Contra Rusty Reno et al.

by Michael Sean Winters

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The latest frontline in the culture wars has come into focus: In the face of decisions by Catholic universities to extend health care benefits to those who have contracted same-sex, civil marriages, some bishops and some commentators are digging trenches, bringing up the mortars, and lobbing shells. The whole thing puts one in mind of the Western Front in World War I.

Last month, both Creighton University in Omaha and the University of Notre Dame in South Bend announced they would extend health care benefits to same sex couples. The local bishops objected, with Archbishop George Lucas in Omaha issuing a more pointed challenge. “Despite [Creighton President] Father Lannon’s claim that this is not a statement of approval of same sex marriages, this is precisely the message that the University is giving,” Archbishop Lucas said in a statement. “I am dismayed that the recommendation of the University Benefits Committee is thought to supersede divine law regarding marriage.” Nebraska has not (yet) legalized gay marriage. The legal situation there and in Indiana will be murky until the U.S. Supreme Court re-visits the issue.

I understand that bishops think they must hold the line. I understand that they perceive same-sex marriage as a threat to traditional marriage, a confirmation the most people no longer view marriage as equally involving the procreation and rearing of children as about the union of the spouses. Still, it would seem that any assessment of the pastoral challenge would likely start with the question “Why is it that gays and lesbians are the only people who seem to even want to get married these days?”

Rusty Reno, the editor of First Things, has now jumped into the fray with possibly the most offensive column I have read all year, a distinction for which there is some degree of high-quality competition. Reno states that the universities’ decisions are nothing more than “cultural capitulation,” agreeing with Archbishop Lucas that the decisions send the signal that the Church approves of same sex marriage, and then introduces this analogy:

I’m sure Pius XII would have denied that signing a Concordat with Hitler’s Germany meant he approved of Nazism. But it conferred legitimacy and dramatically undercut any basis within the Church for resistance. The same goes for the concordat many Catholic institutions are signing with gay marriage. It confers legitimacy on the sexual revolution and undercuts resistance.

Reno is a bright man and he holds the title of editor, but he seems to have forgotten the first iron law of journalism: No Nazi analogies. If Reno believes that those who advocate for same sex marriage are evil, surely he will grant that there is no evil quite like Nazi evil, and so his analogy is overwrought. I will note one happy consequence of Reno’s alarmist and offensive analogy: This is surely the first time Fr. Lannon and Fr. John Jenkins, the president of Notre Dame, have been cast in the role of Pius XII.

One does not go to First Things looking for nuance, but still, Reno might have allowed that America is the only place in the industrialized West where health care benefits are conferred through employment. And, therefore, Catholic employers in the U.S. are involved in the “recognition” of diverse relationships among their employees that Catholic employers in other countries do not have to face. Still, I do not remember Reno and others complaining when Catholic universities extended health care benefits to divorced and remarried staff members and their families.

Reno is right that there is a moral issue involved but, regrettably, he misses it. If the Catholic Church wishes to be believed when we affirm, as the Catechism affirms, that we respect the innate human dignity of all people, including gays and lesbians, then we have to stop fighting tooth and nail to deny people health care benefits. It does not pass the smell test. “I love you, I respect your human dignity, but damn, I am going to make sure you can’t get health care,” is not exactly a convincing Christian witness. Whatever anyone else does, the Catholic is called to respond with charity, with love. Frustrating access to health care is not loving, it is punitive. Whatever any Catholic institution decides on this issue of extending benefits to same sex couples, it will not only say something about those couples, it will say something about our Catholic institutions. As Fr. Jenkins said in his statement, “We recognize an urgent call to welcome, support and cherish gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, who have been too often marginalized and even ostracized, and many of whom bear the scars of such treatment.”

Conservative culture warriors like Reno, however, do not worry about the actual impact on gay and lesbian staffers at any Catholic university, hence the ease with which he compares them to Nazis. They are more concerned with making a point. If anyone is looking for an example of ideology getting in the way of the Gospel, here it is.

I also continue to be stunned by the coarseness of the argument that extending benefits constitutes recognition, and recognition constitutes approval. Mr. Reno and his friends should go to Google Images and enter “Pope John Paul II Cuba.” They will see pictures of Pope John Paul II shaking hands with Castro, at the presidential palace in Havana. The pope referred to Castro as “Mr. President.” They stood together for the playing of the Cuban national anthem. In some sense, this was recognition of Castro’s regime, but did any one construe that recognition as approval?

If a gay couple comes to Notre Dame and wants to hold a wedding ceremony at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, I am quite confident the authorities at Notre Dame would decline. But, to segregate and ostracize and cause real harm to one’s gay colleagues – and, Mr. Reno, I am betting you have some gay colleagues even at First Things as I am sure there is not a chancery or seminary or other Catholic employer that does not have some gay employees – in order to make a point in the culture wars is not only offensive, it is unchristian. It is precisely this prioritization of ideology over Christian charity that turns off young people and leads them to see the Church as judgmental at best, hypocritical at worst. And, even if there is what one bishop called “a neo-pagan ideology” afflicting the culture and pushing the agenda of gay rights (and I do not characterize it as such to be sure) the Christian response must be one of charity. It is this that Reno and those who agree with him fail to see and the extent of their blindness is evident when you realize that the best argument he could come up with involved comparing gay people to Nazis.




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