The weekend after New Ways Ministry’s Eighth National Symposium, “Justice and Mercy Shall Kiss: LGBT Catholics in the Age of Pope Francis,” I was reading an op-ed essay in the New York Times, and my mind reeled back to that meeting held in Chicago on the last weekend of April.
I was surprised that the essay would conjure up a memory of the symposium, since, on the surface, the text had nothing to do with Catholic or LGBT issues. Yet, on another level, I saw the essay was, in fact, speaking to the core of the Catholic LGBT conversation–or, perhaps, I should say lack of conversation.
The op-ed essay in question was entitled “How Censorship Works,” and it was written by a Ai Weiwei, a Chinese artist, whose name had recently been removed from several of his works by government officials at exhibitions in Beijing and Shanghai. The essay is an insightful analysis of the ways that censorship operates in a contemporary culture which seems to prize and valorize free expression.
What the essay reminded me of was a section of Fr. Bryan Massingale’s talk at the New Ways Ministry Symposium. The National Catholic Reporter captured the important quotation:
“What underlies the church’s ‘hesitant, resistant and even hostile stance’ toward justice for lesbians and gays, the theologian said, is its fear that legislation protecting the rights of homosexual persons would also “lead to social approval of forbidden and immoral sexual behaviors.”
“The more operative concern, Massingale added, is that such legislation would bring on greater visibility of homosexual persons who would be negative models for youth.
“The situation leaves the church in an often contradictory corridor or ‘open closet,’ Massingale said, one in which gays ‘are to be accepted sensitively and compassionately, as long as there is little or no public acknowledgment of their sexual identity, “lifestyle” or “culture.” ‘ “
The “open closet” which operates in the Catholic Church around LGBT issues is actually a form of censorship. While it may not be explicit censorship in which books and speakers are banned (though that happens, too), it is a more subtle form of censorship in which people are persuaded not to bring up what are deemed “inappropriate” topics. This second, more subtle kind of censorship, operates more insidiously by getting people to censor themselves, without there seeming to be some overt requirement to do so.
In the op-ed essay, the artist Ai explains this kind of censorship:
“The most elegant way to adjust to censorship is to engage in self-censorship. It
is the perfect method for allying with power and setting the stage for the mutual
exchange of benefit. The act of kowtowing to power in order to receive small pleasures may seem minor; but without it, the brutal assault of the censorship system would not be possible.”
Unfortunately, self-censorship is rampant in the Catholic Church, particularly on LGBT issues. For many years now, poll after poll has shown that Catholics in the U.S. overwhelmingly support LGBT issues. Yet how many people make their views known to their pastors and bishops? This behavior is especially true of Catholics who have institutional positions in the Church.
To clarify, I am not saying that all LGBT people in the church should come out. The decision to come out as an LGBT person is a highly personal and even spiritual one, and I respect every person’s right to decide whether and how they will express their identity. What I am saying, however, is that we would be living in a much different church if Catholic people, both LGBT and allies, would voice their opinions more openly.
And I want to be clear, too, that I sympathize with those involved in institutional church positions who do not speak out. I recognize that many factors impinge on their decision not to do so, not least of which often involve their livelihoods.
What I am asking, however, is that all Catholics examine how much self-censorship is involved in their decision to be quiet about LGBT issues. I think we will find that it operates more than we realize. I acknowledge that I, too, fall victim to self-censorship at different times. It happens usually when I think that bringing up LGBT issues might make people too uncomfortable or that they will think that I am pushing an agenda.
Censorship of any kind–whether the “open closet,” self-censorship, or overt censorship– is doing a lot of harm not only to LGBT people, but to our church as a whole. Ai describes some of the personal and institutional harms that censorship causes. It is harmful to an individual’s development:
“The harm of a censorship system is not just that it impoverishes intellectual life;
it also fundamentally distorts the rational order in which the natural and spiritual
worlds are understood. The censorship system relies on robbing a person of the self-perception that one needs in order to maintain an independent existence. It cuts off
one’s access to independence and happiness.”
It is harmful to those who acquiesce to self-censorship:
“For people who accept this passive position toward authority, ‘getting by’
becomes the supreme value. They smile, bow and nod their heads, and such
behavior usually leads to lifestyles that are comfortable, trouble free and even cushy.
This attitude is essentially defensive on their part.”
It robs the organization of any opportunity to grow or develop, becoming locked in a rigid, authoritarian posture:
“It is obvious that in any dispute, if one side is silenced, the words of the other side will go unquestioned.”
The personal and social consequences can be devastating:
“Censoring speech removes the freedom to choose what to take in and to express to
others, and this inevitably leads to depression in people. Wherever fear dominates,
true happiness vanishes and individual willpower runs dry. Judgments become
distorted and rationality itself begins to slip away. Group behavior can become wild,
abnormal and violent.”
Just imagine if everyone in our church who supported LGBT equality spoke our truth to friends, politicians, church leaders. While such a possibility can’t happen overnight, it can begin if people take small steps, mention thoughts, feelings, and beliefs gently and gradually. Practice makes perfect. Everyone can do something. What step will you take to end self-censorship and to end the “open closet”?
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, June 1, 2017