Friday, January 24, 2014

The Public-Private Distinction about Double Standard of Catholic Institutions in Dealing with Gay and Straight Employees: An Elaboration of the Argument

At the risk of over-explaining (something I do altogether too easily), I'd like to elaborate on an elaboration I've already posted regarding my argument yesterday that the public-private distinction is less than helpful in explaining why Catholic institutions may legitimately fire gay employees who choose to marry a same-sex partner, while it's fine for these institutions to turn a blind eye to questions about whether their heterosexual married employees contracept--or even whether they live with an opposite-sex partner without marriage. Or whether they're divorced and remarry or form an intimate relationship with a person of the opposite sex. . . .

My elaboration is in response to a good comment from Colleen Baker of the Enlightened Catholicism blog, who sees more value in the public-private distinction than I do. To repeat what I said yesterday: I'm skeptical when I hear liberal Catholics, particularly ones in the Catholic media and/or with long experience working in Catholic universities, maintain that what appears to be a glaring double standard in how Catholic institutions have long treated gay employees, as contrasted with straight ones, turns on a public-private distinction.

This argument commonly maintains (mendaciously, I argue) that gay employees have always been welcome in Catholic institutions and never began to attract negative attention--and to be fired--until they took the fateful step of marrying same-sex partners. The argument also maintains that it's perfectly understandable that Catholic institutions have never inquired into the "private" lives of heterosexual married employees who may be using contraceptives, and that they don't inquire into the "private" lives of heterosexual employees (including divorced ones) living with an opposite-sex partner outside marriage, or that they don't inquire into the "private" decision of a divorced employee to remarry.

As I said yesterday, I'm skeptical of this meme, which is a growing one in liberal Catholic circles and is now being seeded in the mainstream media, because it mounts a strong if implicit self-serving blame-the-victim argument: we liberal heterosexual Catholics, who have long sympathized with you poor gay employees of Catholic institutions, have avoided speaking out to defend you because, after all, you drew the negative attention of the institution down on your own head. You didn't play the game as well as we did. You didn't walk the thin public-private line adroitly as we did.

You made a point of being too public--by flaunting your sexual orientation in everyone's faces, by wearing that ring or those clothes, by walking in that mincing way, by putting that picture on your desk, by addressing the issue of homosexuality in class, by bringing your significant other to the party, by going on vacation with him/her, by coming out of the closet.

And now, the argument goes, you made a point of being too public by marrying. The goalposts have moved, but the underlying self-serving argument that justifies the institution's glaring double standard in its treatment of gay and straight employees remains wearisomely the same.

I've heard all of the preceding arguments over and over in Catholic institutions in which I've worked, including after Steve and I incurred the final, vocation-destroying wrath of a Catholic institution in the early 1990s. I find them frankly stomach-churning in their duplicity (a word I use deliberately here, due to its etymological meaning), their smugness, their blindness. I find these arguments stomach-churning in the self-serving way in which they let many heterosexual Catholics working in Catholic institutions off the hook as they stand by in total silence while the humanity of their gay colleagues is trashed by these institutions.

We were told--word for word--much of what I've just said to you, after we lost our jobs in the early 1990s and our careers as Catholic theologians were definitively ended: "You didn't play the political game well enough," a nun who was in our grad school program and went on to be president of the Catholic Theological Society of America told us. A nun who has never lacked for a job, a secure income, healthcare coverage, as we have done when we've been fired by Catholic institutions.

"You went on vacations together; you should not have done that," a former nun married to a closeted gay former priest who was one of our grad school professors told us. "By living together in the same house and buying a house together, you made a public statement," we were informed by any number of people, including a colleague at the school that fired us, who was a divorced Catholic woman keeping company with a divorced Catholic man--as the entire campus knew.

One of the reasons I strongly question the public-private distinction being offered now by many liberal Catholics who are contemporary versions of the Job's comforters who consoled us as our careers were crushed in the early 1990s is that we did, in fact, walk the same thin public-private line that all of our heterosexual colleagues in these institutions who were flouting Catholic moral rules about sexuality walked.

And it did not protect us. Because Catholic institutions have historically just not accorded private space to gay employees. Gay employees in Catholic institutions have historically worked at the tenuous good pleasure of their employers, and have known full well that the moment their employers want to use the question of sexual orientation or "lifestyle" to attack them, they will do so--often while citing spurious reasons for firing them, even as they spread rumors about "lifestyle" around to bolster their spurious reasons for firing a gay employee.

"I hear there are some homosexuals working on this campus. I intend to find out who they are and to weed them out," a friend of mine tells me the nun who ran his college, a sister college to the one that fired Steve and me in the early 1990s, told the faculty and staff at a special meeting she called while he taught ESL at the campus. There were, needless to say, no openly gay employees at the school, no one crazy or self-destructive enough to put a photo of his boyfriend on his desk, wear the same ring her girlfriend wore, etc.

There has almost never been "private" space for gay employees at Catholic institutions. Walking the the thin line between public and private behavior has not protected gay employees at Catholic institutions.

And it still does not protect most gay employees working in Catholic institutions throughout the U.S. I call the public-private meme now being offered by liberal Catholics to 'splain away the firings of gay employees of Catholic institutions mendacious because that meme dishonestly maintains that gay employees are routinely treated fairly and are welcomed in Catholic institutions, and are now being fired only because they choose to violate church teaching in a public way by marrying. 

As I said yesterday, when I sought to interest the National Catholic Reporter in Steve's and my story in the mid-1990s, the journal quickly told me that stories like the one I had brought them were so routine in Catholic institutions in the U.S. that our story simply wasn't newsworthy. Sad to say . . . .

And those developing the public-private distinction now to explain why Catholic institutions fire gay employees while never scrutinizing the "private" lives of straight ones want us to imagine that in little more than a decade, all of this longstanding unjust mistreatment of gay employees in Catholic institutions has simply vanished? Everywhere in the nation, including the two-thirds of states that afford no legal protection to people on grounds of sexual orientation? And that Catholic institutions no longer seek in every way possible to screen candidates on grounds of sexual orientation before they offer a job contract--as they've done for years on end?

That the poor gay folks are bringing the wrath of the institution down on their heads in a new way, gosh darn it, by choosing to marry, and we feel for them, we really do, but who can argue with the decision of a Catholic institution to fire someone who publicly violates Catholic moral teaching, after all? Because how would it retain its Catholic identity if it allowed people to violate its moral teaching in a public way?

If you've been reading this blog for any length of time, you might have divined that I tend to be a hermeneutics-of-suspicion kind of person. As I think about the many reasons I've long been attracted to a hermeneutics of suspicion in just about any area of academic or political analysis, I realize that this penchant reflects my experience coming of age during the Civil Rights struggles of the 1960s. Coming of age during those struggles in south Arkansas, in the deepest southern part of a state of the former Confederacy . . . . 

I saw . . . everything . . . during those years. I saw my church split over the question of whether to accept black members. I saw a black teenaged boy in my town gunned down in cold blood, and three of my high school classmates (white boys, it goes without saying) charged with the murder. I saw them exonerated by our local legal system. I saw little boys some 14 years old in the county jail, black boys, where the sheriff informed me that he used to be able to beat "them" up with impunity, but now had to turn the radio up and take them into a dark corner to beat them up--"the animals," he called them.

Above all, I saw the total unwillingness of many "good" people among whom I grew up, many churchgoing people, to speak out about any of this in any public way at all. I heard lots of whispers about how "they" were bringing the violence down on their own heads, after all, because they just weren't playing the game adroitly enough. They were too in-your-face. They had chips on their shoulders.

It would all be better if "we" were permitted to manage things, to go slowly, take our time, do things right, for God's sake, rather than being forced to face all of these questions about right and wrong all of a sudden. When we had only been doing what the bible told us to do for ever so long . . . . 

I remember those years vividly. And so imagine my surprise a half century down the road when the children of those same "good" white Southerners who did not lift a finger to address the violence or defend the defenseless in that horrific period of upheaval now want to convince me--as many of them do--that America is suddenly colorblind. That "we've" gotten over all of that, and realize how wrong we were in our response to the racial issue back then.

They've moved on, many of them, to the new biblical stantis et cadentis argument, the one about gay marriage . . . . Just as many of my former colleagues in Catholic institutions, and many of those who define Catholic identity for the public square as journalists and academics, have moved on (or so they want to convince me) from those horrible years when merely being gay could cost someone her  job in Catholic institutions, as these liberal Catholics inform me that "we" now only make an issue of it when a gay colleague chooses to defy the church by marrying . . . .

My experience growing up during the Civil Rights struggles in the American South has led me to be more than a little impatient with self-serving moral laziness. Especially as it's mouthed oh so easily by American liberals who never seem to want to address their own involvement in the injustices they so quickly sweep under the rug with facile arguments that ignore inconvenient truths right in front of the noses of all of us who care to see what's in front of our noses . . . .

"Moral laziness," you say, "What's wrong with that?" Well, as someone intently interested in moral theology for a long time, and in transformation of institutions in line with moral objectives, I'd reply that it allows us to accept superficial--and often downright dishonest--solutions to deep problems, when any effective solution to those deep problems requires going very much beneath the surface. And it allows us to pretend that those most negatively affected by the moral lapses of an institution have nothing of value to say to "us" who represent that institution's center, since "they" must somehow have merited their whipping and marginalization.

The graphic from KOMO news in Seattle is from this posting by Bob Shine at the Bondings 2.0 blog of New Ways Ministry.

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