Friday, December 11, 2015

Frank Brennan, SJ, on the Australian Catholic Bishops and Marriage Equality: My Response and Critique of the Clericalist Closed-Circle Argument

I very much appreciate that Chris Morley recommended to us Jesuit Father Frank Brennan's recent article at Eureka Street noting the futility of the battle of some church leaders, the Catholic bishops of Australia included, against same-sex marriage in Australia. As Father Brennan rightly notes, there are compelling reasons — moral ones — for recognizing the right of same-sex couples to civil marriage. These include the protection of children such couples may be raising, the state's interest in supporting couples committed to each other who provide care for each other as they age, and the undercutting of homophobia, which, as he notes, has toxic social consequences.

I'm less than persuaded, however, by Father Brennan's attempt to discount the valuable first-hand testimony of LGBT people dealing with all of those issues in their own lives, in their own lived experience. Father Brennan opens his article with a strong critique of the following claims of Chris Puplik, a former Australian senator opposing the ugly intervention of the Australian Catholic bishops in the national marriage equality debate in a recent essay* in The Australian:

When a person or group of people is described in official publications as being seriously depraved, intrinsically disordered, less than whole and messing with kids, they are entitled to take offence, and to the extent they feel they have been vilified and subjected to hate speech they should of course seek to avail themselves of the protection against such calumnies as have been provided for by the various legislatures around Australia. 
It is simply wrong to say that such proceedings are an attempt to deny the Catholic Church the right to ventilate its views about traditional marriage.

Father Brennan baldly denies that the Catholic bishops of Australia are speaking loudly and publicly in this way — though the church on whose behalf they are speaking does, in fact, define the very humanity of homosexual persons as intrinsically disordered, and its leaders have, in fact, sought to use red-herring arguments that gay men are child molesters to divert attention away from their spectacular mishandling of the abuse crisis.

What concerns me even more about Father Brennan's diversionary critique of Chris Puplik's essay is that it refuses to engage a central claim Puplik is making here: namely, that society as a whole and the church in particular have much to learn from listening to those who are directly affected by the toxic definition of homosexual persons in Catholic magisterial teaching, and by the malicious politicking of Catholic pastoral leaders for years now against LGBT people and their rights. Father Brennan's argument continues what is a very destructive tendency of those governing the Catholic church to pretend that LGBT people simply are not in the room when their lives and rights are being discussed, and that they have nothing to contribute to such discussions.

It's what I would call a quintessentially clericalist argument. It's situated within a world of clerical assumptions and clerical discourse that has chosen — with tragic consequences, not the least to the clerical club itself — to treat self-accepting, non-apologetic gay people as the enemy of the church, people whose testimony is invalidated by the fact that they speak, quite precisely, out of their experience as gay people. 

As Sarah Larson's recent commentary in The New Yorker on the blockbuster film "Spotlight," about the Catholic abuse crisis cover-up and the Boston Globe's exposé of that cover-up, notes, a central preoccupation of the story the film tells is "about how far institutions will go to protect themselves, about who we listen to and protect, about who and what we ignore, about the power of disclosure and even conversation." For a very long time, the clerical club running the Catholic church simply refused to listen to the first-hand testimony of survivors of childhood clerical abuse, as it protected the abusers.

What shifted — in some ways, almost miraculously — as media outlets like the Globe began to blow the whistle on the hierarchical cover-up was that church leaders and all the rest of us were finally forced to hear that first-hand testimony by abuse survivors. And when we did so, our assumptions about the church as an institution, about its leaders, about those who had colluded in helping those leaders cover up sexual abuse of children by priests, shifted in a decisive way. 

Unfortunately, those same Catholic leaders (and the entire clerical sector of the church, it often appears) did not learn the lesson many of the rest of us learned about how damaging the refusal to listen to the first-hand testimony of those harmed by an institution can be for that institution. Catholic leaders — and, sadly, with the blessing of thoughtful and informed priests like Father Brennan — go right on doing to LGBT human beings what they long did to abuse survivors, with very harmful effects on their church.

They go right on pretending that LGBT people simply are not in the room even as their very lives are being parsed and their humanity placed under a microscope. They go right on pretending that what LGBT people might have to say about their lives and how church teaching and the behavior of Catholic leaders affect their lives is beneath notice by church leaders, because any testimony they might offer is self-interested testimony and is coming from people attacking the church.

As Robert Mickens has recently noted* about the Vatican ceremony at which Pope Francis opened the Holy Door to inaugurate his Jubilee Year of Mercy, the ceremony was accompanied by a para-liturgical event in which every single bishop and priest in St. Peter's Square had to make his way (yes, his) up the steps of St. Peter's and into its enclosed porch after the final blessing while the crowd — the lay crowd — gathered in St. Peter's Square stood by and watched. Mickens concludes:

[T]he message that resounded from the ceremony to open the Holy Door at the Vatican was that this is still, primarily, a clerical church.

And that's precisely the message that Father Brennan's obtuse handling of Chris Puplik's call for the Australian Catholic bishops to listen carefully to the first-hand testimony of LGBT people, as they weigh in against marriage equality, also provides me. This is, as I have already noted, a preeminently clericalist approach to the valuable testimony that LGBT people might, if anyone ever chose to listen to it, offer the leaders of the Catholic church. 

Sarah Larson's commentary on "Spotlight" reports that she went to the offices of the Boston Globe and interviewed several of the journalists featured in the film, including Michael Rezendes. She states, 

Before I left, we talked about Pope Francis and his often disappointing response to the crisis, as well as the Church’s inflexible positions on the celibacy requirement, women in the clergy, contraception, homosexuality, and so on. I told Rezendes a theory I’d heard from the comedian and childhood-rape survivor Barry Crimmins: that Pope Francis is the Church's way of changing the conversation without changing the Church. Rezendes looked thoughtful. "That makes some sense," he said.

It makes sense to me, too. And it's going to make sense to a lot of people until the clerical club running the Catholic show finally gets some perspective on how heinously its self-serving, closed-circle discourse has served the church for a long time now. But how to gain such perspective when that club continues to operate as a closed circle, determined to exclude the viewpoints of anyone outside that circle, and especially of those it has decided to treat as the "enemies" of "the" church?

*The article is behind a paywall.

The graphic is a screenshot of a headline from the Australian edition of The Guardian on 28 September 2015, featuring an article by Australian AP about the "Don't Mess with Marriage" pamphlet that the Australian Catholic bishops have distributed widely to influence the public debate about marriage equality.

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