religion

First published at Between the Lines News on January 15, 2008

In terms of gay-rights progress, brace yourself for a difficult year.

This is not because things are getting worse for gay and lesbian people. It’s because the national conversation on gay-rights issues is getting harder.

One reason is that, as cliché as it sounds, we are more polarized than ever. Gone are the days when House Speaker Tip O’ Neill could sharply criticize President Reagan by day and play cards with him after 6 p.m.

And even if Obama changes the tone in Washington, it will take a long time for that to trickle down. It has become too easy to surround oneself solely with like-minded people. (The internet is one key factor.)

The result is a bunch of echo chambers, outside of which opponents seem not just wrong, but borderline-insane.

The second reason is that the gay community’s specific goals have shifted somewhat. We are no longer asking merely to be left alone, as when we were fighting sodomy laws and police harassment. Our central political goal, for better or for worse, has become marriage.

Marriage is not merely a private contract between two individuals. It is also an agreement between those individuals and the larger community. It requires, both legally and socially, that community’s support. And so the old “leave me alone” script no longer really works.

The third and most important reason why the conversation is getting harder is that the gay community is at a crossroads regarding how we treat our opponents.

On the one hand we talk about reaching out, promoting dialogue, emphasizing common ground.

On the other hand we are quick to label our opponents as hate-filled bigots.

This combination obviously won’t work. A bigot is someone whose views, virtually by definition, are beyond the pale of polite discussion.

One sees this contrast in the fracas over Obama’s choice of Pastor Rick Warren to deliver the invocation at his inauguration.

Compared to most evangelical pastors, Warren is a moderate, who focuses on common-ground issues such as poverty and AIDS over the usual culture-war stuff.

But Warren supported Prop. 8, the California initiative that stripped marriage rights from gays and lesbians. (He has since suggested some possible support for civil unions.)

Obama’s camp is taking the “big tent” approach, acknowledging differences with Warren but emphasizing shared values. In a similar vein, Melissa Etheridge has opened a dialogue with Warren.

Most gay-rights leaders, by contrast, have decried Obama’s choice of Warren as a slap in the face. As one friend put it, “it’s like inviting a segregationist to lead the invocation—I don’t care what other good things the guy has done.”

And there’s the rub: Warren does indeed espouse a “separate but equal” legal status for gays and lesbians (at best). Should we treat him the way we treat segregationists?

Before answering, remember that the majority of Californians, and a larger majority of the rest of the country, hold the same position as Warren on marriage. So does Obama himself (though he did oppose Prop. 8).

So in asking whether inviting Warren to lead the invocation is akin to inviting a segregationist to do so, we are also asking whether the vast majority of Americans are akin to segregationists.

It’s a painful question to confront. And the only fair answer is “yes and no.”

On the merits, yes. For practical purposes, no.

From where I stand, the arguments against marriage equality look about as bad as the arguments for segregation. They commit the same fallacies; they hide behind the same (selective reading of) scripture; they are often motivated by the same fears.

But I’m mindful of the fact that “from where I stand” includes decades of hindsight regarding segregation.

Today, it shocks us to read things like the following:

“I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with White people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the White and black races which will ever FORBID the two races living together on terms of social and political equality.”

The segregationist who wrote that? Abraham Lincoln.

It is easy now to paint all segregationists as hatemongers, waving pitchforks and frothing at the mouth. Easy, but quite wrong.

The fact is that most segregationists were people not unlike, say, my grandmothers, both of whom were wonderful, loving, decent human beings, and both of whom—much to my embarrassment—opposed interracial marriage.

Their reasons had to do with tradition and the well-being of children. Sound familiar?

My grandmothers were not hatemongers. They were products of their time. So was Lincoln, so is Rick Warren, and so are you and I, more or less.

I don’t mean for a moment to let Rick Warren off the hook. He ought to know better. Maybe someday he will.

For now, labeling him and the majority of Americans as “bigots” won’t make that day come any faster.

In the meantime, brace yourself for a bumpy ride.

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First published in Between the Lines on May 3, 2007

This past weekend I attended a big Italian wedding in New York. I grew up on Long Island, in a family where big Italian weddings are a staple. This one had all the usual trappings: loud music, louder relatives, tons of food.

This one, however, had two grooms.

If you were just passing through the reception hall, you might not have noticed. The male-female ratio was a bit high, but not by much: most of the 140 guests were from the grooms’ families. There was a “Nana” (Grandma) dressed in silver from head to toe: silver hair, silver dress, silver shoes. There were buxom aunts with too much makeup; uncles with big moustaches and perfectly slicked hair; excited mothers, proud fathers. Children ran about yanking at their bows and neckties, their Sunday clothes increasingly askew as the day progressed. A DJ kept prodding people to dance, and no one—not even the wait staff—batted an eye at the handful of same-sex couples swaying amidst the others.

At one point my partner leaned over to me and said, “This feels weird.”

I knew what he meant. And it wasn’t just the weirdness that accompanies all weddings: the gaudy pageantry; the forced intimacy with distant relatives and acquaintances; the cheesy running commentary from the DJ (“on this day, the most important day of their lives…”—ugh). It was the fact that, where we would normally be stealth attendees, we were suddenly the main event. This was not some newfangled “commitment ceremony”—it was a big, old-fashioned Italian wedding, with grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, nephews, godparents, and so on.

Most gays have a strange relationship with weddings. We are stereotypically (and often in fact) connected with their planning and execution, as florists, designers, musicians, priests, and so on. But as guests we are typically outsiders. We gather to celebrate love in a world that doesn’t want to hear about ours. We sit at tables with relatives and friends who may not know that we’re gay and may not like it if they do. We are warned not to “spoil things” by “making a scene.” So when the slow songs play, we dance with Nana. Like the guys on “Queer Eye,” we help plan others’ events and then retreat invisibly into the background. I’ve always found it rather cruel.

But not here. And that was weird…in a good way.

One of the grooms has been a friend of mine for 24 years. Bob and I attended high school together: Chaminade, an all-male Catholic prep school on Long Island. In every class we shared I sat behind him, not because of any particular bond between us, but because we sat alphabetically and his last name begins with “Cors”.

Lunch was the only time we could choose our seating partners, and there we sat together again, along with about a half-dozen other guys over the course of our four years there. At least five of those guys have turned out to be gay (another is a Catholic priest whose sexual orientation I’ve never bothered to ask). Go ahead and joke about “gaydar,” but somehow we found kindred spirits years before any of us dared to admit—to ourselves or others—our sexual orientation.

Had you told me then that decades later I would be attending the gay wedding of one of my lunch buddies, I would have prayed for you (I was very Catholic then; skepticism set in later). Had you added that I would be attending with my own male partner, I would have…well, I would have prayed for me. By then I was aware enough of my burgeoning gayness to fear it.

So it was particularly sweet for me, in the same week I received the invitation to our twenty-year high school reunion, to stand up with Bob’s family and friends and witness his wedding to Joe. It felt good to say “Congratulations” to his Mom and Dad in the receiving line—the same Mom and Dad who posed for graduation pictures with us two decades earlier. It was delightful (though a sobering reminder of my age) to meet his younger sister’s children, some of whom will soon be thinking about high school themselves.

Political battles are important and necessary. But the fight for marriage equality will ultimately be won only when our nanas and aunts and uncles and cousins and nieces and nephews see our marriages as the family-extending events that they are. Congratulations, Joe, Bob, and family.

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First published in Between the Lines on April 18, 2007

In a recent column I wrote about a Christian couple who invited me to dinner during one of my lecture tours. I first met the husband when he stood up during a Q&A session after one of my talks. He described himself as theologically conservative but politically liberal, opposed to same-sex religious unions but supportive of civil marriage and adoption for gays, skeptical of reconciling biblical faith with homosexuality but open to arguments for doing so. We met for coffee later, and then he and his wife—who had previously been complete strangers to me—invited me to their home for dinner.

There we had a delightful evening discussing many subjects, including the impending wedding of my partner Mark’s sister, an event which would bring me together with my in-laws, who despise me for “corrupting” their son. That story prompted the wife, during grace before the meal, to call God’s blessing on me, my relationship, and the impending family gathering. Though I am not a religious believer, I was deeply touched by this act of kindness, and so I wrote about it. I had hoped that my account of the evening might show what people of good will can accomplish when they focus more on their shared values than on their differences; more on listening and learning than on winning.

It should have come as no surprise to me that Peter LaBarbera completely missed that point, instead using the column as an occasion for his usual anti-gay drivel. LaBarbera, who operates the website “Americans For Truth (About Homosexuality),” posted a response at the Independent Gay Forum which read in part:

“[The wife] erred in asking a holy God to bless a relationship based on sexual misbehavior clearly condemned by the same “God-breathed” Scripture that [she] surely regards as inerrant. [She] may and probably did have some secret prayer regarding your relationship—say, that it become non-sexual—but by asking God, before you, to “bless” it wrongly implied God’s acceptance, and thereby misled you about the Christian faith.”

For the record, I did not take the wife’s blessing to imply approval of the sexual aspect of my relationship. As I wrote in the original column, the husband had voiced his theological misgivings about homosexuality, and I had no reason to think his wife’s views differed on this point. Rather, I assumed that she was simply calling God’s love upon us—no more, no less. As another respondent, “Casey”, wrote eloquently:

“By praying that your partnership be blessed—that God’s hand would be upon it, and His Spirit would open the eyes of Mark’s family that their cruelty was wrong—this couple was behaving in a most Christian manner…. For somebody who is deeply skeptical of homosexuality, yet sees the humanity and suffering of the way Mark’s parents treat you, the ultimate sacrifice possible, the act of radical love, was to give up their certainty of what is right and wrong and just love you by offering that prayer and accepting you into their home…and letting God sort it out.”

Unlike Casey, I wouldn’t say that this couple “gave up their certainty of what is right and wrong” that evening, any more than I gave up mine. Rather, we distinguished: there are times to moralize, and then there are times to listen to people, to welcome people, to love people.

I would even agree with LaBarbera that loving people sometimes means telling them that they’re wrong. Sometimes, but not every moment. Sometimes it means telling them that they’re right about certain things (as I did with LaBarbera in the first sentence of this paragraph). Sometimes it means enjoying a meal with them while exploring shared interests. And sometimes it means just shutting up and listening.

The reason Peter LaBarbera’s “Americans for Truth” website contains so little truth is that LaBarbera is incapable of listening when it comes to the topic of homosexuality. He believes himself to have the Truth—capital T—and so he arrogantly proclaims what a “holy God” can and cannot do. He reads a tale of Christian charity in an uncharitable light, causing him to make false assumptions about both the couple’s intentions and my reactions. He reduces a complex human relationship to “sexual misbehavior,” then wonders at how his fellow Christians might imagine God there. Like the Pharisees who merit Jesus’ wrath in the Gospels, he forgets that belief in an infallible God does not render one infallible.

Peter LaBarbera claims to be “for truth” about gays and lesbians. He should try listening to some.

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First published in Between the Lines on March 22, 2007

The gentleman stood up during a lull in the Q&A session, and I was grateful for anyone to break the silence. In recent years I’d become used to this routine: I’d go to a small liberal-arts college to speak on homosexuality. The students, who were increasingly pro-gay, would respond with “friendly fire” or genial shrugs. I’d wait for the opposition to speak up, often to no avail.

Then John spoke. “Since there seems to be a lull,” he began, “I suppose that this might be as good a time as any for me to come out…as a religious conservative.”

There were no audible gasps, but there was palpable silence. John identified himself as a faculty member in the music department. He spoke for several long minutes, describing himself as theologically conservative but socially and politically liberal, opposed to same-sex marriage within his church but supportive of civil marriage (and adoption) for gays, skeptical of reconciling biblical faith with homosexual relationships but open to arguments for doing so. He also lamented what he perceived as my hostility toward religious believers (some of it deserved, he admitted) and my too-easy dismissal of opponents.

When John finally sat down, I thanked him for his candor and then launched into what was probably an overly defensive clarification of my position. I could tell that neither of us was entirely satisfied by the exchange (the audience for their part seemed quietly fascinated by it). But our time was soon up and that was that.

Until the next day, when John e-mailed me to thank me for my visit. We corresponded for a bit, and then he invited me to get together for coffee when I returned to town for some additional talks the following week.

And so I did. I picked John up at his office in my rented Ford Crown Victoria (“My students are going to think I’m being interrogated by a federal agent,” he quipped). I did not quite know what to expect. Thoughtful academic? Stealthy religious nutcase? I had been reading Sam Harris lately (The End of Faith, Letter to a Christian Nation), and as a result I’d become increasingly dubious about “moderate” or “tolerant” religion. (Harris, an outspoken atheist, argues that liberal religion tends to sugarcoat the still-problematic belief in scriptural authority.)

But John defied simple categories, except one that we both shared: college professor. Our common academic training and temperament made it easy to spend several hours together, discussing a paper of mine I had sent him on homosexuality and the bible (he read it within a day, despite being swamped with midterms), analyzing political rhetoric on various sides of the debate, and delving into deeper epistemological questions (What is the proper relationship between faith and reason?). It was a delightful and productive afternoon.

Later that day, John and his wife Sarah invited me to dinner at their home. His wife, I now knew, worked for Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, an organization that used to provide me with regular opposition during the early days of my campus speaking. This fact made me slightly apprehensive. But I was delighted by the opportunity to eat somewhere other than the Applebee’s next to my hotel, and pleased to spend more time with John and to meet Sarah, so I accepted.

As we chatted over appetizers, Sarah asked me about my life, my family, my work, and my relationship with my partner Mark. At one point I mentioned that Mark and I would be going to Mexico in April for his sister’s wedding. We were anxious about it, I explained, since Mark’s parents generally refuse to be in the same room with me (they refer to me, not by name, but as “that man”–the one who corrupted their son). Sarah and John seemed genuinely sympathetic.
Then came dinner–a hearty yet delightfully simple meal of soup, salad, and bread. As we sat down, Sarah asked if she could say grace. I nodded and politely folded my hands and bowed my head (what else should polite atheists do during grace? Read the newspaper?). She invoked many blessings, but the one that stuck out most for me was the following:
“Bless John, whom we are delighted to have as our guest. Bless John and Mark, and their relationship. And in particular, bless the family gathering in April…”

I am not a Christian, and I don’t believe that one needs to be religious to show warmth and hospitality. But that day kindness came with a Christian flavor, and I was deeply touched by it.

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First published in Between the Lines, January 25, 2007

I don’t have children, don’t plan to have children, and don’t particularly want children. If I were to adopt children, my main criterion would be that they be old enough to operate the vacuum and do some light dusting. So same-sex parenting is not an issue with which I have a deep personal connection.

Except that the religious right is making it personal. Their most popular argument against same-sex marriage goes something like this: to endorse same-sex marriage is to endorse same-sex parenting. Same-sex parenting is bad for children, since it deprives them of either a mother or a father. Therefore, we ought not to endorse same-sex marriage.

It is not surprising that arguments against same-sex marriage quickly morph into arguments against same-sex parenting. For one thing, the tactic is rhetorically effective: indeed, it has more than a faint whiff of “scare tactic.” Less cynically, there is a significant connection between marriage and parenting, which is not to say that children are the only reason for marriage or that other reasons (such as mutual support) are insufficient by themselves. In any case, the argument cannot be ignored.

Does an endorsement of same-sex marriage necessarily entail an endorsement of same-sex parenting? It seems not. One does not have to be married to have children, and one does not have to want children to be married. Indeed, we allow people to get married even when everyone agrees that it would be undesirable for them to have children (e.g. convicted felons serving life sentences). So the connection is not automatic.

Still, public policy is often based on averages, not necessary connections. On average, heterosexual couples produce their own biological children; homosexual couples never do. If they want children, they must adopt, use reproductive technology, or otherwise go outside the relationship. This fact is at the crux of the argument.

As an aside, it’s worth noting that gays who want children do these things already, even without the benefits of marriage. (So do many straights.) Unless opponents can show that same-sex marriage would increase the prevalence of non-biological parenting, their argument falls short.

But do gay couples “deliberately deprive children of either a mother or a father”? Consider first the case of adoption. It seems to me not merely odd, but foolish and insulting, to describe adoptive gay parents as “depriving” their children of anything, rather than as providing them with something. Of course, specific adoptive parents, like specific biological parents, may deprive their children of all sorts of things (affection, education, material needs, and so on). But when anyone–gay or straight–takes a child who does not have a home and provides it with a stable, loving one, we should not invoke the language of “depriving.” To do so is akin to describing soup-kitchen workers who provide stew to the homeless as depriving them of sandwiches.

Oddly enough, many same-sex marriage opponents recognize this. Glenn Stanton of Focus on the Family, whom I publicly debate on a regular basis, describes the sacrifice of gays who provide a loving home to orphaned children as “noble” and “honorable;” he has said the same of single parents who adopt. After all, however bad you think being raised by two mommies or two daddies is for children, being raised by the state is surely worse.

So perhaps the deprivation argument applies primarily to those who use reproductive technology. One might contend (for example) that mothers who go to a sperm bank, with no intention of including the biological father in the child’s life, deprive that child of a relationship with its father. That, indeed, is Stanton’s position, and he holds it whether the sperm-bank patron is homosexual or heterosexual.

Whatever you think of the merits of this argument, it has absolutely nothing to do with same-sex marriage. The vast majority of those who use reproductive technology are heterosexual. Why, then, bother gays about this? As William Saletan wrote in Slate, “You want to stop non-biological parenthood? Go chain yourself to a sperm bank.”

Presumably, the same considerations would apply to those who create a child by having sex with a third party outside the relationship. Objecting to their actions hardly provides a blanket argument against same-sex parenting, much less same-sex marriage.

To argue against same-sex marriage on the grounds that it deprives children of a parent is like arguing against same-sex marriage on the grounds that it leads to divorce: yes, it sometimes does, but so does heterosexual marriage, and far more often in terms of raw numbers.

So even if we grant the controversial assumption that deliberately raising children apart from their biological parents “deprives” them of something, the deprivation argument proves both too little and too much. It doesn’t apply to most same-sex couples (few of us have children, and fewer still by insemination), and it applies to many heterosexual ones. In short, it’s a red herring.

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First published in Between the Lines on November 16, 2006

A few weeks ago I was in Ripon, Wisconsin, for a same-sex marriage debate with Glenn Stanton of Focus on the Family, when the Ted Haggard story broke. Haggard, then president of the National Association of Evangelicals and pastor of the massive New Life Church in Colorado Springs, was being accused by former Denver prostitute Ted Jones of having regular drug-fueled gay trysts with Jones over a period of several years.

“So, do you think there’s anything to this?” I asked Stanton, who told me that Haggard was not only his pastor but also a friend.

“No way,” he replied. (At the time no tapes had yet been released, and Haggard was denying the story.) “It’s just incongruous. John, it would be like finding out that you secretly have a wife and family in the suburbs. No.”

(Betty, if you’re reading this, be sure to get Timmy a haircut before his little-league game this weekend, and give Mary Jane a kiss from Daddy.)

Kidding aside, my reaction to the story’s unfolding was marked more by sadness than schadenfreude. I could see the shock on my friend and opponent Glenn Stanton’s face the next day, as further revelations made it increasingly clear that Haggard was pretty much guilty as charged. I was sad for Haggard, sad for his family, and sad for all the people he had mislead.

But he deserved his downfall, didn’t he? Certainly. Here was a leader in a movement that actively fights gay rights. Haggard openly proclaimed that the Bible tells us everything we need to know about homosexuality — namely, that it’s just plain wrong. And as president of the National Association of Evangelicals, he helped to spread this view far and wide–apparently carrying on an affair with a male prostitute all the while.

So I wasn’t surprised that many relished his fall from grace. A few days after returning from my trip I ran into a friend who, upon my mentioning Haggard’s name, gleefully started dancing and singing “Another one bites the dust…” Schadenfreude–taking pleasure at the misfortune of others–is a natural human tendency, especially when those others are royal hypocrites. And it’s not just schadenfreude, it’s relief: one less person will be out there spreading lies about gays (though others will doubtless take his place).

Haggard is Exhibit N in a recent line of examples of the dangers of the closet. Some of them are Republicans, some Democrats; some are religious leaders, some not. While their stories differ in detail, they all highlight a major pitfall of trying to fight one’s gayness, rather than embracing it openly.

I am of course not saying that when heterosexually married people act on homosexual desires, it automatically proves that they ought to have been doing so all along. Whether they ought to have been doing so depends, crucially, their own predominant sexual orientation, as well as on the moral status of homosexual conduct.

Nor am I saying, “If you don’t let us be gay, then we will become lying, cheating, predatory assholes.” I am saying that a world that doesn’t provide healthy avenues for gay people to pursue intimacy should not be terribly surprised when some turn to unhealthy ones. Barney Frank put it well in a Newsweek interview regarding the Mark Foley scandal: “Being in the closet doesn’t make you do dumb things, doesn’t justify you doing dumb things, it just makes them likelier.”

Of course, there are non-closeted people who (like Haggard and former New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey) commit adultery or (like Foley) chase after sixteen-year-old employees. But it doesn’t follow that the closet is not a contributing factor, any more than non-smokers with cancer disprove that smoking increases cancer risk. It’s common sense, really: double lives are a recipe for danger. There are other recipes, to be sure, but this one’s pretty reliable.

Partly this is because the closet demands, not just a lie, but an entire pattern of lies, which in turn make deception easier in other areas of life. Partly it’s because this pattern is emotionally and spiritually draining. And partly it’s because deception poisons relationships, cutting one off from the friends who could otherwise monitor one’s behavior, offering support, guidance, and an occasional good smack upside the head when needed.

Haggard’s much-needed smack did not come from his friends: it came from a public scandal. In response, he plans to begin a lengthy process of “spiritual restoration,” which begins with owning up to one’s sins. And that saddens me too–not because I’m against his (or anyone’s) acknowledging fault, but because there’s good reason to believe that Haggard and his advisers will miss the key ones. Homosexuality is not a sin. Making the world needlessly more difficult for gay and lesbian people surely is.

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First published in Between the Lines, May 18, 2006.

Last week Pope Benedict spoke out against gay marriage and civil unions. “Only the rock of total and irrevocable love between a man and a woman is capable of being the foundation of building a society that becomes a home for all mankind,” the pope declared, speaking at a conference on marriage and the family on May 11. He added that marriage was between a man and a woman “who are open to the transmission of life and thus cooperate with God in the generation of new human beings.”

The Catholic Church’s opposition to homosexuality has never been mainly about the bible. This fact is to its credit: taken literally and as a whole, the bible is an unreliable moral guide; taken critically, it fails to provide good grounds for a blanket condemnation of homosexuality.

Instead, the Church’s main arguments against homosexuality have been rooted in “natural law,” and specifically the premise that sex must be open to procreation. Thus, all deliberately non-procreative sex is sin.

Consider for a moment the implications of this premise. Contraception is an obvious no-no, given the Church’s position. So is masturbation. These facts are enough to make hypocrites of many Catholics who condemn homosexuality “because the Church says it’s wrong.”

Also, forbidden, though far less often discussed, is orgasmic non-coital sex between married heterosexual partners, such as oral sex, masturbation of one’s spouse, or anal sex. (Such acts are permitted as foreplay, but never on their own.) Official Catholic doctrine permits no exceptions here. Imagine the case of a man injured in such a way that he can no longer pursue coital sex, but still enjoys performing oral sex on his wife for the intimacy it achieves between them. It would seem permissible (perhaps even selfless and admirable) for him to engage in such sex, but the Church says no.

Thus far, at least the Church is consistent in its views. (Stubborn, perhaps–even foolish–but consistent.) But there’s one implication of the “openness to procreation” premise that the Church refuses to acknowledge. If sex must be open to procreation, then it should be wrong for sterile (or postmenopausal) heterosexual married partners to have sex. Imagine a woman whose ovaries and uterus have been removed for medical reasons. Clearly, her sexual acts will never be “open to the transmission of life” in any morally meaningful way. But the Church declines to condemn such acts.

Why the apparent inconsistency? Catholic natural law theorists answer that such acts can still be of “the reproductive kind.” But it is difficult to make sense of this claim, except as a lame attempt to deny unpalatable conclusions that clearly follow from the Church’s position. If a sexual act cannot result in procreation and the couple knows it, then how is the act “of the reproductive kind”? Political scientist Andrew Koppelman expresses the problem well. In his book The Gay Rights Question in Contemporary American Law, he writes:

“A sterile person’s genitals are no more suitable for generation than an unloaded gun is suitable for shooting….Contingencies of deception and fright aside, all objects that are not loaded guns are morally equivalent in this context: it is not more wrong, and certainly not closer to homicide, to point a gun known to be unloaded at someone and pull the trigger than it is to point one’s finger and say ‘bang!’ And if the two acts have the same moral character in this context, why is the same not equally true of, on the one hand, vaginal intercourse between a heterosexual couple who know they cannot reproduce, and on the other, oral or anal sex between any couple? Just as, in the case of the gun, neither act is more homicidal than the other, so in the sexual cases, neither act is more reproductive than the other” (pp. 87-88).

I once presented this argument before a university audience, and one conservative Catholic student told me that I was ignoring the possibility of miracles. I told him that if he’s going to invoke miracles, then why can’t I get pregnant? He responded–I’m not making this up–“But that’s impossible!” Apparently, God’s miraculous power is limited by conservative comfort-levels.

Italy is clearly on the brink of recognizing same-sex unions. Anticipating this, the pope declared that “it has become urgent to avoid confusion between [marriage] and other types of unions which are based on a love that is weak.” If only the pope could see the weakness of his own stance.

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First published September 29, 2005, in Between the Lines

Back in the 1980s, I aspired to the Roman Catholic priesthood. After investigating various orders, I eventually gravitated toward the Franciscans, not so much on theological grounds as for having clicked well with the vocation director, “Fr. Larry.” (Or maybe I thought that brown was the new black.)

Shortly after I became a candidate, Fr. Larry left the order. Only later I discovered that he was a gay man who decided to pursue a relationship. Soon after, I came to terms with my own gayness and subsequently left to pursue life “on the outside.” My fellow friars were supportive, even singing “Climb Every Mountain” as I marched out the friary door.

Okay, so I made that last part up. But it’s true that the priests and brothers helped me not only to confront my gayness but also to channel it in healthy directions. “Take your time,” they counseled me. “Explore your options.” It was, for this sheltered, sexually immature nineteen year-old, excellent advice. Some of these men were gay (though celibate) themselves, and their personal candor was invaluable to me.

Fast-forward to 2005. The Vatican has just announced that it will prohibit gay men—including celibates—from entering the priesthood. This is a profoundly stupid policy, both theologically and practically.

Theologically, the policy suggests that the temptation to homosexual conduct is somehow irredeemable. This suggestion conflicts with the Church’s own previous statements: in the 1986 letter to the bishops “On the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons,” the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, headed by Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI), criticized the “unfounded and demeaning assumption that the sexual behavior of homosexual persons is always and totally compulsive.”

Even if you grant the Church’s false view that homosexual conduct is always wrong, you’d have to have a pretty poor opinion of God’s redemptive power to suggest that he cannot provide gay men called to the priesthood with sufficient grace to remain celibate.

Perhaps this criticism is unfair. It is not that God’s grace is insufficient, the Church might argue, but that for practical reasons we can’t risk taking any chances. But this practical rationale for the policy is even more stupid, since it duplicates the culture of secrecy and repression that was a major cause of the current sex-abuse scandal. With the new policy in place, the only gay men who enter the priesthood will be those in deep denial about their sexual orientation (or, perhaps just as bad, those willing to lie about it): not a good recipe for a healthier, more sexually responsible Church.

I say this as someone who’s “been there, done that.” When I began the order’s screening process at eighteen, I told the interviewing psychologist that I was “basically straight, though I had occasional gay feelings.” Amazingly, he didn’t press me on it. Amazingly, I really believed it, even though I didn’t have any “straight feelings,” occasional or otherwise. It was a brilliant example of how otherwise smart human beings can ignore clear facts, refusing to draw the most obvious inferences when the conclusions are rendered sufficiently frightening.

Fortunately, I entered an order that understood that (a) there are gay men in the world, (b) some of them become priests, often very good priests, and (c) this fact is nothing to be afraid or ashamed of. And so we read books with titles like “Being Sexual and Celibate” and “The Courage to Be Chaste,” and we talked openly about our own urges, challenges, and commitments. Thanks to that environment, I was eventually able to acknowledge my sexuality and to explore it in a healthy manner.

Suppose that a gay ban had been enforced. Notice that it would have not kept me out, since both the psychologist and I believed that I was “basically straight.” Notice, too, that I would have entered not only as a gay man but also as a deeply immature and repressed one. Again, not a recipe for a healthy Church.

I’d like to believe that things would have turned out okay, even under such circumstances, but it’s difficult to know. Sexuality has a way of asserting itself sooner or later. To close off healthy avenues for expressing it—even discussing it—invites disaster.

The recent Church scandal only underscores this point. Most of those implicated were ordained at a time when homosexuality was taboo. Thus, in blaming the scandal on tolerance of homosexuality, the Church is not only scapegoating innocent gay men: it is setting the stage again for systematic denial and abuse. It is sinning against its priests, its aspirants, and (most of all) its flock. If ever there were a time for believers to hope for God’s redemptive power, this is it.

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First published April 28, 2005, in Between the Lines.

Although some people would describe me as a fallen Catholic, they’re wrong: I didn’t fall; I leapt. Still, after John Paul II’s death, I followed the papal candidates with an enthusiasm normally reserved for American Idol contestants. Eagerly I scrutinized their biographies on interactive websites, trying to guess who would be picked.

“Do you think it will be Ratzinger?” my friends asked.

“No way,” I answered. “Too divisive.”

“Habemus papam,” came the announcement (which is Latin for, “He’s changing into something white — hang on”). Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger is Pope Benedict XVI.

I knew Ratzinger’s name well. Back in the late 1980s when I was a philosophy and theology student at St. John’s University (NY), I studied his “Letter to the Catholic Bishops on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons.” There Ratzinger described homosexuality as “an objective disorder” towards “an intrinsic moral evil.” Incidentally, at the time I was a candidate for the priesthood and had recently come out of the closet as a gay man.

The letter was not without its “pastoral” moments. Ratzinger (as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which enforces Church orthodoxy) wrote that “It is deplorable that homosexual persons have been and are the object of violent malice in speech or in action. Such treatment deserves condemnation from the church’s pastors wherever it occurs. It reveals a kind of disregard for others which endangers the most fundamental principles of a healthy society.”

But he followed this admirable admonition with a more equivocal one: “But…when civil legislation is introduced to protect behavior to which no one has any conceivable right, neither the church nor society at large should be surprised when other distorted notions and practices gain ground, and irrational and violent reactions increase.”

In other words, when gays demand civil rights, we should expect people to beat them up. While Ratzinger’s wording was more nuanced than many critics admit, it is hard not to detect a “blame the victim” element in it. Similar blame-shifting appeared in some of his comments on the priestly sex-abuse scandal.

But what worries me even more about Ratzinger/Benedict is the false dilemma he erects between fundamentalism and relativism. In a homily before the papal conclave, the soon-to-be pope stated:

“Having a clear faith, based on the creed of the church, is often labeled today as a fundamentalism. Whereas relativism, which is letting oneself be tossed and ‘swept along by every wind of teaching,’ looks like the only attitude (acceptable) to today’s standards. We are moving toward a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one’s own ego and one’s own desires.”

Relativism is the view that truth is dependent on, or relative to, a person’s or culture’s perspective. Contra Ratzinger/Benedict, it need not have “as its highest goal one’s own ego,” since not everyone’s perspective is egoistic.

Granted, relativism often results in moral wishy-washiness (to use the technical philosophical term). Relativists believe that any moral view is ultimately as good as any other. And that belief is not only false, it’s pernicious, since it demotes moral commitments into matters of mere personal taste.

But the proper alternative to relativism is not fundamentalism, which closes itself off from the world and brooks no dissent. The proper alternative is a healthy — and thus humble — regard for truth.

Can truth tolerate dissent? Absolutely. Pope Benedict (along with the rest of us) would do well to recall the words of the philosopher John Stuart Mill on this point. In his 1859 classic On Liberty Mill argued that those who silence opinions — even false ones — rob the world of great gifts:

“If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”

Mill understood that we should embrace diversity of opinion, not because there is no objective truth, but because history shows us to be imperfect in its pursuit. We should welcome other perspectives, not because we necessarily lack confidence in our own, but because a confident perspective need not fear dialogue.

Upon his election as pope, Benedict described himself as “a simple and humble laborer in the vineyard of the Lord.” It is hard to recognize humility in a man who insists that anyone who rejects his particular religious worldview must therefore endorse relativism and egoism. It is still harder to recognize it in someone who now claims to speak directly for God.

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First published at Between the Lines on December 12, 2002

MANY PEOPLE claim that homosexuality is wrong because “The Bible says so.” This claim rests on two presuppositions:

(1) The Bible condemns homosexual conduct. (2) The Bible is a good moral guide.

Each of these raises questions. Regarding the first: does the Bible condemn all homosexual conduct, or just some? And which Bible are we talking about? (Remember that in addition to the numerous editions of the Judeo-Christian Bible, there are also countless other religious texts that claim divine authority. Given our tendency toward cultural myopia, it bears repeating that the vast majority of the world’s inhabitants are not Christians.)

Regarding the second presupposition: is the Bible infallible, or might it contain some error? If the latter, how do we distinguish true moral teaching from that which simply reflects the authors’ prejudices? Consider, for example, two passages — one from the Old Testament and one from the New — that seem pretty clearly to endorse slavery:

“[Y]ou may acquire male and female slaves ƒ from among the aliens residing with you, and from their families that are with you, who have been born into your land; and they may be your property. You may keep them as a possession for your children after you, for them to inherit as property.” (Leviticus 25: 44-46)

“Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ” (Ephesians 6:5).

Faced with such morally troubling passages, the reader has one of three options:

(A) Deny that the passages really endorse slavery. But this seems rather difficult to do, especially given the references to “property” in the first quotation, which was allegedly spoken by God himself.

(B) Maintain that the Bible contains no error and concede that slavery may be morally acceptable. Not surprisingly, few believers take this approach (though the case was quite different 150 years ago, when slave-owning Christians often cited these passages). This option ought forcefully to be rejected. Surely one should have more confidence in the wrongness of slavery than in the inerrancy of the quoted text. Which leaves us with.

(C) Acknowledge that the Bible contains some error. To admit this is not to claim that God makes mistakes. Perhaps humans have erred in interpreting God’s will: after all, one should not confuse complete faith in God with complete faith in human ability to discern God’s voice.

Option (C) comes at a cost, however. Once you have admitted that the Bible contains error, you cannot simply use “The Bible says X” as if it were an airtight justification of X. This is as true for homosexuality as it is for slavery.

Is the Bible thus rendered useless? Not at all. The Bible is a valuable account of the experience of past believers, and it can teach important lessons on matters both moral and non-moral. But to quote its passages on controversial issues without paying attention to its historical context is to diminish its richness. Fundamentalists do the Bible no honor when they treat “The Bible says X” as if it were the last word, rather than a piece of a larger puzzle regarding human longing for truth and meaning.

Which brings me to another point. Critics often suspect that there’s something self-serving about “revisionist” readings of scripture by pro-gay scholars. In some cases, the critics are right. But the revisionist readings are also motivated by honest recognition of a tension between the apparent evidence of scripture and the apparent evidence of our experience. If God is the creator of all things, surely God reveals divine intentions in our lived experience and not merely in an ancient text. (Besides, if you don’t generally trust your own experience, why trust your experience of the text?) And if our lived experience teaches us that homosexual relationships can be loving and nurturing, there’s something incongruous about the idea that a benevolent God would condemn them.

How then do we explain the handful of passages that seem to condemn homosexuality? Biblical interpretation is a complex matter, and I can only scratch its surface here. (For a more thorough treatment, see Daniel Helminiak’s What the Bible Really Says about Homosexuality.) But let me suggest that these passages, like the passages on slavery, strongly reflect the cultural circumstances of the authors. More specifically, they reflect (1) the fragility of the authors’ communities and a corresponding emphasis on procreation for the sake of community survival, (2) a distaste for Greek pederasty, and (3) a distaste for various pagan practices that included ritual homosexual conduct.

If the Biblical authors had these features in mind when they wrote about homosexuality, then what they were discussing is quite different from what we are discussing. In that light, using Biblical passages to condemn contemporary homosexuality looks much like using them to support nineteenth-century American slavery — a reflection of the reader’s prejudices, rather than an honest assessment of the moral facts.

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