soft bigotry?

I recently read a post over on Michael Bayly’s blog, The Wild Reed, which was written in reaction to an op-ed piece by Fr. Jim Livingston that appeared in the September 11 edition of the Minneapolis StarTribune.

In the op-ed, Fr. Livingston addressed the question of the pastoral care of homosexual persons. It’s a timely matter, given the upcoming vote on a marriage amendment here in Minnesota and the rhetoric that surrounds it.

In response to Bayly’s claim that Fr. Livingston was expressing a form of bigotry, I wrote:

In what sense is Father Livingston’s article an expression of bigotry?

One definition of bigotry is “intolerance toward those who hold different opinions from oneself.”

Caricaturing others — and painting entire groups of people with a single brush — can be a form of bigotry. I did not see Fr. Livingston doing this in his article. In fact, he wrote, “The plain truth is that people with same-sex attractions experience them differently.”

It is one thing to disagree with an idea — such as the idea that homosexual relations are normal and ought to be endorsed by society. Someone can hold such a notion without being a bigot.

Holding beliefs up to scrutiny is one thing: it is called critical thinking. Attacking persons because of what they believe is another: it is called bigotry. I just don’t see any bigotry in what Fr. Livingston has to say here.

In response, Bayly wrote a second post to address my comment: More on the “Soft Bigotry” of Fr. James Livingston’s Recent Op-Ed

What follows is an extended response to that second post. I’ll discuss Bayly’s post a small section at a time.

That’s why it’s called “soft” bigotry, Clayton. There’s no overt name-calling or condemnation, but the whole argument is built on the belief that gay people are inherently inferior or, in the words of the Vatican, “intrinsically disordered.”

This is a misrepresentation of Church teaching. Having had many exchanges with Michael Bayly over the past seven years, I’m fairly certain that he is familiar with what the Church actually teaches about homosexuality. I’m referring, in particular, to what the Catechism of the Catholic Church has to say (paragraphs 2357-2359). But it’s worth looking at these paragraphs in detail, to get a sense of what it says and does not say.

2357 Homosexuality refers to relations between men or between women who experience an exclusive or predominant sexual attraction toward persons of the same sex. It has taken a great variety of forms through the centuries and in different cultures. Its psychological genesis remains largely unexplained. Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity,141 tradition has always declared that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.”142 They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved.

2358 The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These persons are called to fulfill God’s will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord’s Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition.

2359 Homosexual persons are called to chastity. By the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom, at times by the support of disinterested friendship, by prayer and sacramental grace, they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection.

First, notice that the Church uses the word “disordered” to describe homosexual acts and the inclination toward these acts. Much ink has been spilled over the use of this word in the Church’s teaching on homosexuality. Whatever else one might say about it, one thing seems clear: When the Church speaks about “disordered” acts and inclinations, the term is being used in a sense that is philosophical, anthropological and theological. All sinful acts, and the inclination to sinful acts (what the Church’s tradition calls concupiscence), are disordered. (See this article in the spring 1998 edition of Communio for further discussion of these points).

The Catechism does not indicate that persons are disordered. All human persons are willed into being by the Creator and are called to beatitude. (See, in particular, the introduction to the section on the moral life, which has an extensive section on the dignity of the human person… in particular, see our vocation to beatitude and man’s freedom.)

The Church does not teach that any person is disordered. The only way to get such a meaning from what the Church teaches is to say that a person is essentially defined by his or her inclinations or acts. And the Church doesn’t teach that. Otherwise, we’d be left with only two people in human history who could be said to be rightly ordered: Jesus of Nazareth and his mother.

Nor does the Church teach that those with a homosexual orientation are inferior. I challenge anyone to find a reference in Church teaching that would say otherwise. Instead, people with deep-seated homosexual tendencies are to be “accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity.” This seems to me to be the Church’s way of saying: Don’t treat these people as inferior… because they are not. There is no such thing as an ‘inferior’ human being.

Yet, surprisingly, Livingston fails to clearly articulate this foundational tenet of his argument. Indeed, his op-ed is quite “soft” when it came to spelling out what the clerical caste of the Roman Catholic Church actually says about gay people and relationships. Perhaps this is not surprising, given that he’s writing for a secular newspaper. Most people (including Catholics) don’t buy into the Vatican’s take on sexuality – gay or straight.

First off, notice that Bayly is again speaking in terms of “gay people and relationships,” whereas the Church’s teaching concerns homosexual acts and inclination. I mention this because a lot of political rhetoric in support of specifically gay rights, including an alleged ‘right to marriage’, depends on conflating these things. It does a disservice to gay people, and it does a disservice to the truth about what the Church actually teaches.

Bayly seems to imply that Fr. Livingston is soft-peddling the Church’s teaching in his op-ed. I disagree. Right in the heart of the article, Fr. Livingston writes:

Like it or not, heterosexual behavior is rooted in human nature and the universal moral law. Both the body and the Bible witness to this truth in their own ways.

Traditional marriage is rooted in this ancient if inconvenient truth, and it can’t be scolded or legislated away by one misguided generation. History is not and never will be on the side of gay marriage.

Fr. Livingston has hardly skirted the issue of what the Church teaches. (As an aside: the term ‘traditional marriage’ is a bit of a misnomer, I think, because it implies the existence of another kind. It implies that one can conceivably speak of marriage between members of the same sex. But what, exactly, would constitute a conjugal or marital act between members of the same sex? How does one consummate a so-called gay marriage?)

Bayly continues:

So let’s be clear: According to the framework from which the clerical caste operates, homosexuality is understood as a damaged or defected form of heterosexuality, as a condition of moral weakness (akin to alcoholism) resulting from “the Fall.”

The Church does not see homosexuality as a damaged or defected form of heterosexuality… but as a disordered expression of sexuality as such… as is all sexual activity outside of marriage. (If a man has sexual relations with a woman who is not his wife, to take one example, it would be absurd to classify the act as a damaged form of heterosexuality.) Bayly seems to be drawing upon a modern way of talking about sexuality that is, in fact, opposed to the Church’s anthropology. To quote from the Communio article:

The very language that has become entrenched and that we are obliged to use in speaking of homosexuality carries with it a second difficulty and a dangerous ambiguity, for it seems to imply that “sexuality” is an abstract and neutral term, to which two apparently symmetrical versions are added only later: “hetero-” and “homo-” sexuality. In this way, normal sexuality is redefined as a later specification and implicitly placed on the same level as abnormal behavior. The ideological and manipulative character of this contrived system of language must not escape us. The apparent symmetry is in reality false: sexuality is constitutively relative to the gender difference and is thus in and of itself “normally” heterosexual.

Back to Bayly:

It’s understood as a “disorder,” as an inclination to engage in morally evil acts. Archbishop Nienstedt is even on record as saying that those who encourage or support such acts are themselves cooperating in evil. That statement galvanized local Catholics. Indeed, over 300 of us gathered in protest on the steps of the Cathedral on a bitterly cold winter’s day. I think the local hierarchy learned something from that. Hence Livingston’s “friendlier” and “softer” op-ed. It’s a strategy that, quite frankly, I find quite dishonest.

I mean, I had one person write to me saying that he was “glad to see that Livingston said it was wrong for the Vatican to call LGB people disordered”! That’s the impression he received from Livingston’s op-ed. Yet I seriously doubt that Livingston is in any way challenging “official” church teaching.

I agree with Michael on this point: The person who wrote to him misunderstood Fr. Livingston’s article. But more on that later. I think he seriously misreads Livingston’s article as a new approach in response to recent protests. The approach Fr. Livingston takes is really nothing different from what is recommended in Persona Humana, the Catechism, or other church documents on the matter.

Speaking of which, the Vatican also teaches that gay people who fully embody their sexuality are engaging in immoral acts that separate them from God and endanger their very souls. They are also acts that supposedly threaten the common good.

So the Church teaches that gay people should not fully embody their sexuality? On what grounds? Does “to engage in homosexual acts” represent the way that homosexuals fully embody their sexuality? That may be how Michael sees it, but not the Church. I bring it up because the sentence begins with “The Church teaches…” and then immediately flips into the rhetoric of an anthropology that is radically opposed to the Church’s. Do celibate men and women, or single men and women who are exercising chastity according to their state in life, not fully embody their sexuality? Does the Church really tell them to shelve their sexuality because they are not married? I think not. The reality of human sexuality is not limited to genital activity. Sexuality, male and female, is a constitutive part of what it means to be human. In the words of Blessed John Paul II: “Human life is by its nature ‘co-educational’ and its dignity as well as its balance depend at every moment of history and in every place of geographic longitude and latitude on ‘who’ she shall be for him and he for her.” (General Audience of October 8, 1980)

Returning to Bayly:

Again, none of this is articulated by Livingston. Rather, he actually expresses gladness that Ron Bates, whose op-ed he is responding to, has come to accept himself as loved by God – an acceptance that Bates makes clear is linked to his acceptance of himself as a gay man capable of being in a loving same-sex relationship. Now, it could be argued that Livingston’s expression of gladness puts him at odds not only with Archbishop Nienstedt (after all, couldn’t being glad for someone and the life they’re living be construed as supporting and encouraging that life?) but also with the Vatican, in whose eyes it doesn’t matter if the “immoral” acts of gay people take place in a loving relationship and/or in a marriage sanctioned by the state. No, according to the Vatican, they are always and everywhere wrong.

Let’s see exactly what Fr. Livingston wrote about Ron Bates:

I am glad for Ron Bates that he was able to overcome the guilt and shame that burdened him for years and find that God loves him.

What was the gladness about? That Ron Bates overcame guilt and shame, and discovered that God loves him. That, it seems to me, is being glad for the right reasons. There’s no opposition between saying this and being clear that homosexual acts are disordered.

Fr. Livingston only mentions the word disordered once in the op-ed, in the section where he is talking about Saint Paul and his struggles with sinful tendencies:

St. Paul confided in a letter to the Corinthians (2 Cor 12:7-10) that he had a “thorn in his flesh” that wouldn’t go away. What God said to him was not “you’re going to hell” or “you are disordered.” He said, “My grace is sufficient for you.” In the midst of his weakness, Paul found both steady direction and contentment in his friendship with Christ.

Which brings us back to my first point: people are not disordered, and so it would be absurd for God to say “you are disordered” to any human being. Certain acts and inclinations are. And from the point-of-view of a pastoral response to people inclined to homosexual activity, it makes sense to note, truthfully, that God extends to these people — as he does to everyone inclined toward sin — His gift of grace, and the Church recommends to them everything that is useful in progressing toward beatitude, and in particular: the virtue of self-mastery, disinterested friendship, prayer, and the sacraments.

Bayly continues:

And why is this? Because gay people have something deep within them that, according to the Vatican, is inherently inferior to what it is that God actually intends for humans when it comes to sexuality. The Vatican views this “something,” this sexual orientation, as broken and wrong. Accordingly, it’s also viewed as dangerous. We know this because the clerical caste is spending millions of dollars supporting constitutional amendments and issuing politically-charged statements – ranging from Bishop Tobin’s hard-hitting stance to Livingston’s “soft” one – in a concerted effort to prevent not just Catholics but all members of society from recognizing and accepting gay people in their totality – a totality that includes sexual relationships. Such activism, together with the beliefs and presuppositions that it is built upon, is an expression of bigotry.

And that’s a reality that, try as they might, members of the clerical caste cannot soften or make palatable.

What is notable here is the way Bayly chooses to read the Church’s support for efforts to explicitly define marriage as the union of a man and a woman. He sees it as an attack on people of homosexual orientation, rather than an affirmation about the nature of marriage. That’s a decision he and many other gay activists make. At best, it is unhelpful, for it contributes unnecessarily to the erroneous conclusion that the Church wants gay people to understand themselves as second-class citizens. To misrepresent the Church’s motivations, as well as her teaching, is a service to no one.

In conclusion, I found Fr. Livingston’s op-ed to be striking the right tone. (I doubt he chose the headline — “Some people can make the gay go away” — which is extremely tangential to his argument.) He spoke truthfully and pastorally. I’m reminded of what then-Cardinal Ratzinger once wrote about the pastoral care of homosexual persons: “Only what is true can ultimately be pastoral. The neglect of the Church’s position prevents homosexual men and women from receiving the care they need and deserve.”

So what does the Church teach about the homosexual person? That he or she is, like all people, created in God’s image, endowed with freedom, called to beatitude, and deserving of the compassion and respect of others.

There’s nothing bigoted about that.

A few resources on the Church’s teaching:

2 thoughts on “soft bigotry?

  1. A lack of readiness to approve of homosexual activity does not, in any necessary way, imply a failure to accept the human dignity of those who engage in it.

    This is a possibility that gay activists refuse to acknowledge. They simply dismiss the idea of “hate the sin, love the sinner” as so much rhetorical claptrap. Of course they are free to do so, but it amounts to telling others what they do and do not believe, what they do and do not mean.

    Since I wrote this post, I have been looking more closely at the concept of disorder as it relates to church teaching. The Catechism of the Catholic Church actually suggests that all persons subject to the Fall are disordered (paragraph 377):

    “The ‘mastery’ over the world that God offered man from the beginning was realized above all within man himself: mastery of self. The first man was unimpaired and ordered in his whole being because he was free from the triple concupiscence that subjugates him to the pleasures of the senses, covetousness for earthly goods, and self-assertion, contrary to the dictates of reason.”

    I read this text as saying that the “ordering in his whole being” was lost in the Fall. That would suggest that all persons subject to the effects of original sin are disordered.

    If everyone is, in some way, disordered in their being, then it becomes difficult to sustain the charge that homosexual persons are somehow understood as inferior to everyone else.

    I will acknowledge, however, that one could legitimately ask why the language of disorder is not more broadly used in the Church’s treatment of morality.

    Perhaps the squeaky wheel gets the grease.

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