Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Luke 2:8-11

Each year in December it is customary for the Pope to share his personal opinions on what he considers to be pressing issues facing the world. This year Pope Benedict XVI considers same gender couples and their civil rights to be the most pressing threat to humanity. For the Reuters article:

Not global warming and the damage to the world's Eco-system, which many scientist have warned us about. Not the proliferation of nuclear arms and the threat this presents of a "limited" nuclear war against Israel, which could draw the whole of the Middle East and the world into war. Not international terrorism by religious zealots which threatens global security. Not the international financial crisis which could itself contribute to most of the aforementioned items and to widespread human misery. No, what causes Benedict XVI greatest concern is same sex marriage and civil rights. Evidently, it is not only grace which is "Amazing!"

What does a Catholic do with such a statement from a sitting pope? First, we need to consider the context and weight of the statement. This statement simply represents the personal insights of the man who happens to be the current pope. This is not an encyclical or a "de fide" statement. Read the encyclical Rerum Novarum issued by Pope Leo XIII on 15 May 1891 which stated:

"Let it be taken for granted that workman and employer should, as a rule, make free agreements, and in particular should agree freely as to wages; nevertheless, there is a dictate of natural justice more imperious and ancient than any bargain between man and man, that remuneration should be sufficient to maintain the wage-earner in reasonable and frugal comfort. If through necessity or fear of a worse evil the workman accept harder conditions because an employer or contractor will afford him no better, he is made the victim of force and injustice."

Then read the Syllabus of Errors issued by Pope Pius IX on 8 December 1864. Statements the encyclical condemned as FALSE include the following:

• "human reason , without any reference whatsoever to God, is the sole arbiter of truth and falsehood, and of good and evil" (No. 3) "All the truths of religion proceed from the innate strength of human reason;hence reason is the ultimate standard by which man can and ought to arrive at the knowledge of all truths of every kind." (No. 4)
• "in the present day it is no longer expedient that the Catholic religion should be held as the only religion of the State, to the exclusion of all other forms of worship." (No. 77)
• "Protestantism is nothing more than another form of the same true Christian religion, in which form it is given to please God equally as in the Catholic Church" (No. 18).
• "the Church ought to be separated from the State, and the State from the Church." (No. 55)
• "every man is free to embrace and profess that religion which, guided by the light of reason, he shall consider true." (No. 15) and that "it has been wisely decided by law, in some Catholic countries, that persons coming to reside therein shall enjoy the public exercise of their own peculiar worship." (No. 78)
• "the Roman Pontiff can, and ought to, reconcile himself, and come to terms with, progress, liberalism and modern civilization." (No. 80)

We could look at both of these documents and wonder if they had been issued by the same institution, by two men who held the same office. Today, Rerum Novarum is considered a jewel in Catholic social teaching and the Syllabus of Errors is embarrassingly swept under the carpet and universally ignored. Even Cardinal Ratzinger himself (now Pope Benedict XVI) approvingly called Vatican II a "counter-syllabus", in a gesture of frankness.

Sadly, many Catholics have a very limited understanding of their faith and believe that anything which a pope utters was written on the tablets carried down from Mount Sinai by Moses. Statements such as this by Benedict XVI fuel the bigotry which leads to hate crimes against LGBT persons. Statements like this will one day be buried in the dust bin of history along with the Syllabus of Errors and the various papal errors for which the late Pope John Paul II apologized to Jews, Muslims and the scientific community. Today, however, Benedict's words increase the suffering of LGBT persons, divide families and inspire hatred. That this should be done in the name of God is appalling. That it should be done on the Eve of Christmas is lamentable.

The first Christmas conjures up all sorts of romantic images. The Gospel informs us that Mary in an advanced state of pregnancy and Joseph traveled to Bethlehem to comply with civil law. Mary gave birth to Jesus in a manager surrounded by animals because there was no other place for them. Think about that scene. St. Ignatius Loyola tells us to employ the gift of our imagination when reading the Sacred Scriptures. Imagine what it was like in that stable, what it smelled like, the cold of the night. Imagine it through the eyes of St. Joseph, of the Blessed Mother giving birth under those circumstances.

God revealed the incarnation of his only begotten son to shepherds. The testimony of shepherds would be inadmissible in a court at that time. God reveals the incarnation not to the Emperor in Rome nor to the High Priest in Jerusalem, but to people who were considered to be unholy and who's word was considered worthless by society. God seems to favor those despised by "polite society." The baby in the manger would grow up to eat with sinners and prostitutes. He would himself be seen as an undesirable and condemned by those in positions of high religious authority. Things that make you go, "HMMM." Keep the spirit of that first Christmas in your hearts. Like the shepherds, we too are called to announce the news of liberation to the world.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

San Francisco panel discussion.

Last Friday, I attended a panel discussion sponsored by the San Francisco Bar Association. The following were some of the points raised in our discussion and some of the thoughts on how to move forward from this point. In brief, the November 4th Election has paradoxically helped to reignite passion within the LGBT community, not only in California but, in the nation.

The Intersection: Race, Religion, The Law & Same Sex Marriage

December 12, 2008

Roundtable Discussion Outcome & Action Items –

The final 30 minutes of the roundtable discussion were spent brainstorming solutions on how we as community leaders can assist the community with moving forward on the issues of race, religion, civil rights and same-sex marriage.

Below is the list of action items recommended by the panelists:

* Going forward, the LGBT Community should create one voice to speak out on this issue
* Develop a common “theme” to use when speaking out on this message (example from the audience: “LGBT need to be empowered to come out, be visible and encourage straight people to tell their story”)
* Develop and publish opinion editorial (op-ed) pieces that speak about these issues.
* Approach mainstream media (CNN, C-Span, etc.) to talk about these issues, just as the religious right advocates are doing. Be sure to highlight the positives that can come from these discussions and present the topics in a non-threatening manner. Start now.
* LGBT community needs to become present in other communities. Go to association meetings, church, etc., in other minority communities.
* Identify ways for LGBT community and straight communities to educate others on the fact that sexual orientation is “not” a choice
* BASF should reach out to other bar organizations to encourage them to put on programs/hold discussion forums similar to this one.
* Create ad hoc religious coalitions as it appears that people may be interested in collaborating with other religions on certain issues.
* The legal community needs to community clearly that same sex marriage is not a zero-sum game, that is, help people to understand that if gays gain the right to marry, that does not mean another group will lose a right that they have – specifically that religious institutions will not lose any rights with respect to what marriages they will perform.
* Coalition building between organizations that might have opposing positions (between boards, etc.) to find a middle ground and/or educate each group.
* Engage ICONS, public figures who are opinion makers and who are in a role to affect policy.
* Be sure to address these issues from a grass roots perspective, while at the same time utilizing the media.
* BASF should consider additional forums like this one, but next time in front of the public or media.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

At a crossroads.

On May 15th 2008, the California State Supreme Court ruled that same gender marriage would be legal in the state of California effective June 17th. This ruling came as a result of a case filed by a citizen of our state who claimed that the existing law which denied marriage to same gender couples violated the equal protection clause of the constitution. The State Supreme Court fulfilled its constitutional responsibility, heard the case, considered the evidence and rendered a decision.

Some, including the bishop of the diocese of Fresno, objected strenuously. As he sarcastically remarked, “Only by a slim majority did the court impose their wisdom.” I found the bishop’s statement ironic because I do not recall him ever objecting to a court decision when a pedophilia case was decided in favor of the diocese due to a legal technicality. The bishop was not the only one to be upset by the court granting civil marriage rights to same gender couples; the Mormon church and an assortment of evangelical churches were upset as well. These parties are more than willing to overturn the decision of an impartial judiciary through a referendum when it suits their needs.

In 2000, a referendum had been approved by California voters by a margin of 61% to define marriage as being only between a man and a woman. That was only eight years ago. By mid 2008, polls showed that support for Yes on 8 had dropped below fifty percent. “Although the amendment to reinstate the ban on same-sex marriage is winning by a small majority, this may not bode well for the measure,” said Times Poll Director Susan Pinkus. Normally, a controversial ballot such as Proposition 8 would need to start out with a lead of at least 50% to win on Election Day. The Yes on Prop 8 side needed very large sums of cash and an extremely well run and highly organized campaign if they were going to win on November 4th.

The Roman Catholic Bishop of San Francisco, George Niederaurer, decided to intervene and influence the course of history on behalf of Yes on 8. The San Francisco Chronicle reported the following story on Thursday, Dec 4th 2008, “The Mormon Church has said Niederauer, previously the bishop of Salt Lake City for 11 years, played a pivotal role in its joining the cause. ‘We were invited to join the coalition.’ Michael Otterson, managing director of public affairs for the [Mormon] church, told The Chronicle in an interview shortly after the election. ‘We didn’t unilaterally go into the battle.’ Otterson said Niederauer’s letter persuaded the Mormon Church that they wouldn’t be fighting this battle alone, a status that would have made them vulnerable.” As a result, the Mormon church became eagerly involved donating millions of dollars to the Yes on 8 campaign and would later take the heat for having done so.

Had it not been for the Catholic Archbishop of San Francisco, the Mormon Church would not have been involved in the Yes on prop 8 campaign. Without those huge Mormon funds paying for deceptive and dishonest political ads, Yes on prop 8 would have lost. There is one piece of irony in all of this however. The people who voted “yes” on Proposition 8 out of emotion because they were angry at the power of the judges on the State Supreme Court unwittingly gave the interpretive powers of the State Supreme Court to two un-elected men: the Catholic Archbishop of San Francisco George Niederauer and the Senior Elder of the Mormon Church in Salt Lake City, Utah. These two men, one of whom is not even a citizen of California, have questionably, if not illegally, used the non-profit status of their religious organizations to avoid taxation to fund, what was in essence, a political action committee. These two men effectively rewrote the constitution of the state of California.

As part of a strategy to dissuade us from our efforts at reversing Prop 8, Niederauer said, “We need to disagree without being disagreeable. We need to stop hurling names like ‘bigot’ and ‘pervert’ at each other, and we need to stop it now. We churchgoers need to speak and act out of the truth that all people are God‘s children and are unconditionally loved by God.” Meanwhile in Los Angeles, Cardinal Mahoney said, “Supporting marriage, as it has always been understood, diminishes none of us. We welcome thoughtful and civil dialogue with you [the LGBT community] so that we can deepen our realization that all of us cherish God’s creative life which we equally share. We are committed to find ways to eliminate discrimination against homosexual persons, and to help guarantee the basic rights which belong to each of us.” In plain English they are telling us “Yes, we have stripped you of your civil rights because of our limited religious views, now accept your fate, don’t challenge us.”

While the archbishops were reassuring us of their noble intentions with word such as, “guaranteed basic rights,” and “all people are God’s children and unconditionally loved by God,” the Vatican representative at the United Nations in New York City voiced objection to the UN Resolution to decriminalize homosexuality. The Vatican, thereby, actively supports the criminality of being homosexual in repressive regimes. It is important to be clear here, gay people have been executed in countries like Iran and the Vatican knows this. There is no moral justification for the Vatican to take such a position. However, the Vatican is no stranger to turning a blind eye in regard to human rights abuses. One is reminded of its silence in the face of the Holocaust tragedy during World War II. The specter of “accommodation” to evil regimes by the Vatican seems discouragingly all too common. This action at the UN is merely an attempt to cozy up to despotic Middle East nations.These accommodations can not be dismissed by arguments of pragmatism, especially when they claim to be the arbiter of morality.

They have a saying in Mexico, “Hechos no palabras” (actions not words). Despite all of their sugar coated rhetoric, these churchmen have, by their actions, substantively contributed to a culture of bigotry and hatred directed at the LGBT community. By opposing the decriminalization of homosexuality, the Vatican has become an accomplice with the regimes that execute human beings for simply being gay or lesbian. This stance by the Vatican is in direct opposition with their repeated statements condemning capital punishment. Despite their florid statements on safeguarding the dignity of homosexuals, their actions at the UN were quite the opposite and revealed something morally repugnant.

We need to hold the California Catholic bishops answerable for the unwarranted and unjust role they played in stripping us of our civil right to marry. We need to hold the bishops answerable for their cowardice in not condemning Vatican opposition to a UN Resolution decriminalizing homosexuality. By their silence, they have become accomplices to torture and execution. We need them to be authentic pastors who, like the Good Shepard, make it a priority to protect their entire flock. Like the prophets of old, they need to speak on behalf of those who have no voice. We can’t simply be the “good little gays and lesbians” who quietly allow ourselves to be stripped of our rights and led to the slaughter. We need to stand up here and now. We need to say with a very loud and clear voice: no to hatred, no to discrimination, no to bigotry and no to injustice. As Catholics, we need to say “No your excellency… no your eminence, this is wrong. Please go back to doing God‘s work!” Truly, silence does equal death.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

The strongest material in the world.

When I was in high school, we had a neighbor who was an architect. One day my brother and I were speaking with him and he asked us: Do you know the strongest material in the world? My brother and I began to shoot out answers: “Titanium, high tensile steel, diamonds,” etc. Each answer was met with an unequivocal “no.” Finally, we gave up and asked: “Ok, what is the strongest material in the world?” The architect smiled and said: “paper.” “Paper!?!?” We exclaimed, “how is paper the strongest material in the world?!?!?” He answered us: “because it holds ANYTHING you write on it.”

I remembered my neighbor, the architect, when I read an advertisement published in the Friday December 5th edition of the New York Times ( It was an ad signed, and presumably paid for, by its thirteen signatories and their respective organizations. The ad essentially asks the LGBT community to “shut-up and behave” and “stop their demonstrations” and simply accept that they have been stripped of a fundamental civil right.

Before commenting on their cardinal points, it is important to realize that a full page advertisement in the New York Times is very expensive paper indeed. For these people to go to such trouble and expense to urge us to stop demonstrating, it reveals to us that the demonstrations have been effective. Obviously, we should continue to speak out, peacefully demonstrate and use our economic power to boycott businesses and organizations that have financed yes on prop 8.

I was listening to the BBC just yesterday and a journalist spoke of 1968 as a year that changed the world. She was, of course, referring to the public civil rights demonstrations and the concurrent demonstrations against the Vietnam war. Had Rosa Parks simply relinquished her seat on the bus to avoid confrontation or had black people in Birmingham not boycotted the bus companies over discriminatory and unjust policies, blacks would most probably still be required to relinquish their seats on buses today and the President Elect of the United States of America would not be a black man.

The thirteen signatories of this shameful advertisement are indirectly saying to us, and to our families and friends who support us, “your demonstrations and economic boycotts are having a real effect and threaten to undermine our bigoted legislation and we don’t like that.” We not only need to keep up the pressure, but we need to redouble our efforts to make it even more effective.

We have all experienced an election where the candidate we voted for lost or where an initiative, or a referendum issue we supported was defeated. What makes Proposition 8 different, is that this is about the elimination of our fundamental right, not just to marry, but to exist. If those who support Prop 8 were to remove the word “homosexual” from all of their documents and replace it with the word “heterosexual,” consider the impact it would have on their lives. Perhaps, the light of understanding would illuminate in their minds and hearts. Maybe then, they could understand why we simply don’t “calm down and accept this vote.”

Please note, that I said peaceful demonstrations and economic boycotts. Neither I, nor any public LGBT organization, advocate or condone violence or terrorist actions. Free speech and economic pressure are both ethical means of enacting just change and have numerous national and international historical precedents.

I find their advertisement contradictory. The authors state that, “The proper response to free speech you disagree with is your own free speech in reply, not attempting to coerce your opponents into silence.” They then close by saying, “Beginning today, we commit ourselves to exposing and publicly shaming anyone who resorts to the rhetoric of anti-religious bigotry--against any faith, on any side of any cause, for any reason.” It seems that the authors are quite self-serving in this regard. On one hand, they condemn the use of coercion by their opponents, and on the other hand, they advocate for “publicly shaming” any of their opponents who disagree with their positions. Public shaming constitutes a form of “coercion” which paradoxically they support when it is in their self-interest.

They call the free speech of their opponents the “rhetoric of anti-religious bigotry.” This presumes that they, and they alone, posses a monopoly on truth. It presumes that all faiths are monolithic and static and that all people of faith buy into these authors’ limited understandings. Their demand for unquestioning adherence to their own proclamations, which have caused untold suffering, divisions of families, and suicides, rivals the hubris and monstrosity of mid 20th century totalitarian dictators.

One need only raise the question of permissibility of divorce and remarriage, artificial birth control, euthanasia, et cetera to begin to see the cracks appear in this confederation of religious zealots on the fringe. It is no small wonder that they are so insecure. They realize that they have a very tentative hold at best on their congregants, who have just elected Barack Obama and the Democratic party. This resounding victory for social inclusion and progress does not bode well for their reactionary and self-entitled positions of power.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Checking the rearview mirror before driving forward.

They say that hindsight is 20/20. As a professor of mine once observed: truisms are truism because they are true. Some employ this old adage dismissively as if it was a waste of time and effort to look back, especially at a failure. About one year ago, I was listening to an interview on the BBC, a journalist was speaking with a leading CEO and asking him about the question of failures in business. The CEO responded that in corporate culture, failures are either denied, they are blamed on some external cause or on someone else. He went on to say that this was a huge mistake. The truth is that we don't learn from our successes but rather, from our failures. If we deny that we made an error in judgement or, that we we acted on faulty information, we will never learn, we will never grow. As a Spanish philosopher noted, "Those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it." So, as we look back on this year, especially on the debacle of Proposition 8, what can we learn from our failures?

Perhaps the first and most important lesson is: Know who your friends are. Who helped us in our time of need? Who was there for us when our civil liberties were under attack? Who opened up their checkbooks and raised their voices on our behalf? Some of these companies and organizations are: Apple, PG&E, California Teachers Association, United Farm Workers and SEIU/United Healthcare Workers/West. We should remember and reward these companies and organizations with our support.

Equally important to review, is who worked against our civil rights. It is widely known that one of the largest contributors of funds for the "Yes on Prop 8" campaign was the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons). But, what is less widely known is the fact that the Roman Catholic Archbishop of San Francisco invited and encouraged the Mormons to become so involved in the Yes on 8 campaign. He had previously acted as the Bishop of Salt Lake City, Utah. Prior to this he served as a faculty member at St. John's Seminary and as a priest of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. This is particularly painful for me personally, not merely because I am a Catholic but, because Archbishop George Niederauer was my spiritual director for part of my years in the seminary. I have always thought highly of him and am very sadden by this revelation. I can only think that he acted out of blind loyalty to Benedict XVI. Having said this, it is important to distinguish between objective acts and subjective emotions. The act was damaging in the extreme and hurtful to the civil rights of Gay and Lesbian persons.

The brilliance of inviting the Mormons to become involved is twofold. First, they bankrolled a significant share of the costs for "yes on 8." Second, they take the PR body punch for having done so. The Catholic hierarchy of California donated only a small amount of the total funds, their proclamation on Prop. 8 was understated and almost apologetic. The Knights of Columbus anted up the lion's share of "Catholic" cash, thereby relieving the bishops of California financially and in PR fallout. In brief, it was brilliant. The Mormons shell out the cash, take the PR hit for having done so and the Catholic bishops sneak away whistling in the dark. After all, it was the Mormons and to a far lesser extent the Knights of Columbus who wrote the checks. Everything goes back to business as usual and the gays are kept down in their place. I think it is time to review the role of organized religious groups in political campaigns. It is one thing to express a view on various moral issues. It is quite something else to operate as a PAC (Political Action Committee).