We got the wall of D.C. to remind us allThat you can't trust freedom
When it's not in your hands
When everybody's fightin'
For their promised land
It always starts with something small. On July 30, 1419, a rock thrown from a window by some person unknown to history led to the Hussite wars, a terribly bloody conflict in central Europe that set the stage for the Protestant Reformation. The seeds of the American Revolution began when the British government decided, not to raise taxes on the American colonies (that came later), but to actually collect taxes on sugar and molasses that had been on the books for a long time but had never been enforced.
The reason, I think, that it always starts with something small is tied up in the power of marginal changes. The mind-bogglingly complex system that is human culture works because of a nested series of equilibria. These equilibria can be stable for a long time, but they are fragile, in that a subtle change can knock the entire system out of alignment. One slight shift in a particular direction can be the beginning of the cascade that brings the whole thing down. And, because the shifts are so small, it is easy for each side to accuse the other of disrupting the system on purpose. After all, it surely can't be the subtle and almost imperceptible change that is responsible for bringing the whole thing down; it must be some sort of conspiracy on the part of the other side. Which, of course, makes the new divide even more intractable.
If you want to see the power of small things, look no further than the dust up at Waldron Mercy Academy. Waldron Mercy is located in one of the wealthy and prestigious suburbs in Philadelphia's famous "Main Line." It costs over thirteen thousand dollars per year to send a student to kindergarden at Waldron Mercy, which seems to an unfathomable sum to me but is consistent with other top Catholic schools in the Philly area. As the name suggests, it is run by the Sisters of Mercy, a religious order originally from Ireland that, as it turns out, worked in the Catholic grade school that I and my brother and sisters attended (In fact, the sister who was the principal of the school when I was there became the head of the US Province of the Mercy sisters.)
In any event, Waldron Mercy had a religion teacher, Margie Winters, who had been teaching at the school for many years. Seven years ago, Winters and her wife were married in Massachusetts, a fact that the school was aware of from the time the marriage took place (as were the Mercy sisters--both Winters and her wife are "lay associates" affiliated with the order). This June, she was fired, and there is no real dispute that the firing is a product of her marriage. And now everyone is up in arms, and the dispute threatens to become part of the story of the Pope's visit to Philadelphia in October.
What really happened here? Why is this an issue now? We should begin with an obvious, but important point--there have been LGBT teachers, including teachers of religion, as long as there have been Catholic schools. In fact, for a long time, LGBT people were no doubt far more comfortable in the Catholic world, with its praise of celibacy and relative de-emphasis on marriage, than in most other spheres of life. There was "space" for LGBT people to live their lives relatively unmolested. And, yes, some of those people no doubt had relationships, including sexual relationships. But as long as those things were kept out of plain view, very few Catholics asked probing questions about the two "spinsters" who taught at the school that happened to live together. As long as they were not public about their relationship--and remember, it's not like they could be public in most other contexts--they got the benefit of every doubt. That was a stable equilibrium.
So, what has changed?
Well, it seems to me that LGBT people decided that they were no longer willing to keep their relationships secret. This unwillingness, no doubt, stems in large part from the broader cultural environment of Stonewall and gay pride and all the rest. But the shift is not as large as some would make it out to be. In the Philadelphia Inquirer article above, Winters makes the point that she had agreed not to discuss her relationship with her students. She was willing to be discrete, but she was not willing to be secretive; she was willing to not speak but she was unwilling to lie. That may seem to be a subtle distinction, but it is a change from the previous understanding which likely required people to affirmatively pretend that their relationships didn't exist. It is a movement.
There is another thing that changed, as well. A year before Stonewall, Pope Paul VI issued Humanae Vitae, and from then on all discussions of sexuality in the Catholic sphere became ideological, and as a result became political. Contrary to the sanitized story told by conservatives today, prior to 1968 large swaths of the Catholic world were using birth control--if you don't believe me, go to a priest's retirement home, find someone who is still alive who heard confessions in the early 60s, and ask him. But after '68, the people who were "struggling" with the teaching mostly stopped struggling and moved to a posture of either actively ignoring the Church's position or one of open dissent. At the same time, those who held on became emboldened in their posture of resistance, both to the broader social trends (remember, this was the late 60s) and to their fellow Catholics who were openly flaunting Humanae Vitae, as well as by Pope Paul's catastrophic predictions of the results of accepting birth control.
They were also progressively emboldened by 35 years of two popes were were committed to the teaching, and who were committed to making sure that the bishops in the U.S. held tightly to the Humanae Vitae line. But, rather than simply limiting the discussion to birth control, Pope John Paul and Pope Benedict framed the discussion around sexuality in general. Everything was connected--one either accepted the entire traditional Catholic framework, or one was beyond the pale. All of the energy that initially formed around the birth control issue became available for use in every other front of the unified war against the "Sexual Revolution."
All of this is on display in the Waldron Mercy story. Want to know how all of this got started? A couple of years ago, some fifth grader brought a dirty picture to school and showed it to a class mate. The mother of the class mate freaked out, and approached Winters about incorporating John Paul II's Theology of the Body into the curriculum. Winters demurred. And so the battle lines were drawn--those who are ready to go to the barricades on behalf of the idea that the official teaching of the Catholic Church is a cure for whatever one doesn't like about the world when it comes to sex, and those who think those same teachings are something to be swept under the rug with quiet embarrassment. Fifty years of division flared up.
In its original form, this dispute wasn't even about gay marriage. But, in due course, the mother and the sympathetic board members learned that Winters was married to a woman. And so:
“You’ll never get the theology of the body into the school.”
“I said, ‘Why?’ They said, ‘Because the director of religious education is a civilly married lesbian.’”
This quote presupposes a totally binary vision of the world--those that are on-board, and those that are not. And clearly those who are not include anyone who is an openly married lesbian. To have a teacher at a Catholic school who is in an relationship with someone of the same sex is to turn the school into a "fraud." One must be all in.
But, here's the thing--it is rapidly and increasingly the case that these issues are binary. When it came to light that Winters was fired, a significant portion of the other parents at Waldron rose up in defense of Winters. Why? Sure, you can talk about instrumental things like the shame of losing a good teacher. You can even try to deflect the place of focus from sexuality to economic questions, like Max Lindenman gamely (if, I think, ultimately unsuccessfully) tries to do. But I don't believe that's the real reason these parents are backing Winters. They are backing Winters because they don't care that she is a lesbian, or married to her wife. They no longer see any reason why she needs to hide that from anyone. And they don't really care one way or the other what the "official" Catholic Church says about this issue--in the world of practical Catholicism that they and their children live in, Winters's status was simply not a problem.
Margie Winters had a job at Waldron Mercy for eight years after her marriage because school officials believed that the vast majority of Waldron Mercy parents either knew about her marriage, or wouldn't care if they did know. And, judging from the response to her firing, that was at least a reasonable assumption. But when someone called them on it, the equilibrium collapsed, and the fighting began.
The story of Waldron Mercy is a story of the beginnings of a civil war among lay Catholics about what it means to be Catholic, especially with regard to sex. Moreover, I am becoming increasingly sure this is not, and will not be, an isolated incident. I'm not suggesting people are going to pick up guns and shoot each other in the main (though there may be isolated incidents of that), but the fights will be bitter and divisive all the same.
There is a sense among some on the conservative side that this is a one-sided battle because they have the official Church on their side, and so the other side is ultimately irrelevant, aside from some ineffective complaining. That is a deeply naive illusion. It is true that the people in the pews cannot directly change the policies of the Church or any Catholic institution. But they can bring those same institutions to their knees. If, as many are discussing, the parents who support Winters withdraw their students from Waldron Mercy or withhold tuition, then the school will collapse. It's not the ideal way to express one's views, but it represents utilization of the only two levers that the Catholic laity have--money and manpower. If the folks who don't care about the opposition to gay marriage (and, as I repetitively point out, that's a majority of American Catholics) pull one or both of those levers, the Catholic Church cannot function in anything remotely like its present form.
For a long time, folks on both sides of the divide have been unwilling to use these sorts scorched-earth tactics, at least in general. Catholic people value unity, recognize that we are not always going to agree on stuff, and prioritize staying Catholic come what may in favor of going one's own way. This, too, is an equilibrium, one that I think is in danger of crashing down as well. Because it is no longer about abstract things like what such and such official document says when translated from Latin, but about how individual Catholics are going to live out their faith in a day-to-day way. It's easy to let those abstract, hypothetical concerns slide. When it starts to get visceral, it starts to get real.
As Axl sings, "you can't trust freedom when it's not in your hands, when everybody's fightin' for their promised land." On one side is a promised land where Catholicism is a fortress to hold off what they see as an unending tide of social breakdown and chaos. And on the other side is a promised land where people like Winters can continue to do what they have always done, except free to say publicly who they are and what they are about. And, more personally, those same people want a promised land where they will be left alone with regard to how they have sex. And both sides are learning that they can't trust their freedom in the hands of the other side.
No document or writing or decision from the Vatican is going to end this conflict, because its not ultimately about the Pope or the Vatican. It's also not about Archbishop Chaput, the archconservative Archbishop of Philadelphia who, notwithstanding his wholly unproductive statement after the fact, almost assuredly had nothing to do with these events. It's not about priests, and it's not about religious sisters, at least not primarily. It's about the people in the pews, and the parents who send their kids of these schools and other Catholic institutions. We don't agree anymore. We don't see the world the same way. We are divided among ourselves.
Which is why I am pessimistic about the Synod on the Family to have any significant impact. Sure, it will give one side or the other, or maybe even both sides, ammunition in their struggle. But I think we are past the point where some sort of top-down solution can be imposed from above. The conflict may take the form of a slow bleed, as one side or the other simply drifts away from the Catholic Church in search of greener pastures, or some generational change decisively shifts the balance. Either way, I don't see either side of the current combatants changing their views.
No, I think we are going to have to have it out, one way or the other. And it is not going to be pretty. It already isn't.