Sunday, April 29, 2012

Hurray for the Nuns

I never thought that I'd write in praise of nuns. I went to Catholic school from first grade through college, sixteen years, and for the first eight, I interacted with a few nuns. Sister Mary taught me fourth grade Math, and give me my first pink slip for talking during her lesson on long division. Her face would get redder than a candied apple when she was mad, which was quite often. Sister Catherine, the school principal, resembled Mrs. Doubtfire. I spent quite a bit of time in her office for one thing or another. A handful of my early "running buddies" were expelled, or taken out of the school by their parents, outcomes Sister Catherine relished predicting when she scolded us for being adolescent boys. Our behavior wasn't really bad, just stupid. We needed stern reprimands in the scared straight fashion but instead got tirades about how we were degenerates and likely to end up in prison. While I never had Sister Margaret for religion class, my brother did, and, as memory serves, she was very upset when he colored the faces of a cartoon picture of Jesus and his apostles with tan or brown colored crayons. Truth be told, I am sure I gave the nuns at a hard time, and I deserved whatever punishment they gave me. But they were also a cold, uptight bunch with short, hot tempers. I did not find them warm, or anything close to resembling the word loving. 

My most positive experiences being Catholic came from the Jesuit priests and teachers I had at Xavier High School and Fordham University. With respects to religion and theology, the Jesuit and lay religion teachers I had taught us - in fact required us - to question our Faith. One high school teacher I had for a fantastic course called "Images of God and Man," would bellow that blind Faith caused people to walk into walls, and that if God wanted human beings to be robots, God would never have given us free will. We read Socrates, Kierkegaard, Satre, Nietzsche, the Book of Job, and talked about existentialism and Christian mysticism. "The unexamined life is not worth living!" Mr. Foley boomed from his desk at the front of the room, and whenever we parroted the simplistic catechism we received in grammar school, namely that our responsibility as human beings was merely to have "faith, hope, and love," Foley constantly exhorted us to, "Get out of the cave!" That class was topped by by freshman year religion teacher, Fr. John Garvey, S.J., structured a year-long course around the theme, "Faith and Life Are One," which pushed a class of thirty fourteen-year-old boys to take serious stock of the choices about almost everything we made, and would make in the future. We talked about how our relationships with parents, siblings, friends, girls, God all had the potential to be loving relationships, or selfish ones. We talked about sexuality, physical experimentation, and peer pressure, not in a doctrinaire, "do this and don't do that," way, but in a way that gave us agency and helped us to see the range of choices we could make, how, with discernment and patience, we could aspire to make choices that helped us to love others, not use them. I'd be a liar if I said my adult life unfolded exactly according to the moral high ground of selfless love and relationships based on mutuality and common respect that Fr. Garvey outlined for us, but I certainly feel I am able to be a better husband and father because I had those lessons.

And because of my high school teachers in religion, English (Br. Chris Derby, S.J., was the first teacher I ever had who made me see that I could read and understand poetry and Shakespeare, and that I could be a writer) and History, God is not an abstraction in the clouds, but the love that emerges when human beings treat each other and their world with selfless respect. In college, I was lucky to have Robert T. Cornelison as a theology professor. He encouraged us to read Immanuel Kant's, "What is Enlightenment," and sat there for the entire class as we debated the best ways for human beings to "dare to know" and free ourselves from self-incurred tutelage. Fr. Mike Moga, S.J., led his philosophy students through close readings of Tao Te Ching and meditation exercises. He was the first person who taught me about St. Ignatius Loyola's maxim that God was present in all things. Last, Fr. Gerry Blasczcak, S.J., Fr. Joe Currie, S.J., Fr. John Mullin, S.J., and Fr. Patrick Ryan, S.J., introduced me to Ignatius's Spiritual Exercises, a process of reflection and discernment about God's love and how humans can best experience that love by living committed, focused lives that try to promote love, seek truth, and work for justice.

All in all, I had very positive experiences growing up Catholic. For decades, I ignored the ignoble role that Catholics played in world history: the Crusades, the Inquisition, the enslavement of Native Americans and colonization of the Americas, the silence during the Holocaust and the rise of fascism. I turned a blind eye to the Church's discrimination against gay people. I never excused it, but shrugged it off with a "well, things aren't perfect" attitude. And I completely ignored the Church's systemic sexism: women could never be leaders, catechism taught that sex outside of marriage was a sin, priests and nuns abstained from sex to devote their lives to God. This is just the way life was, I reasoned. This was my Church. It wasn't perfect, but it was mine, and I loved the ways that my Jesuit friends and my Jesuit education inspired me to try and fashion a life "for the greater glory of God." I am certainly not a saint, but I learned in high school and college that that was never the point. The saints weren't even saints. Like every good Catholic, I chose to break the rules when life presented me with certain opportunities (usually for sex before marriage) and dutifully went to Confession during Lent to repent. Being Catholic was a part of my identity that gave me hope, purpose, and peace.

When the sex abuse scandals became public I defended my church with vigor. I didn't deny that such things could happen, but in all my years of knowing priests, of being an alter boy, a lectern, a catechism instructor, I never knew a priest to try and molest me. Some were drunks. Some were jerks. Some had loose hands with ladies. Some exhibited what my hetero-normative social world characterized as effeminate, sissy behaviors. But I never knew a priest to try and touch me, or any other boy I knew, in an inappropriate way. I chalked up the molestation cases to a few bad apples that would now spoil the bunch. Boy was I duped.

I still stand by my positive experiences being a Catholic. My Jesuit education gave me the critical thinking skills and the confidence to question hypocrisy delivered in the name of righteousness. In addition to the sexual violence some priests committed against boys the conspiracy of silence and decades of corruption that surrounded those sins adds exponential degrees of injustice to what must only be seen as soul destroying actions - soul destroying not for the victim and the perpetrators, but for the entire Church community. The denials, cover-ups, lies, and treachery that poured out from the Catholic sex scandals really turned my stomach and crushed me. I cried - I really did - when I saw that the systemic injustice sullied so much goodness: priests and brothers I loved and respected remained loyal to what I saw as a deeply corrupt institution, and it pained me that so many good people had to kneel in deference to such a soulless hierarchy.

And now the Vatican has reprimanded American nuns for supporting health care measures that conflict with narrow definitions of marriage and challenge the Church's stance against contraception and abortion. The Holy Sea will remain silent for decades as priests molest children, but rise up in opposition when septuagenarian women, who have dedicated their entire lives to serving the poor, the hungry, the imprisoned, the sick, speak up for the rights of people to have access to health care that provides birth control for women. A Church leadership that is so blindly contradictory is rotting at its core. "If you look a who has more closely emulated Jesus's life, Pope Benedict or your average nun," writes Nicholas Kristof, it's the nuns hands down." Despite my checkered history with the nuns, Kristof is right.

Perhaps the Catholic Church has always been plagued by such contradictions, between a Faith of Love and commitment to social justice, exemplified by people like Dorothy Day and Pedro Arupe, S.J., and a politics of discrimination and repression seen in the sexual violence cover-ups that went on for decades in parishes throughout the US and Europe. Some devote, faithful Catholics can reconcile those contradictions and continue to give their allegiance to the Holy, Catholic, Apostolic Church. Despite my love for my Jesuit friends and my appreciation for the education I received in Catholic institutions, I am no longer one of those people.           

Hurray for nuns who champion health care for all people. Shame on priests and popes who cover up sexual violence against children.

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