Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Richard Gaillardetz on the State of American Catholicism: My Response--"I Was a Stranger and You . . ."

In the discussion thread following my posting about Andrew Sullivan's latest comments re: the abuse crisis in the Catholic church this past weekend, a sharp reader, Brian Gallagher, drew a connection between Sullivan's analysis and questions that Catholic theologian Richard Gaillardetz raises in a recent lecture he gave on the state of American Catholicism today.  Gaillardetz's lecture is online now at the National Catholic Reporter website. 

Gaillardetz gave the lecture recently at University of Toledo as part of the Murray/Bacik lecture series.  It's entitled “The State of the Church, 2011: Reflections on the State of American Catholicism Today.” 

For anyone concerned about the current state and future of American Catholicism, the Gaillardetz lecture is  well worth reading.  For a snapshot of the reflections of various Catholic thinkers of the center, including theologians, about the Gaillardetz lecture, see the response to Peter Steinfels's recent posting re: the lecture at the Commonweal blog site.

My intent here is not to summarize this lecture, or even to discuss it in toto--though I highly recommend it to readers and hope that those concerned to understand where American Catholicism may be headed today will read it carefully.  What I'd like to zero in on here is  what Gaillardetz has to say about the 2009 pastoral letter of the U.S. Catholic bishops entitled, "Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan."  (For my own reflections on that pastoral letter at the time it was issued, see these two postings from October and November 2009.)

Gaillardetz makes his comments about the 2009 bishops' document on marriage in the context of his broader argument that, even if American Catholicism shows some signs of flourishing today, nonetheless "something is amiss" and the church in the U.S. finds itself in "a state of unrest."  And to know how to understand and address this situation, we need to know how we have arrived at "this troubling, enigmatic moment in American Catholicism," and we have to think about where we intend to go from here.

Gaillardetz does an historical sounding to show how we've gotten to where we are today.  He surveys the birth and death of a pre-Vatican subcultural Catholicism rooted in ethnic enclaves that had not been fully enculturated in mainstream American culture, and to which there was often resistance on the part of the mainstream. He then examines how post-Vatican II American Catholicism seemed to enter into a period of flourishing as American Catholics entered the social mainstream and were encouraged by Vatican II to engage in fruitful dialogue with mainstream culture.  

And then came the backlash  in the period from 1990 to the present, in which a new model of leadership was imposed by John Paul II and his successor Benedict, with a strong emphasis on "reforming the reform" of Vatican II and on a restorationist model of the church that once again pits the church against the social mainstream and accents its role of countercultural resistance.  In this resistance, a new generation of bishop-leaders have been encouraged sharply to delineate the difference between authentic Catholicism and the values and ideas of secular society.

And I must note that while the preceding summary faithfully replicates Gaillardetz's framework of analysis and--I hope--his primary points within that framework, it also makes free use of my own categories of analysis to understand the trajectory he's sketching here.  Free use of my own categories for which I don't want Gaillardetz blamed . . . .

And the end result of that shift to a new model of episcopal and Vatican leadership with John Paul II and Benedict--the end result of the restorationist "reform of the reform"--is that we now find ourselves at this point:  as Gaillardetz notes, Pew Forum data in the spring of 2008, which I've cited repeatedly on this blog, showed that by 2008, one in three American adults raised Catholic has left the Catholic church, and one in ten American adults is a former Catholic.  If all former Catholics in the U.S. were grouped into a single denomination, that denomination would form the second largest church in the country.  

And here's the lesson Gaillardetz draws from that study: 

The future of American Catholicism will depend in no small measure on our willingness to take seriously this mass exodus from the Church. We need to ask ourselves, what is going on here? 

In Gaillardetz's view, data gathered by the Pew report indicate that many of those now  leaving the Catholic church in the U.S. in this mass exodus are walking "because the quality of church life is poor and church leadership appears inattentive to their real pastoral concerns."  And it's in this context that Gaillardetz examines the 2009 pastoral letter on marriage--as an example of the poor quality of church life and inattentive leadership that are precipitating the mass exodus.  He writes:

Let me offer a simple example. In 2009 the American bishops released a pastoral letter on marriage titled, "Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan." When I first heard of the forthcoming letter, I was encouraged. I believe that in our current "upgrade" culture, two people remaining committed to one another for life is one of the most demanding things anyone could undertake. Pastoral assistance and support from church leaders was certainly welcome. The document that appeared includes very helpful and even inspiring passages, but its emphasis, regrettably, is on the intrinsic evils of artificial birth control and same-sex marriage. Now I recognize that these are official Catholic teachings and this is not the forum to debate them, but here is the problem. When my wife and I are going through a difficult patch in our marriage, it is not like at the end of some marital spat we look at one another and say, "boy, I wish those gay people weren't trying to get married, it would make our marriage a lot easier!" I understand the need on occasion to clarify official church teaching, but when a preoccupation with doctrinal orthodoxy, focused on a few select and controversial teachings, trumps expending the necessary energy to listen to the felt concerns of ordinary married people, well, you get our current situation. 

I'd like to draw attention to the preceding passage for two reasons.  The first is this: it makes a very compelling case for Gaillardetz's thesis that people are walking away from the Catholic church in the U.S. rapidly due to a poor quality of church life and to poor and inattentive leadership.

But, second, the prescriptive analysis embedded in Gaillardetz's discussion of the problem--his implied solution to the  problem--only underscores the problem, in my view.  It does not adequately address the problem and does not suggest a solution that will effectively address the problem at its base.  

Here's what I hear Gaillardetz saying: My wife and I were "encouraged" when we first heard that the bishops were going to issue this pastoral document about marriage in 2009.  We welcome teaching about marriage that helps us live our commitment as a married couple more faithfully.  We live in an "upgrade" culture in which the coinage of marriage as a lifelong commitment is being debased.  And my wife and I welcome the guidance of our church's pastoral leaders as we struggle to live our marital commitment within that cultural context. 

But the bishops' preoccupation with "the intrinsic evils of artificial birth control and same-sex marriage" hasn't proven helpful to us or other married heterosexual Catholic couples.  It seems absurd to us to imagine that, when we struggle to live faithfully as a married couple, same-sex couples impede us or threaten the sanctity of our marriage.

Good analysis, at one level.  The bishops' strange preoccupation with artificial contraception and same-sex marriage in a document whose ostensible purpose is to explain and defend the core values of marriage in a culture in which those values seem at risk makes little sense to many married Catholics like Gaillardetz.

I can understand this point. I welcome it.  I'm glad Gaillardetz is making it.

But there's this: for many of us, the announcement of the bishops in 2009 that they were going to issue a pastoral document about marriage was anything but welcome.  Because we don't belong to the church in the same way that Gaillardetz and his wife belong.  We are not welcomed in the church in the same way that Gaillardetz and his wife are welcomed.  We do not have the entree that they have.

And rather than strengthening and affirming our marriages, the document would--we knew beyond a shadow of doubt when we heard it was in the hopper--attack.  Undermine.  Exclude.  Condemn.

And so we who are not welcome, included, affirmed are far less apt than Gaillardetz and his wife are to yield to the magisterium the automatic right and privilege of declaring "official Catholic teaching:" about marriage --not while those doing the defining and declaring overlook our graced experience and ignore our contribution to the Catholic community as faithful disciples of Jesus.  We are far less inclined than are Gaillardetz and his wife to welcome a "pastoral" document whose intent is, for us and our brothers and sisters, anything but pastoral.  And we're far less inclined than are Gaillardetz and his wife to relinquish to the bishops the task of defining official Catholic teaching about marriage in this unilateral and exclusive  and non-dialogical way that ignores our lived experience of grace and our lives of gay discipleship within the Christian community.

The problem on which I want to zero in here is the dialogic problem.  It's a central problem of American Catholicism.  It is part and parcel of a much larger problem that underlies the current mass exodus from the church.  This dialogic problem has everything to do with the fundamental reasons that people are rapidly leaving the American Catholic church. As Gaillardetz himself says, there is, at base, a profound lack of hospitality, of welcome, in American Catholicism--and people are walking away as a result:

For every former Catholic who has left the church over a doctrinal question, I suspect there are many more who have left because of their concrete experience of local parish life. Insipid preaching, poorly planned liturgies, a basic lack of Christian hospitality—these are the realities that are driving people away. 

And here's the point I want to make, precisely, in response to Gaillardetz's analysis of the 2009 marriage letter of the U.S. Catholic bishops: there is nowhere in American Catholicism today any official dialogic space in which lay Catholics can sit down and talk together about the various experiences of glaring unwelcome that are quickly driving one person after another out of the church.  There are, almost nowhere in American Catholic parishes, universities, dioceses, organizations any welcoming dialogic spaces in which gay and lesbian Catholics can speak about our experiences as followers of Jesus, as faithful Catholics struggling to live lives faithful to the gospel within a church whose pastoral leaders have declared war on us.

Gaillardetz's lecture notes our obligation (and our need) to "wrestle" with the tradition.  And this is a valuable recommendation.  But wrestling with the tradition, in the Catholic context, requires communal wrestling.  It requires wrestling within the community, wrestling in dialogue with the tradition, with the pastoral leaders of the church, and with one's brothers and sisters in Christ.  It requires welcoming dialogic spaces in which Catholics with various life experiences and viewpoints can come together to talk.  And to share our lives.

There is no space at all, there is no dialogic space at all, within the American Catholic church today in which gay and lesbian Catholics are invited to wrestle with the tradition in dialogue with their brothers and sisters who happen to be heterosexual.  There is no wrestling space at all within American Catholicism in which the kind of dialogue on which I reported yesterday, where Steve and I met with an African-American church and shared our experience as a gay couple with them, takes place.

And Gaillardetz's own analysis of the shortcomings of the 2009 pastoral letter on marriage only deepens the problem--even as it rightly points to the tremendous pastoral shortcomings of the bishops' current stance on issues of marriage and sexuality.  Gaillardetz's analysis implies that the pastoral problem created by this stance primarily affects heterosexual married Catholics like himself and his wife--heterosexual married Catholics who would otherwise welcome and be "encouraged" by the bishops' "official" declarations re: marriage. 

For many of us who share Gaillardetz's analysis of the poor theology and anti-pastoral intent of the 2009 marriage document, the fundamental problem (and therefore the solution to the problem) appears quite different.  It's a problem of being unable to welcome or be encouraged by any statement issued by a group of pastoral leaders whose fundamental message to us has been, for some time now, that we ourselves are unwelcome

And that problem--which is to say, the deep, well-nigh intractable problem of unwelcome and lack of hospitality which is driving one person after another out of the church--is only compounded by our  heterosexual and married brother and sister Catholics, insofar as they continue to seem unable to grasp the dimensions of this problem.  Or what the experience of their gay and lesbian brothers and sisters within the church has been and continues to be.

Or what deep damage the male-dominated heterosexism of our leaders, our community, and our institutions continues to do to all of us.

The graphic for this posting is artist Andrea Bowers' "Quilt of Radical Hospitality" from Susanne Vielmetter's Los Angeles Projects gallery.

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