Monday, October 08, 2007

Religion and Homosexuality (IV): Truthdig's 2005 "Inventing Sin"

Some weeks ago we tried to start a series of posts on Religion and Homosexuality, which we'll retake later on this year with more accurate information, but in the meantime, there's an extensive report labelled as a Dig in TruthDig, under Larry Gross direction, which sums pretty much the history of all 3 "abrahamic" faiths, with a very special emphasis on Christianity, when related to homosexuality. There's a timeline also that you can follow as a way to even cut shorter those events. But due to the importance of the report, we can't help doing a full copypaste of it all here. Religions other than christianity, judaism and islam are not covered in the report, which is dated Nov 30, 2005, and recent statements by Pope Benedict XVI either, though from letters and statements made when the current Pope was still Cardinal Ratzinger you could guess that Vatican point of view hasn't improved at all. But the article is large, and we're losing time here with all this preface, so let's dig into the juice. And don't forget to read the more than 100 comments on it at Truthdig.

Inventing Sin: Religion and Homosexuality

There they were, lined up in all their finery across the top of the front page of The New York Times of March 31, 2005, occupying perhaps the most prime piece of real estate in all of journalism: Sheik Abed es- Salem Menasra, deputy mufti of Jerusalem; the Rev. Michel Sabbagh, the Latin patriarch; Archbishop Torkom Manoogian, the Armenian patriarch of Jerusalem; Rabbi Shlomo Amar, the Sephardic chief rabbi; and Rabbi Yona Metzger, the Ashkenazi chief rabbi. What brought together these religious leaders more accustomed to squabbling over slivers of land in the Holy City? They came together to denounce plans by international gay leaders to hold a WorldPride festival and parade in Jerusalem, saying it would desecrate the city and convey the erroneous impression that homosexuality is acceptable.

“This is not the homo land, this is the Holy Land,” said Rabbi Yehuda Levin of the Rabbinical Alliance of America at the news conference, adding that the proposed celebration of the right to be gay would mean “the spiritual rape of the Holy City.”

* * *

On Sunday, April 24, 2005, as described by Frank Rich in The New York Times, “Justice Sunday,” the judge-bashing rally being disseminated nationwide by cable, satellite and Internet from a mega-church in Louisville, Kentucky, focused the hostility of “people of faith” against that perennial target of the right: activist judges. But, what sort of judicial “activism” has roused the ire of these defenders of the faith?  Rich continued:

The “Justice Sunday” mob is . . .  lying when it claims to despise activist judges as a matter of principle. Only weeks ago it was desperately seeking activist judges who might intervene in the Terri Schiavo case as boldly as Scalia & Co. had in Bush v. Gore. The real “Justice Sunday” agenda lies elsewhere. As Bill Maher summed it up for Jay Leno on the “Tonight” show last week: “ ‘Activist judges’ is a code word for gay.” The judges being verbally tarred and feathered are those who have decriminalized gay sex (in a Supreme Court decision written by Justice Kennedy) as they once did abortion and who countenance marriage rights for same-sex couples. This is the animus that dares not speak its name tonight. To paraphrase the “Justice Sunday” flier, now it’s the anti-filibuster campaign that is being abused to protect bias, this time against gay people.

* * *

On Nov. 29, the Congregation for Catholic Education, the Vatican department in charge of seminaries, published a long-awaited “instruction” ordering seminaries to bar candidates for the priesthood who “practice homosexuality,” have “deeply rooted homosexual tendencies” or support “gay culture.”

These apparently disparate events reflect a current reality: At the start of the 21st century, religion remains intertwined with politics, and few topics arouse as much religious fervor as those concerned with sexuality-as we are witnessing in the battle today over gay marriage. Indeed, for the three Abrahamic religions, as they’re sometimes called, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, homosexuality has provided a rare example of a truly common cause-the unusually harsh and virulent condemnation of homosexuality by religious authorities through the ages.

In nearly all societies throughout human history, religion offers answers to fundamental questions concerning the origin and meaning of things. Religious systems of explanation offer accounts of the creation of the world, as well as specifying the rules for proper behavior-and the consequences for infractions-that have been imposed by the Creator. In “Civilization and Its Discontents,” Freud summarized what “the common man understands by his religion-the system of doctrines and promises which on the one hand explains to him the riddle of life with enviable completeness, and, on the other, assures him that a careful Providence will watch over his life and will compensate him in a future life for any frustrations he suffers here.”

In Western culture, the dominant religious traditions for the past two millenniums have been Christian, built upon, but significantly differing from, Judaism. In contrast to most other major world religions-Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism and Islam-Christianity has been marked by what sex historian Vern L. Bullough terms a general antagonism toward sexual expression. However, homosexuality has been singled out in Judaism and Christianity for condemnation far greater than that directed toward most other forms of sexual behavior.

Old Testament views on sexuality were shaped by principles that resulted in hostility to homosexual acts. The first was a focus on procreation as a necessary goal and duty, embodied in the commandment to “be fruitful and multiply.” This fundamental injunction led to the expectation that everyone would marry as early as possible and engage in marital sexual intercourse on a regular basis. In this context, any sexual act that could not promote appropriate procreation was sinful. Thus, because conception was viewed as the product of male semen planted in the female womb, lesbianism did not evoke the same sort of condemnation: As one Biblical scholar put it, “In lesbianism there is no spilling of seed. Thus life is not symbolically lost, and therefore lesbianism is not prohibited in the Bible.”

The second consideration pervading Old Testament views of sexuality was the fear of assimilation into neighboring cultures, which prompted the prohibition of many sexual practices associated with outsiders (this is a common explanation as well for many of the Biblical dietary requirements). At earlier stages in Jewish history the hostility to foreign religions focused on the temple prostitutes, both male and female, common in many Middle Eastern societies, and this has been seen as a source of the famous prohibition in Leviticus against a man “lying with a man as one lies with a woman.” (It might be worth noting that this Biblical prohibition, part of the “Holiness Code,” is addressed only to Jews and did not apply to Gentiles.) At the same time other forms of emotional, and possibly physical, attachment between men and between women were celebrated. The love of David and Jonathan, which “surpassed the love of women,” and the devotion of Ruth to Naomi can certainly sustain a homosexual interpretation. In the later period of the Second Temple, widespread fear of assimilation into Greek culture led to greater hostility toward homosexuality that was carried into exile in Talmudic Judaism. These condemnations of homosexuality were also absorbed into, and amplified by, early Christianity.

The Gospels are silent on the topic of homosexuality, but St. Paul provided sufficient ammunition for those seeking New Testament support for condemnation of homosexuality, as well as any other sexual acts outside of marriage. The early Church adopted a suspicion toward sexuality based on Jesus’ purported endorsement of celibacy, as reflected in his statement (Matthew 19:12), “For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to receive this, let him receive it.”

Although the interpretation of Christ’s statement has been debated, with some emphasizing Jesus’ endorsement of celibacy only for those “able to receive it,” there is less ambiguity in Paul’s expressed preference for sexual continence: “I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own special gift from God, one of one kind and one of another. To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain single as I do. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion. . . .” Paul’s apparently explicit condemnation of homosexuality, both female and male, occurs in Romans 1:26-27: “For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature: And likewise, also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompense of their error which was meet” (King James version).  While this passage has been cited as evidence for the inherent sinfulness of homosexuality, there are conflicting interpretations. Historian John Boswell argued that Paul was not condemning homosexuals, but heterosexuals who engage in homosexual acts.

Ultimately, the Catholic Church adopted the influential formulation of St. Augustine, taking as the core Christian belief a definition of sexuality as inherently sinful, and exculpated only by the sacrament of marriage and the need to procreate. All forms of sexual intercourse outside of marriage and the possibility of conception were sinful. 

Despite the hostility of the Church fathers to sexuality outside of marriage, and the specific condemnation of homosexuality as a diversion of the sexual organs from the procreative purpose, Boswell has argued that the early Middle Ages were relatively tolerant of homosexuality. It was in the 12th and 13th centuries, as the Church began to demand greater adherence to dogma which led to the Inquisition, that homosexuality became utterly stigmatized. Along with other behaviors ascribed to heretics, homosexuality came to be viewed, as Boswell writes, as “a dangerous, antisocial, and severely sinful aberration. . . . By 1300 . . .  a single homosexual act was enough . . . in many places, to merit the death penalty.”

The most influential formulation of the emerging view of sexuality was that of St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), “whose Summa Theologiae became the standard of orthodox opinion on every point of Catholic dogma for nearly a millennium and permanently and irrevocably established the ‘natural’ as the touchstone of Roman Catholic sexual ethics.” For Aquinas, sins against nature were those forms of lust that were directed solely to the pursuit of pleasure and that entirely precluded procreation. These included, in ascending order of sinfulness, masturbation (spilling seed); deviation from the natural manner of coitus (which, according to Aquinas, was limited to face to face with the man on top (the “missionary position"); homosexuality; and bestiality.

In the 16th century, Christianity was in turmoil as the Protestant movement begun by Luther set loose a torrent of schism and strife that transformed the Western world. However, while the leading Protestant theologians differed from the Catholic Church on many issues of sexuality, such as divorce and clerical celibacy, Luther and Calvin both followed Aquinas in condemning homosexuality as contrary to nature. At the same time the Catholic Church responded to the Protestant challenge by convening the Council of Trent (1545-64), which reasserted traditional views and enshrined Aquinas as the “doctor of the church.” As historian John Noonan writes, because “Catholic moralists were not eager to appear to abandon a moral doctrine of the Fathers if the Protestants still held it,” both sides emphasized their intolerance of non-procreative sexuality. These restrictive views were carried by both Catholic and Protestant colonizers to the New World, where they were imposed upon both Native American cultures and the emerging European-American societies. 

The past five centuries have seen a decline in the role of religion as the institution that explains the world and defines morality, and this process of secularization has extended to the realm of sexuality. But the replacement of church authority by civil law did not result in any immediate liberalization, as the condemnation of “sins against nature” was translated into “crimes against nature” now punished by the state. Codifying the process of breaking away from the Catholic Church, Henry VIII’s government enacted a series of laws asserting the king’s spiritual and secular power. In so doing it was important to maintain the Church’s position on such issues as sexuality, although the changes famously relaxed the prohibition against divorce and permitted priests to marry. Among the laws passed by Parliament at the king’s behest was the Buggery Act in 1533. It made buggery with man or beast punishable by hanging, a penalty not finally lifted until 1861.

It was not until the scientific and medical discoveries of the 19th century that some Western views of human nature and human sexuality began to change. In the latter part of the century sexual reform movements began to appear, among them the first defense of homosexuality as a natural variation rather than a sin or crime against nature. By the mid-20th century progressive forces within many religious denominations had joined the effort to liberate lesbian, gay and bisexual people. In the early 1950s reform efforts in Great Britain spearheaded by progressive Anglican clergy led to the Wolfenden Report of 1957 and the sodomy law reform of 1967. In the United States progressive clerics and religious groups such as the Quakers, Unitarian Universalists and some Episcopal dioceses lent support to homophile groups and lesbian/gay liberation.

In 1965 the Council on Religion and the Homosexual, an alliance of liberal church leaders in San Francisco, joined with lesbian and gay groups to protest police harassment. In 1969 the United Church of Christ called for the decriminalization of homosexual activities between consenting adults, a position soon joined by the Unitarian Universalist Association. Similar stands were taken by significant factions within the Presbyterian and Methodist churches. Within Judaism, the Reconstructionist movement has long ordained lesbian and gay rabbis, and it was joined in this by the Reform wing of American Judaism in 1990.

In 1968 the Rev. Troy Perry (ordained in a southern Pentecostal denomination) started the first gay church, in his Los Angeles home. Within a short period Perry’s Metropolitan Community Church had grown to several hundred members, drawn from numerous Christian denominations, and it began to spread beyond Southern California. By the mid-1980s the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches had nearly 200 congregations in 10 countries. The example of the UFMCC led to the founding of lesbian/gay congregations within other religious persuasions. In 1972 the first lesbian and gay synagogue, Beth Chayim Chadashim ("House of New Life"), was founded in Los Angeles, followed shortly by synagogues in New York, San Francisco and, ultimately, over 30 other locations in the United States and other countries.

In some instances lesbian and gay organizations have attempted to obtain official recognition, sometimes holding services in established churches. Dignity, founded by gay Catholics in San Diego in 1969, was emulated by organizations of lesbian and gay Episcopalians (Integrity), United Methodists (Affirmation), Mormons (Affinity) and other Protestant denominations.  After an initial period of quasi-toleration of Dignity, which had grown to be among the largest lesbian and gay organizations in the country, the Catholic Church began to reassert its traditional hostility toward homosexuality. In 1975 the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published a “Declaration on Certain Questions Concerning Sexual Ethics,” in which the Catholic Church tried to come to terms with the changing sexual attitudes of the times.

In that document the Church acknowledged the existence of individuals who are homosexual “because of some kind of innate instinct or a pathological constitution judged to be incurable.” This was taken by many as a sign of progress, despite the document’s insistence that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered and can in no case be approved.” Some thought it could lead to liberalization, but after the election of Pope John Paul II in 1978, conservative voices dominated the choir yet again. Father John McNeill, a Jesuit priest who wrote “The Church and the Homosexual” (1976), was first silenced and then expelled from his order, and other liberal theologians were disciplined for espousing pro-gay positions.

These measures did not suffice to reverse the liberal trends found throughout American Catholicism, and in 1986 Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the Catholic Church’s official theological enforcer), issued what has come to be known as the Ratzinger Letter, “On the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons.”

This new document repeated and strengthened the message of the 1975 declaration that homosexual acts are “intrinsically disordered,” and then specifically condemned efforts to enact civil legislation “to protect behavior to which no one has any conceivable right.” If such efforts provoke “irrational and violent reactions,” Cardinal Ratzinger suggested, it was only to be expected.

The letter went on to state that “all support should be withdrawn from any organizations which seek to undermine the teachings of the Church, which are ambiguous about it or which neglect it entirely.” This official pronouncement effectively ended the access to churches previously enjoyed by Dignity chapters in dioceses across the United States and Canada. 

In the period since the Ratzinger Letter, the Catholic Church has not relented in its hostility to lesbian and gay people, and prominent clerics have been in the forefront of efforts to defeat lesbian and gay causes. Conservative Catholic laypersons such as Paul Weyrich, Phyllis Schlafly, William F. Buckley and Patrick Buchanan have also played leading roles in the rise of the “New Right,” which has made attacks on gay people a centerpiece of its political rhetoric. 

In 1992 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith responded to the success of legal efforts to provide protection for homosexual people:

Recently, legislation had been proposed in some American states which would make discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation illegal. In some Italian cities, municipal authorities have made public housing available to homosexual (and unmarried heterosexual) couples. Such initiatives, even where they seem more directed toward support of basic civil rights than condonement of homosexual activity or a homosexual lifestyle, may in fact have a negative impact on the family and society.

After reiterating many of the arguments of the 1986 Ratzinger Letter, the 1992 statement made explicit the conclusion that Church leaders were expected to intervene in the political process in opposition to such efforts:

Finally, since a matter of the common good is concerned, it is inappropriate for Church authorities to endorse or remain neutral toward adverse legislation even if it grants exceptions to Church organizations and institutions. The Church has the responsibility to promote the public morality of the entire civil society on the basis of fundamental moral values, not simply to protect herself from the application of harmful laws.

Catholic Church leaders followed the injunction of Pope John Paul II and his theological enforcer, Cardinal Ratzinger. In May 1993, Philadelphia Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua strode into the City Council to testify against proposed domestic partner benefits for city employees. Accompanied by the head of the [Protestant] Black Clergy of the Delaware Valley and a prominent Muslim cleric, and cheered on by senior citizens and schoolchildren bused in by the archdiocese, the cardinal warned of the grave threat to the family posed by domestic partner benefits.

The Philadelphia legislation was defeated when City Council President John Street declared his opposition to the legislation in a statement that parroted Cardinal Bevilacqua’s words. When Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell later issued an executive order granting domestic partner benefits to mayoral appointees, Cardinal Bevilacqua held a news conference at which he warned that the executive order would end civilization as we know it in Philadelphia. 

If civilization in Philadelphia was threatened by domestic partner benefits, Rome was even more alarmed at the increasingly successful movement to legalize same-sex marriage in Europe. Playing his familiar role as the pope’s enforcer, Cardinal Ratzinger took aim.

In July of 2003 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued yet another letter to the bishops of the Church, this time enumerating “Considerations Regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions Between Homosexual Persons.” The purpose of the letter was to “provide arguments drawn from reason which could be used by Bishops in preparing more specific interventions, appropriate to the different situations throughout the world, aimed at protecting and promoting the dignity of marriage, the foundation of the family, and the stability of society, of which this institution is a constitutive element.” The letter also addressed Catholic politicians in countries or localities where same-sex marriage was being debated:

If it is true that all Catholics are obliged to oppose the legal recognition of homosexual unions, Catholic politicians are obliged to do so in a particular way, in keeping with their responsibility as politicians. . . . When legislation in favour of the recognition of homosexual unions is proposed for the first time in a legislative assembly, the Catholic law-maker has a moral duty to express his opposition clearly and publicly and to vote against it. To vote in favour of a law so harmful to the common good is gravely immoral.

Then, during the 2004 U.S. presidential campaign Cardinal Ratzinger ratcheted up to direct intervention, telling American bishops that Communion must be denied to Catholic politicians who support legal abortion. In August of 2005, fulfilling the spirit of this injunction, Bishop Thomas Olmsted ordered that politicians who support gay rights and abortion be banned from speaking at Roman Catholic churches in the Phoenix diocese. In keeping with this order, Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano was forbidden to speak at a Scottsdale church.

The 2003 Letter also condemned the possibility of permitting lesbian or gay couples to adopt children: “Allowing children to be adopted by persons living in such unions would actually mean doing violence to these children, in the sense that their condition of dependency would be used to place them in an environment that is not conducive to their full human development.” This Letter was promulgated, as many noted, at the same time that the Catholic Church was beset with its own ethical and legal travails over its failure to seriously address the problem of sexual abuse of minors by priests.

When the sexual abuse scandals broke over the Catholic priesthood in the United States in the late 1990s the Vatican responded by scapegoating gay priests, despite abundant evidence that pedophiles are not gay and that gays are not pedophiles. Vatican spokesman Joaquin Novarro-Valls broke the Vatican’s official silence on the scandal, telling The New York Times in March 2002 that gay men should not be ordained as priests. Philadelphia Cardinal Bevilacqua, returning from a meeting of cardinals with Pope John Paul in Rome, expanded on the Church’s increased hostility towards homosexuality:

“We feel that a person who is homosexually oriented is not a suitable candidate for the priesthood, even if he did not commit an act [of gay sex],” he said. “There is a difference between heterosexual candidates and homosexual candidates,” he said. “A heterosexual is taking on a good thing, becoming a priest, and giving up a very good thing, the desire to have a family.” A gay seminarian, even a chaste one, he said, “by his orientation, is not giving up family and marriage. He is giving up what the church considers an abomination.”

In February 2005, Pope John Paul II published his last book, “Memory and Identity,” described by the Reuters news service as “a highly philosophical and intricate work on the nature of good and evil.” However, in his final months, ill and facing death, Pope John Paul’s highly philosophical ruminations did not preclude an attack on same-sex marriage, recently legalized in several European countries.

Referring to efforts in the European Parliament to promote same-sex marriage, he wrote, “It is legitimate and necessary to ask oneself if this is not perhaps part of a new ideology of evil, perhaps more insidious and hidden, which attempts to pit human rights against the family and against man.”

Despite the evident hostility of the Catholic Church, some lesbian and gay Catholics have searched wistfully for silver linings. Conservative journalist Andrew Sullivan tried to reconcile his homosexuality and his religion, arguing that the Church made a monumental concession by using the term “homosexual persons” because “the term ‘person’ constitutes in Catholic moral teaching a profound statement about the individual’s humanity, dignity and worth; it invokes a whole range of rights and needs.” But not, of course, the right to sexual expression; that, according to the Ratzinger Letter, is “behavior to which no one has any conceivable right.”

Sullivan seemed less concerned over whether his church grants him the right to express his sexuality than grateful that it found a place for him in the natural order. And what is this place? Sullivan writes, “As albinos remind us of the brilliance of color . . . as the disabled person reveals to us in negative form the beauty of the fully functioning human body; so the homosexual person might be seen as a natural foil to the heterosexual norm, a variation that does not eclipse the theme, but resonates with it.”

The view that homosexuality can only be seen as the distorted reflection of a heterosexual norm is not limited, of course, to tortured gay apologists. The religious right has placed what it calls “family values” as the centerpiece of its crusade against minorities (single mothers on welfare), feminism (women daring to seek employment and careers outside the home), and gay people (who “recruit because they can’t reproduce").

In this ecumenical enterprise, homosexuality’s threat to the “traditional nuclear family” and to heterosexuality itself is constantly emphasized. As the Ramsey Colloquium, a conservative theology group, put it, “heterosexual marriage, despite its divine origins, is a fragile institution in need of careful and continuing support.” And, as Jewish theologian Samuel Dressner worries, acceptance of homosexuality is the first step down a familiar slippery slope: Once “heterosexuality within the marital bond is dismissed, then how can adultery, pedophilia, incest or bestiality be rejected?”

Among mainline Protestant denominations, the United Church of Christ was the first to permit the ordination of open lesbians and gay men, and in July 2005 its rule-making body voted to endorse same-sex marriage. In 1992 the Presbyterian Church initiated a three-year study of homosexuality, which failed to resolve the issue of ordination of gay people. In 1993 a draft statement on homosexuality by a committee of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America set off what a church official called “the most volatile explosion in the life of this church.” In 1996 conservative Episcopal bishops failed in their attempt to force a heresy trial for a bishop who ordained a non-celibate gay man, and in 2003 the election of Gene Robinson, an openly gay priest, as the Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire rocked the Episcopal Church in the United States and reverberated through the Anglican Church around the world.

In this, as in other arenas, the issue of openly gay clergy widened a split not only between liberal and conservative factions within the American church but between the Old World churches of Europe and the United States and the fervent, rapidly growing churches of the Third World in Latin America and Africa. Reacting to the election of Robinson in the United States, Nigerian Archbishop Peter Akinola, who leads the largest church in the 70 million-strong Anglican Communion, set the tone by describing it as “a Satanic attack on God’s church.” In 2004 the leaders of two Southern California Episcopal churches, St. James’ Church in Newport Beach and All Saints’ Church in Long Beach, voted to withdraw from the Episcopal Church of the U.S. and put their flocks under the authority of the conservative Diocese of Luwero in Uganda, with the blessing of the bishop of Luwero.

In February 2005 the leaders of the global Anglican communion asked the U.S. Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada to temporarily withdraw from a key council-a move designed to avoid a permanent schism over differences on homosexuality and same-sex unions.

[PBS Newshour report]

The issue of openly gay clergy continues to roil most mainline Protestant denominations. In December 2004, an openly lesbian United Methodist minister was stripped of her ministerial credentials by a church trial court. The Rev. Irene Elizabeth “Beth” Stroud was found guilty Dec. 2 of engaging in “practices that are incompatible with Christian teachings.” Stroud’s case was the third lesbian trial in the United Methodist Church since the denomination adopted a law barring “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” from the ministry in 1984. On April 29, 2005, however, the denomination’s Northeastern Jurisdiction Committee on Appeals overturned the trial court’s verdict and penalty, citing legal errors, and restored Stroud’s clergy standing. On Oct. 27, 2005, a hearing on the appeal was held by the Judicial Council, the denomination’s top court, and on Oct. 31, it defrocked the Rev. Stroud for violating the denomination’s ban on “self-avowed, practicing homosexual” clergy.

Beyond the fringe of mainline denominations lies the rapidly growing domain of the Protestant fundamentalists who erupted onto the public stage in the late 1970s, amassing enormous financial and political power through broadcast and cable programming, direct mail and videocassette distribution. Organizations such as the Rev. Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, Beverly LaHaye’s Concerned Women for America, the Rev. Donald Wildmon’s American Family Association, Dr. James Dobson’s Focus on the Family, the Rev. Lou Sheldon’s Traditional Values Coalition, and the Christian Coalition founded by televangelist Pat Robertson have made attacks on lesbian and gay people a major attraction of their crusades and their fundraising.

In August of 2003 Jerry Falwell informed his followers that:

I am dedicating my talents, time and energies over the next few years to the passage of an amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which will protect the traditional family from its enemies who wish to legalize same-sex marriage and other diverse “family” forms. I have just created a special website ( ), whereby one million American are being recruited to sign a Federal Marriage Amendment Petition which will be forwarded to all 535 members of Congress and to President Bush. My line in the sand has been drawn!

Even farther out, beyond the pale for most Christians, lies the website God Hates Fags, created by the Rev. Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas. Phelps and his followers are best known for picketing the funerals of gay people who have died of AIDS or anti-gay violence, such as Matthew Shepard. As they put it on their website:

WBC engages in daily peaceful sidewalk demonstrations opposing the homosexual lifestyle of soul-damning, nation-destroying filth. We display large, colorful signs containing Bible words and sentiments, including: GOD HATES FAGS, FAGS HATE GOD, AIDS CURES FAGS, THANK GOD FOR AIDS, FAGS BURN IN HELL, GOD IS NOT MOCKED, FAGS ARE NATURE FREAKS, GOD GAVE FAGS UP, NO SPECIAL LAWS FOR FAGS, FAGS DOOM NATIONS, etc.

Meanwhile, back in Rome, the cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church gathered to elect a successor to John Paul II. In the shortest conclave in memory they elected as the new pope Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. Whether Pope Benedict XVI will, like Nixon going to China, surprise both his supporters and his detractors remains to be seen. What is unquestionable at the moment of his election, however, in the words of Boston Globe columnist Derrick Z. Jackson, is that “the church fled to yesteryear, hoping to avoid facing today.”

In his new role as pope, Ratzinger was immediately confronted with familiar challenges he had tackled as John Paul II’s enforcer. Following Holland in 2001 and Belgium in 2003, Canada in 2003 legalized same-sex marriage. The Vatican immediately called this a distortion of God’s plan for the family. However, the most dramatic blow to the Church’s authority came in 2005 in heavily Catholic Spain, when the parliament joined other liberalizing nations in voting to legalize same-sex marriage. The Spanish parliament acted despite vehement opposition from the Catholic bishops, who had taken the unusual step of endorsing a “pro-family” demonstration in Madrid on June 18, and despite Pope Benedict’s condemnation of gay marriage as an expression of “anarchic freedom” that threatens the future of the family.

All this occurred in the same time frame as charges were being leveled that the former Cardinal Ratzinger, in his role as church enforcer, had ignored and covered up charges of sexual abuse by priests. A lawsuit filed in Texas by three boys, alleging that a seminarian molested them during counseling sessions in the Church in the mid-1990s, accused the pope of having conspired with the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston to cover up the abuse [AP, Aug.17, 2005].  Although the Vatican was served with papers in the suit, the U.S. State Department maintained that the pope, as a head of state, has diplomatic immunity from such lawsuits. Nevertheless, the revelations continue to emerge: It was reported that Ratzinger sent a confidential letter to his bishops in May 2001, asserting the Church’s right to hold its inquiries of sexual abuse charges behind closed doors and keep the evidence confidential for up to 10 years after the victims reach adulthood. Lawyers representing abuse victims reacted to the revelation of the letter by accusing Ratzinger of obstructing justice, and the Vatican’s refusal to comment on the letter is not likely to prevent further controversy.

Undeterred, the Vatican continues to evade responsibility for the Church’s sad history of child sexual abuse by its priests by focusing on the hopefully distracting question of gay priests. In August 2005 it was revealed that the pope was considering a policy that would prevent gay men from being ordained as priests.  The new “religious instruction,” at the request of Pope John Paul II, was prepared by the Congregation for Catholic Education and Seminaries, the body overseeing the Church’s training of the priesthood, and now confronts John Paul’s successor with a controversial decision. In September 2005 the Vatican sent investigators to the U.S. to visit 220 Catholic seminaries and campuses; the investigators report directly to the Vatican, which could choose to issue the instruction barring homosexuals from entering the priesthood.  Since a conservative estimate places the presence of homosexuals in the American priesthood at 15%, such a policy would be as drastic as it would be vicious, and it would ultimately be irrelevant to the ongoing problem of abuse by pedophiles and cover-up by Church authorities. The instruction was officially promulgated in the document released on Nov. 29.

Today, religious leaders and institutions play increasingly important roles on both sides of the cultural wars raging in the United States. Progressive clergy, often openly lesbian and gay, are reshaping rituals and beliefs and challenging their colleagues to evolve and adapt. On the other side, the religious right has been the engine of social and political reaction for the past three decades, and homosexuality has been among its most consistent targets. Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and Moslem fundamentalists have made common cause in their unrelenting hostility to lesbian and gay people’s demands for civil and religious equality.

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