Friday, August 6, 2010

Patrick Cheng on Theological Reading of Prop 8 Decision, and What Centrist Catholic Silence about the Decision Portends

Re: Judge Vaughn Walker’s magisterial document explaining why opposition to gay marriage based ultimately  only in prejudice (religious, personal, or otherwise) cannot overrrule constitutional principles, theologian Patrick Cheng has posted wonderful commentary at Huffington Post.  Rev. Cheng focuses on the theme of love—as opposed to sex and sexual acts—that runs through Judge Walker’s ruling.  It’s about love, about recognizing the loving nature of longstanding committed same-sex unions that cannot be reduced to the sexual acts in which we imagine those in such unions engage.

And so for Cheng, Judge Walker’s ruling is theological and deserves theological analysis.  Cheng notes, “It is disturbing to me that anti-gay Christians so easily forget that love is at the very heart of the gospel message.”

And he concludes:

In my view, the obsession that anti-gay Christians have with the mechanics of sexual acts (that is, tab A can only be inserted into slot B) without any regard to the loving quality of the underlying relationships -- whether homosexual or heterosexual -- is profoundly wrong from a theological, ethical, and biblical perspective. For example, the Bible refers to same-sex acts six times. However, it refers to love nearly 800 times. What do you think is more important from God's perspective?

Meanwhile, I’m not surprised (and I’m even somewhat amused, while saddened and horrified at the same time) to see that the big liberal American Catholic blogsites—e.g., America and Commonweal—have remained absolutely silent so far about Judge Walker’s ruling.  The California Catholic bishops have predictably condemned it, of course.

I try to understand this oh-so-telling and so loud silence of my Catholic brothers and sisters of the center—who have long since repudiated, many of them, the church’s teaching on artificial contraception and gender roles in their own lives—from an historical standpoint.  That is, I imagine myself looking at the response to this significant civil rights breakthrough as if I’m on the outside looking in, when the Civil Rights act of 1964 was passed.  

I try to picture myself as an outsider seeking to decode the community remaining silent as a civil rights breakthrough occurs, while other communities that struggle for justice are jubilant about the breakthrough.  What does the silence say about the community remaining silent in the face of a breakthrough that diminishes the suffering of some of their brothers and sisters, and accords justice to those brothers and sisters?

There was (I remember this from my own life history, and so I don’t even need the outsider’s perspective) tremendous jubilation in many quarters when the Civil Rights act passed.  Some churches bitterly resented the new legislation, of course, and continued to defend segregation.  In doing that, they put themselves on the wrong side of history and undermined anything they had to say in future about love, justice, mercy, and solidarity with those on the margins.  Or about God and salvation and communion, for that matter.

Many others, including much of the American Catholic community, celebrated the Civil Rights act.  Leading Catholic publications like America and Commonweal had long advocated for civil rights, and were strongly in support of the move to full inclusion of people of color in our democratic society.

And so it’s all the more shocking now to witness the total silence of these same publications about what has happened in California, when right beside the powerful Catholics of the center who maintain those publications are brothers and sisters—real human beings—celebrating liberation from oppression.  Celebrating because we have been toiling with a stone strapped to our backs by oppressors, and that stone has now been removed—though its final removal will require a long legal process with more suffering for us.

I ask myself how people of faith for whom love and solidarity with those experiencing oppression are central religious values can justify their callous silence as others toil uphill carrying a stone placed on their back by oppressors, and can remain silent as that stone is removed.  I can think of only two reasons that appear to explain, but not justify, the ongoing silence of powerful centrist American Catholics in the face of the suffering of their gay brothers and sisters: 

First, There is a strong unwillingness to challenge the magisterial position on sexual ethics, even when those at the center have long since repudiated the teaching on artificial contraception. 
But the penalty for rejecting the teaching on artificial contraception among heterosexual Catholics is not at all as serious as is the penalty for rejecting the teaching on homosexuality among both heterosexual and homosexual Catholics: one action leads to shoulder shrugs on the part of church leaders; the other often leads to expulsion from the community and its sacramental life, and, in particular, expulsion from economic community within Catholic institutions.
This unwillingness to speak out about the oppression of gay and lesbian persons appears to be stronger among American Catholic intellectuals than among their counterparts in many other developed nations of the world, who are willing to speak out clearly and to organize in opposition to anti-gay prejudice and its theological basis in magisterial teaching.  Among many American Catholics of the center, the fear to speak out against oppression of gay and lesbian human beings stems, in my view, from a fear of the economic and personal consequences, when one’s job security depends on playing it safe, and, in particular, when one works for a Catholic institution. 
Second, there is a (totally unwarranted) belief among American Catholics of the center that one can remain silent about the suffering of one’s gay and lesbian brothers and sisters and still claim to be all about and defense of human rights.

But our claim to be a defender of human rights and a pursuer of justice will always—must always—depend on doing justice now, in those contemporary battles in which justice is most significantly put to the test in the here and now.  It cannot rest on our solidarity with oppressed communities in the past.

It is ironic in the extreme to see some of the major centrist Catholic publications in the U.S. now debating the extent to which religion played a role in slavery while gay and lesbian human beings are toiling uphill right now with a stone on our backs.  Which those who maintain these publications could help to lift from our backs, if they even began to see us as fellow human beings . . . .

There is, I’m convinced, an assumption among many American Catholics of the center that their gay and lesbian brothers and sisters somehow merit the oppression heaped on us.  That we should have played our cards well and not incurred the wrath of the right.  That we really are, at some level, guilty because we push against magisterial teaching that grossly misrepresents our humanity.

That we do not count as much as do the powerbrokers of the center, whose voices ought to be the really  representative voices of American Catholicism—the serious Catholics of great faith, responsibility, and standing in the community who happen to be judges, for instance.  Those are the people who deserve a hearing.  Not the gays.

There’s a further assumption that we can serve the church’s mission and make our faith pertinent to the public realm while focusing on those powerful voices to the virtual exclusion of the voices from the margins—including the voices of gays and lesbians.  There’s an assumption, in other words—one that is entirely erroneous, I believe—that we can continue talking credibly about what it means to be a serious Catholic of great faith, responsibility, and standing in the world of the present while remaining adamantly silent about the challenge to find justice for LGBT persons in that world, and while ignoring the voices of gays and lesbians in our power-making conversations.

Because—there’s a tautology here, isn’t there?—gay and lesbian Catholics simply aren’t serious Catholics of great faith, responsibility, and standing in the community.

Meanwhile, there’s celebrating across the nation, including in many communities of faith, about Judge Walker’s ruling.  From my outside-looking-in perspective, I see the current of the future running through those communities as they celebrate, as strongly as it was running through the communities of faith who celebrated and did not ignore or oppose the Civil Rights act in 1964.

It is not running through faith communities that remain silent about this historic battle to remove a burden of oppression from the backs of fellow human beings.  Their silence is not at all to their credit.  It assures that the message they believe they are giving the world about what it means to be a serious believer of great faith, responsibility, and standing will not be heard by the world at large.

And should not be heard.  The message we proclaim must first be lived if we expect it to be credible.