When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a
child; when I became an adult I put an end to childish ways. - I Corinthians 13:11
Time for a Reality Check
This past week Ireland became the first nation-state to end discrimination against same-sex couples seeking to be legally married by means of a ballot initiative. The vote in this strongly Roman Catholic nation with a long history of conservative moralism was not really that close – 61% of the voters approved the measure and pollsters estimate that up to a quarter of Irish priests voted in favor of marriage equality.
The reactions to this vote within Roman Catholicism have been fascinating to watch. Of course, polls have revealed that same sex marriage has been favored by majorities of Catholic faithful worldwide for the past decade even as its leadership has stridently opposed the same. Some priests and bishops have gone so far as to bar gay parishioners and the elected officials who support them from receiving the eucharist, a shameful use of the sacraments as a weapon in the culture wars. (Let those with ears hear, Cathedral Church of St. Luke, Orlando!)
The local archbishop onsite in Dublin was pretty clear about the implications of the vote for the Irish church calling it “a wake-up call for the Catholic church. This is a social revolution…The church has a huge task in front of it get its message across to young people ... The church needs to do a reality check.”
The Irish church is coming to grips with the reality that it has lost its dominant grip as moral arbiter of Irish society, much of it due to its own mishandling of the explosive revelations regarding physical and sexual abuse of children by Irish priests and nuns in its schools and orphanages. Such a debacle signals not only the need for remorse and repentance, it also suggests that perhaps the moralistic system that gave rise to such behaviors itself demands critical reflection and reconsideration.
One would never have known that such reflection, much less repentance, was even a possibility from the statement by the number two spokesperson from the Vatican. Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s secretary of state, said at a conference in Rome on Tuesday night. “The church must take account of this reality, but in the sense that it must strengthen its commitment to evangelisation. I think that you cannot just talk of a defeat for Christian principles, but of a defeat for humanity.”
There is no small amount of arrogance in presuming that a given construction of sexuality which has been protected from any kind of critical reexamination even in the face of much evidence that its premises were faulty somehow defines what it means to be human. There is also no small amount of arrogance in refusing to even consider the possibility that a given understanding of the mystery of what it means to be human could be wrong, that there is no place for critical reflection on one’s understanding. There is a difference between resolutely holding one’s position and simply stonewalling.
The cardinal also suggests that the only possible solution is to double down on selling this dubious theology to a public increasingly disinterested in even hearing about it. It’s an interesting example of how evangelizing is more often used to relieve the cognitive dissonance of the evangelizer purveying patently unbelievable understandings than anything remotely related to the interests of those evangelized. It’s much easier to hold onto unbelievable ideas if you have a lot of company in that confabulation.
It’s also particularly interesting to note the language the cardinal used here: “a defeat for humanity.” If that sounds familiar, it should. Pope Francis I uses that phrase upon occasion. But the cardinal seems to have taken enormous license with its usage. When Francis talks about “a defeat for humanity,” he is talking about war, not the sour grapes of the loser in a culture war skirmish. Indeed, Francis’ response to questions about the presence of gay people within the church’s hierarchy was decidedly latitudinarian: “Who am I to judge?”
Maybe it’s time for Frankie to call his Cardinal in for tea.
“A Real and Present Danger?”
Of course, the cardinal is hardly the only figure willing to make sweeping statements about the lifting of anti-gay barriers in the name of religion. This week Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), speaking to the Christian Broadcasting Network, said that America stood on “the water’s edge of the argument that mainstream Christian teaching is hate speech… if you do not support same-sex marriage, you are labeled a homophobe and a hater…”
Rubio went on to paint a slippery slope in which “the next step is to argue that the teachings of mainstream Christianity, the catechism of the Catholic Church, is hate speech. And that's a real and present danger."
It’s no accident that Rubio, an attorney admitted to practice in Florida, would allude to a principle from Supreme Court caselaw here. Over the years the Court has tried to define what constitutes a “clear and present danger” when deciding whether to curtail someone’s First Amendment rights. While the prohibition on yelling fire in a crowded theater was Justice Oliver Wendell Holme’s quick and dirty version, the Court has historically wrestled with whether the public advocacy of communism and socialism somehow pose a “clear and present danger” to American national interests sufficient to prevent speakers and publishers from presenting those ideas to the public.
There’s no small amount of irony in a conservative Republican who has one foot in the evangelical Protestant world with the other in his native Roman Catholic tradition employing a metaphor designed to test the free expression rights of communists, the ideologues who drove his own family from their native Cuba four decades ago. But Rubio does draw a bead on two important issues in this conflict. The first is the aversion that holders of this common social prejudice have to being called on their prejudice. The second is the willful conflation of that prejudice with foundational understandings of the Christian religion.
While Rubio’s use of “haters” is the quip du jour of the chattering classes on the right, it is ultimately undescriptive of the matter at hand and childish. It’s perfectly possible to call someone on their prejudices and not hate them. As Sister Helen Prejean, the chaplain to death row inmates and author of Dead Man Walking is prone to say, “people are more than the worst thing they have ever done in their lives.” How many of us have racist and sexist relatives we love despite their misanthropic views?
However, Rubio’s assertion that those who oppose same-sex marriage are frequently seen as homophobic is no doubt true. That deserves more critical scrutiny.
The Difficulty of Diagnosing the Problem
Part of the problem with the use of homophobia is that it is cast in a psychological language that suggests fear - phobia. People who are acrophobic fear heights, those who are claustrophobic fear closed in places and those who suffer from ophidiophobia can’t be near a snake.
While fear is not a particularly helpful way of understanding unbidden social prejudices except perhaps in their more pathological expressions, there is another aspect of this description that does speak to the reality observable in both the comments by the Cardinal as well as those by the junior senator from Florida. Phobias are irrational by nature. Most folks suffering from acrophobia have very little real danger of ever falling from a high place as merely being present there can reduce them to sweats and trembling. When asked they cannot explain it. At a very basic level that makes their reaction even more powerful in that they are unable to rationally get at its causes.
In a similar vein, homophobia is an irrational response to homosexual behaviors. Homosexual behaviors appear throughout the animal kingdom and have been documented throughout human history, recognizing that it is quite possible to engage in such behaviors in a given context and not experience oneself as constitutionally inclined to do so on a consistent basis (e.g., prison sex). While it is almost always the minority report on human sexuality, it is a constant in human behavior.
Another problematic aspect in talking about homophobia is that it tends to be reductionist. No one sums up an acrophobic individual by their aversion to heights. We don’t talk about the acrophobic “community” nor of “acrophobes” who avoid being exposed to heights spoken of as advancing a particular “agenda.”
Ironically, the reductionism in talking about homophobia (Just a homophobe…) is part and parcel of a larger reductionism employed by an aspect of a heterosexism which has historically seen the experience of the heterosexual majority to be “normal” and those which deviated from that pattern as “deviant.” How many persons who experience themselves as LBGTQ have felt their blood curdle when described in the clinical terms of being “a homosexual?”
Of course, from a statistical perspective, heterosexual inclinations and behaviors are “normal” in the empirically dominant sense of that word. As Sister Vicious Power Hungry Bitch of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence once put it on National Coming Out Day on the steps of Sproul Hall at UC Berkeley, “Instead of calling heterosexuality normal, call it what it really is: common.”
It is the moralizing of that statistical prevalence that lies at the root of the cultural phenomenon called homophobia. The more benign version is called heterosexism, the presumption that everyone either is heterosexual in orientation or ought to be and must either be made into the majority’s likeness or constrained if they prove unwilling. The malignant version is that those who don’t fit the majority’s experience are somehow less than fully human and not entitled to respect of their human dignity. This is homophobia.
Confusing a Common Social Prejudice with Religion
At the bottom line, what we are talking about here is a common social prejudice. How common? Like heterosexual and homosexual behaviors, heterosexism and homophobia can both be found in most ancient cultures. The same dynamics that prompt the majority in a culture to see their experience as normative for everyone and to demonize the minority experience are observable in all historical cultures and until only very recently dominated our own culture. That phenomenon is called a prejudice. Not surprisingly such prejudices are inevitably reflected in cultural artifacts such as the Hebrew Scriptures.
That ancient peoples held the same common social prejudices as modern people is not difficult to understand. We are in many ways products of our forebears. But the notion that modern peoples must uncritically default to the prejudicial understandings of our forebears is an exercise in intellectual laziness. And when the critical appropriation of ancient religious thought is done on a selective basis (slavery is not OK, but heterosexism is divinely mandated) we both reveal our prejudices and lapse into disingenuity and deceit.
More importantly, because no socially constructed belief system ever stands on its own two feet, its purveyors will always feel the need to legitimate their tenets in one of three manners, according to sociologist Max Weber. One will either resort to tradition (it’s always been that way) or to the authority of natural arguments (this is the nature of things) or to supernatural arguments (the gods will it). The problem arises, as Weber noted, when critical (as opposed to instrumental) reason, the modern method for legitimation of social constructions, is brought to bear.
The fact that a common social prejudice has been held for a very long time does not make it any less a prejudice. The argument that heterosexual behavior complete with its potential for procreation is the dominant expression in all sexed life forms does not exhaust the argument from nature; a minority expression of homosexual behaviors appear in all living beings.
As for whether the gods hold our prejudices, that largely depends upon how they are constructed. Ann Lamott’s now famous saying that “You can safely assume you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do” reflects that construction process and the very subtle way that our own prejudices become legitimated when they are disowned and placed in the mind of G-d.
But true religions are designed to allow its adherents to both transcend the world in which we live as well as to transform it. This can never be accomplished by simply defaulting to the common prejudices of any given culture. It is precisely such understandings that religions like Christianity call its members to transcend.
As the Good Samaritan parable observes, it was impossible to live into the duty to love one’s neighbor and pass him by as he lay dying from an assault by robbers because one’s religious strictures prohibited the same. Similarly, it is impossible to love one’s LBGTQ neighbor as oneself and hold to self-serving constructions that denigrate and discriminate against them because their sexual inclinations differ from the majority.
So what can one take away from this long, rambling post?
- The Cardinal is wrong. Neither heterosexism nor homophobia define humanity. Ending social practices which enforce common social prejudices does not “defeat humanity,” it helps us transcend our lowest common denominators.
- The Senator is wrong. Neither heterosexism nor homophobia are fundamental tenets of the Christian faith. They are cultural accidents in which the experience of a self-serving majority has been moralized and placed into the mind of G-d. Ending discrimination based in social prejudices does not present a “real and present danger” to Christianity, it provides it an opportunity for it to live into its highest ideals.
- Finally, the willful conflation of a common social prejudice with either the well-being of humanity or the fundamental tenets of the world’s largest religion does not serve either of these interests. It simply harms the credibility of those who make such untenable claims.
The Christian faith and the common social prejudice that expresses itself as heterosexism on a good day and homophobia on most days should never be confused with one another. They are not the same thing. And it does harm to that faith to deliberately use them interchangeably.
If the Christian tradition is to survive, it will need to transcend this shameful page of its own history to do so. It is time to put an end to childish ways. That process begins with the willingness to engage in a patently Christian practice: Repentance.
The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., M.Div., Ph.D.
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Member, Third Order Society of St. Francis (TSSF)
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Asst. Lecturer: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
Osceola Campus, University of Central Florida, Kissimmee
If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
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