Is This The Public Face We Want For Catholicism?

Is This The Public Face We Want For Catholicism? August 16, 2016

Apparently common sense must be repeated to the internet with the same regular rhythm as morning and evening prayers. Thankfully, somebody was on the job this morning.

Contrasting with that, was the jolt from this nonsensical piece allegedly about “Church Teaching about gender” from Francis Phillips of The Catholic Herald. Abstractly it is so bad I should ignore it instead of comment on it. But in practice there is not a word of it that doesn’t sound familiar- not because I have read Phillips before, but practically every sentence is a trope often repeated by a certain kind of Catholic who considers it their holy mission to speak for the Church on social media (and who doesn’t understand why no one wants to listen).

She casually declares that everything that might rightly be said about transgender can easily be put in “one line” –  she doesn’t share with us precisely what line, but it involves “not giving in” to “political correctness” with regard to “transgender issues”. What “transgender issues” though? It must have been a truly exceptional “one line” to shear through all of her vagueness. Also, what, exactly, does this not-giving-in imply? And “giving in” to whom or what?

I have two guesses as to what kind of transgender issues might be implied here. The first is, obviously, bathrooms. Last time I read about a bathroom controversy, the most prominent of the many voices settled into two camps. The first was transgender persons who wanted to urinate without being harassed and those who thought that sounded pretty good. The second was people skeptical about transgender experience who were for some reason convinced that government goons with guns were going to break into their consciences and steal their skepticism. I think the sensible thing is to go for side A and then try to work out practical policies that respect both transgender bodies and differing beliefs about gender. Side B I can’t understand except as an appeal to faith – a very human faith in being on the right side when “they” come for us. Such faith is incompatible with Christian religion.

But my second guess is that she might be complaining about a (purely hypothetical?) question of admission into all-girls schools. That is not a conversation that fits smoothly in one line. Admission of whom? An intersex person? Someone who is socially performing as one gender but the school questions how well they fit a gender role? A potential student who is not transgender in any sense, but whom a school official thinks looks or acts too masculine? If only there were one line to save us from the vagueness!

From Phillips’ piece it is any sign of resistance to her own view that truly offends her. No one has arrested her, challenged her free speech, or called for her to be silenced by state or religious authorities of any kind. Instead, she was asked to stop ego-splaining to an audience she did not want to listen to, and who did not wish to hear it. Deprived of that audience by her own bad manners, she had no recourse but to turn to the wider audience already provided to her by The Catholic Herald. I fear I cannot offer my bitter tears at her misfortune; I’m callous.

Phillips clearly states that she considers herself and her community threatened and does not concretely identify how. She hints that the threat is from some form of violence or official silencing for her views. But she proves, by her article and its ready audience, that she herself is under no such threat. Either this is anther conspiracy theory, or some kind of vague hint to suggest that we Catholics should be engaging in anti-trans community organizing for our own protection. Either way her advocacy lacks all credibility.

For serious and responsible Catholic thinking on transgender questions, try Melinda Selmys of Catholic Authenticity. I particularly recommend three columns she did earlier this year, the first on how clear (and unclear) the Church’s teaching is with regard to transgender; second on how the bodies and experiences of trans persons can be understood in a Catholic frame of reference; and thirdly a critique of how bathroom controversies usually logically and practically devolve into appearance policing.

After all this conspiracy business, the fourth article should be a welcome break. In merciful contrast to those who write their own feelings to the world as having the full authority of Christian teaching, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia takes a moment to write not for us as a bishop, but with as a brother in Christ.

He turns our attention to the current election season, a topic even more prone to polarization than any we have yet touched upon.  I mostly want to encourage you to read his piece for yourself, but I will offer two highlights. Chaput says of who does and does not qualify for the name “Catholic:”

“Note that by “Catholic,” I mean people who take their faith seriously; people who actually believe what the Catholic faith holds to be true; people who place it first in their loyalty, thoughts and actions; people who submit their lives to Jesus Christ, to Scripture and to the guidance of the community of belief we know as the Church.

Anyone else who claims the Catholic label is simply fooling himself or herself — and even more importantly, misleading others.”

Thank you. Thank you very much, Archbishop Chaput.

The other thing I would highlight is Chaput’s opinion that it is both absurd and blasphemous to suggest that God favors one or the other political party as such. Not only this year with its depressing selection of candidates and policy suggestions, but any year.  For Chaput, no easy invocation of the right to life will disperse this lack of a handy divine favorite. For while “The right to life undergirds all other rights and all genuine social progress.” and “It cannot be set aside or contextualized in the name of other “rights” or priorities without prostituting the whole idea of human dignity,” that itself does not determine in his mind which major candidate or other voting option he should embrace. The logic of his argument implies that it is precisely the way that human dignity and the right to life found and interweave other social concerns that precludes either of them being a trump card in any sense.

I recommend to you Chaput’s words about the seriousness with which we must take the obligation to form our consciences this year, and I intend to write to you again with my thoughts after working my own way through his recommended reading.

Is this enough? Can we just hold up the Catholic counter-witness beside the numerous Catholic lapses in courtesy, good sense and fair-mindedness and say there is no problem here? Should we let the conspiracy alarmist win and set the face of the Church and her members for the world at large?

I think you have all guessed I don’t believe any of these questions ought to be answered with a yes. We do need to keep reflecting on how to purify the Catholic social conscience and we need to choose to offer a better witness. We should seek to more deeply understand, not just our tradition, but the persons and voices outside it. And then we must offer witness to what we have learned, of ourselves, our inheritance, and of our neighbors. We dare not seek to dictate terms to those outside our number. A helping hand and a listening ear will be better invitations. And if we really do believe that our faith has its foundations, not in ourselves, but in God’s love for the world -then we had better start by repenting of every trace of making it about us.

But there is another, simpler question:

Should I just give up on reading news?

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