Monday, January 24, 2011

Benedict to Christian Leaders in Week of Prayer for Christian Unity: Pro-Life Means Anti-Gay

And in case we don't get the point that I emphasized in my posting yesterday commenting on Archbishop Timothy Dolan's "state of the union" address to Congress--that being pro-life now means, for Catholic leaders, being anti-gay, and that gay and lesbian human beings are, simply by virtue of being gay or lesbian, in some sense a threat to the sanctity of life--John Allen helpfully spells it out for us today in commentary on a warning Pope Benedict just issued to leaders of non-Catholic churches.

Allen is reporting on Benedict's concluding remarks this morning at a Vatican ceremony marking the end of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.  Note how Allen links the church's anti-abortion stance to its anti-gay stance, and how he stresses that Benedict views Catholic opposition to gay rights as a manifestation of the pro-life teaching of the church: 

Benedict expressed the hope that “no new confessional differences” will erupt on the pro-life questions, noting that since 2009 the Catholic bishops of Germany and leaders of the Lutheran Church have had a bilateral dialogue commission on “God and Human Dignity.”

That dialogue has at times been contentious, given that many Lutheran churches in Germany accept openly gay clergy and view homosexuality as morally acceptable, and some also bless same-sex unions.

Benedict’s warning that ecumenical good manners cannot blunt the church’s pro-life message comes at a time when disagreements over gay rights and gender roles are producing new fault lines in Christianity, perhaps especially with the Anglican Communion.

As I noted yesterday, the growing trend of top Catholic officials to link opposition to gay rights and opposition to abortion--with the more or less explicit claim that the gay issue is a life issue because gays are in their very nature anti-life--is a dangerous trend.  It is theologically dubious, since official Catholic teaching about why homosexuality is wrong has long stood on its own feet, feet entirely separate from the teaching on which opposition to abortion stands.  The church has condemned homosexual acts because they are not open to conception, but without the claim that gays are taking life or threatening life simply by being gay. 

Catholic teaching has condemned abortion from conception to birth because it wants to maintain that a human person is present in the fertilized zygote from the moment of conception, and abortion is a direct assault on a human life.  (And for a careful philosophical analysis of the arguments on which Catholic teaching about abortion rest, with helpful commentary on the shortcomings of some of those arguments, see Joshua McElwee's interview with George Dennis O'Brien in National Catholic Reporter this week.)

Lumping these two teachings together creates a theological mishmash that is nonsensical.  And dangerous, particularly for gay and lesbian human beings, because this new theological tactic on the part of Catholic officials relies on the rhetorical insinuation that gay and lesbian human beings are anti-life.  Threats to the human race.  People who have, as the past president of the U.S. Catholic Bishops' Conference Francis George recently stated, "lost touch" with the human race.

This is dehumanizing rhetoric on the part of church officials, aimed at an already vulnerable minority group.  It is rhetoric that quite deliberately seeks to inflame prejudice and elicit fear of the vulnerable minority group towards which it is aimed.

Those pushing this rhetoric have to know what they are doing in pushing it, and what they risk.  Benedict lived through the Nazi period in Germany, after all.  He surely remembers that those who seized control of his nation during that dark period of its history paved the way for the extermination of a race they tagged as inferior with rhetorical attacks on the Jewish people suggesting that the Jewish people were subhuman, threats to life who had lost touch with the human race.

It's easy--it's politically easy--to lump the anti-abortion cause together with the anti-gay cause, and to speak of gay and lesbian human beings as a threat to life, simply because they are gay or lesbian.  This political rhetoric is easy because it elides careful thought and--it has to be said--because it very easily stirs up fears and hostilities against those who are gay and lesbian that are never far from the surface in many societies.

But the price to be paid for such politically easy energizing of one's base can be very high, when the ultimate outcome is increased hostility and even violence towards an already stigmatized minority group.  Responsible Christian leaders have no business at all engaging in this kind of bloody mob-stirring.  Though Benedict (and John Allen) want to attack those strong movements within many other Christian churches--Allen singles out the Lutheran and Anglican communions--that affirm and protect gay and lesbian persons while proclaiming an ethic of respect for life, perhaps those churches and their leaders have something of crucial importance to teach Benedict and Catholic leaders today.

If so, their message might be as follows: stop attacking gay and lesbian human beings as you seek to promote an ethic of respect for life.  This strategy may score political points in the short run, but in the long run, it won't work.  It's unwise and dangerous.  And it calls into question--very strongly so--what you claim you're defending when you preach to the world about the sanctity of human life.

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