Clooney on Winters on Hunt

Pune, India. — I am a few days short of the time when I am planning to continue my series on my trip to India, by writing a blog on my time here in Pune, one of the intellectual centers of India. But since I have been blessed with excellent internet connections here, I have been able to browse the web more frequently, do more emails, etc. So when I came across Michael Sean Winters’ blog (for NCR), “Contra Mary Hunt,” on her Religion Dispatches piece, “The Trouble With Francis: Three Things That Worry Me,” I was intrigued. I don’t think I’ve ever met Mr. Winters, but have thought of him as a colleague of a kind, since for a number of years we overlapped as bloggers in this In All Things site, and I have admired his energy and productivity. But I certainly have met Mary Hunt who, in her Religion Dispatches piece, is introduced as a “feminist theologian who is co-founder and co-director of the Women's Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual (WATER) in Silver Spring, Maryland, USA. A Roman Catholic active in the women-church movement, she lectures and writes on theology and ethics with particular attention to liberation issues.” I have known Dr. Hunt longer than almost anyone outside my immediate family – as high school students, we ended up on a service trip site in McKee, Kentucky in 1967, she from Syracuse, me from Staten Island. But that aside, I have always found Dr. Hunt’s writing to be intelligent, thoughtful, challenging, and pushing the hardest questions. Even when I have disagreed with her or would not push so far, I learn something every time. The piece in question is no exception. I won’t summarize it here, except to say that its three major parts — “Pope and Papacy,” “Women and Gays,” and “PR and Substance” — are, as far as I can, thoughtful and focused right on issues we need to be talking about today, particularly if we love the Church and love the Pope.

So I was puzzled at the harsh tone of Mr. Winters’ “Contra Mary Hunt,” which from the first paragraph would make the apologists of old proud: “Mary Hunt’s latest article at Religion Dispatches displays both Francis Derangement Syndrome (FDS) and If Only Pope Francis Knew What I Know Syndrome (IOPFKWIKS). It is one more piece of evidence of a trend I predicted shortly after Pope Francis’ election, an increasing divide between the Catholic Left that is thrilled with the pope’s emphasis on the Church’s social doctrine and the Catholic Left that, like its conservative counterparts, reduces Catholicism to a laundry list of neuralgic, mostly sex-related, issues.” More on the acronymns below.

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The second paragraph adds “myopia” and “a stunning lack of humility” to the list, while still further down, Mr. Winters, in commenting on Dr. Hunt’s point that so much depends on the personality and predilections of any given Pope that nothing essential has really changed about how the Church is run, writes these startling words: “But, most disturbing is Hunt’s complete lack of awareness that the liberal temperament is never so dangerous as when it speaks breezily about overturning institutions. Ms. Hunt cannot want the Church as it exists to succeed because this would only strengthen the hierarchy she deplores.” He then interprets what are admittedly challenging and provocative words – right or wrong, but open for discussion – as far more sinister. Dr. Hunt’s views are, “as a matter of logic, no different from the Pentagon’s willingness to destroy a village in Vietnam in order to save it. Her worldview, so lacking in humility, is chilling. One easily imagines her knitting at the foot of the guillotine.” I certainly cannot object if Mr. Winters’ disagrees. Dr. Hunt had said this: “The papacy is the ultimate bully pulpit, but it works both ways — on things that are progressive and things that are conservative. It is risky to embrace papal remarks when one agrees, only to live long enough to have another pope undo them.  Conservatives are living that reality as I write. The point is to be mature enough to set our own moral trajectories and decenter papal authority.” OK, let’s think about that. But do her words really merit comparisons to extermination campaigns in Vietnam or (as if Dickens’ Madame Defarge) knitting as the enemy are executed on the guillotine? I think not. Dr. Hunt wrote her piece and published it online. It deserves response, and is open to disagreement. But Agent Orange? The guillotine?

Mr. Winters’ goes on to reject Dr. Hunt’s “cant,” her creation of a church in her own image, as one of those burdened with “the prejudices of early 21st century, affluent, educated, liberal Americans.” (Alas, as I see all the more clearly here in India, so am I. And my guess, with all due respect, is that Mr. Winters’ himself shares the same burden). He also comments that Dr. Hunt is a reader of The Nation (one of the oldest and most consistent voices on the left, since about 1860 (and a journal to which, I must confess, I subscribe) prefers it to the Council of Nicaea.  I didn’t quite see how Nicaea entered the picture regarding Dr. Hunt’s blog, but I would be prone to say that both Nicaea and The Nation force us to think, help us to be free from “the grim slavery of being a child of one’s own age.”

Near the end of her piece, Dr. Hunt writes, “All of the efforts at church reform—whether the ordination of women, married clergy, acceptance of divorced and/or LGBTIQ persons as full members of the community, and many others—are based on the assumption of widespread lay participation in an increasingly democratic church.” In commenting on this, Mr. Winters’ makes a fair enough comment – disagreement is to be expected, after all – that the Church may not be “increasingly democratic,” and that the issues listed by Dr. Hunt are not all of one kind. True. But he adds, “And, what to make of the acronym? I confess, I had to look up what the ‘I’ stood for – it stands for ‘Intersexual.’ At what point do we get to stop adding letters to the acronym? I asked my housemate, who is gay (‘G’), about this new acronym and he replied, ‘Oh, it’s just ridiculous.’ It is a specific kind of ridiculous, the kind found among academics whose penchant for intellectual fads is as laughable as it is sad. In her defense of sexual libertinism, Hunt shows herself to be an intellectual libertine. That is not a compliment.”

Now, I am the first to admit that I am behind the times, so to speak, on the stodgier end of the Harvard faculty. I keep forgetting, as right now, the exact acronym for the support group for gay and lesbian (and transgendered and bisexual) students at Harvard Divinity School, where I have been teaching for nine years. I think it is something like GLBTQ. Perhaps there is an “I” in it by now. It can sound odd from a distance. But I know by experience talking to my students that each and every one of those letters has meaning, importance, and often marks off the life crises, tears and cries of students trying to find their way in a world that does not understand them and too often has traumatized them. These students too are on that battlefield where Pope Francis wants us to be working in the field hospital; the first steps toward healing are listening and respect. I too cannot at the moment recall what “intersexual” means, but my disposition is to respect the fact that the “I” is there, calling us to attention and asking us to listen. I don’t find it ridiculous or absurd or laughable. Perhaps it is sad, but much in life is. But to the point: I think Mr. Winters’ essay, as a rejoinder to Dr. Hunt’s reflection, would have been stronger had he not taken up the matter at all.

As you know, I am by disposition and profession supposed to be something of an expert on interreligious dialogue. I know that it is hard to listen and learn. I do not rule out robust apologetics, and arguments are absolutely necessary. But polemics, in my experience, do not work, are most oftne unfair and, if unapologized for, merely lead to further misunderstanding and even hostility. Dr. Hunt wrote, I have said, a bracing, challenging piece, from the edge of the Church, one might say. I learned from it. I would be happy to hear that Pope Francis read it too, and if he has, I suspect he appreciates its points, even if not agreeing with all of it. He likes intellectuals, after all. I do think that Mr. Winters, often so insightful, went overboard this time, and I hope that his piece will not dissuade you from reading Dr. Hunt’s own words. Read for yourselves and decide the matter after your own reflection.

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Chris Sullivan
3 years 9 months ago
Thank you Fr Clooney. Mary Hunt's article raises serious issues which deserve serious consideration and discussion. God bless
jean brookbank
3 years 9 months ago
Fr Clooney, thank you for this thoughtful letter. It is interesting to me that Michael Sean Winters continues to engage in this kind of aggressive hyperbole, name-calling and outright attack on the intelligence, ethics, spiritual lives and psychological health of other Catholic thinkers. NCR has suspended its reader comments precisely because of the ugliness of many contributions by readers. Yet they continue to accept Mr Winters verbal aggression against his peers. Despite my desire to engage his thinking, I find myself as repelled by the virulence and outright violence of his written word as I am by the most hateful of internet commenters. I continue to be dismayed that NCR publishes pieces in which Mr Winters behaves - I use that word intentionally: especially in this age, writing IS social behavior - in such an ugly way. I always have the impression that Michael Sean Winters seeks through his writing to be a "worthy adversary". A worthwhile goal and one we need in this age when conflict so easily escalates to violence of word and action. Despite the frequent ugliness of his writing, Mr Winters' writing also communicates well passionate Catholic Christianity, a spiritual and religious life guided by a fellow who is perhaps the world's greatest "worthy adversary" as well as one of the world's advocates for interpersonal peacefulness. That contradiction in Mr Winters writing - his passionate commitment to Catholic Christianity and, thus, one of history's most peacefully powerful communicators AND his tendency to behave in such verbally abusive ways toward other Catholic Christian thinkers and writers - continues to puzzle and repel me, a person who would otherwise seek out his writing and thinking on a daily basis. Thank you for your essay, Fr Clooney.

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