Wednesday, August 10, 2011

More Lipstick, Same Pig: Commonweal Editorializes about Gay Marriage in New York

Okay, I'm going to bite the bullet and write about this.  I've hesitated to do so because, believe it or not, I don't have a vendetta against the leading and influential journal of the American Catholic intellectual center, Commonweal.  I do, however, care rather intently about the effectiveness of Catholics as we contribute to important intellectual discussions in the public square.  I care about our effectiveness in those discussions, because they help chart the future of various societies.  And I believe that the Catholic tradition has something of significance to contribute to public discussions.

And so I try to hold the feet of Catholic intellectuals--a group to whom I myself may belong in a rather louche way, because I have a doctorate in theology from a Catholic university without holding any teaching position--to the fire.  I want what we have to say to count in the public square.  I want it to be coherent and reasonable, and to reflect the best of a religious tradition that has, I'm convinced, something of importance to offer the public square.  As the folks at Commonweal are also, I feel quite certain, convinced. . . . 

And for this reason, I remain more than a little disappointed at the way in which this leading journal of the Catholic intellectual center keeps representing our Catholic tradition to the American public, vis-a-vis the human rights of those who are gay and lesbian.  Unfortunately, Commonweal's latest editorial, which finally addresses the recent decision of New York state to enact civil marriage for same-sex couples, doesn't succeed in making that disappointment recede.  To the contrary . . . .

In the first, place, there's the title.  Which signals to any reader with even half a brain where Commonweal intends to place the weight of its analysis.  The editorial is entitled, "Protecting Religious Freedom."

What happened in New York recently, a breakthrough that many of their fellow Catholics are celebrating as a victory for human rights entirely consonant with Catholic social teaching about the imperative need for respect for the human rights of everyone, was for Commonweal's editors about religious freedom.  And the need to protect it.  The word "rights" occurs nowhere in the Commonweal editorial.*

The word "rights" occurs nowhere in the editorial, as though the considered opinion--the informed judgment of conscience--of a large percentage of the American Catholic community on whose behalf Commonweal professes to speak is simply beside the point.  As if that judgment of conscience does not even exist.  Or as if it exists at such a base, popular level that it's beneath the notice of academics who talk about graver issues in more measured ways than the Catholic community at large does.

As if the New York events are not about human rights at all--about rights long-deferred and finally granted to a marginalized minority group--but about religious freedom.  And that's to say, as if the choice of the New York legislature to enact marriage for same-sex couples is really, at its core, all about the rights and freedom of the church.  And about protecting that church.  

This is to say, of course, that the Catholic church is equivalent with its magisterium, with the magisterium's concern that, by granting long-deferred rights to a stigmatized minority group, societies now recognizing the full humanity (and therefore the full human rights) of LGBT citizens are placing the Catholic church under siege.  And so the astonishing focus of the Commonweal editorial, even as it grudgingly and ungenerously recognizes the need to grant the legitimacy of what it calls "the aspirations of homosexual people," is on the church's need to be protected!  It is on the Catholic church's need to be protected from the tyranny of a despised minority now beginning to receive long-deferred human rights, piecemeal, in select places, and at huge cost to itself as it engages in constant battle with tremendously powerful homophobic communities of faith throughout the nation, including the Catholic church as represented by its official leaders . . .

And now I want to zero in on that phrase I've just cited, "the aspirations of homosexual people."  It occurs in the following throw-away observation with which the Commonweal editorial tries to open a tiny door to Catholic acceptance of same-sex civil marriage in places like New York:

Passage of the law was seen as a defeat for the church, but it may prove to be a model for how to accommodate both the aspirations of homosexual people and the church’s legitimate concerns regarding freedom of conscience.

There are several important points to note about the preceding observation.  In the first place, it only apparently accepts the moral legitimacy of same-sex civil marriage in New York.  What it gives with one hand, it takes away with the other.

It takes away what it offers gay and lesbian human beings (and, more importantly, brother and sister Catholics who happen to be gay) by reducing those fellow human beings (and fellow Catholics) to a category called "homosexual people."  Not gay people, note.  Homosexual people.

The editorial uses the term "gay" only in a single instance, as it introduces a quotation by gay-marriage supporter Jonathan Rauch.  Commonweal's editors are not stupid or ill-informed people.  They know perfectly well that many of us who are gay have long since respectfully requested that media spokespersons, academic communities, religious bodies, etc., refer to us as "gay" and not "homosexual."  

The Commonweal editors know that we who are gay have noted that the struggle for linguistic self-definition is an essential part of the struggle of oppressed groups to emerge from their oppression.  Commonweal's editors know, because they are highly educated people, that a key part of the battle for civil rights for people of color in this country has been the struggle of people of color to define and designate themselves, rather than to be defined and designated by the terminology of the social mainstream.

And so the editors of Commonweal know that gay and lesbian persons have long since discarded, for the most part, the clinical term "homosexual" that was imposed on us as by scientific researchers who first began to note our existence as a distinct group within the human community in the 19th century.  Commonweal's editors know--they have to know--that gay persons prefer, a large percentage of us, to be called "gay" rather than "homosexual" because the latter term not only places us under a clinical microscope, but erroneously and prejudicially reduces our very being, our existence qua a social sub-group, to sexuality.

And the editors of Commonweal surely know that the primary reason the religious and political right now insist on calling gay and lesbian human beings "homosexuals" every chance they get is to reduce us in precisely that way.  To diminish us as human beings.  To diminish respect for our human rights by diminishing our humanity.  And to show their disrespect for us as human beings as overtly as possible by pretending that we have no right to define ourselves or to ask the social mainstream to use our own defining terminology when it speaks of us as a group.

The Commonweal editors know all of this.  They are academics, many of them, and many of them have strong ties to academic institutions in which it has long since been unacceptable to speak cavalierly of "homosexual people," just as it has long since been unacceptable to define all human beings cavalierly as "man" and to use exclusively male-gendered pronouns to speak of what "man" thinks and what "man" believes.

But there's another, and perhaps even more problematic, assumption enfolded into the throw-away observation of the Commonweal editorial that we might find ways to "accommodate both the aspirations of homosexual people and the church’s legitimate concerns regarding freedom of conscience."  Note what this observation does to those "homosexual people" as it speaks of their connection to "the" church: it places them outside and over against "the" church.

There's the church.  And there are those "homosexual people."  And the two aren't coincident in any way.  

There are not gay and lesbian homosexual Catholics.  There are not gay and lesbian homosexual Commonweal Catholics.  

There's "the" church.  And then there are the "homosexual people."  And while the former has rights (since the religious freedom of the church we're so intent to protect presumes the right of the church to religious freedom), the latter have "aspirations."

That, in itself, is a noteworthy point, isn't it?  "The" church has rights.  Gay and lesbian homosexual people have aspirations.  And rights clearly trump aspirations, since people within democratic societies aspire to all kinds of things, but those aspirations are always normed, in any sane and well-functioning society, by the rights that form the foundation of the society.

People may aspire to having twenty Mexican restaurants within a 20-block radius in their city.  And, while this is a legitimate and perhaps even praiseworthy aspiration, it does not reflect a right.  No one has a right to twenty Mexican restaurants within a 20-block radius.

And so gay and lesbian homosexual people may aspire to civil marriage, but they do not have a right to civil marriage.  As I've noted, this editorial, written by people who surely know precisely what they are doing in making this choice, conspicuously avoids ever uttering the word "rights," though it chooses at the same time to lay heavy emphasis on the religious freedom of "the" church.  Which is grounded in the rights of the church . . . . 

The upshot of this editorial, which purports to open a small door to Catholic acceptance of "the aspirations of homosexual people" including the aspiration to civil marriage, is to pit those homosexual people and their aspirations against "the" church and its rights.  The ultimate effect of what the Commonweal editorial gives with one hand and takes away with the other is to build a wall between "the" church and "homosexual people."

As if there are no "homosexual people" within the church itself.  Or within the Commonweal community.  As if being Catholic is synonymous with being heterosexual.  As if the Catholic church is a gated community constructed specifically to keep the gays homosexual people out.

For my part, I find the persistent attempt of the leading journal of the Catholic intellectual center to build that wall not merely baffling: I find it hurtful.  In the extreme.  I find it as hurtful to contemplate (and to experience) as I find it hurtful to imagine the kind of walls some of us now want to create in American society between real people, those who count, and everyone else, the poor.  The poor who are, as Ken Briggs notes at National Catholic Reporter now, increasingly being imagined by the rest of us as simply not in our midst any longer, not part of us, not contributing to the social mainstream in any important way (and see here) . . . .

Just as my Catholic brothers and sisters at Commonweal do not imagine me and other "homosexual persons" as part of the Catholic community or contributing to the Catholic community in any important way . . . . Out of sight.  Out of mind.

I don't see much that is authentically Catholic in either the Commonweal intent to build walls between "homosexual people" and "the" church, or in the intent of the political leaders of our society to build walls between the poor and all the rest of us.  It seems to me that a bona fide Catholic understanding of either issue begins with the notion of solidarity: of how we're all in it together, and how the loss of any of us diminishes the rest of us.  And it seems to me that this notion of solidarity, which is the very heart of any bona fide Catholic understanding of the world, depends absolutely on a notion that every human being has rights, and we cannot build humane community when we ignore the rights of any group within the human community.

But since I say all of this, of course, as one of those "homosexual people" whom "the" church has decided to wall out at present, what I have to say about human rights or solidarity or Catholicism may not be worth considering . . . .

*The editorial does, at one point (and I've just seen this), use the phrase "right of conscientious objection." It's referring here to the church's right to object to the way in which homosexual people embody their aspirations.

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