Monday, October 15, 2012

Joanna Brooks on LDS Purge and Mormon Exiles: The Catholic Parallels

In The Book of Mormon Girl: A Memoir of an American Faith (NY: Free Press, 2012), Joanna Brooks frames her connection to the Mormon church she loves in terms of exile, following the LDS church's purge of feminists, those affirming gay people, and scholars and intellectuals.  She writes: 

Sometimes I visited a gray-haired waitress at Canter's Jewish deli in the Fairfax district, she who brought me my first plate of matzoh brei, and in a spirited mix of English, Yiddish, Spanish, and Hungarian told me how the Holocaust had driven her family from Hungary to Mexico and taught me the world-shaping scope of other purges.  Sometimes I marched among thousands of student protestors or striking hotel workers, and I sat down in city intersections to be arrested.  Whenever I sat down, I sat down as a Mormon feminist mourning her own exile from the Church of her ancestors, though to look at me no one could tell (pp. 130-1).

Though I spoke few words about it to the people with whom I shared my everyday life, during this decade, Mormons like me found ourselves in the grip of a terrible turn in Mormon history, in the grip of a fear provoked in part by the strength of our Mormon feminist vision: a fear of the full, glorious, strange, and difficult humanity of our Mormon past; a fear of women who openly claimed the power of a Heavenly Mother; a fear of mothers and fathers who refused to sacrifice their children to protect the public image of the Church; a fear of our own gay and lesbian relatives who refused the confines of the closet.  Exile.  It took a decade to come to terms with the fact that the Church we loved had declared us its enemies.  And slowly the immensity of our work dawned on us, as we realized it would take a superhuman strength born of stubbornness, anger, desperation, and love to hold on to the faith of our ancestors.  For the sake of maintaining our peace with husbands, wives, parents, and brothers and sisters, for the sake of keeping our homes, our seats on wooden pews in familiar ward houses.  Some of us hung on, in daylight, in darkness, to the tenuous and tender threads of a Mormon exile community.  We hid out in intermountain suburbs.  We pulled ourselves back across the plains to college towns and big East Coast cities.  We gathered by the rivers of the internet and laughed and wept when we remembered Zion (pp. 132-3).

As I read these passages, I think, of course, of how closely the situation Brooks describes for herself and other exiled Mormons parallels that of many faithful Catholics who have been made exiles in our Catholic community in the very same period and for the very same reasons.  Brooks indicates that the groundwork for the LDS purge of feminists, those affirming gays, and scholars and intellectuals was laid in the 1980s, and that the purge kicked into full gear in the 1990s.

The very same situation occurred in the Catholic church.  In 1986, when Cardinal Ratzinger, the current pope, published his document "A Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons," a purge occurred.  It's not often talked about in the Catholic mainstream these days.  But it happened nonetheless.

In response to instructions from Rome that accompanied this letter, one bishop after another expelled groups affirming and welcoming gay and lesbian Catholics from Catholic premises.  Many gay Catholics, who had been hanging onto to their connection to the church, walked away as a result--and this exile was surely the intent of the ugly purge, whose primary statement to gay people and those affirming us is that we are not welcome in the Catholic church.

Leaders of the movement for a more pastoral and welcoming approach to the gay community were punished and silenced one by one--driven into exile.  These included Fr. John McNeill and Sr. Jeannine Gramick.  

A purge of theologians was mounted at the same time.  The very same Cardinal Ratzinger who published the 1986 pastoral letter and who is now pope punished and silenced one theologian after another, and issued decrees demanding that Catholic universities began to establish orthodoxy tests enforced by local bishops for those teaching theology.  The liberation theology movement in Latin America was, in particular, targeted and, to a great extent, destroyed.  The purge has continued in the Catholic church in the U.S. with the recent condemnation of two theological books written by faithful and highly accomplished nuns, Elizabeth Johnson and Margaret Farley.  My dissertation director, Roger Haight, an exemplary Jesuit, has been punished and silenced by Rome.

Faithful Catholics--the parents of gay children, brothers and sisters of gay siblings, friends of gay people--continue to be shoved from Catholic communities in places like Minnesota, by ugly actions in which the official church makes it plain that anyone who is gay or who loves and affirms gay folks is unwelcome.  Reports from Minnesota right now indicate tremendous pain and division in that church, as its bishops spend money lavishly to attack the gay community and to turn their church into an anti-gay political machine.

As a result of these multiple purges, many of us who are Catholic have lived from the time these purges began in the very same state of exile Joanna Brooks describes in her book.  Though with the development of the internet, by the rivers of the internet we have learned to gather to laugh and to weep as we remember Zion . . . . 

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