Wednesday, October 25, 2017

A Reader Asks: "If You Could Sit Down with Fr. Martin for a One on One," What Would You Say? My Response

In response to what I posted yesterday as I recommended to you the podcast discussion featuring Mary Hunt, Marianne Duddy-Burke, and Jamie Manson, Sarasi asked me a very good question:

Bill, if you were to be invited to one of these "both-sides" discussions, if such a thing existed, where would you begin? (even if this might not be a realistic scenario) If you could sit down with Fr. Martin for a one on one, would you say anything different?

I'm glad Sarasi asked this question. It gives me a chance to say clearly — perhaps more clearly than I've done in the past — some things I may take for granted that may be oblique even to longtime readers of this blog. The recent death of my graduate school professor — and mentor and friend — Gregory Baum, coming not many months after Gregory made public that he was a gay man who had a longtime partner, also frees me to speak openly about some of these matters in a way I hadn't been able to do in the past.

My answer in a nutshell to Sarasi's question: if I had a chance to sit down for a one-on-one with Father Martin and the folks at New Ways Ministry, I'd ask, quite simply, why they — or any other queer-affirming group within the Catholic church — have never reached out to Steve and me to offer us concrete assistance. To open doors for us — doors opened to allow us to be included in the Catholic conversation. Doors opened to let us know that we are valued and that our contributions, and who we are, matter to the Catholic church.

Perhaps it's difficult for people to understand what happened to the two of us when our vocational lives as Catholic vocations were smashed, decisively and deliberately, by Catholic institutional leaders. Perhaps it's difficult for people to understand what happens to all of those who experience this kind of abusive treatment at the hands of Catholic institutional leaders.

In addition to having our economic livelihood removed from us at a time of great personal difficulty as we were caring for my mother, who was suffering from progressive dementia, in our home, we lost health insurance coverage. We lost everything — salaries, health insurance coverage, our reputations, our standing as theologians, our professional connections. We struggled — and very hard — simply to stay afloat economically. 

We had to do this, because we had an elderly parent living with us who was totally dependent on us. The struggle to exist economically and keep providing care for my mother required us to take jobs completely unrelated to our training as Catholic theologians. We tried to find jobs within the Catholic theological world. Every door possible slammed in our faces. We were clearly blackballed.

In all of this, the stark truth is, no one from within the Catholic institution reached out to us. No one offered any assistance at all. No one told us we still mattered, were valued, that some place could be found for us. That we were wanted at the table even though we had come out to the world as a gay couple who had been in a relationship for quite a few years by the time our vocations were decisively shattered.

The people who offered us concrete assistance right within the Belmont Abbey community when that school took the hammer to our vocational lives were not Catholic. A Presbyterian minister and his wife, both on the faculty there, insisted that we take some money from them to tide ourselves over (we paid it back when we were finally able to do that). This Presbyterian minister and the wife of a Lutheran minister on the Belmont Abbey faculty went to the county unemployment benefits office when Belmont Abbey blocked my attempt to claim unemployment benefits and pled my case to that office — unsuccessfully so.

From within the Catholic institutional context, no one — not a single person with any ability to open doors — lifted a finger to assist us. It was as if we had died. It was as if we had ceased to exist. 

One of our graduate school classmates, a Catholic nun who had, we had thought, been our friend, and who eventually held an office in the Catholic Theology Society of America: she verbalized to us the name of the game that Catholics play with people like us, to justify their refusal to treat people like us humanely. She said to us, "Now that you have come out of the closet, you will have to get your support from the gay community. Not the church."

Another of our classmates, also a Catholic nun, who eventually was made president of CTSA, told us that we had brought the destruction of our theological vocations down on our own heads, because we had not played the political game adroitly enough.

Gregory Baum and his wife Shirley said that very same thing to us.

Each of these people had influence within the Catholic academy. Each — and many others — could have helped to open doors for us somewhere, somehow. The friend who told us that we now needed to rely on the gay community and not the church for support: she dropped us like a hot potato. We have not seen or heard from her in years. At meetings of professional theological societies after our careers were shattered, she conspicuously avoided us in hallways and meeting rooms, refusing to meet our eyes or speak to us.

All kinds of people did that to us, in fact. We became invisible.

Steve has never again been able to pick up any theological work of his own. He works very hard at a full-time non-theology-related job to support us now, though he's beyond retirement age, and he insists that I not look for a job that would hinder my ability to write and continue my own scholarly work. 

For some years after our vocations were deliberately and decisively shattered by Catholic officials, I was so sickened at the thought of anything having to do with Catholic theology and Catholic conversations, that I ignored that world altogether. Too much pain associated with it. Then someone (I'm not sure she'd like to be named and therefore implicated in what this blog has ended up being!) encouraged me to start blogging, and I did so. I welcomed the chance to continue my theological vocation in this new format.

On his last visit to us several years ago, Gregory Baum told me that I was wasting my time and efforts blogging, when I should be writing "real" theological work and publishing it in "real" theological journals. I hardly knew what to say in response. It was not a surprise to me that he thought this. What I wanted to say, but did not say, is, "But you yourself edit a 'real' theological journal, and you haven't once invited me to contribute to it or to any other theologial project in which you're involved!"

We were, you see, problematic, Steve and I, even to our friends in the Catholic academy. Even to our  (closeted) gay friends in the Catholic academy. Associating with us might bring some shame on their heads, it seemed they wanted to communicate to us. We saw Gregory helping, over and over, other of his former students when they struggled to find a place in the Catholic academy — married heterosexual students, Catholic religious whose lives were presumed to be asexual.

Not us. No one who had any influence or ability to help within the Catholic institution* has once held out a hand to us and offered us help — or even an invitation to consider ourselves still wanted, valued, and respected in Catholic conversations. No one. Not one person. Not ever.

What I'd like to ask Father Martin and the folks at New Ways Ministry is this: how can you speak about building bridges but then turn around and replicate this behavior of cruel exclusion in your own dealings with some select individuals who have experienced such abominable, hateful treatment at the hands of the Catholic church? Even if you could not ever have offered us any kind of meaningful place within a Catholic institution, you might at least have tried to find a way to build a bridge to us — and to many others like us — to tell us that we still count, that our lives matter, that what we have to say is of importance to the Catholic conversation about LGBTQ lives.

Telling us that we and our work are uncharitable garbage surely does not help. And I do welcome and acknowledge the apology about my having been called such a name. But we still need to keep having a conversation about this dynamic, which has gone on for too long and too consistently in the Catholic church, as many people have been atrociously hurt by it.

Why do I think that bridge-building proposals will be merely rhetorical if they do not result in concrete action to connect to the lives of LGBTQ people alienated from the church? Because of my own real-life experience.

* Some individual Catholics have, of course, been marvelous to us, from Steve's two aunts who are nuns, who have always affirmed us and assisted us as they are able, to my online friends Rachel Fitzgerald and Mark Shumway, who have made it possible for me to have interesting online theological discussions with them, Ivone Gebara, and other wonderful folks. If I start naming more names, I'll leave someone out inadvertently — but please know we have valued all of you who have, in fact, offered us a helping hand. We would not have made it financially in our leanest years without the generous, unsolicited assistance of a friend who wants to have nothing to do with organized religion, who was formerly a Methodist Sunday School teacher, and is one of the best human beings I've ever encountered.

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