Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The News Beat: Catholics, Mormons, Gay Marriage, and Academic Leadership

Lots of newsworthy items in the past several days.

James Martin, S.J., has a good posting at the America blog recently summarizing news regarding the stance of the Catholic church (at various official levels) towards gay and lesbian persons ( As he notes, the Vatican has just announced it opposes a European proposal to oppose discrimination against gay persons. The proposal will be presented to the UN on 10 December on the 60th anniversary of the UN Declaration of Human Rights (

Hmm. Strange. One has to wonder on what basis a religious group that touts itself as one of the world’s leading defenders of human rights opposes the protection of the rights of any group. The Vatican’s concern? According to the Vatican’s UN observer Monsignor Celestino Migliore, it’s a fear that those who wish to engage in discrimination will now find themselves discriminated against.

Since the proposed resolution is particularly concerned with some nations of the world in which homosexuality is criminalized and gay people are susceptible to the death penalty simply for being gay, the Vatican has now made itself appear to be—in the eyes of many observers—for discrimination against gay persons that can include even capital punishment.

Not an enviable position for a purportedly pro-human rights organization to put itself in.

Feelings about the Vatican’s seeming defense of capital punishment for gays are understandably running high in the European press, and the media response has provoked a soft-pedaling explanation of the Vatican’s position by a Vatican spokesperson, Rev. Federico Lombardi, S.J., who assures the world that “no one wants the death penalty or jail or fines for homosexuals.”

Even so, Rev. Lombardi announces, “The Holy See is not alone.” That is, it is not alone in its prejudice, just as it was not alone in the past when it rejected rights for women or people of color, or defended slavery or holy wars or the Inquisition. It appears that Rev. Lombardi believes that not being “alone” on the field of gross prejudice somehow constitutes moral rightness: the majority necessarily chooses the ethical thing to do.

History makes me wonder about that assumption. And history and the moral arc of the universe, which tends to justice, make me wonder what Catholic leaders can be thinking these days. Are they simply intent on going up in flames—or down in flames, as the case may be?

Whatever. They do seem intent on flaming, to the amazement of people of good will everywhere in the world.

And flaming while their own house is afire. The Catholic diocese of Springfield, Massachusetts, has just announced a payment of $4.5 million to 59 clergy abuse victims (

Two of those receiving payments allege that they were abused by none other than the former bishop of Springfield, Most Rev. Thomas L. Dupre. Dupre attracted the attention of victims of clerical abuse several years ago when he came out strongly against the legalization of gay marriage in Massachusetts. The two claiming abuse are both males.

Some of those who have just received payments for the abuse they have endured say the payments are leaving them cold. These include Donald Smith Henneberger, 50, who says he feels like a second-class citizen. Henneberger estimates that he was abused 75 to 100 times by a Pittsfield priest while he was a paper delivery boy for a church there.

For those interested in the twisted history of religious groups that depict themselves as the champions of moral decency in society as they bash gay and lesbian human beings, Sheldon Rampton’s article “Mormon Homophobia: Up Close and Personal” on today’s Alternet site is well worth reading (

Rampton, who is a former Mormon, details the long-standing Mormon hostility to gays and lesbians. He notes that from his missionary days, he owns a copy of Spencer W. Kimball’s The Miracle of Forgiveness. Kimball was president and prophet of the LDS church from 1973 to 1985.

Rampton excerpts material from President Kimball’s book, re: gay human beings:

[P]erhaps as an extension of homosexual practices, men and women have sunk even to seeking sexual satisfaction from animals. ...

All such deviations from normal, proper heterosexual relationships are not merely unnatural but wrong in the sight of God. Like adultery, incest and bestiality, they carried the death penalty under the Mosaic law. ... The law is less severe now, and so regrettably is the community's attitude to those grave sins -- another evidence of the deterioration of society. In some countries the act per se is not even illegal.

What’s fascinating here (aside from the mind-boggling charge that gays and lesbians invented bestiality—a charge I haven’t seen elsewhere, and which seems to fly in the face of all evidence I know) is that nostalgia for the days in which gays and lesbians could be put to death—you know, simply for being gay or lesbian. Simply for being.

Is it any wonder that Mormons and Catholics are now cozying up to each other? At an official level, both seem dominated by men who long for the good old days of pyres and head-lopping for those they regard as made “wrong in the sight of God.”

Rampton also takes on the widespread notion that Mormons are good people with good values who are being unfairly targeted by those angered at the LDS role in the prop 8 battle in California. In response to this contention, he states, “. . . Mormon values are precisely what are on display in Kimball's writings and the actions of the aversion therapists at BYU. And they are core values of Mormonism today. These values are deeply felt and widely believed.”

Rampton juxtaposes Mormon values re: gay persons today with Mormon values re: people of color in the past. As he notes, into the 1970s, the LDS church held “the so-called Negro doctrine, which excluded people of African descent from the Mormon priesthood.” Rampton observes that an influential book from that era, co-authored by a vice-president of Brigham Young University, Mormonism and the Negro, provides biblical warrant for this practice of racial discrimination by depicting people of color as descendants of Cain who are susceptible to Cain’s curse.

Rampton also points out that one of the founders of Mormonism, Brigham Young, once wrote that the “law of God” declares that "if the white man who belongs to the chosen seed mixes his blood with the seed of Cain, the penalty, under the law of God, is death on the spot."

There’s that death card again. I wonder if Rev. Federico Lombardi is listening. Yes, Father Lombardi, good people can hold very malicious ideas, and they can do so en masse. Perhaps we should decide if a position is morally justifiable not by noting its popularity. Perhaps we should look at whether it’s right or wrong, whether it does good or bad to others.

Also noteworthy at Alternet today is an article by David Rosen outlining 9 ways progressive citizens can halt the right-wing culture wars and bring sanity to sexual policy (

A fascinating snippet:

A peculiarly historic irony informs the gay-marriage issue as Obama assumes the presidency. When Obama’s parents married in 1960, twenty-two states had laws prohibiting interracial marriage. These states ranged from traditional hard-core racist strongholds like Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana to otherwise moderate Delaware and Maryland. The Supreme Court’s now-celebrated Loving decision of 1967 voided "racial hygiene" laws, finding that state “anti-miscegenation” law violated the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the Constitution’s 14th Amendment. A similar Court decision could well apply to marriage among gay men and women and, thus, finally bring full bourgeois rights to a discriminated minority.

And from the Good as You blogsite, an interesting article about the response of religious right groups to California legislators who are calling for legislative action to protect the California constitution from illegal revision in response to prop 8 ( As the Good as You blog notes, Ron Prentice, Chairman of Protect, is accusing these legislators of grandstanding and of focusing on diversionary issues instead of resolving the budget deficit and improving the economy.

A curious argument to make, it seems to me, when the group making it has just spent millions on millions on that very same diversionary topic. Millions on millions, much of it provided by good church folks, that could have done real good to feed the hungry, to jump-start the economy, to build infrastructures, to create jobs.

Rather than removing rights from a group of citizens whose marriages were significantly boosting the economies of the California communities in which they were being celebrated . . . .

And finally, I note in today’s news that the university founded by the illustrious Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune—Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach—has a new academic vice-president. Its “fourth vice president for academic affairs in as many years,” according to reporter Mark Harper writing for the Daytona News Journal (

Mary McLeod Bethune and Bethune-Cookman University have been on my mind after a student there left a kind comment on a posting at this blog yesterday ( She’s responding to a posting which argues that Dr. Bethune provides important guideposts to those trying to reshape academic and church models of leadership in our culture today.

As I’ve noted repeated in postings on this blog, I admire Dr. Bethune and am grateful for a period in my academic life in which I was charged with studying her work and applying it to models of leadership today. Through that study and my experience in academic life, I have come to the conclusion that leadership in academic life today is at a premium—as much as it is in the churches.

As many of my statements about this note, there are intense pressures from the top in many universities, pressures that demand that the academic leaders of an institution conform to hard-nosed business models for academic leadership, which have nothing to do with collegiality of academic ideals. Many of those at the top of universities have little understanding of academic life, and a faint, inconsequential commitment to the values that make academic life tick.

This assures that anyone stepping into the top academic leadership in a university has her or his work cut out for her/him. It takes a strong leader, indeed, to keep tight hold on the reins of academic freedom and academic excellence, when those at the top of the university—those with a top-down business model of leadership, who do not understand academic life and who resist the values of academic life—are breathing down their neck and, sometimes, actively subverting the good work of their own academic leaders. It takes strong character and skill to resist the pressure on the top to eviscerate the academy, to gut it of its core values, to undermine collegiality.

It takes someone like Mary McLeod Bethune herself, in other words. Because the university Dr. Bethune founded is so important to our society, and because the legacy of Dr. Bethune deserves to be considered carefully in this period of national reinvestigation of what leadership is all about (, I wish the new academic leader of Bethune-Cookman much success. She will need luck and preternatural fortitude, skill at discernment and an outstanding character, with much moral fiber. The cards are stacked against success for strong academic leaders—and they are so stacked within many academic institutions themselves.