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Rome casts its ballot (continued)


TO BE NAMED Kennedy, and to be writing for a newspaper in the most Catholic region in the country, is to be looked upon with some suspicion, or at least curiosity. The answer: no, I am not now, nor have I ever been, a member of the Catholic Church. The son of an ex-Catholic father and a Unitarian mother — married, because of Catholic prohibitions, in a civil ceremony very much like what lesbians and gay men are seeking now — I was an indifferent Episcopalian for a few years growing up, and today belong to a Unitarian Universalist church.

Perhaps because my religious orientation is so different from Catholicism, I am more keenly aware than many of exactly how the religious view of homosexuality might be different. If you belong to a more-conservative denomination than I, then Cardinal Ratzinger’s handiwork is just another way of saying what you’ve heard before. If you’re an agnostic or an atheist, then it’s just one more example of the evils of religion. But if you’re a Unitarian — or a Reformed Jew, or a member of one of several other liberal denominations — then Ratzinger’s statement isn’t just wrong, it’s a contradiction of your own religious beliefs.

No one is asking that same-sex marriages be performed in Catholic churches. Gay and lesbian couples are seeking the right of civil marriage, the sort performed by the justice of the peace who married my parents in my grandmother’s living room or — as moderator Sam Donaldson quipped at the recent Democratic presidential forum organized by the Human Rights Campaign (see "The Rite Stuff," News and Features, July 18) — captains of ships at sea. But Unitarian Universalist churches already perform commitment ceremonies for same-sex couples, and — if they were sanctioned by the state — they would perform marriages as well. You want to talk about a persecution complex? Well, the Catholic Church’s position on same-sex marriage is a direct assault on my religious beliefs.

I bring this up not to whine, but to point out a rather ingenious device that Ratzinger uses to get around religious objections to his and the Church’s homophobia — a concept known as "natural law," which I glossed over earlier, but which has a specific meaning. Natural law, according to the Church, applies to all of humanity — not just Catholics, not even just Christians. It is, at root, a no-brainer, something that should be obvious to anyone if he or she would just think about it for a few moments. Ratzinger puts it this way: "Since this question relates to the natural moral law, the arguments that follow are addressed not only to those who believe in Christ, but to all persons committed to promoting and defending the common good of society."

Later, Ratzinger and company write, "There are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family. Marriage is holy, while homosexual acts go against the natural moral law." This is perilously close to tautology: homosexual acts are sinful because they are sinful. But Ratzinger plunges on, writing, "Every humanly-created law is legitimate insofar as it is consistent with the natural moral law, recognized by right reason, and insofar as it respects the inalienable rights of every person. Laws in favour of homosexual unions are contrary to right reason because they confer legal guarantees, analogous to those granted to marriage, to unions between persons of the same sex."

Again: same-sex marriage and civil unions must not be allowed because they create same-sex marriages and civil unions. So much for the Church’s vaunted intellectual tradition.

In a piece for the New York Review of Books last December, the liberal Catholic writer Garry Wills (identified, along with ex-priest, author, and Boston Globe columnist James Carroll, as a leading anti-Catholic by Philip Jenkins), explained the Catholic doctrine of natural law, and how the hierarchy has used it to defend its disastrous opposition to birth control.

"The Pope himself says that it is a conclusion from natural law, which can be attained by natural reason, given good will and minimal intelligence," Wills wrote. "That is, not only all Catholics but all thinking people should recognize this natural truth, just as they do the fact that two and two is four. Papal authority should not be needed. It is not even appropriate."

Wills added: "When I asked a conservative Catholic academic why the world at large does not recognize the truth of this particular consequence of natural law — the ban on contraception — he said that only the West fails to see it. When I pointed out that the West formulated the concept of natural law, he admitted that, but said that the West was corrupted by the Enlightenment and can no longer recognize natural truths."

Seen in this light, then, natural law teaches us not only that birth control and same-sex unions are wrong, but that the sun revolves around the earth and that we ought to feel nostalgic for the good old days of the Inquisition.

In this sense, Clifford Longley got it just right in an essay for the Guardian last Friday when he called the opposition to same-sex marriage "Christianity’s next Darwinism."

We know how that one came out.

FOR SOME IDEA of where we might be heading, look north. Following a ruling by the Canadian judicial system that gay and lesbian couples can no longer be discriminated against, the government of Prime Minister Jean Chrétien announced that it would create a right of same-sex marriage. And the Catholic hierarchy is having nothing of it.

According to a piece in the Toronto Globe and Mail last Friday, Bishop Fred Henry of Calvary has said that Chrétien, a Catholic, is risking his "eternal salvation" and is "not being accountable to God." Liberal Party official Paul Martin, a possible future prime minister, has also run afoul of the Church because of his support for same-sex marriage. "I don’t think a man can allow himself to be divided by his convictions," Bishop Jean-Louis Plouffe, president of the Ontario Conference of Catholic Bishops, was quoted as saying of Martin. "A politician cannot be totally schizophrenic. If he is, he is not being real."

If you think that American bishops will be more circumspect, think again. The stage has already been set. Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, issued a statement praising Ratzinger’s folly, and he nearly echoed the document in saying, "Catholic politicians, in particular, must oppose such laws when they are proposed."

As for what Archbishop O’Malley might do, Boston Globe reporter Michael Paulson wrote last Friday that, in 1999, O’Malley testified before the Massachusetts legislature that gay parents could "open the door to polygamy and incest," and that "the Church’s position is that any tampering with the definition of marriage is dangerous to society." Two days earlier, Globe columnist Eileen McNamara reported that O’Malley, as bishop of Fall River, once disinvited Massachusetts Superior Court chief justice Suzanne V. DelVecchio from speaking at a Church legal confab because he learned she favored Vermont’s civil-union law.

The question at this point is how seriously Catholic politicians will be expected to take decrees from the Vatican. Pro-choice politicians such as Ted Kennedy and Mario Cuomo have been able to maintain at least some ties to their church over the years. The typical Catholic attitude may be reflected by Mike Barnicle, not exactly an apostate, who lambasted the hierarchy in his New York Daily News column this past Sunday, writing, "I can’t help thinking that if the Pope got as steamed about his employees hitting on little boys while the bosses protected felons as he does about a couple of lesbians or homosexuals setting up light housekeeping, maybe Catholic pastors in America wouldn’t be staring at so many half-filled churches on Sunday mornings."

But you have to wonder, and worry, why Ratzinger would have gone to the trouble of drafting his anti-gay diatribe if he has no intention of bringing the politicians at whom it is aimed to heel.

Last Friday, on his weblog, Andrew Sullivan — Catholic, conservative, and gay — was filled with despair. "It tears me apart to see no prospect of the Catholic Church ending its war on gay people and their dignity in my lifetime," he wrote. "In fact, I think it’s getting worse; and the next Pope from the developing world could make the current one seem humane. Leaving the sacraments would be a huge blow to the soul; but the pope just called the love I have for my boyfriend ‘evil.’ That’s a word he couldn’t bring himself to use about Saddam Hussein. How can I recognize what I know to be true with what the Pope has just said? I cannot. It doesn’t leave many options but departure."

In this past Sunday’s New York Times Book Review, Michael Lacey reviewed a history of the American Catholic Church by John T. McGreevy called Catholicism and American Freedom (Norton). Lacey noted that in the 19th century, Catholics were seen as victims of "mental slavery" that made them "prone to authoritarianism and unfit for democratic citizenship." Lacey continued, "Horace Mann ... asserted ‘the avowed doctrine of Catholicism was, that men could not think for themselves.’ They depended not simply on individual conscience but on an instructed conscience that resulted from participation in the life of the church."

Sadly, and incredibly, well over a century after Mann expressed the characteristic anti-Catholic bias of his day, and more than 40 years after John F. Kennedy delivered a compelling answer to that bias, Cardinal Ratzinger has brought us full circle. Kennedy articulated how a politician could be both a good Catholic and a good public servant in a democratic society. For Ratzinger, that’s an impossibility. In its ugly essence, his document says: You must choose. You must place the demands of your religious leaders above the good of your country.

From segregation to integration. And now back to segregation. This time, though, it’s likely to be Church leaders who are on the outside looking in — not politicians like John Kerry, and not ordinary Catholics, who’ve learned to speak up against the outrages of their clergymen.

There are gays and lesbians in most Catholic families, which — guess what? — makes them just like most non-Catholic families. That reality counts for a lot more than the desperate rants of a few dirty old men.

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Issue Date: August 8 - August 14, 2003
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