Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.

Friday, October 8, 2010

The Church's political advocacy, public perception, and SSM

This cartoon (from today's Minneapolis Star-Tribune) reflects the enormous problem facing the Church's effort to stop the inclusion of same-sex couples within civil law marriage.  Increasingly, it seems, the public perception is that discrimination = discrimination = discrimination.  Expressing the vilest sentiments about gays and lesbians is simply a difference in degree from excluding gays and lesbians from the institution of marriage.  Part of this dynamic stems from our society's increasing embrace of individual liberty as an organizing principle, part of it, I'm sure, stems from a deliberate strategy by some SSM advocates to obfuscate potential distinctions between public policy stances affecting gays and lesbians, and part of it, in my view, stems from SSM opponents' failure to take the lead in advocating against social practices that we can all agree bring unjustifiable harm to gays and lesbians.  Along with the DVD campaign, for example, Abp. Nienstedt could have publicly and prominently expressed his concern about the tragedy of recent suicides by gay teenagers, encouraged more vigilant efforts by school officials to police bullying, etc.  Of course the Church has not been silent on the humanity of gays and lesbians, and relative silence should not ever be mistaken for approval, but in this climate, I think the Church needs to be speaking out early and often about affirming and defending the dignity of gays and lesbians if the distinction between anti-SSM and anti-gay is going to have any long-term traction.


Vischer, Rob | Permalink

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"I think the Church needs to be speaking out early and often about affirming and defending the dignity of gays and lesbians if the distinction between anti-SSM and anti-gay is going to have any long-term traction."


As I have argued before, the Church defends the dignity of every human person from conception to death. This includes murderers, rapists, pedophiles, abortionists, and gays and lesbians. The Church in no way seeks to confer any more dignity on gays and lesbians than it does on murderers and rapists. The Church does not call for tolerance and acceptance of gays and lesbians who actually engage in homosexual behavior. It does not call for them to be bullied or executed, but then it does not call for abortionists or pedophiles to be bullied or executed.

Homosexual orientation is "objectively disordered," and homosexual acts are acts of "grave depravity." It is the position of the Church that even if the basic rights of homosexuals are being denied, the solution is for homosexuals to hide their orientation. "Such initiatives [i.e, legislation to safeguard the rights of homosexuals], even where they seem more directed toward support of basic civil rights than condonement of homosexual activity or a homosexual lifestyle, may in fact have a negative impact on the family and society." By virtue of having a homosexual orientation alone, no matter how exemplary the person's behavior, he or she has fewer rights than non-homosexuals. Those who actually engage in homosexual behavior ("to which no one has any conceivable right") may be considered a danger to public welfare and dealt with accordingly.

The Church basically calls for some degree of compassion for those with a homosexual orientation who remain celibate and do not publicly identify themselves. But it does not call for any more tolerance or compassion for, say, same-sex married couples than it does for any other individuals who engage in acts of "grave depravity." To quote:

Homosexual persons, as human persons, have the same rights as all persons including the right of not being treated in a manner which offends their personal dignity (cf. no. 10). Among other rights, all persons have the right to work, to housing, etc. Nevertheless, these rights are not absolute. They can be legitimately limited for objectively disordered external conduct. This is sometimes not only licit but obligatory. This would obtain moreover not only in the case of culpable behavior but even in the case of actions of the physically or mentally ill. Thus it is accepted that the state may restrict the exercise of rights, for example, in the case of contagious or mentally ill persons, in order to protect the common good.

Posted by: David Nickol | Oct 8, 2010 11:02:04 AM

I agree Rob. I made a similar comment to Russ's post the other day about complicity. In this current environment, I think the Church (and other religious leaders) need to be speaking out loudly and clearly against actions that abuse and bully people based on their sexual orientation.

Posted by: Susan Stabile | Oct 8, 2010 11:48:48 AM

Mr. Nickol... is it really necessary to resort to name calling? You reply to an article about how the Church can do more to respond to bullying, by bullying. You lose all claim to credibility when you call your opponent "objectively disordered" in the first sentence... especially when you don't even really indicate as to *why* that is. You just say that it is and expect people to believe you... it's bullying, and coercion. Not convincing.

Posted by: Steve | Oct 8, 2010 12:09:49 PM

Mr Visher, your post shows a lot of real thought on the matter, and I appreciate that... as a gay man and a former Catholic, I often found it rare that I would get anything but a knee-jerk reaction from any kind of Catholic above the level of laity (the lay people, on the other hand...)

I wonder though... why in a situation where the Catholic church makes no effort to counter no-fault divorce or birth control, which have a clear and measurable effect on the marriages of many of your congregants, you feel it necessary to specifically inject Catholic theology into civic law on sex and marriage specifically when it comes to gays and lesbians. I think for many gays and lesbians, it isn't that any anti-marriage position is an anti-gay position. It's that you don't seem to care much about marriage at all - except when it comes to our own. There is no Catholic movement to ban divorce, or contraception. Some 97% of American Catholics women use contraception, and while I don't know the divorce figures, I'm sure it vastly outstrips the percentage of gays and lesbians in the population as a whole. It feels discriminatory to us because you only apply your beliefs in such a strong way to us - and to the rest of your flock, you seem completely indifferent to their behavior, and their marriages, at least in terms of how you approach it from a legal standpoint. When it comes to straight people, when they conflict with Catholic ideology, you're more than happy to say - there is the law, and there is Church teaching, and we don't need to change the law in order to have our teaching. It's only when it comes to gay people that suddenly you need to jump into the legal arena. It looks a lot more like a specific animus against us that has nothing to do with your beliefs, or any supposed "sanctity" of marriage.

Posted by: Steve | Oct 8, 2010 12:22:59 PM

Steve makes many good points. There is nothing *theologically* problematic with the Church adopting a very different strategy here: desist from involving herself in this issue *at the legislative level* and focus on burnishing the ideal of Christian marriage within her own community. Doesn't this make sense? Shouldn't we--as Catholics--be more concerned with the fact that between 2/3 and 4/5 of Catholic marriages resort to artificial contraception? This renders the acts of sexual intimacy within these marriages philosophically indistinguishable from gay sex. And yet we spend countless dollars and energies involving ourselves with a civil institution that--gay or straight--no longer bears any resemblance *at all* to the actual ideal of marriage taught by the Church. The effect of this--even if not the intent--is that gays begin to look like the scapegoats we blame for our own failure as a Church.

Posted by: WJ | Oct 8, 2010 12:43:08 PM


I guess I should have been more careful to express my own point of view. When I wrote, "Homosexual orientation is 'objectively disordered,' and homosexual acts are acts of 'grave depravity,'" I was pointing out the position of the Catholic Church as expressed in the Catechism. I was pointing out that while Rob Vischer (whom I greatly respect) says, "[T]he Church needs to be speaking out early and often about affirming and defending the dignity of gays and lesbians," the Church says that gays and lesbians have the same dignity as all persons, but "all persons" includes murderers and rapists, who also have human dignity and human rights and the basic right to work, to have a place to live, and so on. The Church has nothing good to say about gay men and lesbians who engage in homosexual behavior, which the Church considers "grave depravity." It is not about to speak up on behalf of gay men and lesbians who do things like enter into same-sex marriages. It may (and should) speak out against maltreatment, such as it has concerning the death penalty for homosexual acts, but it is not about to support gay men and lesbians as having dignity *as* gay men and lesbians. It affirms their dignity as human beings, but no more. The Church is the adversary (or enemy) of gay men and lesbians who wish to do anything other than dedicate themselves to a life of celibacy. The Church does call for compassion for those who dedicate themselves to celibacy and, through weakness, sometimes fail. But if you are a gay man or lesbian who asserts a right to loving, sexual relationships with others of your sexual preference, the Church considers you a threat to society.

You are exactly right that gay people are treated differently from others the Church considers to be sinners -- those who use birth control, divorce and remarry, cohabit, and so on. I am in agreement with your statement, "It looks a lot more like a specific animus against us that has nothing to do with your beliefs, or any supposed 'sanctity' of marriage." I would not necessarily apply this statement to Rob Vischer or any specific individual who opposes same-sex marriage. But I think in general it is true. Church attitudes toward homosexuality is partly a result of, and partly a cause of, the enmity and revulsion so many people have for gay people. I do not agree with Church teaching on homosexuality, but I think I could say pretty much what I have said here even if I did.

Posted by: David Nickol | Oct 8, 2010 1:02:39 PM

Steve: You are right; it's a huge problem. I can't speak for the bishops, but their motivation now might stem in significant part from regret over their general failure to get off the sidelines in the no-fault divorce debate (which wasn't much of a debate, more like a tide sweeping the states), given that we now see how much harm (including, most verifiably, economic harm) no-fault divorce visited upon women and children especially. They have to come up with a good explanation for the public, though, justifying the difference in their levels of involvement. I also agree that injecting theological claims into the marriage debate, while perfectly permissible, is not good strategy, which is why folks have been trying, with varying degrees of success, to shift the argument to non-theological grounds.

Posted by: rob vischer | Oct 8, 2010 1:28:27 PM

Sorry David, did not really see the line between your thoughts and the Church's there. And you on the flip side, just to reflect inward a little, this is where gay people often go wrong in their approach to Catholics too - annoying, that I do the same thing, but that is the nature of the beast. I was not really directing my statement specifically at Rob but at the Church in general. Perhaps next time I'll pick another language which distinguishes between thou and you.

Lord only knows, they have plenty of groups of people they believe should be confined to celibacy beyond gay people - their priests, for one, and if you read the letters of St. Paul long enough, it almost seems like he wants the entire body Catholic to remain celibate (thank the Lord that hasn't happened). I think in a lot of ways, it makes their argument somewhat more acceptable than those from other denominations, which often throw the bible in your face without even having read it. And Catholics really are some of the best friends gay people have in this country - by and large they are with us about 60% of the time, and that number is growing. If celibacy is something that could bring gays and lesbians into harmony with the church, though, I suppose the question is - what then? It's rare that an image of a successful, celibate lifestyle is ever portrayed. I'm not even sure what that would be like. For gays and lesbians of faith, chastity seems straightforward, to me even preferable - be monogamous, be faithful, follow God's teachings for heterosexuals as if (as I believe) they are really intended for all people - but celibacy seems extreme, untenable, and very lonely. And nowhere in the bible can we really find any mention of this prescription, so we are left only with the writings of various theologians who really don't seem to have any experience with any actual gay or lesbian people.

For gays and lesbians of faith, this lack of any real message of hope often leads us to believe that really, the fact that we are excluded from God's teaching on sex and marriage is more the mistake of men - who did not know of many gays and lesbians in a world of only a few hundred thousand people, and could easily mistake them for heterosexuals who like to sleep around indiscriminately (of which there are far more examples) - then the intention of God. If the Church believes that there really is a celibate path for gays and lesbians, and they think this can be a message of hope for us, I think they need to provide examples. Where is Jesus' parable about the celibate gay man who finds his path to God?

Posted by: Steve | Oct 8, 2010 1:53:45 PM

I understand how it may look, today, as if the Church is fighting SSM to the exclusion of resisting no-fault divorce and contraception, etc. But as Rob Vischer's comment notes, the no-fault wave happened so fast. Even so, the Church did oppose those changes, and the Church definitely fought to keep contraception bans in place. Nowhere has the Church ever officially changed its view on such matters, even as a matter of endorsing the new public policy as something apart from a behavioral norm for Church members. It has simply left those views on the books without investing energy into the fights that are "over."

So the question is whether the Church should fight on today's line of scrimmage, or whether it should prove its bona fides by making more noise about issues that they've lost so long ago, and where the American population is so adverse that opposition would further isolate the Church.

Something similar happened with in vitro fertilization and the later stem-cell debate. The Church did not go to the mat on IVF as a matter of public policy, but continues to oppose it as Church teaching for members. It now tries to fight against government funding of embryonic stem-cell research, but it runs up against the charge that IVF produces surplus embryos, so "if you're really against the embryo destruction, you should oppose the creation, and you're not fighting the tide there, so you're inconsistent," etc. That must make some bishops wish they'd fought harder in the 1970s on IVF, but the genie is out.

Even on abortion, there was much more effort on fighting the funding issues in the health care battle than there has been on reversing Roe, because that's where the line of scrimmage was.

So, yes, it may look like the SSM and gay-rights opposition is animus-driven, but it fits comfortably in a pattern of fighting battles that are still in play, while not talking about lost battles, even if the consistent view would make more of the connectedness among these various issues.

Posted by: amateur historian | Oct 8, 2010 5:39:06 PM

I largely agree with amateur historian. I strongly dispute that claim that the Church has put more emphasis on opposing same sex marriage than it has on opposing contraception. I am quite active in the work that my archdiocese does on the life issues. The only difference between same sex marriage and contraception is that, politically, same sex marriage is in play and contraception is not. A key reason that so may Catholic couples use contraception is that the mode of thinking that would favor same sex marriage has prevailed among many parish priests, with the active encouragement of liberal theologians. The Church is far from turning a blind eye to contraception. One the contrary, the thinking of Catholics who cherish the Church's teachings on sex is that contraception is a root cause of both abortion and same sex marriage. Contraception leads to acceptance of same sex marriage because contraception sterilizes sex and thereby makes it indistinguishable in principle from homosexual acts. For much the same reason, it also leads to abortion because it creates the expectation that sex is to be sterile.

I would also like to add a reality check to the discussion of bullying. From what I remember as a child, bullying has its genesis on the playground and occurs independently of adult culture. The notion that the Church contributes to it is absurd.

Posted by: Dan | Oct 9, 2010 12:25:32 PM

Dan writes:
"I would also like to add a reality check to the discussion of bullying. From what I remember as a child, bullying has its genesis on the playground and occurs independently of adult culture. The notion that the Church contributes to it is absurd."

What a moronic attempt to white wash the situation. Parents teach their children their attitudes. "Children" don't invent a working knowledge of gay sex on their own. They learn it ultimately from adults. Usually their parents. Religion is the most significant predictor of anti-gay bigotry (immutable prejudice) among adults. Hence, in a largely Christian country, sexual orientation is an important bullying topic. Human Rights Watch (formerly Helsinki Watch) did a study called "Hatred in the Hallways" and found that the average American student heard sexual orientation related insults some 200 times a week. Moreover, insults related to sexual orientation were the most dreaded.

"Christian" right groups have fought for the "right" of "Christian" students to bully gay students. That failed. Now the Christian right, including the Bishops, seek to keep anti-gay bullying from being specifically criticized. The Bishops claim that any law which specifically mentions "sexual orientation" could lead to same sex marriage.

Let's stipulate that. Is the cost of protecting marriage paid in the bodies of gay teenagers who have committed suicide? That makes Catholic marriage seem more than a bit Satanic.

Posted by: Frank | Oct 18, 2010 12:57:55 AM

"From what I remember as a child, bullying has its genesis on the playground and occurs independently of adult culture. The notion that the Church contributes to it is absurd."

And from what I remember, whatever validation kids could get ahold of meant free fodder for bullies.
You don't suppose that rallies supported by the catholic church in which priests say that gay marriage will mean the downfall of society is going to spurn on some abuse?
How do the gay pubescent children who get sported around at these thing feel when they hear this? Sounds to me like they'd already feel bullied by the church, and their parents, why not other children?
This was my experience. What was yours?

Posted by: Joseph R. Yungk | Oct 31, 2010 3:40:17 AM