Monday, December 2, 2013

Pope Francis's Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium: A Critical Response from a Nobody Who Isn't Even in the Room

When a big religious organization, one with global reach, announces that it's reforming itself, reaching back to its origins and seeking to bring the powerful originating impulse from which it stems into the contemporary world, it's major news. When the Catholic church announces that it's in a reforming return-to-origins mode, as it did at Vatican II and is now doing under Pope Francis, people take notice. And they should do so.

Institutions with long, complex histories, intricate accretions from centuries of development, and organizational structures spanning the planet don't reform easily. In the case of the Catholic church, those of us who welcomed the news of reform at Vatican II have lived through years of painful tutelage about precisely how difficult and slow the process of reform is. Catholics who caught the reform vision of Vatican II have become something of experts at learning to sift the wheat of real reform from the chaff of pretend reform--the kind of reform touted by church leaders when they want to offer us tantalizing crumbs of change while keeping real and substantive change at bay. The kind of reform that's all about image management, about media manipulation, about saying rather than doing . . . .

If some of us Catholics who lived through Vatican II and staked our lives on its message are failing to respond with similar fervor to the current Franciscan reform moment in our church, our hesitancy is, I'd argue, entirely understandable. I'd also argue that this hesitancy may be a gift to the church and to Pope Francis--a call to him and the leaders of our church to listen honestly and carefully to the voices of lay members of the church this time around, as they refused to do previously, when matters of reform were on the table. That is, if they really do intend reform this time, since they obviously did not intend it last time around--not in the thoroughgoing sense we had heard Vatican II promising us to expect . . . .

There's a fascinating line--almost a throwaway line, though it's integral to the inner logic of the entire document--buried in Evangelii Gaudium that I'd like to use as a focal point of my critical response to the document. Pope Francis states,

We would not do justice to the logic of the incarnation if we thought of Christianity as monocultural and monotonous (#117) (my emphasis added). 

The pope offers that observation as he stresses the need for Christians to evangelize by framing the good news of the gospel in terms that make sense to each culture--to everyone, since the gospel is for everyone. It is not solely for the Jewish culture in which the good news was first heard, nor solely for the Graeco-Roman culture into which it then migrated, nor exclusively for the European cultures in which it came to maturity, etc.

We can't do justice to the logic of the incarnation--to the logic of the core message of the gospel that in Christ, God has taken flesh out of love for the entire cosmos--if we imagine that Christianity is monocultural and monotonous.

Why does this observation about how Christianity, with its logic of incarnation, cannot be monocultural and monotonous leap out at me? I find Francis's statement more than a little mind-boggling because it's coming to me from the leader of a global Christian church who maintains that the only possible way to imagine the clerical system of that church (and that's to say, the governing system, the system by which power is allocated and wielded) is as a system that automatically excludes everyone who does not have a penis.

Possessing a penis is integral to the skill-set required to rule and govern within this particular church, we've been told over and over again, and are being told yet again in EG. Possessing a penis (or lacking one) defines the very humanity of a person: human beings are defined, in their very souls and essence, according to the biology God happens to deal out to them via the process of gender selection. 

I'll be blunt: it's rather difficult to think of a more monocultural and monotonous governing system for a global religious organization than one which demands that all its members be male (thereby excluding half of the human race) and celibate or ostensibly so (thereby excluding the vast majority of lay members) and ordained.

That same governing system is poised not far down the road to issue a statement on the family. Think for a moment about what's about to take place in the Catholic church: a group of all-male and all-celibate (or ostensibly so) church leaders will speak to us lay Catholics about the meaning of the family life that we ourselves lead. We are expected to receive the truths handed down to us by our governing elite--which excludes anyone lacking a penis, and which demands that its members profess to be celibate--with docile submission, when those of us actually living these truths have no voice at all in proclaiming them.

Truth comes to our church exclusively from one direction. That direction turns out always to be from top to bottom, from the all-male, all-celibate structures at the top of the pyramid to its broad base, the people of God, who are persistently made passive recipients in this process of transmission of truth. Who are treated this way once again in the pope's apostolic exhortation EG, even as it tells us it's calling for the church to be decentralized . . . . 

This makes EG a somewhat bitter pill for me to swallow, even as I welcome much that the document proposes. I do try to get past the bitter coating to taste the sweetness that the shell encases. But I can't pretend the bitterness is not there, as I read a document that simultaneously tells me my experience is important and my voice should count, and that I should receive these truths and any others it imparts with docile submission as they come to me from the hands of an all-male, all-celibate ruling elite.

In the name of offering me and other lay Catholics something new, the pope is actually continuing to offer us something quite old, isn't he? In reality, he's offering us something entirely monocultural and monotonous, two words that define the very essence of the not-new. His latest top-down statement informs us once again and unambiguously that every woman in our global church who is moved by the Spirit to seek ordination so that she may minister to the Christian community as a priest is automatically excluded from that opportunity, de jure and by fiat, in a document which flatly declares that this "is not a question open to discussion" (#104).

By a flat declaration that slams the door on discussion itself, when a majority of lay Catholics flatly disagree with this fiat declaration, the pope informs us that women will not be ordained. And we must stop talking about this. In a document in which he also informs us eloquently that "[t]he Church is called to be the house of the Father, with doors always wide open" (#47) . . . .

The document asks me, therefore, to continue doing something that Catholics have long been expected to be very skilled at doing: to profess that the logic of the incarnation means that the church itself, in its communities of faith, is the most cogent proclamation of the reign of God in the world, even as I completely ignore some of the most glaring ways in which my church's communities of faith do not in the least adhere to the ideals they are proclaiming to the world around them.

The "new" message of EG--the church is called to be the house of the Father, with doors always wide open--works only insofar as I accept the very old logic (a monocultural and monotonous logic) built into this apostolic exhortation which maintains that there are women and then there are poor women. There are women's rights and then there are legitimate rights for women.

There are human rights and then there are the gays. There's exclusion, which hollows out the humanity of those who are unjustly excluded from jobs, healthcare benefits, the benefits of life in community, and then there are the gays--the people we fire with glib abandon in one Catholic institution after another, who might, if we were willing to open our eyes and ears, teach us in the starkest way possible how utterly inhumane it is to treat any human being as a despised throwaway object . . . 

but who are the people we refuse even to see in our Catholic room. The people we refuse to see, even as we talk about human rights and the heinousness of excluding people from life in community . . . . The people who aren't even there as we talk about how our doors are now flung wide open for everyone and how the gospel demands that we welcome the prophecy that our brothers and sisters are to us (#97) . . . .

Catholics have long been skilled at practicing a kind of exceptionalism when it comes to what we proclaim and how we actually live. Catholics are skilled at pretending that the gospel imperatives we proclaim to the world at large, and which we pretend that we ourselves incarnate as a singular message about the reign of God and its values, simply don't apply in certain specific, roped-off areas in the life of our church where human rights have stopped mattering or applying to us. Because we say so.

There are rights, and then there are legitimate rights. 

There are human beings. And then there are those who are, well, obviously less than human, since how otherwise could we possibly tell the world that human rights must apply to everyone and then fail to apply that message to the life of our own community? How could we possibly behave this way and expect to be taken seriously?

Especially if we announce that our incarnation of the message is the loudest and plainest proclamation we can possibly make of the good news . . . . It would make no sense at all for us to claim that we believe in human rights for everyone and then turn around and treat special classes of people in our Catholic institutions as less than human if those we chose to single out for special dehumanizing treatment happen to be human in the same way we're human, would it?

Exclusion of people from salaries, healthcare benefits, life in the community, is dreadfully wrong, we love to say. It's the worst possible way to treat any human being. EG serves as an eloquent and very welcome reminder of this core gospel message.

But then there are the gays and those who love the gays. There are

Exclusion from employment. healthcare benefits, life in community is horrendous.

But then there are the gays. And there's also everyone in the world born without a penis. And there are all those people who were abused by priests as children, whom one bishop after another has refused to meet face to face as fellow human beings, while many members of the Catholic community shun and taunt these fellow Catholics for daring to tell the world what has been done to them.

When the leaders of my church offer what purport to be new arguments about how overcoming exclusion is absolutely central to proclaiming the gospel effectively, but when they package those arguments in such a way that the "new" embeds very old assumptions about "acceptable" exclusion within the life of the church itself, how can I possibly be faithful to the new message to which I'm being called if I do not push back as hard as possible against the glaring disconnect between the wonderful message of the new and the old packaging in which it arrives on my doorstep? How can I possibly be faithful to the core message I'm being offered if I fail to point out that it's premised on monocultural, monotonous embedded messages justifying special roped-off areas in the Catholic community where the rules about human rights just don't apply? And if I fail to note that these embedded messages rob the core message of its transformative meaning?

I read EG, and then I look around and see who's peddling its transformative new message in the media, and I begin to wonder if some cynical game is really being played with the Franciscan reformation of my church. I look around and notice that a new message is being presented to me in the media by very old voices--by the very same predictable, monocultural and monotonous voices that mediated the messages of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI to me, and tried to convince me that those voices, too, were transformatively new.

Within the Catholic media, when these voices aren't the voices of clerics (and so, when they aren't all male and celibate voices), they're overwhelmingly the voices of white heterosexual (or heterosexual-posturing) men who are cozily ensconced in positions of power within church and society. They're the voices of people who can't possibly understand at a deep level the havoc that exclusion wreaks in human lives, because their own personal experience of power, privilege, and unquestioned entrée has not opened the door to such understanding. Can anyone tell me, by the way, of a major Catholic journal in the U.S. that regularly features columns by an openly gay Catholic male journalist? If any Catholic journal in the U.S. has hired such a columnist, I've failed to see a notice about the hiring.

Just this year, I swapped emails about this topic with someone--a white heterosexual man--in a position of authority at one of the leading Catholic journals in the U.S. He took exception to my claim that his journal routinely excludes the voices of openly gay Catholics as it opines about gay people and gay issues. To prove to me that his journal has flung its doors wide to openly gay Catholics (though the journal opposes marriage equality), he pointed me to 1) an opinion piece his publication published a few years back supporting gay rights, written by a heterosexual married Catholic man, and 2) a piece supporting gay rights written by an anonymous gay Catholic man who wouldn't claim open authorship of his article for fear of reprisal.

For many of our leading Catholic publications, gay folks are simply not in the room. They're in the roped-off reservations we Catholics have created for those to whom the message of human rights doesn't entirely apply. We can't possibly confront the prophecy that gay folks are to us, because we've long since assured that the gays just aren't there. When the gays speak to us in their own voices, we taunt, scoff, and dismiss, because we claim that these voices are engaged in hyperbolic lobbying and special pleading, and have nothing of substance to say to us--as this former seminary professor in New Jersey (and here) and this Catholic religion teacher in Boston recently did in response to this fellow Catholic who recently said this to them in the discussion threads of NCR.

When the mainstream media, which are also increasingly interested in what Pope Francis represents, receive the message of Francis as it's mediated to them by a Catholic media heavily dominated by white heterosexual males, is it any surprise that the mainstream media then present that message to the world as if there's no disconnect at all between Francis's message of inclusion and Catholic practices of tacit exclusion of certain targeted groups from full participation in the life of the Catholic community and its governance? Particularly when the mainstream media, too, have long been dominated by heterosexual men?

When a message that claims to be new is mediated to me by voices that are, in fact, old, stale, monocultural, and monotonous, how is it possible for me to hear anything new in that message? How is it possible not to wonder if a media-driven image-management game is being played with me and others interested in the reform of the Catholic church? A game that will dilute and undercut anything really transformatively new in the message it's mediating to me, because it cannot possibly understand the new as it remains comfortably ensconced in old seats of power . . . .

And how is it possible to take seriously arguments about the heinousness of excluding anyone from participation in the life of the community when, at the very same time these arguments are presented to me, I'm presented with an intellectually shabby and embarrassingly shallow argument for excluding women from the governing sector of my church which suggests to me that the possession of a penis elevates the ontological status of the one who has the penis? How is it possible to read these arguments and not wonder if the bottom line of such intellectually shabby arguments is really a refusal to entertain the possibility of reform of a very old, very monocultural and exceedingly monotonous all-male governing structure because so much power is invested in that structure? And opening it to others will dilute the power enjoyed by the few who now grasp all power in their hands, even as they talk about reforming, opening, serving, transforming, etc.?

How can any real reform be possible in the Catholic church, until the clerical club running the show is opened up to reform? And how can such an opening occur as long as this club--and so, governing authority in the church--remains closed to half the members of the church solely because they do not have penises? How can reform in the Catholic church really mean anything at all beyond the rhetorical as long as we're told we cannot talk about the ordination of women . . . because the Holy Father says so?

For the first installment in this two-part series on Evangelii Gaudium, please see the preceding posting.

The detail from Michelangelo's fresco in the Sistine Chapel, showing the hands of God and Adam reaching for each other, is from Wikimedia Commons.

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