The Open Closet and Self-Censorship

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



7 replies
  1. Tom Bower
    Tom Bower says:

    Frank,You hit the nail on its head. The challenge of the Church is to follow Christ’s lead to speak the truth even if it makes people in power uncomfortable. Until Benedict XVI goes to his eternal reward such as it will be, it seems no one wants to say what a hateful even evil statement the CDF document on the care of homosexuals he created was and remains. How many homosexuals have felt the scourge of those stinging words and simply left the Church out of insult and despair? As I recall Christ said a loving Father wouldn’t hand his son a snake when he asked of a loaf of bread.

    With that in mind, wearing snake bite proof gloves, I ask that everyone read the Care of Homosexual Persons document and ask if that reflects their knowledge of a universal truth and if it is presented in a way that would allow one to see the love of Christ. We hope that the Roman Catholic Church speaks the truth, yet it openly flaunts leadership, presiders and sworn members who are gay and lesbian who can’t admit who they are. Probably the first moral lessons a child is taught are to not harm others and to speak the truth. Yet how is the Church illustrated in the eyes of LGBT individuals – by saying they are evil for loving those God tells them to and by hiding that fact.

    The Washington Post recently added a motto “Democracy dies in Darkness”. I think we could substitute – The Roman Catholic Church dies in Darkness.

    THOMAS SMITH says:

    This really hit a deep chord for me, Frank.There I was the only clergy among the Faithful in the cathedral sanctuary last Sunday as Cardinal Tobin welcomed a group of LGBT pilgrims.All the other gay clergy were quietly smiling behind the altar or totally absent.The closet door was finally open bit everyone was too “comfortable” to emerge.

    Tom smith

    Sent from Xfinity Connect Mobile App

  3. Annette Grande Magjuka
    Annette Grande Magjuka says:

    Ai Weiwei is one of my favorite artists. He speaks truth to power in a context where this is extremely dangerous. He is the personification of courage. So many political artists in China “disappear.” They are arrested or taken and no one hears from them again. So Ai Weiwei’s speaking out takes bravery and determination. I tell all the young people I know about him, and how keeping Ai Weiwei internationally famous is what probably keeps him alive. I tell young people it is literally their responsibility to speak about him and to amplify his message. Ai Weiwei reminds me of the wall of fame in the Holocaust Museum in DC. This wall shows individuals who, despite grave danger to themselves, hid or aided Jews. This is the power of one. The op ed Ai wrote is relevant and timely. All across our country, faculty and staff at universities self-censor. They avoid the “messy” questions and issues. They know that college administrators hate to be in the crosshairs of a messy issue. if faculty are not tenured (most are not) then they know that one wrong word and they could be fired. So they stay “neutral. They refuse to call out even the most ridiculous false equivalencies. It is even worse at Catholic universities, where official doctrine can be used as a cudgel. For years, I have been speaking out for LGBT rights in the church and in society. I am a white, straight 61 year old women who has been married to the same man for almost 40 years. But I consider LGBT rights to be the civil rights issue of our time. We must speak up, speak up, and never stop speaking up. Because history has taught us in no uncertain terms that silence=death.
    PS Ai is doing several installations the different Burroughs of NYC. He also has an upcoming show at the Hirshhorn in DC (the show that debuted at Alcatraz in CA).

  4. Friends
    Friends says:

    As best I can tell, the root problem here is that the officially ordained and authorized representatives / administrators / spokespersons for the Catholic Church DO NOT SHARE the normal and ordinary human conditions and experiences of their parishioners. Thomas Smith nailed it in his posting just above this one. We’ve got a cloistered and isolated Catholic clerical elite which presumes to impose rules and laws upon their parishioner “peons”. This does not often happen within our kindred Episcopal, Anglican and Lutheran clergy. Why not? Because they generally have families of their own, and so they understand the ordinary conditions and problems of human life in family situations. The absurd (and totally theologically unnecessary) enforced celibacy of Catholic priests — at least those whose who are operating within their vows — is theologically counterproductive and utterly socially dysfunctional.

  5. Marie
    Marie says:

    Having ministered in an accepting and welcoming campus ministry for eight years, I understand too fully the open closet. As a staff we faced a significant question: do we SAY the Good News or DO the Good News? We became aware that our bishop was grateful for our inclusion which also included women preaching. However once he had to confront something in writing, either from a church publication or from a dissenting voice, he was not willing to publicly support the “exceptional” (awful, isn’t it?) practice. He did however appoint other members of his chancery to work with us so that our ministries could be maintained. We opted to DO the Good News, including every member in all aspects of ministry: leadership on council, ministry to the sick, LGBT gatherings, service to the homeless, those with AIDS , sponsorship for new church members, mentoring new students to the university. In our preaching we made reference to various types of families, including LGBT families. There were no boundaries except direct spoken advocacy. Family relationships, including /partnerships/ marriage recognized at special events: funerals, baptismal god parents, World Marriage Sunday, etc. Twenty+ years later, this campus community is still known as the most welcoming in the diocese. There’s a different bishop who does not have many pastoral gifts. Yet when he visits, he hears from members of the community about the justice of inclusion because they have participated in it. Because of the experience of community members like these, some bishops are now listening and actually taking action, and extending pastoral support within the LGBTQI community. It’s not a quick process, just like coming out of individual closets takes time. I’m grateful that we’re at least further down the road than we were 25 years ago when I was in active institutional church ministry.


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