Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Critical Reflections on the Catholic Pastoral Response to Gay Persons: The Murder of Jorge Steven López

I’ve just written about what happens when Christian groups stereotype their LGBT brothers and sisters and then use those stereotypes to justify spiritual violence towards these brothers and sisters. I’ve also noted that those who employ bogus stereotypes to justify spiritual violence towards their gay brothers and sisters often make the spurious claim that they are acting out of pastoral concern for those they define and dismiss with language about the “gay lifestyle.”

When the present pope, Benedict XVI, writing as Cardinal Ratzinger, issued his infamous “Halloween Letter” entitled Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons in 1986, he professed concern that the church condemn violence towards those who are gay. Cardinal Ratzinger stated,

It is deplorable that homosexual persons have been and are the object of violent malice in speech or in action. Such treatment deserves condemnation from the Church's pastors wherever it occurs. It reveals a kind of disregard for others which endangers the most fundamental principles of a healthy society. The intrinsic dignity of each person must always be respected in word, in action and in law.

But then Cardinal Ratzinger went on to note (this next passages follows immediately on the statements above),

But the proper reaction to crimes committed against homosexual persons should not be to claim that the homosexual condition is not disordered. When such a claim is made and when homosexual activity is consequently condoned, or when civil legislation is introduced to protect behavior to which no one has any conceivable right, neither the Church nor society at large should be surprised when other distorted notions and practices gain ground, and irrational and violent reactions increase.

When such a claim [i.e., that being gay is not a matter of “intrinsic disorder”] is made and when homosexual activity is consequently condoned, or when civil legislation is introduced to protect behavior to which no one has any conceivable right, then one should not be surprised if violence is the result.

As many theologians and psychologists noted when Ratzinger issued his 1986 pastoral letter, what the first passage offers with one hand, the second statement takes away with the other hand. The letter states clearly that if gay human beings expect to have the same rights as everyone else in civil society and if we reject the church’s attempt to define us as disordered, we might as well expect to be attacked.

The letter implicitly justifies what it condemns, then. It makes the atrocious violence that gay people have long experienced and continue to experience in many places in the world thinkable, and it attaches that violence to their coming out of the closet. The letter suggests that gay people should expect violence if we ask for the full range of human rights and contest the church’s definition of us as intrinsically disordered, when those formulating the definition of intrinsic disorder refuse to take our graced experience and our testimony about this experience into account as they define our humanity.

And how does what Pope Benedict wrote in 1986 differ, I wonder, from what Puerto Rican police officer Angel Rodriguez said recently after the body of a 19-year old openly gay young man, Jorge Steven López, was found decapitated, dismembered, and partially burnt? Rodriguez stated,

When these type of people get into this and go out into the streets like this, they know this can happen to them.

What Rodriguez states in response to López’s unthinkable murder sounds uncannily like what Cardinal Ratzinger states in his 1986 pastoral letter: when gay folks become public, when “these type of people” choose the gay lifestyle and become public, what can you expect? We deplore violence. But violence is what will happen if gay people ask to be treated like other human beings and refuse to accept the church’s definition of their “type of people.”

Sometimes the news has an eerie way of illuminating the mendacity of texts that say one thing but mean another. What happened to Jorge Steven López, and the reaction of Angel Rodriguez to this murder, appear to confirm the insights of those who began to argue as long ago as 1986 that the church’s claim to be above violence towards gay people, and to deplore that violence, is questionable at best, and dishonest at worst.

Defining people as “intrinsically disordered”—as a “type of people” who should expect violence if they expect to live free and with human dignity—is an act of spiritual violence that elicits actual physical violence towards gay and lesbian persons. The Catholic church’s “pastoral” approach to its gay and lesbian members is not a solution to the problem of the violence LGBT people encounter in many societies. It is a huge part of the problem.