A Tale of Two Bishops

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

On his way home from Armenia, Pope Francis gave one of his now-customary impromptu press conferences, with a now-customary set of bombshells.  Maybe the most amazing statement was what Pope Francis said about Martin Luther, which was essentially "his heart was in the right place, and after all the late medieval Catholic Church really was a cesspool, but he went a little too far in the end."  But the statement that got the most play--and which is the focus of this post--is his comments about LGBT people.  Francis was asked about comments made by Cardinal Reinhardt Marx of Munich that Church should apologize to LGBT people for its behavior toward them, and he basically endorsed Marx's position:

"[Gay people] should not be discriminated against. They should be respected, accompanied pastorally.

I think that the Church not only should apologise … to a gay person whom it offended but it must also apologise to the poor as well, to the women who have been exploited, to children who have been exploited by (being forced to) work. It must apologise for having blessed so many weapons."

Let's start with the positive.  First, there is exactly zero chance that either of his two predecessors would have embraced the idea that apology to gay folks was appropriate.  Second, this is a positive development, if for no other reason as it gives cover to those within the Church who have already come around on LGBT questions to advance those positions publicly.  And, third, I believe that Pope Francis is sincere about wanting to accompany all people, including LGBT people.  This is not some publicity stunt--he believes what he is saying.

But, there are problems.  As Michael Coren pointed out this morning on twitter, the whole thing is a little vague--what exactly is the Church apologizing for?  Because it sounds like the apology is basically for being mean to LGBT folks and/or "discriminating" against them in some undefined manner.  Certainly there is meanness and discrimination to be found; for one example, read Bill Lindsey's story of how his career in academic theology ended.  Less meanness and less discrimination, especially bringing to an end this dreadful purge of married LGBT folks from within Catholic institutions, would be a step in the right direction.

But, as I discussed last week, it still locates the problem firmly in the land of words. It suggests that there is some formula by which you can present the current teaching of the Catholic Church with regard to sexuality that will not be mean and harmful to LGBT folks, without having to revisit the teaching.  We can see this in the way Francis makes pains to point out that the sins against LGBT folks do not come from the Church as such, but from its members.  In doing so, it seems to me his is trying to erect a barrier against challenging the underlying teaching.  But that underlying teaching is the fuel that powers the meanness and discrimination Francis disclaims.  But for the existence of the theological position regarding LGBT folks, there would be no meanness and no discrimination--it's not like the Catholic Church is firing redheads or left-handers or some other similarly sized discrete minority.  Apologizing for the symptoms is empty if you refuse to consider the thing that is causing those symptoms.

Or, to approach the issue from a different direction, Pope Francis wants the Church to accompany LGBT people, and again I think he is sincere in that desire.  I also think that he understands that this accompaniment, if done authentically, will lead to a different approach by the Church to LGBT issues.  In doing so, however, I suspect Francis believes that there is some stable  equilibrium point that is between were the Church is now and, to take a representative example, where the Episcopal Church is on the question.  Here, I think he is wrong; I don't think there is any such equilibrium point in between now and full affirmation.  If you are truly willing to accompany LGBT people on their journey, that journey will eventually lead to some version of a Saturday afternoon in June on Lake Erie.  There is no loving way to tell someone that his or her love is a fraud.  As I said in the previous post "[i]t doesn't matter where you come from or what pre-existing ideas you bring to the table; if you are willing to look, then you will see, and you will know."

Meanwhile, we have another Catholic bishop who is clearly not willing to even begin that journey of accompaniment.  Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami took the extremely unusual step of criticizing a fellow bishop (and, though he didn't know it at the time, Pope Francis) by angrily rejecting the idea that the Catholic Church has anything to apologize for regarding LGBT people.

“Where in our faith, where in our teachings — I ask you — do we target and breed contempt for any group of people? In today’s second reading, St. Paul teaches us: ‘Through faith you are all children of God in Christ Jesus. There is neither Jew nor Greek… there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’ Our faith, our religion gives no comfort, no sanction to a racist, or a misogynist, or a homophobe.”

Or, in other words, "we are not bigots.  Look, it says it right here in the Catechism!  QED."

It is critically important to place this statement in the context of the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops' annual dog-and-pony show "The Fortnight for Freedom."  For two weeks--from the feast of St. John Fisher (a Catholic bishop killed by Henry VIII) to the Fourth of July--the U.S. Catholic Church is asked to reflect on how persecuted they are in the United States of America at the hands of the Obama administration, insofar as LGBT folks are allowed to get married and those who work for Catholic hospitals and schools are allowed to get birth control as part of their insurance coverage.  The Fortnight for Freedom has personal resonance for me, in that the first one in 2012 was the catalyst for me to rethink my relationship with the Catholic Church, leading directly to this blog.  Now on year five, I find it no less odious and manipulative than I did four years ago, and yesterday I continued my now-traditional protest of the event by boycotting Catholic services on those two Sundays and attending a non-Catholic service instead.

Putting aside my one-man crusade against the Fortnight for Freedom, Archbishop Wenski's statement here is maybe the best example I can imagine of the Cult of Victimhood.  The core premise of the Cult of Victimhood is "if I am a victim, then I cannot be a victimizer."  Thus, to the extent I can highlight the degree to which I am being oppressed, that oppressed status absolves me of even the possibility of being responsible for harming some other group.  Thus if the "gay lobby" is persecuting the Church, then according the logic of the Cult of Victimhood the Church must be innocent of doing anything to them.  And, conversely, if I acknowledge that the Church has done something wrong to LGBT people, then it cannot be the case that I have any claim to persecution.  Everything is pure zero-sum.

Now, as it turns out, I think the U.S. Catholic Church's claim to persecution is farcical and they don't have any legitimate claim to being persecuted.  But the point is that even if the claim was valid, the Cult of Victimhood forces you to deny your own responsibility in victimization in order to preserve the validity of your victimhood status.  This is why Girard argues that the Cult of Victimhood is Satanic--it prevents you from recognizing your own sinfulness and seeking forgiveness and reform of your life, preventing you from receiving God's grace.

So long as Archbishop Wenski and his fellow U.S. bishops cling to this notion that Obama and the "gay lobby" are out to get them, they cannot even begin to accompany LGBT folks.  Their identity is too tied up in being the persecuted voices being marginalized by the supposedly overwhelming power of the "gay agenda" and "the culture of death."  Francis's initiative, limited in key respects as it is, has no chance of even getting off the ground here in the U.S. as long as people like Archbishop Wenski are around.

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