Why Benedict XVI is wrong on same-sex marriage

Pope Benedict XVI

Pope Benedict XVI

According to Pope Benedict XVI, God actually does make mistakes. Despite what most religious people from practically every tradition have believed for millennia, the all-knowing and all-powerful Creator of the Universe isn’t quite perfect after all. That’s the only logical conclusion one can reach if one takes at face value Benedict XVI’s recent statements regarding same-sex marriage during his annual Christmas message to the Roman Curia. (The full text in the media and from the Vatican is worth reading, as well as the story as reported, with excerpts, in the Vatican’s Daily Bulletin.)

Referring to “a very detailed and profoundly moving study” by the Chief Rabbi of France, Gilles Bernstein, that describes “the attack we are currently experiencing on the true structure of the family,” Benedict states that:

“…it is now becoming clear that the very notion of being – of what being human really means – is being called into question. … According to this philosophy [of gender], sex is no longer a given element of nature, that man has to accept and personally make sense of: it is a social role that we choose for ourselves, while in the past it was chosen for us by society. … People dispute the idea that they have a nature, given by their bodily identity, that serves as a defining element of the human being. They deny their nature and decide that it is not something previously given to them, but that they make it for themselves. According to the biblical creation account, being created by God as male and female pertains to the essence of the human creature. This duality is an essential aspect of what being human is all about, as ordained by God.”

Benedict is clearly an intelligent man, but there are so many problems with his words here that it’s almost hard to know where to begin. The fact that he questions sex as something that we have “to personally make sense of” boggles the mind and makes one wonder how, or if, the pope has ever explored his own sexuality! Gender or sexual identity is not something that people “make…for themselves,” nor is it given to individuals by society. It is, rather, something that individuals discover for themselves. Certainly one’s physical body is an essential element of this discovery, and for many millions of individuals, this journey of discovery follows a similar trajectory, finding themselves attracted naturally to members of the opposite sex and forming relationships that lead to what is so facilely labeled “the traditional family.”

HoldingHandsBenedict, however, seems unable to recognize that within the immense diversity of God’s creation there is more than one possible expression of human sexuality, more than one possible path our journeys of self-discovery take. In addition to the physical body we each have, our own individual psychology and character, indeed our very souls, are essential in that self-discovery, helping find answers for ourselves to the eternal question, “Who am I?”  The nature of the individual person fully includes one’s body, but it is not defined by one’s body; reduced to a sort of biologism that is behind this line of papal thought. One’s sexual identity is part of who we are as individuals, and it is an identity that is discovered and embraced, not created or chosen at will.

Who among us has stood back from our own life and experience, surveyed a smorgasbord of gender options and pondered the question, “Hmmm? What gender should I choose for myself?” and then moved into action based on that choice? Ask any human adult on the face of this earth, “when did you choose your sexual orientation? what factors went into your deciding to be attracted to men/women? how old were you when you said to yourself, ‘I think I’ll be heterosexual (or homosexual, etc)’?” Any honest person will say, “I never did such a thing; I never made such a choice. It’s simply something I came to know about myself; it’s my nature and part of who I am.”

Benedict goes on to state his continued critique of what he understands as a flawed perspective even more bluntly:

“From now on there is only the abstract human being, who chooses for himself what his nature is to be.”

The pope claims that those who recognize the reality of gender, gender identity, and sexual orientation have reduced the human person to a mere abstraction. For those who are familiar with the pope’s appeals to Natural Law theory in support for his condemnation of the rights of God’s homosexual sons and daughters, could the papal logic be more mixed up than this?  It is precisely the “abstract human being” that the pope himself wants individuals to be, fitting into his notion of a generic version of human nature, based not on the lived experience of flesh and blood human beings, but on his abstract and generalized pictures of male and female. Human persons, however, are not abstract; we are concrete, individual, flesh and blood creatures — billions and billions of us as diverse as are the combinations of genes that make us who we are.  And, each and every one of us as individuals — not abstracts — represent the image and likeness of the Creator.

The pope’s words reveal a conflict between two positions that the Church wants to hold — two positions that are inherently contradictory. The first is the Church’s rightful recognition (as seen in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, CCC) that sexual orientation is a God-given reality; and the second is subsequent statements that a homosexual orientation (or “inclination,” to use the Church’s word) is “disordered.”

You can’t have it both ways — unless you believe in a God who make mistakes. If sexual orientation is a choice (and no one is claiming that it is), then Benedict’s conclusions about a homosexual orientation/inclination as “disordered” could arguably be correct (but then it wouldn’t be correct to describe it as an “inclination,” would it?).  If, on the other hand, sexual orientation is not a choice, but a God-given reality, then by that very fact it is good, no matter where on the spectrum of possibilities we find ourselves as individuals.

Confirmation Confusion in Minnesota (and Canon Law)

Canon Lawyer Edward Peters

Edward Peters, JD, JCD is a canon lawyer. I occasionally follow his blog, as he sometimes has interesting posts about his take on Church matters in the public eye. I say “occasionally” because his blog does not allow comments or feedback, so I prefer not to give my own time to bloggers who do not allow for such engagement. After all, isn’t engagement and interaction what blogging and the tools of social media are all about?  In this regard, I think Dr. Peters confuses “blogging” with “lecturing” … but I digress.

That said, his recent post, Confirmation and advocacy of ‘gay marriage’ [sic] cries out for response.

Two points:

First, my “[sic]” notation is to draw attention to the fact that Dr. Peters is one of those folks who puts the phrase gay marriage in quotations or otherwise off-sets it as a means of communicating that they do not think such a thing is real.  If he were speaking to you in person, you could just see him holding up both hands and making finger-quotes as he voiced that phrase, as if to say, “they call it ‘gay marriage,’ but we know such a thing doesn’t really exist.” They think that God’s gay sons and daughters — living their full humanity, including their sexuality, as given by God — are incapable of entering into marital relationships with someone of the same sex. Instead of seeing with open eyes and thoughtful minds the evidence from so many human sciences, including theology  (not to mention the lived experience of millions of gay men and women living in committed relationships), Dr. Peters prefers the blinders of ecclesiastical legality to the truth self-evident to so many.

Lennon Cihak

Second, Dr. Peters’ post discusses the situation of a young man who has been denied the Sacrament of Confirmation for his opposition to Minnesota’s recent ballot initiative that would have included in that state’s constitution language limiting marriage to one man and one woman. Peters focuses his brief post on the meaning of “proper disposition” as one of the criteria necessary for the Faithful to share in the sacraments.

I do not take issue with this basic principle of sacramental theology. The sacraments in our Tradition are indeed not to be taken lightly and must be appreciated as the gifts they are, a means by which God’s People share more fully in God’s grace.  Sacramental participation requires a minimal understanding of what a particular sacrament is all about; a freely-expressed desire to share in the sacrament; and the expressed intention to live one’s life as best one can with the fundamentals of Christian faith.

Peters, however, goes on to observe the distinction between “internal disposition” and “external disposition” as follows:

Generally “proper disposition” is not a question of internal disposition (such as interior faith, fervor, or grace) but rather of external disposition (public demeanor, dress, and conduct). The state of a would-be recipient’s soul is not determinable, of course, but his or her attitudes and conduct are observable (we’re talking Facebook, no?), and potentially actionable.

In all fairness, Peters does not state explicitly that the pastor’s action in this situation was correct. A benign interpretation of Peters’ post could be merely that it points out that Church order allows for a pastor to refuse the sacraments in certain circumstances. Priests and pastors do and should have this right. After all, a pastor can and must deny marriage to someone who is already married, or Eucharist to someone who is not Baptized and has no intention of living the Christian life (as they, the potential recipient, would declare).

Nonetheless, a more likely interpretation of his post is that Peters supports the pastor’s decision — and it is with this, i.e. that the pastor’s decision was correct, that I (and others) take issue. Despite what Dr. Peters’ and the USCCB say formally about civil marriage, the fact is that a majority of American Catholics support the rights of God’s LGBT sons and daughters to marry the person they love. Would Dr. Peters deny the sacraments to these millions of Catholics? Or only to those who wear a rainbow ribbon on their lapel or post a supportive photo online? And, of course, why be limited to support for civil-marriage as the litmus test for deciding appropriate “external disposition”? There are countless issues where millions of Catholics hold different positions than do official Church leaders — civil divorce, war, immigration, capital punishment, to name but a few.  Would every Catholic, for example, who holds that civil divorce should be allowed in a pluralistic society likewise be denied the sacraments?

My point is this:  the denial of confirmation to this young man was a bad decision.  Using the sacraments as tools of discipline (especially when that discipline is misguided) is a bad idea.  It’s a lesson that this pastor — and the US bishops — need to learn.

Evidence, not Opinion: What the bishops should embrace about homosexuality

I spent this past week at a conference in San Francisco on ADHD, the annual conference of the non-profit organization where I work. The closing plenary was by a renowned neurologist, Dr. Martha Denckla from Baltimore’s Kennedy-Krieger Institute. Dr. Denckla is a true scientist, relying on the facts and what empirical data show in drawing her research conclusions.

During the Q & A after her presentation she was asked by one attendee, “What’s your opinion of [some named product making claims about alleviating ADHD symptoms]?” Without missing a beat, Dr. Denckla replied, “I prefer not to have opinions. I prefer evidence over opinions.”

Russian icon from the collection at Hillwood Museum.

Such wisdom would serve well current Church leaders who continue to bury their heads in the sand, choosing to remain blind to the incontrovertible evidence about what it means to be gay. As the US Catholic Bishops have their fall meeting in Baltimore this week and discuss (as no doubt they will) what to do in response to last week’s election, the wisdom of those words deserves repeating. The bishops (both in the US and around the world, including Rome) would do well to take a dose of humility for a change and simply listen. They should listen to the evidence of the lives of LGBT people, their families and friends, as demonstrated in the favorable votes in four states on same-sex marriage. They should put aside their opinions, based as they are on outdated and incorrect understandings of human sexuality, and they should listen to the evidence that tells us that:

  • being gay is a given, not a choice;
  • being gay for a gay person is just as ‘natural’ as being straight is for a straight person;
  • the struggle for LGBT rights — including the right to marry the person you love — is about gay people and in no way diminishes the marriages of straight people.

As the US and worldwide bishops continue to look away from the clear evidence of research and most especially the evidence of the lived experience of God’s LGBT children, they run the risk of being guilty of remaining in what moral theology calls “vincible ignorance.”  Unlike “invincible ignorance” which cannot be overcome due to one’s own efforts, vincible ignorance is that lack of knowledge for which one is morally responsible. As shepherds of God’s People, bishops have an obligation to know the people they are called to serve.

They have an obligation to listen to the stories of gay men and women who live lives of deep Christian faith and who live in faithful, committed relationships.  They need to listen to the stories of parents whose gay children have suffered bullying and abuse at the hands of others inspired, in part, by the hateful language of “disordered” and “unnatural.”  Perhaps especially they need to listen to the stories of their own lives (many bishops, no doubt, are gay themselves) as well as the stories of their family members and friends.

The lived experience of God’s People is not only a legitimate source of insight into clarifying and articulating anew the Christian message in every age; it is a required source of such insight. If we really believe that God is actively involved in the lives of His People, then it is the evidence of God’s action in human lives that deserves recognition, respect, and support.

UPDATE: Worth the Applause: Homily of Fr. Richard Lawrence on MD’s Question 6

UPDATE: Apparently in response to a request from Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, the video of Fr. Lawrence’s homily has been removed. A request to the parish and to the video owner for information about its removal have gone unanswered.

It is sad indeed not only that the archbishop would make such a request inhibiting the free discussion of ideas so that Catholics can make well-informed decisions when entering the voting booth, but also that those responsible for the video’s removal would succumb to such pressure.  Fortunately, the audio of the homily remains available on the website of St. Vincent de Paul where Fr. Lawrence serves as pastor. Homily of Fr. Richard Lawrence, October 28, 2012 (parish website).

And, in case the audio is eventually removed, a copy of the mp3 file may also be found here:  Homily of Fr. Richard Lawrence, October 28, 2012.


As any churchgoer can tell you, it’s the rare homily that is met with applause.  I don’t remember one of my own homilies ever receiving an ovation, though I suspect if it ever happens in the future, it will be out of thankfulness that I’ve stopped talking!

This homily, however, is definitely worth the applause it receives.  We need more Catholic priests and pastors to do what Fr. Richard Lawrence, pastor of St. Vincent de Paul Parish (his parish website “bio” is worth reading!), did this past weekend in Baltimore.  With respect and balance and intellectual honesty, he does what a pastor should do when it comes to helping parishioners form their consciences in matters of public import. Unlike Archbishop Lori, whose letter he reads at the beginning, Fr. Lawrence does not tell his parishioners how to vote on Ballot Question 6: The Civil Marriage Protection Act.  Rather, he encourages them to continue to form their consciences faithfully, as best they can, and to vote accordingly.

102812 Homily from Jerome Bird on Vimeo.

MD Del. Emmett Burns Gets a Civics Lesson: Married Gays “won’t magically turn you into a lustful cockmonster”

“I am requesting that you take the necessary action, as a National Football Franchise Owner, to inhibit such expressions from your employee and that he be ordered to cease and desist from such injurious actions.”

And just what “expressions” and “injurious actions” is Maryland Delegate Emmett Burns (who is, embarrassingly, a Democrat) referring to? It’s simply the public support that Baltimore Ravens player Brendon Ayanbedejo has expressed for marriage equality — the right of same-sex couples to be civilly married. In a letter to the Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti (see below), the delegate from Baltimore County seems to need a basic civics lesson.  Does he not understand the meaning of free speech in an open, democratic society?  Does he not get that people have the right to express their views freely, publicly, openly — without fear of reprisal from either government or employer?  How do such individuals who lack a basic understand of what Democracy is get elected to public office?

Thankfully, a fellow-NFL player responded to Del. Burns in a way that he probably can understand.  While extremely thoughtful, reasonable, and articulate in an NPR interview on the topic, Minnesota Vikings player Chris Kluwe leaves no doubts in his written response supporting Ayanbedejo and reminding Del. Burns of some basic points of history and American Constitutional democracy.  The full letter (and reprinted below) is definitely worth a read — bitingly sarcastic, reasoned, and hilarious all at the same time —  but his final post script sums up pretty well where he’s coming from:

P.S. I’ve also been vocal as hell about the issue of gay marriage so you can take your “I know of no other NFL player who has done what Mr. Ayanbadejo is doing” and shove it in your close-minded, totally lacking in empathy piehole and choke on it. Asshole.

Now I’d just like a theologian to craft a letter like Kluwe’s to Archbishop Timothy Dolan! 🙂

Letter from MD Delegate Emmet C. Burns:

Letter from Vikings punter Chris Kluwe to Delegate Burns:

Dear Emmett C. Burns Jr.,

I find it inconceivable that you are an elected official of Maryland’s state government. Your vitriolic hatred and bigotry make me ashamed and disgusted to think that you are in any way responsible for shaping policy at any level. The views you espouse neglect to consider several fundamental key points, which I will outline in great detail (you may want to hire an intern to help you with the longer words):

1. As I suspect you have not read the Constitution, I would like to remind you that the very first, the VERY FIRST Amendment in this founding document deals with the freedom of speech, particularly the abridgment of said freedom. By using your position as an elected official (when referring to your constituents so as to implicitly threaten the Ravens organization) to state that the Ravens should “inhibit such expressions from your employees,” more specifically Brendon Ayanbadejo, not only are you clearly violating the First Amendment, you also come across as a narcissistic fromunda stain. What on earth would possess you to be so mind-boggingly stupid? It baffles me that a man such as yourself, a man who relies on that same First Amendment to pursue your own religious studies without fear of persecution from the state, could somehow justify stifling another person’s right to speech. To call that hypocritical would be to do a disservice to the word. Mindfucking obscenely hypocritical starts to approach it a little bit.

2. “Many of your fans are opposed to such a view and feel it has no place in a sport that is strictly for pride, entertainment, and excitement.” Holy fucking shitballs. Did you seriously just say that, as someone who’s “deeply involved in government task forces on the legacy of slavery in Maryland”? Have you not heard of Kenny Washington? Jackie Robinson? As recently as 1962 the NFL still had segregation, which was only done away with by brave athletes and coaches daring to speak their mind and do the right thing, and you’re going to say that political views have “no place in a sport”? I can’t even begin to fathom the cognitive dissonance that must be coursing through your rapidly addled mind right now; the mental gymnastics your brain has to tortuously contort itself through to make such a preposterous statement are surely worthy of an Olympic gold medal (the Russian judge gives you a 10 for “beautiful oppressionism”).

3. This is more a personal quibble of mine, but why do you hate freedom? Why do you hate the fact that other people want a chance to live their lives and be happy, even though they may believe in something different than you, or act different than you? How does gay marriage, in any way shape or form, affect your life? If gay marriage becomes legal, are you worried that all of a sudden you’ll start thinking about penis? “Oh shit. Gay marriage just passed. Gotta get me some of that hot dong action!” Will all of your friends suddenly turn gay and refuse to come to your Sunday Ticket grill-outs? (Unlikely, since gay people enjoy watching football too.)

I can assure you that gay people getting married will have zero effect on your life. They won’t come into your house and steal your children. They won’t magically turn you into a lustful cockmonster. They won’t even overthrow the government in an orgy of hedonistic debauchery because all of a sudden they have the same legal rights as the other 90 percent of our population—rights like Social Security benefits, child care tax credits, Family and Medical Leave to take care of loved ones, and COBRA healthcare for spouses and children. You know what having these rights will make gays? Full-fledged American citizens just like everyone else, with the freedom to pursue happiness and all that entails. Do the civil-rights struggles of the past 200 years mean absolutely nothing to you?

In closing, I would like to say that I hope this letter, in some small way, causes you to reflect upon the magnitude of the colossal foot in mouth clusterfuck you so brazenly unleashed on a man whose only crime was speaking out for something he believed in. Best of luck in the next election; I’m fairly certain you might need it.

Sincerely,
Chris Kluwe

P.S. I’ve also been vocal as hell about the issue of gay marriage so you can take your “I know of no other NFL player who has done what Mr. Ayanbadejo is doing” and shove it in your close-minded, totally lacking in empathy piehole and choke on it. Asshole.

“First stop slamming doors…”

We don’t teach meditation to the young monks. They are not ready for it until they stop slamming doors.
~ Thich Nhat Hanh to Thomas Merton in 1966

“Charlotte Pastor Mark Harris and Cindy Marrelli of Raleigh celebrate the passage of the N.C. marriage amendment during an election night party at the North Raleigh Hilton.”

I began my morning by reading the daily meditation from Richard Rohr, which begins with the above. I then saw several pictures online and in print picturing so-called “pastors” jubilantly celebrating the passage of Amendment 1 in North Carolina, and it struck me that these are exactly the kind of people that Fr. Rohr is talking about when he comments:

First stop slamming doors, and then you can begin in the kindergarten of spirituality. Too many priests, bishops, and ministers are still slamming doors.

No one who supports the right of God’s LGBT children to live their lives honestly, openly, freely and without fear is surprised to hear that much (most?) of the bigotry that opposes such honesty and freedom is rooted in religion. Nonetheless, it never ceases to shock me in one way or another when the strong-arm of this bigotry exercises its might as it did yesterday in North Carolina.

The picture of a “pastor” raising his clenched-fist, smiling and expressing support for the fact that a majority of his fellow citizens have slammed the door on the faces of so many tens of thousands of their brothers and sisters — well, this just doesn’t seem very “pastoral,” now does it? This man — and too many other religious administrators (I won’t call them “leaders”) — would probably not yet be ready to begin to take the baby-steps that truly faithful people people take when they seek to know the path to God in humility and compassion.

Some may say this sounds judgmental, even a bit harsh. To that I plead guilty. But I think a little anger is justified when those whose actions seeking to deny the fundamental rights of others are temporarily successful. Thankfully, there’s that thing called the arc of history … and towards a better world characterized by Justice and Peace I hope and pray it will continue to bend!

Gay, by the Grace of God

The headline of today’s Washington Post was expected, though no less wonderful! It announces the approval of legislation in Maryland to recognize same-sex marriage (Gay marriage bill approved by Md. Senate). What’s not so wonderful is the accompanying story, For black clergy, issue is not a civil rights one.

As I read the article and its direct quotations from the story’s central character, Rev. Nathaniel Thomas, I couldn’t help but be reminded of something I had read just an hour earlier. In his daily mediation, Rev. Richard Rohr writes this:

I would like to say that the goal in general is to be serious about the word of God, serious about the scriptures. We have often substituted being literal with being serious and they are not the same! (Read that a second time, please.) I would like to make the point that in fact literalism is to not take the text seriously at all! Pure literalism in fact avoids the real impact, the real message. Literalism is the lowest and least level of meaning in a spiritual text.

The problem with Rev. Thomas’s position, and the position of so many other religious leaders — including Catholic bishops and other clergy — who oppose same-sex marriage and other civil (and religious!!!) rights for gay people on religious or biblical grounds is that they are reading the Scriptures at the lowest and least level of meaning. Notwithstanding the fact that even at this lowest level of literal meaning they misunderstand what the text is saying, they fail to see the issue of homosexuality within the context of the entire Christian message, instead of the very few scriptural passages which they repeatedly cite and take out of context.

According to the Post,

Not long ago, Thomas says, a young gay man came to him and said, “Look, I can’t help being how I am.” The minister embraced the man.

“We are all sinners,” Thomas says. “Christ never turned anyone away. People come to us all the time with issues, some with a stealing demon, some with urges and desires. But love doesn’t mean you go along to get along. I counsel them by showing them God’s word; some receive the word, and some reject it.”

Despite his attempts to “soften” his rhetoric and appear less condemning that many fellow preachers, Thomas’s words are no less offensive and off the mark. I suspect that back in 1865, many white preachers said this or something similar in response to the desires of enslaved people to be free: “But the Word of God (see Ephesians 6:5) clearly says that slaves should obey their earthy masters. So while I embrace you for who you are, I must reject your sin of wanting freedom in direct contradiction to God’s Word.” Even today’s biblical literalist would see that such a position is not only morally untenable, but that it is an abuse of Scripture to claim it supports maintaining an institution which subjugates one group of people to another and which denies them their fundamental human dignity.

I’m thankful that my own Church recognizes that one does not choose one’s sexuality. The Church teaches that homosexuality is not a choice, but is indeed part of the spectrum of human experience. (Yes, I know that recent decades have seen a shift to the righ’ on this, but declarations that homosexuality is “intrinsically disordered” are on theologically shaky ground when seen from a more complete Christian anthropology). This teaching is supported by theology, the life sciences, social science, and most especially the lived experience of LGBT people.

Put simply, those whom God has created gay — or straight, or blue-eyed, or left-handed, or black, or [insert any immutable human quality or trait] — are such by the Grace of God. For societies and churches and religious bodies to deny this and its implications is to put themselves above God and the wonder of His creation — a creation revealed in the beauty and mystery of every human person, even gay ones.