Friday, November 20, 2009

Gay Liberation in DC

City Council v. Catholic Archdiocese

The DC City Council is moving toward legal recognition of same-sex marriages that are officially recognized in other jurisdictions. Many observers believe that if the council passes such an ordinance, the next step will be authorization of same-sex marriages performed here in the district.

Such actions are political dynamite when they occur elsewhere. In DC they are that and more. The district is the only place in the country where Congress can intervene directly in what would otherwise be a local governance question. And the symbolic importance of the nation’s capitol recognizing same-sex marriage in any form raises the political temperature further. Adding the DC area’s socially conservative black churches to the mix challenges the council further. But to date, the majority on the council has been more than clear. They have been courageous.

Christian right legal foundations and political groups have been very active in opposing the council initiative. Local black churches, some from suburban areas, have been the spearhead of the opposition, primarily because it would be unseemly for outside organizations to lead the way, but these groups have provided the local opposition with funding support, legal advice and tactical guidance. Lately the opposition has taken the form of petitioning the council to put the matter, if it passes, on the ballot for a public referendum. But the council has been clear: Human rights issues ought not and should not be subject to a popular vote. The logic of civil rights, the council majority says, mandates that all individuals should be treated equally and are entitled to the same social benefits, regardless of the opinion of the majority. Therefore, says the council, there will be no referendum.

Not surprisingly, the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington also has had something to say on the matter. It has opposed legal recognition of same-sex marriages legalized elsewhere and has supported the call for a referendum. Most recently, the archdiocese has said that if the measure passes, Catholic Social Services will have to stop providing services to low-income residents of the district. But more surprising, the Washington Post published an editorial stating its alarm over the prospect of Catholic Social Services pulling out of DC and calling on the council to reconsider its proposed ordinance and to modify it in order to accommodate the archdiocese.

But on the 19th, to the Post’s credit, it ran a letter from Rick Rosendall, vice president for political affairs at the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance. Rosendall makes it clear that this is not a question of the church’s ability to sustain an appropriate theological line in the face of government stepping over some church-state dividing line.

“The archdiocese does not pretend that providing benefits to divorced and remarried employees violates its teachings. This is not about forcing religious entities to violate their doctrines but about an organization throwing its weight around out of a sense of an entitlement to discriminate. District legislators cannot be expected to submit to blackmail, nor should the Post be making ill-supported excuses for it’” Rosendall wrote.

As all this unfolds, and the likely prospect of a majority of councilmembers actually standing on principle develops, I can’t help thinking of Richard Cleaver, a gay man, who was also Catholic—Richard and I worked together at the American Friends Service Committee in Michigan for much of the ‘80s. He is the author of Know My Name, A Gay Liberation Theology. He is also one of the people encountered in my lifetime who has taught me much about both radical political perspective and human decency.

In the preface to Know My Name, Richard explains how he came to be a Catholic, (which he more than once described in acknowledging the church’s evident homophobia as the largest, organized hate group in the world): “ I knew myself as a gay man before I knew myself as a Christian. This priority of commitment remains at the heart of my life as a member of the body of Christ. I joined the church not in spite of my gayness, but because of it. The church, when it is most fully church, is a community where the word of liberation is spoken and acted out in terms of the wholeness of body and spirit…”

I confess that I do not have any personal experience of what Richard is talking about. But because I have known Richard and have direct experience of the earnestness and diligence with which he sought and seeks the truth, I have no doubt that the church, at its best, is the community of which Richard speaks, and that he struggles for the soul of the church with great faith and love. Because I believe this, I can’t help but turn to Richard for some understanding of how a Catholic ought to act when big questions arise.

Richard’s book is a lengthy exploration of the ways in which gayness and solidarity with all excluded peoples is a fundamental expression of Christ’s message. There’s no possibility of quoting a passage, however long, which can fully illuminate his argument. But because Richard’s guidance has led me here, it has always seemed to me that a church, fully rooted in liberation theology—whether it be Latin American, feminist or gay—would be the true Christian church.

“There is a problem of method we must deal with before we can fully reclaim [the God of erotic love and the God of universal love]. I have alluded to it. Not only have men dominated theology, not only have straight people (at least, people we would now call straight) dominated it, so, too, people vowed to celibacy have dominated it, at least in the Roman, Eastern, and, to a certain extent, Anglican traditions. Working from their own lives, as is proper, but claiming to represent universal principles, they planted in our theological thinking a habit of treating sexual affection as part of our ‘fallenness.’ It is long past time to question this premise. Not only gay men but the whole church will benefit.

“I say this because we must keep in mind that a gay male liberation theology is not just for us. It is a gift to the whole church. Sheila Rowbotham’s reminder that ‘we are going to have to take them with us’ is not just for self-protection. It is inseparable from the outward spiral I describe in this book. It is solidarity.” Pg. 140.

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