Editorial: No reconciling the irreconcilable when it comes to marriage

by NCR Editorial Staff

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It would have been better on so many levels had San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone chosen not to place the Catholic church front and center at the ill-named March for Marriage in Washington. He placed the church in league with the National Organization for Marriage, an intemperate, anti-gay lobbying outfit and unseemly company for a religious leader of any significance.

The organization's president, Brian Brown, has sought to globalize the fight against same-sex unions, joining with anti-gay forces in France and strategizing with Russian authorities in that country's campaign to enact harsh anti-gay laws.

No amount of claiming the church's love for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community will disguise the reality of the company one has to keep in order to further the cause of opposing same-sex unions.

On one level, however, Cordileone's appearance had great value, and that was in his attempt to articulate the two irreconcilable points that a Catholic official has to make when publicly speaking of homosexuality.

The first is that all people, regardless of sexual orientation, are children of God to be loved and cherished. The church, in that regard, would consider itself blind to the differences in sexual orientation, accepting of all.

But that phrase can never be spoken publicly without also uttering the equal certainty that those who engage their natural attraction to a person of the same sex are living in sin, a sin that the church cannot tolerate and that the state should not recognize.

Cordileone spends long paragraphs professing love for everyone -- enemies, those who disagree with the church's position, gays, straights, persecutors of the church, and so on. He grants his opponents the benefit of good faith and sincerity, even if it is misplaced. He keeps interjecting that this love has to be pronounced in combination with "the truth."

It is enough to say that the truth would have to have the flexibility of a circus contortionist to land in as many positions, and simultaneously, as Cordileone would require of it. But in making those demands of "truth" in the public square he does us all the service of demonstrating why the church has been woefully unpersuasive in its arguments against same-sex unions. The difficulty is apparent in the range of statements coming from our country's bishops and outlined in Brian Roewe's report.

We don't mean to single out Cordileone. We could have selected statements from other church leaders -- some simply outrageous -- but Cordileone is the one who decided to take the stage in the nation's capital.

Underlying the sincere declarations of love for all of the God's children is the real nub of the issue, the language that stings no matter how one might try to disguise its harshness beneath theological nuance. The church has declared that people of homosexual orientation are objectively disordered. With that understanding, the church effectively tells the LGBT community that it must quarantine its sexual reality, its affections and its members' love of one another in order to be welcome in its worship spaces and among its ministries.

Perhaps that inherent contradiction -- professing to uphold the dignity of all while simultaneously requiring some to block off an integral part of who they are in order to be a member of the community in good standing -- is the reason the church is losing the battle in the courts and at the ballot box.

Failing to make headway with such an incongruous rationale leads to other incomprehensible arguments. We are told that same-sex marriage threatens the integrity of traditional heterosexual marriage, when it is abundantly clear that the problems with heterosexual marriage are created by heterosexuals, and by no one else.

We are told that all children deserve the benefit of growing up guided by a father and mother, male and female. And that ideal remains elusive for a growing number, not because of homosexuals, but because of the males and females who are creating the circumstances of single-parent families.

Nothing in any of the statutes or court decisions permitting same-sex marriage mandate that churches must perform such ceremonies. No one is suggesting that the Catholic church alter its understanding or practice of the sacramental reality or the sacredness of matrimony.

Perhaps the most pertinent question on this matter was put by NCR columnist Michael Sean Winters, who asked: "Why do the leaders of the church want to have this fight?"

It is mystifying, with so many social problems needing attention, to watch so much of the U.S. Catholic leadership obsessed with these sexual matters. The fact is that people of other than traditional sexual orientation no longer engage in self-sequester or quarantine. That age has passed, and it has little to do with willful disregard for church teaching and far more to do with a growing understanding of the complexity and diversity of humankind.

A version of this story appeared in the July 4-17, 2014 print issue under the headline: No reconciling the irreconcilable.

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