Catholic Mission, Religious Freedom & LGBT Rights: Part III

by Michael Sean Winters

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I wish to close out my series on religious liberty & LGBT rights issues today by examining the situation in San Francisco, the recent adoption of an LGBT non-discrimination law that was backed by the Mormon Church in Utah, and ask if we Catholics can’t find a better way to approach these issues. After all, this summer the Supreme Court is likely to make a final decision on same sex marriage and the bishops have to decide how to promote and proclaim the Church’s teaching on marriage and the family in a society that understands marriage very differently. And, once gay marriage is accepted nationally, we can anticipate that gay activists will pursue non-discrimination laws nationwide. I would submit that an endless round of litigation is not the best way for the Church to promote Her own teachings.  

Here at NCR we have covered extensively the decision by San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone to make additions to the faculty handbook for Catholic school teachers. Those additions make it appear that the real essence of Catholic identity is not our sacramental understanding of grace, nor even our confession that Jesus is Lord, nor our belief in the communion of the saints, but the fact that we do not think same sex marriage is really marriage. A few years back, when he was still the Bishop of San Diego, +Cordielone was one of the leaders of the effort to ban gay marriage in California. Pope Benedict XVI said the Church proposes, it does not impose, but when you are raising millions of dollars for a political campaign, it sure looks like an attempt to impose. Finally, at the USCCB meeting last year, I noticed that +Cordileone couldn’t even bring himself to say the word “gay,” preferring to call gays and lesbians “people who experience a same sex attraction.” My mother taught me that it is rude to refer to people in a manner that is consistently different from the way they choose to refer to themselves.

In a recent article praising Archbishop Cordileone’s additions to the faculty handbook discussed in the link above, George Weigel wrote, “like it or not, the culture war is interested in you—and responding is an evangelical imperative.” Given the source, this is kind of funny. You will recall that, when asked by the Wall Street Journal before the last conclave what kind of pope the Church needed, Weigel answered “a culture warrior.” And, a case can be made that Weigel, who is still too influential with the U.S. hierarchy, has been promoting the culture wars for twenty years. Now that he is losing, he begins to blame the other side.

And, strangely, these culture warriors adopt a self-pitying stance, arguing that they the persecuted. In his biography of Pope Francis, Austen Ivereigh recalls the Synod on Evangelization in 2012. He focuses on the Church in Europe but the same could be said of the Church in the U.S. He writes:

In Ignatian terms, the European Church was no longer the source Church: turned in on itself, excessively focused on the shadows, with an exaggerated fear of perceived threats. Why else was it that an Asian or Middle East bishop whose flocks were deprived of basic liberties, or even being killed or bombed, could be so hopeful and joyful, yet bishops in a Church where nobody suffered that real kind of persecution spoke as if Christianity faced annihilation?

Bergoglio saw that the rich-world Church was blaming the culture, rather than itself, for its decline. But the first obstacle was not the culture, but the Church, which was no longer evangelizing. It had allowed the living water to go stale. It had become comfortable, worldly, self-sufficient, “disenchanted.” The problem was that “we have Jesus tied up in the Sacristy,” he told the Caritas retreatants. Citing a verse from the book of Revelation about Jesus standing at the gate, calling, Bergoglio said he had come to see that it wasn’t about Jesus knocking to be let in, but about Jesus being trapped on the inside, asking to be let out.

The culture warrior approach distorts, then cripples, and finally kills the Church, from the inside, inviting the kind of narcissistic self-promotion that gave the Pharisees a bad name.

In America, this clerical culture war sensibility has been linked with a deference to lawyers and the legal strategies they suggest.  Ours is a litigious culture and the bishops are not the first people to forget that the lawyers work for them, they do not work for the lawyers. This deference to the lawyers led bishop after bishop into a quagmire regarding clergy sex abuse. It is doing the same in regard to the HHS mandate: True, the Church did not ask for this fight with the administration, and President Obama shoulders most of the blame for starting a controversy no one needed. Nonetheless,  as I write these words, multiple Catholic plaintiffs have asserted that the mandate violates their conscience. This is not exactly true, or those same plaintiffs would be planning to shutter our charities and ministries if we lose the case. Surely, no bishop, serving in the era of Pope Francis, is thinking about shutting down their ministries to the poor if they lose their lawsuit against the HHS mandate, in which case, the mandate does not exactly violate their conscience. The lack of veracity is bad enough, but more worrisome is the acquiescence of too many churchmen in a strategy that makes the Church look anything but transcendent: We are just another special interest group, hiring a team of lawyers, and slugging it out with our opponents in the courts. And, we wonder why people do not view the Church more favorably? Bishops, so focused on the legal strategy, do not stop and ask the question: Is this helping us evangelize anybody?  

My friends at the Becket Fund, and other legal practitioners whose focus is litigating religious liberty suits, object that their concerns are not paranoid if religious liberty is really at risk. In 1993, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), passed the U.S. House unanimously and the U.S. Senate by a margin of 97-3, and was signed into law by President Bill Clinton, but it is far from clear that RFRA could pass today. That is shocking and it prompts the question: What happened? Part of the problem is the confused state of liberalism which has become unmoored from its foundational commitment to the freedoms enshrined in the First Amendment. Women’s groups and gay rights groups call themselves liberal, but wish to gut the free exercise of religion clause.  I linked Tuesday to an article in the Times about how liberal arts schools now restrict speech on campus and seem less concerned with stimulating inquiry and more concerned with providing therapy for those who feel “bombarded by a lot of viewpoints that really go against my dearly and closely held beliefs.” Isn’t “being bombarded by a lot of viewpoints” one of the objectives of a liberal education? Foolish the person who forgets their prized treasure: For liberals, the First Amendment is a prized treasure, and  liberal education is a prized treasure, but those prizes have been battered and even denied by the identity politics of our culture. Combined with the otherwise noble concern for equality, identity politics can become a sledge hammer against civil society and that should worry everyone, not just Catholics. That said, Hosanna Tabor, from which I quoted yesterday, was decided on an 8-0 vote, so the First Amendment is not going anywhere soon.

The Church also must shoulder some of the blame. I do not think we can overstate the degree to which the clergy sex abuse crisis harmed the public image of the Church. But, I also think we cannot overstate the degree to which the Church’s often inflammatory opposition to the efforts of the LGBT community to secure its human rights has harmed the Church too. While bishops became more and more strident, the average Catholic was laughing with “Will & Grace,” and we weren't afraid of Will, we were afraid of Karen! I also think the culture warriors failed to understand how the AIDS epidemic affected both the LGBT community and their neighbors. It is not only that abusing those who are suffering so terribly is rightly considered obscene, it is that something deep in the Christian imagination reminds us that suffering is a mark of God’s special favor: Those who are broken-hearted, He will save. The culture warriors missed this, but the rest of us did not.

The Mormon Church recently decided to stop digging into its trenches in the culture wars and, instead, see if they could not find a way to dig out. Utah is not like most other states: It has a unique political and legal culture, to be sure. Still, by all accounts, the key things that allowed the Church of Latter Day Saints and Utah’s LGBT community to come to agreement on a non-discrimination law for the state mostly had to do with attitude, with mutual respect, with a discussion of mutual concerns. It turns out there are gay people who appreciate the separation and free exercise clauses of the First Amendment and there are Mormon elders who find that their new gay neighbors are really helpful on the community watch and have spruced up their house. The leaders of the Mormon church met with gay rights groups for what were termed “confidence building” meetings. And, there were enough politicians who were tired of the polarization.

If you read the article about Utah linked above, you will note that the non-discrimination laws in Utah, for whatever reason, do not historically apply to public accommodations only to housing and employment. So, I have to ask the question: What is it with the bakeries? Why is that whenever we read an article about religious exemptions for same sex marriage anti-discrimination suits, we end up asking if a baker must cook a wedding cake for a gay couple’s wedding reception. Conservative business groups, like the Chamber of Commerce, are increasingly opposing any exemptions to non-discrimination laws because they worry that a few puritanical bakers may give a whole city a bad name. But, really, where is the objection? Is baking a cake for somebody in any way, shape or form cooperation with evil? I understand that the concept of cooperation with evil is an important one, but really, it cannot be allowed to dominate our thinking or else we are halfway to becoming that Church turned in on itself of which then-Cardinal Bergoglio spoke to the Caritas retreatants.

It turns out, non-discrimination isn’t just for Mormons anymore. While I was working on this series, the bishops’ conference of the Philippines endorsed a non-discrimination law in that country. Their statement of support for the non-discrimination law could scarcely be more forthcoming:

Insofar as the proposed piece of legislation renders illegitimate the relegation of persons with sexual orientation and gender identity issues to citizens of a lower category enjoying fewer rights, the CBCP cannot but lend its support to this proposed legislative measure.

The Filipino bishops note that this conclusion in no way affects the Church’s judgment regarding homosexual acts, and they note that they alone, as bishops, control admission to the priesthood. But, it also calls non-discrimination “a Christian imperative” and explains that the Church should do more to educate society that it is morally wrong to deny any person their fundamental human rights on account of their sexual orientation: “In this regard, the Church has much to contribute towards the education of Catholics to be more accepting of others and to see through appearances the Lord present in each brother and sister.” One imagines that if Fr. Jenkins had issued such a statement when Notre Dame extended benefits, the zelanti would have started a fire to burn him at the stake! 

The USCCB meets in June and they should consider a few resolutions that might improve their ability to preach the Gospel in twenty-first century America. First, they should simply stop fighting efforts to extend benefits to people. You are not approving everything a person does in their life when you take steps to make sure they have health care and retirement benefits or bake them a cake. Second, resist the urge to let the lawyers craft a legal strategy to the issue of non-discrimination: The lawyers will want a clear policy but the Church must look at the person, the whole person, when assessing their suitability for a ministerial position. Third, try and craft a non-discrimination policy with which you can live, and do not work too hard to see that it includes for-profit companies that offer the public a service. Yes, Hobby Lobby won their suit, and I am glad they did. The government should have provided a less burdensome means of achieving its objective, and it did not. But, the image of the Church as perpetual litigant is one that must be resisted because it obscures what we are really about, which is evangelization. This is especially the case when it comes to family issues. The young people I meet truly want to have lifelong, committed, loyal, and loving marriages. They want to have babies together. But, they will not listen if we always seem headed into court to keep gay people excluded in one way or another.

The culture warriors tell us that effective evangelization requires the drawing of sharp, distinct lines between our Catholic faith and the secular world. The Holy Father reminds us that all was created in Him and for Him and has been reconciled in Him, and bids us to get out into the world, show people the love we have in our hearts, and not worry overmuch displaying our own moral rectitude. Pope Francis wants a joyful Church, not a stern, meddling one. No one’s soul is imperiled by baking a cake for a gay couple, or extending health care benefits to a gay couple, and the Republic is not made more liberal by shrinking the First Amendment or marginalizing civil society actors like churches. With respect, rather than litigation, with compassion rather than treating the truth like a wet rag that we throw in people’s faces (to borrow a phrase), the Church can yet flourish in a pluralistic culture that accepts same sex marriage. But, if we proceed as we have been doing, our space in that culture will get smaller and smaller and then I do not see how we preach the good news about marriage and family that we wish to preach. There is a winsome quality to those who are truly joyful, a confidence in the Lord’s ability to reconcile all things. We see them in Pope Francis in spades. It is a quality and a confidence our bishops would do well to demonstrate too: It is our faith in the Joy of the Gospel that attracts, not "cold doctrine" as the Holy Father said this very morning





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