Friday, July 11, 2008

Revisiting Our Catholic "Stonewall Moment"

My recent sharing of information about the Ecumenical Catholic Church (A New Expression of Catholicism, 7/9/08) elicited a number (and range) of responses, many of which reminded me of aspects of a February 2006 presentation by theologian Mary E. Hunt (pictured at right).

CPCSM had invited Hunt to the Twin Cities for the three-part symposium, “Exploring Contemporary Issues Within the Catholic Church.” Her February 17, 2006, presentation was entitled, “One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic: An Ecclesia for Our Children and Ourselves,” and envisioned the kind of church “we want to pass on to our children in light of the current institutional scandals, the increasing pluralistic religious setting in which we live, and the demands of justice in the midst of war, ecocide, and greed.” To guide her analysis and visioning, Hunt relied on the traditional “marks of the church: One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic.”

In the previous Wild Reed post, Our Catholic “Stonewall Moment”, I shared the bulk of the transcript of Hunt’s talk. Today, I offer those excerpts from this same talk that I think are relevant to the recent discussion concerning the Ecumenical Catholic Church and thus the marks of Catholicism.


[The] struggle between those who want an open and participatory church which would be quite diverse and those, including Pope Benedict XVI and other conservatives, who believe that a smaller, more homogeneous church would be better—what I have come to think of the leaner/meaner style—is a struggle that forms the context or the backdrop for most of our contemporary experience of church.

. . . I call this our Stonewall moment. The Stonewall was a gay bar in New York where, in 1969, patrons resisted arrest during one of the police’s regular gay-bashing raids. Rather than acquiesce to the harassment that kept up a “neurotic minuet” (a wonderful phrase from the theologian John Frye) between police and bar patrons, courageous lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people stood up, spoke out, and resisted. They probably surprised even themselves at the power of their own righteous indignation.

I believe that Catholics should respond to the latest Vatican bullying of seminarians the same way. After decades of the Vatican implementing a system that takes authority away from local communities and presumes to impose its will on Catholics who can think for themselves, it is time for Catholics to stand up, speak out, and resist not simply on issues of sexuality and reproduction, but on war, ecology, race, poverty, and the many justice concerns about which the [Vatican] has little credibility left to speak.

Evidence suggests that American Catholics do not support many of the narrow-minded tenets of our church. In opposition to the male hierarchy’s belief that ordaining women priests is theological treason, more than 60 percent of American Catholics say they would support women in the priesthood, according to the most recent Zogby/LeMoyne poll. Another poll, conducted by the Boston Globe in the Boston Archdiocese—where the incidences of sexual abuse by priests were among the worst—finds that nearly 60 percent of Catholics oppose a ban on gay priests. Combine this with American Catholics’ clear disregard for the church’s medieval views on marriage, divorce, and birth control, and increasing numbers of Catholics who think abortion is morally acceptable under certain circumstances. Then it becomes obvious that we find ourselves in a church that does not speak to our everyday concerns in any meaningful way, much less exert any effective leadership on issues of war, racism, economic injustice, or ecological destruction.

The Vatican, in its patriarchal echo chamber, continues to portray Western values of tolerance and equality as the fallen morality of a secular society. In so doing, the institutional church treats millions of faithful Catholics in America not as spiritual adults, but as perpetual adolescents in need of guidance from on high. The time has come for American Catholics to claim our full baptismal citizenship and publicly call for changes in church policies on sexuality, ordination, relationships, and ministry. Considering the enormous economic and political influence of the American church, if Catholics here really stood up to their bishops, loudly and in numbers, the Vatican would have little choice but to listen.

There is increasing evidence that despite the dissembling of the hierarchy, American Catholics are refusing to let the institution scapegoat gay priests, feminism, and modernity for the Vatican’s outmoded theology. For example, the Conference of Major Superiors of Men, the leaders of the U.S. men’s religious orders, announced plans to send a delegation to Rome to oppose the anti-gay policy. In a welcome response to an inflexible Vatican regime, the superior of the New York Province of the Jesuits, Fr. Gerald J. Chojnacki, wrote: “We know that gay men…have served the church well as priests—and so why would we be asked to discriminate based on orientation alone against those whom God has called and invited?” This is a question that could be asked about women and married men as well.

The Stonewall moment we face is not simply on the matter of sexuality. Rather, sexuality in all its grace opens the community to some new choices. The alternative is to struggle endlessly over the wrong issues—homosexuality rather than heterosexism, ordination of women rather than new models of ministry, power rather than cooperation.

Other religious groups have come to this kind of juncture where seemingly irreconcilable differences prevail. Protestants have a long and proud history of forming new denominations, and we can learn from them. Jews have figured out how to group themselves according to beliefs and practices that unite them as Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist and to still all be Jews. We can learn from them as well.

Catholics, on the other hand, strive to keep ourselves in one organization, a goal that may prove to be beyond our ability this time. Of course we have the Old Catholic Church, and the American Catholic Church, and several other groups [such as the Ecumenical Catholic Church] that signal their connection to the Catholic community without wanting to affirm their Roman ties. I understand their reasoning. But I think the power of the Vatican—its financial resources, its communications advantage, and its symbolic capital—is touched very lightly by such groups it brushes off as apostate or otherwise trivial.

I suggest there is a need for structural change that implies “claiming the center” as feminist theorist bell hooks described the task of those who are marginalized. The move from margin to center does not mean replacing one pope with another, one curia with another. Rather, it involves rethinking the center so that the many people who are now on the margins are taken more seriously as the whole configuration of church changes from a top-down to a horizontal model of interlocking communities. Pie in the sky, you may think, but let us explore this possibility, imagine and revel in the energy such changes would unleash before we capitulate to the current forces.

[At the same time] I think there is a value in maintaining ties to our tradition, indeed, claiming that who we are and what we believe is central to the community’s life and well being. This is what Catholic feminist theologians have done; rather than leave the church we claim ourselves church. . . . I find it difficult and uncharted to do so, but I think spiritual integrity requires we do what we can. Otherwise I would opt for the Protestant approach which I respect, or the Jewish model which seems to work nicely for them. As a Catholic I want to keep trying without sacrificing my own integrity.

I may come to see the error of my ways, but for now I suggest we rely on the traditional marks of the church, that it is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic as we outline some parameters of a church we want to share with our children today as well as when they are celebrating in memory of us.

Hunt then proceeded to outline these “parameters of a church we want to share with our children” by discussing each of the four traditional marks of the church. To read more, click here.

See also the previous Wild Reed post:
Crisis? What Crisis?

Image: Michael J. Bayly.


Anonymous said...

Sorry, Michael, but this is a predictable disappointment from the first word to the last, bound by four numbers: 1. 9. 6. 8.

When I read sentences like "I don't attend Mass every Sunday; instead I participate in "Sisters Against Sexism (I'm paraphrasing of course)," I hear another "ism" at work: elitism. The author can't be bothered with the Holy Spirit's work among the unwashed in your run-of-the-mill, dumpy, frumpy, lumpy parish. THAT'S where you find the disenfranchised and marginalized.

No, listen closely enough in this essay and you'll hear echoes of Luther calling the Pope the Anti-Christ, while Rome's robotic minions suppress the Pure Gospel We've Just Discovered/Recovered/Uncovered (TM).

Here's my heuristic: Question (Academic) Authority. These people think they are smarter than we are. They're not.

Michael J. Bayly said...

Actually, Mark, I find your reaction to Mary Hunt to be “a predictable disappointment.” It too could be said to be bound by four number: 1. 8. 6. 8. (or thereabouts).

Also, I get a bit tired of the dissing of the 1960s by many of those intent on maintaining the status quo. I mean, for women, LGBT folks, and people of color, the decade of the 1960s was, and remains, a pivotal moment. Is it possible that being a straight white male can limit one’s appreciation of this particular era, I wonder?

I also question if it's in Catholic parishes where one finds the “disenfranchised and marginalized.” It also seems a bit presumptuous of you to be judging Mary Hunt’s small faith group. Whose to say that this worshiping community doesn’t inspire its members to go out and work with the “disenfranchised and marginalized” of our society?

Finally, does your heuristic to “question authority” extend to church authority, or is it restricted only to academic authority? As for your contention that “these people think they are smarter than we are. They’re not.” . . . Well, actually, in their areas of expertise, I think they are often “smarter” than many of us. Isn’t that the whole point of education?



Anonymous said...


First, touché - very well said, but back to the discussion.

The 60's have a long geneology (sic). I see as it as part of the Romantic Period in literature, and similar movements in music, the arts and some philosophy. Indeed, recent digging into the roots of Constructivism has shown me its roots extent back to 1710 or so, predating even Kant's Critiques. So my limited appreciation of the 1960s is part, I hope, of a larger appreciation of its roots. Its the last place I look for original thought or praxis, that's for sure.

As far as presumptious judgement of Mary's Hunt's faith community: too darn bad. There's much in parish life to cause dismay, but that is where you find the great bulk of Catholic people in the U.S. Not all by any means. But to ignore them? Where I work a number of highly qualified theologians (to former priests come immediately to mind) can't stand to participate in parish life because they think the preaching stinks and the preachers are idiots. They may be right, but they are doing theology in a vacuum. Theological generalization from one's fellow-travelers-in-diaspora is, as the old say goes, preaching to and from the converted. Sorry, Ms. Hunt remains an elitist.

Re/questioning authority, if the pastors of the Church are to be damned for their faults, real and imagined, excuse me while I strip search their putative replacements. I am fond of old sayings, so this time I'll say "Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me."

And there is a particular difference WRT to education in this context. I'm not a mechanic, so somebody fixes my car. I'm not a physician, I go to a doctor when sick. But when it comes to theology, which I have been reading since the tender age 7 (lives of the saints), working my way through Aquinas in my teens, followed by Rahner and Schillebeex in my early 20s, and then in to the scholarly literature the last 20 years - all my formal and informal education is irrelevant next to being baptized into Christ, received the sacraments of initiation, and confirmed. That makes me the equal of anyone in the Catholic Church. My faith is no different than B16's and my responsibilities are no less than his, yours or anyone elses. Those responsibilities may be realized differently, but they are not diminished just because I'm a bloke in the pews.

If Mary Hunts theology is typical of what the Jesuits give us from Berkeley and Westin, please let us have less.

A personal note: my brother-in-law was 10 years in the Jesuits. He hit the eject button 3 semester hours short of his M.Div. because he didn't believe in it any more - not Jesus, not the Church, not the Jesuits, not any of it. Long story that, he was later diagnosed with severe, chronic mental illness. But he was certainly clear-headed enough to say the the majority of his Jesuit brothers at JSTB, and the shared faculty of GTU, approached their scholarly work as a job, but not as an extension of personal faith in Christ. Their reaction to the propositions of the pastors of the Church was less than derisive, as if pope and bishops were not even worth of recognition as teachers, much less scholarly and academic peers. They were not even worthy of contempt.

So, a big, fat raspberry for Mary Hunt and her theology. If I want to ready an original thinker, I'll look up Marx, who, I believe, was doing his best work (which as it was) in 1868.