Thursday, October 16, 2014

Seeing "Love Is Strange" in the Week of the Catholic "Earthquake" for LGBT People: A Reflection

I was not designed to be a moral example. (If it's not apparent, I'm building here on what I just posted about my two recent visits to the dentist.) I never wanted, expected, spent years training for my life to be turned into a moral case-study. By people who don't know me but feel perfect entitlement to pass judgment on me, while they see only an empty cipher, the outlines of a void to be filled by their prejudice, when they claim to be casting their eyes on me.

I never calculated, in all the years I was growing up, fell in love, did graduate studies in theology, lauched an aborted career teaching Catholic theology, to become a test case about whether a church can or can't be welcoming (strange, unimaginable question!) as it claims to be rooted in the life and teaching of Jesus Christ. I honestly have no idea how I, and the rather bland and pedestrian life I live, became, as I was living that life, the articulus stantis et cadentis for what it means to be church today, in an area so fundamental as whether a church can or can't claim to be rooted in the gospels (it can't, obviously) while it decides not to welcome a targeted minority community.

I never particularly wanted to stand up and be counted — not in any showy, public way. I wanted the life to which I seem constitutionally inclined, a quiet, contemplative one in which books and studies and sweet soulful discourse with other scholars would constitute the warp and weft of my daily existence. 

Instead, I got what I have — and what every other gay person seeking to maintain contact with the Catholic church gets today: a life in which the top pastors of my church, all elderly ordained males, all ostensibly celibate, can gather and gravely pose the following question whose words have already long been inscribed across my back and that of every other gay Catholic in the world:

[A]re we capable of welcoming these people, guaranteeing to them a fraternal space in our communities? 

Instead, I have gotten a life in which media commentators, a large percentage of them married, heterosexual, white males who have never had to struggle with questions about what it might feel like to have those words inscribed across their backs, glibly assure me that things are getting much better, that I'm much more welcome in my church than I ever have been. 

While I remain as peripheral to the "official" theological discussions taking place in my church as I ever have been after my longtime companion (and now spouse) and I found ourselves decisively shut out of our vocations as Catholic theologians in the early 1990s, with no explanation at all for this action in my case, with mendacious explanations in the case of my husband . . . . And while the firings continue even as the fanfare about the newly welcoming church pours out of media outlets all over the place . . . . 

The life I have ended up with is this: my life, the meaning of my life, is solemnly dissected by grave men who pretend to be some other kind of people than the people among whom I live and move and have my being, while I am not even there. I am not even in the room as the dissection is taking place. I am not even there to give testimony of my own about said life.

Just as I am not there — just as my story, my human voice are completely ignored — while the grave men of the media who enjoy power and privilege of which I can only dream assure me that things have, in the twinkling of an eye, suddenly gotten better for me. Though my story, my human voice, still obviously count for nothing at all for these parsers of the human worth of others in whose skin they do not themselves live, as they pass judgment on me and the meaning of the life I live. And while they function as dumb echo chambers for the grave men sitting in conclave to dissect the lives of people not even in the room . . . .

How can I not think of all of this — think, as in "mull over at the deepest levels of my soul" — when Steve and I go to see "Love Is Strange" in the very week in which headlines splashed everywhere inform me that I am newly, marvelously welcome in the church that has never gotten around even to telling me it's sorry for having destroyed my vocation, Steve's vocation, as theologians? Ira Sachs's new film about two elderly men whose lives are turned upside down by the Catholic church after they marry and one of them then loses his job in a Catholic school would have been painful to watch at any time, so close to the bones of Steve's and my life it cuts.

But to see the film this week, as the media are assuring me a revolution has just occurred in my church, with Steve and me at its center: it is more than a little difficult to describe the sense of dissociation we feel, having seen "Love Is Strange" in this momentous week. At one level, of course, the pain has to do with walking through a story so close, in many ways, to our own story: the story of two elderly men who have been together some 40 years before they marry, and whose lives are then radically upended when that decision results in the destruction of their economic lives (read: their lives) by the Catholic church.

As we watched, we could relate to the suffering that the brutal, cold-hearted action taken by the Catholic church in the case of this couple produced for their lives, causing two elderly men to have to seek homes with friends or relatives, to be separated in what ought to have been a golden period for them. We could understand their sense of frustration, their loneliness, as they tried to make do with what was offered to them by kind, well-meaning relatives and friends who never quite understood  — since they had not lived, were not living, lives similar to those of the two men they were helping out.

As I say, to see this film in the week in which the top pastoral leaders of my church, the same church that produces such untold misery for two aging men who have, after all, done nothing more than marry, ask whether my church can welcome "these people": a jolting experience. It's an experience which makes me think that most people looking at what's going on with the synod on the family right now aren't asking anywhere near the right questions, the ones that need to be asked about the synod's deliberations.

Instead of Are we capable of welcoming these people?, what the leaders of my Catholic church ought to be asking themselves, along with Catholics who continue to walk along with those leaders is, What on earth made us ever imagine we could claim to be church in any meaningful sense of that term, while we stopped welcoming a targeted minority community?

When did the question of welcome —the either-or question — even get on the table, for a church that claims to be rooted in the life and teaching of Jesus? How did we ever come to the point that we began to think we could be church, could do church, and not welcome?

And not welcome everyone? In particular, those on the margins?

How do we expect anyone to pay any attention at all to our statements about welcome when they are not accompanied by actions that embody the welcome that the statements claim to offer? What do these statements mean for all the folks who have been fired, right and left, by Catholic institutions in the past several years?

What do they mean for people like Steve and me, who lost our jobs in Catholic institutions in the early 1990s and never found any opening to teach theology again? Who will give back the lives of people whose lives have been taken from them by brutal injustice? Who will piece back together the shattered faith of so many people who have been wounded to the core of their beings by the behavior of Catholic institutions towards those who are gay in the past few decades?

And who will dare to ask the people who talk about being more welcoming followers of Jesus Christ how they can possibly engage in such chatter when they clearly have no intention at all of reaching out to the many people they have made unwelcome in savage years in which the Catholic church has imagined it can effectively proclaim good news to the world while targeting, attacking, and excluding a demeaned minority group in the name of Jesus Christ?

The clip is an official trailer for "Love Is Strange," from YouTube.

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