An Israelite Without Guile
Gay Marriage and Framing the Church's Message
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo's legalization of gay marriage was your basic dog-bites-man story. The only surprise was the governor's choice of words to justify his decision. Plucking them straight from the catechism, he told reporters, "We've reached a new level of social justice." I expect we'll be hearing from Glenn Beck on that.
More predictable was the disapproval of New York's Catholic bishops. Almost immediately afterward, they released a statement that included the following passage:
We strongly uphold the Catholic Church's clear teaching that we always treat our homosexual brothers and sisters with respect, dignity and love. But we just as strongly affirm that marriage is the joining of one man and one woman in a lifelong, loving union that is open to children, ordered for the good of those children and the spouses themselves. This definition cannot change, though we realize that our beliefs about the nature of marriage will continue to be ridiculed, and that some will even now attempt to enact government sanctions against churches and religious organizations that preach these timeless truths.
In some ways, their statement about always having "treated our homosexual brothers with respect, dignity and love" is true—at least when you compare the Catholic Church to her competitors. Unlike many evangelical groups, she hasn't endorsed reparative therapy, at least not formally or consistently. Unlike James Dobson, she hasn't claimed to find gay-friendly messages embedded in popular children's shows. (When someone shows me a headline reading "Dora a Lesbian, Says Chaput!", I'll retract.) If these were the only shows in town, along with Islam and Orthodox Judaism, Catholicism would win the progressiveness prize hands down.
But of course they aren't. The new gay-friendly mood in the country—and, according to the Public Religion Research Institute, among Catholics themselves—will make it excruciatingly difficult for the Church to sell gays and lesbians of her program of a solitary, sexless life.
In the past the Church could take the indirect route, promoting social and legal obstacles toward leading an open, fully realized gay life. This was the gist of the documents issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith throughout John Paul II's papacy. I doubt anyone put it quite like this, but the hope seems to have been that if staying in the closet, or at any rate not having sex, represented the path of least resistance, then gay people would take it. Events have proved this strategy to be about as visionary as the Maginot Line.
So much for coercion. All that remains is persuasion. I'm really curious to see whether the Church will even have the stomach to try it. Mother Teresa once said it was fashionable to talk to the poor but not with them; the same could be said of gays, with both greater accuracy and good reason. Try telling a person who's free, of any race, and 21 that he or she is intrinsically disordered: you'll be lucky to escape with your teeth.
Max Lindenman is a freelance writer, based in Phoenix. He has been published in National Catholic Reporter, Busted Halo and Salon. His Open Salon blog is here.