Monday, September 10, 2018

The "Why I'm Leaving" and "Why I'm Staying" Statements After Pennsylvania Report: My Theological Take on Them

There was an interesting discussion thread here several days back about the spate of articles after the Pennsylvania grand jury report with titles like "Why I'm Leaving" and "Why I'm Staying." American Catholics are openly discussing why they're leaving the Catholic church or why they're committed to remaining in it.

Along with those of you pointing to these articles, I've followed these statements with interest. Part of what interests me is my own visceral response to them. As I think about that response, I recognize that I'm much more inclined to understand and sympathize with the "Why I'm Leaving" articles than with the "Why I'm Staying" ones. And I've been asking myself why that is.

A big part of the answer to that question, I've come to see, is that I simply cannot buy the theology — especially the ecclesiology — of the stayers. The world of thought and experience I inhabit seems vastly different from their world. And I just don't understand their world, frankly. 

What they take for granted — about the church, about the world in general — I don't take for granted. I can't take for granted what they take for granted about the world in general or the church. They're inside. But I'm outside. What they take for granted on the inside, I cannot take for granted on the outside, because the church to which they remain so committed has placed me on the outside, and given me no choice except to view their ecclesiological presuppositions and experience as an outsider.

While they're thinking and talking about theological issues like the role of the papacy and episcopacy in guiding the church and holding it together, I'm thinking about questions much more basic: how is it possible to affirm anything at all about a faith that calls itself catholic when that "catholic" faith deliberately targets and excludes groups of human beings, turning them into non-persons?

This is an experience abuse survivors have reported over and over, as they describe what has been done to them by Catholic pastoral officials and the Catholic community. It's an experience I've had as an openly gay Catholic theologian.

These days, I find myself following the Twitter feed of leading Catholic journalists whose theological presuppositions seem entirely alien to me, but whose reporting on the Viganò story is clearly well-informed and valuable — and for that reason, I want to follow what these journalists are writing. Some of them are among those writing "Why I'm Staying" statements.

But though I'm willing to listen carefully to and learn from what they have to tell me about the Viganò story, I don't live in the world in which they live vis-a-vis the church — not in the least. They have a place in the church. They have entrée. They have a voice.

They count as persons within an institution for which I don't count at all. 

This is not an exaggeration. I am not exaggerating when I say that I do not count at all. From the time Steve's and my theological careers were shattered by a Benedictine monastery acting in collusion with several bishops, it was made perfectly clear to us that we had died, insofar as that monastery and those bishops were concerned. We no longer existed. We no longer deserved to be treated as human beings.

We did not deserve a livelihood, a vocation, a venue in which to use our gifts and make contributions to the ecclesial community. We did not deserve healthcare coverage. We did not deserve respect, professional standing, the right to be treated with even minimal dignity and unsullied reputations. We did not deserve the right not to be lied to and not to be lied about.

We were dead to the Catholic pastoral officials who chose to turn us into non-persons, and the vast majority of our Catholic colleagues in the theological academy, the Catholic academy at large, the Catholic journalistic sphere, chose from that time forward and have continued to choose to treat us as if we stopped existing when a Benedictine monastery and several bishops acting in collusion with that monastery chose to turn us into non-persons.

When this is where a church community has placed you, the theological questions you are left to ask become quite different than the "refined" questions about who should exercise church authority and how it should be exercised. The questions you are left with are ragged, harsh, unrelenting, and very fundamental ones like, "Where is God in a world in which some human beings do this kind of thing to other human beings?"

Or, "Is there anything at all that compels belief in a church that can profess faith in Jesus Christ and treat some human beings this way?" Or, "Why should I believe anything at all the church professes about its catholicity, about God's loving embrace of the entire world, when the pastoral officials of that same church can turn some people into non-persons — and never face what they have done, never pay a price for what they have done, never admit what they have done, never atone for what they have done?"

And when the best and brightest intellectual representatives of that same church, its academics, its theologians, its journalists, not only do not open their mouths to protest, but go right along with what church officials choose to do to some persons, and echo the choice of church officials to make some human beings non-persons….

As I say, I've been following the Twitter feed of leading Catholic journalists commenting on the Viganò story. Though I myself tweet about it, too, these journalists (who are almost exclusively straight white men) would never dream of acknowledging, responding to, engaging with anything I tweet. I am a non-person to them.

I am beneath them. I am outside their purview. They talk almong themselves and largely to other straight white men on Twitter. 

For that reason alone, even when I find what they write about the Viganò story and other stories enlightening, I am absolutely unswayed by their professions of faith in the church, their "Why I Stay" statements. To be honest, I'm repulsed by those statements, which strike me as statements about "Why I Can't and Won't Ever Acknowledge My Astonishing Unmerited Power and Privilege" in an institution that  doles that privilege out on the basis of gender and sexual orientation — and denies such privilege to those who are not male and not heterosexual.

The theological questions we should be asking right now are questions about how anyone can remain with a church that obliterates the humanity of targeted groups of human beings — notably, abuse survivors and queer people — while its best and brightest remain totally silent as this is done, and even actively collude in what's being done. As the wave of ugly hate pours forth on Catholic discussion sites online and in Catholic journals right now — the homophobic hate — those best and brightest are, for the most part, just as silent about it as they have ever been when such waves wash through the U.S. Catholic church.

What kind of church that behaves this way can credibly represent itself as a church founded on Jesus Christ and the gospels? Questions like this will unfortunately not be discussed in the wake of the Pennsylvania grand jury report. The people raising those questions have been turned into non-persons who have no voice at all in Catholic conversations, and who are totally outside Catholic purview.

While those who remain inside are talking to each other — a very narrow circle — and discussing Vatican documents and Catholic theologians, those of us shoved outside are talking to ragtag but absolutely engrossing groups of ex-evangelicals, to members of the queer community, to nasty women, to the 98% of African-American voters in the U.S. who do not support Donald Trump. We're not only talking to those communities: in many cases, we belong to those communities.

The two worlds don't even intersect — and this is how the gatekeepers who place some folks outside the sacred circle (or is it the scared circle, as I just inadvertently typed?) want it to be. It's how they've designed things to be. Assuring that the Catholic conversation is anything but catholic — so that it can remain decidedly Catholic….

(Thanks to Ruth and Sarasi for pointing me to Eugene Kennedy's The Unhealed Wound, which I read recently with interest.)

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