One of the most common questions that I have been asked by people in my years of ministry in the LGBT Catholic community is “Why are some bishops so stubborn against changing policy and practices in the church concerning LGBT people?”
It’s a good question, and one that I wish I knew the exact answer to. Many people speculate that the reason is because bishops who espouse anti-gay attitudes are, in fact, gay themselves. There’s good research to show that homophobic people are actually fearful of their own homoerotic feelings. But I think that this answer, while certainly true of some bishops, is not the complete answer. It can sometimes be a satisfying answer because it seems to fit in with popular notions of psychology, but I think it misses some other dynamics which are at work in their attitudes.
Australia’s GayNewsNetwork.com.au recently posted an essay entitled “How to Approach the Abominable ‘No’-Men” in which author Rob MacPherson tries to make sense of why some Catholic bishops remain so anti-gay. I think he offers some interesting analyses.
Taking the recent synod as his jumping off point for his discussion of Catholicism, MacPherson tries to make sense of a group he calls ” ‘The Abominable “No”-men”…privileged folk who are reflexively conditioned to find “no” an easier response to ANY change toward social equity, because it has fewer letters than “yes.” ‘ ”
Summarizing the thesis of Dr. Robert Ciardini’s study Influence, MacPherson states:
“. . . [P]eople have a strong psychological tendency to stick to what they’ve always said and done, fearing they otherwise might appear, weak, vacillating, scatter-brained, or even mad. Neither logic nor evidence can shift this (witness the current climate change debate). If they appear inconsistent, they stand to lose trust and respect, and therefore social status. ‘
MacPherson claims that strong and vocal opposition actually reveals “vulnerability and fear,” not strength and courage:
“. . . [W]hen they splutter and roar, what we are witnessing is not so much simple chest-beating aggression, but what we might call ‘privilege erosion’—the sense that their barely-acknowledged privileges are slipping away from under their feet, and their own self-inflicted blindness to that privilege opening up like a sink-hole.”
Social change reveals something to these fearful leaders that they were not even aware of beforehand:
‘Because they have never noticed their unfair advantages, all they see is that they are worse off, and therefore threatened. A society that once was ordered for their convenience alone, no longer fits. Thus they are apt to feel persecuted.’
I think we can’t underestimate the fear that people have about any changes in society or any institution that deal with gender, such as sexual orientation or gender identity. I don’t think such fear excuses these negative attitudes, but I think it is important to be aware of these forces. For whatever reason, gender is a powerful force. This is particularly true in an institution like the church which has for so long valued men over all other gender identities. I think it’s important to be aware that these forces often play powerful unseen roles in people’s behaviors.
While I certainly understand the anger that some people feel toward church leaders who have been so virulently anti-LGBT, lately my dominant feeling towards these prelates has been sadness. In not being able to allow themselves to simply learn about LGBT people, they are missing out on some of the holiest and most positive acts of faith, liberation, and love in the world today. So sad that they are missing the joy of this most Christian party.
MacPherson offers some very wise and Christian advice to those who witness these “no”-men. He says the best thing for people to do is:
“. . . to approach these seemingly dangerous creatures, not judging or vilifying them, but challenging ourselves to recognize their fear as genuine and understandable, mustering what compassion we can for their feelings of distress, and remaining patient and persistent in offering a better way forward.
“Once upon a traditional time, qualities like understanding, compassion, patience, and persistence were called ‘virtues’. We’re going to need them as we try to approach our own Abominable ‘No’-men as their familiar world melts away, and a new, more just one, evolves into being.”
In an unrelated story this weekend, MacPherson’s advice was exemplified by a Catholic lesbian woman in Houston, Texas. When faith-based anti gay protestors demonstrated this weekend, in that city, a counter-demonstration to negate their hate emerged, and KHOU-TV reported on the response of Tiera Ortiz-Rodriguez, chapter president of Dignity Houston, a Catholic community of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Catholics.:
“We want to have compassion and kindness as our response.”
Yes, we must never give up speaking out and advocating for justice, but we must do so in such a way that our opponents do not become our enemies. We must be committed to work for their enlightenment and liberation from their own fears. Not easy work, but like everything else, it can be accomplished by little and by little.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry