Monday, January 3, 2011

Benedict on Religous Freedom: Can the Church Claim Rights for Itself While Denying Rights to LGBT Persons?

Simon Barrow's recent essay "Reform, Persecution and Future Church" at the Ekklesia website provides a brilliant response to Pope Benedict's growing insistence that religious freedom is a foundational human right, the foundation for all other human rights and freedoms.  Benedict developed this theme in his new year's statement for World Peace Day.

Barrow does not address the World Peace Day statement, but he notes that in responding to the crisis of clerical sexual abuse of minors last year, Benedict noted, "The greatest persecution of the church does not come from enemies on  the outside but is born from the sin within the church."  As Barrow points out, this insistence that the biggest threat to the message the church seeks to proclaim to the world is not the world itself, but the church--the church's occlusion of its message by its failure to live this message--profoundly challenges all those Christian groups who now want to make religious freedom the primary issue.  

And who claim, as they emphasize religious freedom as the contemporary Ur-issue, that Christians are being persecuted and are under attack in secular societies.  Barrow focuses on one such group in the U.K., the Christian Concern group, which has launched a Not Ashamed campaign in the British Isles.  As he notes, this group promotes a nostalgic, backwards-looking idea of a "Christian nation" whose values are now being marginalized by secular society. 

But even as it claims that Christians are being persecuted in contemporary British culture, this group also lobbies for the continued "right" of Christians to discriminate against LGBT people.  Barrow comments:

None of these opportunities and problems is adequately addressed by the 'Not Ashamed' campaign launched in the UK by Christian Concern and others. The rhetoric of this initiative appears to be aimed at generating pride and defensiveness (neither of them qualities that create positive ecclesial regeneration) towards a mythologised notion of 'the Christian nation' (the classic Christendom trope) residing in certain legal and constitutional privileges which put Christians in a determinative position and make them exempt from the prevailing standards of non-prejudicial justice that others who are not Christian are required to observe.

Indeed, the vocal and accusatory demand for the 'right' to be able to exclude LGBT people (especially) from equal access to those public goods and services provided wholly or partly through Christian agencies in a mixed 'welfare economy' strikes many outside the church not so much as a desire to be treated fairly themselves, but rather as a wish to be allowed by common law to treat others unfavourably.

This is, to many people not persuaded by the ideology of the campaign, plainly unChristian as well as non-humanitarian in its ethos and impact, assuming (as we should on good theological, let alone 'secular', grounds) that treating others, regardless of their condition or standing, with justice is a clear requirement of the Gospel.

I find reading Barrow's essay side by side with Austen Ivereigh's commentary on Benedict's World Peace Day message illuminating.  In a posting about the World Peace Day message at America's "In All Things" blog, Ivereigh dismisses the charge that the church's behavior towards gay and lesbian human beings undercuts its emphasis on human rights--and weakens the appeal of Benedict himself to human rights for the church in the area of religious freedom.  Ivereigh finds the critique that the church forfeits its right to insist on its own rights in the area of religious freedom while it seeks to deny rights to gay and lesbian human beings unfair.

If Barrow is correct however, this critique is eminently fair, because it's grounded in Benedict's own perspective: the biggest enemy of the church is not the outside world. It's not secularism.

It's the church itself, in its failure to live the gospel consistently.  A faith community cannot credibly proclaim an ethic based in human rights that it conspicuously belies in its own behavior towards a marginalized, vulnerable group of human beings.  It is scandalous in the extreme that so many influential Catholic thinkers and journalists in the developed nations today continue to be utterly silent about the painful disconnect between what the Catholic church proclaims about human rights and its approach to gay and lesbian persons.  It is scandalous in the extreme that so many influential Catholic thinkers and journalists in the developed nations continue to act and to write as if their gay and lesbian brothers and sisters face no significant human rights challenges in societies around the world--and in the church itself.

The big challenge confronting the church today is not the threat to its religious freedom.  It's the failure of the church to live the human rights message on which it wishes to base its claim to religious freedom--its failure to live that message in relation to the LGBT citizens of the world.

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