Commonweal’s Ambivalent Position on Marriage Equality

August 31, 2013

ambivalentThe August 16th issue of Commonweal magazine leads off with an editorial which expresses the publication’s opposition to marriage equality laws.  Yet, at the same time, the editorial shows support for greater discussion of this important topic, as well as for finding ways to publicly acknowledge and affirm committed lesbian and gay couples.  These two notions leave the reader with a sense of the authors’ ambivalence, make the editorial challenging to read, and guarantee that it will make nobody happy.

The editors note that they have always “expressed skepticism and urged caution regarding the legalization of same-sex marriage, while at the same time defending the rights and dignity of homosexual persons both in society and in the church.”  A sentence like that is not necessarily ambivalent.  I believe, though disagree with, people who say that they oppose marriage equality while they want to defend equality of lesbian and gay people in other arenas.

The ambivalence comes in with the editors’ discussion of social scientific evidence concerning the social efficacy of granting marriage to same-sex couples and of the effects on children raised in families headed by same-sex couples.  The ambivalence is on display in a sentence such as this one:

“There is simply not yet enough social-scientific data to say one way or the other how children raised in same-sex marriages fare, although there is plenty of anecdotal evidence suggesting that same-sex couples are as devoted to their children as their heterosexual neighbors.”

Granted, there is a difference between empirical and anecdotal evidence, but if anecdotal evidence is telling them something, don’t the writers owe it to themselves and their readers to see exactly what the empirical evidence is saying.   Their claim begs the question of just how much empirical evidence is “enough” for them.  Vermont passed the U.S. civil union law in 2000.  We now have 13 states and the District of Columbia which offer marriage equality, and numerous nations, provinces, cities around the globe have done so, too.  Isn’t that enough of a sampling to be able to see if same-sex marriage is a stabilizing or detrimental social force? Over the years, I have seen reports of dozens of empirical studies which support the idea that children in households headed by lesbian and gay couples fare no worse, and sometimes much better, than children in heterosexually-headed households.

The ambivalence is on display later in the editorial when they call for greater recognition of child-rearing by lesbian and gay people:

“It is also time for the church to open its eyes to the selfless work same-sex couples do in raising children, many of whom would otherwise go uncared for and unloved.”

Yes! I agree wholeheartedly!  But then why do they make the claim that we don’t know how much of a social good these couples provide?

The editorial is right on target when they criticize the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops for their harmful and self-defeating rhetorically-hyped opposition to marriage equality:

“The conference’s advocacy, which has often cast the debate in hyperbolic terms, has persuaded few and offended many. With typical alarm, the bishops’ Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage issued a statement calling the Court’s decisions ‘a tragic day for marriage and our nation,’ and a ‘profound injustice to the American people.’ The statement went on to use variations on the phrase ‘the truth of marriage’ seven times in two brief paragraphs, as though mere incantation were a substitute for persuasion. A more dexterous rhetorical strategy is needed if the church’s witness to the “truth” about marriage is not to be written off as blind prejudice. The bishops might begin by emphasizing that the church strongly defends the dignity of same-sex oriented people, a fact most Americans remain ignorant of. The bishops might also acknowledge the good of faithful, life-long same-sex unions, as well as the progress made in the public recognition of the manifold achievements and contributions of gays and lesbians.”

New Ways Ministry and many other Catholic advocacy groups have been making the same suggestion to bishops for years. Perhaps if more Catholic organizations like Commonweal make that same suggestion, bishops will begin to listen.

In discussing religious liberty questions, the editors worry about churches being unfairly labeled as discriminators.  They make the case:

“Traditional religious communities continue to do indispensable work in caring for the needy, educating the young, and calling the larger society to account on important questions like war, torture, abortion, euthanasia, and economic justice. American democracy cannot afford to deprive itself of those moral and social resources, yet that is what could happen if the law comes to equate institutional resistance to the recognition of same-sex marriage with racial discrimination.”

Yet, this is a red-herring, given the fact that every marriage equality law passed in the U.S. provides exemptions for churches.  No religious leader that I know of has been silenced from expressing their opposition to marriage equality.  It seems unlikely that any such thing will happen in the future.

The best part of the essay comes when the editors call for a more humane discussion and approach to marriage equality, especially from Catholic leaders:

“Surely, whatever its legitimate reservations about the legalization of same-sex marriage, it is time for the church to begin to come to terms with this challenging new cultural and pastoral reality, a reality that calls for far more than overwrought predictions of moral decline and social calamity. Same-sex marriage may prove to be a mistake or a failed and eventually abandoned experiment, but it is not an existential threat to the church or to Western Civilization. It is now time to listen and learn from those the church has long silenced or ignored. Who knows, those being listened to might even return the compliment.”

I can quibble with their use of the term “church” when they seem to actually mean “hierarchy.”  As regular readers of this blog will know, poll after poll shows that Catholics in the church already support marriage equality.   But they are correct in saying that a new attitude is needed and called for from those leaders who think of themselves as “the church.”   And they are even more correct in saying that if leaders show a willingness to listen, perhaps their opponents would listen to them, too. That is what real dialogue is all about:  listening respectfully.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry


A Catholic Conservative Comes Out for Same-Sex Marriage

August 29, 2013

At the end of last week, Commonweal magazine published a long essay with the provocative headline:  “The Things We Share:  A Catholic’s Case for Same-Sex Marriage. ”   While accurate, the headline doesn’t tell the whole story.   The essay is not just a Catholic argument for marriage equality, it is an argument that comes from a leading Catholic conservative and he bases his stand on natural law theory–the philosophical position that bishops and other religious thinkers use to oppose marriage equality.

Joseph Bottum

Joseph Bottum

I have to admit that I’m a bit ambivalent about recommending this essay to you.  Not because I disagree with it (though there are some points with which I differ), but because it is long, complicated and extremely digressive.  At over, 9,300 words, it may be one of the longest articles Commonweal has published,  The numerous erudite digressions in the essay make it seem even longer.

But it is an important article, given the fact that the author, Joseph Bottum, was once the editor of First Things, a leading publication for religious and political conservatives.  His “defection” from the “party line” of these types of thinkers is, therefore, significant, especially since he uses their very esteemed theory of natural law to make a case against their stand.

Bottum’s case for marriage equality actually comes very close to the end of the essay.  He spends the first three-quarters of the essay dealing with a variety of tangential issues that (somewhat) lay the groundwork for his marriage argument.  The New York Times ran a story about Bottum’s Commonweal argument, and their summary of his case is actually easier to read and more understandable than the original, so I quote from it here:

“Natural law, as systematically explained by Aquinas in his treatise Summa Theologica, is the will of God as understood by people using their reason. Aquinas extrapolates many principles of natural law, including those of marriage. But Mr. Bottum contends that these rules are not the point.

“Natural law, Mr. Bottum writes, depends for its force on a sense of the mystery of creation, the enchantment of everyday objects, the sacredness of sex. In the West, that climate of belief has been upended: by science, modernism, a Protestant turn away from mysticism, and, most recently, the sexual revolution. The strictures of natural law were meant to structure an enchanted world — but if the enchantment is gone, the law becomes a pointless artifact of a defunct Christian culture.

“ ‘And if,’ Mr. Bottum writes, ‘heterosexual monogamy so lacks the old, enchanted metaphysical foundation that it can end in quick and painless divorce, then what principle allows a refusal of marriage to gays on the grounds of a metaphysical notion like the difference between men and women?’ “

Where I tend to disagree with Bottum is not on his view of natural law, but with the fact that he seems to discount all other approaches to supporting marriage equality.  He spends a good deal in the beginning of his article refuting some of the more popular ways that marriage equality has been argued for in the U.S., i.e., based on legal fairness:

“It’s not enough for a Catholic to say that legal fairness and social niceness compel us. We have a religion of intellectual coherence, too, and the moral positions we take have to comport with the whole of the moral universe. That’s the reason for trying to be serious—for demanding that the unity of truth apply, and that ethical claims cannot be separated from their metaphysical foundations.

“If there is no philosophical or theological reasoning that leads to Catholic recognition of civil same-sex marriage, then we’re simply arguing about what’s politic. What’s fair and nice. What flows along the channels marked out by the dominant culture. We’re merely suggesting that Catholics shouldn’t make trouble. And how is that supposed to convince anyone who holds intellectual consistency at more than a pennyweight?”

Where I disagree with him on this matter is that these arguments for marriage equality are not just secular and political ones, but are also often theological and faith-filled.  For example, many Catholics have used our church’s social justice tradition, not the Democratic Party’s talking points,  to support marriage equality.  Bottum seems to be unaware of the fact that Catholics have been arguing for many years for marriage equality from a faith perspective.

His unawareness of a faith-based perspective affirming marriage equality makes him fall into the trap of spending a good deal of his essay arguing what I consider an irrelevant point.  He states that there exists

“. . . a question religious believers must ask: a prior question of whether the current agitation really derives from a wish for same-sex marriage, or whether the movement is an excuse for a larger campaign to delegitimize and undermine Christianity.”

In raising this point, Bottum shows a great suspicion of secular culture which is characteristic of many conservative Catholics.  I don’t doubt that some on the left want to bring down the church, but my own personal dealings with many LGBT advocates has shown me that many are sincerely respectful of religion.

Still, the value of his argument is that it addresses conservative Catholics on their own terms of natural law theory.  Many traditionalist Catholics will not support marriage equality from a social justice perspective because they don’t think that this tradition applies to LGBT issues.  I’m not sure that many will even be convinced by Bottum’s argument from natural law theory, but it will be harder for them to refute such a position.

Ross Douthat wrote a commentary for The New York Times on Bottum’s essay in which he points out another value of Bottum’s essay.  Douthat describes the piece as

“. . . a literary Catholic’s attempt to wrench the true complexity of his faith back out of the complexity-destroying context of contemporary political debates. He’s writing as someone who loves his church, and wants everyone else to love it as he does — and I don’t blame him for imagining that perhaps, just perhaps, ceasing to offer public resistance on the specific question of gay marriage would liberate the church from some the caricatures that the culture war has imposed upon it, and enable the world to see its richness with fresh eyes.”

I cite this evaluation of the piece because I believe that Bottum’s strongest point in his essay is his awareness that the hierarchy’s strong vocal opposition to marriage equality is doing pastoral harm to Catholics. And it is doing even greater harm to the reputation of the bishops as national leaders. (I make this point about the bishops’ reputation not because of the content of their position, but because of the very angry and insensitive rhetoric they often use to make their point.) After reviewing the stunning recent victories for marriage equality in legislatures, polling booths, and courtrooms, Bottum states:

“We are now at the point where, I believe, American Catholics should accept state recognition of same-sex marriage simply because they are Americans.

“For that matter, plenty of practical concerns suggest that the bishops should cease to fight the passage of such laws. Campaigns against same-sex marriage are hurting the church, offering the opportunity to make Catholicism a byword for repression in a generation that, even among young Catholics, just doesn’t think that same-sex activity is worth fighting about.”

Bottum’s essay is complex and important.  If you are a progressive Catholic and read the essay all the way through, I think you will find yourself nodding in agreement on some points and shaking your head in disagreement at others.  I suspect that the same will be true for many conservative Catholics.   Regardless of one’s political and ecclesiastical orientation, the essay will make the reader think in new ways.  And for that reason, it is worth the effort.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

Related articles:

QueeringTheChurch.com:  A Conservative Catholic Evolution on Gay Marriage

The Wild Reed: A Conservative Catholic’s Contribution to the Journey to Marriage Equality

The American Conservative:  J. Bottum Flip-Flops On Gay Marriage

The Dish (by Andrew Sullivan):  The Latest Conservative Defector On Same-Sex Marriage

 

 


Students, Alumni, and Commentators Support Fired Catholic H.S. Teacher

August 10, 2013
Student and alums protest outside the school.

Student and alums protest outside the school.

Los Angeles’ Daily News reported:

“Several hundred students, alumnae and supporters of Ken Bencomo rallied in Glendora on Thursday morning, protesting Bencomo’s firing from St. Lucy’s Priory High School after he married his longtime same-sex partner in July.”

According to Los Angeles.CBSLocal.comBrittany Littleton, an alumna who organized the protest said:

“I believe very strongly in equal rights and in justice, but aside from that, Mr. Bencomo is an amazing teacher.”

The San Gabriel Valley Tribune carried a story

about the protest, which included a comment from an alumna’s mother who jointed the demonstration:

 Melissa Magdaleno, an alumna, protest's the teacher's dismissal.

Melissa Magdaleno, an alumna, protest’s the teacher’s dismissal.

“The school has an obligation to make good choices and to stand up and be courageous, and I don’t think they’re being courageous in this decision,” Terry Monday said. “I think they’re hiding behind Catholic doctrine and not demonstrating the values that they try to teach the girls.”

Bondings 2.0 reported on the firing when news broke last week.  You can read the report here.

In addition to the protest, the firing has sparked a bit of commentary all over the country.  In a Washington Post “On Faith” essay, Sharon Groves, Director of the Human Rights Campaign’s Religion and Faith Program, put the firing in the context of Pope Francis’ recent gay-positive comments, and wonders how the school can defend their action in terms of their Catholic faith:

“To be clear, it was an act that contradicted their mission statement’s call to respond compassionately to the needs of the community. Ken’s officials hid behind their “Catholic faith” to justify their position. But there isn’t one way to be Catholic.”

Groves points out the variety of ways that Catholics strongly support LGBT people:

Sharon Groves

Sharon Groves

“Ask the faithful Catholics — who organized as Catholics — in every state where marriage equality had a possibility of passing. Ask my friend Rosa Manriquez, who proudly raised two lesbian daughters and two grandchildren according to the core tenets of Catholic social teaching — to love God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind and love your neighbor as yourself. Ask the countless Catholics living with the pain of exile but holding a deep longing for the church, as the Catholic hierarchy routinely denies their humanity.”

And, she points out, this support doesn’t stop at the level of the pews:

“And while the true intent of his Pope Francis’ words this week remains unclear, we were offered a morsel of hope. We were offered the possibility of a world where claims of a singular ‘Catholic faith’ aren’t used as an excuse for judgment, shaming and injustice.

“ ‘Do not judge’ is a mantra for us all to embrace, regardless of our faiths. But especially for my Catholic friends who hold St. Francis and Pope Francis so dear, now is the time for a real commitment to these words. We must all do better.”

In The Los Angeles Times, Michael McGough, a columnist questions the church-state issues that this firing raises.  Should churches be allowed to discriminate in employment, he asks.   He explicates the issue this way:

“This would make a good case study for law students. Does the teacher’s right to be free from discrimination trump the school’s right to safeguard its theological convictions about marriage by dismissing a teacher whose life is at odds with that teaching?

“California has a law against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, which may or may not cover a situation in which an employee is dismissed because he has entered a same-sex marriage. On the other hand, the law doesn’t apply to “a religious association or corporation not organized for private profit.”

“Then there’s the 1st Amendment. Last year the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a Lutheran church could fire a ‘called teacher’– one who had received a commission as a ‘minister of religion’ – without running afoul of anti-discrimination laws. But it’s not clear whether a lay teacher at a Catholic school would be in the same category.”

Ken Bencomo

Ken Bencomo

McGough concludes:

“With the spread of same-sex marriage,  courts are going to be drawing lots of lines in this area. Maybe they will say that a Catholic school can dismiss a teacher who is in a same-sex marriage because teachers are role models,  but it can’t discriminate against a bus driver or a bookkeeper. Or perhaps a Catholic college that serves adult students from a variety of religious backgrounds belongs in a different category from a parish elementary or high school.”

For Eduardo Moises Peñalver, a blogger at  Commonweal magazine, a Catholic lay journal of opinion, the legal question is not as important as the moral question in this case:

“I want to separate the question whether Catholic institutions have the right to do this sort of thing from the question whether they should, on either moral or prudential grounds.  I am not aware of divorced and remarried teachers getting fired.  The axe always seems to fall on those who are somewhat more easily marginalized:  unmarried pregnant teachers, gay teachers, etc. “

For a related post on the problem that Catholic institutions are encouraging by firing their LGBT employees, click here.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

 


QUOTE TO NOTE: Assuming Responsibility for a Vatican II Ecclesiology

February 28, 2013

computer_key_Quotation_MarksWith Pope Benedict XVI now formally resigned, this act is viewed by many as an act of personal humility that broke with a centuries-old tradition of popes dying in office and overcame a stigma against stepping down. Fr. Joseph Komonchak writing in Commonweal shifts attention from papal politics to the failings of every other Catholic since Vatican II to implement a more positive ecclesiology. In conclusion, he writes instructive words for the coming days:

“A certain paradox is visible in the events now unfolding. The very act that humanizes the papacy also produces the hullabaloo over the upcoming conclave, which tends to reconfirm the inflated notion of the Petrine office that has developed over the past two hundred and fifty years, and the impression is given, once again, that the future of the church hinges on the choice of a successor to the See of Peter. One can hear it from both sides: from traditionalists who want still-tighter disciplinary control over doctrine, worship, and practice; and from progressives who want a pope who will loosen things up in all those areas. They both want something from Rome; they want the new pope to do something about what they each perceive as critical points. But the church is not the pope, and the pope is not the church, and perhaps what we most need is a pope who will encourage and allow the laity, the religious, the clergy, and the hierarchy to assume their responsibilities for the difference the church is supposed to make in the world. Benedict’s resignation was a self-denying act of personal humility. What we need now in Rome are acts of institutional humility and self-denial.”

Recent discussions on Catholic LGBT issues sometimes hinge reform on the election of a more inclusive pope, and while this certainly aids the cause, Fr. Komonchak reminds us that we are church and responsibility for progress exists within each layperson, as well as the bishops and clergy.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


A Profound Examination of Orthodoxy & Dissent

February 3, 2013

Sometimes, it is helpful to step back from the discussion of Catholic LGBT issues and look at some of the broader issues in the church which affect how LGBT issues are treated.

dissentJerry Ryan provides some profound perspectives on church governance in an article in Commonweal magazine entitled “Orthodoxy & Dissent:  Truth & the Need for Humility.” (This link to the full article may only be available to Commonweal subscribers.)

Though Ryan takes the raging debates in the church about sexuality as his starting point, he is not focused on studying these questions, but instead examines the larger questions of orthodoxy, authority, dissent, and the development of doctrine.  His article provides an insightful analysis of the tensions between the Catholic episcopacy and Catholic lay people when it comes to retaining the status quo and proposing new paradigms.   He states:

“To understand dissent, you first have to understand authority. Authority in the church must be based on truth. Episcopal authority is not the source of truth, as some would have us believe. ‘What is truth?’ The question posed by Pilate was left unanswered by Truth Himself who stood before him, humiliated, in the praetorium. We too humiliate Truth when we abase it to our level and pretend to have power over it. Truth is a divine name and to pretend to possess it, individually or collectively, is to manufacture an idol. We can no more claim to possess truth than we can claim to possess justice. And this holds for the church’s pastors, as well as for their flock. For Christians, truth is Someone who possesses us, Someone who reveals as much of Himself to us as we can bear. It is this self-revealing Truth who founds authority in the church. The role of the magisterium is to maintain the purity of revelation by warning against aberrations without denying or minimizing the elements of truth behind them. The magisterium might be infallible in what it affirms, yet what it affirms is often just one aspect of a complex reality whose components are still not fully understood.”

There is enough material for reflection in that paragraph to last for a week-long retreat! And even longer!

Ryan doesn’t mince words when he makes the case for continued discussion of topics of controversy, and yet he has an obvious deep respect for Catholic tradition:

“The church, individually and collectively, is forever docens et discens, teaching and learning. To deny the possibility of further elucidation of doctrine is blasphemous. It is tantamount to pronouncing the church dead, no longer vivified by the Spirit nor tending toward an ultimate manifestation still to come, when all that has been hidden will be revealed. The reception and assimilation of God’s word by the pilgrim church will forever be partial and variable. It will depend partly on psychological, social, and historical circumstances. Every cultural cycle, every scientific advance, can serve to deepen our understanding of revelation, to illuminate one or another of its aspects. There is, however, an objective deposit of faith, constantly elucidated through the ages, to which the blood of martyrs has borne witness. Any development in the church is made possible only by what has preceded it, yet the intoxication of a novelty often leads to a rejection of what went before.”

For Ryan, dissent is not a sin or a crime, but can be a sign of the Spirit:

“Dissent can be a sign of vitality; it can draw out the latent riches of revelation. The scribe versed in the affairs of the Kingdom will continually bring forth old things and new. Rather than automatically suppressing it, therefore, the magisterium should treat it with cautious respect, remembering that the Spirit is still at work, and the church still a work in progress. Rigidity and narrowness of vision can lead to the sin against the Spirit—and this sin can be a collective one.”

Though sexual teachings are not his focus in this article, Ryan uses them as an example, revealing a compassionate, intelligent heart:

“Traditional Catholic moral theology generally abstracts from concrete historical and social contexts and considers not particular men and women, but ‘human nature’ faced with hypothetically clear-cut options. Human nature, however, does not exist apart from real human beings, who must act in situations full of ambiguity. Very often we find ourselves in ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ situations, where even the best option may not seem to be a good one. Pastoral common sense usually (but not always!) takes this complexity into consideration, but the official teachings of the church continue to define good and evil in terms of black and white, with little nuance or compassion, thus alienating many from the sacramental sources of grace.”

The previous excerpt reminded me of something which the late Bishop Kenneth Untener of Saginaw, Michigan, said when he addressed New Ways Ministry’s Third National Symposium in 1992.  The quotation is from the printed text of his talk in the book Voices of Hope:  A Collection of Positive Writings on Gay and Lesbian Issues, edited by New Ways Ministry’s co-founders, Sister Jeannine Gramick and Father Robert Nugent:

“We need to take seriously the evaluation that homosexuality is a complex question, yet I do not believe we always do. We have to be careful not to make life too simple.  The Pharisees made that mistake.  They made religion complex, but treated life as though it were simple. . . . .

“Jesus did exactly the opposite.  His religious teachings were very simple. He said that all the commandments of the law came down to two:  love of God and love of neighbor.  When they asked Him enormously complex questions, he would say, “Let me tell you a story. . . “

“On the other hand, Jesus treated life as very complex, as His parables show. . . .

“We need to be careful that we do not say on the one hand that homosexuality is a complex question, and then treat it as though there were simple solutions.”

Ryan concludes his essay with reminders of the communal nature of the church, and the need for humility to reign in our debates:

The safekeeping of the deposit of faith and the upholding of the Christian moral code are confided to the church’s hierarchy. The bishops are not, however, the exclusive owners of the spirit of discernment. Historically, this gift has often been manifest in the little ones of God, in the “sensus fidelium.” It is precisely this charisma that stimulates the church’s growth in wisdom and in grace. There is a necessary tension between the function of the hierarchy and the prophetic instinct of the people of God. That tension could and should be fruitful, but in reality it is often bitter and sterile. It might well be that the prophetic élan in the church is especially at work in the poor and the unrecognized, in the little ones to whom is revealed what is hidden from the wise and mighty. One of the great contributions of liberation theology has been to remind the church of the privileged place of the poor in the Kingdom of God. . . .

“It is not enough for the church’s hierarchy to praise the fidelity of lay Catholics; it must also be willing to learn from them. And that requires bishops to acknowledge humbly that they don’t yet know everything about the will of God—that it is still revealing itself to us, and sometimes surprising us. The bishops, like their flocks, are still pilgrims on the way. Like the rest of us, they should be looking for signs ahead.”

I found so much wisdom in this article.  I encourage you to read the entire piece.  Even if you have to subscribe to Commonweal online to do so, it will be worth it!

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry


Why Aren’t the Bishops More Persuasive?

November 29, 2012

Commonweal magazine’s November 23, 2012 issue has an excellent article entitled “Morbid Symptoms–The Catholic Right’s False Nostalgia,” by Eugene McCarraher, an associate professor of humanities at Villanova University.

In the article, McCarraher reviews four books by conservative Catholics and analyzes their ideology.  It’s an excellent survey of the faults in conservative Catholic thinking, and I recommend reading it in its entirety.

One passage caught my eye in particular.  In the section of the article devoted to reviewing Cardinal Timothy Dolan’s book, A People of Hope:  Archbishop Timothy Dolan in Conversation with John L. Allen, Jr. , McCarraher makes the following observation:

“The galling truth is that many American Catholics—perhaps a majority—do not fully share the bishops’ view of what constitutes the fulfillment of human nature. They do not believe that same-sex intercourse and the use of contraceptives are “unnatural,” and therefore do not see gay marriage or contraceptive coverage as threats to religious liberty.

“Of course many laity are dissenting from the magisterium, and doing so in part because the bishops’ credibility has been so drastically diminished. We all know why; there’s no need to belabor the sexual-abuse scandal with its record of episcopal obfuscation and self-pity, or before that the damage done by Humanae vitae. Although Dolan acknowledges the disenchantment in the pews, he’s clearly impatient with the subject. Bishops, he tells John L. Allen Jr., have to ‘get over this sense of being gun-shy’ in the wake of all the revelations. Conceding that he and his colleagues must speak with ‘graciousness, and a sense of contrition,’ he adds that ‘we have to mean it.’ But do they really mean it? The impression of many attentive Catholics is that they’d rather pound the crosier on the floor. Dolan himself insists on ‘the uniquely normative value of the magisterium of the bishops,’ as though that ‘value’ remains self-evident.

There are excellent reasons to find the bishops’ recent dudgeon unconvincing. Over the past decade, we’ve witnessed plenty of outrages to human dignity in this country: the official legitimation of torture and assassination; the prosecution of a war condemned by not one but two popes; the growing attacks on governmental support and compassion for the destitute, often under cover of ‘subsidiarity.’ The bishops’ responses to these outrages have been muted at best. Why so little prophetic ardor to battle these iniquities? Why no ‘fortnights for dignity’ to rally the faithful against state-sponsored violence abroad? Or haven’t the bishops noticed that the United States has been at war for the better part of the past twenty years?

McCarraher’s analysis is spot on.  To extend it to the realm of LGBT issues, I would add that if the bishops spoke up more about some of the real world issues concerning LGBT people–bullying, discrimination, violence, alienation from religious institutions–they would be more respected and persuasive.

For example, they have been shamefully silent on the issue of the anti-homosexual bill which has been discussed in Uganda’s parliament for several years now, and which could be passed into law as early as next week.  This bill would impose the death penalty for certain lesbian and gay people, and harsh penalties for even the slightest acknowledgement of one’s homosexuality.  Why don’t the bishops see this as a pro-life issue and speak as forcefully against this bill as they do about abortion?

Cardinal Dolan’s advice to bishops to just entrench themselves more firmly in bunkers of isolation from the real world is a dead end.

The bishops’ insistence on such a narrow agenda of items and their unwillingness to speak out when LGBT human rights are trampled upon will continue to make them non-credible authorities long after the sex abuse crisis is a dim memory.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

 

 


Gay Boy Scout Denied Eagle Rank Sparks Reflection on Catholic Teaching

October 14, 2012

The case of a Boy Scout being denied Eagle rank because he is gay has made one Commonweal blogger wonder why Catholic  leaders have not spoken out against this injustice.

 

Ryan Andresen

NBCNews.com earlier this month reported the case of Ryan Andreson, a 17-year old Scout from Moraga, California, had completed his Eagle Scout requirements, but his Scoutmaster refused to sign his form:

“. . . the Boy Scouts of America said in a statement that because of Andresen’s sexual orientation and that he did not agree to Scouting’s principle of ‘Duty to God,’ ‘he is no longer eligible for membership in Scouting.’ But the family on Friday disputed that, saying the only reason Andresen was denied the rank is ‘because the Boy Scouts of America has a problem with Ryan being gay.’ “

Commonweal  blogger Lisa Fullam has questioned why Catholic leadership have not spoken out on this case of blatant discrimination.    Since Catholic teaching on homosexuality defends human dignity, Catholic leaders should be forthright on this matter:

“Official Catholic teaching, unlike that of many right-wing evangelical churches, draws a distinction between sexual inclination/desire (the official teaching tends not to use the word “orientation,”) and sexual acts. Homosexual acts are condemned, while homosexual desire is not. I suspect the BSA does not encourage sexual activity for any of its members, but rather encourages them to remain sexually abstinent, at least until marriage or responsible adulthood. (A quick googling didn’t answer this question for me. My searches yielded reports about sex abuse and poor responses to sex abuse within this all-heterosexual group.) Why wouldn’t the Catholic Church want to encourage all interested kids to join groups calling for responsible chastity? Not to mention the fact that scouting might help them find the kind of solid friends that Church teaching says is helpful for gays in dealing with homosexual desire? Catholic magisterial teaching says that no unjust discrimination of any kind should be practiced against LGB people–wouldn’t involvement in a group that helps form responsible and thoughtful men be a good thing for gay kids? (Since I am talking about a response by Catholic leadership here, I am not calling into question the Church’s teaching on same-sex relationships here. There’s no need to change Catholic teaching in order for Church leaders to support scouting for gay kids.)”

Fullam cites another reason that Catholic leaders should speak out on cases like this, and it has to do with a topic that has occupied their minds greatly of late–religious liberty:

“We’ve heard a lot about religious liberty from Catholic leadership this year. Many Christian denominations and other religious groups are supportive of LGBT people and (when appropriate) same-sex relationships. It may well be the case for Ryan–and it is undoubtedly the case for many scouts–that Duty to God as they understand God REQUIRES them to be open and affirming of LGBT people. In their own well-formed consciences, such scouts are put in a difficult position of having to decide whether their membership in a group that excludes gays is in conflict with their promise within that very group to be reverent and to serve God. Wouldn’t a call for an inclusive stance point to the bishops’ sense of the urgency of protecting religious freedom for all and the importance of obeying conscience?”

Fullam’s case is a solid one.  Catholic bishops and other leaders have been shamefully silent on the epidemic of bullying in recent years, and the Andresen case is, at bottom, a case of institutional bullying.  I suspect that Catholic leaders’ obsession with not supporting marriage equality initiatives has made them gun-shy about supporting any initiative that supports LGBT people.  That is not only shameful, but, as Fullam’s argument illustrates, it is a denial of the Catholic Church’s clear teaching on anti-discrimination and religious liberty.   Our youth, and our entire church, deserve better from our leaders.

Ryan’s mother, Karen Andersen, so clearly reflects Catholic principles in the defense of her son quoted by NBCNews.com:

“ ‘I want everyone to know that [the Eagle award] should be based on accomplishment, not your sexual orientation. Ryan entered Scouts when he was six years old and in no way knew what he was,’ said Karen Andresen, 49, a stay-at-home mother of three. ‘I think right now the Scoutmaster is sending Ryan the message that he’s not a valued human being and I want Ryan to know that he is valued … and that people care about him.’ “

Catholic people in the pews can show their support for Ryan Andresen and LGBT youth like him by signing a petition that his mother has organized to secure  his Eagle ranking.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

 


QUOTE TO NOTE: Is Creationism Next?

September 12, 2012

 

We’ve reported that a sociology course at the Franciscan University of Steubenville includes “homosexuality” as one of the topics covered under “deviant behavior.”  The story has sparked much commentary across the nation.

One Catholic commentator, Eric Bugyis, who blogs at dotCommonewal.com, made the following observation in a recent post entitled “Social Work or Catechesis?” :

“What’s next, creationism as a viable alternative to evolution in Biology 101?”

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

 


Sex Is Never Simple

April 25, 2012

New Ways Ministry and many Catholic theologians, leaders, organizations, and individuals have long called on the church’s hierarchy to listen to the experiences of LGBT people as a way to develop doctrine and positions.  The importance of consulting the scripture of experience–how God speaks through people’s lives–is nowhere more needed than in the development of doctrine about sexual relationships and expression.

The necessity of such consultation was brought home to me again when I read Jo McGowan’s article, “Simplifying Sex: What Some Priests Don’t Understand About Contraception,”  in Commonweal magazine.  Though writing specifically about the recent debate about insurance funding for contraception, McGowan’s piece rings true for hierarchical statements about sexuality generally.The thesis of her argument should be a mantra repeated by church leaders everywhere:

“Sex is never simple.”

McGowan’s article responds primarily to a New York Times article which contained an interview with a priest.  She writes:

“. . .it is unsettling when men who may never have experienced sex feel qualified not just to speak about it but to pronounce on it with certainty. In an article in the New York Times (February 18), Fr. Roger Landry, a priest in my old diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts, is quoted as saying, ‘What happens in the use of contraception, rather than embracing us totally as God made the other, with the masculine capacity to become a dad, or the feminine capacity to become a mom, we reject that paternal and maternal leaning.’ ”

“Well, no, Fr. Landry, we don’t. We don’t reject it. We make a decision about it. We recognize that pregnancy is a possibility, and we decide whether this is the right time for us to have a baby. We acknowledge that we are more than just potential (or actual) parents. One of the surest signs of youth—in any profession—is an unswerving adherence to literal interpretations. New teachers cling to the curriculum, whether or not the class is getting it. Young doctors focus on the clear x-ray, unable to see the patient in front of them writhing in pain. Parish priests preach the letter of the law, while their parishioners refuse to follow rules created without reference to the reality they know. But the rules aren’t just unrealistic. They are often irrelevant, based on incorrect or incomplete information.”

McGowan’s analogy to the penchant that young doctors and young priests have for relying on outside, abstract information makes the point vividly.   Sexuality is not something that can be described or discussed from an outsider’s perspective in abstract terms.  Accurate information and perspectives on it must come from people’s lived experiences. I would like to add another analogy to her already excellent one:  Not consulting people’s experience of sexuality in order to develop doctrine is like an atheist trying to describe and define spirituality and religion without consulting the people who practice faith.   Both spirituality and sexuality are intensely personal experiences that can only be understood fully from the inside out.

McGowan illustrates this idea best when she refutes Fr. Landry’s ideas about pleasure in sex:

“Fr. Landry goes on to say, ‘Contraception…make[s] pleasure the point of the act, and any time pleasure becomes the point rather than the fruit of the act, the other person becomes the means to that end. And we’re actually going to hurt the people we love.’ At one level, this is insightful and nuanced. When he laments how frequently such objectification happens to women in sexual relationships, Fr. Landry sounds almost feminist. And he is right that a relationship that’s only about the pursuit of pleasure is demeaning and ultimately hurtful.

“He is wrong, though, to assume that using contraception automatically makes ‘pleasure the point of the act.’ This is how adolescents think. Teenagers dream of constantly available sex, uninhibited by any possibility of pregnancy. That priests would talk the same way about sex between a husband and wife who have chosen to use contraception reflects inexperience and adolescent projection.

“Adults understand that good sex, with or without contraception, goes deeper than pleasure. It is complex and demanding. And pleasure isn’t necessarily a part of it. Any human encounter requiring honesty and surrender has the potential for both revelation and pain. The communication, healing, and strengthening that good sex ensures is foundational to a marriage. Pure pleasure the point of the act? What is Fr. Landry talking about?”

McGowan shows here that an outsider’s perspective is actually a distorted perspective which focuses on one potential aspect of the sexual situation.  Since sexuality is so much more than physical acts, an outsider can not understand the deeply emotional dimension that is involved in the physical activity of sex.  To theorize about sexuality based only on physical acts is to look only at the evidence that is able to be seen, and not to take the perspective of faith, which St. Paul tells us involves the “evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).

Sexual license is not McGowan’s goal; responsible sexuality is.  She makes the important observation that strict adherence to abstract rules about sexuality can actually lead to irresponsible sex:

“But every human activity has the potential to become unbalanced. Having children mindlessly, year after year, as former generations of Catholics did, is just as harmful to the social good as the refusal to connect sex with pregnancy. Visit India, Fr. Landry. Talk with the women here who are treated purely as producers of sons.

“To defend contraception within marriage is not to defend sexual license. Married couples who have pledged a lifetime of commitment to each other and their families have the right and the duty to make their own decisions about contraception. The church’s role is to help them arrive at the decision that is right for their lives. It is not to dictate one-size-fits-all rules that have no foundation in practical experience.”

I don’t think that I’ve ever read a defense of consulting sexual practitioners for their experience which was as honestly and matter-of-factly stated as McGowan’s is. Clearly, the principles that she states here can be equally and easily applied to the experience of lesbian and gay people, as they are to heterosexual people.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry


How Threatened Is Religious Liberty?

April 13, 2012

LGBT issues are central to the campaign that the U.S. bishops have been mounting to “protect” and “defend” religious liberty.  One example is their argument that laws requiring legal recognition of lesbian and gay couples impinge upon the religious liberty of our church.  One important effect of this religious freedom argument has been that some bishops have closed down adoption services because they claim their faith does not allow them to place children with families headed by a lesbian or gay couple.   Clearly, a scorched earth policy.

Catholics concerned about LGBT equality will be interested to learn that yesterday the U.S. bishops stepped up their campaign about religious liberty, as reported in a New York Times article:

‘The nation’s Roman Catholic bishops issued a proclamation on Thursday calling for every priest, parish and layperson to participate in ‘great national campaign’ to defend religious liberty, which they said is ‘under attack, both at home and abroad.’

“In particular they urged every diocese to hold a ‘Fortnight for Freedom’ during the two weeks leading up to the Fourth of July, for parishioners to study, pray and take public action to fight what they see as the government’s attempts to curtail religious freedom.’

“ ‘To be Catholic and American should mean not having to choose one over the other,’ said the statement, issued by the bishops ad hoc committee on religious freedom. “

The bishops fail to recognize, however, that many, many Catholics have no problem with integrating their faith and national identities, and that they disagree strongly with the bishops’ positions on the so-called “religious liberty” issues such as LGBT equality and access to birth control.

You can read the entire text of the bishops’ statement, entitled “Our First, Most Cherished Liberty” by clicking on the title.

What I found most troublesome was the bishops’ attempt to identify themselves with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s civil disobedience movement:

“In his famous ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’ in 1963, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. boldly said, ‘The goal of America is freedom.’ As a Christian pastor, he argued that to call America to the full measure of that freedom was the specific contribution Christians are obliged to make. He rooted his legal and constitutional arguments about justice in the long Christian tradition:

I would agree with Saint Augustine that “An unjust law is no law at all.” Now what is the difference between the two? How does one determine when a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of Saint Thomas Aquinas, an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law.

“It is a sobering thing to contemplate our government enacting an unjust law. An unjust law cannot be obeyed. In the face of an unjust law, an accommodation is not to be sought, especially by resorting to equivocal words and deceptive practices. If we face today the prospect of unjust laws, then Catholics in America, in solidarity with our fellow citizens, must have the courage not to obey them. No American desires this. No Catholic welcomes it. But if it should fall upon us, we must discharge it as a duty of citizenship and an obligation of faith.”

What is troublesome about this passage is that the bishops themselves have often not allowed any discussion of unjust laws the church maintains.  Their comparison to Dr. King rings hollow and degrades his memory.

An interesting analysis of the bishops’ statement comes from an editorial published by Commonweal magazine within hours of the statement’s release.  What makes this editorial so interesting is that the editors agree that the bishops should be concerned about religious liberty, however, they view their tactics as alarmist, misguided, and potentially perceived as partisan:

“The bishops are right to call for vigilance on behalf of religious liberty. There are influential currents of opinion today that advocate restricting the presence of religion in public life and would reduce religious liberty to the freedom of individuals or congregations to worship as they please. That is not the American way. There should be considerable room for government to cooperate with religious groups as with other non-governmental bodies in serving the common good. Unfortunately, the argument made by the bishops as well as their proposed tactics for public action undermine their case. Worse, the tenor of the bishops’ statement runs the risk of making this into a partisan issue during a presidential election in which the leaders of one party have made outlandish claims about a ‘war on religion’ or a ‘war against the Catholic Church.’

“The USCCB’s statement vastly exaggerates the extent to which American freedoms of all sorts and of religious freedom in particular are threatened. Church-state relations are complicated, requiring the careful weighing of competing moral claims. The USCCB’s statement fails to acknowledge that fact. Worse, strangely absent from the list of examples provided by the bishops is the best-documented case of growing hostility to religious presence in the United States: hostility to Islam. Unless the bishops correct that oversight, their statement will only feed the impression that this ‘campaign’ for religious freedom has been politically tailored. This silence is especially striking in view of the parallels between anti-Muslim sentiment today and the prejudice encountered by Catholic immigrants in the nineteenth century. If religious freedom becomes a partisan issue, its future is sure to grow dimmer, not brighter.  Religious liberty, absolutely. Partisan politics, no.”

Let’s pray that the bishops soon recognize that this type of campaign, in which they portray themselves as victims, is not only unpersuasive, but it further erodes their moral authority and the credibility of all Catholics.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry


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