Sunday, April 9, 2017

On Palm Sunday, a Letter I Wrote a Bishop Twenty Years Ago: "Your Eyes Are Fixed More on Power, Privilege, and Façades, Than on the Substance of the Gospel"

I shared excerpts of this letter here almost three years ago to the day, noting that I sent it to the then-bishop of Charlotte, North Carolina, William Curlin, as Steve and I, with my mother (who was declining and suffering from dementia and for whom Steve and I were providing care), left the diocese of Charlotte, because we had no other choice. Our jobs as Catholic theologians had been taken from us without explanation, we had been blacklisted as Catholic theologians, we had no way to make a living and no health-insurance coverage.

We had no choice except to seek to make a living elsewhere. We chose to return my mother to Little Rock, so that she could spend her final years among her living siblings, and because my family connections there might, I hoped, open some doors for us to find work. I tell that story in more detail here.

Because the parting letter I wrote to Bishop Curlin was sent on the eve of Palm Sunday in 1997, it occurs to me to share it in full today, this Palm Sunday — though it's long, and I apologize for inflicting something so long on you readers. Nonetheless, here it is, a document of, well, lots of things that are clearly deeply awry in the Catholic church as it now exists:

March 22, 1997

Bishop William G. Curlin
1521 Dilworth Road
Charlotte, NC 28203

Dear Bishop Curlin:

I write you on the eve of Palm Sunday and the glorious liturgical celebrations of the paschal mystery.  I do so in this final letter to you before we leave Charlotte, in order to tell you goodbye.  As I do so, I want to speak from the heart, and to leave you with some final impressions of my encounters with you.

I should begin by saying that the church has "won," in the case of Dr. Schafer and me.  Despite our hard work to achieve lives and careers, and despite our sense of vocation, we have been definitively shut out of our vocations, and have no means of livelihood left here.  

So, like the Jews of Nazi Germany, and many other people who are told that they are unwanted and expected to disappear, we are moving on.

We have no choice left.  People have to have a livelihood, in order to have a life.  When people are fired unjustly, not given reasons for their firing, and when lies and slanders attend the process, their ability to find new jobs is made immeasurably harder.  

In our rather cruel economic system, one must have a job in order to live.  To a great degree, having a job is also part and parcel of having a social life, of having a sense of belonging to the human community, and of having some place in which one may use the gifts God has given one.

I do not know what you and the church expected us to do, when you chose to shut us out, without explaining why this was being done to us.  Unlike you who are clerics and religious, we cannot count on some system to pick up the pieces.  We don't have assured incomes, health care benefits, and all the other perks of the clerical system.

I think that because you and your brother priests have those, and take them for granted, you do not fully understand the injustice you do us laypersons — the ultimate injustice, to use the term of your fellow bishops in the enclosed reading from Economic Justice for All — when you disemploy us so unjustly.

I just spoke of a reading from the 1986 pastoral letter.  I am also enclosing a number of other passages that have leapt out at me, and made me think of you and the church of Charlotte, as I read these books in the past several months.  The Gula book, by the way, is increasingly the standard textbook being used in seminary courses in moral theology.

When I read the passage from Economic Justice for All and thought of you, it was the phrase "passively abandoned" that struck me.  The passage says that there is no greater injustice than shoving people outside human community, by disemploying them and providing for their future in no way at all, etc.  It goes on to say that we can do this either actively or passively — in the latter case, by abandoning those in such dire situations, when they appeal to us for help.  The bishops note that the ultimate message of such treatment is that the ones we treat this way no longer count as human beings.

The passage made me think of you, dear bishop, both because the passage so precisely describes how I feel after my experience with the local church, and because the phrase "passive abandonment" precisely describes how you have treated Dr. Schafer and me.  Though you know our stories in great detail, and though you profess to have heard our pain, you have done nothing at all to see that we did not reach the fate we now must face — dispossession and cruel exclusion, with the sole choice of moving on and seeking a livelihood among people one hopes will be less savage, more Christian.

In your one communication with me, you did say that you would pray for us, as you felt our pain.

Can you understand, dear bishop, how those words might strike someone in our situation as ludicrous, and as false?  Do people really feel the pain of others, when they might act to avert catastrophe, and do not do so?  Real love, real Christian charity, is by its very nature embodied in actions.

From you, we have had words.

Can you also understand, dear bishop, how people might grow tired of hearing only words from the church and its pastoral leaders?  The past week, the newspaper National Catholic Reporter published an editorial about the latest Vatican directive to pastors, which instructs pastors to be lenient in their dealing with penitents who practice artificial contraception.

NCR characterized this as the latest "we-feel-your-pain" statement from Rome, and spoke about the irony of pastoral leaders claiming that they feel the pain of others, when they themselves have inflicted that very pain by their non-dialogic, non-consultative teaching about sexual morality.  

The implication of the editorial is that people no longer trust those "feel-your-pain" statements, nor believe that they are statements of real, effective, embodied Christian charity.  As the editorial points out, in proclaiming a compassion it does not practice, the church more and more undermines its claims to teach moral truth.  Faced with the contradictions, people increasingly shrug their shoulders and ignore what is being said to them by those who preach what they do not live.

I am sorry to put the point so bluntly, dear bishop.  But my experience with you has led me to the same conclusion: I cannot believe that you ever began to feel my pain, or that you ever had any real concern for justice in my situation.

After all, the core of the moral life is doing to others what we would have done to us.

Do you know the pain of being lied about and lied to, savagely shoved out of your means of livelihood, publicly humiliated in various ways, demeaned and further stigmatized when you ask for justice, and, finally, simply told to move on, and expect nothing but more abuse, and never to work again at a vocation for which one has prepared oneself through hard work, and at which one has excelled?

I don't think you do know that kind of pain.  I can't imagine you having experienced this at any time in your life—particularly not from a church you chose to become part of out of love and at great cost, as I did in my seventeenth year.

I don't think that most priests understand this kind of pain.  Learning is, after all, an experiential process, and what in your training or experience as priests teaches you to live with such humiliation?  For you, all doors open, and if you should, God forbid, be deprived of a job, someone is always there to pick up the pieces.

I wonder, dear bishop, if it has escaped your attention that, in dealing with me, you behaved toward me exactly as Abbot Oscar did?  In both cases, when I asked for a face-to-face meeting, you slammed the door, and told me I was disrespectful for asking such a thing.

In your case, the information about my lack of respect was channeled to me second-hand, through a young priest in your employ.  That was, of course, designed to add insult to injury, to let me know my absolute lack of power, and your absolute power over me.

I cannot imagine Jesus ever behaving in that way towards anyone.  The gospels are so clear about what power means in the reign of God: it is humble service of others, and not dominative control of them.  

God's reign is not about excluding others, but about welcoming them and finding places for them.  It is about using power to open healing spaces in society so that people can be free to use their God-given talents to the fullest, and in the process, to become themselves in the fullest possible way.

The Jesus about whom I read in the gospels was ultimately approachable.  Rather than turning others away, he made himself accessible to them, to such an extent that he wore himself out by being among those in need, and had (in Luke's gospel particularly) to go aside sometimes to replenish his spiritual resources.  Jesus was, to use a term important in French spirituality, disponible: he gave himself away to others; he put himself at their beck and call.

Jesus never played power games with others, making himself inaccessible, relating to others through intermediaries, letting others know through those intermediaries of his petulant temper when those others asked that he be accessible.  

I find it increasingly hard to see Jesus in an institution whose "pastoral" leaders play such games.  Those games belie what you preach, and make me unable to hear your preaching with anything but jaded ears.

As a religious sister with whom I shared your statement about feeling my pain and praying for me said, "Doesn't it make you want to throw up?"  That, I fear, dear bishop, is increasingly the reaction of sensitive and informed Catholics when they see our bishops and priests failing to live what they preach, particularly when, as in my case, central principles of justice are involved.

I can only conclude, dear bishop, that your refusal even to meet me as a human being serves your own interests, by allowing you to pretend that I do not exist, and if I do exist, by insinuating that I am defective and have somehow deserved my fate.  

It is so much easier to believe people do not exist, and have no claim on us and to our attention, if we do not see them as human beings.  This is precisely why so many cities and neighborhoods want to put the poor and homeless out of sight — out of sight, out of mind.

When your young priest-secretary told Dr. Schafer of your unwillingness to meet me face-to-face, he told Dr. Schafer that you considered me disrespectful.   

Please permit me to address that comment.  When you came to Charlotte, I was certainly prepared to respect you.  Your reputation for being a "pastoral" bishop (as if bishops might be something else!) preceded you.

I was willing to give you the benefit of the doubt as a bishop, both because your office in the church merits such respect, and because of that pastoral reputation.

Here, I won't comment on your leadership in general.  I will speak only out of my own experience.

I must begin by saying that respect is not something people automatically give any more to religious leaders.  It is something that must be earned.  I must also tell you that, in your dealings with me and Dr. Schafer, dear bishop, you have forfeited my respect.  The word "respect" comes from the Latin root, "to look again," or "to look more intensively, i.e., to look beyond the surface at the reality beneath."  

Far from looking again at me, far from looking more intensively to see beyond the ugly labels placed on me by a savage Catholic institution, you would not even meet me, when I cried out to you in pain, and asked for a face-to-face interview.

Can your behavior toward me have any other effect than to diminish my respect for you?

Of course, for those who value worldly power, success, and prestige, what someone like me thinks does not matter much, in any case.  After all, I have not been able to make my voice heard loudly enough even to receive minimally decent, minimally human, treatment from you and other Catholic leaders in the local church.  If your behavior toward me has taught me anything at all, it has taught me how powerless I am, and how worthless you consider my human life and vocation in the church to be.  

So you must take what I say about my lack of respect for you as the statement of one of your flock whose voice surely counts far less than those of your flock's more influential members.

And that leads me to one final observation.  The question in my previous letters to which you took exception, and which you used to berate me for my lack of respect, was a question about whether you would simply ignore an invitation from a wealthy and influential member of your flock.  You twisted my words to say that I had accused you of making friends on the basis of power and wealth.  

I said nothing of the sort.  I asked you a question about whether you would ignore an invitation of the kind Dr. Schafer and I extended to you, had it come from an influential person.  I asked if you would not even acknowledge receiving such an invitation, had the person extending it been influential.  I asked the question because you did not even acknowledge repeated invitations from Dr. Schafer and me to visit us.

You never answered my question, dear bishop. 

So I ask it again.  Even as I do so, I fear that, as many people with whom I have shared the question and your response have observed, the reason that you will not answer it is that the answer is perfectly obvious.

In this question lies the nub of why many people leave the church either with great sadness, or in disgust.  How can it have happened that those who are called to represent Christ to the community in the unique way pastoral leaders are called to do, have made themselves so inaccessible, unapproachable, inhumane, except to the powerful and privileged?

It is very difficult to believe in a church whose pastoral leaders so fundamentally contradict the gospels by behaving in this way.

In the final analysis, many of our bishops today are failing to command respect, and to give Christian people heart, because to many of us, it seems that your eyes are fixed more on power, privilege, and façades, than on the substance of the gospel.  At the heart of your inaccessibility is often your fear to associate with outcasts (such as gays and lesbians), because you fear what reactionary watchdog groups in the church might do, if you make any public gestures of solidarity with outcasts.  Behind that fear is often the fear—a venal one, indeed, it seems to me — of losing financial support.

What a long way it is from this situation, in which many bishops make faint gestures of "kindness" to the oppressed, while failing to live in real solidarity with the oppressed, to the gospels.  In the gospels, we see Jesus sitting to eat with the outcast.  We see him crucified as a result.

As I leave your community now, dear bishop, I hope you will keep that picture of the Jesus who ate with outcasts, and earned crucifixion as a result, in the forefront of your mind.  It is an important thought to keep in mind as Holy Week and Easter approach.  It should surely be in the mind of every priest as he celebrates any liturgy, not only because the picture is so central to the mystery the liturgy celebrates, but also because there is an intimate connection between the Eucharistic meal and Jesus' table-fellowship with outcasts.

You have much pastoral work to do in the church that I am now gladly leaving behind me.  In all the communities I have lived in, both in the U.S. and Canada, I have never met such savage exclusion, such ugly acts of economic violence directed towards me and others by Catholic institutions, or by the Catholic community in general.

Your church is the most inhospitable church I have ever encountered, particularly for those who are either gay or lesbian, or rumored to be gay or lesbian.  You will not even make a place in your midst for gays and lesbians, to the extent of seeing that one might have a secure livelihood, without having one's real or presumed sexual orientation used as the basis for losing that livelihood.

At the same time that you so savagely exclude gay and lesbian people, you make faint public gestures of reconciliation and welcome.  I cannot believe those gestures.  Nor can many of the Catholic members of the Charlotte gay and lesbian community trust or believe them.  They strike many of us as impression management, the attempt to create a façade of tolerance and compassion that is not there, in substance, in either the community or the local church.

Charlotte is, when all is said and done, a very image-oriented city.  It is a place in which influential leaders meet behind closed doors to decide the fate of others, while trying to project an image of tolerance and inclusivity that is good for business.  In that managerial, behind-closed-doors culture of the power elite, the churches play a significant role.  They give a "soft" edge to the statements of Charlotte's power elite, and try to keep people content with an image that has no real substance.  They also cooperate in excluding from the midst of the community religious people whose perspectives are perceived to be too "radical" or challenging for the community.

All this is compounded in the local Catholic community, since it is a community used to a defensive posture in a largely Protestant culture.  In that defensive, embattled community, people have been accustomed to having clergy and religious alone represent the church in any official capacity.

This assures that laypersons who want to exercise ministry in the local church will do so at great risk, and often at great personal cost.  It also means that many clergy, whose level of theological education is often minimal, will implicitly regard lay theologians as threats to their clerical power, and their control of the symbols that define Catholic identity. 

Where such enervating and ultimately silly power struggles emerge, the whole local church is the loser.

I am sorry that you have decided that Dr. Schafer and I bring nothing of value to your local church.  I wonder if you have considered what the church might lose, when it keeps giving people that message.

Since that is the message your actions (if not your words) have consistently proclaimed to us, we will move on.  In doing so, I hope we have left you with some important questions to consider about the role of pastoral leaders in the church today, and about the mission of the church of Charlotte.  

You, and the church of Charlotte, will certainly continue to be in my prayers.  My prayer is, frankly, that God will not allow you to close the gap between the image you want to project, and the reality that exists in the local church.  May God keep that gap open until you will honestly, inclusively, and in dialogic fashion (with active involvement of the laity) deal with the substance of the issues that trouble this local church, and not the image that you want to project.  And in keeping that gap open, may God send you many outspoken truth-tellers and holy trouble-makers, who will not allow you to settle for partial truths when only the whole truth will do, and who will not allow you to represent yourselves as charitable, when you fail to practice charity.

Yours faithfully,

W.D. Lindsey.

P.S. I, of course, never had any reply from Bishop Curlin to this or any other letter I sent him. He sent one single cryptic one-sentence scribbled note saying he felt my pain, and that was it. I never had an apology or explanation from either him or the abbot of the Belmont Abbey monastery that engineered the destruction of Steve's and my careers as Catholic theologians. From their vantage point, we obviously ceased to exist as human beings after they shattered our vocational lives. We became embarrassing shards of human beings not to be acknowledged — the pieces never to be picked up by the church.

Just as happens with one other hapless human being after another with Catholic pastoral officials who claim to be all about love, mercy, and justice, while shattering lives, refusing to assist in picking up the pieces: as abuse survivors . . . .

We remain, twenty years later on this Palm Sunday, Catholic theologians whose careers were shattered — whose lives were shattered — without any explanation for what was done to us.

The graphic is Otto Dix's depiction of Jesus entering Jerusalem, from his Matthäus Evangelium (Berlin: Klibor, 1960). The original lithographs are in the Bowden Collection

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