Gays and Lesbians, Affirmative Orthodoxy, A Changing World

On Tuesday, the New York Times reported that the Atlanta-baed law firm King & Spalding renounced its commission to defend the Defense of Marriage Act on Congress’ behalf. According to the Times, this isn’t unusual. For opponents of same-sex marriage, it’s hard to find good help these days:

The firm’s abrupt reversal highlights the continuing potency of same-sex marriage as a complicated issue that has scrambled traditional political calculations in Washington. President Obama has often called the marriage act “abhorrent,” but his Justice Department defended it for more than a year before declaring it unconstitutional. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. announced in February that the administration would no longer defend the act in court.

Theodore B. Olson, a solicitor general under President George W. Bush, has joined gay rights groups and Democrats as a leading advocate for same-sex marriage. And several high-profile Republicans, including Mr. Bush’s wife and his daughter Barbara, have said publicly that they support gay people’s right to marry. But House Republicans, led by Speaker John A. Boehner, have vowed to defend the law in court.

The Times makes it clear that the firm withdrew “amid pressure from gay rights groups,” but what strikes me is the form that pressure took. Gay rights groups warned that staying on the case “would hurt its ability to recruit and retain lawyers.” In an op-ed piece published today, Dale Carpenter argues that the firm’s decision “cannot be dismissed simply as a matter of political correctness or bullying by gays.” Gay rights supporters have come to dominate the legal profession.

Any doubt left about where most lawyers stood was eliminated in 2003 in Lawrence v. Texas, which involved another sodomy law. Lambda Legal led the challenge, helped by Jenner & Block, a firm with extensive Supreme Court experience. Other big firms, groups like the American Bar Association and scholars filed supporting briefs. The cumulative effect of decades of work by gay-rights advocates was that the best firms and many of the best lawyers were unwilling to defend sodomy laws on constitutional, let alone policy, grounds. The court agreed, holding in Lawrence that such laws demeaned the very existence of gay people.

There is, I think, a lesson here for the Church, or at least a challenge. Back in the days when most people felt a visceral revulsion to same-sex relations or same-sex partnerships — a revulsion that extended to gay people themselves — asserting her teaching authority on the subject of homosexuality was easy. She would have had a harder time telling people to brush after every meal.

But now the Church has found herself with no popular prejudices to take advantage of. From what I can tell, this realization has brought no insight. If anything, it’s caused her to regress, to adopt tactics guaranteed to alienate even further the people who need conversion.

Consider the Manhattan Declaration: A Call to Christian Conscience. This statement of purpose signed by 150 religious leaders, including Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York and the president of the Bishops’ Conference, makes a point of listing homosexuality and “polyamorous relationships” side-by-side, not only as threats to traditional marriage, but also as conduct for which people are “disposed.”

This rhetorical gambit looks awfully underhanded — or rather, it would, if it weren’t so easy to pick apart. Now that society no longer attaches a stigma to same-sex relations, Christian authorities are doing their best to slap that stigma back on. First they equate homosexuality, which no longer seems exotic, with polyamory, which does. Then, for good measure, they equate the case for an inborn inclination toward homosexuality, which is widely accepted (if unproven) and that for an inborn inclination toward polyamory, which, to the best of my knowledge, has never been made. It’s a little slicker than warning people they’ll soon be forced to marry their cocker spaniels, but not much.

National Catholic Reporter’s John Allen, Jr. defined Pope Benedict’s vision as “affirmative orthodoxy.” In his view, Benedict wants to present the Christian message “in terms of what it’s for, rather than what it’s against.” Where gays and lesbians are concerned, this would mean selling a life of continence, telling them not so much why they shouldn’t have sex, but telling them what they might gain from having none. It may be that some gay and lesbian outreach ministries do exactly this, but the positive approach seems not to have taken hold in the Church at large.

As my readers should have guessed a long time ago, I am the furthest thing in the world from a PR whiz. On so sensitive a matter, the Church deserves far shrewder consultants than I. Still, I do have three tips that, at worst, can’t hurt much.

1. Get used to saying “gay” (and not just in the sense of “retarded”) and “lesbian.” Those are the terms gays and lesbians themselves prefer; substituting either for “homosexual” looks like exactly what it is, an attempt to deflate. Any Catholic who wants to minister to gays is going to have to overcome the same ingrained suspicions facing a Republican who canvasses an African-American neighborhood. You can be dadgum sure no such candidate would address his would-be constituents as “You coloreds.”

2. Try not to speak of gays and lesbians as though they make up a separate species. Like the Supreme Court justice said of pornography, this is a tonal thing — hard to define in the abstract, but easy to spot. To cite one very benign example, National Catholic Register’s Pat Archbold recently published an article in which he names the six “most unexpected converts.” Number one on the list is Oscar Wilde. Here’s what he says:

Wilde is known today for his wit and celebrated for a homosexual lifestyle. In fact, I’d bet he’s more well known for his flamboyancy than he is for his literary achievements which often had a strong moral lesson. The fact that Wilde was a deathbed convert to Catholicism is just about completely ignored. It doesn’t really fit into the caricature of Wilde.

Now, granted, Mr. Archbold — from whom I once stole an idea — is writing for a readership he may judge unfamiliar with Wilde’s life and work, and uninterested in learning. But the fact remains, that caricature of Wilde was exploded even before his death. It’s not arcane knowledge that he developed an interest in Catholicism while a student at Trinity, or even that he spent one of his Oxford term breaks making a pilgrimage to Rome. Pope Leo XIII received him in a private audience. Wilde wrote some (pretty awful) poems about the experience. Back in London, Fr. Sebastian Bowden of the Brompton Oratory coaxed him to the very point of conversion before Wilde chickened out.

There was nothing unlikely about Wilde’s conversion. If anything, it was even money — unless you’re one of those people for whom sexuality is the number-one defining characteristic. In that case, once you know a person is gay or a lesbian, that’s all you need to know; anything that falls outside the mold looks miraculous. For any Catholic looking to win converts and influence people, that’s an impression to avoid giving.

3. Use the celibacy-as-jewel argument. It’s dignifying and ennobling. Besides, everybody likes to feel like a pearl before swine.

About Ben Conroy

Ben Conroy is a columnist with The Irish Catholic, an intern at The Iona Institute, a contributor to discussions and debates in the Irish media, and an aspiring fantasy author.

  • Fran Rossi Szpylczyn

    I’m not really sure where to begin here, but do know that I begin with my faith and obedience at the center of my heart.

    My own Catholic journey has caused me to pretty much revisit everything I once thought and believed in… and that’s ok. It is good actually! Isn’t that what we are called to?

    There are a couple of teachings that I continue to struggle with – one a little and one a lot. This is the one I struggle with a lot. More than a lot if I am honest.

    Not too long ago I spent some time speaking with a woman who has been a Roman Catholic her entire life – she is probably around 68 or 70 years old. She spent the last few years working full time in order to be able to afford to do what she needed to do… And that was to take care of her sick and dying companion, who recently died of two kinds of particularly vicious cancers.

    This is not the first time I have been witness to such things – with both men and women I know both personally and professionally.

    And that is why this is the hardest teaching for me to surrender to. I understand the teaching but I also understand the witness of gay and lesbian Catholics. And yes, I know that this is not about feelings and all the other emotional things. I’m not really talking about feelings, I am talking about commitment, loyalty, fidelity, and love that is something way beyond sex. It is no different than what I share with my husband.

    As a 53 year old woman who has many gay and lesbian friends I can also tell you that there are more long-term and faithful relationships there than among heterosexual friends.

    So what are we to do with this? Is there no further wisdom that Holy Mother Church can come up with? I understand the teaching and all the arguments, but I also understand the tears of a woman who kept her partner at home as much as she could (to the detriment of her own health, physical and mental) in order to give her partner quality of life, dignity, peace and love.

    So I continue to struggle and pray, pray and struggle.

    In any event, I can see where you are headed with your post and I did not even object to it, in fact I was appreciating it.

    Until that last line Max… If it was in jest, it is not funny. With all due respect to you, it is as far from human dignity as I can conjure. And if it was not in jest, God have mercy for you perpetuating a terribly small-minded even if unintended stereotype. And that puts it even farther from human dignity than if it were a joke.

    Either way, it took down the sentiment of the entire post for me, which I find completely regrettable. Please hear me when I say without malice, but with clarity – you might as well have stuck with using the term homosexual. It would be less insulting.

    I hope you can offer me some clarity Max as I have been enjoying your work in Elizabeth’s absence.

  • Max Lindenman

    Oh, I can do that in a heartbeat. I was addressing this to people who (it seemed to me) had adopted a rednecked attitude. I was trying to demonstrate how…crappy and silly it sounded.

    It’s more common than you think. I once ran across a blogger who nicknamed Rembert Weakland “Humbert Weakwrist.” I’m no apologist for Weakland, but I thought it was just tacky. When I looked through the comments and saw that nobody protested, I began to wonder whether the Catholic Church’s teachings don’t come most easily to people who deal in crude stereotypes. If that’s true, it needs to change.

  • Fran Rossi Szpylczyn

    Thank you for your quick and clear reply… I don’t know you well enough to know. (Elizabeth and I can tangle, but she does know me and I know her and we are even fond of one another, despite some different viewpoints.) And yes I am aware of the stereotypes and some surprisingly common viewpoints among Catholics. It is disturbing.

    I understand what you are saying about the tacky… There are those who I cannot subscribe to, but I also see no point in the name bending. The only two times I have ever deleted Facebook comments is when people used those tactics.

    Your clarification is appreciated and I continue to struggle. So be it!

  • Jan

    No one disputes the potential for a loving relationship between two people of either sex. What is and should be in dispute is the appropriateness of such relationships.

    Where do we draw the line? Are we arguing that because a particular behavior is no longer stigmatized that it should be universally accepted and condoned?

    I don’t think so – and further, since we are no longer free in this country to hurt anyone’s “feelings” I don’t think it’s possible to get an accurate representation of how people really feel about this. “Straight” folks can’t say anything about anyone, but of course gays and lesbians can go ahead and call me a homophobe with impunity.

    I find it utterly astounding that one group of people wields so much power – so much so that the judicial system has been hijacked by them and the rest of think that’s okay? We are just cower?

    I see you’ve changed your last line- I guess you probably think I’m one of them pearls?

  • francesca

    Thanks, Anchoress.

  • Manny

    I’m not sure what additional the Church can do. It continually says love the sinner, hate the sin. Homosexuality is clearly delineated as a sin in both the Old and New Testaments. The Church cannot change its theological teaching on the matter. I think the Church approaches all three of your points as you want them to, or at least to my perception they do. Well, I live in NYC so perhaps it might be different elsewhere. I don’t find the R.C. all that strident on the issue, but it does have to make its moral point. Homosexuality violates natural law.

    Wow, I really liked Jan’s comment above.

  • Jan

    What happened to the other comments that were here when I wrote mine?

    I must say it looks moronic because I sent it in irritation without a proper edit…but thanks, Manny :)

  • Marc

    Re your first point; I have no intention of giving up the use of the terms ‘heterosexual’ and ‘homosexual’, nor of using the term ‘gay’ in any sort of exclusive way.

    There is, so far as I can tell, and from the Catholic perspective, no point in pretending that that which the word in ordinary discourse refers to is the so-called ‘gay lifestyle’ and the persons who choose to live that ‘lifestyle’. I know from my own experience (am homosexual, and use both terms, depending on the persons involved and the circumstances) that this can alienate some people but that it is also the case that thoughtful people can understand the distinctions involved. Sorry, but making everyone comfortable in their self-circumscribed little worlds isn’t something I can in good conscience participate in.

  • Marc

    Think I needed a ‘not’ in there: ‘refers to isn’t the so-called…’.

  • Pete

    With respect to using the word “gay” vs. “homosexual” I think gay people prefere it b/c “sex is a dirty word (still) in the USA. Perhaps “homo-amorous” and “hetero-amorous” would be more appropriate, since it’s not sexual relations that separates the two types of persons, but rather their inclination to form loving (yes, including sexual) bonds with another perosn of the same (or opposite, depending) gender. Thoughts?

  • Cynthia Yockey, A Conservative Lesbian

    Because gays face discrimination in employment, quite a large number of gays choose entrepreneurial careers or professions, such as law. Another attraction that gays have to the law is that powerful religions that fail to impose their doctrines on the general public through persuasion traditionally have been successful in imposing their will through the coercive powers of secular governments by their ability to get laws passed. Since these laws are used to force gays into second-class citizenship, if not destroy them outright, it is not surprising that gays are disproportionately drawn to the law profession as part of their quest to gain equality.

  • Annie

    I agree with Fran that the Church’s teaching on sexuality is indeed a great challenge…especially in light of the devoted friendships that you describe above…

    However, I still think it is important to acknowledge that the marriage of a man and woman is a unique and procreative union that should be recognized as something different than other relationships, for the good of their potential families.

    Does that make me a homophobe?

  • Susan

    I am a same-sex attracted woman striving to live as a chaste and faithful Catholic.

    I do not refer to myself as “gay” or “lesbian” because I consider those words to be reductionist terms that don’t truly describe who I am. I am a child of God. Period.

    I would be devastated if Church documents or any form of pastoral outreach started to refer to me as “gay” or “lesbian”. Any authentic Catholic ministry would refrain from diminishing my identity by using those terms. As far as I know, Courage is the only ministry that does not use reductionist terminology and I applaud them for that.

    If other same-sex attracted people want to refer to themselves as “gay” or “lesbian”, fine, but please don’t assume that we ALL like those labels. There are many of us who don’t.

  • Holly in Nebraska

    So in “affirmative orthodoxy” it is suggested that the church abandon the “be afraid of hell” arguments in favor of the “see how great heaven is” arguments? That’s great, and I would generally agree with that approach on any topic of church teaching. But there does come a time, I think, that if people believe they have found a heaven on earth, then a reminder that hell still exists is not out of order. But how does one convince people that the “pains of hell” are real, especially in a world where everyone goes to heaven unless their name is Hitler or Stalin? Can there be any non-insulting way to do that?

  • Brian A Cook

    Max, thank you very much for doing your part to try to shed light on such a strongly polemical topic. I too try to understand the fullness of reality, not just the talking-points of the culture wars.

  • jkm

    What Brian said.

  • Beth

    I’m with Holly on this one.

    Whether or not any institution, religious or secular, has “popular prejudice” to “take advantage of” is of little importance at the end of the day. Whether or not any institution, religious or secular, advances the truth is what matters.

  • Dave

    The “rednecked” people you refer to are those who speak as Scripture speaks, and as ALL the saints have spoken. Male and female He created them, in the image of God He created them.

    The breathtaking intolerance of the libertines vis-a-vis their fellow citizens who just can’t bring themselves to approve of conduct that should not be discussed among Christians reveals the emphatic relevance of the Christian message. If it was truly irrelevant, it would be met with genuine bemusement.

    But as it is, the libertines have no objection to law firms representing (1) terrorists who’ve murdered their fellow citizens and (2) large corporations who knowingly endanger the lives of workers and consumers–and lie about it. But representing the people who support traditional marriage–now that is beyond the pale! Even if withdrawing from the representation now would violate ordinary legal ethics, representing “homophobes” is simply unacceptable!

  • doughboy

    what susan said (except i’m a guy).

  • Manny

    To Susan in post #13. God bless you, and you certainly are a child of God.

  • Brian A Cook

    I don’t want to get into any arguments here. It’s late at night. I just want to say one thing. continue to pray for all parties to be led to a fuller understanding of human sexuality, human relationships, and human sentiments.

  • Fran Rossi Szpylczyn

    I want to address Susan as others have and affirm her in what she reminds us to be attentive to… We are *all* children of God and I am grateful for her having said this.

    Add to that, Brian A. Cook in comment 21 is also shedding light in a way that I think that we are all wise to remember.

    Thank you both.

  • Pete

    Susan, please believe that I mean this with respect, but how is labelling yourself a “same-sex attracted woman” preferable to taking the label gay or lesbian? I have 2 points here: First, while I can understand the downside of “reductionist language” does it not also have a useful purpose in our culture: I am a blond, a husband, a Catholic, a lawyer, a man, a father, a vegitarian, a democrat, etc. People own these terms to identify themselves as both part of group A and NOT part of group B. I see more good in that, than bad. Secondly I personally know hundreds of gay people and they never use words like “same sex attracted.” In my experience, that phraseology mostly often is used by people who feel there is something wrong or sinful about gay people or the natural expression of their sexuality.

  • pam

    I was hoping Susan would respond because I’m sure she could do a better job than me but I don’t think Pete should have the last word.

    Pete, why do you feel the need to use labels at all? Do you really feel the need to separate yourself from all the brown haired, Jewish, meateating, republican, wives?

    Bottom line is that all sin is disgusting and left unchecked can separate you from God for all eternity. Whether you are heterosexual or homosexual, if you live an unchaste life you are putting your relationship with God in jeopardy.

  • Susan

    I’m sorry – this response is in two parts because the comment box keeps accusing me of posting spam…

    Part 1:

    Pete, since you asked – and only because you asked – I will explain why I don’t like the terms “gay“ and “lesbian”.

    As a faithful Catholic, I believe that homosexual activity is sinful, and that the desire for same-sex genital activity is objectively disordered. As a person who occasionally experiences same-sex attractions, I have no desire to build my identity around a desire which I consider to be objectively disordered and which can lead to sinful acts.

    Neither do I go around publicly identifying myself as a person with same-sex attractions because that is not the basis on which I interact with others. I have only identified myself thus on this message board to show where I’m coming from in this particular discussion. If I ever do feel the need to talk with someone about my attractions and share my experiences, I can always go to my local Courage group and discuss these things with the other members. There I can be supported in my efforts to live chastely.

  • Susan

    Part 2:

    I don’t think labeling oneself “gay” or “lesbian” is the equivalent of using designations such as “husband, Catholic, lawyer”, etc. None of these designations are describing an identity based on an objectively disordered inclination towards sinful activity – except perhaps the term “lawyer” (wink-smile – just kidding!).

  • Susan

    (I’m sorry – one more Part because of the spam filter)

    Part 3:

    The other problem I have with the labels “gay” and “lesbian” is that sexuality can often be a changing, developing thing, especially for adolescents. If one experiences same-se*x attractions as a teenager, it can be a mistake to lock yourself into a “gay” or “lesbian” identity when you still have more growing to do, because it’s still possible to eventually find yourself heterose*xually attracted as an adult.

    For these reasons, I find the terms “gay” and “lesbian” to be reductionist and restricting.

  • Tony

    The huge problem we’re having is separating the idea of sin from government and societal acceptance. There is no stigma to shacking up, there’s no stigma to using artificial birth control, there’s no stigma to committing adultery even (re: Bill Clinton and the infamous blue dress).

    Maybe the solution is to go back to right after the civil war and eliminate the whole idea of a marriage license. Right after the war, the government didn’t require marriage licenses for two white people who wanted to get married, nor did they require it for two black people (they considered that “animal husbandry”), but if a black and a white wanted to get married, they needed to get a license… permission from the government, if you will.

    The government thought that was so cool, that they would expand it to everybody. But getting married is a right. The couple owns their own bodies, they are no longer slaves of the state. The state does not have authority to require them “permission” to get married.

    It’s time for us to get the government out of the marriage business, and allow the churches to have their God-given authority over their own sacraments. If a church wants to marry gays or lesbians, it’s a church thing and nobody, especially the state, has the right to impose themselves in it.

    This will bypass the problem of teaching that homosexuality is normal in our required state schools. And we can get them out of the definition of sin. That is up to our churches to teach.