Theologians: Catholics Have “Civil Rights Imperative” to Seek LGBT Protections

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Todd A. Salzman

Two theologians from Creighton University have called for Catholics to support LGBT non-discrimination protections in a new essay published in the National Catholic Reporter. In it, they specifically target the ill-founded opposition of U.S. bishops to such protections.

Todd A. Salzman and Michael G. Lawler provide an in-depth response to Catholic bishops’ repeated claims at local, state, and federal levels that expanding LGBT protections will infringe on religious liberty. The theologians disprove these claims and conclude further:

“[L]egislation protecting LGBT people from discrimination is a civil rights imperative that the Catholic church is obligated to support in a pluralist society.”

How did they arrive at this conclusion?

Salzman and Lawler begin by noting just how many controversies there presently are over LGBT protections, and that the bishops’ engagement thus far has been inadequate. The theologians identify the bishops’ 2012 statement on religious liberty, “Our First, Most Cherished Liberty,” as a key reason for the bishops’ present failings, and they critique it on three major points.

First, Salzman and Lawler address the bishops’ treatment of secularism and relativism, which they identify as “the basis for both the bishops’ claims that religious freedom is under attack and for their resistance to the Employment Non-Discrimination Act [ENDA].” This concern has deep roots in the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, but is not well understood or engaged by the magisterium, the theologians assert.

Salzman and Lawler point out theological implications of new sociological data.  Specifically, they cite the facts that 73% of U.S. Catholics support LGBT protections and that there is “a growing disconnect between what the Catholic faithful believe about sexual morality and official Catholic moral teaching,”

One implication is that what the bishops call “relativism” is actually “differing perspectives with respect to the definition of human dignity and to what norms facilitate or frustrate its attainment.” Another implication is that sociological data helps to discern the sensus fidelium. About these implications, Salzman and Lawler conclude:

“To present official Catholic teaching on sexual ethical issues as if it were the only morally legitimate perspective, to use that teaching to claim violation of religious liberty if and when legislation conflicts with it, and to discount those Catholic perspectives that disagree with official teaching as manifestations of relativism discount also the rich diversity of the Catholic tradition and the contemporary sensus fidelium.”

Such a dismissal by church leaders threatens ecclesial and societal peace and thereby the common good, which is the theologians’ next area of critique against the U.S. bishops. About the common good, the theologians ask:

“How are we to realize the common good in the public realm, given pluralism within and without the church? What is the church’s proper role for engaging with the public realm to promote its vision of the common good?”

They also question how civil legislation relates to morality, and how to understand this dynamic in a pluralistic society, which Salzman and Lawler called “a hugely complex endeavor.” There are questions of prioritizing competing goods:

“Which is a higher value, respecting human dignity and ensuring non-discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, or attempting to block or repeal legislation that might allow homosexual actions the church deems immoral?”

They also raise the issue of whether LGBT issues are matters of public or private morality, a distinction which will have implications for how these issues relate to the common good:

” If they are about private morality, the church can both teach the possibility of just discrimination based on homosexual orientation and gender identity and can also support laws that prevent discrimination on the basis of homosexual orientation and gender identity.

“If they are about public morality, the church needs to balance its sexual teachings with teachings on nondiscrimination, and grasp the impact of pluralism on definitions of public morality.”

Salzman and Lawler explain that when marriage equality became legalized in 2015,  there needed to be “a corresponding shift in the perception of religious freedom in relation to this evolution” by the church.

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Michael G. Lawler

Finally, the theologians take up the question of just and unjust law in relation to the U.S. bishops’ document. By opposing ENDA, Salzman and Lawler write,  “the bishops’ conference has shifted its religious liberty claims from exemptions from a just law on the basis of conscience to prevention or repeal of an unjust law.”

But how the bishops’ come to define ENDA as an unjust law is flawed itself, say the theologians. Their opposition is rooted in the law’s alleged failure to differentiate between sexual orientation and sexual expression; the bishops desire an allowance of just discrimination based upon the latter. Salzman and Lawler write that the bishops should have argued for religious exemptions to discriminate against heterosexual people who use artificial contraceptives or have premarital sex, too, if that was truly their concern. Having not done so, the theologians conclude:

“The conference has not made this logical argument, which would indicate that its objection is not to immoral sexual acts but simply to homosexual orientation.

“By rejecting the federal non-discrimination legislation, the bishops’ conference is violating the common good, the protection of individual human dignity, on the basis of a generalization that homosexuals might engage in immoral sexual activity, and it is promoting unjust discrimination against even celibate homosexuals performing no homosexual acts.”

Citing Catholic moral principles, Salzman and Lawler also clarify that a moral end, such as protecting religious liberty, can never justify an immoral means, the discrimination of LGBT people, and that, according to double-effect principle:

“The direct consequence of the federal legislation is the protection of LGBT individuals against discrimination because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. An indirect consequence is that homosexual persons might engage in what the bishops deem immoral homosexual acts.”

Such principles are cited to reveal why Catholic support for ENDA is not only permissible, but should be encouraged. Yet Salzman and Lawler do not stop there, writing that a “more fundamental response. . .challenges the very claim that homosexual activity is intrinsically immoral and destructive of human dignity.” They continue, acknowledging Catholics’ widespread disagreement with the bishops over matters of sexuality:

“The burden of proof is on the church to demonstrate that homosexual acts are destructive of human dignity and cannot serve'”the good of the person or society.’ So far, it has not offered a compelling argument. An unproven assertion should not be advanced as the basis for an abusive use of religious freedom aimed at preventing or repealing nondiscrimination legislation and imposing the church’s morally questionable doctrine on the broader society.”

In short, the bishops “do not have the right to impose their moral teachings legislatively in a pluralistic society.” Salzman and Lawler convincingly argue that, not only should U.S. bishops not act thus, but they and the church actually have “a civil rights imperative” to advocate for LGBT non-discrimination protections. Their essay is well argued and grounded in reality, worth reading in full which you can do here. And there is one final note with which Salzman and Lawler, and now this post, conclude:

“The bishops should be ashamed of themselves for citing Martin Luther King Jr., the genuine and undisputed ‘conscience of the state’ for civil rights, to trample on the equal civil rights of homosexual, bisexual and transgender citizens.”

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

6 thoughts on “Theologians: Catholics Have “Civil Rights Imperative” to Seek LGBT Protections

  1. Brian Kneeland April 22, 2016 / 3:52 am

    The bishops themselves are the first to discriminate – as one bishop said that leading people out of a gay relationship he considers like Moses leading the people out of Egypt. That is far more telling of the mind and lack of heart of the bishop than anything! Very sad!

  2. lynne1946 April 22, 2016 / 4:46 am

    Well said!

  3. Paula Mattras April 22, 2016 / 8:38 am

    Again, it makes about as much sense as pronouncing that it is permissible to have a rose in your garden but you are not allowed to let it bloom. Who is the Creator of nature and what role does nature play in our lives?

  4. Loretta Fitzgerald April 22, 2016 / 9:16 am

    I would add to the discussion of Catolic moral theology the role of natural law. There are two components of natural law, I.e., what is in nature and reason. Using a man made object, for example, what is the natural intent of a hammer? To pound nails. If one were to use the hammer to break a window that would seem to be unnatural thus against nature. However, if this action is performed because the room was filled with smoke then breaking the window with the hammer is consistent with natural law based on the reasonable application.
    Therefore, once the Church understood that sexual orientation is natural to each person due to the fact that one discovers one’s orientation and does not choose it, which was clearly addressed in the first edition of the Catechism, it was settled. Further, understanding that homosexual orientation is not a disordered accident that can or should be suppressed, eradicated, etc. by drugs or behavior modification or other therapy, Catholic moral theology has to conclude that acting from one’s orientation, with the same integrity required of heterosexual persons, that homosexual relationships that lead to a committed, monogamous fidelity are not only moral and consistent with natural law, but also our vocation. Our vocation is our call to love and be loved.
    Meanwhile, the Church shoots herself in the foot every time a person who identifies as LGBTQ because the preponderance of anecdotal evidence of the loving, creative, intelligent, generous, and compassionate virtues of LGBTQ people is silenced, fired or rejected the Church has died a little more. The Holy Spirit must be very tired.

  5. Alecia Moss April 22, 2016 / 1:20 pm

    Thank you, Bob, for bringing this article to our attention and for your well thought analysis! It makes so much sense, I don’t know why many of our bishops refuse to see this!

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