Laying Down the Law: How Catholic Officials Deal With The LGBT Issue

Within the current controversy of Cardinal Francis George of Chicago comparing the gay liberation movement to the Ku Klux Klan, I pulled out an essay I wrote in 1986 for you to determine whether much has really changed since that time in the Catholic Church.

Laying Down the Law

On the evening of Tuesday, March 11, 1986 I attended a public forum held at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government in which Bernard Cardinal Law gave a talk entitled "The Catholic Church and World Affairs: A New Visibility." I arrived about 20 minutes before the talk was scheduled to begin to be assured of getting a good seat and my efforts paid off. By the time the moderator of the event, Harvard Institute of Politics Director Jonathan Moore, stepped up to the podium, most seats had been taken.

As the Cardinal looked on from behind, Mr. Moore introduced him as "a strong advocate for racial justice" citing his ministerial work for racial equality in Mississippi and St. Louis before coming to Boston, and more recently in his efforts in quelling racial unrest in Lawrence, Mass. Mr. Moore went on to praise the Cardinal's good ecumenical work by forging "better ties with Protestants and Jews."

The platform was then turned over to the Cardinal. He confidently approached the audience and began his talk by relating a personal anecdote drawn from his halcyon days of the 1950s when he was a young Harvard student in medieval history. Back then the controversial religious thinker and founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, Dorothy Day, spoke on campus to the apparent dismay of one of Law's professors who refused to open his mind to her ideas or to attend her lecture. Day was given a generally negative review by The Harvard Crimson, which this professor cited to justify his own negative views of her.

With a certain youthful gleam in his eye, the Cardinal continued his story saying that his professor's immutable stance in this instance sparked him to organize what was probably the first sit-in demonstration at Harvard. Students camped out in front of the professor's door to expose his closed-mindedness and to demand that he at least listen to a tape of Day's speech so that he might objectively determine if his previously-held notions were indeed justified.

This story set the tone for Law's major theme of the evening being the Catholic Church's "new visibility," or activism, in assuring basic human rights and sustained peace for people in every region of the world -- goals which were equally shared by Dorothy Day.

As he recounted the innumerable ways in which the Catholic Church is vigorously pursuing peace and justice, I was struck by a certain uneasiness. I first questioned the role of the Church in the multi-national political arena. In addition, I observed a glaring contradiction in the Cardinal's words. While claiming to advocate human rights and calling for open discussion among individuals and nations, in reality the Church systematically denies rights to a significant percent of the population -- namely lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgender people (LGBT). The Cardinal, while uncovering his professor's narrow-mindedness, reveals his own by refusing to dialogue on the issue of LGBT people and their allies. On several occasions he has declined to grant an audience to representatives of Dignity/Boston, an LGBT Catholic organization. In addition, an aide to Law's predecessor, Humberto Cardinal Medeiros, even refused to accept a donation check that Dignity contributed to the Cardinal Stuart Fund, a church-sponsored charity.

The Catholic Church's unwillingness to allow open discussion of LGBT issues was furthered recently when it launched a successful campaign to pressure the producers of WBZ-TV TV Channel 4's "People Are Talking" program to cancel a scheduled segment dealing with the topic of lesbian nuns. In addition, the Cardinal has promoted anti-LGBT bigotry by publicly supporting the recently enacted Massachusetts Department of Social Service's blatantly discriminatory foster care policy, which excludes lesbians, gays, single people and women who work outside the home from qualifying for foster placements.

Since I came to the forum for the Cardinal's speech, I attempted to push these inconsistencies out of my mind and to listen to what he was saying. He continued his talk by pointing with pride to a couple of pastoral letters recently composed by American Catholic Bishops. One letter proposes a sane nuclear policy by blueprinting a systematic dismantling of nuclear armaments. The other, still in the draft stage, exposes defects in world economies and urges a sharing of wealth among nations as a means of ending poverty. There was, however, one regional pastoral letter that the Cardinal neglected to discuss. This one was circulated last year by the church's local hierarchy advising priests to urge their parishioners to lobby public officials to defeat a proposed law which, if passed, would grant LGBT people basic protections in employment and housing -- rights already granted to many other groups.

Again, I questioned the political role of the Church, but forced myself to listen to the Cardinal. He was saying that the "new visibility" of the Church is symbolized by the extensive and unprecedented traveling of Pope John Paul II bringing his message to the people of the world. Law suggested that the Pope's recent trips to Haiti and the Philippines brought to light basic governmental human rights abuses, which hastened the popular overthrow of repressive regimes. Whether or not this theory of cause and effect is valid, one thing remains certain: The Pope's visit to Boston in October 1979 had an initial reverse effect. While he was here, and directly following his visit, there were reports of a significant increase in verbal and physical assaults on members of the LGBT community, which many attribute directly to Church teaching on homosexuality.

Coming back once again to the Cardinal's speech, I listened to him give a brief summation of the points he had discussed, and then he opened the forum to questions. He called first on a woman who inquired about actions of the Church, which were unmistakably sexist in excluding women from the Church hierarchy. Curtly dismissing her question as outside the sphere of the evening's discussion, the Cardinal fielded another question; then he called on me.

I brought up the apparent inconsistencies I was observing throughout his talk. Then I asked him to explain that if the Church is interested in peace and equality and wants to see an end to prejudice and discrimination, how can Catholic Church leaders fail to see the clear links between racism, anti-Semitism, sexism and homophobia? He responded by telling me, unequivocally, that the links do not exist, and that the Catholic Church's concept of "natural law" dictates otherwise.

A key factor in the development of orthodox Catholic ethics since the 13th century, this concept includes a set of standards, which the Church has inferred follow an ordering of nature. St. Thomas Aquinas, a Dominican scholar born in 1225 was an early proponent of "natural law," which asserts that morality is based on certain constraints of human nature. Aquinas believed that same-sex sexuality (and any sexual act not intended for procreation, including masturbation) are vices against nature, which violate the will of God. Thus, the Church has concluded that the expressions of homosexuality, plus many forms of heterosexual sexual behavior are "intrinsically immoral" or "intrinsically disordered" (as clearly stated in the Catholic catechism).

In addition, Aquinas believed that usury (the lending of money for profit) was unjust and against natural law, and was therefore forbidden to Christians. Therefore, a pattern emerged: Jews were invited into a region to fill money-lending and tax collecting gaps in the economy, they were blamed for the problems of the economic system, and Christians expelled or massacred them. The stereotype of Jews as money-lovers, as cheap and as miserly was born.

Taking a brief glance backward in time, not so long ago a position similar to that of "natural law" was used by Christian leaders to preach what they determined was the "naturalness" in the subjugation of black Africans and in the institution of slavery. A direct reflection of this position is evidenced by the names of the ships used to transport slaves across the sea, four of which were the "Jesus," the "Gift of God," the "Liberty" and the "Justice."

Closer to our own time, Hitler and the Nazis had their own vision of a natural law. They set down in rigidly narrow terms a code, which prescribed who would be considered "racially pure" and who were to be classified as "impure." As we all know, this led to the mass murder of eastern European Jews, racial minorities, Jehovah's Witnesses and others who did not conform to the state's concept of justice. What is often forgotten, however, is that the Nazis similarly listed "homosexuals" among the ranks of the "impure," and tens of thousands also perished in the concentration camps of the Nazi machine. Hitler in his own perverse way evidently saw connections between these groups and practiced the most extreme form of racism, anti-Semitism and homophobia as the cornerstone of his so-called "final solution."

Though I do not place Cardinal Law and the Pope in the same league as colonial slave traders and Nazis, I do ask religious leaders to take a few tips from history by not replaying the mistakes of the past.

The Cardinal finished answering my question by emphatically stating that he was "not about to change his opinions of gay lifestyles." It is important for him to understand that I am not asking him to alter his thinking. He owns his beliefs, and as long as they are working for him, he will hold on to them. When his beliefs, however, are translated into words and actions that have a negative impact on people, he has crossed a critical line. This is when he must be confronted and must be made to realize that each time the Catholic Church advocates the defeat of laws to ensure an entire group of people their basic civil and human rights, great numbers of just and gentle LGBT people will internalize society's prejudices, and they will hate themselves a little bit more.

Each time a priest speaks of the concept of "natural law" during Sunday mass, there will be another teenage suicide. Each time the Cardinal gives support to a discriminatory foster care policy, there will be scores of young people harassed and attacked by their classmates in the corridors of our schools. This is child abuse plain and simple, and the Church must begin to own up to its own complicity.

Today, as the Catholic Church is speaking out against the dehumanizing institution of apartheid in South Africa, it is at the same time visibly practicing its own form of apartheid along the lines of gender and sexual identity by limiting the role of women within the Church and by actively perpetuating anti-LGBT bigotry. Many other world religions, including Unitarians, Quakers, some Protestant denominations and reform Jewish groups are beginning to respect and honor the sexual diversity and gender diversity among people. Now is the time for the Catholic Church to follow suit.

This is an edited version of an article published in The Harvard Crimson, April 14, 1986.