Catholic Mission, Religious Freedom & LGBT Rights: Part I

A couple of weeks ago, I was on the phone with a friend who asked how I was doing. “I am mad as hell and I am not going to take it anymore,” was my reply. I explained that I had just read this article by Professors John Finnis, Gerard Bradley and Daniel Philpott, published at the Witherspoon Institute, in which the three attack the decision by the University of Notre Dame to continue its policy of extending benefits to the spouses of employees with a valid Indiana marriage license. The controversy is that Indiana now issues such licenses to same sex couples. As I explained to my friend, my principal concern here is not whether or not the gay partners of Notre Dame employees get such benefits, although that is a humane and decent and Christian concern, as I hope to demonstrate. No, my concern is that a few self-appointed zelanti like these three professors, and some papal-appointed bishops who turned out to be zelanti, seem determined to make the Catholic Church in the U.S. look like it is run by vindictive jerks.

Over the next few days, I propose to examine the criticism of Notre Dame’s decision, as well as an unrelated case here in Washington, D.C., that raises similar issues, as well as the recent, happier developments in Utah, and less happy ones in San Francisco, all of which involve the issues of religious liberty, Catholic identity, and LGBT rights. Let me stipulate that I believe the Church’s teaching that the sacrament of marriage is reserved for one man and one woman, bound together for life and open to the procreation of children. I also affirm that I believe the common good of society is strengthened when this form of human friendship that we call marriage is viewed in law as unique and privileged. I also agree with #2358 of the Catechism which states: “[Gay and lesbian persons] must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.” With those stipulations, let us proceed.

If you have not read the article by the three Notre Dame professors linked to above, you really need to do so, or else what follows will not make much sense. One of the three professors, Mr. Finnis, has had an influence on Catholic philosophy and theology that can scarcely be overrated: From his post teaching natural law at Oxford, Finnis has exerted a profound influence on conservative Catholic thought throughout the English-speaking world but especially in the United States. I do not know Professor Philpott. I once heard Professor Bradley give a talk at Georgetown University in which he called James Madison a “proto-Catholic” which means that Mr. Bradley does not know much about Mr. Madison or doesn’t know much about the Catholic Church, or both.

The article certainly does not read like the kind of thing one would expect to hear from, say, Pope Francis. They base much of their argument on a 2003 document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. It is interesting to note that in 2010, when the Argentine bishops’ conference refused to follow the suggestion of the Cardinal-Archbishop of Buenos Aires, who recommended opposing same sex marriage but supporting some variety of civil unions, the opponents of Cardinal Bergoglio’s position cited the same document.

The most critical sentence in that 2003 document is this: “Moral conscience requires that, in every occasion, Christians give witness to the whole moral truth, which is contradicted both by approval of homosexual acts and unjust discrimination against homosexual persons.” The “whole moral truth,” it is worth noting, includes such basic beliefs as this: Every person has a fundamental right to health care. I would note that in 2003, the Prefect of the CDF was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, a German, and the Secretary was Archbishop Angelo Amato, S.D.B., an Italian. In America, and only in America, is health insurance mostly provided by one’s employer. The document goes on to list some of the dangers that it thinks will follow upon society’s legitimization of gay relationships in any way, but I think both the document and the three professors who rely on it, misunderstand what the remarkable change in attitudes about same sex marriage proves. Same sex marriage is presented as a uniquely dangerous threat to traditional marriage. In fact, the rapidity with which same sex marriage has been accepted in so much of the culture indicates the degree to which our traditional Catholic understanding of marriage as intrinsically connected with procreation had already been eclipsed, no doubt by the ready availability of contraception and by high divorce rates. For many, arguably most, Americans, marriage had long since ceased to reflect what the Church teaches, and the efforts by a miniscule percentage of the population - gays and lesbians are perhaps 3-5% of the population and not all wish to get married - to gain admittance to the institution of marriage for themselves was not so much a civilizational dagger as it was evidence that the Church’s teachings about marriage were already on life support in Western culture.

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In the event, it is important to note that Notre Dame acted under legal duress. The law had changed. The authors of this article quibble and think that Notre Dame was somehow eager to support not only the extension of benefits but maybe even same sex marriage itself. They write:

[M]ay we, or indeed should we, extend marriage benefits to same-sex couples who contract such a civil marriage?

The University of Notre Dame and many other Catholic institutions have given their answer, loud and clear: we may, we should, and we are doing so right now.

It is a morally indefensible answer.

The email sent to staff and faculty at the university announcing the change stated: “Notre Dame is a Catholic university and endorses a Catholic view of marriage. However, it will follow the relevant civil law and begin to implement this change immediately.” I do not see a “should” there, still less any endorsement of same sex marriage per se. The authors may not know that some dioceses in the country, where same sex marriage has become legal, have already decided that their insurance companies must honor any marriage license in conferring benefit coverage to their employees and their families. (Are Finnis et al. to attack the bishops of those dioceses next?) Depending on the legal situation in the different states, there may be no other realistic option. And, the world has not come to an end.

And, here I part ways with the current stance of the CDF and the USCCB and Notre Dame. I do think our Catholic institutions should extend benefits to same sex partners who present a civil marriage license. Not only are we in the business, or should be in the business, of helping people get access to health care and other benefits that are congruent with human dignity, but if we do not stop singling out sexual issues for reproach, we will continue to dig ourselves deeper and deeper into our culture war trenches. As far as I know, no Catholic institution examines the investment portfolio of its employees although I suspect some of those employees invest in companies that use sweatshops or in industries that use modern-day slave labor. Surely, human trafficking is a graver sin than a gay couple deciding to formalize their relationship in a court. An employee may be recklessly gambling every weekend. Is she to be denied benefits? An employee may have a habit of driving after too many drinks, risking human life, but we do not insist that all employees get a breathalyzer installed in their cars before securing benefits for their families. And on and on. The way to witness to the truth of the Church’s teaching about marriage is to stop getting into fights with gay people and, instead, focus on celebrating Catholic marriages and family life.

Notre Dame, like most Catholic institutions, has never sought to deny benefits to its employees who are divorced and remarried. The authors think that is a horse of a different color. They write: “In the case of extending benefits to divorced and ‘remarried’ persons, the potential scandal is virtually always veiled by some public ambiguity about the facts, but there can be no such veil in the case of same-sex ‘marriage.’” Actually, I can think of such a veil. I have often thought that if I were to come down with some kind of terminal illness, I would get civilly married to either my housemate here in Maryland, who happens to be male, or to my oldest friend in Connecticut, who happens to be female, simply because it would allow them to avoid probate, make end-of-life decisions, etc. More to the point, I just don’t feel comfortable with the idea that a Catholic institution can only hire morally pristine people.

Turning to the authors’ concern about scandal, I would refer them to the Holy Father’s sermon at the consistory in February, in which he said:

Jesus responds immediately to the leper’s plea, without waiting to study the situation and all its possible consequences! For Jesus, what matters above all is reaching out to save those far off, healing the wounds of the sick, restoring everyone to God’s family! And this is scandalous to some people!

Jesus is not afraid of this kind of scandal! He does not think of the closed-minded who are scandalized even by a work of healing, scandalized before any kind of openness, by any action outside of their mental and spiritual boxes, by any caress or sign of tenderness which does not fit into their usual thinking and their ritual purity. He wanted to reinstate the outcast, to save those outside the camp (cf. Jn 10).

There are two ways of thinking and of having faith: we can fear to lose the saved and we can want to save the lost. Even today it can happen that we stand at the crossroads of these two ways of thinking. The thinking of the doctors of the law, which would remove the danger by casting out the diseased person, and the thinking of God, who in his mercy embraces and accepts by reinstating him and turning evil into good, condemnation into salvation and exclusion into proclamation.

How do they read these words except as a direct rebuke of their attitude? The equivalent of the leper’s plea in this situation is securing health care and other benefits. As someone who lacked health insurance for a few years while transitioning from restaurant management to writing, I can assure them it is really scary. Why should we worry about “formal cooperation” with the evil of same sex marriage and not be bothered by the “formal cooperation” with the evil of making life miserable for other people? 

I know plenty of gay people, some of them clergy, some of them bishops, who are fine disciples of the Lord. Yet, in the culture war mentality this article exhibits, if you know this one discrete fact about a person, that they are gay or lesbian, all hell breaks loose. I don’t see it that way. The culture no longer sees it that way. Surely, we can all agree that no one wants a return to the days when gays were considered security risks, forced into the closet, subjected to persecution and legal discrimination. But, unless we want to return to those days, then there needs to be a discussion about how we all learn to live together. Mssrs. Finnis and Bradley and Philpott are not interested in any such discussion. Their article is a high falutin’ philosophic variation of the schoolyard taunt “you have cooties” and they do not want gay and lesbian cooties anywhere near them and their morally superior universe. No field hospital for them. Only a puritanical, scolding, defensive, joyless understanding of Catholicism that is dying and should be allowed to die.

Tomorrow: Catholic mission and the integrity of our Catholic institutions.


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