A Matter of Honesty, Part X--A Final, Personal Note

There are times when something happens to you that hits you like a ton of bricks, where you immediately know that something big and significant has occurred that changes the way that you look at things and changes where you stand.  And then there are things that happen that don't seem especially consequential at the time, but that stick with you.  They are like a splinter in your mind and in your soul--at first it doesn't seem like that big a deal, but it just sticks around and becomes more and more prominent by virtue of its presence in your body and your life.  Let me tell you a story of one of the later incidents in my life.

A year ago at this time, I spent a week in Philadelphia visiting my sister, brother-in-law, and the rest of my family.  In part, I was going to spend Thanksgiving with them, but in part it was for my nephew's baptism.  My sister and my brother-in-law are not practicing Catholics, but they had their son baptized at my brother-in-law's family's parish in the Philly suburbs.  Off we went on the feast of Christ the King, and after the 10:30 Mass, a deacon comes out to do the baptism.  Prior to going through with the service, for reasons I will never understand, this guy decided that he was going to go on a long riff on how the presence of my non-practicing sister and her husband bringing their son to the baptismal font was a clear sign of how terrible gay marriage was and how bogus it was in the face of a real marriage.  All of us shifted uncomfortably, as we knew that my sister's close friend and his long term partner had been invited and had been unable to attend at the last minute.  How close did we come to having these kind friends get publicly humiliated?

I remember very clearly looking at the face of my sister.  She had a look in her eyes that communicated very clearly what she was thinking.  "I gave these people one last chance, and this is what they pull.  Never again."  I knew she was done for good, and I didn't blame her.  But, more importantly, I knew there was nothing I could do.  I couldn't make this deacon stop with his irrelevant and nonsensical crap--even if I had stopped the service and confronted this guy, he didn't have to listen to me.  I'm nobody, with no say in anything, and no clout that he had any reason to respect.  I couldn't brush it off as some sort of weird outlier, as I knew full well that it was not.  He was not ad libbing--he was stating the company line.  There was nothing I could do.  I felt totally helpless in that moment.

It is this feeling of helplessness that has been the splinter in my mind and my soul ever since.
It put into focus something that had been swirling around in an inchoate way for a long time.  To be a Catholic, especially one with a more progressive outlook, is to be part of something that does things that you often think are deeply wrong and misguided and you have no control, nor even any influence, over any of it.  You have no say in anything, whether on the micro level of the life your parish community or the macro level of the global church.  In recent years, there has been an explosion of coverage of the hidden, internal politics of the Vatican and the US Bishop's Conference.  But this coverage is basically no different from the Kremlinologists of the Cold War era--you can try to figure out what is happening and decode their internal mysteries, but you can't actually influence anything that goes on.  Except, with regard to the Kremlinologists, it only affected those of us in the West in an indirect way; for those who are Roman Catholics, it affects every portion of our faith lives.

All of this leads to a kind of learned helplessness and fatalism that infects Roman Catholic life.  Since you know you can't really affect anything, you stop trying.  But there is something else, something more sinister, which influences the passivity of many Roman Catholics.  All of us understand who is protected in the Catholic sphere and who is not.  In the US church, white straight folks, especially men, are always going to be protected.  Non-white, non-straight and/or non-male people don't get that kind of protection.  I am very conscious of the fact that I am one of these protected people.  I can say what I want, write what I want, and I am never going to be the subject of a sermon from a deacon at a baptism.  There are ways to be in dissent that will get you ostracized from the Catholic Church, and there are ways that will never really be challenged.

I am coming to see that this learned helplessness is a poison that is eating our souls.  We don't talk about it, we don't acknowledge it, but it is real.  It makes us cynical, it makes us suspicious, but more than anything else it is so pervasive and so foundational to our common life that we don't even notice it.  It is the given that we all just assume to be true--you have no real say in anything, but so long as you stay within this box and are the right kind of person (or, at least, pretend to be the right kind of person), you can ignore certain things and complain about the rest as much as you want.

So much of the discourse from the progressive side of the Roman Catholic church is empty because it comes from people who know that they are in a protected bubble.  They can talk all they want and they know that as long as they stay within the unspoken but nevertheless clear lines, they will never suffer any consequences.  There are never any stakes, not for most of those speaking.  But, in a way, that protected bubble is a kind of cage, forcing people to watch from safety while others get thrown to the wolves.  That in turn furthers the sense of learned helplessness--you sit above it all from your protected perch, knowing that you can't really be touched but also that you can't really do anything about it.  Meanwhile, we sit and watch others--women who want freedom and equality, LGBT people who want basic dignity and respect--get ground down in the gears of the machine, day after day and year after year.  We cannot help but become callous and detached from what is going on below, unless or until we hit something that jolts us out of our comfortable pattern and shines a light on our learned helplessness

I felt that learned helplessness that day in that church in Philadelphia.  It has taken me a year to put a name to it, to understand what it was that I experienced that day.  I felt trapped, embarrassed by what I was seeing and hearing and unable to do anything about it.  In a positive way, I was shamed by the look on my sister's face--she was showing me something that I had carefully learned over a long period of time to tune out.

One thing I know for sure is that I don't ever want to feel that feeling of helplessness ever again.  I don't want to live in that protective bubble any more.  Eight months after that day in Philadelphia, I found an Episcopal Church out in the suburbs, and I haven't been inside a Catholic church since.  It has been dislocating in many ways, but there is an honesty in the way these folks conduct their faith.  They are clear about being a fully inclusive congregation, and they are clear about preserving the catholic tradition.  No doubt there are those that see that juxtaposition as impossible or ridiculous, but it is what they stand for, and they are living it honestly and openly.  It is not a perfect group full of perfect people, by any stretch, but there is no sign of the learned helplessness I had come to accept as a ubiquitous part of being part of a church.

The lack of honesty in the Catholic Church is its biggest problem.  It has taken me years to figure it out, to name it, to identify it and to see the way it is affecting everything else.  It has been like a splinter in my mind.  But, once it had a name, I couldn't make it go away.

Comments

Thank you, Michael. I have just shared this painful, valuable commentary on Facebook, and will tweet it. Your commentary on the protected bubble (and gilded cage) in which many Catholic liberals live as they address issues like where LGBTQ people fit in the world is right on target, and is very timely, now that Pope "Who Am I to Judge?" Francis has signed onto an ugly document placing gay priests in a category next to the mentally disordered and pedophiles.

As Jamie Manson suggested on Facebook yesterday, Catholic liberals will almost certainly find a way to parse this latest papal action as something understandable or positive — in the very same way many of these same people are now normalizing Donald Trump, and will continue to do so.

While many of us look for prophetic action to protect us and others who will be the object of the hate now normalized by the presidential election — and do not find it in our church communities . . . .

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