Friday, September 4, 2009

Paul Gorrell on the Cafeteria Catholicism of Bishops: No to Health Care, But Yes to Gay-Bashing

More on the U.S. Catholic bishops and gay marriage: Paul Gorrell has a thought-provoking piece on this topic at Religion Dispatches today. He notes the curious timing of the stepped-up anti-gay marriage initiatives now rolling out in Catholic dioceses on the east coast including ones in New Jersey and Washington, D.C.

At the same time that the bishops are sitting on their hands doing absolutely nothing about what has long been a clear, unambiguous principle of Catholic moral teaching—health care is a human right and every society has a moral obligation to provide access to health care to all citizens—a number of bishops are choosing to begin a high-profile battle against a targeted minority group. Gorrell notes that the bishops seem to be practicing cafeteria Catholicism—the kind of selective appropriation of church teachings that right-wing Catholics customarily accuse those on the left of practicing.

Gorrell notes:

Catholic bishops in this country have shown that they are only willing to speak out politically in support of deeply conservative causes associated with the culture wars (i.e., abortion and same-sex relationships). They are not willing to stand up for the liberal principles that have shaped the Church’s official teaching and the work of its theologians. In other words, the bishops are picking and choosing at the cafeteria of Church teaching and behaving like right-wing political ideologues.

As my posting on this issue yesterday noted, Catholic groups working to target the gay community and block the right of marriage for gay couples claim that same-sex marriage is undermining traditional marriage. This position completely ignores the distinction between civil and religious marriage. Proponents of same-sex marriage are not arguing for the right to marry in churches. They respect churches’ rights to hold whatever belief they wish to hold about marriage.

Same-sex marriage advocates are asking for the right to civil marriage. In trying to block and even remove that right where states have accepted it, Catholic anti-gay activists (including bishops) are seeking to impose on civil society their unique religious views.

They claim to be doing this to protect traditional marriage. Yet no credible evidence suggests that allowing same-sex couples the right of civil marriage undermines traditional marriage. In fact, Massachusetts, which has led the way with same-sex marriage, continues to have the lowest divorce rate of any state in the nation. Divorce rates are highest in the bible-belt states most staunchly opposed to gay marriage on the specious grounds that it undermines traditional marriage.

As my posting yesterday also notes, even those who support what the bishops are doing (including Michael Sean Winters) note the strange disparity between the bishops’ approach to legislation making divorce illegal and their approach to legislation outlawing same-sex marriage. Any rational person can see that the biggest threat to “traditional” opposite-sex marriage is divorce. Not same-sex marriage.

The biggest threat to traditional marriage is the high divorce rate among heterosexual couples. When gay marriage is not even on the scene in most of the nation to blame for that divorce rate.

The bishops are demonstrating that they will gleefully step across the church-state line to impose religious views peculiar to (some) Catholics on civil society when it comes to gay people and gay lives. Yet they are not willing to step across the church-state line to try to outlaw divorce, even when it is far and away the greatest threat to traditional marriage.

But they claim that they are pushing the Catholic community out onto the forefront of the battle against gay people and gay lives—that is, giving the public the impression that Catholics approve discrimination against gay persons and use of church power to coerce civil society to enshrine such discrimination—solely to protect traditional marriage.

Something is radically awry with this picture. It is not a picture of a religious body resolutely working in highly ethical ways to protect traditional marriage. It is, instead, a picture of a religious body resolutely putting itself on the side of prejudice—prejudice against a stigmatized minority. Gay-bashing. In the name of Jesus.

One cannot avoid concluding that the bishops’ reason for practicing cafeteria Catholicism as they bash gay human beings is primarily political. It’s not religious at all. They’re bashing gay people because they can do so, with relative impunity. And they earn points for doing so.

Gay-bashing still brings money flowing into church coffers. It energizes the base—in this case, the same base that is willing to get out on the lines and scream about baby killing. Gay-bashing gives bishops the impression that their word still counts, that people still listen to them, even as studies show that one in ten American adults is a former Catholic, and a third of adults raised Catholic have left the church.

One has to wonder about the choice of some bishops to use this long, hot summer of political discontent to roll out a gay-bashing initiative—when mobs at town-hall meetings are screaming for blood and there is a strong movement afoot to use the health care iuuse to topple the new administration. There is a political context to the cafeteria Catholicism bishops are practicing in the anti-gay marriage push now. And it’s a conspicuously ugly one.

What some Catholics and many bishops choose to do to gay people and gay lives is sinful. The behavior bishops exhibit as they make gay-bashing a high-profile Catholic objective is not about Jesus and the gospels. It is not about ministry modeled on the life of Jesus, the good shepherd. It is not about healing. It is not about loving. It is not about welcoming people who are made unwelcome by many social groups.

It is about using people who are already subject to hate and violence, to do further violence to them. To their bodies, since religious support for hate-tinged violence fosters and furthers that violence. But also to their souls, since using people as objects in political games always damages their souls.

The bishops would serve core Catholic values and help heal their fractured church far better by turning the spotlight onto themselves, rather than gay human beings. They would proclaim the gospel better if they began to ask how so many of them have been willing to shield priests who sexually abuse minors, while using church funds lavishly to silence victims, to fight grieving families of children abused by clergy in hardball court battles, and to lean on the media and legal authorities to overlook their criminal behavior.

If the bishops want to heal the church and make it an effective moral force in society at large, they need to begin by preaching the gospel. Which we do most effectively when we live it. And what the bishops are doing to gay folks in this long, summer of political discontent is certainly not proclaiming the good news of Christ to many folks.