Thursday, December 3, 2009

Defense! Defense!

A report from the front lines of the culture wars

By Brian McNeill

“Where the battle rages there the loyalty of the soldier is proved.”

- Martin Luther King Jr.

On the evening of Tuesday, December 1, 2009, I attended a symposium sponsored by the Office for Marriage, Family, and Life of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. The event was held in the undercroft of Nativity of Our Lord Catholic Church in St. Paul, in the neighborhood where I lived as a child; home turf. The archdiocese titled the event: “Understanding the Cultural and Legal Battle.”

The speakers were Fr. Peter Laird (right), newly appointed Vicar-General of the Archdiocese and Moderator of the Curia, and Dr. Teresa Collett, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul. The welcoming remarks by a young parishioner named Theresa oriented us to our current place in the culture wars, by citing the legal precedents that led to the Supreme Court decision of Roe vs. Wade. She promised that the evening would provide those present with the tools to “reclaim the culture of marriage and life with knowledge of the truth.”

A theoretical, academic discussion

Theresa’s choice of words proved to be important, because the overriding framework of the remarks of both speakers who followed was one of fighting the cultural tide to reclaim lost Truth. In other words, the Truth, as put forth by the Roman Catholic Church, was in some unspecified previous epoch the dominant force in the culture, but that position of predominance had been lost, (with Rove vs. Wade apparently) and now it was the duty of those present to return it to its rightful position. So, having been primed with pro-life rhetoric, Fr. Peter Laird, whose mother, by the way, runs the Office for Marriage, Family, and Life, (this is St. Paul after all) began a theoretical, academic discussion of the theology of the Sacrament of Matrimony.

Like good children, the 400 or so adults present listened quietly while the Vicar-General condescendingly explained to them “Why Marriage Matters.” Fr. Laird began by asserting the sound theological principle that there is no contradiction between faith and reason. He then raised the hoary specter of the scary 1960s when, he says, the culture embraced a direct opposition of faith to reason, and “the very nature of Truth became corrupted.” As proof he offered statistics on the rates of increase in divorce, cohabitation, and single parent households in the United States between 1960 and 2000. He continued for the remainder of his remarks giving theological reasons why a perfect marriage, marked by selflessness of the spouses for each other and their children, is part of God’s plan for all humans.

In his explanation of why the Church teaches that all sexual acts must be open to procreation, Fr. Laird told a little story from his law school days that perfectly captured his mindset. After celebrating the end of a difficult semester, he was driving a classmate home and as they arrived at her house she asked him, “Do you use protection?” Fr. Laird did not tell us how he answered that question, but, rather, went on to ask rhetorically, why, in intimate moments, anyone would want to be protected from their spouse/ lover? His point was that true love would always be completely open to the possibility of resulting children. He apparently, both then and now, missed what was more likely behind his classmate’s question: did he have any sexually transmitted diseases? Or, when he had sex, did he take precautions to prevent the transmission of STDs which he could be carrying? A condom would place “a point of separation between you and me” he protested while asserting his point about the importance of sex being barrier free, but I’m sure I was not the only one in the audience who was thinking silently, “…and that would be a bad thing?”

In response to the one question he took after his talk, Fr. Laird attempted an explanation of why same-sex marriage is not possible in the eyes of the Church. The relationship of two men or two women can result in some human goods, he stated, but it cannot share in the fruitfulness of Christ’s self-giving. The very nature of their relationship cannot participate in the model of Christ’s donation. In other words, because their sexual activity cannot produce a child they cannot be married. Of course, he did not offer an explanation of why heterosexual couples in the same situation for medical reasons can be married in the eyes of the Church. I guess that was beyond us.

No debating the Truth

Fr. Laird would not take my question while standing at the podium, but agreed to speak with me during the break after his talk. I took the opportunity to let him know that I had left a message with his mother at the Office for Marriage, Family, and Life, asking that she allow someone to present the LGBT side of same-sex marriage at this meeting. I then challenged him to a debate on same-sex marriage, saying that Dignity Twin Cities would sponsor it. He hedged. I asked twice more. He would not agree but countered by asking if I would meet him for coffee. I agreed. He evaded my fourth request to agree to a public debate. I said that agreeing to a debate would be a nod in the direction of the faith, reasonableness, and intelligence of his fellow Catholics. He was unmoved, and argued back that there is no debating the Truth. When I countered that for 35 years a long line of priests had come to Dignity Twin Cities with a different view of same-sex marriage the Vicar-General replied, “I can’t control what my priests do.”

No one I know is arguing that the Roman Catholic Church does not have a right to a pie-in-the-sky theology of the Sacrament of Marriage. Ideals are a fine thing, and where will you find them in this world if not in church? Selflessness, modeled on the example of Jesus’ suffering on the cross, is at the heart of the Christian faith. As a Catholic I find great strength and hope in the reality and the symbol of the cross. However, problems arise when the Roman Catholic Church takes its theology of the Sacrament of Matrimony and attempts to impose it on a political system or, worse, to deny civil rights to some of the citizens of the country. There is a word for imposing a cross on someone who does not want it: oppression. It is horrific to think that the right of tax paying LGBT citizens of the United States are threatened by Fr. Laird’s Thomistic sexual theology that ninety percent of married Catholics flout by practicing artificial birth control.

The government and marriage

Dr. Teresa S. Collette (left) is a lawyer for the conservative right. She was recently named by Pope Benedict XVI to serve as a consultant to the Pontifical Council for the Family. Her talk was titled, “Why is Government in the Marriage Business?” Her quick answer to the question is that the government is in the business of marriage to protect children. “Marriage is the way the government attempts to make sure that men fulfill the duties related to pregnancy.” Dr Collette did come up with the most interesting fact of the evening, which is that it is still illegal to commit adultery in the State of Minnesota, though the “crime” is a misdemeanor. Marriage laws are in place to make sure that parents provide for their children, she reported.

She decries the advent of artificial contraception. She approvingly quotes Pope Paul VI for warning that with the advent of artificial contraception, “Men would begin to treat woman as mere instruments for the satisfaction of their desires.” One expects more from a pope. Men would begin to treat women as the mere instruments for the satisfaction of their desires? One expects a lot more from a professional woman with some knowledge of history.

Without batting an eye, Dr. Collette went on to extol the virtues of modern methods of natural family planning. This listener couldn’t help but note that while Fr. Laird was emphasizing the indivisible procreative and unitive function of marital sexual intimacy, the lawyer was busy praising the clever ways Catholics couples could avoid procreation while still enjoying a sex life. Then again, most of the Catholics in the audience looked very married, and, we must assume, have been over this inconsistency so many times that it was way too late to be bothered by it now, here in the trenches of the culture wars.

Dr. Collette noted that we have gone far beyond the Rhythm Method. We now have the Billings Method, the Creighton Method, and the Sympto-Thermal Method. She states that couples using natural family planning have a divorce rate of only 2 percent, versus the 40-50 percent in the general population. She states this with an implied cause-and-effect phrasing: if you practice natural family planning, rather than take the pill, you vastly increase the chance of saving your marriage. Throughout her remarks she used this tactic of implying that something was true without providing facts to back it up. Who would use natural family planning in 2009 other than conservative Catholic couples who would, by virtue of their religion, be reluctant to get a divorce in the first place?

“Cultural erosion”

Coming to the heart of her arguments against same-sex marriage, Dr. Collette bewailed the traditional villains causing “cultural erosion” in the United States: “our attraction to sin,” the use of contraceptives, increased cohabitation, and out of wedlock births. Same-sex marriage looms large as part of this cultural erosion. In an attempt to dismiss the argument that LGBT citizens are victims of legal discrimination Dr. Collette states:

In fact it is often said, and accurately so, in legislative hearings and debates regarding this topic that there are 1,049 references in the Federal Code regarding marriage. Some people have gone so far as to suggest that is 1,049 benefits. That is an inaccurate statement. If you actually look at the GAO report, all that identifies is federal laws in which benefits, rights, and privileges are contingent upon marital status.

Got that? LGBT people are exaggerating the benefits, rights, and privileges the law denies them. But, Collette continues, “if we change the definition of marriage without changing another individual statue on the books we will be changing literally thousands of laws in this country.” In other words, her rhetoric dismisses as exaggerations legal bias against LGBT people, but then threatens disastrous consequences for heterosexuals if the legal exclusions are removed.

Consequences of same-sex civil marriage

Using examples of current legal cases, many still being litigated, Dr. Collette lists eight consequences for straight people if LGBT citizens gain the right to legal, civil marriage in this country.

1) Public resources will be used to promote the “moral equivalencies” of same-sex marriage.

2) Public officials will deny access to public facilities, funding, and programs to those who disagree. This point illustrated with several instances of the Church refusing to agree to observe laws protecting LGBT citizens and then losing public social service contracts as a result. How dare they do that to us?, Collette stormed?

3) The Church’s tax exempt status will be challenged, and may be revoked.

4) Public employees will be disciplined, demoted, and even terminated for their refusal to recognize same-sex unions.

5) Private businesses will be fined for violating laws that are based on marital status.

6) Private landlords, including religious colleges, will be required to treat same sex couples the same as married couples.

7) Students will be denied admission to professional schools, and professionals will be subject to professional discipline, or denied licenses. Dr. Collette provided the example of Julia Ward, a social work student in Michigan, expelled from a social work program after first refusing to provide marital counseling to a gay couple, and then refusing training on the needs of LGBT clients. Ms. Ward argued that her evangelical Christian faith prohibited her from providing such counseling. Dr. Collette failed to mention in her presentation that the National Association of Social Workers in 1996 stated as policy that “The social worker should not practice, condone, facilitate, or collaborate with any form of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.” Who is the victim when a social work student tells a gay couple that she cannot help them because her religion forbids her from working with gay couples?

8) Private universities and colleges may lose their accreditation.

The right to discriminate

Dr. Collette concluded her remarks by emphasizing that GLBT relationships cannot be recognized in the law as legal marriage because of the impossibility of biological procreativity. She offered us “reciprocal beneficiary” arrangements instead which would be available to any two adults who want to enter into a legal relationship. It is not premised on sexual union or cohabitation.

Dr. Collette is determined to see marriage reserved for heterosexual couples, and bases her position on the legal history of the laws regulating marriage. She argues that the history of the laws prohibits their being changed to include GLBT citizens. With respect to recent defeats of efforts to legalize same-sex marriage in California and Maine, she crows that when the vote is put to the people “natural marriage” wins every time. “The media would have you believe that we are fighting a losing battle. The truth is that we are winning and they don’t like it.”

In conclusion she, and then parishioner Theresa who followed her onto the podium, threw up Powerpoint slides quoting Martin Luther King Jr., (including the one at the top of this article) in an effort to rally the faithful to battle against same-sex marriage.

Never mind that Coretta Scott King said, quoting her husband, “I’ve always felt that homophobic attitudes and policies were unjust and unworthy of a free society and must be opposed by all Americans who believe in democracy.”

Dr. Collette insists that the rights of heterosexuals never be impinged upon in the area of legal, civil marriage. She is indignant that anyone would question the legal right of the Roman Catholic Church to discriminate against gays, lesbians, bisexual, and transgender people as an employer, teacher, or landlord. She is an articulate advocate for continued inequality in civil marriage laws. Get out of our way, she steams, we will discriminate whether you like it or not.


The most striking thing about both speakers, the parishioner-coordinator Theresa, and the mood in the room judging by when people laughed and applauded, was their sense of victimhood, of being on the defensive. Their self-talk appears to be about how oppressed they are by their surrounding culture, and how threatened they are by the movement for gay rights. That they are in fact oppressors, or supporting oppression, is not in their mindset at all. In this way they dismiss any thought that there has ever been any bigotry or discrimination against gay people.

At the risk of dating myself, they room evoked Nixon’s description of “the silent majority” whose fears of racial integration he manipulated so shrewdly. They show up en masse to be affirmed in their prejudices, and to vote them at the ballot box. The fact that this is all done in church, in the heart of one of the most affluent neighborhoods in the state, by all white people, in the name of Jesus, and blessed by the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., makes one tremble for the safety of the democracy.

The archdiocese will be offering this program at least 10 more times in various parishes in 2010.

Brian McNeill is the president of Dignity Twin Cities and convener of the Rainbow Sash Alliance USA.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the report, Brian. I am sad that we can't have conversations grounded in reason in our Archdiocese. What happened to logic?