Monday, October 10, 2011

Robert McClory on Slavery, Faithful Dissent, and Elephants in Living Rooms

Robert McClory hits the nail squarely on the head with his article today in National Catholic Reporter about whether the church's toleration (and even blessing) of slavery for nearly two millennia, and its subsequent change of mind about that critical moral issue, mean that we might legitimately dissent from church teachings that are now increasingly coming (for valid theological reasons) to be seen as incorrect.

McClory writes,

So what has all this got to do with dissent? I think slavery illustrates clearly that something gravely evil can for long periods of time be viewed as not at all evil by the leaders, the experts and vast numbers of the laity. This blindness to slavery persisted age after age for some 1,800 years.

How can it be that something so obvious to us -- the evil in essentially denying basic rights to another human being -- was perceived as not evil at all or only dimly so for such a period?

Noonan says part of the answer may be that the leading Christians -- popes, bishops, theologians -- had little or no personal experience with slavery. They did not see first-hand how it degraded and crippled the human body and spirit.

Of course no one asked the slaves what they thought. So the leaders wrote and spoke about slavery rationally and from above, fashioning horrible accommodations that made sense only when presented at a safe distance from real life. The history of slavery tells us that there was something essential in the Gospel message that had to be teased out, its implications drawn out slowly over a long time and with great difficulty.

And I have to wonder if our ancestors in the faith missed this elephant in the living room, the question what else may we still be missing? 

And this, of course, is why I'm not in the least persuaded when the centrist apologists for the hierarchy's stance du jour tell me that hierarchical teaching is, tout court, "the" Catholic position and must be adhered to.  Because true Catholics parrot what the magisterium says on all issues, brandishing hierarchical texts as proof texts and reducing the conversation that constitutes an authentic church catholic to the monopod of hierarchy.

When that constituting conversation has historically required a tripod consulting the hierarchy's teaching, that of theologians, and the sensus fidelium . . . .

As McClory points out, when consulting the sensus fidelium regarding an issue like the moral legitimacy of slavery, it's critically important to listen to the testimony of slaves themselves: he notes that popes, bishops, and theologians could write sweetly and abstractly about slavery and its permissibility because "[o]f course no one asked the slaves what they thought."

In a Commonweal discussion thread to which I linked several days ago, Commonweal regular Kathy Pluth writes,

“Neutralizing” is exactly what is not happening to Catholicism in public. There is an impression being made: the Catholic Church is a uniquely unsafe place for children (not at all true), the Catholic Church hates homosexual persons and women (not at all true). And here, the Catholic Church force-converts Muslims in the workplace.

I've sought to engage Kathy a number of times in discussions at the Commonweal site about how real gay and lesbian Catholics (as opposed to the imaginary ones that appear to be speaking in her head) view the church and what it does to us.  Ultimately, my attempt at conversation with Kathy and other Commonweal regulars about this issue ends up in the same old dysfunctional place every time I try to spark conversation:

It ends up with Kathy telling me that she stands for Catholicism and what Catholicism stands for is where Kathy stands.  And I, by contrast, don't quite represent or understand Catholic teaching that is so patent to her.  Because I happen to be gay . . . .

Furthermore, it ends up--as the preceding quotation illustrates--with Kathy telling me as a gay Catholic what my experience as a gay Catholic has been and is all about.

I've concluded that centrist Catholics and their right-trending allies, who keep defending their positions as "the" Catholic position, since--as they assume--their positions coincide with those of the magisterium, simply don't really want to hear what those of us who are real gay and lesbian persons might have to say about the church and  our experience with it.  It's easier to pretend we're not there, have no voices, and are defective when we try to speak for ourselves.

It's easier to go on pretending to be Catholic when one makes being Catholic easier by failing in the most obtrusive way possible to practice catholicity.   When one makes Catholicism anything but catholic by refusing to listen respectfully to the experiences of everyone . . . . And when one imagines one can carry on an adequately Catholic life while implicitly and explicitly hounding others out of one's pure Catholic (but decidedly uncatholic) church . . . .

I'm very grateful to Robert McClory for asking what elephant in the living room we might be missing today, if our ancestors in the Catholic faith missed the slavery elephant for so very long. 

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