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Rome casts its ballot
The Vatican’s current stance on same-sex-marriage legislation resurrects church/state issues put to rest by JFK four decades ago

THE STATEMENT ISSUED by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on same-sex marriage last week is so offensive, so mind-bogglingly insulting and arrogant, that it is hard to know where to begin.

Overseen by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, the right-hand man to Pope John Paul II (and, for all we know, the acting pope in these final days of John Paul’s papacy), the document is an incomparable mix of hate, smug self-righteousness, and finger-wagging by out-of-touch, sex-obsessed old men who have long since lost the right to wag their fingers at anyone.

Turn to any page and you’re bound to get angry. Some might find that their eyes alight upon Section Four, which says in part, "Sacred Scripture condemns homosexual acts ‘as a serious depravity.... This judgment of Scripture does not of course permit us to conclude that all those who suffer from this anomaly are personally responsible for it, but it does attest to the fact that homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.’"

Now, that’s certainly a novel way of rewording the old canard much favored by those who like to offer up their hatemongering with a wink and a smile: Love the sinner, hate the sin. I suppose it would be asking too much of Ratzinger to pay any attention to the American Psychological Association, which found a generation ago that lesbians and gay men are not suffering from any "disorder" whatsoever.

Besides, Ratzinger’s got footnotes. This particular passage references Romans, I Corinthians, I Timothy, and — most impressive — one of the Church’s own previous declarations on homosexuality, Persona humana, from 1975. I haven’t read that earlier statement, but I’m willing to bet on who gets labeled as inhumana.

Read the full text of the Vatican's position on same-sex marriage.

Moving right along, here’s Section Seven, which opposes adoption by gay and lesbian couples. Without a shred of irony or even basic self-awareness, Ratzinger instructs: "Allowing children to be adopted by persons living in such unions would actually mean doing violence to these children, in the sense that their condition of dependency would be used to place them in an environment that is not conducive to their full human development." Indeed, the statement continues, gay adoptions may even go against the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Doing violence to children. Does the nauseating hypocrisy of this passage even need to be pointed out? Has any institution done more violence to children than the Catholic Church, whose priests in all too many cases raped those in its care? That pedophiles comprised just a tiny percentage of all priests makes the scandal all the worse. After all, if their bishops hadn’t covered up for them, reassigned them, made it shamefully easy for them to rape again and again, the tragedy never would have reached such monumental proportions.

FOR MY MONEY, though, the document’s most shocking statements come in Section 10, under the heading "Positions of Catholic Politicians with Regard to Legislation in Favour of Homosexual Unions." Let’s go right to the text: "If it is true that all Catholics are obliged to oppose the legal recognition of homosexual unions, Catholic politicians are obliged to do so in a particular way, in keeping with their responsibility as politicians."

Looking for specifics? Ratzinger comes through. "When legislation in favour of the recognition of homosexual unions is proposed for the first time in a legislative assembly," the statement says, "the Catholic law-maker has a moral duty to express his opposition clearly and publicly and to vote against it. To vote in favour of a law so harmful to the common good is gravely immoral."

Well, what if a pro-gay law is already on the books? Not to worry, Congressman, the cardinal has got you covered: "When legislation in favour of the recognition of homosexual unions is already in force, the Catholic politician must oppose it in the ways that are possible for him and make his opposition known; it is his duty to witness to the truth. If it is not possible to repeal such a law completely, the Catholic politician, recalling the indications contained in the Encyclical Letter Evangelium vitae, ‘could licitly support proposals aimed at limiting the harm done by such a law and at lessening its negative consequences at the level of general opinion and public morality,’ on condition that his ‘absolute personal opposition’ to such laws was clear and well known and that the danger of scandal was avoided."

My apologies for the lengthy citations. But if the nature of Considerations Regarding Proposals To Give Legal Recognition to Unions Between Homosexual Persons is glossed over — if it is summarized, flattened out, quoted only glancingly and indirectly — then its deeply reactionary nature is lost.

The truth is that this malicious, bigotry-fueled document is not only profoundly hateful toward lesbians, gay men, and their families, but it also represents an extraordinary grab for power.

For two centuries, American Catholics have had to battle the perception that they are pawns of Rome, that they may not think or speak freely, that they are not real Americans because their loyalties are divided between their country and their religion. This ancient prejudice was addressed most memorably in September 1960, when John F. Kennedy — in the midst of his successful campaign to become the first Catholic president — addressed a group of Protestant ministers in Houston.

"I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute — where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote — where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference — and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the president who might appoint him or the people who might elect him," Kennedy said in the speech, which may have saved his campaign.

Ratzinger’s ugly screed is a direct threat to Kennedy’s vision, a vision upon which full equality for Catholics depends not just in this country, but throughout the democratic world. Indeed, another Catholic politician from Massachusetts who would be president — Senator John Kerry — understood the implications of the Vatican statement immediately.

In a front-page story by David Guarino in last Saturday’s Boston Herald, Kerry was quoted as saying, "It is important not to have the Church instructing politicians. That is an inappropriate crossing of the line in this country.... Our founding fathers separated church and state in America. It is an important separation. It is part of what makes America different and special, and we need to honor that as we go forward and I’m going to fight to do that."

A Republican Web site, GOPUSA.com, immediately picked up on the awkward position into which Kerry has been thrust, observing, "Kerry opposes gay marriages but has come out in support of gay couples having the same rights as heterosexual couples. His vocal opposition to the Vatican position could cause problems for him with America’s 65 million Catholics."

The fault lies not with Kerry, nor with Catholic voters. Rather, it lies with Cardinal Ratzinger and the pope. No doubt they know precisely what they are doing.

THE VATICAN STATEMENT comes at an unprecedented moment for gay rights in American and Western culture. In just the past few months, a Canadian appeals court overturned laws banning same-sex marriage, and the US Supreme Court threw out anti-sodomy laws. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court is expected to rule any day now in the Goodridge case, brought by seven same-sex couples — and most observers believe the SJC will create a right of same-sex marriage or something close to it. Gay marriage has been thrust to the forefront of public debate in ways that could not have been predicted just a short time ago.

At the same time, the debate has become entwined with the rhetoric of religion, and not just for the usual reasons. The Episcopal Church this week approved the selection of an openly gay man, the Reverend Canon V. Gene Robinson, to be the bishop of New Hampshire — thus creating the possibility of a schism, as more-conservative members threaten to leave the Church. And President Bush, in expressing his continued opposition to same-sex marriage last week, invoked the phrase "We’re all sinners," an utterance whose meaning was uncertain, but which seemed to signal that he considers both gay-bashing and homosexuality to be sins. As though anyone should care how he, as president of the United States, applies his personal religious beliefs to a public issue involving people of all faiths, and none.

In the media, television shows such as Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and phenomena such as Bride magazine’s spread on gay marriage are proliferating — even as a USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll last week showed that the sudden thrust of gay issues to the forefront may have contributed to the first drop in support for same-sex marriage in years.

It was into this cultural divide that Cardinal Ratzinger so rudely inserted himself. And, as is unfortunately typical of the Catholic Church, it came with characteristic baggage: a claim of universal truth made all the more nauseating by a surge of wounded indignation among conservative Church allies over alleged anti-Catholicism. Never mind that non-Catholics might legitimately resent the Church’s efforts to dictate its own view of morality to everyone, regardless of religion, under the rubric of "natural law."

Thus we see Philip Jenkins arguing in a new book, The New Anti-Catholicism: The Last Acceptable Prejudice (Oxford University Press), that American Catholics are besieged by liberals, including fellow Catholics. In the Boston Globe on July 27, Christopher Shea wrote that Jenkins believes "an unholy alliance of feminists, homosexual activists, and radical secularists — together with a fifth column of people who call themselves Catholic but who hate the church deeply — has seized upon the sex-abuse scandal in order to drive the church out of public life once and for all."

This persecution complex is never far from the surface. Currently, Republicans are charging anti-Catholicism on the part of senators who oppose the confirmation of Alabama attorney general William Pryor as a federal appeals-court judge. But as a Globe editorial recently observed, it’s more complicated than that. Pryor opposes abortion rights, which is consistent with his Catholicism; but he also "ardently supports the death penalty," which, the editorial noted, is a position at odds with that of the Church.

A particularly egregious example of Catholic special pleading can be seen in the current issue of the Pilot, Boston’s Catholic newspaper. An article by Donis Tracy on the challenges faced by the Boston archdiocese under the new archbishop, Seán O’Malley, begins: "Perhaps not since 1834, when public opinion against the Catholic Church culminated in the burning of the Ursuline Convent in Charlestown, has the Archdiocese of Boston found itself in such a troubled and vulnerable state. The clergy sexual abuse crisis, the divisions among the laity, the demoralization of the clergy, the economic downturn, the staggering number of lawsuits pending in the courts — has the Church in Boston has been [sic] shaken to its very core."

Not to read too much into one article by one writer, but this is remarkable. Tracy reaches back 169 years, to one of the worst crimes against Catholics in American history, for an analogy to the current crisis — the direct result of crimes committed by the Catholic clergy against its own members.

It is this sense of persecution, of exaggerated and unwarranted victimhood, that reinforces and underscores the self-righteousness that allows Church leaders to dictate morality even after they have long since been shown to be morally bankrupt — to continue to tell men and women how they may express their sexual feelings for one another even as we learn how the bishops protected and enabled the sexual predators in their own midst.


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Issue Date: August 8 - August 14, 2003
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