Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Danger of the Single Story (with Implications for American Catholic Experience)

Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie discusses "the danger of the single story":

The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with sterotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story. . . . The consequence of the single story is this: it robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different, rather than how we are similar.

As she notes, 

Show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become. It is impossible to talk about the single story without talking about power. There is a word, an Igbo word, that I think about whenever I think about the power structures of the world, and it is nkali. It's a noun that loosely translates to, "To be greater than another." Like our economic and political worlds, stories, too, are defined by the principles of nkali—how they are told, who tells them, when they are told, how many stories are told, are really dependent on power. Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person.

Obviously, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is insisting that the social, cultural, economic, and literary worlds we inhabit together with many different sorts of people need to open themselves to many different stories — as many stories as the people who comprise these worlds. For religious traditions that name themselves "catholic," one would think this might be a self-evident insight, since that name tag implies an eagerness to listen respectfully to the story of everyone.

In reality, of course, "the" Catholic story —the official story told by those who officiate in the Catholic institution — has all too often been told exclusively by men, most of them white Europeans and North Americans, most of them posturing as heterosexual, who then seek to pass off their radically limited story as the story that should norm the lives of all the rest of us.

In key respects, the ecclesiology of the second Vatican council, which attempted to reground the formative story of the Catholic experience in the biblical and patristic idea of the people of God, was an attempt to correct a radically skewed ecclesiology that has permitted the Catholic church to become, for all intents and purposes, a boys' club for heterosexual males or pretend-heterosexual males. Since Vatican II, that corrective has been fiercely resisted, not merely in the all-male clerical club that runs the Catholic institution, but also among powerful economic elites in the developed sector of the world, who are determined that the Catholic church not become permeable or receptive to the many other stories it needs to entertain, if it expects to be authentically Catholic — those of the poor, of women, of LGBT people, and so forth.

For a discussion of these matters now going on in real time at the American Catholic journal Commonweal, see the thread responding to Michael Peppard's recent blog posting about racism in American cultural life. As Anne Chapman notes, there is very little diversity on the editorial staff or among the journalistic staff of Commonweal itself. Gerelyn Hollingsworth adds,

The lack of diversity at Commonweal begins with the editors and contributors.  See the long list of contributors and note how many are men and how few are women.

And, of course, I've repeatedly noted here Commonweal's marked penchant for a very long time now (a penchant shared by other leading U.S. Catholic journals) to talk about "the" gay experience without — and isn't this astonishing? — adverting to or including any openly gay voice as it defines, parses, and dissects gay lives.* I'm also very aware of the tendency of many Catholics, including perhaps particularly educated, liberal ones, to play women's and gay rights against each other in these discussions of Catholic inclusivity — as if gay men secretly run the institution and make things miserable for women because, don't you know, gay men hate women.

This despite the fact that gay employees of Catholic institutions are being fired right and left by that same gay Mafia that, we're being told, is running the church and attacking women . . . . 

You'd think it would be obvious that women and gay folks are both treated with great disdain by the leaders of the Catholic church and those who enable those leaders, so that it's in our best interest, if we expect corrective change in the institution, to join our efforts, those of us who are gay and who are women, and to recognize that the malice that targets gay people is a manifestation of the same malice that singles out women.

We have far, far to go, we Catholics. As will be no secret to anyone reading this blog, it often seems to me that we're moving backwards in key respects vis-a-vis these discussions and these issues — not forwards. Hence a synod on the the family that provides voting power only to ordained celibate men, that permits people actually living the family lives being defined by the synod to "audit" the discussions, particularly if those people promote "natural family planning," unlike the vast majority of married Catholics, who use contraceptives, and that will in no way include the perspectives of families headed by same-sex couples.

We have far to go, if we expect to sound in any way credible when we explain to the rest of the world what it means to be catholic.

* I do give Commonweal credit for publishing John Corvino's "Thinking Straight?" essay last month.

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