Human dignity is in the headlines after the Supreme Court ruled favorably on marriage equality last week. Justice Anthony Kennedy’s use of it in a decision striking down the Defense of Marriage Act was noted by many. Blogger Andrew Sullivan points out the central role ‘human dignity’ as a concept has had in conversations around marriage equality and LGBT rights at large.
The decision against DOMA was written by Justice Kennedy, a Catholic, who placed human dignity at the heart of the ruling as he has done before. How closely his use of dignity is with contemporary Catholic understandings may be disputed, but has roots in the faith. National Public Radio reports:
“The concept appears no less than nine times in the landmark 26-page decision…It’s not the first time he’s rolled it out to explain his views on the protections guaranteed by the Constitution. A decade earlier, Kennedy referred to the ‘dignity of free persons’ in his majority opinion in another landmark case that voided a Texas law targeting gay citizens by criminalizing sodomy.”
John McGreevey notes on dotCommonweal:
“My own impression of [Kennedy’s] text is to note how Catholic it is. I mean by Catholic the sense of concern for the dignity of human beings that still resonates among the average Catholic population and, mercifully, now with the new Pope. This is the true measure of our shared faith: not a desire to use its doctrines to control or constrain the lives of others, but seeking always to advance the common good while leaving no one behind. No one.
“The Church hierarchy’s Ratzingerian turn against this minority in 1986, its subsequent callous indifference to us during the plague years, its rigid clinging to 13th Century natural law rather than what or rather who was right in front of them … these were all tragic failures from the top. But not in the pews; not among lay Catholics; not among many of our families and friends. And that humane Catholicism is embedded in paragraph after paragraph of Kennedy’s text. He is talking about us, our relationships and our children as if we were human beings made in the same image of God with inalienable dignity.”
Blogger Andrew Sullivan, a gay man and practicing Catholic, picked up on this trend while he live-blogged the Court’s decisions. In an interview on CNN, Sullivan was asked how he responds to Christians leading the efforts against marriage equality. Sullivan noted Justice Kennedy’s use of “dignity,” identifying how important “human dignity” as a concept is within theology. Sullivan proceeded to flip the question though. He articulated what many affirming Christians profess, namely that support for LGBT rights is because of their faith, not in spite of it and for Catholics this is rooted in the dignity of each person. He says:
“But I do believe also that a lot of [expanding LGBT rights] was driven by many of us who do have faith and who really believe deep down that God loved us and that what we were doing was God’s work. And I think the critical work we did in the ’90s and early 21st century was to bring the religious groups, and reach out to religious groups…And if you look at the polling, you’ll find that Catholics are the second ethnic group most likely to support it.”
Polls back Sullivan’s claims again and again, and there is the growing reality that LGBT issues are a primary reason former Catholics have left the Church. Sullivan is expressing the beliefs of large majorities of Catholics that civil marriage must be afforded to same-gender couples, but he also speaks personally about his family:
“And my experience was, as a Catholic in the pews, was callousness in the rhetoric from the Vatican, but incredible compassion and support from the people right and left of me in those pews celebrating the same God, wanting the same communion.
“And I’ve see my own family, an Irish-Catholic family, very religious in many ways, come around. I saw when I first went to Christmas with my in-laws after I had proposed to my now husband. And before that, I had been Aaron’s kind of friend that they don’t kind of deal with and as soon as we said we’re engaged, they had the vocabulary, the language. They knew who I was. They knew what our relationship was. They knew how to deal with me.”
And Sullivan had these comments to Catholics about accepting marriage equality:
“I would say the religious arguments are more based in fear than in the actual teachings, that they’re based upon stray texts that actually don’t mean what you think they mean, and that Jesus himself only said one thing about marriage, which is that you can’t divorce. And we live in a country were countless people are divorced and that doesn’t seem to threaten the religious liberty of Catholics, and it’s as fundamental an issue.
“So if Catholics can live with religious liberty with divorced people, they should be perfectly able to live with gay people, I mean, as married, as a civil marriage.”
You can view the full video of Andrew Sullivan’s remarks on CNN below:
–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry