Monday, June 30, 2014

Queer Catholics

In my continuing efforts to blog about things that none of my readers care about, today I bring you my thoughts on a 75-page document recently issued by the Vatican, The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization

Wait, come back! It's all about gender and sexuality and stuff!

Last fall, Pope Francis announced that he was convening an extraordinary meeting of the synod of bishops to consider the state of marriage and family life. Francis asked every diocese in the world to study the issue, survey the laity, and weigh in on where Catholics stand on various issues affecting family life. (I participated in my diocese's survey, which I'll say more about below.) The resulting document, known as an "instrumentum laboris," or "working instrument," contains a preliminary report on those findings, and it's meant to be the starting point for the work of the synod, whose first meeting will be in October.

Francis's initial announcement of the synod got some coverage in the mainstream press--in part because of the short timeline and in part because of the sweeping scope of the project: this is the first time that ordinary Catholics have been asked for their feedback. There has been speculation, at least in the American press, that the conference might be the occasion for major changes in the church's positions on such things as divorce, birth control, and same-sex marriage. But despite that initial coverage, as far as I can tell, last week's release of the instrumentum has received zero attention outside of Catholic circles (that last link is to Rocco Palmo, always the best source for news on the global church).

I'm not an expert Vatican-watcher and there are a lot of basic things I don't know about the synod or its mandate. And though I've read the instrumentum, at times I have trouble deciphering its "voice"--that is, whether a statement is merely descriptive (this is what the church has said on this subject in recent decades) or prescriptive (this is the church's teaching, which is not up for debate). Nevertheless, some things are pretty obvious. Issues surrounding divorce and remarriage get more attention in the document than any of the other subjects that preoccupy American and European Catholics, which leads me to suspect that there could be some real changes there. I also believe that changes around the edges of birth-control policies are likely, and though I'd be surprised to see major changes on same-sex marriage, I wouldn't rule out the possibility of some conciliatory gestures (for example, the document spends some time discussing how to welcome same-sex couples who wish to raise their children Catholic).

But really, what will strike any Western reader of the document is all the other problems facing families that the bishops are interested in--and the global perspective that those concerns reflect. Serious attention is given to domestic violence, incest, human trafficking, polygamy, poverty, and families separated by political unrest or forced migration. The other thing that will strike readers is how generous and compassionate the document can be toward both families and individuals. It waxes indignant about the ostracism and shame some people (single mothers, victims of abuse) are subjected to, and it's critical of clerics who don't fulfill their pastoral duties. The influence of Francis is clear in such moments.

There are less generous moments sprinkled throughout, though, and while I imagine that some of the oscillation between more compassionate and more condemnatory language reflects the conflicts and compromises inherent in a preliminary document written by a 15-person team, it's still a little disappointing. I'm also disappointed, though not surprised, that the instrumentum's discussion of the laity's attitudes is mostly couched in terms of what they "understand" about the church's teachings. Although each diocese apparently had some leeway in how it surveyed its laity, the form I got was focused on its respondents' level of engagement in Catholic life and familiarity with church teachings. And, dudes: I understand, with great clarity, the intricacies of the church's teachings on homosexuality. I've heard the best and most compelling arguments for natural family planning. That's not the same thing as agreeing with those teachings. What I wanted and did not get was a chance to say, "yes, I'm a Catholic who has received all the sacraments, who attends mass weekly and volunteers at her parish, and I don't agree with you on X or Y."

Most surprising to me is the document's near obsession with what it calls "the ideology of gender theory" (12)--a term that comes up at least half a dozen times. Although the bishops barely define it (and it's not clear that their familiarity with gender theory is at anything closer than third or fourth hand), they're plainly troubled by the idea that gender might be disconnected from biological sexuality. Throughout, there's an essentialist attitude toward gender and sexuality, and a suspicion of anything that might be considered non-normative.

And. . . it's at this point that I say, OH, COME ON! The Catholic Church has been celebrating non-normative sexualities for centuries. We're talking about an institution that has a celibate priesthood and celibate male and female religious. We're talking about a religious tradition that involves ecstatic, eroticized mysticism, that uses sexualized language to talk about everything from the Creation, the Incarnation, and the Eucharist to prayer and the operations of the Holy Spirit. I mean, I'm not calling the church freaky, but its attitudes toward sexuality are rich, interesting, and go beyond either the procreative or the ascetic.

Cosimo has remarked that female religious (whom he knew from childhood, thanks to his beloved aunt, a Sister of St. Joseph) were his first introduction to queer women: not because of anything he knew or presumed about their sexual orientation, but because of the palpable otherness of a community of women who lived entirely outside of the imperatives of heterosexuality. Indeed, celibacy is about as counter-cultural as you can get in the modern age.

I understand that the mandate of the synod is to deal with the changing shape of the family, not with vowed celibates or those leading a single life; I also have no desire to return to the centuries in which the church valorized celibacy and slighted marriage and procreation. But there's something exasperating about the refusal to consider love, marriage, and family life within the larger and more radical context of the church's history and teachings. As many people before me have pointed out, Jesus himself shows no interest in the traditional family. Not only was his own family nontraditional (and non-procreative), he himself never married and repeatedly tells his followers that to proclaim his kingdom they need to leave their families behind--not even pausing to bury their dead.

According to the instrumentum laboris, many bishops are calling for "theological study in dialogue with the human sciences" to better understand sexual orientation, homosexuality, and the differences between the sexes (52). I'm glad of that, and I think it's a hopeful sign. But I'd like for them also to wrestle with--or simply acknowledge!--the non-normative and non-procreative forms of gender, sexuality, and eroticism that have always been central to the Catholic tradition.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Bog, slog, slough

As it turns out, it's hard to bring any energy or enthusiasm to one's third R&R on the same essay.

I believe in the suggestions enough to want to implement them--but at this point in the life of the piece, I'm pretty much done having new thoughts. It's also hard to believe that any change will increase the likelihood of success.


Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Manatees looking for mentos

We've been rewatching the early seasons of 30 Rock--and I'm struck, as I wasn't the first time around, by what the show gets right about mentorship.

On the one hand, the relationship between Jack and Liz is a wish-fulfillment, fantasy version of the mentor-mentee relationship: out of nowhere, this powerful, senior person elects you to be his mentee! He's seen your potential, and now he wants to lavish you with attention and give you the benefit of his years of experience.

And that part--well, if you're waiting for that kind of mentor, you'll be waiting a long time.

But the show is right that mentors find you more often than the other way around. Unless the mentor relationship occurs within a formalized workplace program, it happens pretty much solely at the senior person's discretion. Sure, you can take some initiative in getting a potential mentor's attention, but as 30 Rock demonstrates, the mentor's own investments and fantasies are as important as you, your potential, and whatever you actually need. Someone who wants to mentor you is almost certainly someone who likes to think of himself as a mentor. Jack has so much enthusiasm for mentoring it's like he's selling patent medicine.

What follows from that is that a mentor's investments in you (or in your shared workplace or profession) may not always overlap perfectly with what you need from them. When Jack sticks to "leadership" issues, he's got something to offer. But when he starts pitching ideas for the show, he's just another suit who thinks he's got a creative side. So if you're lucky enough to have someone who decides they want to mentor you, think about what you actually need from them, and be attentive to whatever else might be motivating their advice. Usually it's pretty benign--your mentor sees some part of himself in you; he wants to help build up the department you share; he regrets some mistakes he made with his own first book--but it's never purely about you.

The corollary, though, is that a mentor doesn't have to be perfect, or be able to help you in all areas of your professional life--and if his politics or personal life (or even his field of study or theoretical or methodological approach) are totally alien to you, so what? A mentor only needs to be smart and helpful in one area to be a good mentor.

And who knows? Maybe you'll find someone who'll be Michelle Pfeiffer to your angry black kid who learns that poetry is just another way to rap.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Mail from the great beyond gets misdirected, too

Last night I dreamed I was writing an article proving that the book Polonius hands Ophelia in 3.1 (when he sends her to confront Hamlet) is Lewis Bayly's "The Practice of Piety."

This was such a weirdly specific dream, about texts I've never worked on--I haven't even taught Hamlet in three or four years and I'm pretty sure I've never read Bayly--that I awoke wondering if there might actually be something to this: could my subconscious mind have produced something totally brilliant? Or maybe even received some kind of supernatural transmission??

Alas, a quick database search revealed that Bayly's book was probably first published in 1611, at least a decade too late.

Still, now that I know my subconscious can produce plausible-sounding scholarly arguments, I'm pissed it hasn't been helping me with my actual work all these years.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Clumsy incompetence is just part of my process

I remember how hard it was to write my first dissertation chapter--and, worse, how incomprehensible it seemed that it should be so hard: I'd read hundreds of academic book chapters! I'd written a dozen 20-page seminar papers! I knew what a chapter-length scholarly argument looked like, and I could confidently tell you which ones were stronger and which ones were weaker, and why. I knew all the kinds of moves a book chapter might make. But I couldn't apply that knowledge to my own writing.

To say that my advisor wasn't helpful in navigating that particular psychodrama would be an understatement; our relationship came close to collapsing over that chapter. But after I'd produced a draft that was firing on a few of its cylinders, she gave me some of the most useful writing advice I've ever received: It's time to move on, she said. Start your second chapter. You can return to this one later.

I didn't like that advice. I'd been living inside that chapter for a long time, and I couldn't bear the idea of leaving it messy and half-formed, especially when it finally seemed to be getting somewhere. But I did as she said. And for whatever reason, my second chapter just came: it wound up being the longest and maybe the meatiest of my dissertation chapters, but the easiest of the four to write. My remaining chapters were still a frustrating, difficult slog, but neither was as hard as the first. The difference, I think, was that while I was still struggling with ideas, argument, and organization, once I'd written one good chapter, the form itself no longer felt like an obstacle. I'd made it my own.

The experience taught me that the point of writing a dissertation chapter is, on some level, to learn how to write a dissertation chapter. And you don't learn by tinkering endlessly with the same chapter--you learn by writing other chapters. The same is true for every literary form I can think of, from the tweet to the novel. (Most "first novels," after all, aren't the first novel the author wrote, but the first one she got published.) Reading a lot of works in a given genre is crucial, but you only learn how to inhabit a form by inhabiting it. Repeatedly.

But though I tell my students the kind of things I've just said here--that the point of writing a research paper is to learn how to write a research paper; that you can't master a form without first doing it badly--that doesn't mean I've fully learned my own lessons.

Recently, I was invited to write something on spec for a general-interest publication. It was a topic comfortably within my wheelhouse, for a publication I've subscribed to for years. I was excited by the opportunity and thought I could probably do a pretty good job. But I'm telling you: it was the hardest thing I've written in ages--maybe the hardest thing I've written since that first dissertation chapter. As with my dissertation, the problem was mostly one of form (or, more accurately, with negotiating the relationship between self and form). I didn't know who I was writing as, or to whom, or why. The editors were kind enough to read two significantly different versions of my essay over a couple of months, but in the end decided it wasn't the right fit for them.

That was disappointing, but still useful. Useful as a reminder that when I assign my M.A. students to write a 750-word book review, no matter how many they've read, most are not quite going to get it on the first go-round. Useful because though I frequently tell others that writing isn't magic, I'm prey to the same belief that, if I can't do something the first time, I probably don't have the ability to do it at all. And useful because now I guess I have something new to work on.

Saturday, June 07, 2014

Worse than the two-body problem is the two-home problem

We're in the midst of moving selves, cats, and a goodly number of our possessions from Punchline Rustbelt City to Other Rustbelt City. It's not a bad move, as moves go: we're keeping this apartment for next year, so it's just a matter of schlepping a couple of carloads and a vanload back to our house (and then unpacking everything we stored in the attic while the renters were there). And I'm dying to be back home for the summer.

But three of the last four summers have involved some kind of move, most of them logistically complicated ones: 2011 involved moving among four different residences, and last year it was three. In addition to the endless U-Haul and packing-tape drama, each move has involved new decisions about which items to consolidate in one location, to buy in duplicate, or to purge.

And in approximately twelve months we'll be moving again, for the most complicated, expensive, and stressful move of all. (Another three-corner move, but this time with a house to sell and another to buy--and an apartment, a storage unit, and infinite unknowns about timing and money.)

It's too exhausting even to contemplate. Time to pour some wine and watch the cats play with the bubble wrap.