One very warm February afternoon which according to Pag-Asa, registered at an all time high of 36 degrees, and just a week after Valentine’s Day, the Balay Kalinaw, a Vigan inspired house built to better catch a breeze in warm climes, could barely offer a cool refuge to the gathering crowd of eager listeners.
Yet people were lining up to listen to three people speak about timely (and timeless) topics Puso, Puson at Pananampalataya, (literally Heart, Navel and Worship/Faith).
Danton Remoto, a well known Jesuit educated literary figure and an outspoken gay man, Dr. Margarita Holmes, perhaps the most popular and beloved straight talking psychiatrist and sex therapist in the country, and Sr. Helen Graham, a Mary Knoll Roan Catholic nun and unlikely yet familiar face on Debate, faced an audience of over fifty people that somehow fit into a small function room which was expected to accommodate a maximum of thirty.
Yet if it wasn’t the topic that titillated, more probable was the fact that these three speakers already have between them, a sizeable following. Despite the relatively short notice of the forum, people braved the heat and word spread about the forum.
Between the three speakers, they had PhDs and Masters Degrees that put together would have resembled the bio-data of an expert panel or committee tasked to do extensive research or review. Yet the day’s gathering had simpler though by no means, mundane objectives.
Engaging a conversation about personal reflections, stories and the stuff of Catholic faith, and Catholic lives, the insights offered by the three speakers proved perfect to quench the thirst of parched and weary souls that gathered.
Danton was raised by strict traditional parents in a middle class home. “My father was a military man and a lawyer and he taught me discipline. My mother was a piano and music teacher and a devout Catholic.”
Marge also grew up Catholic and her father was known to have led the construction of many of the main buildings of the UST, the Catholic university her parents expected her to attend.
“When I decided to leave the (Catholic) University of Sto Thomas, and to study in UP instead (a secular state university), I knew the only way to do so was to do well, get a scholarship and support myself. My father used his money to show his disapproval and he refused to finance my education. It was then I knew that the only way to get my father off my back was to graduate Magna Cum Laude.” And that she did. Margie Holmes was one of only seven in the class of 1973 of the UP that graduated Magna Cum Laude.
As tempting it may be for a lot of people to simply dismiss their “stories” as daughters and sons of strict Catholic parents rebelling against the “order” and “restriction” imposed on them by Catholic upbringing, to do so would be to impose a pre-fabricated narrative, certainly a contrived, simplistic one.
But certainly, if rebellion was part of their stories, it couldn’t be dismissed as a story of simple opposition in black and white. After all, real life is rarely lived in those stark contrasts but in full color.
Sister Helen quipped that if the life stories and insights of the two Catholics who spoke before her included key points and encounters with sexuality and identity, hers ought to be enough to complete the conversation since her part of it would be celibacy.
“I was raised by an agnostic. My grandfather one time, when I was about six, asked me one day to tell him all about what we learned in school that day. So I told him about the story of creation in the bible. Of course he said, -that is a lot of hogwash and its not true- so I began reading and got interested in the bible. I wanted to prove my point but I got hooked on the bible and reading it, not just for the text but its many levels of meaning.”
At a time when meanings get distorted and even identities, misrepresented, the afternoon’s conversation offered a real way out of falling into what has perhaps become force of habit among modern society’s denizens: boxing people (ourselves and others) and imagining a great divide between “us,” and “them,” on matters about sex, ethics and Catholic morality.
Danton who is running for public office in a continuing bid to have the LGBT Partylist (Ladlad) accredited by COMELEC, shared his reflections on entering politics as a neophyte.
“When our partylist showed up third on the SWS survey, we were approached by traditional politicians with money. They offered us “protection,” and lots of money. They offered us millions and SUVs. It was all new to me. I didn’t know what to do so I went to church and prayed. I asked for guidance. I don’t know what that means to anybody but I needed to do so. I still go to mass and pray. I don’t want money from those politicians. It’s the sort of money you don’t even know where it comes from!”
Was it Catholic morals? Is it the little voice in a Catholic’s head? Is it guilt? Is it the same guilt we are accustomed to feeling when we desire another sexually?
“I refused to take P.E. in class or join my (male) classmates in the locker room because I felt guilty about my feelings. What else could I do but to avoid it? How was it that I felt attracted to a male classmate and not my female seatmate? I felt guilty because we were all taught it was wrong. It was a sin”
Yearning to become comfortable and free with his sexuality also led Danton to seek higher education in foreign places where he could gain more understanding and acceptance. He traveled, studied and lived in the United Kingdom, the US, Malaysia and Singapore.
Not unlike Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, Danton’s Jesuit education helped foster in him a love for and ability in literature. Now a known literary figure and among the pioneers of gay literature in the Philippines, Danton himself teaches at the Ateneo, noting the state and tradition of academic freedom by the Jesuits gives him enough space to be himself and to be accepted. Danton is a gay man and LGBT leader who still finds his voice nurtured by Catholic education.
Indeed, for many like Danton, learning to read and excelling in writing often represents a sense of empowerment. But far too often however, there is also a grave danger of losing touch with the ability to think, when we think we know how to read.
“When fundamentalists read the bible, they take it literally and take it as THE word, not an interpretation of it, and we have to understand that that was not the way it was written! There are levels of meaning lost in translation from Hebrew and often we are not able to understand those nuances in meaning,” notes Sr. Helen on stressing the importance of learning how to read mine the bible for meaning.
It bears remembering that it was also a Catholic convert, Marshall McLuhan, a Canadian born Literature Professor turned Media and Cultural Studies guru who pointed out: “We shape our tools and then our tools shape us.”
McLuhan also made it his mission for people to pay more attention to ways of seeing and knowing through an understanding of how our relationships and interaction with various media, affects our own ways of thinking and feeling.
He points out that even the way we use words and “read” isn’t the same way people used to “read,” when mass media was non existent and how Guttenberg’s movable press began a revolution of sorts as well as eventually ushered in what is now ours - a culture of passivity.
Sr. Helen’s favorite anecdote and example about mining the bible for meaning is one about the story of creation itself.
“When the serpent tells Eve to eat the fruit of the forbidden tree, she has a conversation with the serpent. She responds by saying God does not want them near the tree and even touching the fruit. And that if they did eat it, they would die. This was of course not exactly what God said. He just said they must not eat the fruit. But the serpent entices Eve by saying - God doesn’t want you to eat of it because you will become wise, like him. In Genesis, Eve is described as having looked at the apple, appreciated it and decided it was good to eat. So she takes a bite and gives it to Adam who eats it too. After they eat the fruit, they realize they are naked.”
Sr. Helen shares that in Hebrew, there is a lot to be said about the origins for the word naked and wise and that the stories have many possible levels of meaning. She also likes to point out that the way the Bible tells the story also reflects how Eve used her mind in making a decision about eating the fruit of the tree. Not only did she examine and look at the apple, she was also the one who conversed with the snake about the reason why they were not supposed to eat it. In a biblical sense, you have the makings of the first ever-theological discussion ever documented.
The meaning of “Adam” (the first one created by God) in Hebrew also corresponds to humanity and not at all “male” as our socio-biologically oriented culture is wont to dismiss.
Yet by all means, Religious Fundamentalists aren’t the only one who are stuck in a mode of thinking they are unwilling to get out of. In that brief afternoon’s conversation, insights were also offered by way of reflecting on how even the best of social movements working for change and social justice, all too often are stuck in the same rut.
Margie Holmes clearly laid out a challenge (at times, a crisis) faced by feminist movements worldwide. She also lamented the cult of celebrity and her now perhaps, larger-than-life reputation for speaking frankly about sex and being “sex-positive.”
“People have come to expect things from you which is not necessarily reflective of who you are...this is the first time I have ever talked about my personal life in public save for two columns I wrote that were supposed to be personal reflections…Yet even the context of the letters that I get, come from somewhere very personal and people have often agonized about such questions…but when you write a column about sex, people have certain impressions…”
Marge’s lament of being boxed in her most known “public identity” is almost parallel to something Father Charles Curran reflected on. A Catholic priest and Moral Theologian who was barred from teaching in Catholic universities, Charles Curran remains one of the most influential Catholic Moral Theologians from the United States.
“Having become a symbol in someone else’s cause, as he did, subtlety is lost; a persona becomes fixed. To some, Fr. Curran is a radical progressive; to others, an angry dissident. The truth is that he is neither.” (Tom Fox, editor of National Catholic Reporter, Review of Loyal Dissent by Charles Curran)
Bemoaning the state of the discourse on sexual and reproductive rights and health, Marge asked: “The so-called “Pro-Lifers” must have the best publicists. How have we come to be stuck with the label “Pro-Choice” when it doesn’t really begin to address the seriousness or complexity of our position? We aren’t the anti-life but those who say they are “pro-life” and “anti-abortion” have made us so…How can a genuinely pro-life position give so little value to women’s health and lives?”
Speaking about having relationships, Danton shares that among his friends he is labeled a conservative because he values fidelity. He wondered out loud whether it was Catholic upbringing or whether it was a a residue of catholic conservatism? Is fidelity always a heterosexual norm or is it a value expressed across cultures and genders?
Marge addressed a common impression that being sex-positive herself, she and others who enjoy sex, should get away with chiding or taunting others for celibacy or for that matter the choice to honor fidelity and be monogamous! Stressing the importance of not judging others, she also asked out loud whether in being accepting of others and seeking to understand the complexities of each person’s decisions, she was being selectively moral?
In fact such a position is very similarly grounded on the same emphasis to relationality and responsibility cited by Sr. Helen.
But indeed, as Marge points out, “The Right to Choose” cannot compare with the “Right to Life,” and why indeed have they been framed as if on differing sides of completely divergent moral codes? Worse, only the Institutional Church position is accorded a “Moral” value and the secular (or in our case, the Non-Catholic which includes all other religions outside of it), are usually placed outside the discourse of morality.
When those of us within social movements use human rights as basis to our claims today, we usually do so without even considering how it is that on either side of contesting ideological debates, rights aren’t only equally available claims but more importantly, also being used as the basis to justify attacks on the freedom of others, as well as against persons themselves.
Last year, I considered the case of a columnist who earned the ire of the LGBT community for his tirades against homosexuals and glorification of gay bashing. One of the reactions he responded to was one from another columnist who not only outed himself on the occasion but also expressed his having been “hurt” by the column. Using “free speech” to defend himself and even quoting Voltaire, the gay bashing columnist waxed lyrical about freedom of speech and how it has always been used in the defense of unpopular speech. He was after all, a former Supreme Court Justice and no less than the author of law books on the Constitution!
Indeed, if there is one thing students of contemporary legal theory and human rights ought to be aware of is that as useful as “rights” are in expounding on principles of human dignity and the values of freedom and democracy, law often limits the rights discourse to set “conflicts,” and even “imagined” differences in black and white. Save perhaps for some initiatives exploring alternative modes of dispute resolution, the realm of the law is still largely an adversarial one where confrontation is key.
A similar crisis of choice and life was noted by Daniel Maguirre, a Professor of Theology at Marquette University in Milwaukee, in considering how various Catholic Bishops even opted to treat all sides equally on the debate between pro and anti-nuclear weapons positions:
"In the ‘already but not yet’ of Christian existence, members of the church choose different paths to move toward the realization of the kingdom in history. Distinct moral options coexist as legitimate expressions of Christian choice." This "prochoice" statement recently made by the Catholic bishops of the United States has nothing to do with abortion. Rather, it addresses the possibility of ending life on earth through nuclear war. On that cataclysmic issue, the bishops’ pastoral letter on peace warns against giving "a simple answer to complex questions." It calls for "dialogue." Hand-wringingly sensitive to divergent views, the bishops give all sides a hearing, even the winnable nuclear war hypothesis -- a position they themselves find abhorrent. At times they merely raise questions when, given their own views, they might well have roundly condemned.
Change the topic to abortion, and nothing is the same. On this issue, the bishops move from the theological mainstream to the radical religious right. Here they have only a single word to offer us: No! No abortion ever -- yesterday, today or tomorrow. No conceivable tragic complexity could ever make abortion moral. Here the eschaton is reached: there is no "already but not yet"; there is only "already." "Distinct moral options" do not exist; only unqualified opposition to all abortions moves toward "the realization of the kingdom in history." There is no need for dialogue with those who hold other views or with women who have faced abortion decisions."
Sr. Helen’s lecture on changes within the Catholic Church, especially on the history of social teachings, demonstrated how contrary to as is often portrayed, positions of those in the Church and those within social movements aren’t always at loggerheads.
But while a historical shift occurred social teachings of the church, somehow teachings in sexual morality never moved forward. In fact she pointed out how so much like law, ethics within Catholic discourse has been limited from moving forward.
Sr. Helen marks the shifts in Church social teaching as demonstrated by 1) a departure from classicism which was hierarchical and deductive, to that of historical consciousness, where “truth” has to do with history; 2) an emphasis on personal freedom which moved away from the an emphasis of “nature” and “obedience” as the basis of faith; 3) Relationality and Responsibility in Ethical Life where goals determine the means and the recognition that a person has multiple relationships and complex identities.
Mike Ridell, elsewhere writes:
“As a Catholic myself, and a recovering theologian, I find myself not only perplexed but increasingly embarrassed by the bizarre and authoritarian posturing emanating from the Vatican. We in the West had thought we had put this chapter of our Church behind us. But an embattled Curia seems to grow more strident and dogmatic as it realizes that control is slowly but steadily slipping away from it. The attitude reminds me of English tourists who think that if they just speak more loudly, foreigners will understand them.”Seen here: The Ratzinger Doctrine
Daniel Maguirre, also noted
“Ten years ago, Catholic theologian Charles Curran stated in the Jurist (32:183 ) that "there is a sizable and growing number of Catholic theologians who do disagree with some aspects of the officially proposed Catholic teaching that direct abortion from the time of conception is always wrong." That "sizable number" has been growing since then despite the inhibiting atmosphere. It is safe to say that only a minority of Catholic theologians would argue that all abortions are immoral, though many will not touch the subject for fear of losing their academic positions.”
In the past and in certain Catholic institutions, there has always been room enough for Catholics to dissent but admittedly, given the state of rising religious fundamentalism and all manner of conflicts “in the name of religion,” it may be more accurate to say that we aren’t just losing more and more of that space but more and more, we are tragically losing the ability to do so.
And while it is easy to lay all the blame on an ever conservative Catholic hierarchy, passivity is what is perhaps crippling the Catholic Church in certainly less obviously insidious ways.
A passivity perhaps also exemplified by losing touch with the (pardon the Catholic in me – or humor me perhaps) “God given” ability to think and to do so freely.
This actually reminds me about something I read about the work of Surrealist Artist/Film maker, Luis Bunuel who while himself a Christian, was always a strong critique of Catholic teaching against sexual freedom. (His works often earned the ire of the Vatican and the L’Age d’Or was even banned for fifty years) Of his Art, Joan Mellen observed that this the artist had to say:
"We have been rendered unwittingly comfortable within our psychic cages to the point where we prefer them to liberty, an experience and aspiration we neither understand or desire"
My own reflection on this goes more along the lines of considering what the freedom of others means to us in our own experience and exercise of freedom.
At day’s end, the conversations did more than just give off a few sparks. While nobody claimed to have all the answers, everyone took home a myriad of insights for their own reflection. Several others even committed to meet again and gather together soon, each one of us hopeful that the circle of willing and able Catholic Voices will grow.
Additional References and Must Reads:
Religion On-line A veritable treasure trove of articles and writings by theologians, the site also includes valuable links to articles by feminist theologians.
Reviews and Articles on the Works of Luis Bunuel Yet another Jesuit educated and Spanish born Surrealist Artist/Film maker, Bunuel's L'Age d'Or was banned within a few weeks from its release.
Life and Works of James Joyce A Portal and website of the James Joyce Center in Dublin, Ireland, this site and many others like it on the works of James Joyce offer a glimpse into the life of who for me (and many other minions out there) is one of the greatest literary geniuses of all time. Joyce was Jesuit educated and a literary critic ahead of his time. He is one of Marshal McLuhan's primary influences.
Offical Site of Marshall McLuhan's Estate. The site contains links and articles about the works of McLuhan.