Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner: American Catholics Throw a Human Rights Party

National Catholic Reporter has now posted a good reflection--Jamie Manson is the author of this piece--about the recent human rights breakthrough with marriage equality in New York.  Manson (rightly) stresses the growing disparity between what the Catholic hierarchs (and their centrist apologists: my addition to the analysis, and not something Jamie says) want to think about marriage equality, and what growing numbers of Catholics think about the issue.  As Catholics.   

Because they're Catholics.  And because they have been deeply influenced by the human rights and social justice traditions of the Catholic church, and its theology of communion which does not permit a faithful Catholic ever to rest easy with the exclusion of anyone from the table, from the human community or the community of the faithful.

Manson writes:

It’s no wonder Dolan and D’Marzio are feeling especially troubled. One look at key players in the road to the same-sex marriage victory reveals a strikingly Catholic roster.

The bill’s sponsor, assembly member, Daniel O’Donnell, was raised Catholic. He met his partner of 31 years on his first day of college at The Catholic University of America.

Tom Duane, the New York State Senate’s first openly gay and openly HIV-positive member, has been gay marriage’s greatest champion for years. Though he no longer practices, he was raised Catholic.

The first Republican senator to break ranks and agree to vote in favor of the bill was Joseph Alesi, who was raised Catholic and graduated from St. John Fisher College in Rochester, N.Y.

And, of course, Governor Andrew Cuomo, whose commitment, political influence, and impeccable organizational skills were the most powerful force behind the bill’s approval, was raised in a Catholic home. A pro-choice, cohabitating divorcee, Cuomo receives communion when he attends Mass and reportedly takes his Catholicism seriously.

The bishops refuse to see that these officials were actually honoring the Catholic social justice tradition in their motivation for passing the marriage bill. They approached the issue as a cause for civil rights. From health care proxies and medical benefits to tax laws, same sex couples will now enjoy thousands of rights previously available only to married heterosexuals. 

I've talked the past several days about the conspicuous--let's call it lack of enthusiasm--that leading American Catholic intellectual luminaries who have invested everything in maintaining the status quo (and their privileged places in it) are exhibiting about this human rights breakthrough.  These luminaries have long had everything invested in keeping openly gay voices at bay, in pretending that we have said nothing at all when we have spoken, in employing elitist, dismissive techniques to ignore and marginalize the testimony of brother and sister Catholics who are gay and lesbian and who call for honest dialogue about the Catholic church's lack of welcome of gay and lesbian persons.

And so their disaffection after marriage equality was enacted in New York state--their disaffection from this human rights breakthrough, and from other Catholics celebrating it--has hardly surprised me.  It's predictable, because it's consistent with the way in which the journals and blogs of these centrist power-brokering Catholic intellectual groups with strong insider ties to the hierarchy have been dealing with their gay and lesbian brothers and sisters for some years now.

I've read the editorials in the publications of some of these groups that heap snooty scorn on the idea that what gay folks do is "love" (yes, some of these publications do use meretricious quotation marks to attack the notion that the love ethic ought to be front and center when we discuss the place of gay and lesbian persons in the church).  I've read the snippy comments suggesting that the movement for gay rights is dominated by selfish, rich, misogynistic men who have no interest in or ability to care for children.

I've read the astonishing arguments that, while the Catholic hierarchy ought to extend privileges to heterosexual couples--the right to decide, using their own consciences, when, how, or if to limit procreativity in their marital lives--it should deny these same privileges to the church's gay members.  Since their non-procreative unions threaten the procreative basis of marriage as it has long been understood.  Though, mystifyingly, the decision of heterosexual couples to limit procreation or choose not to procreate somehow doesn't threaten the procreative understanding of marriage. 

I've been even more astonished to read these arguments coming from the same people who write (but I can hardly any longer see these written statements as in any way sincere) that gay folks have been unfairly used as political footballs in games about procreativity that really have to do with the now well-nigh universal decision of heterosexual couples throughout the developed world to reject the only-for-procreation understanding of marriage.

And I've seen, again and again, how the blog sites sponsored by these leading intellectual luminaries of the American Catholic center pretend that the testimony of brother and sister Catholics who are openly gay and who call for discussion of the inconsistency and injustice of the preceding positions is beneath notice.  Contemptible.  Particularly when those offering the testimony lack the right intellectual and professional pedigrees.  And live in the wrong places.

And, most important of all, do not move in the exalted circles of power (and power-mongering) in which these luminaries themselves move.  Power-mongering luminaries who are far and away, it goes without saying, mostly heterosexual.  And whose entree to power has long depended on colluding in heterosexist structures that oppress their brothers and sisters who are gay and lesbian.  Including--and even perhaps primarily--Catholic structures fostering heterosexist discrimination against those who are gay and lesbian . . . .

And so I have understood full well the reluctance of these luminaries of the American Catholic intellectual center to engage in any honest or respectful way the arguments of those who promote equal rights for gay and lesbian human beings.  Or to admit that there are sound--and compelling--theological reasons for taking a closer look at how the unjust defense of heterosexual power and privilege fragments the church catholic, makes mincemeat of its claims to be authentically catholic.

And, above all, of its claim to be about love in any meaningful sense at all.  Hence the scornful, dismissive attacks on the love ethic in the editorials of the journals controlled by these luminaries, when the question at hand is gay love--and whether non-gay Christians have an obligation to love those who are gay.  Or an obligation even to see that they're there, and that driving them from the Catholic table diminishes everyone.  Everyone, including even privileged heterosexual (and heterosexist) Catholic intellectuals who live in the right places, have the right academic pedigrees, and know the right people.

As I say, I'm hardly surprised at the tack now being taken by these luminaries of the American Catholic intellectual center, in the wake of what happened in New York last week.  They could hardly do otherwise--could hardly do other than to mount tired and predictable attacks on the New York Times for anti-Catholic bias as it promotes marriage equality; could hardly do other than seed contemptible suggestions that the vote for marriage equality was paid for; could hardly do other than keep defending at their blog sites toxic homophobic rhetoric that has long since been considered far beyond the pale at reputable academic sites, while driving openly gay and lesbian contributors and their allies from their sites.

Could hardly do other than recycle turgid, pretend-rational arguments about how we Catholics are far and away better than those pagans (those pagans who happen to include gay and lesbian brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, mothers, and fathers that many other Catholics adamantly refuse to dismiss in this superior, self-righteous way.  Pagans from whom they assume the Catholic community, in all its superiority and perfection, might just learn a thing or two.)

Still.  Still, I will admit that I'm somewhat surprised by the vitriol some of these centrist Catholic sites have displayed following the New York events.  By the mean-spirited pique they're displaying, and the mean-spirited attacks some of their blog moderators are mounting against selected contributors.

You'd almost think, wouldn't you, given the vitriol, pique, and mean-spiritedness, that these folks have lost an historic battle, and aren't happy about it.  You'd almost think that they're not particularly happy to have been exposed for who and what they are: bigots who have long since committed themselves, along with the bishops with whom they hobnob, to fight against a significant global human-rights breakthrough, while continuing to talk about the importance of human rights and social justice for everyone in the world except those who are gay and lesbian.

I can understand the pique: it's as if advocates of human rights, including a significant proportion of Catholic ones, have thrown a big party since the New York breakthrough, and these Catholics who pride themselves on articulating the Catholic social justice tradition for everyone else find themselves on the outside looking in, while others make merry.  Unhappy to be left out.  Unhappy to have made the wrong choice in an historic human-rights struggle, and unhappy that their decision to make the wrong choice now exposes them as anything but advocates of social justice and human rights--in any area at all.

Reading the comments at some of these blog sites in recent days--the frissons of horror at the thought of two men loving each other, the moues of disgust at the idea that two men might raise children (it's always gay men on whom the frissons and the moues fixate, for some reason)--I'm reminded of the kinds of discussions that took place in many white liberal households around 1967 when the first Negro friend came to dinner.

How will we handle the exotic differences?  What if he acts, well, too different, too black?  What if we say or do the wrong thing?  What will we talk about?  What do they like to eat?  Do they eat the normal things we eat?  Or will they want something spicy and exotic?

What will the neighbors think?

It's 1967 in the circles of the American Catholic intellectual luminaries.  While the rest of the developed world, including huge percentages of American Catholics, has chugged right along to 2011, and has just sat down to a resplendent table laden with good food, at which the exotic gays--and, horror! their husbands and the children the two husbands are raising--are sitting side-by-side with the normal folks.  Chowing down on the fried chicken and hot dogs and those tasty pear, brie, and jambon dishes the gays carted along for the meal.

While the Catholics--the ones who count, you understand--are wondering what one possibly wears to a dinner with "them" and how one behaves in "their" presence.  How one manages to hide the shivers of disgust at what (we imagine) they do in bed.  And the frowns of disapproval at their silly idea that they might be able to do a more than adequate job of raising a child.

Jamie Manson's right: what happened in New York has much to do with Catholic principles and with the commitment of many good Catholics to those principles.  And interestingly enough, those principles, and what they mean in real life, are now being defended in American culture not primarily by the Catholics who have long maintained that they have the corner on the market of Catholic interpretation--our intellectual leaders--but by "ordinary" lay folks.

Who quite commonly know and love someone who is gay, and who have long since sat down at the table and eaten with the gay brothers, uncles, fathers (and sisters, aunts, and mothers) who still give the willies to the luminaries.  Who still give the willies to our Catholic leaders who remain stuck in 1967 and still want to deliberate about how one behaves at a party where the gays eat with respectable and normal folks.

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