“With All Families, Without Condemnation” (And More Synod Reactions)

October 30, 2015

Frank Bruni

“With All Families, Without Condemnation.” That was the headline last Sunday on Italy’s national Catholic newspaper, a further sign for many that this two-year synod process commenced a new moment in the church. Not all agree, though. Below, Bondings 2.0 provides more reactions to the Synod on the Family.

Frank Bruni, openly gay columnist for The New York Times asked an important question for those  who have closely followed the Synod’s happenings, analyzing each development and commenting on every statement: “Are most Catholics even paying attention?” While those in the media follow developments closely:

“People in the pews are less rapt. The warmth and respect they feel for the current pope doesn’t translate into any obeisance to church edict.”

Polling confirms what many Catholics know anecdotally, that wide rifts exist between official teaching and Catholics’ lived realities. Church leaders, according to Bruni, “see family in terms that are much too narrow and having a conversation that’s much too small” because they are “more interested in dictating the parameters of sex than in celebrating the boundlessness of love.”

Indeed, while some condemn contemporary family configurations as devaluing traditional morality, the columnist says the truth about reality is “more complicated and less somber than that.” Developments in family life are products of feminist and LGBT movements, which have lifted up marginalized and even abused communities to places of greater dignity and freedom. Bruni said that is all “change we should build on:

“Most of us understand, in a way we once didn’t, that there are men who will never know full romantic and sexual love with a woman, and there are women who will never experience that with a man.

“Was society better off when we denied that and trapped gay and lesbian people in heterosexual marriages that brought joy to neither spouse and were constructed on a lie? Did society benefit from marginalizing gay and lesbian people?

“Those are rhetorical questions. Or at least they should be.”

He holds up families who choose to be family, considered nontraditional by some, but in his estimation quite impressive:

“I saw this happen time and again in the 1980s and early 1990s, when AIDS ravaged gay America and many sufferers found themselves abandoned by relatives, whose religions prodded them toward judgment instead of compassion. Friends filled that gap, rushing in as saviors, stepping up as providers, signing on as protectors. Where families were absent, families were born.”

James Martin, SJ

James Martin, SJ

Jesuit Fr. James Martin identified some of they synod’s larger themes, such as discernment and conscience, enlivened by the bishops’ endorsement. He told the Salt Lake Tribune, “relies on the idea that God can deal directly with us, through our inner lives. It is another encouragement to remind people, especially remarried Catholics, that an informed conscience is, as the church has always taught, the final moral arbiter.”

Martin also released a video (which you can watch below on America’website explaining his key insights from the synod, such as:

“On LGBT issues, again the synod changed no doctrine, but it reminded Catholics of the need to respect the human dignity of LBGT people and, also, to have special care for families with LGBT members. That may not sound like much of a change, but it challenges Catholics in countries where respect and care for LGBT people are not as common.”

In a a CNN essay, he defended change in the church, saying those fearful of reform and of renewal may have conflated dogma, doctrine, and practice. Or perhaps they adhere foremost to a “crushing sense of legalism,” or even “a hatred of LGBT Catholics that masks itself as a concern for their souls.”

Grant Gallicho

Grant Gallicho of Commonweal said the synod “punted” on homosexuality, highlighting Bishop Johan Bonny’s inability to even raise the issue in his small group led by the cardinal who compared LGBT activists to Nazis. But there is hope, for Gallicho wrote: “[T]his listening synod, if it is to be true to the stirring vision of the pope who established it, can never truly come to an end. It is only the beginning.” Commonweal’s editorial echoed this idea, stating:

“In that regard, the real achievement of the synod has been the reinvigoration of the synodal process itself, one in which bishops feel free to speak their minds, to disagree with one another, and even to explore the possibility that reform is essential to the church’s evangelical mission.”

Future synod’s must include more voices within the church it said, given that some bishops like Chicago’s Archbishop Blase Cupich admitted this Synod would have benefited from input by LGBT people. One emerging issue is transgender inclusion, a topic absent from this synod altogether. Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, commented to The Advocate about “gender ideology” condemnations in the final report:

” ‘The remarks show that the bishops do not understand the transgender experience or how people experience their gender identity, which is often received as a spiritual, life-giving revelation.’ “

These reflections are just the first fruits of many more commentaries and reflections to come, worthwhile both for analyzing ecclesial happenings and, like with Frank Bruni’s column, spiritual nourishment as well. You can find Bondings 2.0‘s first reaction round-up by clicking hereFor Bondings 2.0‘s full coverage of the 2015 Synod on the Family, click here.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

Final Installment of Catholic Responses to Supreme Court Marriage Equality Ruling

July 10, 2015

Here’s what (we hope) is the final installment of immediate Catholic reactions to the Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality. Since the Catholic debate on this issue is not over yet, Bondings 2.0 will, of course, continue covering any ensuing controversies based on this decision as they develop.  [All previous Bondings 2.0 Catholic reaction compilation posts can be found at the end of this post.]

Andrew Sullivan

Andrew Sullivan, Writer and Political Analyst, The Dish:

Sullivan, one of the first people to propose the idea of gay marriage as a serious legal possibility (and certainly the first Catholic pundit to do so), provides a poignant brief memoir of the struggle to arrive at the Obergefell v. Hodges victory.  I found this to be, perhaps, his most stirring passage:

For many years, it felt like one step forward, two steps back. History is a miasma of contingency, and courage, and conviction, and chance.

But some things you know deep in your heart: that all human beings are made in the image of God; that their loves and lives are equally precious; that the pursuit of happiness promised in the Declaration of Independence has no meaning if it does not include the right to marry the person you love; and has no force if it denies that fundamental human freedom to a portion of its citizens. In the words of Hannah Arendt:

“The right to marry whoever one wishes is an elementary human right compared to which ‘the right to attend an integrated school, the right to sit where one pleases on a bus, the right to go into any hotel or recreation area or place of amusement, regardless of one’s skin or color or race’ are minor indeed. Even political rights, like the right to vote, and nearly all other rights enumerated in the Constitution, are secondary to the inalienable human rights to ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence; and to this category the right to home and marriage unquestionably belongs.” (from a blog post on The Dish)

Matthew Boudway

Matthew Boudway, Associate Editor, Commonweal:

Boudway categorizes the Obergefell v. Hodges case:

“. . . [It] was not about Constitutional theory or the burdens and perils of democracy. Nor was it about sex. It was about honoring people who promise to take care of each other and encouraging them to keep that promise.”

Yet, he disagrees with the outcome because on procedural grounds:

“Wherever possible, the Supreme Court should try to get out of the way, so that voters and their elected representatives can do the difficult work of democracy. If we want to change the definition of civil marriage so that it can accommodate gays and lesbians, there is nothing in the Constitution to prevent us, but neither is there anything to compel us. Why pretend otherwise?”  (from a blog post on Commonweal)

Margery Eagan

Margery Eagan, Columnist, Cruxnow.com:

” ‘The nature of injustice is that we may not always see it in our own times,’ wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy explaining, if inadvertently, a big part of the problem for the Catholic hierarchy. They can’t recognize that injustice, even in 2015, because they live apart, isolated from, and largely ignorant of, the real, changed world.

“They do not see the gay parents chaperoning the apple-picking field trip in kindergarten. They do not see the son of those parents grow up to captain the football team and marry his college sweetheart. They do not see the life-long devotion of gay couples, in sickness and health, or in the mundane particulars of everyday life. Cooking, cleaning, planting the garden, mowing the lawn, driving the carpool, helping with the homework, wanting the best for their families, just like everybody else.”  (From a column on Crux)

Bill Baird and John Kennedy

Bill Baird and John Kennedy, Retired Gay Catholic Married Couple in Santa Rosa, California:

” ‘It’s important to realize how many people are not happy about the decision,’ Baird said, ‘so we have to find a way to work together to promote marriage equality. . . .’ 

” ‘We’re lucky here in the Bay Area, but in many parts of the country you can be fired for being gay, and landlords may refuse to rent to a lesbian or gay couple,”’Baird said.

” ‘There really is a lack of protections for gay people, and while we’re delighted by the ruling, there is still a lot of education to do,’ Kennedy said.”  (From a feature article in Santa Rosa Press Democrat)

Christa Kerber

Christa Kerber, Catholic laywoman, Wynnewood, Pennsylvania:

Our Church teaches a preferential treatment for the marginalized. It teaches the dignity of all human beings. It teaches the primacy of conscience — the idea that it is our obligation to prayerfully consider tradition and doctrine, as well as our experience and the experience of those around us, in discerning what is moral and just.

My conscience has been formed with the help of family, friends, teachers, clergy, theologians, and strangers. Most of all, it has been formed through my relationship with God and my Church. . . 

I hope and pray that Church leaders will hear and understand the majority who support those in loving same-sex relationships. Love is of God and adults who have formed their consciences in faith are very capable of making good decisions about how to express their love for other human beings. (From an op-ed essay on Philly.com)

Archbishop Blase Cupich

Archbishop Blase Cupich, Archdiocese of Chicago:

In an earlier post, we noted Archbishop Cupich’s reconciliatory statement following the Supreme Court decision.  Cupich’s follow-up comments in an interview with The National Catholic Reporter about the statement are also worth noting.  The archbishop stated:

“My concern is that we don’t lurch in one direction or another in terms of reaction, but that we really have a sense of serenity and maturity and keep ourselves walking together.

” ‘I think that’s the most important thing,’ the archbishop said, using the example of a family that discusses issues they face together.

” ‘When they have [a] crisis, when they have something new happening, a good, mature, serene family says, “OK, take a breath, everybody. We’re all in this together. We’re going to help each other,” ‘ he said.”  (From a news story in The National Catholic Reporter)

Local Catholics

In Boston and northern New Jersey, reporters visited local Catholic parishes to gather a wide variety of reactions which are chronicled in these two articles:

Boston Globe: “Boston churches split over Supreme Court’s gay marriage ruling”

NorthJersey.com: “North Jersey Catholics divided on marriage ruling”

Catholic legal analyses

America magazine enlisted a variety of Catholic legal scholars and analysts to respond to the decision.  Their opinions and topics are diverse.  The legal arguments are difficult to summarize, so, instead of attempting to do so, we will just provide links to the complete essays.

Ellen K. Boegel, Associate Professor, Criminal Justice, Legal Studies, and Homeland Security, St. John’s University, N.Y.:Same-Sex Marriage Decision Resolves One Question, Raises Many Others

Teresa S. Collett, Professor of Law, University of St. Thomas School of Law, Minneapolis:  The Supreme Court’s Jurisprudence of Privacy”

Thomas C. Berg, the James L. Oberstar Professor of Law and Public Policy, University of St. Thomas School of Law, Minneapolis: “Religious Liberty Concerns After Supreme Court’s Call on Same-Sex Marriage”

Richard W. Garnett, the Paul J. Schierl / Fort Howard Corporation Professor of Law , University of Notre Dame: “Hard Questions from Chief Justice on Same-Sex Decision”

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry


Related article:

dotCommonweal: Calm, collected.”


Previous blog posts of Catholic commentary on Supreme Court marriage equality ruling:

July 7: Orthodox Catholic Offers Important Lesson for LGBT Supporters

July 6: Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese Spells Out Falsehoods and Possibilities in Marriage Equality Responses

July 5: Tending to Christ’s Blood: The U.S. Church’s Post-Marriage Equality Agenda

July 4: Life, Liberty, the Pursuit of Happiness, and Catholic Values

July 1: Father Martin’s Viral Facebook Post on ‘So Much Hatred From So Many Catholics’

June 30:  Here’s What Catholic Bishops Should Have Said About Marriage Equality Decision

June 29: Catholics Continue to React to Supreme Court Marriage Equality Ruling

June 28: Some Catholic Reactions to U.S. Supreme Court Ruling on Marriage Equality

June 27: A Prayerful Catholic Response to the U.S. Supreme Court Decision

June 26: New Ways Ministry and U.S. Catholics Rejoice at Supreme Court Marriage Equality Decision


Two Archbishops’ Gay-Related Stories Show How Our Church Needs to Grow

July 3, 2014

Two archbishops from the United States made headlines this week related to gay issues.  Each story leaves me with a different feeling, though neither one is a good feeling.

Archbishop John Nienstedt

Archbishop John Nienstedt

The bigger of the two stories centered on Archbishop John Nienstedt of St. Paul, Minnesota.  A news report from Commonweal informed the world that multiple allegations have emerged that Nienstedt made sexual advances toward priests, seminarians, and other men.  The archbishop strongly denied the veracity of these claims.

Nienstedt ordered an investigation of allegations against him, and the archdiocese hired a Twin Cities law firm to conduct the investigation.  In his statement, the archbishop said that he did so because that is what he would do with allegations made against any other priest, too.

This story is complicated by a number of factors.  First, there is Nienstedt’s record of very strong anti-gay comments, many of which were made during Minnesota’s debate about a constitutional amendment prohibiting same-gender marriage in 2012.  Second, Nienstedt has already been under fire because of mishandling of sex abuse claims against some of his priests.

Naturally, one of this story’s most popular responses has been to note the irony of witnessing someone who has been strongly homophobic in his speech possibly turning out to be homosexual himself.   When this accusation is made, it is sometimes made with glee, probably because to many people’s eyes and ears it is so obviously a personal problem when someone becomes so obsessed with homosexuality.   We have seen this behavior so often in our public and private lives:  people hate most in others what they really hate about themselves, and usually cannot admit about themselves.

These allegations have to be further investigated, but should it turn out that they are true, I think I will be sadder, rather than happier, to learn this reality.  To me, what it would mean is that the homophobia in our church and in our world had so affected this particular man that his ability to respond with love towards himself and others was extremely stunted.  I am angry at the harm he has caused others, but I find myself strangely sympathetic towards him if it turns out that he caused even greater harm to himself.

Archbishop Rembert Weakland

The second story, reported briefly in only the Catholic press, focused on the fact that, for the second time, Archbishop Rembert Weakland, the former archbishop of Milwaukee, was refused retirement residency at a Benedictine abbey.

Weakland, a Benedictine monk and former head of the worldwide Benedictine community of men, resigned as archbishop after it became public that he had had a sexual relationship with another man and that he had paid the man to be quiet about their involvement.   The relationship was not pedophilia and it was consensual.

Days after Weakland announced these facts, he expressed repentance publicly, celebrating a Mass where he asked for forgiveness.

The National Catholic Reporter noted that the rejection for residency came from St. Vincent Archabbey, in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, the same abbey where Weakland entered the community when he was 18 and lived for 20 years.  Although though the abbot of the community did not speak to the paper, Weakland offered his own thoughts about why he was refused:

“The Vatican recently laicized a Latrobe monk accused of misconduct, Mark Gruber, whose presence was creating some turmoil in the community. ‘The atmosphere was not a good one for me to return to,’ Weakland wrote. ‘Thus I will not be returning to Latrobe right now and at age 87 one never know what can happen in the future.’ “

The news story went on to explain the archbishop’s life since retirement:

“In Milwaukee, Weakland leads a low-profile life. He lives alone in an apartment and is said to attend daily Mass. He has no public role in the church, and when the current archbishop celebrates Mass and prays for the pope and bishops living in the diocese by name, Weakland is not mentioned. He was not allowed to deliver a homily at an annual priest retreat some years ago.”

This story leaves me feeling very sad–for Weakland, for the Benedictines, for our Church.  As in the Nienstedt case, we see how it is possible that fear of same-sex feelings and relationships can lead to behavior which harms one’s self and others.

The lesson that I take from both of these news stories is that we still have  a lot to learn in our church not only about sexuality, but also about forgiveness.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

Related articles:

Minnesota Public Radio: Archbishop authorized secret investigation of himself”

Star Tribune: Twin Cities Archbishop John Nienstedt faces new sex claims”

National Catholic Reporter: Report: Minnesota Archbishop Nienstedt under scrutiny for same-sex relationships”

TwinCities.com: “Nienstedt under scrutiny for same-sex relationships, ex-official says”

The Wild Reed: “Has Archbishop Nienstedt’s “Shadow” Finally Caught Up With Him?”



Commonweal, Catholicism, and Same-Sex Marriage, Part 2

June 1, 2014

Yesterday, we introduced this two-part series on Commonweal magazine’s continued conversation about Joseph Bottum’s 2013 essay entitled“The Things We Share:A Catholic’s Case for Same-Sex Marriage.” Commonweal asked two writers with opposing points of view to respond to Bottum’s essay.  Yesterday, we examined the conservative pundit’s point of view, expressed by Ross Douthat of The New York Times.  Today, we will look at the progressive response, offered by Jamie Manson of The National Catholic Reporter.

You can read Douthat’s complete remarks here, and Manson’s complete remarks here.  Bottum’s reply to both of them can be read here.

It should come as no surprise to regular readers of this blog that I have a much more favorable view of Manson’s take on Bottum’s essay than I did of Douthat’s.  Manson’s main argument is one that New Ways Ministry strongly shares.  She states:

“. . . I think American Catholics can and should accept recognition of same-sex marriage because they are Catholics. The church should revise its attitude toward same-sex relationships not simply because the culture is moving in that direction—which by itself, as Bottum says, is no reason to alter any moral teaching—but because it has become clear that that what the church teaches about homosexuality is not true.”

That argument, which is seemingly simple, is packed with history and faith. Catholics, who now overwhelmingly support marriage equality, are doing so because of their faith, not in spite of it.  Their faith journeys of the last few decades, largely ignored by the hierarchy, have led them to understand sexuality and relationships in new ways.  They have come to recognize that so many myths and stereotypes that they have had about lesbian and gay people are false.  Unfortunately, church teaching has not quite yet caught up with this new faith reality.

Jamie Manson

Jamie Manson

Manson illustrates this new reality nicely:

“Anyone with an experience of loving same-sex relationships will find unpersuasive the Catholic teaching that such relationships are sinful by their very nature because only sex acts that have the potential to create new life are licit.

“Such a strict interpretation of natural law reduces human beings to their biological functions, and fails to appreciate persons in their totality as the emotional, spiritual, and physical beings that God created us to be. Most of us have realized that the potential to procreate does not by itself lead to the flourishing of married couples.”

The insistence of so many of the church’s bishops to listen to the lived faith of gay and lesbian people, to examine new research on sexuality, to dialogue with family members of sexual and gender minorities is truly a great scandal in our church.  This resistance has caused great damage to LGBT people, but it has also caused much damage to the bishops who continue to ignore this reality.  These clerics are missing out on an amazing development of faith in the world.  Manson seems to recognize this idea when she states:

“The growing acceptance of same-sex relationships and the push for same-sex marriage is not, I would argue, a sign that reality needs re-enchanting, but a sign that our culture may be more receptive to a challenging spiritual vision of married love and commitment than Bottum suspects.”

It is in accepting, not in rejecting, same-sex couples’ commitments that the church and the world can be renewed.   Manson makes this point in her conclusion.  Having discussed witnessing a same-sex marriage ceremony in New York City, and having noted her own plans to marry her lesbian partner, Manson states:

“It may take centuries before the Catholic hierarchy recognizes that marriages like the one I witnessed in the park, or the one I hope to enter, are holy unions with the potential to bring the life of God more fully into our world. But just as most of our culture has already concluded that same-sex relationships are equally deserving of protection under the law, for many Catholics the question of whether gays and lesbians are capable of living the vocation of marriage is already settled.”

Douthat’s and Bottum’s disappointment that the Catholic hierarchy has lost the debate on same-sex marriage could easily be turned around if they would understand that though the hierarchy may have lost, the entire church has actually “won” because we have all gained so much by the fact that marriage equality is spreading rapidly.  The true loss for the hierarchy will be if they persist in their refusal to listen.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

Related resources:

Bondings 2.0: Civil Same-Sex Marriage: A Catholic Affirmation” by Professor Lisa Fullam

Marriage Equality:  A Positive Catholic Approach by Francis DeBernardo




Commonweal, Catholicism, and Same-Sex Marriage, Part 1

May 31, 2014

Last August, Commonweal magazine published an intriguing article entitled  “The Things We Share:  A Catholic’s Case for Same-Sex Marriage.”  What made it most intriguing was that it was written by Joseph Bottum, a religious and political conservative, who is the former editor of First Things magazine, a staunchly conservative publication.  You can read our blog post summarizing and critiquing the article here.

This past week, Commonweal followed up on Bottum’s landmark essay in an equally intriguing way:  they asked both a leading conservative columnist and a leading progressive columnist to respond to Bottum’s arguments.  The New York Times’ Ross Douthat and The National Catholic Reporter’s  Jamie Manson each offered their thoughts on Bottum’s work, and Commonweal provided Bottum’s to respond to them.

Today, we will look at Douthat’s comment and tomorrow we will look at Manson’s remarks.  You can read Douthat’s comments in full here.  If you want to read Bottum’s reply to both of them, you can click here.  After reading it, I decided not to comment on it because I don’t think such comment would add much to the debate about marriage equality.

Ross Douthat

Though Douthat and Bottum’s may agree on many matters, even some that concern same-sex marriage, Douthat believes that one of Bottum’s main argument–that the Catholic hierarchy has lost the debate on marriage equality and that church leaders should not argue the case anymore but instead focus on “re-enchating” the public with its traditional view of marriage–is “either confused or a cop-out.”  Douthat explains:

“For the Catholic Church to explicitly support the disentanglement of civil and religious marriage, and to cease to make any kind of public argument against treating same-sex unions the same way opposite-sex ones are treated in law and policy, would be a very serious withdrawal from political and cultural engagement. It is one thing to urge the church to prepare for political defeat on this issue—such preparations are obviously necessary, more obviously so now even than when Bottum’s essay first appeared. But it is quite another—more separatist, more sectarian, and thus more problematic—to say that the church should preemptively cease to even make the argument.”

Douthat wants no part of such retreat, and he argues that Catholics opposed to marriage equality must, on principle, continue their argument:

“If Catholics are to continue contending in the American public square, if they are going to choose active participation over catacombs and lifeboats, they need to have something to say to actual Americans about actual American debates. . . . there is no honest way for the church to avoid stating its position on what the legal definition of marriage ought to be—even in a world where that definition has changed and doesn’t seem likely to change back.”

While I disagree with Douthat about marriage equality, I have to admit that I sympathize with him about the idea of speaking out on the basis of principle.  As someone who believes in the power of argument and persuasion, I think it is important that people do not give up on their principles just because others, even a majority of others, may disagree with them.

But I don’t think that is necessarily a strategic thing to do.  Pope Francis himself has urged church leaders not to be “obsessed” about same-sex marriage, among other things.  Douthat, I think, agrees with the pope, for strategic reasons, stating:

“This need not mean starting every conversation with same-sex marriage; once the legal change is accomplished, it may involve talking about the issue less often, or talking about it in some very different way. But it cannot mean pretending that the church’s opposition to calling same-sex unions ‘marriage’ no longer exists.”

I tend to think that Pope Francis made his comment from a pastoral, not a political, perspective, based on the context in which he made the statement.  And I think that it is wise pastoral advice for at least two reasons: 1) there are many, many more important pastoral, spiritual, and social issues that church leaders should focus on; 2) constantly speaking negatively about same-sex marriage will certainly alienate many Catholics and others from the church.

Finally, I strongly disagree with Douthat in his estimation of the results of the spread of marriage equality. He states:

“I think a serious look at the trends that have accompanied the advance of gay marriage, at the legal arguments deployed on its behalf, at the shifting understanding of marriage that has made it seem commonsensical, and at the direction of the debate on related issues (from polygamy to surrogacy) should all cast grave doubt on the idea that the church could somehow incorporate same-sex nuptials into its view of marriage without transforming that view beyond all recognition.”

To me, this is not an argument, but simple fear-mongering.  As I see it, the only major social change that has happened since the advent of marriage equality has been the strengthening and protection of more couples and families, providing greater social stability.  Douthat, however, is  almost right on one point: same-sex nuptials will require a transformation of the hierarchy’s views on marriage.  I think that transformation will be for the better of all concerned. But, more on that tomorrow, when we look at Jamie Manson’s piece.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

Related article

Bondings 2.0: Civil Same-Sex Marriage: A Catholic Affirmation” by Professor Lisa Fullam

Marriage Equality:  A Positive Catholic Approach by Francis DeBernardo





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




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