Monday, May 20, 2013

The Catholic Church and Extension of Human Rights to LGBT Persons: When Good News Becomes Bad News

Time spent by the bedside of someone recuperating from illness is musing time. It's the kind of space in which thought reaches deeper inside toward the heart. Musing time opens the door to thinking coupled with reverie, prayer, dreaming. As a result, it can lead to deeper recognitions, ones that see patterns in our lives and the lives of others which we miss when we don't have opportunities for  such recollected listening.

Here's what has happened in the days that I've been spending tending to Steve following his eye surgery: I've begun to think seriously about the astonishing disconnect between what I thought I was getting myself into when I joined the Catholic church with great joy as a teen in 1967, and what I now experience from my church and in connection to it. Joy: I felt intense joy when I sensed, deep in my soul as a young teen, the stirring of the Spirit, and came to the conclusion that this stirring was leading me to become Catholic. 

The joy I experienced from these events is hard to describe. It transformed my life. It made me accessible to a love I had not experienced in my heart and my dealings with others before this transformation occurred.

Right in the middle of our anxiety about Steve's impending surgery, joy visited both of us when his home state of Minnesota opened the door to marriage equality for gay citizens. This has been such a surprising development, an unexpected turnaround in a state that only a year ago was deliberating about whether to inscribe anti-gay prejudice in its constitution.

As I've noted on this blog, the Catholic bishops of Minnesota, the Knights of Columbus, and the Catholic-rooted organization National Organization for Marriage worked as hard as possible to try to pass that anti-gay amendment in Minnesota. The state's bishops went so far as to organize teams to promote the amendment in each parish, turning Catholic parishes into anti-gay political machines serving the agenda of a particular political party. They collected money from dioceses around the nation to support their efforts, just as the Catholic officials of Maine did several years ago when they snatched the right of civil marriage from gay citizens of that state.

These groups--the state's Catholic bishops, the Knights of Columbus, and NOM--were thwarted at the polls last fall when the state's voters rejected the amendment. But in the meantime, quite a bit of damage was done to some Catholics in the state of Minnesota. In Steve's home diocese of Crookston, a Catholic school teacher, Trish Cameron, lost her job for expressing support for marriage equality. In the same diocese, a young Catholic, Lennon Cihak, was denied confirmation when he supported marriage equality, and his parents were denied communion for refusing to chastise their son.

What the Minnesota bishops chose to do, in collusion with the Knights of Columbus and NOM, in the lead-up to the 2012 elections inflicted serious damage on Catholic families like Steve's, where what bishops and priests say carries great weight, and where people who think that they have not only a right but an obligation to hound and exclude gay folks in every way possible believe they have the blessing of their church as they engage in this behavior. I wrote about this damage last November when I noted that many gay and lesbian children of Catholic families would not be at their families' tables last Thanksgiving, because they had been made unwelcome at these tables.

And so, joy: the soul-stirring and life-transforming joy I felt as I joined a church whose leaders now actively work to encourage mothers, fathers, brothers, and sisters to make their gay family members unwelcome at family tables. And the joy I have felt, along with many other gay folks in the U.S. and with those who love us, as one state after another has chosen to extend human rights to us and to begin recognizing that we are fully human members of the human community, and as one nation after another--most recently France--makes the same choice.

One of the reasons all of this has been on my mind and in my heart the past week is, of course, that Steve's mother arrived on a visit to us the day that marriage equality passed in the Minnesota senate. She was here when the governor signed the marriage bill into law. 

We didn't really discuss these issues much with her, because she is uneasy with such discussions. Her thinking is heavily influenced by the outlook of her four children who are ├╝ber-Catholic (one of whom is actually a Lefebvrite), and not by the four now estranged from the Catholic church. She's also getting up in years, and we don't want to press her on these issues and to make her feel uncomfortable about the disconnect between what she hears from her church leaders and her right-wing Catholic children, and the lives her two gay sons have to live as a result of what the church teaches and energizes by way of prejudice.

Steve and I feel a strong sadness about the fact that the church that was once home for both of us is no longer home, and that it is now identified, it seems to us, with a kind of cultic refusal to recognize the valid appeals of a long-oppressed minority group for human rights. The church in which Steve's mother and his right-wing Catholic siblings now live seems to us very much like a cult that is dwindling not only in size, but in its thinking, in its engagement with culture, and in its heart, in its welcome of those on the margins. 

It's now the religion of aging Catholics like Steve's mother, who naturally cling to what has been so meaningful to them throughout their entire lives. It's also the religion of people like some of Steve's siblings who are in reaction to some of the most important and promising currents of the contemporary world that give meaning to Steve's life and mine. It's increasingly the religion of people who want to separate themselves from the contemporary world, condemn it, live apart from it, resisting not only the rights of gay folks but also the rights of women, clinging to a kind of fantasy religion about an imaginary life once lived on the frontier, in which men were strong and dominant, women submissive and "feminine," and children implicitly obedient and schooled only by their parents.

Steve and I don't live in that world. We don't want to live there. Our understanding of Catholicism itself is entirely different. The Catholicism I thought I was entering through the door of conversion in 1967 was one that fought valiantly for the human rights of people of color during the Civil Rights struggle of the 1950s and 1960s. 

It was a world-affirming and not a world-denying religion. It sought the best in the culture around it and tried to connect itself to cultural currents that worked for peace, justice, and social transformation. It was in positive dialogue with other religious traditions, recognizing that the Spirit of God is at work in those traditions as well as in secular currents of thought to build a more humane world for all of us.

The church I thought I was entering in 1967 was a church that was all about proclaiming the good news of God's salvific presence to the entire universe through Christ. It was a church centered on good news--on living that message of good news first and foremost as a sacramental sign of the astonishing news that God embraces all of us with intense love through Christ.

Somehow, that good news has now vanished in my life as a gay person, though, insofar as I'm connected to the church I chose with such joy in 1967. I no longer hear this message of all-embracing, all-affirming, all-welcoming love for me coming from the mouths of those who lead my church, though I do hear it from many lay Catholics, and to these folks I'm intensely grateful for keeping the gospel message alive for me.

I certainly didn't hear any good news last week for me or others like me, or for anyone who loves us, from the mouth of the U.S. bishops' marriage guru (and here), Archbishop Cordileone, in response to the developments in Minnesota. Instead, I heard a shameful spate of lies about how same-sex marriage threatens the stability of "traditional" families, removes a father or a mother from children, and violates the rights of children. I find it impossible to imagine that Catholic leaders spreading these toxic lies don't know precisely what they're doing as they engage in this behavior--that they're lying, and that they're eliciting prejudice and fanning flames of discrimination and outright violence as they do so.

What happens when a church that claims to be based on a message of good news becomes, through its chief mouthpieces, the vehicle of the opposite of good news--when it becomes the vehicle of bad news, in fact--for a group of human beings who have every right to celebrate and rejoice about the extension of human rights to their minority group? What happens when a church becomes identified at its highest levels with a message of bad news, even as it seeks to convince people that it originates in the proclamation of good news? What happens when a church works very hard, through its top leaders, for decades to position itself as one of the leading mouthpieces in the world for anti-gay prejudice and discrimination, and when it chooses a new top leader who is said to be all about refurbishing the church's image as the bearer of good news, but who does nothing at all to reverse the anti-gay bad-news message that has proven so harmful to many human beings around the world?

I'm not entirely sure what the answer to these questions might be. I know only that, for me, when I now seek joy, community, a place to celebrate the extension of human rights to me and others like me, support in times of stress like hospitalization and illness, I can't turn to my own Catholic community. I don't find any of those things there now for me and others like me.

And that is surely bad news not just for me, but for the Catholic church itself.

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