Thursday, January 13, 2011

My Real Rights Trump Your Alleged Rights: Catholic Officials Keep Appealing to Religious Freedom While Urging Discrimination

In several postings as the new year began, I predicted that we'd see much more of what I regard as a subject-changing rhetorical ploy of Catholic officials today: when the subject needs to be, as Nicole Sotelo argues, an honest and effective engagement of the longstanding cover-up of cases of clerical abuse by members of the Catholic hierarchy, the issue that the top Catholic leaders want to press today is the issue of religious freedom, instead.  With the attendant claim that the Catholic church is under attack by those who do not want to respect its right to religious liberty, and who do not recognize that religious freedom is the fundamental right on which all other human rights depend.

As I noted in my 4 January posting to which the first link above points, Cardinal Pell of Australia has already pointed this religious freedom rhetoric (which emanates from the pope himself) in the direction of gay and lesbian human beings, with the astonishing claim that, in attacking the right of gay and lesbian persons to marry, the Catholic church is defending and promoting human rights.  That is, it's defending and promoting its own "right" to discriminate against others in the name of religious belief.  My posting about Cardinal Pell's recent statements predicts that we will hear this rhetoric coming frequently from Catholic pastoral officials in the coming year, as an institution whose leaders have victimized and re-victimized those who suffered clerical sexual abuse as children seeks to portray itself as the real victim.

Unfortunately, this prediction appears to be right on track.  On Monday, Pope Benedict met with diplomats from around the world, and once again, in his "State of the World" address to these dignitaries, he made religious freedom the topic of conversation.   And in his remarks on this occasion, Benedict pointed the rhetoric of religious freedom squarely in the direction of gay and lesbian persons, just as Cardinal Pell did in his similar statements discussed at the link above.

The pope specifically decried sex education programs that, he maintains, want to "mandate obligatory participation in courses of sexual or civic education" with content opposed to Catholic teaching. As Cindy Wooden notes in the Catholic News Service report about this address to which I've just linked, these remarks clearly pertain to a controversy now occurring in Spain, where some parents are objecting to sex education programs in Spanish schools that teach teach students about homosexuality as a natural manifestation of human sexuality, and do not condemn this orientation as they teach about it.  

Benedict inveighed against "alleged new rights which, while actively promoted by certain sectors of society and inserted in national legislation or in international directives, are nonetheless merely an expression of selfish desires lacking a foundation in authentic human nature." As the CNS report cited above notes, in case listeners did not understand where Benedict intended to go with this denunciation of "alleged rights," the papal press secretary Father Frederico Lombardi helpfully glossed the comments in a CNS interview with the observation that the "alleged new rights" the pope is attacking are the right of homosexuals to marry or adopt children.

And so with Benedict's recent "State of the World" address, we're back on the same page we found ourselves on as the year began, with Cardinal Pell's mystifying insistence that, in attacking the human rights of gay and lesbian persons, the Catholic church is actually defending human rights.  My real right trumps your bogus right.  My right to believe as I want, and to use my belief to block your human rights, trumps your "selfish" and "alleged" right to share in the full range of rights accorded to all other human beings simply because they are human.

As I say, we can look for much more of this rhetoric to come from Catholic pastoral officials this year.  Already, Mexican Archbishop Jose Martin Rabago has echoed Benedict's World Peace Day statements about religious freedom as the core human right by observing this week that religious freedom is the foundation of all other human rights.  And, precisely as Benedict does in his address to world diplomats, Archbishop Rabago goes on to apply this alleged fundamental right to the question of education, insisting that parents have a right to control what their children are taught in schools.  Irish Archbishop Diarmuid Martin has also recently used the religious freedom meme to argue for the freedom of parents to control the education of their children in schools, though I do not find news reports indicating that Archbishop Martin oriented his remarks against sex education or education that teaches children to respect those who are gay and lesbian. 

Not surprisingly, 2011 is already shaping up to be  a year of stepped-up attack by Catholic pastoral officials on the "alleged" human rights of gay and lesbian human beings.  I say "not surprisingly" for two reasons.  The first is that Catholic officials have no option except to step up their attack on the gay and lesbian community, as society at large increasingly recognizes the humanity and human rights of LGBT persons.  That is, Catholic officials have no option except to enhance the attack as long as those officials continue to make blocking the human rights of LGBT persons at every turn a key priority of the Catholic church today.  The more the culture at large begins to view gay and lesbian human beings as human, with human rights, the more the church is locked into a tragic cycle of vicious anti-gay attacks, insofar as it is determined to resist this cultural trend.

Second, Catholic pastoral officials have no option except to keep trying to change the subject, because the real subject that these pastoral leaders need to discuss is their own horrendous malfeasance in the abuse cover-up.  And they adamantly do not intend to discuss that subject.  The issue of religious freedom, the claim that the church is under attack, and the diversionary attack on gay and lesbian human beings (and on women) are all aspects of a rhetorical ploy designed to change the subject, to divert attention from the malfeasance of Catholic pastoral leaders in the abuse crisis.

We can definitely look for more of this rhetoric in the American Catholic context.  As Chuck Colbert reports at Huffington Post, in December, the outgoing president of the U.S. Catholic bishops' conference, Cardinal Francis George, spoke at Boston College.  When questioned by a BC graduate student about his opposition to the right of civil marriage for gay and lesbian couples, Cardinal George stated that those who support same-sex marriage have "lost touch" with the human race.

Cardinal George bases this rather dangerous and incendiary remark (since stating that members of a minority community have "lost touch" with humanity opens the door to dehumanization of and violence against that community) on the claim that nature clearly points to one and only one framework for understanding marriage: a heterosexual procreative one.  And yet as my critique of the recent defense of this "traditional" view of marriage by Boston College professor Susan Meld Shell notes, at the same time that Catholic officials and their supporters like Shell argue that gay and lesbian persons should be excluded from marriage because they cannot procreate, advocates of traditional marriage do not call for the exclusion of heterosexual couples incapable of procreation from marriage.  Nor are they arguing that a commitment to procreate ought to be a precondition for heterosexual marriage.

As my critique of Shell (and my ongoing critique of those in the Catholic intellectual and media center who similarly argue that gay and lesbian persons should be excluded from marriage, while they also argue for the right of heterosexual married Catholics to choose when or if they will procreate) maintains, it is inconsistent--and exceptionally unjust--to argue for a right for one's own group, or for the dominant group in a social setting, while one simultaneously supports the exclusion of another group, a minority group, from that right.  Using precisely the same norm one wishes to use to support one's own right to observe a norm like procreation selectively . . . .

Interestingly enough, Professor Shell's (married heterosexual) colleague who tags my argument "weak" notes that one can argue for the "traditional" model of marriage while leaving the door open for heterosexual couples who cannot or do not wish to procreate to adopt children.  (This critique is in the italicized preface of the posting to which I've just linked.)  I say that this is an interesting admission, because the professor offering this analysis does not seem to recognize that it actually strengthens my own argument, not his and Professor Shell's against same-sex marriage.

On what rational grounds could one possibly maintain that same-sex couples should be denied the right to marry if one maintains that non-procreative heterosexual couples should have that right, and may express their generativity by adopting?  If the only difference between a non-procreative couple who adopt children and a same-sex couple who do so is the gender of the spouses, then on what rational and fair basis is one arguing that the former couple should be permitted to marry, while the latter should not be permitted to marry?  The argument is not really about procreation at all, is it?  It's really about the gender of those who should be permitted to marry, about the kind of gendered couples we will permit to call themselves married.  And so it's ultimately about the sexual orientation of those seeking marriage, though this bias is not acknowledged as we talk about who is natural and who has lost touch with the human race.

The kind of argument from nature promoted by Cardinal George in his Boston College remarks, and implicitly by Boston College professor Susan Meld Shell, builds unacknowledged, unexamined prejudice right into its foundations.  When heterosexual married couples have for decades been exercising their right to curb and plan their procreation using artificial contraception, one cannot credibly maintain that same-sex marriage is a huge threat since it will inhibit or threaten heterosexual procreation.  Same-sex marriage has not even been on the cultural horizon for most of the period in which heterosexual control of procreation has become the norm in developed nations.  It is still not permitted in many places in the developed world, even as heterosexual couples in overwhelming numbers choose when, how, and whether to have children.  Gay marriage has not caused and will not cause the limitation of procreation that heterosexual couples themselves are choosing, due to the availability of various techniques to control procreation at this point in history.

And when those arguing for the exclusion of gay and lesbian couples from the right to marry because same-sex marriage is unnatural and a threat to traditional marriage simultaneously support the right to limitation of procreation among heterosexual couples, as leading voices of the American Catholic intellectual and media elite do--that is, when they argue for a right for themselves that they simultaneously seek to deny to those who are gay on grounds of "nature" or tradition--then there's a strong if unacknowledged question of justice on the table.  And no amount of rhetoric about the "alleged" human rights of gay and lesbian persons, or the alleged selfishness of gay human beings, or the way in which those who are gay have "lost touch" with the human race, is going to make that question go away.

Addendum, 14.1.2011: My apologies to Nicole Sotelo for misspelling her name in the preceding posting.  As I re-read her NCR article today, I noticed I had transposed the t and the l in her name, and have now corrected the mistake.  And it occurred to me to check past postings in which I had mentioned this outstanding journalist at NCR, and I found that I had misspelled her name twice previously.  All of those misspellings are now corrected.  Please let me know, readers, of any misspellings at all (or other errors) you spot in my postings--I'm grateful for such information.

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