Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The French Catholic Bishops' Document on Marriage Equality: My Response (1)

When I offered a translation of the recently published statement on marriage equality by the Committee for Family and Society of the French Catholic bishops' conference, I hadn't decided whether I'd eventually offer some comments on the document itself. Several things have made me hesitant to comment.

First, a number of sources initially noting the appearance of this statement took it to be a positive and affirming step in the dialogue between Catholic religious leaders and the gay community, and I did not want in any way to undercut that interpretation and any productive dialogue that might result from the document. And second, a number of fellow bloggers whose work I highly respect followed up on those initial hints about the document's potential and offered valuable analysis underscoring the positive aspects of the statement, vis-a-vis the possibility of dialogue with the gay community. These bloggers include Colleen Baker at Enlightened Catholicism and Terry Weldon at Queering the Church (and here and here).

I've now decided, however, to offer a few comments on the French bishops' statement. I'm deciding to take this step, in part, because Jim Lopata pointed to my translation last week at the Boston.com website, and since that time, quite a few readers appear to have read the translation. And so I feel it's important to let those readers know something of my own reaction to the document. Jim also recommends Terry's commentary to which I've just linked, and a significant reflection by Francis DeBernardo at New Ways Ministry's Bondings blog site.

My thoughts about the French bishops' statement, for what these thoughts are worth:

First, all the preceding commentators are absolutely right to note that the French document represents a positive overture of the leaders of a national Catholic bishop's conference to the gay community. In this respect, the French statement is light-years ahead of anything the American bishops have produced in response to debates about gay rights in recent years. 

In fact, the U.S. bishops have as a body been conspicuously silent about gay issues for quite some time now--except to reiterate ad nauseam their opposition to gay marriage. They will not address these issues in any joint statement akin to that of the Committee on Family and Society of the French bishops, because they cannot do so. They have allied themselves far too closely with the fringe political and religious right in the U.S., and they realize that they would pay a high price for contravening the wishes of their political allies (and the powerful wealthy elites who stand behind these allies) if they spoke out in any way except to condemn--and in that respect, the bishops' voice is loud and clear both in their continued silence about the suicide of gay teens, and in the huge amounts of money they and their allies (e.g., the Knights of Columbus and National Organization for Marriage) are spending to try to block or remove gay rights in one American state after another.

The fact that the French bishops' statement represents an overture to dialogue and a more positive engagement between the Catholic community and gay persons is obvious in the immediate reflexive response of a number of right-wing organizations to the statement. The group Avenir de la Culture immediately and resoundingly condemned the document precisely because it envisages dialogue between Catholics and gay persons, and calls for respect for the latter. 

As the several statements that Avenir de la Culture has made about the document indicate, this organization, which is rooted in a crypto-fascist anti-democratic and anti-modern Brazilian Catholic movement founded by Plinio Corrêa De Oliveira and condemned by the Brazilian bishops in 1985, wants the Catholic response to gay and lesbian persons to be one of stalwart "reaction" and not dialogue in the least. This Brazilian movement has an American branch called the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property, and as the preceding link indicates, it's the website of that group that is sending out the statements of Avenir de la Culture to English-speaking readers.

The reactionary response is accentuated in a recent article by Matthew Cullinan Hoffman of LifeSiteNews, who points to the statements made by Avenir de la Culture (though he gets the group's name wrong), and who argues that there can be no place in the Catholic response to those who are gay for dialogue or support: only reaction, condemnation, and exclusion can be countenanced. Hoffman is particularly exercised that the French bishops appear to open the door to approval of civil unions for same-sex couples, and that they call for understanding and support of gay human beings and the families many gay couples raise. His article also ends with addresses of Vatican dignitaries that he clearly hopes readers of his article will contact to raise hell about the French bishops' statement.

So it's entirely correct, I think, to see the document published by the French bishops' Committee on Family and Society as a step in the direction of positive dialogic engagement between the Catholic church and LGBT persons--a step light-years beyond the response of the bishops of the Catholic church in the U.S. in recent years. One can see how significant the step of the French bishops is in the reaction their statement elicits in the strong right wing of the Catholic church in their own country and in North America, reaction whose clear intent is to continue stigmatizing self-affirming gay and lesbian human beings and excluding in any way possible them from participation in the life of either church or society.

Second, despite the positive steps the French bishops' statement makes--it calls for dialogue and respect; it underscores the importance for Christians of pastoral approach to those who are marginalized and condemned; it recognizes the value to society of committed and loving same-sex relationships and the need for families headed by same-sex couples to be acknowledged and supported--this document is hardly a revolutionary breakthrough in Catholic understanding of gay and lesbian persons and their relationships.

It is, as with many such documents written by committees of church leaders, a composite statement that, in some respects, tries to please all audiences--and ends by pleasing none. As with many such lowest-common-denominator statements by top-level church committees, the document cobbles together statements by various stockholders on its committee, and these diverse contributions sometimes hang curiously together.

For instance, much of the theological work the document does as it sums up the Catholic tradition on the issue of marriage is compelling and helpful, while the sections of the document dealing with both the intricacies of French law regarding marriage and family and with psychological understandings of homosexuality are less helpful, and in key respects, do not cohere with the avowed intent of this document to facilitate respectful dialogue between the Catholic community and the gay community.

And in a subsequent posting, I want to turn specifically to the section of the document dealing with French marriage and family law, where its most egregious weaknesses lie, in my view. Though the French bishops' document mounts a strong theological rationale for positive, respectful dialogue between Catholics and gay persons, in the final analysis, it defends historically conditioned and entirely mutable legal precedents that give men ownership of "their" wives and "their" children, as if such a legal system is the only way in which gospel values and traditional Catholic notions of marriage and family life can validly be encapsulated.

And, as my follow-up posting will note, I have serious reservations about the continued attempt of top Catholic leaders to equate patriarchy and heterosexual male entitlement with the gospel.

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