A Matter of Honesty, Part VI--We Have To Talk About Papa

Bear with me for a bit of a round-about way of getting into this topic.

1.  By far the coolest thing about writing this blog is that it has been the vehicle for meeting what I call my "internet friends"--people that I have met and come to know via interacting with them purely over the internet.  Frank and Bill and Maureen are three that I mentioned here, but there are many others, and it is great.

If there is a one person who I could add to my list of internet friends, that person would be Austin Walker.  Austin Walker is the editor-in-chief of Vice Gaming, and he writes about video games, but he also writes about race and gender and a host of other things.  He also is the ring-leader of "Friends at the Table," an actual-play tabletop RPG podcast which is the best thing since sliced bread.  Walker is a smart, funny, thoughtful dude, and it would be awesome to trade periodic emails and DMs with him as an internet friend.

Anyway, I was listening to a podcast he was doing for Vice Gaming (along with Patrick Klepek, who is also awesome), and he was talking about a forthcoming game called Mafia III.  Mafia III deals in a rather direct way with race--the main character is a black man living in a ersatz version of New Orleans in the late 1960s.  Walker had his trademark interesting and insightful things to say about the experience of being a black man playing a game where the black main character is treated as a black man in 60s New Orleans would be treated.

And then he provided a long quote from Ta-Nehisi Coates about the idea of progress, and he blew my mind.  Every once in a while you read something and go "yes, that's exactly right," something you never really thought about before but after reading it you immediately recognize it as something that explains the totality of a thing you had previously only perceived in fragmentary pieces.  Here's what Coates said:

But this is what progress always looks like.  Progress is not the practice of those in the business of sweeping success.  Progress overawes--but its work is slow and grim.  Progress waits on people to die, and more enlightened people to take their place.  Progress works even as the unenlightened abound, but find their ranks thinned and their positions exposed.

Specifically, democratic progress is not revolution and can never be the gospel of people who measures success by complete victories achieved in singular life-times.  Instead it is reserved for those who are unrelenting in struggle, patient beyond their mortal coil, and willing to wage wars across generations.

If you will allow me to express this by analogy, I would say it like this:  Moving from the "marrying your daughters" phase of the struggle to the "how come there's no white history month?" portion is exactly how progress works.
There is still a racial disparity--though nowhere near what it was.  But more importantly, progress has meaning.  Progress is not an end-point.  When you say "We've made progress," you are not saying "We shall now disarm."  You are saying "We have won some battles."

2.  Coates in those quotes is speaking explicitly about race, but I think (and I suspect Coates would agree) that this notion of progress applies to anything which is or might be progressing.  There are at least a half-dozen ideas you can spin off of this quote, but I want to focus on just three.  First, to be a progressive under this vision is to embrace what I'd like to call The Grind.  Change doesn't happen because so-called Great Men do Great Things that fix everything; change happens because individuals effect small changes that slowly, often imperceptibly, wear away at the seemingly unmovable mountains that are in our way.  As Coates says, to be a progressive in this way requires you to settle in for a long tedious slog, but that long tedious slog is the only way things actually change.  We all have a tendency to become frustrated and seek out quick-fix solutions, or to throw up our hands and say that nothing has been changed, but we have to fight against those tendencies.  Being a progressive requires discipline and it requires patience and it requires, maybe above all, endurance.  The Grind is hard, hard work, and it is always going to be so.

Second, we need to recognize that small, incremental gains are real gains, and they need to be taken seriously.  There is a temptation (and, I must say, especially from folks on the Left) to insist on the complete fulfillment of their goals from the jump and criticize anything that is partial or contingent or limited as being worthless.  But that's wrong--they are not worthless, but are part of the incremental set of steps that can get you where you want to go.  Even temporary positions that are facially unacceptable (i.e. "how come there's no white history month?") can be important stages in getting to where you want to go.  If you are constantly denigrating these half-a-loaf, or even one-thirty-seconds of a loaf, gains, then you are not going to get anywhere and you are sabotaging yourself.

But that second point is in tension with the last point, which is that you must also avoid the impulse to simply declare victory at some intermediate place and fold up the tent.  Because The Grind is, well, a grind, there will be a perennial temptation to give up, especially when you can spin your giving up as a victory.  The thing that is particularly important to recognize here is that there will be a subset of folks, folks you thought of as allies and friends of the cause, that will be looking around for reasons/excuses to stop pulling on the rope at various points along the way.  And, as much as that can be dispiriting, you have to be ready for that, and you have to be willing to push on past where those folks are willing to go, even if that means going off alone or with a small group.  Because, if you stop pulling the rope, not only will you not go forward, but you run the real risk of sliding backward.

3.  So, with Coates's framing in mind, let's talk about Pope Francis and yet another of his in-the-air press conferences.  It is worthwhile to read the whole thing.  In it, he talked about LGBT folks generally and the "T" specifically.  He called for "accompaniment" of LGBT people, and he suggested that each person should be dealt with on a case-by-case basis.

I think it is important to be mindful here of The Grind, and of the power of small steps.  There are Catholic bishops (Burke, Chaput, Wenski, et al.) and many other Catholic voices who, if you will excuse my vulgarity, would just assume that LGBT people eat shit and die (and divorced and remarried couples, and any woman or man that can be even somewhat described as a "feminist," etc.).   This is not a fair or accurate description of Pope Francis.  It is clear from his talks that he has legitimate concern for all people, including LGBT folks.  I am sure he was legitimately warm and compassionate with the Spanish man he discusses in the interview.  I think he is sincere with what he is saying.  Moreover, there is real tangible value in having the head of the Catholic Church talk about the need to treat everyone as an individual and to walk with them as opposed to yelling at them.  A Catholic Church that actually did that would be a different, and better, church, and would do better by its LGBT members and their families.  We can celebrate these statements as a small step in making the world a better place.

But.  But.

If you say you are going to "accompany" people, the logical follow-on question is "accompany them where?"  Where is it that, in a perfect world, Pope Francis would see the people he wants to accompany go?  The answer, it seems clear to me from this interview, is to a place where they are not LGBT anymore.  To put it bluntly, in Pope Francis's vision of the world, to be LGBT is to be sick.  Or, to put it in theological language, it seems clear to me that Pope Francis fully believes that the folks he seeks to accompany are "intrinsically disordered."  In fact, in a sense, he believes it far more so than the so-called conservatives.  Conservatives talk about "intrinsic disorder" but act as if being LGBT is willful wickedness, and treat LGBT folks accordingly.  After all, most of us have compassion for people with mental disorders, and we would look at people who talk about the "sinfulness" or "depravity" of people who cut themselves as assholes.  Likewise, if you talked about a secret "schizophrenic agenda," people would look at you like there was something not right about you.  Compassion, accompaniment, aid to people suffering--these are all the things we would expect from someone who wanted to do right by people who are working through a disease that they did not choose and cannot be changed.  It makes perfect sense that he would think and act this way.

Nevertheless, the key that reveals that this is how he looks at the question is found in his answer to the question before the one about accompaniment.  Pope Francis believes, at bottom, that the thing that most defines us as who we are is our gender, and with that gender comes a set of hard-wired traits and characteristics, one of which is attraction to the other gender.  Gender is fixed, gender is normative, gender is definitive.  And, as a result, anything that departs from that, which includes both cisgender gay and lesbian folks as well as trans folks, means that something foundational is broken within them.  We shouldn't be surprised by the Vatican's ex education curriculum, as it reflects the views of the Boss.

4.  Many of you reading what I have just written are likely horrified by that view of gender, and think that our common humanity is far, far important than any gender differences.  Not that you need my validation, but I agree with you and I think you are right.  But I think those of us who are horrified, especially those of us who consider ourselves "liberal Catholics," should keep two things in mind about the significance of the Pope's comments.

First, there is a significant segment of our fellow self-identified "liberal Catholics" for whom what the Pope sketched out on that plane is completely sufficient for their purposes, and are ready to declare victory.  Witness the speed at which many liberal Catholics offered hosannas for the Pope's statements, in the form of two examples from my Twitter timeline:

This rush to declare victory likely has its root in a couple of factors.  First, I think there is a significant segment of folks, including "Catholic liberals," who simply agree with the rigid, complementarian model of gender, as well as idea that being LGBT is kind of like having a mental disorder, and so they see Pope Francis vocalizing their views perfectly.  Second, I think some people simply don't care about LGBT issues, and just want a position that they can argue with a straight-face is not rank bigotry.  But, whatever the origin, the take-away here is that, insofar as the vision sketched out by Pope Francis were to be implemented, these folks are absolutely going to stop pulling the rope on anything LGBT, and will likely accuse anyone who is dissatisfied of being a hater (as Faggioli nicely previews in his Tweet).  Pope Francis's vision is the furthest point that many of these folks are willing to go, and if you want to push on from there, it will be without them.

The second take-away is related to the first--the vision sketched out by Pope Francis is the best-case scenario for the Catholic Church for at least the next generation with regard to LGBT issues.  The Catholic Church has a long, long way to go before it is ready to even think about revising the completely binary vision of gender which undergirds the inability to recognize that being gay is, as James Alison calls it, a "non-pathological minority variant in the human condition."  You cannot believe that and also believe that gender difference is foundational to the way God designed the human species.  The Church might stop firing people, and it might stop calling gay folks a threat to human civilization, but what would replace that is a notion that LGBT folks are basically suffering from a disease and as such they deserve our compassion.  The idea that they will be just embraced as they are is not on the horizon.  It's just not.

5.  Those of us who are on the "Catholic left" have to figure out if the status quo sketched out by Pope Francis is good enough for them.  For me, it is not nearly good enough, not only because of what it means for LGBT people but also what it means for gender issues generally and things like women's ordination specifically (i.e., don't expect anything substantive to change).

Saying that it is not good enough doesn't mean that it is nothing, or should be condemned.  But it does change the way you approach The Grind.  Because sometimes institutions and groups are the grinder, working to address other sources of inertia, and sometimes they are the grindee, the thing that needs to be reworked and changed.  And, for me, even under the best-case scenario of 50 years of Pope Francis-like leadership, the Catholic Church is and will be a grindee with regard to gender and LGBT questions.  As Coates soberly tells us, sometimes a bunch of folks have to die off in order for things to free themselves up.  And sometimes you have to leave in order to do your part in The Grind.

These are hard questions that don't have clear answers.  Different people will come to different conclusions on what to do, and that's OK.  But we should be clear about what we are doing and what we face.  That's the honesty we need as we face our part of The Grind.    


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