I am saddened by Kate Kelly’s excommunication. I wish that events had played out differently. Excommunication in this case strikes me as the worst outcome for all concerned, although obviously my opinion on this matter does not – and should not – matter. I believe her when she says that the decision is extremely painful for her and her family. They have my sympathy and my prayers.
I do worry that part of the public meaning that she and her supporters are assigning to her excommunication is both inaccurate and potentially destructive. In her letter to her bishop, she wrote:
Please keep in mind that if you choose to punish me today, you are not only punishing me. You are punishing hundreds of women and men who have questions about female ordination, and have publicly stated them. You are punishing thousands of Mormons who have questions and concerns with gender inequality in the church and want a place to voice those concerns in safety. You are punishing anyone with a question in their heart who wants to ask that question vocally, openly and publicly.
This is not true, and to the extent that others believe it is true, Mormon discussions, the Church, and the community of the saints will be harmed. Unfortunately, the letter from Kelly’s stake president seemed to state that the only appropriate discussion of feminist concerns was in private or confined to private meetings with priesthood leaders. I do not believe that this is an accurate statement of Church policy, and I can only conclude either that the condition was specific pastoral counsel to Kelly or a mistake. In light of this statement, I understand why many people are concerned. Even if one acknowledges that the Church tolerates and welcomes “discussion” while viewing “advocacy” or “activism” with suspicion, it seems reasonable to me that folks are concerned. There is a sense in which every discussion in which one presents reasons for belief is an effort to persuade
However, it simply isn’t the case that the Church wants to shut down unsponsored discussions of difficult questions. The experience of T&S, BCC, FMH and other blogs over the last ten years gives lie to this claim, and I am willing to bet good money that in a year’s time there will be all of these blogs having the same discussions. I don’t know exactly how to draw the line between discussion and advocacy, but I think it has a great deal to do with the institutional and symbolic vocabulary that one uses and the way that the discussion positions itself vis-a-vis the Church. It’s a muddy line and one whose wisdom can be questioned, but I actually don’t think it’s that hard to navigate.
I am pretty sure that many long-time participants in Mormon intellectual discussions recognized instinctively that what Ordain Women is doing is quite different than what they had been doing. Indeed, part of the reason that OW have created so much public attention is precisely because they are doing something quite different than what had been happening in the Bloggernacle for the last ten years, even if it is difficult to articulate precisely what is different. In my view, those kinds of inarticulate instincts based on long experience are a pretty good practical guide. Figuring out how to articulate them is hard, but generally speaking I don’t think that means the instincts are wrong.
“It is the great virtue of the common law that it decides the case first and figures out the reason later,” said Justice Cardozo, and I don’t think it’s just a virtue of the common law. I suspect that most sound practical reasoning works this way: You try to live a virtuous life as defined mainly by tradition and authority that one trusts, one gets lots of experience, one then has strong intuitions, prejudices, and instincts about practical action. Generally these instincts are right, occasionally they are wrong. We struggle to come up with provisional articulations of principles that might guide further action and the building up of further experience. We are always beginning in the middle of things and we are never really acting based on the logical implications of first principles. When we try to act entirely on the basis of logical deduction from first principles, we are probably going to be led into doing stupid things. It’s not a particularly heroic view of practical reasoning, but I think it’s probably right.
I am not writing this out of Schadenfreude or to attack her. I am happy to give someone in the maelstrom of an emotionally wrenching experience the benefit of the doubt. However, I do think that it would be extremely unfortunate if the meaning of this event becomes that the Church wishes to silence those that publicly discuss difficult questions. I do not believe that this is true, and while I can understand why someone would reject a distinction between discussion and advocacy, in practice negotiating such a distinction is entirely possible, even if one might wish for more explicit guidance on where the line between one and the other lies.