Tuesday, February 22, 2011

New Catholic iPhone App Stirs Controversy with Questions about Homosexuality

Here's a story that fascinates me for all kinds of reasons: recently, several young Catholic men from Indiana collaborated with priests Fr. Dan Scheidt and Thomas Weinandy of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to produce an iPhone app to help Catholics prepare for confession.  Maureen Dowd had interesting commentary on this techno-sacramental breakthrough in the New York Times some days back. 

Disclaimer: I'm not even sure what the hell an app is.  Or an iPhone for that matter.  I have a cell phone that is now the dinosaur version of that technology, but which does all I really need to do right now with any phone--which is to say, it calls people and can, if I wish, store addresses and phone numbers and take pictures.  And it can go online, I reckon, though I've never tried that and don't know how (or want) to do that.

As well as I understand (and more informed readers, please correct me if I'm wrong), the point of this new app for the Sacrament of Penance is to provide a kind of cheat-sheet for penitents, so that you will know when you go into the confessional or penance room that you have sinned.  Really sinned.  As in species and number, as the traditional catechisms tell Catholics they are obliged to confess: what particular sins did you commit, and how many times did you commit them?  

And, of course, this, in turn, raises the interesting question of precisely what is or is not a sin, and what ought to occupy the attention of a penitent when he/she enters the confessional.  Not having grown up Catholic and having joined the Catholic church only as Vatican II was underway, I still find it mind-boggling when my partner Steve talks about the weekly confession to which he and his siblings were hauled every Saturday  evening before Sunday Mass, at which he didn't scruple to invent a list of sins he had never committed at all--a mortal sin in and of itself, since it violates the rules of the sacrament.

His weekly list included the same sins each week, with numbers varying: disobeyed my parents, said bad words, and stole something.  He never stole anything in his life, seldom disobeyed his parents, didn't even know any "bad" words.  But one had to have something to confess.

And so one made do.  And the question I have asked Steve constantly, and about which he just laughs now, is whether this approach to sin and forgiveness didn't inculcate in him and other cradle Catholics at a very early age a rather superficial approach to sin, in which the deep roots of sin in our hearts (here, my Augustinian-Calvinist childhood formation shows through) get overlooked as we focus on peccadilloes that, ultimately, let us off the hook for our real sins.  

Sins like refusing to see the face of someone in need.  Or taunting the classmate considered weak or defenseless. Or hardening our hearts and not cooperating with divine grace as it tries to enlarge our hearts. Or treating an animal as if it does not have a soul.  

And so you see the point I'm winding around to here: given that these app thingamajiggies are, as well as I understand, not capable of providing the whole catechism to you as you head into the confessional booth, someone somewhere must pick and choose among the many, many, many acts the Catholic church regards as serious sins, and upload those particular acts to the app.  The Catholic church regards it as sinful to 1) lend money at a usurious rate, 2) engage in acts of racial or other kinds of discrimination, 3) entertain impure thoughts (or, needless to say, be entertained by them), 4) masturbate, 5) consult a Ouija board or a psychic, 6) have any kind of sex outside holy wedlock, 7) consummate a sexual act in the privacy of one's marital bedroom without the semen ending up in the vagina, 8) use drugs or get drunk, etc., etc., etc.

With so much ripe penitential material to choose from, where to begin choosing?  Apparently, the app recognizes the complexity of that question, and so it makes adjustments.  Like tailoring itself to the vocational status of the penitent in the Catholic church.  According to Dowd, if one signs in as a priest or a religious (a nun, priest, or brother belonging to a religious community), the app asks you if you have flirted.

But if you sign in as a lay Catholic, it asks (these questions all pertain to the sixth commandment) if you have engaged in homosexual activity.  And if you are a woman and the app knows that, when you try to identify yourself as a priest, the app informs you starchily that "sex and vocation are incompatible." (Reminding me a bit in this regard of how the first Mormon-designed genealogy program used to behave when I would accidentally try to list two people of the same sex as married while I was entering data into that program.  A big message would flash, saying, "James Buchanan and William Rufus King are BOTH MEN.  THEY CANNOT MARRY!")

And it's about this point--who determines what sins shall be entered into the cheat sheet of an application like this app--that fascinating controversy is now emerging.  After the app was released, Wayne Besen of the organization Truth Wins Out, which works to help gay folks recover from the ravages of ex-gay "therapy," dared to publish a statement in which he says that the real sin that the app ought to be asking us about is not whether we've engaged in homosexual activity, but whether we've harmed gay folks in the name of religion.

Naturally, that observation--which seems sound and necessary to me--didn't go over well in some quarters, and there's now considerable controversy about Besen's response to the new app.  Besen addresses this controversy in a subsequent essay in which he makes the following interesting point (among several other interesting points):

First, the faithful defenders were upset because they did not like losing control of the storyline. For centuries they wore the white hats in the Saints vs. Sinner drama. They elevated themselves by perching on a pedestal of privilege where they get to reject and we must respect. The idea of reversing these "set" roles has them apoplectic.

I find that analysis provocative.  And I think it's on target.  It ties into my previous posting today, in which I point out that the Catholic church is paying an increasingly steep price for its heteronormativity, which legitimates the behavior of any and all heterosexual males no matter how grossly immoral that behavior turns out to be, while attacking the behavior (and the very humanity and the very lives) of any and all gay and lesbian folks, no matter how morally admirable those folks may be. 

The price the Catholic church is paying now for turning itself into a heteronormative homophobic boys' club is the price of increasing cognitive dissonance, as more and more people know more and more gay folks and see that the animus--the downright hostile nastiness--of the Catholic hierarchy towards those who are LGBT at this point in history is deeply morally troubling.  Far more troubling than the nature and lives of those under attack.  The hostile nastiness of Catholic officials towards those who are gay and lesbian at this point in history is the real sin that deserves careful attention--not the love of gay folks for themselves (through acceptance of their God-given nature) or for the significant others in their lives.

Besen's point--people of faith animated by hostility towards those who are LGBT are losing control of the dominant narrative about who's the saint and who's the sinner--is a point very well-taken.  It accounts for the rancor with which conservative anti-gay Christians are meeting the claim many of us who are gay and lesbian believers keep making, resolutely, simply, persistently, and intend to keep making, because we know it's true: God is with us.  God may well be on our side, in fact, if love is what matters in all religious traditions.  Not hate.

When I posted several days ago about the Magnificat and how its theme of casting down the mighty and lifting up the lowly applies, in my humble opinion, to stories such as that of Fr. Thomas Euteneuer, one right-wing Catholic reader of this blog logged into another of my Euteneuer postings to say I had "rampantly misappropriated" the Magnificat.

The subtext of that remark is loud and clear: you, as a gay person who refuse to admit that your nature and life are disordered and sinful, cannot own the Magnificat.  Only an "orthodox" Catholic owns that or any other prayer.

I beg to differ, and I intend to keep begging to differ.  The Magnificat belongs to me and any other gay Christian who finds inspiration in that prayer--as it belongs to the thousands of disenfranchised, beaten-down believers around the world, little people just like Mary and her son, who long to see the mighty cast down from their thrones and the lowly lifted up, the hungry fed with good things and the rich sent empty away.

And, in fact, we even dare to imagine that this prayer might apply to our own lives and the lives of others struggling for justice.  Here and now.  In the world in which we're living right now.  And many of us find it strange that right-wing Christians would imagine they have ownership of a prayer that is so disconcertingly inconvenient for anyone who tries to put God on the side of wealth, power, privilege, and oppression of others.

I think that Wayne Besen is right: those who have long thought that they have exclusive ownership of prayers, sacraments, sin lists, orthodoxy, the churches, etc., are now losing control of the dominant narrative (and of their own narratives of domination).   So that one day down the road, it may happen that if some of us ever darken the door of a church again, we'll be bringing along cheat-sheets to ask Father a few questions of our own.

And for those of us who are gay, the first question on the list might be the very question Besen wants to substitute for the current app's question about whether one has committed a homosexual act.  Many of us may be asking our confessor, instead, "Have you been guilty of spiritually abusing a homosexual?"

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