Saturday, June 11, 2011

Paul Lakeland on Humility as Virtue Needed by Catholics Today, and a Continuation of a Family Saga of Exclusion

Dinah Roe Kendall, "The Good Samaritan," 1994

Tom Fox's report on Paul Lakeland's recent College Theology Society address, “I Want to Be in That Number: Desire, Inclusivity and the Church,” is well worth reading.  Lakeland builds his theology of inclusivity around Elizabeth Johnson's observation that the communion of the saints is never inward-turning, never self-concerned and self-referential.  It is, instead, always reaching out to extend divine blessing to "all living persons of truth and love."

To all living persons of truth and love regardless of religious affiliation or faith stance (or the lack thereof).  And so the fixation of the current leaders of the Catholic church on drawing hard and fast boundary lines between church and world, and on defining church over against world with the implication that salvation exists solely in the church and the world is in darkness, betrays a core affirmation of the communion of the saints: its constant impulse to reach out and extend divine blessing to all living persons of truth and love.

Lakeland also cites Yves Congar, who envisioned the relationship of church and world through the optic of the parable of the Good Samaritan: the church constantly reaches out to embrace the wounded victims of the world, holding them in its embrace, as the Good Samaritan picked up and embraced the wounded man he found by the wayside.  The church behaves this way, that is, when it remembers its raison d'ĂȘtre, the priority of mission that should always drive the church in its relationship to the world far more than self-referentiality or centripetalism (tendencies that dominate the "Catholic identity" movement in the church today).

And so humility is a key virtue for believers--or, rather should be a key virtue for believers.  One that needs to be asserted today against the self-righteous triumphalistic exclusivism of some Catholics, who want to define Catholic identity over against both the world and many of their own brothers and sisters who are tagged as impure, less than Catholic (and less than human), and who are driven from the communion of the saints.  On this impulse and the "crimes" it commits against some brothers and sisters who are identified as the impure enemy to be driven from communion, Lakeland observes,

Whether we are engaged in invidious and often ignorant comparisons between the holy church and the sinful world or spiritually empty comparisons between the fullness of truth in "our" tradition and the defects of others, we are about the business of exclusion, sweeping aside God’s holy mystery to impose our fallible human considerations about where saints can be found. 

Inside the church similar crimes are being committed when a sub-group of the community, in the name of its convictions of what purity looks like and persuaded that it can speak for God, marginalizes others, whether they are the divorced, or gays and lesbians, or religious sisters going about their jobs, whether they are working in Catholic hospitals or in Congress, or, indeed, even if they are just theologians.

These words have a particular resonance for Steve and me following our trip the week before last to see Steve's mother in Minnesota.  Because several of Steve's hyper-orthodox siblings (some of whom stand aloof even from the church itself, now that they are affiliated with the schismatic St. Pius X movement) have let us know in no uncertain terms that we are not welcome as a gay couple in their enclave of purist Catholicism, we seldom visit his family now.  Why subject ourselves to further humiliations, insults, and demonstrations of unwelcome?

Back in April, I wrote about the latest installment in this ongoing family saga, after one of Steve's sisters (who belongs, with her husband and children, to the SSPX schismatic group) visited us and then wrote a thank-you note informing us that Catholic teaching forbade her to stay with us long or to share in depth, and compels her to let us know that our "lifestyle" is condemned.  By the time we received this note, Steve had already planned the visit to his mother, whom he hasn't seen since his father's funeral in the summer of 2008--though, when we dared to open our mouths to protest his sister's salvo of condemnation, she ordered us not to visit her mother, and told us we were not welcome.

We went anyway.  But for the first time ever, we did not stay at his family farm.  Why light more blazes?  We stayed in a motel nearby, and it seemed to us Steve's mother was relieved not to have to deal with the response of her condemnatory children, if she had made us welcome in Steve's family home, in the house in which he grew up as a child, where he has always stayed on any visit home in the past.

And we saw his mother only for a part of a day.  We took her to lunch.  The visit was deeply painful.  Steve's mother lost her husband of nearly 60 years three summers ago.  She is in her 80s.  She should, in the normal course of events, be able to expect that her 8 children, whom she took great pains to raise as faithful Catholics, would rally around her in her old age, put aside their differences, and support her.

Instead, she is faced with ugly, never-ceasing family contention that has everything to do with the need of some of her children to keep asserting their exclusivist understanding of Catholicism against a gay brother and his life partner.  She lives among and has to rely on the children who are involved in this family-dividing purge and its assertion of Catholic purity over against one of their brothers. 

And so when we met Steve's mother and took her to lunch, and mentioned the recent debacle involving his sister and the thank-you note she had sent Steve, his mother broke into tears.  She cried throughout the lunch.

What can she do to change the situation?  To heal it?  To compel her adult children to get along with each other?  It is an exceedingly difficult situation.

And difficult for Steve--and for me as his spouse.  As he told his mother on this visit, the handwriting on the wall is plain: these siblings do not want us to visit.  And so he now has to think about what will happen if his mother predeceases him: can or should he attend a funeral that will only prove to be yet another ugly exercise in Catholic exclusivism at his expense?  Another ritual humiliation designed to let him know he is not really Catholic and not really welcome?

I understand his quandary.  I myself have decided, after this latest missive from his sister (and this is only one in a series of similar messages from other Catholic siblings) that I will not subject myself to any further meetings with his siblings.  I won't attend any of his family events any longer--unless he chooses to go to them and it's clear to me that he needs my support.

All of this revolves around precisely the attitudes and beliefs Paul Lakeland is challenging in his lecture.  Steve's hyper-Catholic siblings feel not only entitled but compelled to tell us, over and over again, that their Catholic identity depends on making us unwelcome.  On letting us know we are sinners (and they're not).

On demonstrating to us that they are Catholic and we are not.  They have the truth.  We don't.

Soon after we arrived back from our trip to Minnesota, a niece of Steve's, a daughter of the sister who sent the recent charming thank-you note, sent him a graduation announcement.   The announcement did not include me, of course, though she had been with the two of us only a few weeks before she sent the announcement, on the fateful family visit that resulted in the attack thank-you note.  And I had helped cook meals for her.  I had cleaned the house for her visit.  I made her welcome and embraced her and her family members when they arrived and left our house.  Together, Steve and I took this young woman and the rest of her family to dinner at a restaurant, and took them on a walk in our neighborhood.

Steve wrote his niece back, sending a gift--a generous gift of money--underscoring that the gift came from the two of us, and that, together, we wish her very well in her life following graduation.  He asked me to sign the card in which he enclosed the gift.

His niece's refusal to acknowledge me when she sent the graduation announcement was not, of course, an oversight.  This is learned behavior.  The children of Steve's exclusivist hyper-Catholic siblings have been taught by their parents (their mothers home-school these children) to behave this way, to continue the gestures of superiority and exclusion that originate with their parents.  This became clear to us following Steve's father's funeral, when another of his nieces married and refused--despite appeals from Steve to her to relent--to invite me to her wedding as Steve's life partner.

And now this: a day or so ago, we receive a thank-you note from the niece for the gift we sent.  She informs us that she has donated it to the less fortunate.  The note is curt and unfriendly.

Its between-the-lines message: I don't want and won't accept your dirty money.  I am Catholic.  You are not.  I belong and you don't.

And so it appears that the exclusivist impulse, with its intent to make some family members unwelcome, to tag them as less than human, will continue in this particular hyper-Catholic family.  And there's not a great deal Steve and I can do about this, as the objects of the impulse.

We can, of course, continue to protest against this behavior.  We can continue to insist on our right to define ourselves and our lives as Catholic, too.  We can ask his family members to educate themselves about what the term "Catholic" really means, and to ask themselves whether their behavior upholds real Catholic values.

But we doubt that any of this will make any perceptible dent in the savagery these family members are intent on practicing in the name of Catholicism, of their culturally defensive, cultic version of Catholicism, which finds most brother and sister Catholics impure and doctrinally defective.  We can only go on living, trusting that the Holy Spirit somehow resides in our midst, too, and blesses our attempt to find and share love with others--no matter what members of our own families choose to communicate to us in the name of God, as we live our life of love together.

The graphic is artist Dinah Roe Kendall's depiction of the Good Samaritan, from the Bridgeman Art Library.  As scripture scholars note, the parable of the Good Samaritan emphasizes that divine love breaches and eradicates boundaries between pure and impure, by having the Samaritan--from a group considered ethnically and religiously impure by the orthodox Jewish community of Jesus's day--see and tend to a wounded man, while the approved authority figures of religion and society pass the wounded man by.  Jesus tells this story in response to the question, "Who is my neighbor?" 

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