Building Walls Against the World

When I wrote last month about France enacting same-sex marriage, it wasn’t even on my radar that two more U.S. states were about to do the same. But now, Rhode Island (which previously had civil unions) has graduated to full marriage equality, becoming the tenth state to do so, and Delaware followed right after. With this passage, every New England state now stands united in recognizing the humanity of same-sex couples.

What makes this especially heartening is that Rhode Island is the country’s most Catholic state, according to Trinity College’s Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture, which shows the vast and ever-widening chasm between ordinary moderate Catholics and the church hierarchy. Even so, it hasn’t avoided the secularizing tide that’s sweeping over the rest of America:

The share of Rhode Islanders identifying as Catholic dropped from 62% in 1990 to 46% in 2008, while the share identifying as having no religion jumped from 6% to 19%, the institute found.

(I’m just going to go ahead and give all the credit to Jessica Ahlquist for that one.)

But there’s at least one person in Rhode Island who’s not happy about all this: the Bishop of Providence, Thomas Tobin, who wrote a letter to Catholics in Rhode Island with his thoughts.

I am profoundly disappointed that Rhode Island has approved legislation that seeks to legitimize “same-sex marriage.” The Catholic Church has fought very hard to oppose this immoral and unnecessary proposition, and we are most grateful to all those who have courageously joined us in this effort. When all is said and done, however, we know that God will be the final judge of our actions.

Note the bishop’s gratuitous and petulant use of scare quotes around the phrase “same-sex marriage” – as if he can’t bring himself to acknowledge a reality unfavorable to his beliefs. This is a common tack among right-wing Christians in general: that there’s some mystical Platonic Essence of Marriage, some ingredient distinct from both a couple’s pledge of commitment to each other and the legal protections granted to that union, that opposite-sex couples have but same-sex couples somehow lack.

As I have emphasized consistently in the past, the Catholic Church has respect, love and pastoral concern for our brothers and sisters who have same-sex attraction. I sincerely pray for God’s blessings upon them, that they will enjoy much health, happiness and peace.

How very gracious of the bishop. “We want to deny you the same rights and legal protections granted to everyone else, we think your love is disordered, immoral and sinful, and we think you should be restricted to a life of celibacy and loneliness – but we want you to be happy! See, we’re not such bad people after all!”

It’s not often I feel moved to quote the Bible, but I’m reminded of the verse from the Epistle of James: “If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit?”

Tobin is committing the same hypocrisy, fighting tooth and nail to deny LGBT people the things they need to be happy, then piously protesting that he wants them to be happy regardless. How do you think he’d feel if an atheist said, “We think Christianity should be banned, Christians shouldn’t be permitted to marry each other, and it should be legal to fire people from their jobs or make them pay higher taxes for being Christians. But we sincerely care about Christian people and we wish them all the best!”

And because “same-sex marriages” are clearly contrary to God’s plan for the human family, and therefore objectively sinful, Catholics should examine their consciences very carefully before deciding whether or not to endorse same-sex relationships or attend same-sex ceremonies, realizing that to do so might harm their relationship with God and cause significant scandal to others.

Yes, the bishop is telling Catholics that they should refuse to attend the weddings of their gay sons and lesbian daughters. Arguably, he’s even telling them that they should cut their gay friends and relatives out of their lives entirely (after all, if you invite your child and their same-sex partner over to your house for dinner, aren’t you thereby “endorsing” their relationship?). This is one of the classic signs of cults – the demand to cut off contact with family and friends who don’t share the group’s beliefs.

And despite the diplomatic language, there’s a veiled threat in this letter. To the Vatican hierarchy, “scandal” is a term with a specific meaning: it’s a word or deed which “occasions another’s spiritual ruin“, and it’s considered a mortal sin. Presumably, condoning or celebrating same-sex relationships, in the bishop’s eyes, leads to the “spiritual ruin” of people in those relationships – as opposed to shunning and bullying them until they change their evil ways, as good Christians should. If the church is resorting to language like this, I predict it won’t be long before ordinary Catholics are denied communion or excommunicated for attending a same-sex wedding ceremony.

I’m not just saying this because of the bishop’s language, but because it fits into a broader trend: as the world grows more rational and more secular, religious fundamentalists are increasingly retreating into their own isolated enclaves, which they’re trying to wall off from the outside world by kicking out dissenters and banning all independent thought. This has been going on for years, but as equality makes greater strides, I expect it will accelerate. Of course, this ideological purging will result in smaller and less influential churches, and that’s a development I’m fine with.

Image credit: Tomas Castelazo, released under CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

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