Friday, December 28, 2018

Family Funerals, Immigrant-Bashing, and the Weaponization of American Catholicism: Place to Which "Pro-Life" U.S. Catholic Leaders Have Brought Their Church

American Catholicism has been very effectively weaponized at this point in its history, hasn't it? By a certain segment of Catholics, that is to say: it's been effectively weaponized by a large percentage of white Catholics, 6 in 10 of whom placed the current occupant of the White House there, claiming they were doing so for "pro-life" reasons. The Catholics with the most institutional and economic clout in the American Catholic church, that is to say….

Nor do many of those Catholics appear to be budging regarding their support for the current "pro-life" occupant of the White House, even when incontrovertible evidence mounts — it's massive by now — that he's anything but pro-life in any meaningful sense of that term. Many American Catholics simply don't want to know: they don't want to know about any discrepancies, glaring ones included, between what they profess as "pro-life" Catholics and what their actual, real-life "pro-life" leaders are doing in the world around them.

In the last day, I read a tweet that I failed to capture (so that I can't point you to it),* reporting on what happened in one parish church somewhere in the U.S. recently when the prayers of the faithful at Mass asked parishioners to pray for children being separated from their parents by government officials at the U.S. border. A large percentage of the parishioners refused to follow the lector's bidding that they pray to the Lord for those children. They responded to the bidding prayer with total silence as only a few church members said, "Lord, hear our prayer."

It didn't surprise me to read this report. I often read the tweets of Father James Martin, and when he tweets, as he did yesterday, a statement like the one below to commemorate the Feast of the Holy Innocents, I see the string of ugly, weaponized-Catholic responses that immediately pop up in response to his statements — from "pro-life" Catholics many of whom strongly support the current occupant of the White House and insist he is pro-life:

These Catholics don't want to know. They don't want to know what is being done in their "pro-life" names by federal officials to children arriving with their parents at the southern border of the nation. They don't want to know that what is being done to children with their tax dollars in the name of an ostensibly "pro-life" federal administration is precisely the opposite of anything that can credibly be called pro-life.

They don't want to know about Catholic teaching forbidding us to hate and exclude immigrants any more than they have ever wanted to know about Catholic teaching forbidding Catholics to hate and exclude people on racial grounds. They don't want to be troubled with these niceties of Catholic social teaching, as they practice their tribalistic, weaponized, exclusionary Catholicism that has no connection at all to the teaching of Jesus and the gospels.

They don't want to know.

Knowing makes us responsible.

After I discussed the story of what happened at the funeral of Maison Hullibarger in Temperance, Michigan, some days back — Father Don LaCuesta bore down on the word "suicide" as he spoke of the death of the 18-year-old young man, and raised questions about the fate of those who commit suicide — I continued for days to see commentary churned out about this story by right-wing Catholics on Twitter defending Father LaCuesta. 

I've been surprised in a way — but, honestly, not surprised at all — to see that this homily is a hill on which right-wing American Catholics now want to take a stand as they defend what they regard as the embattled doctrinal purity of their Catholic church. In threads I've been reading about this story because they pop into my Twitter feed, I see right-wing Catholics making the following points:

1. The point of a funeral homily is to preach the Truth, to preach doctrine — and these folks take for granted that the doctrine of the Catholic church regarding those who commit suicide is that they have committed an unforgivable sin and may well be punished by eternal damnation.

2. This "celebration of life" that liberal Catholics natter on about it: it must be done away with. Funeral sermons are not about "celebrating a life": they're about reminding people of Catholic truth and of the fact that mortal sin will be punished with the fires of hell.

3. The pastoral role of Catholic priests is not to console mourning families when a family member dies: it's to adhere to Catholic doctrine and preach that doctrine in its unvarnished purity in a funeral homily — and let the chips fall where they may.

4. It's the role of the priest and not the grieving family to determine what should be said in a funeral homily. To suggest otherwise is to undermine the holy priesthood with its right to rule over the lay members of the church.

And then there's a lot of conspiracy-theory stuff vilifying the Hullibarger family and claiming the family set this story up so that the anti-Catholic mainstream media would run with it and make Catholics — and "orthodox" ones, in particular — look heartless.

As, of course, they do look — absolutely heartless — when they use the tragic death of a young man to justify a hateful and judgmental theology that has little to do with authentic Catholic understanding of the tragedy of suicide…. As they do look when they insist that a priest should harp on the word "suicide" — six times — in a funeral homily for a young man who has, as an entire congregation already knows, committed suicide. 

Would they want priests to focus on how an alcoholic has merited her untimely death and may now be burning in the fires of hell when she dies? Or on how that smoker who contracted lung cancer surely knew what he was doing when he smoked and deserves to have his cause of death highlighted over and over in a funeral homily as a warning to others not to indulge?

Heartless. Cruel. Benighted. Mean-spirited. Anti-pastoral. Merciless: the list of adjectives that might be applied here is well-nigh endless.

But that's where we are right now, where key leaders of the U.S. Catholic church have brought it at this point in history, to a point of weaponization from which I cannot see it recovering, frankly. Because it has gotten much, much worse with the election of Donald Trump, which has energized the segment of American Catholicism that wants a mean and lean, tribalistic, exclusionary Catholic church….

The kind that beats grieving parents over the head with the word "suicide" at the funeral of a son.

The kind that prints menacing messages on funeral programs designed to bully the gay children of a deceased parent so that they will not even dare to think about going to communion.

The kind that blames immigrant children for their own deaths.

This is where we are now, and some of us have worked hard to bring us here, a situation my husband summed up last night as he and his brother discussed their mother's recent funeral as follows: "They live within a theology of hell," he said.

He sees his family members who want to weaponize Catholicism to attack, exclude, and demean family members they regard as impure and defectively Catholic as living inside a theology of hell that creates hell for them even as they try to create hell for others. When they use occasions like family funerals as weapons to accomplish these goals, they place themselves inside a circle of hell.

They have been quite successful in doing just that, unfortunately, since they enjoy strong support for their weaponizing agenda from some Catholic officials who allow them to control family occasions like funerals and turn them into occasions for attacking targeted family members.

Living within a theology of hell is hell itself. But the call running through the Judaeo-Christian tradition is to choose life, not death. To focus on life, not death. To celebrate life, not death.

Celebrating hell and giving it a central and controlling role in our theology and piety is lifting death up, not life. And no matter how much some Christian theologies may freight themselves in a hell-centered and death-centered direction, those theologies are not authentically Christian.

But this is the place into which American Catholicism has worked itself at this point in its history, in the minds and hearts of some of its most powerful adherents. And I can foresee nothing to hell — for many hapless people — emanating from that place.

*Later: I've found the tweet — Brother Joseph tweeting Cindi McMahon, here.

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