A trio of recent videos has shown anti-gay bigotry on full display with American churches. First, there was pastor Sean Harris in North Carolina who counseled his congregation to “punch” the gay out of any children who show what he characterized as gay traits. Then a second pastor in North Carolina, pastor Charles Worley, was shown suggesting that gays and lesbians be rounded up into camps and put behind electrified fences where they will die out because they can’t pro-create. Finally, yesterday, there emerged a video of a child in an Indiana church singing that there are no “homos” in heaven.
I feel no responsibility for the actions of Protestant pastors and the odious bile they spew in Christ’s name. I suspect the Master will have something to say to them at the judgment seat. But, these episodes do display the need for the Catholic Church to differentiate itself from such hateful bigotry as clearly as possible.
The Church’s teaching on homosexuality is, mostly, derivative of its teaching on heterosexuality and marriage. Insofar as the Church teaches that the only proper use of the human sexual faculty is within marriage and with an openness to the procreation of children, all acts, including homosexual acts, that fall outside those parameters are judged immoral, acts that lead one astray. The Church’s position is grounded in an instinct I think we can all consider humane: The desire to keep those one loves from actions that will harm them. This is never an easy thing to communicate as anyone who has been part of an intervention with a family member or a friend who is addicted to alcohol or drugs can attest. But, here is the difference. If you have ever participated in an intervention, you know that it is beyond useless to have a stranger present. Those who conduct the intervention must know and love the person who is in trouble, and be known by the person as people who love him.
It is less than fifty years since the Stonewall riot, which was to the gay rights movement what the storming of the Bastille was to the French Revolution. Fifty years is a long time, but in the life of the Church, it is a drop in the bucket. The bark of Peter is a big boat and big boats can only turn slowly. But, the bark of Peter has a long reach. In the article by Ambassador Melady and Rev. Cizik, regarding the need for Christians to fight anti-gay bigotry in Uganda, we can see the value of cultivating better relations between the Catholic Church and gays: The Church can influence events around the globe, in places where it is more difficult to be gay than in lower Manhattan or San Francisco. Even if gays look at the Catholic Church and see nothing but a huge impediment in their struggle for equality and societal acceptance, a bit of prudence combined with a sense of solidarity with gays in other parts of the world, might suggest a less hostile posture.
America is, sadly, a litigious society. And, as gay men and women take to the courts to vindicate their rights, they are often opposed by religious groups who are similarly worried about the state’s encroachment on their autonomy. In several states, gay rights groups and church groups have been at odds in the drafting of religious exemptions from gay marriage laws, forming a backdrop to the current fight over the HHS mandate. Non-religious actors, and secular courts, must try to draw lines in regard to institutions that are hybrids. The New York Times characterized Catholic social service providers, Catholics universities and Catholics hospitals as “secular” but we Catholics see them as integral to our faith. We encourage businesswomen and businessmen to bring their Catholic faith into the workplace, to treat workers and their unions with respect and to pay a just wage, but should a businessperson be allowed, on religious grounds, to claim exemptions from the laws of the land? These are not easy questions and my point today is not to explain how I draw the lines. My point is that the courts are adversarial in nature, and recourse to them has only heightened an already fraught relationship or, better to say, made the creation of a less fraught relationship more unlikely, harder to attain, as often as not an exercise in frustration.
I confess my worry that the whole rationale for the Obama administration’s reluctance to change the four-part definition of what does and does not constitute a religious entity - a definition that is still in place, let me remind my liberal friends who wish to champion the Obama administration’s “accommodations” on the HHS mandate – that this reluctance is indeed part of a strategy adopted by some women’s groups and gay rights groups to treat Catholic agencies and universities as secular entities for purposes of the law. Already, in the case of “hate speech” codes, we have seen those on the left be willing to overthrow traditional liberal concerns for free speech overboard in pursuit of a desired social outcome in ways I find disturbing. Be careful what you wish for remains sage advice.
I especially harbor the worry that the hoped-for debate on immigration reform will get sidetracked by gay rights groups, who will seek to use the family reunification provisions that reform will necessarily entail as a means to achieve backdoor federal recognition of same-sex unions. I harbor the additional fear that gay rights groups will not gracefully step aside and say, “As much as we want federal recognition of same-sex unions, we do not have the right to obstruct or doom the passage of an immigration reform law that will benefit millions of people” just as the Congressional Hispanic Caucus had to say, “As much as we want health care reform to include undocumented workers, we do not have the right to obstruct or doom passage of universal health insurance that will benefit millions of people.” Sometimes, you must recognize that there are other agendas than one’s own although Washington is filled with organizations that pursue one agenda and one agenda only.
No one should ask gay men and women to stop fighting for equality before the law and societal acceptance. But, gay activists and Catholic leaders need to find ways to at least meet each other and get to know one another and help dispel any unnecessary conflict. It is harder to hate someone you just had breakfast with.
Gay rights leaders must also remind themselves of some fairly recent history. In the 1980s, when the HIV/AIDS epidemic hit, I knew many men who died from that horrible disease, men who were often struck down in the prime of their lives. In those early years, AIDS was not only a death sentence but a fairly immediate death sentence. Oftentimes, their families would want nothing to do with them. Pastors, the forerunners of those making videos today, claimed that AIDS was God’s punishment. But, the response of the Catholic Church was different. Our sisters opened hospices and created wings in hospitals to care for AIDS patients, to ensure that they were surrounded with love and dignity in their final days. Cardinal Hickey, here in Washington, a very conservative prelate, raised money for these efforts and, when Father Michael Peterson became the first priest to publicly acknowledge having the disease, Hickey visited him almost daily in the hospital and spoke movingly at Peterson’s funeral, explicitly equating Father Peterson’s sufferings with the sufferings of Christ on the Cross. Cardinal O’Connor in New York, no one’s idea of a liberal, volunteered every week on the AIDS ward at a Catholic hospital, changing bedpans and applying balm to the open sores of the patients. In those horrible years of pain and exclusion, the Church displayed unconditional love for those who were suffering. The nuns and the priests and the lay people and the cardinals who engaged in that ministry did not understand their work as fulfilling a secular calling, but a religious one. Perhaps, gay rights groups should think twice before seeking to limit the definition of what is and is not a religious institution.
In those same years, another development emerged. You could go to any gay pride parade and at some point a group of men would appear dressed up in drag as nuns, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. They mocked the lives of the women who were at that very time honoring the dignity of gay men dying from AIDS with their love and compassion. I have never heard an apology for such insensitivity from any gay rights leader.
Whether gay rights leaders will find it within their hearts, or even within their political calculations, to reach out to the leaders of the Catholic Church, I cannot say. But, whether they do or not, the leaders of the Catholic Church have an obligation to ensure that our Church is not lumped together with the hatred and venom being spewed forth from the likes of pastor Harris and pastor Worley. They cannot be seen as the face of Christianity in our culture. The Church always has the obligation to rid itself of hatred within its own house and to express the unconditional love of Christ for those beyond the Church’s walls. Then, and only then, can the Church justly make the claim that its teachings on homosexuality are not bigoted leftovers from a bygone era. “Love alone is credible,” wrote von Balthasar. The Catholic Church needs to make greater efforts to demonstrate its love for gay men and women. There is hatred and bigotry abroad in the land, and in such times, the Church must stand with those who are hated not the haters.