“More Than a Monologue”–A Report
I was the moderator for the evening session of “Learning to Listen: Voices of Sexual Diversity and the Catholic Church,” the first of the series of “More Than a Monologue” events discussed below. I had nothing to do with planning or organizing this conference at Fordham or the coming programs at Union Theological Seminary, Yale, and Fairfield. As far as I could tell, I was invited to be a moderator because I had a reputation, deserved or not, of being even-handed in religious controversies. I accepted the invitation with some serious reservations and only after considerable conversation with the Fordham planners.
Here are my reflections on the Fordham gathering and the series.
The agenda: Is it to challenge—or more realistically to modify—church teaching? With absolutely no inside knowledge of the planners’ intentions and deliberations, I have no problem accepting the statement of Paul Lakeland that challenging church teaching is not the agenda (my italics) of the series.
I’m pretty confident, however, that at least some, probably many, of the planners and organizers would like to see church teaching regarding homosexuality, to some degree or another, changed, and pastoral practice all the more so. What probably unites this diverse group of planners and organizers is a common conviction that the status quo is spiritually and institutionally costly. I share this view. Gay and lesbian people are alienated from the church, with the consequent loss to them of spiritual resources and to the church of their gifts. Friends and family members are pained, perplexed, or angered. Growing numbers of young people fail to see anything in the church’s teaching except bigotry, one more strike against the faith that they are apt, at that time of life, to be reassessing. A “don’t ask, don’t tell” atmosphere of dissimulation infects church life where gays and lesbians are active ministers. And the church’s engagement in hardball political battles over civil unions and same-sex marriage regularly strips its teaching of nuance and reduces it to the hardball necessities of negative advertising and questionable coalitions.
There are many ways of responding to this status quo. Altering church teaching is one. Using all the considerable leeway for pastoral sensitivity that the teaching provides is another. Church leaders at every level can change their language and gestures. Gays and lesbians can find strength to accept the teaching’s demand to be celibate, like all other unmarried Catholics; or they can make a clean break with the church; or they can find affirmative enclaves within it; or they can learn to live as constructively as possible with a marginal status, as other groups within the church have done. Church leaders could reconsider the when and the how of any engagement with political issues involving homosexuality. Etc.
As far as I can see, different pieces of the “More Than a Monologue” series seem to shine light on these and other possible responses, some more favorably than others, but all with the primary purpose of simply making the problematic aspects of the status quo visible. The Fordham program, in my opinion, did this admirably. Can this be done honestly without raising questions about changing church teaching itself among many other possible responses? I don’t think so. Yet the Fordham program refused any temptation to promote such change by stealth or misrepresentation. Both the daytime and evening sessions were introduced by a thoughtful, extended statement about authoritatively stated church teaching.
Misgivings: Even before being invited to participate in Fordham’s program, I had begun to think of the series in my head as “More Than a Monologue … but Less Than a Dialogue.” Early indications of the featured “voices of sexuality diversity” did not seem terribly diverse. Voices defending traditional teaching and practice were not apparent. And since “monologue” pretty well describes secular advocacy on behalf of gay and lesbian concerns no less than official Catholic positions on these concerns, I wasn’t sure whether the series promised really to crack the stranglehold of monologue or to replicate it.
But I had no illusions about the difficulty of the task facing the series. To find interlocutors, especially ones in positions of authority, capable of dialogue on this topic without a rehearsal of doctrinal debate that would eclipse rather than illuminate the experiential dimensions of the status quo—that is no easy assignment. Perhaps the organizers could have tried harder or done better. Yet I understood why they might not make finding and enlisting such voices a sine qua non of the series.
Later, as the series fleshed itself out, I felt a more serious misgiving. The four schools had agreed that their individual programs would be “thematically connected” but that each institution would remain independent in designating topics, choosing speakers, and designing the day. The organizational advantages of such a division of labor are obvious. But they also make the image and message of the series as a whole something of a hostage to the most dramatic or media-genic of the programs, much as the posture of the Catholic hierarchy on public issues seems to be established by the most outspoken and widely publicized bishops.
This became an issue for me when I saw the program at Union Theological Seminary. It was titled, “Pro-Queer Life: Youth Suicide Crisis, Catholic Education, and the Souls of LGBTQ Folks.” The keynote speaker will be Dan Savage, the “wildly popular syndicated gay sex columnist,” as Union’s publicity puts it, and most recently the mover of the “It Gets Better” campaign to counter gay teen suicide. The day will also include some kind of chapel resources and a “CatholiQ [sic] Mass.”
Now nothing could be less controversial, by Catholic teaching above all, than preventing gay teen suicides. Nothing could seem more appealing than to enrich the talking-heads format of a conference with prayer, counseling, or meditation of some kind (or Qind). And almost no one guarantees more attention to a conference of this sort than Dan Savage. I have certainly been amused and provoked by the wit and outrageousness, frequently seamed with common sense, of his books and articles, even if I do sometimes learn more about the sex lives of my relatives than I was ready for. (Dan’s mother Judy was my first cousin; Dan is my first cousin once removed, and my wife and I enjoyed his hospitality a few years ago in Seattle.)
But, alas, everything about the sexual culture wars is politicized, wheeled into battle to make a larger point, even gay teen suicide: Tell us Pope Benedict, when did you stop murdering teenagers? Incorporating rituals—a CatholiQ Mass?—into a program of this nature has enormous potential to be manipulative if not downright offensive. And Dan Savage has a paper trail of statements about Catholicism that are about as open to dialogue as Ann Coulter on liberalism or Rick Perry on Social Security. It doesn’t help that Dan is the current poster boy (cover stories in The New York Times Magazine and Christian Century) for the not-very-original idea of redefining marital fidelity to include the safety valve and “spice” of extramarital affairs.
Maybe all this will work out well. Maybe needed pastoral support for suicidal teens won’t be translated into attacks on Catholic education or drowned out by Savage sound bites. Maybe giving each institution, including Union, a free hand was essential to the project. But maybe the Union venture in “Pro-Queer Life”—already a small jab at Catholic identification with “pro-life”—will put the entire series at risk. We’ll know after October 1.
The Fordham program: Many of the presentations by gay, lesbian, and one transgender panelists, as well as a parent and a pastor (mine), were powerful and moving. There were sharp criticisms of the church but also grateful acknowledgments of its blessings. There was some familiar whining but a lot more humor and hopefulness. The program surely achieved the goal of putting on display, hardly for the first time but now within an explicitly Catholic framework and institution, the damaging aspects of the status quo.
I could mount a defense of the panel that I moderated, which one commenter on the thread below found “appalling.” It added some different perspectives, for example, Jerome Baggett’s sanguine findings that gay and lesbian parishioners he interviewed in San Francisco had successfully “negotiated” their way to a mature faith. Bryan Massingale spoke from the experience of an African-American priest and theologian.
Another panelist explained her discovery of a satisfactory “post-Catholic” and queer faith thanks to the insights of Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan, Luce Irigaray, Catherine MacKinnon, Jacques Derrida . . . did I miss anyone?
That presentation may explain why the organizers thought it better to focus on experience than on doctrine. But of course the passage from one to the other will eventually have to be made. Meanwhile, even on the level of experience, here are two things I missed in the Fordham discussion:
First, the discussion was largely isolated from the larger cultural context, especially the astonishingly rapid revision of people’s attitudes toward homosexuality and gay and lesbian relationships. The church and its leadership do not exist in a vacuum but reflect both accommodation to and reaction against this major change. It would have been refreshing to hear someone admit that holding traditional Catholic views on homosexuality can be as risky in many social and workplace settings (starting with the academy) as being gay or lesbian is in many parishes.
Second, the discussion was curiously isolated from the larger context of sexual change—diversity, if you will—within the Catholic church. Only in the final panel discussion did Father Massingale remind everyone that a struggle over sexual morality has been going on for over four decades. At the leadership level, the last “more than a monologue” took place in the 1960s within the commission on birth control appointed by John XXIII and Paul VI—and was closed down by Humanae Vitae. Since then, contracepting Catholics, the vast majority of Catholics of reproductive age in many parts of the world, have sought ways to live their faith under a cloud of official opprobrium and condemnations closely related to those extended to same-sex intimacy. Likewise, for great numbers of divorced and remarried Catholics. Unlike gay and lesbian Catholics, these Catholics have not had to work out their modus vivendi with the church in the teeth of stigma from the larger society, but that is quickly changing for gays and lesbians, too.
Conclusion: “More Than a Monologue” is off to a good start. It has some tricky terrain to traverse and at least one minefield to cross before reaching its goal.