Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Catholic Chutzpah

Chutzpah is murdering your parents and then throwing yourself on the mercy of the court on the grounds you’re an orphan. Chutzpah is asking your teacher to correct your essay directly at the online source you lifted it from, so you won’t have to take the time to copy it. Chutzpah is the Catholic Church refusing to allow kids needing homes to be adopted by gay people because gay people are no good, and then suing the City of San Francisco for calling that discrimination.

American ideas about race and gender and other identity differences have shifted dramatically, even in my lifetime. When I was born in 1940, there were still people alive who had been slaves in this country, blacks could not serve with whites in the military, Jews could not join country clubs, women could not have their own checking accounts and evangelical preachers could advocate the stoning of gays with impunity.

We’ve come a hell of a long way from those dark ages, no thanks to the catholic church.

The official church, I mean. The hierarchy, up the line from bishops to the pope, who claim that when they speak, the world’s millions of catholics rally behind them so that they speak with one voice. Today the secret’s out. Since Vatican II, the majority of catholics in modern countries see their institution as a large tent which includes those for whom compassion and caring are the primary obligation of a catholic, and those for whom nothing less than blind obedience to authority will do. And everybody in between who identifies with the church. Since well before Vatican II, these two poles have been at odds, and although the battle rages on, more and more people now admit that blind obedience is a thing of the past.

Blame it on the larger American culture, if you will, this prioritizing of conscience. The risk of living so intimately with protestants and other non-catholics for such a long time, maybe, and coming to see other ways of being that are good. Or seek an explanation elsewhere. The fact remains the overwhelming majority of American catholics do not follow the church’s teaching on birth control, do not agree with their stand on gay rights, do not believe the church holds the only keys to heaven. When “the church” speaks, chances are a whole lot of catholics are no longer listening.

Unfortunately, while reality dictates that “the church” is “the whole body of believers,” most people continue to accept the understanding that “the church” is the pope and his bishops, and that leaves a lot of people explaining the discrepancy with phrases like, “I guess I’m not a very good catholic, but…” A lot of these people caught between doctrine and their own sense of right can be guilted for their stands. The power of the official church has waned considerably in recent years, but it still has tremendous clout.

With apologies to all those good catholics out there who might find this offensive, let me continue here using “the church” in this “official church” sense, except where otherwise noted, and move on with the discussion.

The history of discrimination in this country falls into three phases, or stages. In the first stage, an outsider minority group is brutalized, dehumanized, physically and psychologically attacked. In the second stage, one comes to see the humanity of its individual members, lets up on the violence, and replaces it with mere disparagement, shunning, and eventually, with reluctant tolerance. In the third stage, one wonders what the fuss was all about. The lines are erased, barriers are removed, and differences, while still noted, are often spoken of as “interesting” and even “socially enriching.”

A friend wrote recently of looking at newspapers from the 1930s and noticing how often he found pillars of the community in his southern town speaking openly of the mental limitations of the African race. Slavery had given way to segregation, but the impact on African-American lives was still one of violence and cruelty. Much of America today is still stuck in Phase II when it comes to race. There are fewer in Phase I, considerably more in Phase III, but racism still exists and all three phase categories are inhabited.

We have to go outside the United States, fortunately, to find men who argue they have the right to beat a women who belongs to them with impunity with no questions asked. We know there are places in the world where this goes on, but mostly we feel proud that we are pretty much in Phase III when it comes to gender rights. Not entirely. Some Phase II attitudes remain, but we’re getting there.

Anyone with even a passing knowledge of gay liberation knows that attitudes toward gays are slowly but surely following the path of racism and sexism in America. Homosexuality, until the latter decades of the twentieth century, was pretty much defined by religious people as a sin, and by the rest of the population as a mental illness. That meant that the thuggish among us were effectively licensed to brutalize those they thought might be gay, and the response by the “good people” (“the church,” for example) who would never think of brutalizing anybody themselves, carried the implication, “Well, if you wouldn’t walk/talk/act that way, you wouldn’t be asking for trouble.” And sometimes not just by implication, but quite specifically.

Gradually, both the religiously and the scientifically enlightened (those two categories have considerable overlap), moved out of Phase I and through Phase II into Phase III. The American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its list of mental diseases in 1973 and the American Psychological Association followed in 1975.

Some religious groups insist there was corruption in the decision making process and homosexuality should still be defined as a mental disorder, but these groups are routinely recognized as working not from any scientific basis, but from the animus to be found in their reading of their holy scriptures.

There are signs everywhere that Mainstream America has entered Phase III in regard to homosexuality, from the presence of gay characters in film and on television, to the anti-discrimination laws, laws permitting gays to marry and adopt children, campaigns to eliminate bullying like the “It Gets Better” campaign, and countless other spaces.

There is also no shortage, alas, of institutions and individuals digging in their heels. One notorious example of such a heel-digger is the Catholic Church. Catholics themselves, polls show, are among the most accepting of gays in society. Only the church official demands gays continue to be treated as sinners and not healthy people.

If you stand back and look at this situation from a distance, describe it objectively instead of evaluating it, you may want to call this a culture clash, a clash between two values. If you are a member of an oppressed group, you will naturally want to ask how your group is any different from other oppressed groups. Is telling a woman she cannot be a bank executive because women’s brains are not as developed as men’s, particularly for mathematics, a simple clash of cultures? Are Nazis and Jews simply working on a level of culture?

To ask that we “keep an open mind” and debate whether blacks should sit at the back of the bus may make you look like a reasonable person. But we’re not there anymore. Some people kill whales. We, most of us, think that’s wrong. Some people think there is no danger to smoking. We have evidence that attitude (prevalent until quite recently) is uninformed. Some of us believe there is no evidence for global warming, that the earth is only 6000 years old, that your personality depends on where the stars were at the moment of your birth. Most of us believe our thinking has evolved and have no time for such nonsense. Some of these issues are more consequential than others. We may differ over their relative importance. But we all want to think there is movement away from prejudice and self-interest and toward democracy, consensus grounded in reason, and universal well-being.

Some notions – astrology, for example – would seem to be innocent nonsense. Astrology neither “picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” But others, that gay people are child molesters at heart, for example, are products of an earlier phase of our thinking, and we need to speak out loudly and clearly on reasons why such retrograde notions should be done away with. We particularly need to see that it’s not “a simple clash of cultures” when one group labels another group in negative terms and then acts on that prejudice to enforce self-serving prophecies. Sometimes one has to speak up, point the finger, and say stop.

That’s what the San Francisco Board of Supervisors did when Bishop Levada decided that he would no longer allow any of the children under his care to be adopted by gay men and women. Despite the fact that a third of all lesbian households in America have kids as well as more than one out of five households headed by two gay daddies, Levada decided this was, in his words, a form of violence against children. No kidding. His word. Violence.

Children can be adopted by gay people in all fifty states. Despite the retrograde laws such as DOMA still on the books, and the fact that only five states plus D.C. allow same-sex marriage so far, all fifty states have determined gay families are good places for kids to grow up in. Despite what anyone might say about gay people, the data are in. Children in gay families are OK. Levada is absolutely in the wrong here. If he has his way, children will stay in foster homes rather than find two mommies or daddies to take them into their lives and their families. Violence? Could you find a better example of pot-calling-the-kettle-black chutzpah?

On March 13, 2006, Levada, explaining that he was following the dictates of the Vatican, announced there would be no gay adoptions allowed because of the violence to children. The city of San Francisco within days responded with a non-binding resolution that the Church be censured for discrimination. Actually, Levada was not the first to use “violence” in connection with adoption by gay men and women. That honor goes to John Paul II, the man currently being redefined as “blessed” in the Vatican.

Fortunately, the church is commonly recognized for the retrograde institution it is. When Levada tried to sue the City of San Francisco, the case was thrown out in Federal Court. He appealed, and yesterday, the Supreme Court decided not to even hear the case.

Officially, as far as the courts are concerned, San Francisco’s use of “discrimination” to characterize Levada’s resolution was not actionable.

The church’s response is to play the victim. Why are they picking on us? We should be free to do as we please and you should not be allowed to call our discrimination discrimination. You’re being anti-catholic.

If you like to stand on my toe, and I tell you it’s wrong for you to stand on my toe, I am not maligning you when I describe you as “Somebody who stands on my toe.” But when you try to sue me for because I spoke up and called you “Somebody who stands on my toe,” well, now, that’s chutzpah.

As for the charge that what the Board of Supervisors did was “anti-catholic,” well consider the fact that the resolution was led by then Supervisor (now Assemblyman) Tom Ammiano. Tom is opposed to discrimination. He also will tell you he’s a practicing Roman Catholic. One more example of the gap between “the church” and the body of believers.

When Levada left San Francisco, he went to Rome to be made a cardinal and head up the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. A big promotion. Being prefect to this organization, formerly known as the Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition, effectively makes one head man of the Curia.

There is no escaping how central a role homophobia plays in the church. Levada’s successor, Niederauer, was the prime mover behind Proposition 8, which removed the rights of gays to marry in California. But active oppression of gay people is not the only indication of how far the church lags behind in the struggle toward full and universal human rights. A bishop in Australia has just been ousted for even suggesting the possibility of women priests. Not for taking action, but simply for urging dialogue. And the church still today has not explained its decision to rally behind abusive priests and leave abused children to fend for themselves.

The church no longer carries out the violence they once did when dissenters were burned at the stake. They are out of Phase I. The progress from burning faggots (the wood, I mean – which is where the word came from, you may remember) and roasting heretics alive, to merely asking some of them to hide in the closet in shame is actually a great leap forward.

One hopes the day is not far off when the church finds the strength to leap the whole distance. Out of the Middle Ages entirely.


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