By Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry, October 20, 2016
Is a middle ground on LGBT issues disappearing and, if it is, what does this mean for Catholics? David Gushee of Religion News Service answered the first part of this question affirmatively, writing in a new piece:
“It turns out that you are either for full and unequivocal social and legal equality for LGBT people, or you are against it, and your answer will at some point be revealed. This is true both for individuals and for institutions.
“Neutrality is not an option. Neither is polite half-acceptance. Nor is avoiding the subject. Hide as you might, the issue will come and find you.”
Where most institutions, organizations, and businesses in the United States have accepted LGBT equality, the holdouts are religious communities and those civil communities where conservative Christians have a dominant impact. Churches and affiliated institutions are, Gushee noted, “digging in their heels — even against profound and pained internal opposition from their own dissenters.” He continued:
“They are interpreting social changes toward nondiscrimination as mere embrace of sexual libertinism.
“They are attempting to tighten doctrinal statements in order to tamp down dissent or drive out dissenters.
“They are organizing legal defense efforts under the guise of religious liberty, and interpreting their plight as religious persecution.
“They are confident that they have the moral high ground, and from their remaining, shrinking spaces of power they still try to punish those who stray from orthodoxy as they understand it.
Gushee’s description fits well the reality of the Catholic Church in the United States. While the faithful support LGBT civil rights, the bishops’ sustain their opposition. As more and more LGBT church workers are fired, it looks more and more like they are being punished. From the other side, political liberals and some LGBT advocates, there is almost contempt for non-affirming religious communities.
Fr. John Jenkins, CSC, the president of the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, opined on the emerging context of LGBT rights in the U.S. for the Wall Street Journal. Jenkins commented on the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s recent decision to move its national championships out of North Carolina in response to that state’s HB 2 law targeting LGBT people, and said:
“Heightened respect for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender citizens is a signal moral achievement of our time, and harboring reservations about any retrenchment is natural. Yet some citizens may wonder about the implications of substituting gender identity for biological sex in public restrooms. While attending to the rights and sensibilities of transgender persons, it’s important to also take into account the feelings of those who might be uncomfortable undressing in front of a member of the opposite biological sex.”
Jenkins said that while society “has become inured to public disputes over neuralgic moral and social questions,” universities can foster reflection and discussion:
“At a time when tweets, slogans and sound bites seem to define the substance of our political discourse; when respect for truth seems a casualty of the campaign; and when ideological polarization often hamstrings responsible governing, the nation needs universities to raise the intellectual tone of Americans’ discussions more than ever.”
I see that there is a need for middle ground on two levels: the legal and the ecclesial.
In the legal context, protecting the civil rights of every person requires a careful handling of how such protections interact with religious institutions. Admitting exemptions where necessary can seem like prudent acts. Claims of an attack on religious liberty by the U.S. bishops and other conservatives are overblown, but religious liberty is something worth protecting. Legally, a middle ground seems necessary in a pluralistic society and even vital to healthy democracy. Given the intense complexities of these issues, universities seem like prime sites where intelligent debate and informed discourse could happen.
In the ecclesial context, however, the concept of middle ground becomes more problematic. What does it mean to hold a middle ground in the church? If it means allowing space for people to grapple with church teaching and the signs of the times, receiving pastoral support when needed, then this is the right of every Catholic and it is good. But if middle ground means, in practice, not challenging the prejudices of some believers and allowing extremists to target LGBT church workers or demean same-gender marriages, then it cannot be acceptable.
Unfortunately, Fr. Jenkin’s leadership at Notre Dame undermines his point about universities’ potential contributions. It was only in 2012, after decades of activism by students and alumni, that the University began offering formal support for LGBTQ students. Notre Dame students, however, have questioned the strength of this commitment, and it was reported the University denied housing to a transgender student. Though there have been positive developments, can Catholic colleges and universities like Notre Dame be places of dialogue when LGBT people are left vulnerable to discrimination and violence?
This question seems pertinent to the wider church, too. How can we be a church of dialogue and of encounter when members of the Body of Christ feel unwelcome and even unsafe? When church workers are fired and bishops remain silent after the slaughter of 50 LGBT people in Orlando? Vatican II called the church to dialogue, a defining aspect of the Council and a practice to which we should aspire. But dialogue and understanding, the very essence of middle ground, can only happen when all feel respected, equal, and safe. It might be that middle ground has not disappeared in the Catholic Church on LGBT issues, but that it never existed at all.