Friday, January 13, 2012

Catholic Bishops Follow Supreme Court Decision by Signing Letter Asserting Right to Discriminate

I just wrote that the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision recognizing a "ministerial exception" for religious groups to discriminate doesn't seem to be a big win for minority groups--and for LGBT citizens, in particular--when one religious group, the U.S. Catholic Bishops, keeps asserting its unrestricted faith-based "right" to discriminate against those who are gay.  Just because.  Because, the bishops claim, God tells them to do so.

And I noted that what is driving the bishops' claims about their special God-given "right" to discriminate is, to a huge extent, their overt animosity towards the gay community, and their belief that they're involved in some kind of battle in which there have to be winners and losers--in which they have to be winners and those who are gay have to be losers.  In his unfortunate Christmastime comments about his gay brothers and sisters, the past president of the USCCB, Cardinal George, sought to stand the situation on its head and claim that the gay community has targeted the Catholic church as an enemy, when gays fighting for their human rights are merely reacting to the overt, unremitting enmity and hostility the Catholic hierarchy keeps manifesting towards those who are gay.

And now there's this: immediately after the Supreme Court handed down its historic "ministerial exception" ruling, a group of U.S. religious leaders, including four Catholic bishops, released a letter entitled "Marriage and Religious Freedom: Fundamental Goods That Stand or Fall Together."  This document explicitly states the determination of some religious bodies, the U.S. Catholic bishops included, to continue discrimination in any and every area possible, when questions of rights hinged on marriage are at stake.

The letter notes that when same-sex civil marriage is permitted, same-sex couples gain civil rights in areas including employment, adoption, education, health care, elder care, housing, property, and taxation.  And the signatories of the letter clearly do not wish or intend to recognize rights of civilly married same-sex couples in these areas, particularly when those rights apply to schools, hospitals, nursing homes and housing facilities, or adoption and counseling services sponsored by religious bodies.

This letter represents, as I say, an assertion of the special faith-based right of religious groups to discriminate in all of these areas and in these religiously owned institutions.  Because God tells them to do so.  It notes that people of faith intent on discriminating against those who are gay resent being called bigots and compared with racists.

But when I read the statement just issued by religious leaders, and when I remove the designators pointing to LGBT citizens and sexual orientation and change them to "African Americans" and race, I hear these religious leaders saying precisely the same things I heard people of faith who defended racial segregation in the Civil Rights period in the American South saying.  To wit:

By a single stroke, every law where rights depend on racial status -- such as employment discrimination, employment benefits, adoption, education, health care, elder care, housing, property and taxation -- will change so that African Americans must be treated as if they were white.  That requirement, in turn, will apply to religious people and groups in the ordinary course of their many private or public occupations and ministries -- including running schools, hospitals, nursing homes and other housing facilities, providing adoption and counseling services, and many others.

I can well understand the concern of those people of faith who continue to demand a faith-based "right" to  discriminate not to be equated with the faith-based racists of the South in which I came of age.  The concern reflects their abashed, uneasy awareness, at some level, that they do stand squarely in the shoes of a previous generation of faith-based advocates of discrimination, who were proven wildly wrong. 

And who eventually had to admit that the discrimination they were promoting in God's name is not consonant with the understanding of God and God's love held by the religions of the world.  And that simply saying that God and the bible and longstanding religious tradition support the "right" to discriminate is not sufficient, since the entire weight of the scriptures and traditions of the religions of the world, rightly understood, is on the side of practical compassion.  Not discrimination and exclusion.

The bishops who signed this letter, by the way, are Dolan of New York, Cordileone of Oakland,  Lori of Bridgeport, and Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend.  All hold high-profile USCCB positions related to religious freedom and the family, and so they speak, as it were, symbolically for the entire USCCB in signing this letter.  Dolan is, of course, the current USCCB president.

And so we're back in a cycle sparked, in part, by the overheated rhetoric of the campaign phase of the 2012 elections, in which gay and lesbian citizens are once again being informed by the Catholic bishops of the U.S. that we must expect to be treated as second-class citizens and as defective children of God who do not deserve the human rights afforded to all other citizens and all other members of the body of Christ.  The stepped-up animosity is due, as well, to the bishops' growing awareness (and outright alarm) that a majority of citizens of the U.S. now support the right to civil marriage of same-sex couples.  And that a solid majority of Catholics support this right and abhor the claim of some religious leaders that they have a special "right" to discriminate.

As one particular gay citizen and one particular member of the body of Christ who has lived through these cycles before, I have to say, I'm simply worn out.  I'm worn out from living with and dealing with the hate vented very specifically by members of my own religious community.

And so, while I welcome statements like the one Fr. James Martin posted yesterday at the America blog, which calls for respect, compassion, and sensitivity for those who are gay, I find these statements ultimately insufficient.  They're insufficient because they talk but they do nothing else to assist.  They do nothing else, nothing effective, to stop the hatred--to stand in the door and inform brother and sister Catholics mounting hate-based attacks on gay human beings that this behavior is intolerable and will no longer be acceptable within the Catholic community.

Talk is not ultimately helpful when people lose jobs, are denied health care coverage, cannot obtain employment in Catholic institutions solely because they are openly gay and partnered.  Talk about solidarity and resisting hatred is helpful only when it's attended with the real solidarity of actions to make the words count.

Fr. Martin's eloquent statement calls, for instance, for more listening on the part of the Catholic community to those who are gay and lesbian (though it undercuts that call with a baffling call to the gay community to listen to . . . the Catholic bishops who promote hate-based discrimination?!).  And though I very much appreciate this call, I've heard it before in previous cycles when official Catholic anti-gay hatred reaches a boiling point.  I myself have repeatedly mounted an appeal for such respectful intra-Catholic dialogue--and for the creation of spaces for such dialogue--between those who are gay and the Catholic community.

And each time one of these cycles of amped-up official Catholic hatred against the gay community rolls around again and there's yet another appeal on the part of Catholic liberals for more respect and more listening, nothing happens.  No one who has the ability to make things happen creates any kind of real or official listening space within the American Catholic church, in which the voices and testimony of those of us who are gay and Catholic can be heard in any effective way.  We who are gay and Catholic and call for respectful dialogue keep struggling along to make our voices heard in isolation from the community, with no support from the Catholic community, with much overt hostility from the leaders of the Catholic community and those who stand with these leaders.

And that struggling along becomes difficult, without support.  It's lonely.  It's wearisome.  It becomes hard to sustain, when it's a struggle mounted in such isolation against such powerful and well-funded engines of religious hatred.

And, again, though I find Fr. Martin's statement moving and I appreciate it as a gay Catholic, I also find his bow to magisterial teaching about homosexuality unconvincing and, frankly, a bit repugnant.  When the Catholic hierarchy mounts none of its hate-based crusades against the 90%+ of heterosexual married Catholics who use birth control, but focuses its appeal for discrimination exclusively against gay Catholics who are regarded as a unique threat to the future of civilization, because they contravene natural law that married Catholics practicing birth control also contravene: when the hierarchy behaves in this way and liberal Catholics who never open their mouths to condemn those practicing contraception remain utterly silent about the disconnect between all Catholic magisterial teaching re: sexuality and the real lives of Catholics, then I fail to see how one can with any sincerity claim that magisterial teaching about homosexuality has any cogency at all.

And when the mouths making these magisterial proclamations about their gay brothers and sisters are the same mouths who have repeatedly lied to us about the rape of children by priests, or when those mouths have remained fast shut in the face of the rape of children by priests: again, I fail to understand why the magisterial position deserves the deference Fr. Martin wishes to give to it.

There's a great deal of dishonesty in the Catholic world, when it comes to issues of human sexuality (and the priesthood, and the abuse of minors).  That dishonesty is deeply corrosive.  We will not come close to shifting the situation in which gay Catholics find themselves--which is a situation of facing daily and sustained hatred that emanates from the very top of the church--until we practice more truth-telling in our respectful, open interchange about the gay issue and more.  

Meanwhile, even when I welcome liberal appeals for more respect and compassion, and when I'm grateful for those appeals, I'll pay closer attention to them when the nice words are matched by real deeds of solidarity with those of us who barely limp along in the margins.  Words become real and effective when one stops the either-or centrist I'm-objective charade and actually stands someplace.

And the place in which I see Jesus standing is not with the men at the center hurling down the ugly words against their brothers and sisters who are born gay.  With my Jesuit education that was so focused on imitatio Christi, I've long been convinced that Jesus limps along with those at the margins.

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