not going to solve that kind of problem.  Indeed, if the Euteneuer story teaches us anything, it should teach us that the misogyny of our hierarchy will in all likelihood only intensify if we have more priests of the ilk of Thomas Euteneuer among us.

We cannot address the problems of our clerical life--of our institutional life in the American Catholic church in general--without being more honest and more intelligent than we have been up to now about issues of gender.  And we cannot address those problems without admitting the gross injustice of our continued gay-bashing.

We cannot address our problems without honest conversations about the ways in which, as a community of disciples of Christ, we have made gay and lesbian people conspicuously unwelcome in our communities, our institutions, our conversations.  This is the kind of conversation we desperately need to have now, as evidence piles up that the primary reason younger people are leaving the churches is the churches' hostility to gay folks.

And it's the kind of conversation we desperately need to have following the Euteneuer story.

But it's a conversation we do not intend to have in American Catholicism, because that conversation would call on all of us--and, in particular, the liberal intellectual elite that has such large influence in our academy and media--to reexamine some of the crude, simplistic notions to which we still cling, re: issues of gender and sexual orientation.  And to reexamine our crude, unwelcoming ways of expelling from the conversation of the center anyone who presses inconvenient questions about these matters.  And to reexamine the ways in which the academies (and theology departments) where many of the theologians of the liberal American center have treated and continue to treat those who are gay and lesbian.

And the power and privilege the theologians of the center attain by playing games about gender roles and keeping their mouths shut as their gay brothers and sisters are slapped about and expelled from conversations.  These are conversations we don't intend to have, because they would mean reexamining who we have become at this point in our history.

And it might be unbearable to begin looking into that particular mirror.  And to hear what those slapped about and expelled from our self-congratulatory conversations about ourselves would tell us, if they were--for once--really permitted a voice in our conversations.

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