In the Long Run, We Are All Dead

Last night, Fr. James Martin, S.J., well known as Stephen Colbert's "chaplain," among other jobs, gave a talk to New Ways Ministry, a group dedicated to advocating for Catholic LGBT people.  The full text of the talk is available here, and it is well worth reading.  I have some thoughts on what he said and how be approaches the problem, but first a couple of disclaimers.  Number one, Martin is without question one of the "good guys" among the prominent Catholics in the media, and he has taken a great deal of abuse for standing up for LGBT people in the Catholic Church.  So, while there are things in what he said that I am not sure I agree with or can stand behind, I don't want to seem like I am shooting the messenger or dumping on him.  He does good, important work, and this speech is part of that work.

Second, I write conscious of the fact that I approach this topic indirectly.  Martin's audience, primarily, is LGBT Catholics, and I am not an LGBT Catholic.  I am someone who is convicted that I need to stand beside and with LGBT folks, Catholic and otherwise, so the status of those folks is important to me, but nevertheless I come at this in a second order way.  I bring this up for a couple of reasons.  First, LGBT need to be heard in their own voices and not via some privileged straight dude speaking on their behalf, so I don't want to usurp the place of those folks in this discussion.  Second, I am a firm believer in the idea that the relationship between a church and an individual believer is a deeply personal and idiosyncratic thing, and it not the place of anyone to dictate how anyone else (LGBT or otherwise) "should" relate to the Catholic Church, or any other church or religious institution.

With that out of the way, three things jumped out for me from Martin's essay.  His structuring image is that of a bridge between LGBT Catholics and the institutional church, and that this bridge needs to be built and strengthened so the two groups can walk together.  But that raises the question that Martin doesn't directly address--walk where?  What is the goal or endpoint of the dialogue Martin seeks to foster?  Is it simply to address the (no doubt priority) issues Martin mentions--dropping the term "intrinsic disorder," calling LGBT people by their chosen identifiers, stop firing gay church employees, etc.?  Or is it something more?

As I have been talking about of late, one of the biggest problems with Catholic discourse generally is that people are rarely honest about what they want out of the Church.  If you are going to have a dialogue, it is helpful to start out with providing a clear picture to the other side of what you want.  You may not be able to get the other side to agree to everything you want, but at least the parties know where they stand.  If you don't set out your vision and objectives from the jump, you end up with recriminations of bad faith, and the view that one or both sides is "moving the goalposts."

My sense of what many LGBT Catholics and their allies want, ultimately, is for the Church to treat their relationships and their loves as indistinguishable from those of their straight friends.  That is a big ask given where the Church is now, but it is the ask, and we should acknowledge that this is the end-goal.  Whether or not Martin is willing to countenance this goal is very unclear from his talk.  In a section on "sensitivity" toward the Church from LGBT folks (more on this in a bit), he chastises LGBT people for not warmly embracing Amoris Laetitia and paragraph 250 ("We would like before all else to reaffirm that every person, regardless of sexual orientation, ought to be respected in his or her dignity and treated with consideration, while ‘every sign of unjust discrimination’ is to be carefully avoided, particularly any form of aggression and violence. Such families should be given respectful pastoral guidance, so that those who manifest a homosexual orientation can receive the assistance they need to understand and fully carry out God’s will in their lives”).  He neglects to note the very next paragraph, which says (quoting a preparatory document) "as for proposals to place unions between homosexual persons on the same level as marriage, there are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family," and talks about the Gay Agenda that is trying to oppress people into going along.

I suspect when LGBT advocates expressed disapproval at Amoris Laetitia, it stemmed from being told that their relationships were fraudulent and that they were part of some evil conspiracy.
 Martin has to know that, so I found his tut-tutting of LGBT Catholics regarding Amoris Laetitia to be at least weird, and possibly suggesting that he agrees on some level with Paragraph 251.  He is of course free to do that, but I think it is valuable for everyone to recognize that, for some segment of the people he is trying to talk to, an equilibrium as described by Amoris Laetitia is not good enough.  Again, let's be honest about what we are trying to do here.

The other two things I noticed about Martin's essay focused on what you might call delayed gratification.  In the section on compassion toward the hierarchy, Martin writes:

Challenging as it may be to hear, and without setting aside the suffering that many L.G.B.T. people have experienced in the church, I wonder if the L.G.B.T. community could give the institutional church the gift of time. Time to get to know you. In a very real way, an open and public L.G.B.T. community is new, even in my lifetime. In a very real way the world is just getting to know you. So is the church. I know it’s a burden, but it’s perhaps not surprising. It takes time to get to know people. So perhaps the L.G.B.T. community can give the institutional church the gift of patience.

Said another way, Martin is saying that the dialogue that he is describing is going to take a long time, and will probably yield few fruits in the immediate term, so he is asking for folks to hold on through that current status quo (which Martin recognizes as unacceptable) to allow the Church to catch up.

Reading that paragraph, I was hit with the famous quote by the economist John Maynard Keynes--"in the long run, we are all dead."  The ask Martin makes is for people living in the here and now to stick with an institution that is (by Martin's own admission) not behaving right toward them, in the hope that at some undefined future date it will stop doing these things to similarly situated people.  I think in particular of someone like my comrade-in-blogging Bill Lindsey, who lost his entire livelihood as a Catholic theologian, and now lives with his husband in their forced retirement.  He is unlikely to see any of the changes Martin pushes for, even under Martin's, frankly, optimistic assessment of the state-of-play of the Catholic Church on LGBT questions.  Why should he continue to push that rock up the hill any more?  Shouldn't he be able to live his life in the here and now, without having to sacrifice it to the promise of some possible better future for someone else?

Likewise, under the heading of sensitivity and with regard to paragraph 250 of Amoris Laetitia, Martin says:

Well, perhaps in the West those words seemed insufficient. But the pope is writing not simply for the West, much less simply for the United States. Imagine reading that in a country where violence against L.G.B.T. people is rampant and the church has remained silent. What is bland in the United States is incendiary in other parts of the world. What might be obvious to a bishop in one country is a clear, forceful, even threatening, challenge to another bishop. What seems arid to L.G.B.T. people in one country may be, in another country, water in a barren desert.  

That's true as a factual matter, but again the ask here is for LGBT people to grind through discrimination here, in their own lives, because acting more firmly would scandalize folks in other parts of the world.  But people like Bill Lindsey don't live in other parts of the world; they live here in the United States.  You are asking them to disclaim their own situation for the benefit of . . . what exactly?  That seems to me like a very unbalanced burden that is being placed on LGBT people--you bear all of the burdens now, in return for allowing us to keep folks you will never meet in other parts of the world (many of whom are actively persecuting, and even killing, your brothers and sisters) happy.  Why should LGBT people be asked to, in essence, sacrifice their own lives like that?

As I mentioned above, I am conscious of the fact that these are second-order concerns for me.  But let me try to put it in a context that is directly relevant.  I know a woman who, with her husband and family, left the Catholic Church and are in the process of becoming Episcopalian.  When asked why she left the Catholic Church, she told me that she and her husband decided that the "values" of the Catholic Church did not match the values she was trying to teach her children.  She did not go into detail about what those "values" were, but if you are someone who moves from Catholicism to the Episcopal Church in 2016, there is a strong likelihood it has to do with some combination of birth control, the role of women, and LGBT issues.  So, let us stipulate for purposes of this discussion that the "values" she is talking about include the treatment of LGBT people.

What would Fr. Martin say to this woman?  "Hold on, and maybe when your kids are in their 50s things will be right"?  She and her husband have only one chance to parent their children, now, in 2016 in Central Ohio.  Saying that things will (or, more accurately, might) get better doesn't help her or solve her problem at all.  "You have to understand that folks in other parts of the world will be scandalized if we change anything, so you are on your own with your kids"?  What about the fact that we here in the United States are scandalized by the treatment of LGBT folks by the Church?  Do we not count?  And, again, she and her husband are not parenting children in other parts of the world, but children right here in this country.  Those are the folks for whom she is responsible, and she is tacitly being asked to sacrifice their development in order that some undefined other group of folks someplace else will not be disturbed.

Sometimes it makes sense to meet folks on the middle of the bridge and encourage them to walk across, as Martin suggests.  And sometimes it makes sense to say, "I will greet you warmly when and if you decide to cross over, but I need to be on the other side right now, with or without you."  That's the route the Episcopal Church has chosen--willing to help and encourage other congregations to come over, without sacrificing the LGBT members in their own pews in the mean time.  As honest and heartfelt as what Fr. Martin is trying to say here, I have all but come to the conclusion that the later is the better path.  


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