Monday, May 5, 2008

The Fear Factor

By Mary Lynn Murphy

Over the past year or so, I have noticed an increasing climate of fear among liberal Catholics in our local archdiocese. Perhaps it is a trickle down effect from Pope Benedict’s tenure, or more likely, a reaction to the arrival of the new archbishop, John Nienstedt. In addition to Nienstedt’s very conservative record, his opening salvos and recent initiatives have been undeniably aggressive for a new guy in town. Add to that Archbishop Flynn’s termination of the 9:00 a.m. Sunday liturgy at St. Stephen’s parish, and both of the bishops’ sudden support for the Tridentine Mass (i.e., the return to the Latin Mass) and the so-called “new evangelization,” and you get a pretty grim picture from the liberal point of view.

Liberal employees of Catholic institutions are feeling especially vulnerable. The whole scenario seems slightly reminiscent of the McCarthy era of American history. People have become more cautious and self-censoring. They worry not just about job loss, but about the loss of established liturgies and their communities of worship. They whisper among themselves and look over their shoulders.

I have posed to them the straight forward question: “What specifically are you afraid of?” Their answers have startled me:

“If we are perceived to be questioning Catholics by admission counselors, we fear our children will not be accepted into Catholic high schools.”

“Conservative parents of my high school students closely monitor my assignments. In fact, I have eliminated several books from my reading list. I fear if I appear too liberal, my principal might be pressured by parents or higher-ups to fire me.”

“As an aging priest, I fear I could lose my parish or my pension if I appear to be too supportive of GLBT persons.”

“I am old. I have no money. If I were expelled from my religious order for opposing the archbishop, I would have nowhere to go.”

“For speaking my conscience, I fear I could be excommunicated, with no Catholic burial when I die.”

“I work in food services at a Catholic university. I was shocked to see that Catholic LGBT support groups are not allowed on campus. But I would never mention it because I need my job.”

“At Catholic universities, free speech and students always suffer when professors routinely self-censor. But self-censor I do because in this job market I have no options.”

“Even respectful, thoughtful discussion of certain topics is off the table at Catholic high schools, which is so frustrating to most of us students. We really need to talk freely about issues we face – like reproductive freedom or homosexuality.”

As appalled as I am at such heartbreaking responses, I had immediate questions of my own:

Are Catholics in the pew aware of the fear factor? If they are aware of it, does it worry them?

What is the fundamental nature of a Catholic hierarchy that would intimidate its own people, or a church system that would tolerate intimidation?

What is the intended purpose of intimidation in any faith community?

Do individual Catholics or entire faith communities believe they have the human right to resist intimidation? If faith communities resisted intimidation, what might be the outcome? What would it take to make a faith community finally resist intimidation?

Is it worth imagining or designing an intimidation-free faith community that is all inclusive?

I have some answers of my own, but perhaps you, our readers, would like to respond to these questions, or share reflections of your own about the fear factor. We welcome your comments – anonymous or otherwise, just let us know.

Mary Lynn Murphy is the president of the Catholic Pastoral Committee on Sexual Minorities (CPCSM), the coordinator of Catholic Rainbow Parents, and a co-founder of The Progressive Catholic Voice.