Marriage equality may have swept the nation last week, but LGBT people are far from equal. Even in places where LGBT individuals and same-sex couples are granted some array of legal rights, religious institutions routinely fire LGBT teachers after they come out or get married.
The most common explanation is that gay teachers aren’t upholding Catholic ideals when they pursue or “flaunt” their relationships. When they get hired, teachers at these schools are often asked to sign agreements stating they’ll abide by “Catholic principles.” If someone gets outed as LGBT, administrators use these documents to claim a breach of contract, then send the gays on their way.
In practice, the terms of these contracts don’t do much except ban same-sex relationships, ignoring a host of other prohibitions the Bible sets. In an excellent op-ed for the New York Times titled “The Church’s Gay Obsession,” openly gay columnist Frank Bruni explains why that’s such an issue:
Repeatedly over the last year and a half, I’ve written about teachers in Catholic schools and leaders in Catholic parishes who were dismissed from their posts because they were in same-sex relationships and — in many cases — had decided to marry.
Every time, more than a few readers weighed in to tell me that these people had it coming. If you join a club, they argued, you play by its rules or you suffer the consequences.
The rules of this particular club prohibit divorce, yet the pews of many of the Catholic churches I’ve visited are populous with worshipers on their second and even third marriages. They walk merrily to the altar to receive communion, not a peep of protest from a soul around them. They participate fully in the rituals of the church, their membership in the club uncontested.
The rules prohibit artificial birth control, and yet most of the Catholic families I know have no more than three children, which is either a miracle of naturally capped fecundity or a sign that someone’s been at the pharmacy. I’m not aware of any church office that monitors such matters, poring over drugstore receipts. And I haven’t heard of any teachers fired or parishioners denied communion on the grounds of insufficiently brimming broods.
We talk about this all the time in the context of Biblical opposition to homosexuality. For starters, many argue that the Bible says virtually nothing negative about same-sex relationships. Still more point out that some passages could actually be interpreted as condoning same-sex relationships (but everyone has their own take on that).
But those who do justify their intolerance with scripture tend to overlook plenty of other rules the Bible has set. Especially guilty of this are the institutions that fire people for being LGBT and then try to hide behind arbitrary guidelines so they don’t look like bigots.
Bruni spoke about this with Lisa Sowle Cahill, a professor of theology at Boston College. She added that supporting the death penalty is against Catholic teaching, yet few Catholic leaders have spoken up during heated national conversations about the topic.
“The bishops have picked up gay marriage ever since the 2004 presidential election as a special cause that they are against,” Cahill noted. She said that they were “staking out a countercultural Catholic identity” that doesn’t focus on “social justice and economic issues.”
“It’s about sex and gender issues,” she said, adding that it might be connected to the disgrace that church leaders brought upon themselves with their disastrous handling of child sexual abuse by priests. Perhaps, she said, they’re determined to find some sexual terrain on which they can strike a position of stern rectitude.
“They’re trying to regain the moral high ground, no matter how sure it is to backfire,” she said. Having turned a blind eye to nonconsensual sex that ravaged young lives, they’re holding the line against consensual sex that wounds no one.
Divorce? Premarital sex? Mixed fabrics? Shellfish? Shaving your beard? All outlawed by the Bible, but considered pretty morally lukewarm. And, as Bruni pointed out, nobody gets fired for having a lobster dinner with their second wife. If it’s written in the Bible, shouldn’t it be part of a “Catholic code of conduct,” too?
Maybe not. Homosexuality is the flashiest abomination to call out and punish, even though it doesn’t get much special attention in the Bible. And even then, it’s not necessarily being gay that gets you booted out, but “acting” gay, like proclaiming your love for someone else through marriage. Because homosexuality is cool when you keep it quiet, but as soon as you register at Crate and Barrel, you’re a threat to society. Right?
It’s crucial to remember that in many cases in which the church has punished same-sex couples, their homosexuality and even their same-sex partnerships were widely known and tacitly condoned for some time beforehand. What changed was their interest in a civil marriage, suddenly made possible by laws that are evolving more humanely than the church is. The couples in question stepped up and made loving commitments of a kind that the church celebrates in other circumstances. For this they were spurned. It’s shameful.
And it contradicts Catholic principles apart from those governing same-sex relations, as [Rev. James] Martin observed in a column in the Catholic magazine America earlier this year. Catholic teaching, he wrote, “also says that gay and lesbian people must be treated with ‘respect, sensitivity and compassion.’”
Bruni and Cahill hit the nail on the head: Time after time, the church makes an exception to its otherwise lenient Bible-following in order to condemn homosexuality, particularly homosexuality that takes a tangible, committed, perfectly legal form. And in many scenarios, it can mean a person is out of a job for something as traditional as getting married or having a baby.
What’s happening amounts to persecution. And it’s occurring not because the workers in these situations called any special attention to themselves or made any political fuss. No, they just loved in a fashion displeasing to many church officials, whose concerns with purity are spasmodic and capricious.
Martin said that those officials weren’t ferreting out and flogging people who fail to pay fair wages to their employees or to be charitable to the poor, which are mandates of Catholic social teaching.
“If you’re going to apply these litmus tests, apply them across the board,” he said, not recommending as much but making the point that if that happened, “We would empty out Catholic institutions of all of their employees, and no one would be able to present themselves in the communion line.”
This is a wake-up call for all kinds of change. Marriage equality and protection from workplace discrimination are critical, but they can’t fix the casual Catholic homophobia that locks qualified people out of entire career opportunities. We need religious institutions to abolish random qualifications for employment and recognize that virtually nobody lives entirely under the Bible’s recommendations.
And if they can’t be bothered to stop their selective discrimination, they need to at least own up to it.
(Image via Shutterstock)