Newsletter #21: celebrity conversions, Catholicism, and misogyny
In today's newsletter: the LaBeouf interview, a fired Catholic school teacher, side a vs b, We Crashed, and James Heaney on gender identity.
Happy Tuesday! Here’s what’s in the newsletter today:
Unmarried, pregnant, Catholic school teacher
“Side a” vs “side b” Christians
What I’m watching: sexism and its perpetrators
What I’m reading: James Heaney on “gender identity”
Bishop Barron recently released an interview with Shia LaBeouf discussing the actor’s conversion to Catholicism. A number have raised concerns about this promotion of LaBeouf’s conversion story, especially given his history of abusive behavior and the lack of attention given to his victims. Consider this from the Black Catholic Messenger:
“This past week, great fanfare was made over an interview of Shia LaBeouf done by Barron, discussing the actor’s conversion to Catholicism during the making of a new film in which he portrays Padre Pio. Barely mentioned during that interview was the lawsuit filed by LaBeouf’s ex-girlfriend, the singer and actress FKA twigs, alleging that he abused her (including by infecting her with an STD).
Rather, we were subjected to the amplification of his voice, that of a man who still obviously has very troubling ideas of masculinity and the role of women. The interview also exposed the troubling role Catholic clergy play and have played in amplifying a culture of misogyny, abuse, and racism.
FKA twigs, raised in Cheltenham, England, is the daughter of a White British/Spanish mother and a Black Jamaican father. It is reported that she was raised Catholic, also receiving a scholarship to attend a Catholic high school in her hometown. In what appears to be a pattern in the Church, this sole Black girl in a Catholic institution was bullied to the point of being forced out.
Despite this harsh treatment by White Catholics and White Catholic institutions, FKA twigs has infused her music with the Catholic spirituality and culture of her upbringing, including Gregorian chant and religious themes…
… For his part, LaBeouf does not even dispute that he hurt her, even if he does dispute some of the nature of the allegations.
The interview carried with it many troubling misogynistic and racist tropes: the erasure of Black women and women generally, viewing the suffering of women as an instrument of the sanctification or salvation of men, as well as negative conceptions of certain Asian cultures.
You see Barron chuckling along as LaBeouf discusses his perceived misconceptions of Jesus as a “soft” and “Buddhist” type character who is “feminized.” This was shared as an idea his Catholic spiritual advisers “helped” him dispel, in exchange for a “masculine” Christ. Negatively feminizing Asian men is a common racist trope in the world of American White Supremacy. Moreover, viewing Buddhism—the origin of kung fu, among other amazing things—as “weak” sends a clear message, amplifying a misogyny that equates femininity with weakness.
LaBeouf also mentions in the interview that he was given a John Wayne vision of Catholicism. At a certain point, it starts to become obvious that this particular vision, which has been sold to this man, validates his feelings of male superiority, a worldview that deeply affected the safety and security of FKA twigs.
Apparently, LaBeouf was deeply impacted by a book by Br Jim Townsend, a man who killed his pregnant wife and later in life became a Capuchin Franciscan. This is key, because LaBeouf goes so far as to tell Barron that FKA twigs “saved [his] life.””
This is all very unsurprising. As many of you recall, in May I wrote about the abuse perpetrated by Bishop Barron’s Word on Fire’s highest paid employee, the stories of women who experienced misogyny at Word on Fire (including the full statement of a former employee), and Bishop Barron’s failure to care for victims, at times even adding to the harm. All in all, the issue seemed to demonstrate a failure to really understand the dynamics of abuse and the needs of victims.
The Word on Fire controversy helped shed light on the ways that certain elements of Catholic moral theology can enable abusers. In particular, certain ways of talking about and promoting chastity can enable sexual violence, by making the latter about sexual desire rather than about a desire for control. Sexual violence isn’t a matter of inordinate sexual desire, as would be suggested by focusing on chastity as a response to it. Rather, it is a matter of justice, a violation of the other that in male-female contexts is often facilitated by various forms of sexism and misogyny.
What LaBeouf’s interview, and the Black Catholic Messenger’s analysis of it, helps to reveal is how far the actor has to go in really understanding his abusive behavior, and how certain parts of Catholic culture may be enabling a further entrenchment in the perspectives and dispositions that may have driven it. If things fall apart for the actor, it would be worth considering whether Bishop Barron has a certain amount of responsibility for it.
This is not to dismiss the actor’s conversion. Everyone should be welcomed in the Church. But not everyone should be given a platform.
I especially worry when Catholic leaders like Barron quickly jump to spread the stories of recent converts, who put them on pedestals to preach and evangelize. Public conversion interviews make conversions a matter of public discourse, which is kind of weird. And becoming Catholic just gives a small view of what it means to be Catholic, which takes time to grasp. Recent conversion is just an early stage in a journey. There’s still a lot to iron out. So we need to be kind and gentle and not put them in positions they are not ready to hold.
What happens when we thrust them into a spotlight they are not ready for, and it overwhelms them, and it brings out harmful tendencies, and they hurt people? Do we just kick them to the curb and say that this was their personal failings?
One reason why we love conversion stories is because they’re easy stories. “I had a life that was missing something. I converted and this is what I was looking for.” It’s a squeaky clean story. And it holds up… until you have to live the rest of your life. Life reveals that the conversion was, in many ways, the easy thing that said much less about where you’re going than you thought it would. Converts need space to make mistakes, without having to worry too much about a public narrative they’ve committed to.
But as we’ve seen with Joey Gloor and others, when a shiny convert falls apart, Bishop Barron can find someone new to take his place.
This is not pastoral care. Converts deserve better.
Unmarried, pregnant, Catholic school teacher
Last week, I shared a recorded interview with a teacher at Epiphany Catholic School in Coon Rapids, Minnesota. I met her in November, while she was processing the fact that she had become pregnant with twins, lost one of the babies, and faced a long road ahead with a serious illness for the baby that survived. On top of that, when she told her school about her pregnancy, the school’s principal and pastor communicated to her that the only way she could keep her job would be to get married the following month. In the end, in order to keep health insurance for herself and her sick baby, she had to sign a contract saying that she would leave her job quietly and that she would never be able to sue the school or share what had happened to her. I recorded a conversation with her before she signed the contract. You can listen to it here.
Some Catholics would argue, “She had premarital sex, and she signed a contract with a morals clause. So there’s nothing wrong with what happened to her.” The problem with this is twofold. First, it encourages women to seek abortions. You can have this view and promote it, as long as you can accept that it will lead to more abortions. As one person shared with me:
“Side a” vs “side b” gay Christians
Christians who have engaged in the inner-religious debates on same-sex sexuality have had to navigate the distinction between “side a” and “side b” queer Christians, Christians who believe God blesses same-sex sex and marriage as opposed to Christians who believe God reserves marriage and sex within it for opposite sex couples. The distinction between “side a” and “side b” can be very helpful for navigating disagreements in a respectful way. But Catholicism doesn’t always map clearly alongside one group or the other, and we should be cautious with the ways this terminology can be coopted in a way that harms all of us. I wrote a bit about that here.
What I’m watching: sexism and its perpetrators
WeCrashed is an Apple TV+ miniseries based on the rise and fall of WeWork. Though advertised as a startup drama, it focuses primarily on the love story of WeWork founder Adam Neumann (Jared Leto) and his wife Rebekah (Anne Hathaway). The show explores some of the subtleties of gender roles and sexism. As season one progresses, viewers learn the story of Rebekah’s childhood. She spends much of it supporting her father, either by caring for him through illness or by providing him validation by letting him indulge in how much he thinks she needs him (when, in reality, he needs her much more).
As part of a weeklong company event for WeWork, Rebekah makes a brief speech. She discusses the role of a woman and says that a “woman’s role is to help a man manifest his own destiny.” She’s quickly pulled offstage as the crowd sours, and employees later boycott a yoga session that she was supposed to lead. In an effort to remedy things, Rebekah is pushed by the company’s leadership to host a listening session with female employees. But during the session, Rebekah struggles to hear the complaints of sexism across the company and stands by her remarks. The women openly criticize her and her leadership.
But Rebekah pulls herself together. She blames and fires her assistant (a woman). She takes the stage with employees once again. She stands by her words and says that women need to support men, but she also adds that is isn’t the whole truth. She gains the support of employees as she says, “the whole truth is that we need to support each other.” Women need to support men, and also other women, and everyone should focus on supporting others.
Interestingly, what is seen here is not the resolution of sexism, but the the masking and continuation of sexism. Women had complained about being asked if they were going to get pregnant during interviews, sexual relationships between (male) managers and (female) subordinates, and a lack of work-life balance. In this situation, a woman is tasked with remedying the situation through a listening session in which no men participate and, thus, no men have to listen. Rebekah is pushed to lead this listening session by a group of (all male) leaders in the company.
And then, rather than remedying this sexism, the company is able to wave it away through a sort of gender blindness. Men don’t have to look at sexism because the focus is: “everyone should support everyone.” Gender blindness doesn’t pan out as a strategy, however. WeWork only exists today because its founder was ousted from the company. The same year, 2019, an executive-level gender discrimination lawsuit against the company commenced. And sexism has been seen as an early indicator of the company’s troubles. Gender blindness (like color blindness) is just another pillar of discrimination.
What I’m reading: James Heaney on gender identity
James Heaney writes a lot. In April he shared 13,000 words on sex and gender, focusing specifically on trans identities. Heaney is one of the most thoughtful and interesting writers I follow. And while he and I don’t always come to the same conclusions, I find his thoughts compelling and worthy of consideration. He takes his critics seriously and treats them charitably.
I hesitate to make my readers aware of him. In my experience, really interesting writers tend to become less interesting as they become more popular. So it’s really in my best interests to ensure that as few people read Heaney as possible. But you should read his thoughts, especially if you’re someone trying to make sense of both sides of the “gender debates,” take them seriously, and integrate with the broader Western philosophical tradition, especially the Western Catholic philosophical tradition.
To give you a taste of the mind of Heaney, here’s an interesting bit from his piece:
“We discovered sex chromosomes in 1905. If a woman were defined by her sex chromosomes, then we couldn’t have understood the word “woman” before 1905. But we’ve had a remarkably consistent understanding of the word “woman” for thousands of years. So, while certain sex chromosomes may be closely correlated with people we understand to be ‘women,’ women cannot be defined by their sex chromosomes. Something else is at work here, a distinction even Hammurabi and Juvenal and Shakespeare could understand with their primitive science. What was it?”
You can read the rest of it here.
You can follow along with my current reads at Goodreads.
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