Monday, April 11, 2011

Mary Hunt on U.S. Bishops' Condemnation of Elizabeth Johnson: All about Power

In her inimitable, straight-to-the-point way, theologian Mary Hunt dissects the U.S. Catholic bishops' recent action against theologian Elizabeth Johnson's book Quest for the Living God.  Hunt's analysis doesn't contain any information that hasn't already appeared in other accounts.  But as always, better than other tellings of the story, it drives right to the heart of the matter, framing the USCCB's condemnation of Johnson as an assertion of naked power at a time when the bishops' moral and teaching authority could not be in more disrepute, due to their handling of the abuse crisis.

And it's not at all without significance, Hunt notes, that the bishops are targeting a feminist theologian right now, one who has argued for women's ordination.  As she points out, groups like her WATER have long made the connections between clericalism and other issues that demand moral analysis from the standpoint of justice, and it is, in large part, the willingness of feminist theologians and women's activist groups to challenge the Catholic system of clericalism and connect it, through critical analysis, to other insupportable forms of injustice that incurs Rome's wrath.  These challenges are challenges to the claims of the clerical system to wield unilateral power in defining Catholicism--the kind of power on which Michael Sean Winters continues to insist authentic Catholicity is based.*

The Elizabeth Johnson story is, Hunt thinks, all about the Vatican and bishops asserting their right to define what is or is not Catholic, who is in and who is out, at a point in history when many Catholics--notably feminist thinkers--challenge the clerical system's right to unilateral ownership of the symbols and definition of Catholicism:

At issue here is not theology but power—the power to name theology ‘Catholic’. Countless interpretations of Dr. Johnson’s work later, the bishops’ point is simply to insist that they alone are the arbiters of all things Catholic. It doesn’t matter that many don’t understand, much less appreciate, contemporary theological method, nor that Elizabeth Johnson is hardly outrĂ© in feminist theological circles. What matters here is the fact that she writes and teaches at Fordham University, a social location that matches her commitments to theologize in the heart of the tradition.

The whole point of this exercise in my view is to send a message to the larger academic community that only those who toe the doctrinal line, absolutely and without any wiggle room, are theologically acceptable.

And as Mary Hunt's outstanding analysis of the Elizabeth Johnson story and what it means at a fundamental level appears, the board of the leading Catholic theological society in the U.S., the Catholic Theological Society of America (CTSA), has also issued a statement.  As this statement notes, the bishops' action in Johnson's case violated their own rules requiring dialogue with a theologian before her book was condemned.  The U.S. bishops, in dialogue with U.S. Catholic theologians, had worked out a system that permits theologians to know when questions have been raised about their work, and what those questions are.  The system worked out for the U.S. also creates a place for theologians under investigation to engage in dialogue with the bishops as the bishops scrutinize their work.

None of this happened in the case of Elizabeth Johnson.  Because what happened with Johnson is not really about the integrity of her work or the soundness of her theology.  It is really about power, pure and simple: naked power.  It is about the assertion of power over others at a point in history at which the claim to power of those doing the asserting is being robustly challenged, particularly by feminist thinkers.

For me personally, there's a grand irony in reading the CTSA statement side by side with Hunt's truth-telling analysis.  This irony points to some of the key tensions between groups on the cutting edge of theological reflection, like Hunt's WATER group, and centrist Catholic organizations like CTSA, which in my view do not and cannot point the way to a vibrant future for the American Catholic church.  To explain this I'll have to tell a personal story.

I know a number of the current CTSA board members personally.  I was in grad school with them, in fact.  And though one of these CTSA members now has exceptionally strong power to include Steve and me as Catholic theologians pushed to the margins of the academy in a way we have not been included in the past, neither she nor the other person whom we know on the CTSA board has ever lifted a finger to see we're included.  And they don't intend to do so.

To the contrary: the CTSA member with great power to include us told us after we were both fired at Belmont Abbey College that, though she deplored what that school did to us and how it was done, we had not played the political game adroitly.  We had, in other words, brought our own humiliation and marginalization down on our heads--by not pretending and hiding successfully enough.  

We had outed ourselves--the unforgivable sin, for a Catholic institution--simply by being.  By being gay.  By being a gay couple.  By living together.  By not apologizing for doing so.  And so, though neither of us had ever made any public statement at all about our sexual orientation or our relationship, we had not played the game adroitly enough because we had not dissimulated successfully enough.

This analysis--you weren't politically savvy, and look what happened--defends the system wielding unjust power and using ethically shabby methods to target gay folks working in Catholic institutions.  It blames the victim.  It's the kind of analysis centrists, who continue to cozy up to the power of the center and thereby gain positions of authority there, love to dole out to those on the margins.  This is how centrists get their power, and why they don't ever intend effectively to challenge the presuppositions on which the unjust power of ruling elites is based: when push comes to shove, they always defend the system itself, only mildly criticizing the operations of its power when those have been grossly unethical. 

But never breaking with that system or mounting any effective, honest analysis of it.  And blaming those hapless and powerless people who find themselves caught in the machinations of the power system, chewed up, and spit out--blaming these victims for what the merciless machine does to them.

And there's more.  The other CTSA board member Steve and I know well was one of our closest friends all through graduate school.  She was a close friend, that is, until Belmont Abbey fired us and pushed us out of the closet.

When that happened, we became like lepers whom she could not, would not touch.  We would go to CTSA national meetings, see this friend in hallways during meetings, say hello, and she would run--literally scamper--to get away from us.  The one time we actually managed to corner her and talk to her about what had happened to us as Catholic theologians, she said to us, "Well, now you'll have to find your community of support in the gay community.  Not the Catholic church."

This woman is a nun.  We were astonished at this conclusion: we Catholics can't offer you support as gay human beings who belong to our church every bit as much as we do.  You'll have to look for it somewhere else--outside the church, where support for your kind of people exists.  I do not want or intend to remain your friend, now that you are out of the closet.  Catholics can't offer that kind of friendship (and certainly not jobs and health care benefits) to those who are openly and unapologetically gay.  You're going to have to make your way in the world now without the support of the body of Christ--which continues to preach about the obligation to love everyone and challenge discrimination against anyone, and which promotes everyone's right to have bread on the table and access to health care.

Just not gays working in Catholic institutions, though, you understand.  Those statements stop applying in that case.  We are family.  You are not.  Your "gay lifestyle"--your open, honest acknowledgment of your God-given identity, your refusal to apologize for it.  That's the impediment we can't get around.  Keeping it well-hidden wouldn't be a problem for the family at all, since, God knows, there's enough closeted homosexuality in Catholic episcopal palaces and rectories and convents and the Vatican to sink a fleet of good-sized battleships, if they were loaded full of all the closet cases about which we wink--because they remain in the closet.

All of this is in my mind right now as I read Mary Hunt's article about Elizabeth Johnson side by side with the CTSA statement about the Johnson case because of another comment I recall this former friend who is now on the CTSA board making to me.  At some point not long before our firing at Belmont Abbey, I happened to mention to her that I was in touch with Mary Hunt, who was involved in the editorial process for an article of mine soon to be published in a journal.

When she heard this, my then-friend raised her eyebrows and said, "Mary Hunt.  I'd leave her alone.  And WATER.  They're way out on the margins."  

What she meant, of course, was, "Mary Hunt is a lesbian.  Lesbians don't really have a place in the bosom of the church.  As I do.  Lesbians and lesbian feminists find their support network in the gay community.  The church can't embrace them and offer them support."

As I say, reading Mary Hunt's article alongside the CTSA board's statement about Elizabeth Johnson makes me think about the two very different futures for American Catholicism both documents envisage, and for which they're working.  One of the two is still so situated within, comfortable with, the institution it mildly criticizes, that it blinds itself to the significant shortcomings of that institution which make it impossible for the institution to proclaim the gospel effectively at this point in history.

Quite specifically, the centrist model imagines it can defend women and the rights of women while remaining totally silent about heterosexism and homophobia--about the considerable heterosexism and homophobia still embedded in Catholic institutions, which completely undercuts those institutions' claims to be about justice for women or anyone else.  

I spent a good bit of time this weekend talking back and forth at this Commonweal thread about racism, the churches, and politics.  And, as any reader who has the patience to slog through the comments here will discover, in the context of that back-and-forth dialogue, one contributor who surely knew--since my username is William Lindsey--that I'm a male (and who would, if [s]he follows Commonweal threads often, also know I'm a gay male), decided at some point to shift to a she/he construction in talking about me.  Because (s)he bitterly disliked what I was saying in the conversation.

This anonymous contributor, j.a.m., has been on other Commonweal threads recently making nasty comments about feminism and women's rights.  And then, surprisingly, another contributor, Gerelyn (Hollingsworth), who also often appears on Commonweal threads making statements that appear to support women's rights, suddenly weighed in, criticizing several other contributors who called j.a.m.'s bluff--because he was gay-bashing--and sided with j.a.m.!  She sided with a Commonweal contributor who frequently knocks women and feminist theology.  Which she claims to support.

The Catholic "feminist" sided with the Catholic anti-feminist against the gay man.  And she took to task the other contributors in the thread, William Fitzgerald and Mary, who had called j.a.m.'s bluff in a hilarious way (by beginning to identify j.a.m. himself with female pronouns) due to his or her nasty gender-switching attack on me, which was intended to discredit anything I said.  And, above all, to tell me I'm not welcome in respectable Catholic conservations of the center--the real name of the game when these attacks take place.

This is an interesting exchange, isn't it?  At one level, what's most interesting about it, perhaps, is the freedom people still seem to enjoy in centrist Catholic circles that want to claim intellectual credibility to use these adolescent tactics to disempower someone who's gay.  The gender-switching game with the pronouns: that's embarrassingly crude and embarrassingly immature.  It wouldn't fly in most other intellectual circles that want to claim any credibility in the academy at large.  That it can still fly in Catholic centrist circles says a lot about where we are (or aren't), as American Catholics right now.  It says a lot about how stuck in adolescence the club of the American Catholic center is.

And also interesting is the pretense of some Catholic intellectuals that it's possible to be feminists and then collude with homophobic prejudice that is, when it targets gay men, all about using crude anti-feminist stereotypes to attack men imagined as women.  The gender analysis of Catholic "feminists" who can't recognize that homophobia targeting gay men is rooted in the very system of insupportable claims men make about male entitlement and male superiority as they deny rights to women: this is not very sophisticated gender analysis at all.

Mary Hunt does and has long made those connections.  And for that reason, I see her and those with whom she stands as important signposts to the future for the American Catholic church.  Though I was warned against her years ago by someone who is now a CTSA board member and who is now claiming to stand in support of Elizabeth Johnson and Johnson's feminist theology, I'm rather happy, on the whole, to have ended up out on the margins with Hunt and not in the center with my former friends in CTSA.

The air feels more salubrious out on the disreputable verges where we ragtag and thrown-away folks are told we belong.

* For Mary Hunt's very effective response to Michael Sean Winters about who defines Catholic identity and how that defining gets done, see this Religion Dispatches article--and see my summary of this debate in this Bilgrimage posting.

No comments: