Thursday, June 22, 2017

Father James Martin's Bridge-Building Metaphor and Call to Mutual Respect Between Catholic Leaders and LGBTQ Community: My Critical Commentary

I have not read Father James Martin's new book Building a Bridge, which calls on the pastoral leaders of the Catholic church to collaborate with the LGBTQ community and vice versa in building a bridge reconnecting the Catholic and LGBTQ community. I did read the presentation Father Martin made to New Ways Ministry when he received its Bridge Building award last year, and I commented on that address here (and see here and here). I commented on what I had read of the address at that point in time, that is to say.

And as the book is being discussed now in various circles, I've been reading commentary about it and interviews with Father Martin. As I read this commentary and these interviews, I've revisited Father Martin's bridge-building project several times in postings here — e.g., here and here. As my comments in these postings suggest, I remain dubious about Father Martin's project. 

I've been trying to think through the locus of my discontent with what Father Martin is proposing — a kind of "both-sides-have-a-point" false-equivalency analysis (both sides are responsible, both sides share guilt) — and why I find it so unengaging, uncompelling. Here's what I think is my biggest reservation about the proposal:

In a recent interview with the Catholic scholar of religion Kaya Oakes, Father Martin states,

By the same token, those virtues are helpful for the LGBT community, because those are Christian virtues. Respect is important for anybody in dialogue with bishops or laypeople or anyone. 

As Father Martin explains here and elsewhere, respect is a two-way street or a bridge with two moorings. Not only are Catholic pastoral leaders obligated to show respect for LGBTQ people, but LGBTQ people must also demonstrate respect for Catholic pastoral leaders. Respect is a precondition for meaningful dialogue.*

These are points Father Martin makes repeatedly as he speaks of his book, and points he drove home in his bridge-building address to New Ways Ministry last year. They make eminent sense to me as a description of the ideal dialogue situation. 

They do not make much sense at all to me, however, as a description of the real dialogue situation that exists today in the U.S. Catholic church between the pastoral leaders of the Catholic church and LGBTQ people. "Respect is important for anybody in dialogue with bishops," Father Martin says — and this comment is obviously pointed to the LGBTQ community, to LGBTQ Catholics.

An important question that absolutely has to be asked here, if any of what Father Martin is saying is to be grounded in reality, in the reality of the U.S. Catholic church as it now exists:

Where, for goodness' sake, is that "dialogue with bishops" of which Father Martin speaks actually taking place?

Where are the bishops who are making it their business to invite LGBTQ Catholics to sit down with them, talk with them, meet them as human beings? Father Martin is absolutely right when he notes that the ideal, in the idealized dialogue situation he is sketching, is that those involved in the dialogue must learn to respect not merely titles, offices, façades, but individuals. 

A precondition of any dialogue process in which we learn to respect each other as individuals is that we meet as human beings, beyond titles, offices, and façades. A precondition of any dialogue process in which meaningful dialogue takes place in the real world whose goal is to deepen respect among the dialogue partners is that those engaged in the dialogue meet face to face.

Where is this happening in the American Catholic church? I'm asking quite specifically, you understand, about where bishops and other pastoral leaders are reaching out to make such dialogue happen, since I do not see those who have been shoved from the table, who are being fired right and left in Catholic institutions, who are denied sacraments and burials, as those who should be reaching out to create dialogue. I do not see them as those morally obligated to be hammering away at the foundations of a bridge to nowhere . . . . 

When I was fired by a Catholic institution that refused to provide any reason for my firing, I made repeated requests first to the abbot of the monastery which owns the college that gave me a terminal contract and then to the local bishop to meet with me and discuss what was being done to me. Both refused to meet with me. Both refused to meet me face to face. Both adamantly slammed the door in my face.

Through an intermediary, the bishop eventually told me to write the papal nuncio. I knew, of course, that this was a futile exercise, but I did so. And I got yet another letter blowing me off, telling me that no one could do anything to assist me or wanted to do anything to respond to me.

I did not count. I was worthless. I did not exist. My humanity was just not there even to be seen in their dealings with me. It was better that I disappear and stop causing trouble. 

I was being disrespectful to the bishop by asking why he chose to meet with rich and famous people and not with ordinary members of his flock who were deeply hurt due to how a Catholic institution  had chosen to deal with them: this is eventually what the bishop's young priest-secretary told me in a message he left on my phone machine.

Perhaps my experience was a long-ago experience (all of this happened in the early 1990s) and things are different now. Perhaps Bishop Paprocki, he of the exorcism of the entire state of Illinois due to its legalization of same-sex marriage, is simply an outlier in the Catholic hierarchy right now with his determination that Catholics in legal same-sex marriages are to be denied Catholic burial and any Catholic minister who reaches out to these Catholics is to be punished.

Perhaps I'm unique as an LGBTQ person once connected to the Catholic church and driven off, and other LGBTQ Catholics and former Catholics are receiving those phone calls and emails from their local bishops, or from Pope Francis, or from Father James Martin that I've never gotten: Let's talk. I'd like to meet you. Face to face. Maybe we can build a bridge and understand each other.

I don't know. I just know none of this is happening in my case nor ever has happened. 

And so I wonder in what world Father Martin's call to "both-sides-have-a-point" respect-building makes any sense at all, when one of the two sides here — the one that has, as far as I can see, done the attacking, the harming, the excluding, the shaming, the hurting — never offers itself for the kind of individual human encounters that Father Martin sees as a precondition of respect-consolidating dialogues.

(I also wonder if Bishop Paprocki is in the least an outlier when the U.S. Catholic bishops have just chosen to beef up their faux "religious-freedom" crusade which is all about attacking the humanity and rights of LGBTQ human beings?)

In his very important book about the abuse crisis in the Catholic church, Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church (Dublin: Columba, 2007), retired Australian Catholic bishop Geoffrey Robinson writes, 

Too often victims have been told that that they have a Christian duty to forgive their offender.  Apart from the fact that this is an obvious attempt to get victims to resolve the problems caused by offenders, there are other difficulties with this idea, reflecting more general attitudes within the church (pp. 220-1).

Robinson goes on to observe, "There is such a thing as a forgiveness given too early" (p. 222). And then he concludes that the willingness of victims of clerical abuse to come forward and tell their stories of abuse to Catholic pastoral leaders has given him the most profound spiritual gifts he himself has received as a Catholic pastor through much of his pastoral ministry. The church as a whole has received profound spiritual gifts offered to it by abuse survivors willing to tell their painful stories of abuse, Bishop Robinson argues (p. 225).

This theological analysis stands on its head the clericalist model which imagines forgiveness and spiritual insight as something that sits more or less exclusively in the hands of the ordained or of vowed religious. This theological analysis assumes that the model of forgiveness or of "respect" offered to the rest of the church by its ordained male leaders may be one model of forgiveness or of respect — but not the model of forgiveness or of respect for the church as a whole.

This model is, in fact, far less focused on the "respect" owed to the ordained leaders of the church by the laity in general or by those who have been abused in particular than it's focused on what the ordained leaders of the church stand to gain if they can — finally — build a bridge to those they have abused.

This model assumes that the onus of building that bridge is more or less entirely on the side of the ordained male leaders of the church with their never-ending demand to be respected, and not on those who have been abused at the hands of these leaders. This model assumes that the ordained male leaders of the church may well be bankrupt spiritually — see: abuse crisis and its cover-up — and may recover their spiritual foundations only insofar as they begin to meet, listen respectfully to, and learn from those they have abused.

This model assumes that perhaps Father Martin, Pope Francis, bishops, the leaders of New Ways Ministry, all the theologians secure in their jobs in Catholic academies who talk only among themselves and with these worthies, should want to be on the phone or at their computers sending emails, inviting meetings with those who have been deeply harmed by the church's leaders and institutions. Not because these worthies have the answers, the key to forgiveness and respect, the understanding of spirituality in their hands, and should be willing to offer it to the unfortunate victims of the church:

Precisely the opposite.

*Re-spect: from Latin roots that mean "look again" or "look more intensely." The word depends on a visual metaphor which implies that the person we respect is someone we're seeing face to face and/or in the flesh. The opposite of respect, the thing respect must overcome, is not seeing at all. There can be no respect when we do not even see a human being there, when we refuse to meet that human being face to face, in the flesh, when we refuse to talk to that human being in a human conversation.

No comments: