Bishops are squandering a rich tradition of moral teaching

  • Article by: NEIL ELLIOTT
  • Updated: October 4, 2011 - 8:34 PM
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It is, indeed, "disturbing" that the archbishop leading the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has criticized the Obama administration for dropping its defense of the unfortunately named "Defense of Marriage Act."

The bishops' protest that recognizing gay marriage could generate discrimination against Roman Catholics appears an absurd bit of histrionics when compared with the real discrimination already suffered by those among us whose relationships are every bit as loving and dignified as those of their straight neighbors, but who are denied basic rights and recognition.

The Star Tribune editorial is right: the teachings of a particular religious hierarchy cannot be the basis for denying basic human rights to a segment of the population.

But the bishops' stance is unfortunate not just because it crosses a line between church and state. Their stance also squanders the moral capital of Catholic social teaching.

As debates carried out in these opinion pages have illustrated, much of the Catholic magisterium's current campaign against recognition of gay marriage turns on a particular interpretation of "natural law."

In effect, they argue that the biological fact of heterosexual reproduction should be taken as a universal moral norm (historical and cross-cultural exceptions being ruled "unnatural" by definition).

An exception is made, however, on pastoral grounds, for any heterosexual couple that wants to marry knowing they can never have children.

The double standard is obvious enough to any impartial observer -- including many Roman Catholics -- who reasonably conclude that heterosexual prejudice, not "natural law," decisively tilts the scales.

Compounding the problem, such magisterial fretting over a supposed threat to "traditional marriage" could be redirected against very real threats to actual families, whether headed by straight or gay couples.

Roman Catholic social teaching has made that point clearly enough in the past.

"The precarious economic situation of so many people and so many families calls for examination of U.S. economic arrangements," the bishops' conference wrote in their pastoral letter "Economic Justice for All" in 1986, as the Republican fantasy of "trickle-down" prosperity was being implemented across the nation.

The bishops called the proportion of U.S. families living in poverty a "moral scandal" back when the official unemployment rate was only 6 or 7 percent.

"All members of a society have a special obligation to the poor and vulnerable," the bishops wrote, and "the fulfillment of the basic needs of the poor is of the highest priority."

They repudiated the myth that the wild disparity between rich and poor, which has only grown, arose from "differences in talent or lack of desire to work." Instead, they blamed "institutional relationships that distribute power and wealth inequitably."

They reaffirmed the rights of workers and collective bargaining and declared a progressive tax system "a prime necessity." (There's one piece of authoritative Catholic teaching that columnist Katherine Kersten consistently ignores.)

That pastoral letter offers the sort of principled moral clarity that informed previous generations of Catholics. Such clear and forceful standing with the underdog and the oppressed was given heroic dramatization in "On the Waterfront," as Father Barry (Karl Malden) risked his life to defend the rights of dockworkers.

In the last few decades, however, as genuine class warfare has been waged against the neediest families in our nation and around the world, the Roman Catholic bishops have grown increasingly cautious in their statements on economic injustice.

The most vocal of them have increasingly chosen opposition to gay marriage as the place to make their public stand.

That choice puts them on the side of some of the most reactionary forces in our society -- and deprives poor families of the clear advocacy they so sorely need.

Further, while previous generations of theologians and clergy appealed to the moral consciences of all reasonable people, these bishops now focus instead on litmus-test issues like gay marriage that function primarily to separate the loyal from their neighbors, even within Catholic congregations, and then portray their supporters as the potential victims of ostracism.

A legacy like Roman Catholic social teaching is a terrible thing to waste.

To borrow another line from "On the Waterfront," the Roman Catholic hierarchy "could have been a contender" in the public square if it had taken a principled stand against policies that assault the dignity of poor families.

Instead, the hierarchy has chosen a path of increasing irrelevance to the very people who might most have respected an articulate exposition of that legacy.

* * *

Neil Elliott, of White Bear Lake, is an Episcopal priest; in the 1990s he taught the "Global Search for Justice" course as a member of the Theology Department at the College of St. Catherine.

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