Pope Francis’s informal comments about gay people – “Who am I to judge them if they’re seeking the Lord in good faith?” – have drawn a lot of attention, including a valuable context-providing analysis from Mary Hunt here on RD.
The remarks stood out because their gracious tone toward gay people is a striking departure from the rhetoric of this pope’s immediate predecessor — so striking, in fact, that Thomas Reese, a priest and former editor of the Jesuit-published America magazine, wrote, “The pope made it clear that there is no room for homophobia either in the church or society. But if I had said what he said 24 hours before he said it, I would have been reported to the archbishop.”
Advocates for LGBT equality expressed hope about what this tone might suggest. Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of DignityUSA, told the Washington Blade she welcomed the new tone, saying “We hope it translates into similar expressions of openness among bishops and cardinals here in the U.S. and in other countries.”
Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin, like Duddy-Burke, recognized the potentially positive impact of the pope’s words, but said that the Church’s actions are still harmful.
Like his namesake, Francis’s humility and respect for human dignity are showing through, and the widespread positive response his words have received around the world reveals that Catholics everywhere are thirsty for change.
But as long as millions of LGBT Catholic individuals, couples and youth alike are told in churches big and small that their lives and their families are disordered and sinful because of how they are born—how God made them—then the Church is sending a deeply harmful message.
Speaking of harmful messages, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) just this month sent senators a letter opposing the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which would ban employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. In 2007, the bishops took a neutral position on ENDA, but that changed in 2010. And this month’s anti-ENDA letter, which was posted by blogger Jeremy Hooper, is less in the spirit of “who am I to judge” and more in keeping with the scorched-earth culture-war rhetoric coming from the US bishops in their opposition to marriage equality.
In order to stake out an anti-ENDA position while still maintaining that the USCCB is aligned with the church’s stated opposition to “unjust discrimination” against “people who experience a homosexual inclination,” the bishops have to do some fancy footwork:
The Catholic Church makes an important distinction between actions and inclination. While the Church is ardently opposed to all unjust discrimination on the grounds of sexual inclination, whether homosexual or heterosexual, it does teach that all sexual acts outside of a marriage between one man and one woman are morally wrong and do not serve the good of the person or society. Homosexual conduct, moreover, is categorically closed to the transmission of life, and does not reflect or respect the personal complementarity of man and woman. The Catholic Church’s teaching against this conduct cannot, therefore, be equated with “unjust discrimination,” because the teaching is based on fundamental truths about the human person. In contrast to sexual conduct within marriage between one man and one woman — which does serve both the good of each married person and the good of society — heterosexual conduct outside of marriage and, a fortiori, homosexual conduct has no claim to any special protection by the state. Thus, the USCCB continues to oppose “unjust discrimination” against people with a homosexual inclination, but we cannot support a bill, like ENDA, that would legally affirm and specially protect any sexual conduct outside of marriage.
So, by this reasoning, perhaps the bishops would support an ENDA that was restricted to celibate gays?
The bishops draw a bright line between homosexual “inclination” and homosexual activity, but they seek to blur the line between the freedom to proclaim church teachings about homosexuality and employers acting in ways that violate the rights of individual Americans.
Like every other group in our society, the Catholic Church enjoys the same rights to hold to its beliefs, organize itself around them, and argue for them in the public square. This is guaranteed by our Constitution. This includes the right to teach what it holds to be the truth concerning homosexual conduct — and to act as an employer consistent with that truth — without the threat of government sanction.
And while ENDA advocates debate among themselves whether the religious exemptions in the current bill are unacceptably broad, the bishops argue that they are not broad enough, and that without “additional protection” ENDA would “jeopardize our religious freedom to live our faith and moral tenets in today’s society.”
But don’t worry about figuring out just how broad an exemption the bishops would need to come on board, because the letter goes on to explain that, exemptions aside, they oppose ENDA because it “may be invoked by federal courts to support the claim that, as a matter of federal constitutional right, marriage must be redefined to include two persons of the same sex.” And, they say, “As leaders of the Catholic Church, we have a moral obligation to oppose any law that would be so likely to contribute to legal attempts to redefine marriage.”
After trashing ENDA and insisting that the right to discriminate against LGBT people is guaranteed in the Constitution, the letter’s signers – Bishops Stephen Blaire, William Lori, and Salvatore Cordileone – assert that “the Conference stands ready to work with leaders and all people of good will to end all forms of unjust discrimination, including against those who experience a homosexual inclination. We therefore invite further discussion with you and your staff on how such efforts might advance in a way that avoids the various concerns discussed in this letter.”
That doesn’t exactly sound like a promising conversation, though it might be useful to hear what the bishops do mean by “unjust discrimination.”