The attitude-adjustment derby

by Phyllis Zagano

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Debates about homosexuality are not going to go away. Many, if not most, religions call homosexual acts immoral. They have varied theological analyses. Many, if not most, secular societies have adopted the third shoe of "don't ask, don't tell." That would be "don't care."

So why did students of a North Carolina high school and their parents throw Dominican Sr. Jane Dominic Laurel under the bus? She was talking about church teaching. And why did Brendan Eich, CEO of Mozilla, maker of the Firefox Web browser, quit his job? He provided plenty of protections for gay employees.

Laurel, a Dominican sister of St. Cecilia of Nashville, Tenn., is an assistant professor of theology at the sisters' college there. She holds a doctorate in sacred theology from the Angelicum in Rome. Her catechetical lectures include comments about psychological causes and effects of homosexuality.

Brendan Eich fought gay marriage with a $1,000 donation to California's Proposition 8 in 2008.

Each is among the fallen in the attitude-adjustment derby about homosexuality.

Not long ago, at 1,400-student Charlotte Catholic High School, Laurel gave a school assembly talk called "Masculinity and Feminity: Difference and Gift." Published reports say many students -- and later, many parents -- were horrified as she blamed single parents and pornography for same-sex attraction and behavior. Her talk was not recorded, but sections of her online Newman Connection "Rich Gift of Love" lectures, especially "Stage 3 Adolescence," present much the same opinion.

The outrage of the 900 parents at a meeting with diocesan officials was twofold: What are Laurel's credentials, and why were parents not given advance notice about the topic of her talk? Someone started a petition against her. Now there is a counterpetition. She has canceled all future talks.

Problem? On one hand, this was a diocesan school in the generally conservative southern United States. On the other hand, Laurel was presenting social science, not theology. That is a very important distinction because so many folks have been hurt by muddled presentations of fact. Homosexual activity and inclination each fall into the church's wide "objectively disordered" net, meant here specifically for acts not directed at procreation. That does not mean the church calls homosexuals "disordered," as in off-the-rails crazy.

Laurel apparently intimated, or even stated, that homosexuals are psychologically disordered, claiming gay men had between 500 and 1,000 lifetime partners. Even her college president admitted that Laurel's "deviation into realms of sociology and anthropology was beyond the scope of her expertise." The school's chaplain, who had heard her speak several times, apologized.

Then there is Eich, a founder and now former CEO of Mozilla, hounded out of his job because he disagreed with gay marriage. Eich's statements and actual policies to protect his gay employees notwithstanding, an angry boycott backlash forced him out. Oddly enough, the co-founder and CEO of OkCupid, the dating website that rallied the opposition, once donated $500 to a congressional candidate who opposed gay marriage. No matter; high-flying word bats beat down Eich. He resigned.

Eich apparently did not object to legal protections for gay couples but, like many others, did not want the word "marriage" expanded and redefined. But there was no allowing for his private political beliefs. A corner of gay activism became so enraged at his position that it called a boycott on Mozilla products, forcing his resignation. Even Andrew Sullivan, a writer whose credentials on the topic include his own homosexuality, wrote that it is "unbelievably stupid for the gay rights movement ... to squander the real gains we have made by argument and engagement by becoming just as intolerant of others' views as the Christianists."

Sullivan obviously criticizes those who fashion brickbats out of Christian teachings, not they who behave as Christians. I think we must agree. Religion and politics are an explosive mix, boring down into people's deepest thoughts and beliefs.

Within the gay marriage debate, the pro side argues for civil rights and protections not otherwise available to the couples. Within the homosexuality debate, the pro side has argued for biological roots and now also argues for simple behavioral preferences with psychological causes irrelevant.

Those against gay marriage argue on behalf of the singular definition of "marriage," and often for civil unions; religious teachings argue against homosexual behavior.

Has political correctness -- in either direction -- replaced facts and conversation? Eich lost his job. Laurel is going on sabbatical. I don't think it is a question of defending the positions of either of them. Eich has the perfect right to his political opinions, and Laurel's beliefs had to have been known before she appeared at the school. Yet each individual's story has become a blog, Facebook post, even a USA Today sideshow.​

My principal question: Can these topics be discussed rationally, or have media and the blogosphere dragged everybody into an unending knock-down, drag-out screaming match? Is civility dead?

[Phyllis Zagano is senior research associate-in-residence at Hofstra University and winner of the 2014 Isaac Hecker Award for Social Justice. She will speak May 6 at St. Francis Xavier Church in New York City and June 9 at Holy Family Church, South Pasadena, Calif. From June 9 to July 8, she will conduct a free online seminar about women in the diaconate based on the books Women Deacons: Past, Present, Future and Ordination of Women to the Diaconate in the Eastern Churches. Seminar registration opens April 21 at]

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