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They'll know we are Christians by our love

I was reminded this morning of an old song common in Christian youth groups, "They'll Know We Are Christians." We actually sung it every week at a nice Presbyterian church I attended as an undergrad (The Church of the Covenant) that I remember mainly for being truly inclusive of the homeless living in the area; they found a good mix of reaching out to them and not making them feel like a project cor other people to help, I thought. But it wasn't unique to Covenant; in fact, it's kind of a Christian "kumbayah" and was really popular in the Jesus Movement, which Wikipedia describes as "the major Christian element within the hippie counterculture, or, conversely, the major hippie element within some strands of Protestantism" (that earned a chuckle, because it's just so true).

Anyway, the song. If you haven't heard it, YouTube has the Jars of Clay version available. I was actually reminded of the second verse:

We will work with each other, we will work side by side
We will work with each other, we will work side by side
And we'll guard each one's dignity and save each one's pride
And they'll know we are Christians by our love, by our love.

I couldn't help thinking about this in light of the news story I heard last night. Note, this is to an activism site rather than to a regular news site, so the usual caveats apply. But here's the gist of the situation as relayed by the patient.

Mr. Joao Simoes was in the mental health wing of Trinitas Regional Medical Center, a Catholic hospital. While there he communicated to a psychologist that he had HIV contracted from unprotected sex, and said shrink asked if it was sex with another man. Mr. Simoes confirmed that, and the psychiatrist literally walked out of the room. And no one came back - not that shrink or any other doctor, or even a nurse. It was three days later before Mr. Simoes finally got his medicine for HIV (which the hospital knew he needed). In the time period Dr. Borga - the therapist - also contacted his normal medical doctor and accused him of being gay himself and also asked if he needed a translator because he spoke with an accent. According to Mr. Simoes, she actually told his doctor that "This is what [Mr. Simoes] gets for going against God's will," when the medical doctor informed the psychologist about the medicine.

To be fair, two things need to be emphasized. First, this is all preliminary and it's possible that Dr. Borga didn't act in the way described here. Also, it isn't clear to what extent Trinitas RMC was complicit in all this. I'm fairly confident that Catholic doctrine doesn't forbid treating people who contracted diseases in ways you disapprove of morally. I mean, yeah, Catholics are going to oppose certain medical procedures that they consider sinful or harmful themselves (like with abortion), but that's not an issue here. I did three years in a Catholic parochial school and am currently studying in a Jesuit university, and I've never heard of anything that would require a doctor to act the way Dr. Borga did.

If anything it's directly against the way Jesus healed the sick. I always loved his response to Zacchaeus, the epitome of a corrupt government agent: get on down out of that tree, come as you are because you're having lunch with me today. He went into the homes of Roman centurions just because they asked him to, and he healed people without sorting out whether they deserved it in almost every case. Sometimes Jesus moved beyond that, to figure out what sin in the person's life needed addressing in the longterm, but that always came later. Jesus didn't berate the adulteress and refuse to help her because she'd screwed up too badly. Dr. Borga's actions here, if accurately reported, are despicable and not at all what Christianity should be about.

There's a bigger problem here, though. The article's unclear about how much the hospital was involved beyond just that one doctor. But walk it through - either they let someone like this into a posiiton of authority where she could keep life-sustaining medication away from a patient for three days... or they didn't. In the second case the institution had to be involved beyond just this one person. But even if it's the first case, that's a massive institutional failure. If the woman really said half the things she's accused of, that's a pretty clear indication that she needs some serious time on the shrink's couch herself. I mean, she's berating doctors, questioning their sexuality because they dare to treat a gay man to say nothing of their perceived ethnicity. This is not a woman who needs to be in charge of emotionally vulnerable patients.

I'm trying to avoid beating up on the RCC based on one case where the details are still iffy. The problem is that this fits so well into the pattern we've seen time and time again with the pedophilia scandles. I love my Catholic colleagues at Fordham, and my Catholic family, in whom I sense a real spirit of Christian love. But increasingly - speaking of the church as a whole - I see an institution that cares more about dogma and rights than about people. When people cross the line (as will always happen in a large institution) I see the church covering it up and enabling them. Granted, I don't know if that's what happened in this case but it's hard to imagine that this is the first time Dr. Borga said comments like this. If she did, then why is she in authority? My guess - completely unsubstantiated though it may be - is that it's more or less the same reason that kept pedophile priests shuffling between parishes and ending up in charge of youth choirs (and to be fair, kept Jerry Sandusky in his job for several decades as well).

The song I quoted above requires a bit more than that, even. It requires us to "guard each other's dignity" even when that person doesn't look, act or believe precisely like me. Protestants are hardly blameless on this count (there's precious little room for an evangelical to say she doesn't think homosexuality is a sin or that abortion is murder, without being told she's rewriting the word of God), but lately I've seen the RCC in particular doubling down. I'm thinking particularly of the investigation into the Girl Scouts, who as far as I can tell are only really connected to the RCC because they sometimes meet in the churches. Or the new oath affecting theology professors at Catholic universities, or the Vatican's recent crackdown on several orders of American nuns for not being vocal enough in their criticism of abortion, gay marriage, etc. These moves may actually be reasonable, individually; I don't have the time to look at the pros and cons of each of these news items like I'd like to. But taken as a group they do tend drive home the point that to be a good Catholic you can't have much variation from the official position.

As I read the Bible, that's not God's way. Even in the New Testament, great heroes of Peter and Paul express positions, they debate, they come at things from different perspectives. They don't always agree. And as for the Man himself, when the Pharisees asked them for the greatest commandment, He gave them not one but two and then (this was the brilliant part) tacked on the claim that "On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets." I can just see him saying in modern jargon, "You want an executive summary, a few bullet points you can meet and know you're in the club? Tough cookies. What we're talking about here simply doesn't work that way."

It breaks my heart that so few Christians today seem to get that. Or at least the ones in power don't. This isn't a uniquely Catholic problem, though I've picked on the RCC a fair bit here; it's a Christian problem, and even more than that a human problem. What happened at that hospital was disgusting in so many ways, and I hate that Mr. Simoes had to go through that. But I also hate that religion so often seems to let the Dr. Borgas of the world, so long as they snipe at the right kind of people. I just wish I could do more than apologize. When I call myself a Christian, this isn't what I mean.


( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 4th, 2012 04:54 pm (UTC)
Those elements of the hierarchy that have significant power in the RCC have, with a fair amount of uniformity, made it clear that they are in full reaction - without the imagination or will to confront real social problems or grapple with dogmatic violence or even be honest with themselves about who they are really supporting. Instead of working creatively to bring about a new, socially-engaged, compassionate Catholicism, they'll settle for dogmatic reaction and retreat that leaves more and more parishioners and people outside the pale and tacitly if not explicitly endorses and facilitates cruelty toward the vulnerable. We're having problems even funding parishes, in part because a lot of parishes are filled with impoverished immigrants or folks from the losing end of the economic spectrum, regardless of immigration status, so what can they really give to support their own churches? The richer parishes often are in the grip of those who are for capital and large-scale business first and religious second, so that the former defines the latter, and we know what that means from watching all our social infrastructure, from governmental top to bottom, rot and collapse as it's privatized for profit or neglected for the same reason.

Personally, I think the Catholic hierarchy basically shot itself in the gonads and the rest of us in more immediately vital places when it decided that it could not and would not accept an active critique of the conditions that cause massive human rights violations - from death squads to profiteering - because it was allergic to the term "materialism," defined as an atheism, and unwilling to come to any working agreement with it despite the clear example of the practicality of such an agreement by elements of its own body. It reacted by retreating to its comfort zone doctrinally, identifying itself with that, and undercutting the actively progressive movements within the church body, which were often enough on the ground getting shot at in places like South America. Catholic hierarchy decisions thenceforth end up colluding with the highly destructive forces of greed and power-mongering in our societies to the detriment of all, even as it verbally criticizes the effects of those forces and tries to maintain either political neutrality or reformist positions.

Progressive elements in Catholic churches therefore have almost no real institutional support to act, either against the powers that be within the church hierarchy or against the powers that be in the world at large. And without that institutional support, pastoral documents such as Always our children - which, even though they are certainly not satisfying on many levels, represent less reactionary elements of the higher-level clergy, and clearly forbid injustice and violence against homosexual persons - likely have limited efficacy unless external factors to church teaching help keep that violence and injustice in check.
Jun. 4th, 2012 04:55 pm (UTC)

Since external factors in favor of gay rights are similarly relatively weak in terms of real clout, even if agreement is spreading amongst more and more people that homosexuals deserve to be treated with no less dignity than other people, and to suffer no legal or cultural stigmas, I don't assume that those factors will provide significant positive support. Absent strong organizing drives among Catholics and supporters from all sectors of society, I expect incidents like this will continue to form a pattern with other anti-homosexual actions and declarations.

Of course, that doesn't mean that abolishing the religious reason for discriminating would solve the problem entirely, since aid and assistance to HIV patients or those who think they may have been exposed to HIV, many of whom are homosexual, is on the chopping block in cash-strapped states like Illinois. In general, effective access to health care for many different and even life-threatening conditions is the province of the privileged alone. Yes, the RCC hierarchy provides a religious motive that the reactionary among Catholic-affiliated healthcare providers can use in an obviously outrageous and peculiarly parochial way as a reason to abuse homosexuals and deny them healthcare, even as health insurance and care-providers as institutions discriminate against homosexuals generally on the same financial grounds that they discriminate against all people. Solve the former, the latter discrimination, which may be even more effective than Catholic prejudice at denying health care to political minorities like homosexuals and transgendered people, still exists; solve the latter, and I imagine we'd have a better shot at dealing with the former, even though it would take a lot of work from Catholics to turn the church's official positions around.
Jun. 5th, 2012 10:08 pm (UTC)
"This isn't a uniquely Catholic problem... it's a Christian problem..."

From a European perspective, I should add, it looks particularly (not uniquely, but in its virulence, vitriol, and apparent domination of political and social discourse) like an American problem.

I read accounts like that NYT article on the Catholic Church's current row with the Girl Scouts of America with incredulity for quotes like this:

"Other [conservatives] are upset that the Girl Scouts have materials that provide links to groups like the Sierra Club, Doctors Without Borders and Oxfam, some of which support family planning and contraception" [my emphasis]. Yes, they do, among many many other activities, and in the UK the idea of objecting to Oxfam on those grounds would be so laughable I wouldn't know where to start. Oxfam are about as motherhood-and-apple-pie, wholesome, establishment development aid as it's possible to get. If they want radical Christian development charities, they should try Christian Aid (whose slogan, when I was a Christian, I always thought brilliantly challenging: "We believe in life before death").

Most of the rest of the "Western" world regards America's apparent obsession with abortion and birth control as political issues with complete bafflement, as I'm sure you know.

Going back to the main subject of your post, that isn't to say that cases of nasty anti-gay prejudice like the one cited don't occur here - on an individual basis, all the time. But the idea that any organisation might try to justify that kind of prejudice as policy would be incredible... I hope...
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )



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