In the second time in as many weeks, the Vatican has taken a pot-shot at marriage equality in public statements.
While last week, Pope Benedict disparaged marriage equality in the release of his World Day of Prayer for Peace message, the newest statement comes in the form of a front-page article in L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican’s newspaper by historian Lucetta Scaraffia. A Religion News Service (RNS) story notes that the focus of Scaraffia
“. . . compared proponents of gay marriage, with their championing of ‘marriage equality,’ to 20th-century communists who wooed millions with their promise of perfect social and economical equality. . . .
“For her, the idea of gay marriage is a product of the same ‘egalitarian utopia that did so much damage during the 20th century … deceiving humanity as socialism did in the past.’ . . .
“In the long run, she concluded, societies will end up paying ‘a very high price’ for destroying family, ‘as it happened in the past with the attempts to create a complete social and economical equality.’ ”
Opposing Scaraffia in the RNS story was Marianne Duddy-Burke, the executive director of DignityUSA. She noted that
“. . . ‘marriage and family are sacred institutions that deserve the support of both civil and religious communities.’ But, she added, ‘these institutions are not limited by the sexual orientations of their members. Love and commitment transcend gender.’
“The Vatican’s arguments against gay marriage, she said, are based on ‘patently false beliefs about human nature’ and represent a cruel and un-Christian attempt to incite fear and division.’ “
The fear motive is indeed strong in Scaraffia’s argument. By making the comparison between marriage equality and communism, the writer clearly intends to make people fear marriage equality in the way that they used to fear leftist governments. The comparison is erroneous. Proponents of marriage equality come from all over the political spectrum, and have varied and different approaches to other social and economic questions. The only thing that unites them is their quest for equality in marriage opportunities, not a grand social agenda.
The RNS story notes that Scaraffia went all the way back to the French Revolution to prove her point:
“ ‘The idea that men have to be equal to enjoy the fullness of their rights and be happy dates back to French Revolution, when they demolished church bell towers because they were taller than other buildings,’ she said.”
Such an image seems less motivated by true historical comparison and more intended to falsely paint marriage equality proponents as people who want to destroy the Church. The fact that there are so many LGBT people who hold a deep faith belies this type of comparison.
Just about a year ago, Cardinal Francis George made headlines by comparing LGBT advocates to the Ku Klux Klan. Another fear-mongering statement which actually reveals George’s own fear. The Cardinal had the good sense to eventually retract his statement and apologize for the hurt he caused.
While such argument style as exhibited by Scaraffia can be upsetting, we should recognize that the reliance on fear as a strategy means that the per sons arguing already feels trapped and somewhat defeated by the logic of their opponents. In effect, it is an admission of defeat.
It is understandable that certain Catholic bishops would be disappointed in Tuesday’s ballot victories for marriage equality in Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, and Washington State. All the bishops in those particular states were vocal in trying to defeat marriage equality initiatives.
In Maine, Bishop Richard Malone attempted to be reconciliatory in his statement following the vote. While noting that he was “disappointed” in the outcome, he also showed some awareness that Catholics who supported marriage equality did so out of a sense of justice, though he disagreed with their motivation:
“I trust that those who voted for such a radical change did so out of concern for our brothers and sisters who struggle with same-sex attraction. Respect and acceptance of all people regardless of sexual orientation is not a point of controversy. It is a teaching of the Church, but so is the authentic meaning and definition of marriage. That is why the Catholic Church will continue its commitment to work for the basic human rights to which all people are entitled, while remaining devoted to preserving and strengthening the precious gift of marriage.”
Although Bishop Malone needs to learn that not all gay and lesbian people “struggle” with their sexuality–indeed, many see it as a gift from God and celebrate it as such–it is commendable that in this statement he reaffirms his dedication to human rights.
In Maryland, Archbishop William Lori responded to the vote for marriage equality in his state by continuing to speak as if the campaign were still ongoing, instead of a settled affair. In The Catholic Review, the archdiocesan newspaper, quotes from Archbishop Lori’s response:
“ ‘I think that vote will prove not to have been for the common good of our state,’ Archbishop Lori said. . . .
“The election results on same-sex marriage should serve as a ‘wake up call’ for Catholics, Archbishop Lori said, demonstrating ‘our need to redouble our efforts to defend marriage, to preach about what marriage is, and to help people understand it as a unique relationship that does not discriminate against anyone, but is for the good of children and for the good of our society.’ ”
Lori’s comments differed greatly from those of Ryan Sattler, a Catholic layman who was profiled by The National Catholic Reporter for his work on marriage equality in the state, and who was sought for his reaction to the election’s outcome. Sattler stated simply:
“On Election Day, Maryland voters chose justice. They chose equality. They chose love.”
Similarly, Karin Quimby, deputy faith director of Marylanders for Marriage Equality, praised the work of Maryland Catholics like Sattler:
“I think the work of Catholics on Question 6 here in Maryland shows that the social justice teaching in the Catholic church is alive and well. Lay leaders did a great job at the grassroots level, making their voices heard, and their fellow Catholics responded. Catholics clearly believe, very strongly, that every person has dignity, every person should be treated fairly, and every person deserves the same rights.”
In Minnesota, the Archdiocese of St. Paul, led by Archbishop John Nienstedt, also emphasized the idea that it is time to move forward from the rancor of debate:
“Although the defeat of the amendment is a very serious concern to us, it will not deter us from continuing to serve this community and the whole state in pursuit of the common good.”
Father Michael Tegeder, who publicly opposed Archbishop Nienstedt during the marriage debate, called for the Ordinary’s resignation in a letter to the Star Tribune:
“As a priest of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, I would ask our archbishop, John Nienstedt, to prayerfully consider stepping down from his office. It would be healing for our state and our church and would show some magnanimity on his part. His misguided crusade to change our Constitution, spending more than a million dollars and, more importantly, much goodwill, has been rejected. Elections have consequences.”
In Washington State, Archbishop Peter Sartain of Seattle also seemed prepared to continue the debate about marriage. In a statement, he said:
“I am disappointed that so many voters failed to recognize marriage between a man and a woman as the natural institution for the permanent, faithful covenant of love for a couple, for bringing children into the world, and for nurturing and educating those children. This change in civil law is not in the best interest of children or society.”
More joyous in response was Washington State’s Catholic Govern Christine Gregoire, who had signed the marriage equality legislation into law. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer quoted her reaction to the vote:
“ ‘Washington has made history and I couldn’t be prouder,’ said Gregoire. ‘Voters stood up for what is right and what is just and said that all Washington families are equal under the law . . .
“ ‘This is a day history will look back on as a turning point for equality. It is a day I will look back on as Washington state leading the nation. And it is a day that I will carry with me forever.’ ”
Commenting on all four successful votes, Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco, who is chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage, also seemed intent on putting a negative spin on the outcomes in his statement:
“Yesterday, November 6, was a disappointing day for marriage, as the effort to preserve the unique meaning of marriage in the law lost by only a narrow margin in four states, even though vastly outspent by those who promote the redefinition of marriage.
“The meaning of marriage, though, cannot be redefined because it lies within our very nature. No matter what policy, law or judicial decision is put into place, marriage is the only institution that unites a man and a woman to each other and to any children born of their union. It is either this, or it is nothing at all. In view of the fact that every child has a mother and a father, our society either respects the basic right of every child to be raised by his or her mother and father together and so supports the true and unique meaning of marriage for the good of children, or it does not. In a society marked by increasing poverty and family fragmentation, marriage needs to be strengthened, promoted, and defended, not redefined. I hope and pray that political leaders, judges, and all people will seek to honor this foundational and common sense truth of marriage.”
In L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican’s newspaper, tried to place the Catholic hierarchy’s position in a positive cast, even in the face of such resounding defeats. A Religion News Service story offers the following summary:
” ‘You could say that the church, on this level, is bound to lose,’ writes [Lucetta] Scaraffia. ‘But this is not the case.’
“According to the historian, the church’s fight on moral issues such as gay marriage and abortion has drawn support and admiration’ from many non-Catholics.
“By opposing legislation allowing gay couples to adopt in the United Kingdom or fighting the birth control mandate in the U.S., the church ‘made it clear for everyone that this is not about progress’ but about ‘the loss of one of the founding freedoms of the modern State, religious liberty.’ “
In all these cases, where Catholics have been working on both sides of the marriage question, it will be incumbent on the local bishops to work toward reconciling these factions in the church so that there are no lingering senses of animosity or alienation. This will be particularly important where the bishops have been particularly politically involved on the marriage question, and thus have risked alienating marriage equality supporters. Now that the electorates have spoken for justice and equality, the work of reconciliation must begin in earnest.