Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Responding to Bishop Tobin's Remarks on Gay Marriage

The Rhode Island online news publication GoLocalProv.com is running an exclusive interview with Roman Catholic Bishop Thomas Tobin (right) in which, among other things, the bishop states that the church (i.e. the clerical caste of the church) is "not opposed to granting some benefits and rights to gay couples — as long as the term marriage is not used."

Wow! That's quite something for a bishop to say, wouldn't you agree? Yet, as you'll see, when it comes to the issues of homosexuality and same-sex marriage, Bishop Tobin isn't really venturing that far from the "party line" of the clerical caste.

Following is the full text of the GoLocalProv interview, along with a few of my comments. Please feel free to share your comments on what Bishop Tobin says.


Bishop Tobin — Church OK with Some Benefits
for Gay Couples

By Stephen Beale

April 12, 2011

In an exclusive interview, Roman Catholic Bishop Thomas Tobin said the Church is not opposed to granting some benefits and rights to gay couples — as long as the term marriage is not used. — or the term "civil unions," for that matter, as you'll see further down in the article. Regardless, this is still an important statement coming from a Roman Catholic bishop. Of course, one has to wonder whether any bishop who unquestioningly toes the party line can really be said to be credibly speaking for "the church" on this issue. Recent polls clearly show that Catholics support same-sex civil marriage. What this implies about Catholic thinking on the issue of homosexuality and same-sex relationships may not currently be the official teaching of the clerical caste, but it certainly seems to be an authentic belief of the church as the people of God. And such beliefs have always played an important role in the ongoing development of church teaching. Bishops like Tobin need to be challenged when they blithely assume they're speaking for "the church." They're not.

His statement — which was couched in caveats (Well, he is a company man)— nonetheless indicates a flexibility in the Church’s position that has previously been overlooked in the polarizing debate over gay marriage in Rhode Island. The bishop better be careful! Such "flexibility" may be denounced as "relativism" by a certain type of Catholic!

“The legislation we would support is what is often called ‘reciprocal benefits,’” Tobin told GoLocalProv. “It does not use marriage as a reference point. It would grant some legal benefits [and] some legal rights to two people who have some kind of established relationship without any particular reference to marriage. So it could be someone and their grandfather. Could be two cousins. Could be two elderly sisters.” I know some people who would be satisfied with this, but most would not. Of course, the question is who decides which legal benefits are to be granted. Also, like their straight counterparts, many gay couples are raising children — unlike "two cousins" or "two elderly sisters." Shouldn't the benefits available to straight couples with children be also available to gay couples with children?

Such a bill was filed in the House in early March. The bill, sponsored by Rep Peter Petrarca, D- Lincoln, would grant about half a dozen rights and benefits to any two unmarried people, regardless of sexual orientation. If passed, it would allow one partner to make medical decisions for another, have a say over the burial and disposition of their remains, and the right to inherit property if the other partner dies.

Tobin declined to elaborate on exactly which legal benefits and rights he thought unmarried couples should have — saying that’s a question for legal experts. “People deserve human rights whether or not they’re gay,” Tobin said. “Now the reciprocal benefits [bill] recognizes some rights and some privileges irrespective of their orientation and that’s the key I think.” The operative word for Tobin is "some."

Tobin said he would not go as far as supporting civil unions, saying the church is as steadfastly opposed to civil unions as it is to gay marriage.

“We would oppose what is commonly called civil unions because it’s really just another name for what would be same-sex marriage,” Tobin said. Names are one thing, but would they confer the same rights and benefits? That's the question at the heart of this issue. For Tobin and his ilk, gay couples and families can never be viewed as equal to straight couples and families, and thus never be treated equally. In thinking this way the bishops are at odds with the view of the majority of Americans — including Catholics. “We’ve found invariably whenever civil unions are introduced in a state that is quickly followed by full-fledged gay marriage.” Great!

Bishop: Voting for gay marriage bill could be a sin

Four months into the legislative session, the Catholic Church in Rhode Island has been hard at work making its case for the one man-one woman definition of marriage. Tobin said he personally had reached out to about 10 or 12 lawmakers through personal letters and telephone conversations. Like any citizen, Tobin has the right to do this. My hope is that many more Catholics who are supportive of marriage equality are contacting these same lawmakers. It's crucial that the message is heard again and again that the bishops do not represent the majority of Catholics in this matter.

When it comes to another hot-button social issue, such as abortion, the consequences of voting against the Church's views can be serious. In 2004, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger — the future Pope Benedict XVI — said American politicians who support abortion should be denied communion. Ironically, it was Ratzinger who once stated that "Over the pope . . . there still stands one's own conscience, which must be obeyed before all else, if necessary, even against the requirement of ecclesiastical authority." Five years later, Tobin himself became caught up in a high-profile controversy when he told then-Congressman Patrick Kennedy that he should not be receiving communion because of his position on abortion.

When it comes to gay marriage, Tobin said Catholic legislators who votes in favor of it could be committing a sin — unless they are truly voting their conscience. This statement, too, is quite something! After all, there are some bishops (George Pell, for example) who seek to downplay and/or discredit the doctrine of the primacy of conscience.

“Is it a sin for someone to vote for gay marriage? It could be but it is not necessarily so,” Tobin said. “Because if they really believe in their conscience that they’re doing the right thing, then that removes them from any subjective guilt of sin. Then let us sin boldly, I say! But if the lawmaker knows that it’s wrong and he or she votes for it anyhow, then that’s a problem for their conscience — Why would they go against their conscience?” Exactly!

No compromise on gay marriage

Tobin went into detail about the objections the Catholic Church has over gay marriage. Oh-o, here we go!

“We think it is an ill-advised attempt to redefine the very basic parameters of marriage as they’ve existed from the very beginning of mankind — as the union of one man and one woman designed to create new life and to encourage the love of the spouses,” Tobin said. This is truly embarrassing. Does Tobin really believe that the modern understanding of marriage as "one man and one woman" has existed since the dawn of time? Is he truly unaware of the changing face of so-called "traditional marriage"? Or that the "always and everywhere" argument for this understanding of marriage can be readily refuted? After all, even parts of the Bible fail to support it. It's this kind of intellectual dishonesty that makes the Roman Catholic Church so unappealing to increasing numbers of people.

He also said the state should not be sanctioning behavior the Church regards as immoral (!) and expressed concern that a gay-marriage law could limit religious freedom. I'm sorry, but this is bullshit. Also, should we now expect the state to be on guard against sanctioning behavior that other religions regard as immoral? Where does it all end? Which theocracy will we ultimately settle for? And, once again, I don't think we can say with the kind of certainty that Tobin exhibits that "the Church" regards gay relationships as "immoral." The clerical caste views such relationships in this way, but this caste isn't the entirety of "the Church." Far from it. What about theologians? What about the Catholic people? Again, Tobin and every other bishop who makes this kind of blanket statement needs to be challenged. Even though the bill does not mandate that any church or other religious community perform gay marriages, Tobin said it could still force religious groups to grant benefits to gay couples. How exactly? This is just fear-mongering, plain and simple. Such tactics have no place in the church.

Tobin conceded that allowing gay marriage would not necessarily have a direct impact on marriages between straight couples. This, too, is rather significant, coming from a bishop.

“There may not be a direct harm,” Tobin said. “What your neighbor [is] doing next door might not affect you directly but, again, if a husband and wife—male and female—were married, their marriage means something in particular. If two other people come along who don’t meet that definition and claim they’re married then, in a way, that diminishes that special relationship the married couple does have.” This is only a problem if you're stuck in a very narrow and rigid definition of marriage that is determined by a definition of sexuality that is acts-focused rather than relationship-focused. The bishops clearly are stuck in such a place. Not so the majority of Catholics.

“I call it the 'champagne principle,'” he added. Oh, dear! This is not going to end well! “Champagne has a very special definition before it can bottled, labeled, and sold as such. If somebody comes along with sparkling water and labels it 'champagne,' they’ll say, ‘What harm is it?’ . . . ‘We call it champagne, you call it champagne, what’s the difference?’ Well, there is a difference and you are advocating a name that belongs to somebody else.” This is so stupid. Imagine: reducing the beautiful and complex reality of human sexual relationships to different types of beverages; to marketable commodities! I told you it wouldn't end well.

Without moral restraint, ‘there’s anarchy and chaos’

Tobin steered clear of the debate over whether homosexuality is genetic or acquired — saying it’s an open question that has yet to be decided by scientists and philosophers. Actually, I think the consensus is that genetics, hormones and environment all can and do play a role. But even if someone’s homosexuality is genetically predisposed, he said that wouldn’t affect the Church’s position. How stubborn is that?! Of course there are some Catholics who would see this as standing firmly for "the truth!" No, it's just the stubbornness of weak men afraid of difference and of change.

“The question whether or not some people are made that way — I think that’s still an open question. I’m not quite ready to cede that. But even if that is the case, that someone has that disposition, they still have the ability as human beings to control their behavior — otherwise there’s anarchy and chaos,” Tobin said. So every choice to embody one's homosexual orientation leads to the same thing – anarchy and chaos? Where's the evidence for this? Who actually believes it? Not the majority of Catholics, it seems.

He said resisting impulses is part of the dignity of being a human being. The assumption here is that every sexual impulse of the gay person can only ever led to unhappiness and ruin if acted upon. This is erroneous. Gay people can and do build and experience loving sexual relationships marked by love, respect, mutuality, and justice. Tobin needs to get out more.

And, he pointed out that the Catholic Church teaches that heterosexual couples also have to control their behavior. Adultery and pre-marital sex, for example, are activities that are considered immoral regardless of sexual orientation. Oh, this old chestnut: the lumping together of any and every type of gay sexual activity – even those within the context of a loving and respectful relationship – with adultery. That's so offensive to gay people, yet folks like Tobin remain oblivious to the insult they deliver and the harm they cause. Such ignorance and lack of compassion is scandalous.

“The fact that a person is made a certain way is not immoral — again that’s the difference between orientation and activity,” Tobin said. Another old chestnut: "Love the sinner, hate the sin." “Having a homosexual orientation is no more or less immoral than having a heterosexual orientation. Unless you're a gay man wanting to be a Roman Catholic priest! But, in both cases, whether it’s heterosexual or homosexual, we have to be able to control our behavior.” Yes, but straights have the possibility, the hope, for a sexual relationship. The Church – or rather, the clerical caste, denies that possibility and hope to gay people. And more and more Catholics consider this hardhearted denial to be what's truly immoral.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
John Corvino on the "Always and Everywhere" Argument Against Gay Marriage
Patrick Ryan on the "Defense of Traditional Marriage" Argument
Nathanial Frank on the "Natural Law" Argument
Evan Wolfson on the "Basic Biology" Argument
Stephanie Coontz on the Changing Face of "Traditional Marriage"
Dr. Erik Steele and the "Naked Truth on Same-Sex Marriage"
Lowell Erdahl on "Unlearning the Things That Used to be Obvious"
Dale Carpenter on the "Win-Win" Reality of Gay Marriage
Two Attorneys Discuss Same-Sex Marriage
A "Fruit" Reflect Upon the Meaning of "Fruitfulness"
Steve Chapman: "Time is on the Side of Gay Marriage"
A Message for NOM and the Catholic Hierarchy
Stop in the Name of Discriminatory Ideology
Dialoging with the Archbishop on Natural Law


bobfett11 said...

Thank you for sharing this. Your comments are excellent. This gave me a lot of food for thought. Is Bishop Tobin trying to distance himself from homophobes but still not be supportive of gay marriage?

jamez said...

Why are these prelates stuck on this?! The Church doesn't even recognize the civil marriages of Heterosexuals. Why bother to limit the recognition of something that you don't even recognize in the first place? These guys gotta go find their own puddle to play in and Quit stomping on our mud pies…

bobfett11 said...

Hi Michael. The first comment was mine - that must be my son's name that he uses. Mark

brian gerard said...

Great post, Michael. I do enjoy your commentary being worked into the text. I am one of those people that think partner benefit legislation is well and enough. "Marriage equality" is neither necessary nor good in my book.

Having said that, the bishop's tired, and immoral, arguments about the proper actions and place for us in church, and society, are without merit. Yet another reason to leave the catholic church to it's clerical caste and move on to (into?) the wide world were the loving God is evident and working everyday.

Rat-biter said...

If I may quote from that other blog:

“The legislation we would support is what is often called ‘reciprocal benefits,’” Tobin told GoLocalProv. “It does not use marriage as a reference point. It would grant some legal benefits [and] some legal rights to two people who have some kind of established relationship without any particular reference to marriage. So it could be someone and their grandfather. Could be two cousins. Could be two elderly sisters.”

Last things first: those last two sentences are - how can I put it ? - revelatory. Only somebody with an unusually perverted mind could possibly make such vile suggestions. They're obscene. And they are insulting and hypocritical - insulting, because gay marriage does not begin to imply such things, and hypocritical, because the bp. is putting himself forward as compassionate, but is in fact insulting those of us who are LGBT. He is also making false accusations, and keeping alive the "myth of the yucky gay perverts", when he could be and should be doing something to bring it to an end.

If "respect, compassion, and sensitivity" allows him to impute such foul things to decent people, he can keep his "respect, compassion, and sensitivity."