Monday, June 27, 2011

New York Victory and Unfinished Business: Catholic Church Still Anything but a Welcoming Place (2)

When I have taught introductory courses in moral theology over the years, one of the principles I emphasize most strongly is that a mature, developed moral sense aims at trying to understand and empathize with those whom we conceive as radically different from ourselves.  Developing a mature moral sense calls on us to see life from the vantage point of others—and, in particular, those others whose lives seem most distant from our own; in particular, those others who live on the social margins.  A mature, developed moral sense requires us to place ourselves inside others’ circle of experience.

To become empathetic, capable of feeling along with other people.

As I was growing up, a lesson the adults in my family instilled in me was the obligation to learn to celebrate along with other family members who had reason to celebrate—even when I might perhaps not fully understand or agree with the cause for celebration.  The point, I was told over and over, was to learn to affirm other members of the family, and to let them know they belonged in the family circle as much as I belonged there—even when I didn’t fully understand (or perhaps fully approve) Aunt M.’s reason for ditching Uncle C. and then marrying Uncle B. years down the road.

Given these formative lessons, which my formative moral experiences require me to see as central to the practice of any moral life that appears meaningful to me, I have to admit that I simply cannot understand the way in which the recent human rights breakthrough in New York is being received by a large number of my fellow Catholics.  There’s an added theological dimension to my bemusement at what’s now taking place among many American Catholics, in the wake of the recent human rights breakthrough.

That theological dimension: my understanding of Catholicism is all about including and not excluding.  About affirming family members, and not telling them they have no place in the family circle.  It’s about celebrating with those who have cause for joy, even when I’m not certain I fully understand (or perhaps approve) their cause for joy—celebrating with them when they have good reason to believe that what they’re celebrating builds their humanity and doesn’t tear it down

My understanding of Catholicism requires me to think that even one person excluded from communion is a tragic loss to the entire body of Christ.  And to me as an individual.  

I first encountered this Catholic sensibility in an intellectual context that began to transform how I viewed the world when I was fifteen years old, as well as I can recall—the same year, in fact, that I began making a fateful decision to leave my childhood church and become Catholic, though my father required me to wait two years before I acted on that decision.  I encountered this Catholic sensibility—I am not complete without you—in a transformative way when my 9th-grade English teacher had my class read John Gunther’s book Death Be Not Proud.  

As a prelude to our reading of Death Be Not Proud, our teacher had us read and discuss John Donne’s magnificent sonnet from which the book’s title (and theme) are taken, along with Donne’s “Meditation XVII,” with its powerful refrain that when the death knell tolls for another human being, it tolls for us as well.  And: 

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were; any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

I did not know, when I read (and struggled with) those lines, that I was encountering a sensibility I would soon learn, for theological reasons, to call “the” Catholic sensibility.  What I do remember clearly, however, from my first reading of the lines, as we hammered away at their meaning in class discussions, was how profoundly shocking they were to me.  How counterintuitive.

Everything I had been taught to believe and think about the meaning of my life and the lives of others, up to that point, moved in precisely the opposite direction: I was, indeed, an island.  I was responsible for my own life.  The death of anyone else could not diminish me, since one human being lived separate from another, and was ultimately responsible for his own rise, his own fall, his own fate: for her consignment to hell or her election to heaven.

These fundamental tenets of American individualism had been inextricably woven into my thinking about the world, and had been glossed with piety and theological convictions communicated to me by my childhood faith, and it proved deeply disturbing to discover a Christian divine writing, in such compelling prose, lines that told me I should revise my entire worldview and begin thinking otherwise:  I am not an island.  I am a part of the main.  And even the washing of a single clod from the mainland into the ocean is a loss to me.

It was this Catholic sensibility, which was magnified for me, refined, given rich theological resonance as I began reading Catholic theological works such as de Lubac’s on the eucharist and communion, that, more than anything else, clinched my decision to become Catholic.  I feel quite sure that, as a callow 15/16-year old, I understood little of de Lubac’s book on Catholicism (I can still see in my mind’s eye the image on the cover of the paperback copy of that book I bought in 1965 or 1966) or on the mystical body and communion.

But I glimpsed just enough, as I read this and other works about what constitutes a Catholic sensibility at its very core, to know that this is what I wanted: a worldview and eucharistic, communion-centered understanding of the life of faith that bound me intimately to every other person with whom I shared the body of Christ.  Which made me responsible for and responsible to those other members of the body of Christ.  A sensibility that deepened every time I received the eucharist.  Which was sealed and strengthened every time I shared the eucharist with my brothers and sisters in Christ: this indissoluble communion in which none of us was an island, and in which the exclusion or loss of any of us diminished everyone else.

It was this eucharistic theology, this core Catholic understanding of the eucharist from which everything else in the Catholic system flows, that, more than anything else, drew me to the Catholic church in my teen years.

And so imagine my sorrow this week as I read the statement issued by the Catholic bishops of New York, who have done everything in their power in recent months to deepen the division between the body of Christ and gay and lesbian human beings.  Imagine my grief as I turn, in recent days, to Catholic newspapers and blog sites online and find no mention at all of something I, along with many other American citizens (and many fellow Catholics) celebrate as a significant human rights breakthrough.

Or when I do find these events that I’m celebrating along with others mentioned on Catholic websites and in Catholic newspapers, imagine what is communicated to me by my brothers and sisters in Christ when I find nothing but condemnation in response to the New York legislation.  Fear and trembling.  Lamentation and threats of reprisal.   The same toxic discourse about those who are gay and lesbian I can find on any of the numerous hate-oriented websites throughout the internet that work overtime to disseminate harmful, violence-spurring lies about those whom God has made gay and lesbian.

Imagine what I feel when I turn to the “good” Catholic websites, the ones that purport to speak for the center and to understand the theological traditions of the church, and find some of the leading luminaries of the American Catholic church, its intellectual leaders, purporting to be concerned about the negative image the church has given to LGBT human beings, and then nattering on about bathhouses and diseased gay men, or the failure of the New York Times to talk about religious exemptions for those intent on discriminating in the name of God, or the possibility that those who voted for the recent bill were bribed to do so.

This from the best of American Catholicism.  This from those purporting to be concerned to develop a more welcoming approach to their gay and lesbian brothers and sisters.  This from people who have published books that say things about how gay and lesbian folks have been unjustly made a  battlefield for society at large, as we hash through questions about what it means that heterosexual marriage is no longer understood solely in terms of procreation.  Or who have published books and articles calling on Rome to permit heterosexual couples leeway to make conscientious decisions about when to thwart the procreative purpose of sexuality in their marriages--although, of course, these very same centrist Catholics oppose same-sex marriage.  Because, they contend, it undermines the procreative purpose of marriage . . . .

At the best of American Catholic websites, loud cries of the danger we’re courting by changing the “traditional” institution of marriage.  Insinuations that those who pushed this legislation through in New York did so by immoral means.  Tired, predictable slams against the New York Times for its supposed anti-Catholicism, its failure to mention religious exemptions in its reporting about what took place in Albany last Friday.

And endless nattering on about bathhouses and the impossibility that “gay” writers of the past can really have been gay, when they married and fathered children (and don't we all know that gay folks don’t ever do that: they don’t ever marry and have children).  Accompanied by toxic rhetoric about the depravity of homosexual acts and the fact that some faithful Catholics have never met a gay man they respect or find admirable.  Toxic rhetoric accompanied by defense of bishops who have persistently attacked gay and lesbian persons, and accompanied by disingenuous attempts to deny that the bishops have promoted discrimination and have made gay and lesbian persons unwelcome in the Catholic community.

And all of this in the context of discussions about how to develop a more welcoming approach to gay and lesbian persons!  Gay and lesbian persons whose voices are in no way solicited or welcomed in these discussions, and whose integrity and willingness or ability to speak truth is attacked the moment they do open their mouths and try to talk honestly about precisely how gay and lesbian people have been made unwelcome by the Catholic church—often, by active discrimination practiced in the very Catholic institutions in which these “welcoming” Catholics of the center work.

It would be laughable if it weren’t so deeply sad.

So deeply sad that a tradition with the theological heritage I encountered when I began to read Henri de Lubac in the 1960s should make this of itself, at this point in American history.

So painful and so morally repulsive, that so many American Catholics who surely know better—who surely know what the moral life is all about and what Catholicism stands for in its core meaning—should not only stand disdainfully aloof as many brother and sister Catholics celebrate what seems to them an important victory for human rights, but should so casually (and so cruelly) accept and participate in the attempt to drive a more intractable wedge between their Catholic community and anyone in the world who is gay or lesbian.

Who should so casually and so cruelly accept the deliberate, planned exclusion of their brothers and sisters who are unapologetically gay and lesbian from the body of Christ and the communion of the church.

And these are the people who set the tone for American Catholicism these days--the intellectual tone.  They're the people who control the editorial policy of the "nice" Catholic journals of the center.  They're the people who have written the books that tell us how to be a kinder, gentler, more authentically Catholic church in the U.S., one in constructive dialogue with mainstream culture.

They're the people collaborating with the bishops to chart the future of American Catholicism.

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