Monday, February 25, 2013

Benedict's Resignation, Priests in Panties Scandal, Cardinal O'Brien's Resignation: Catholicism At a Teachable Moment re: Gay and Lesbian Human Beings

We need a different type of pope; more a pastor than a professor, not a man of the Church-institution, but a representative of Jesus of Nazareth who said: "And he that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out" (Gospel of John, 6,37), be he a homosexual, a prostitute, or a transsexual. 
Leonardo Boff, "What Pope Can We Hope for Who Is Not Another Benedict XVI?"

The sensational headlines preceding the next papal election--most recently, "Embattled Scottish Cardinal Resigns, Won't Partake in Conclave"--convince me that, perhaps more than ever before in its history, the Catholic community stands in a teachable moment regarding those who are gay and lesbian. And, as the Catholic church stands squarely in that teachable moment, I'm also increasingly convinced that large numbers of Catholics around the world, and notably the pastoral leaders of the church, do not intend to take advantage of this teachable moment.

They intend, instead, to use it to reaffirm the same dysfunctional and anti-Christian stances regarding those who are gay that have, among other factors, brought the church to implosion at this point in its history. In what follows, I'll try to explain why I am reaching this conclusion, with great frustration and sadness.

About the Scottish cardinal story: as many readers of this blog will now know, three priests and a former priest went public last week with accusations that Britain's senior Catholic official Cardinal Keith O'Brien engaged in "inappropriate acts" of a sexual nature towards them going back some 30 years. O'Brien has been an outspoken leader in the Catholic movement against marriage equality in the British Isles.

Yesterday, in short order after the allegations of the four men against O'Brien were released to the public, the cardinal bowed out of the coming conclave and submitted his resignation as an archbishop. He'll turn 75 next month, the mandatory retirement age of bishops, though many are permitted to continue holding their sees well beyond that age. Commentary on this story is widely available--from Dennis Coday and John Allen and Joshua McElwee at National Catholic Reporter, Catherine Deveney  and Severin Carrell and Sam Jones at The Guardian, Phil Ewing at Blue Eyed Ennis (a valuable compendium of links to British media coverage of the story), Colleen Baker at Enlightened Catholicism, Terry Weldon at Queering the Church, Mure Dickie at Financial Times (with a summary of this article at the Hear Our Voices blog), etc.

The O'Brien story comes along right on the heels of headlines like this: "Priests in Panties: Did a Cross-Dressing Priest Sex Ring Bring Down Benedict XVI?" That's Barbie Latza Nadeau at the Daily Beast. This is that gay-lobby-in-the-Vatican story about which I've blogged several times recently (and here). The second link I've just provided points to a discussion of the story at a Commonweal thread responding to a statement of Catholic journalist Paul Moses. That thread, I'd submit, allows one to take the pulse of the powerful centrist Catholic commentariat as it comments on a story involving what one cannot avoid calling gay twists and turns.

At the same time that the priests in panties story and the Cardinal O'Brien story hit the news, a discussion began at National Catholic Reporter in response to an article by Tom Fox noting that LGBT Catholics hope for dialogue now that Benedict has resigned. Fox notes that Dignity hopes that church officials will stop issuing statements that harm "already marginalized" human beings and treat them as "less than fully human"; Equally Blessed notes that the "oppressive" approach of the church towards those who are gay "inflicts pain," "alienates" many people, and energizes "reactionary political movements across the globe"; Francis DeBernardo of New Ways Ministry wants the new pope to be a "listener"; and Sister Jeannine Gramick of New Ways prays for a new pope with "a pastoral heart who is willing to listen and engage in dialogue."

The thread responding to Tom Fox's article even as the gay-cabal-in-the-Vatican story and the Cardinal O'Brien story broke is enlightening. It provides a wide cross-section of Catholic thinking about the proposal that a new pope listen, dialogue, and stop what many LGBT human beings and their advocates regard as a war against them. The very first response I saw pop up when the thread began was Jim Buscemi's:

there is no dialogue to be had. This is clearly against Scripture and an "Abomination" to God.

From there, I went on to read OrdinatioSacerdotalisfan talking about the impossibility of sticking star-shaped toys into round holes, and Denis Jackson, who says he's a chaplain in a "mental health" facility, stating that "once reparative therpy [sic] kicks in," young gay folks struggling to accept themselves become right as rain again. As he rants about sodomy and buggery, Chaplain Jackson also informs readers of the thread, "I love loads of gay men and women but i hate what they do in bed." It bears repeating: this is a man who says he's a mental health provider and a chaplain!

And then there's Purgatrix Ineptiae holding forth on a thread responding to John Allen discussing the gay lobby story and claiming that heterosexuals engage in boring, inevitably monogamous, vanilla sex--"normal" sex, she insists--while those gay ones who are determined to put their stars in round holes, the kind Chaplain Jackson loves-hates to imagine cavorting in bed: those gay ones booze and cruise and frequent steam baths and locker rooms. 

As I noted recently, Purgatrix has been a regular at some Catholic blog sites for several years now under an endless succession of usernames. She once frequented Bilgrimage in a different guise, and has haunted Commonweal and America's "In All Things" blogs under yet other usernames. When it comes to gay folks--to gay men, in particular--the bee in Purgatrix's bonnet seems to buzz rather wildly, for reasons that have never been clear to me as I try to follow her logic at one Catholic blogsite after another.

(I also find the accusation that gay priests are booze hounds a little baffling, when she defends Cardinal O'Brien today with the suggestion that he may have engaged in inappropriate acts with priests under his authority because he had had too much to drink, and when she has informed readers of a number of Catholic blog threads including Bilgrimage's that she's a proud and out big-time user of marijuana--even as she quotes the old Catechism to prohibit Catholic attendance at Protestant services, in apparently blissful oblivion that both the old and new Catechism also issue strong injunctions against drug use, which the new version characterizes as "a grave offense" unless said drugs are prescribed for therapeutic reasons [¶ 2291]).

Do you see my point? Things are falling apart at the very center of the Catholic church, and that falling apart has everything to do with vicious, dysfunctional, anti-Christian treatment of those who are gay and lesbian by closeted hierarchical figures who themselves sometimes act out sexually, and by intellectually and morally malformed Catholics intent on defending said hierarchs. Right as things fall apart and there's an unprecedented moment to discuss precisely how this very characteristic Catholic form of dysfunction is harming the entire church, not to mention a stigmatized group of human beings, a strong contingent of Catholics want to keep the dysfunction alive.

The powerful centrist commentariat representing leading Catholic journalists and scholars wants to pretend there's no problem at all. That it's beneath notice and discussion. That those who are gay and lesbian and seriously harmed by the institution have no real reason to lament what is being done to them. That they in some sense merit this treatment by having "become" gay or lesbian or not having handled their sexual orientation in a sufficiently canny (read: closeted) way as they deal with the Catholic community or work in Catholic institutions. That those in the Catholic commentariat working in Catholic institutions that have practiced evil and injustice towards those who are gay are in no way complicit in that evil and injustice.

As things fall apart, and an unprecedented opening occurs (since the last time a pope resigned was 600 years ago!) to talk about these issues honestly and in a healing fashion, this is all the Catholic community has to offer, in many quarters, in response to the testimony of gay Catholics that the leaders of the Catholic church are harming "already marginalized" human beings by treating them as "less than fully human"; that their policies towards those who are gay are oppressive and are inflicting pain, alienating many people, and energizing reactionary political movements across the globe; and that there is strong reason to put down the weapons of war employed against gay human beings and to start listening. And to start loving.

The response to this powerful testimony that ought strongly to convict the conscience of the Catholic community at this historic moment of institutional transition, when a new "gay" scandal involving the hierarchy breaks with each morning's news, is, from the intellectual leaders of the church,

• Silence. 
• Pretending. 
• Acting as if the gays don't exist and have no claim on Catholic consciences. 
• Acting as if the institutions in which these Catholic intellectuals work haven't frequently done grave injustices to those who are gay, with the complicity of these intellectual definers of the Catholic tradition. 
• Blaming those who are gay for the misery inflicted on them in Catholic institutions.
• Acting as if frank discussion of these issues--above all, of how Catholic institutions deal with those who are gay and lesbian--is beneath the notice of "real" intellectuals. 
• Assuming that heterosexuality is normative and that the heteronormative has no need to justify what those who are gay often contend is an unmerited claim to entitlement. 
• Dear God, don't tell me there are homosexuals in the Vatican! Poor, poor Pope Benedict. 

And from some of the popular sectors of the Catholic church, from those who practice Catholicism faithfully, the response is,

• There will be no dialogue! The bible says this is an abomination. 
• "I got" a clenching argument for you: they're trying to put star-shaped toys into round holes. 
• They just need some reparative "therpy" to "kick in" and set them to rights. 
• I love me some gays, but I surely do despise what they do in bed. 
• Heterosexuals = normal; homosexuals = opposite of normal.

I will freely admit that I have trouble wrapping my head around a lot of this (perhaps because so much of it is plain stupid and illiterate), and, as a result, I have trouble writing about it coherently. I have trouble understanding any of this as a coherent moral or intellectual response to questions about a quite specific dysfunction of the Catholic system rooted entirely in a vicious and sick internalized homophobia of many hierarchical leaders that can no longer be shunted aside, when these questions now routinely leap into the headlines of newspapers around the world every morning. 

I have never fully gotten my mind around the response a friend of Steve's and mine made to us when we finally decided to share the story of our lives as a gay couple teaching Catholic theology, after it became crystal clear to us that we'd continue being punished and marginalized and fired even though we had made no public statements at all about our sexual orientation or our life together. This friend is a nun, and was a close friend of ours all through graduate school.

Unlike us, she walked out of graduate school with a secure job waiting for her, and she has remained at that same Catholic school for years, as we've been thrown from pillar to post and as we eventually ended up, both of us, without any jobs at all in Catholic institutions--and not even teaching theology, because we had to find some way to make a living and pay our bills. This friend went on to become an officer in the Catholic Theological Society of America.

When we finally shared our story with her, her immediate response was the following: "Well, now you'll have to find your community in the gay community and not with other Catholics, won't you?" And from that time until now, on the rare occasions when we've seen this friend at national meetings of CTSA or the American Academy of Religion, she has walked right past us as if we no longer exist.

This is, I'd argue, a very typical Catholic response to those who are gay. It is a response offered to us by a friend. Who's a nun. Who's a highly educated theologian. Who has held high office in the leading organization of Catholic theologians in North America, CTSA. 

Who might easily have done something, anything, to assist us as friends and classmates, when we searched desperately for years for a job, for any job, in a Catholic institution. But who seems to find it easy to turn her back on us now that we're out of the closet--because "now you'll have to find your community in the gay community, won't you?"

This is, I'd like to note, an easy response of many Catholics, including well-educated, thoughtful, well-intentioned ones, to those who are gay. Catholic community here, gays there. The two don't belong together.

And I therefore have no real responsibility to you as another Catholic who happens to be gay, even as I exercise my role as a theologian to define Catholic identity--as I define the meaning of a term whose roots speak of all-encompassing inclusivity for others. You--quite literally--no longer exist, so that I can easily walk past you in the hallway of national theological meetings and not see you.

I can pretend you're not there.

When I say that this is an easy response of many Catholics towards those who are gay, I'm also saying that it's one that has been long since developed in many Catholic communities, including many Catholic institutions, and changing it will now require intentionality and work. But intentionality and work are what many of us human beings want to avoid, because they're hard and not easy. 

Even at a historic juncture in the institutional life of Catholicism, when there is an unprecedented opportunity (and unprecedented need) to stop the dysfunction, to address these issues, and to fashion a way of being Catholic that responds to the gospel call to cast no one out, if we want the term "catholic" to mean anything truthful at all . . . . 

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