National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  May 9, 2003

Sen. Rick Santorum
-- CNS
Santorum’s remarks draw both affirmation, criticism from Catholics


Comments by Republican Sen. Rick Santorum linking “homosexual acts” with incest, adultery, bigamy and polygamy have divided some elements of the Republican Party, and led leading Democrats to call for Santorum to step down as chairman of the Republican Conference, one of the three highest leadership positions held by Senate Republicans. NCR found opinion on the remarks among some Catholic leaders to be equally wide-ranging.

In an interview with Associated Press reporter Lara Jakes Jordan held in Santorum’s Senate office April 7, the Pennsylvania legislator said he opposed a right to privacy for consenting adults who engage in homosexual sex. Jordan, who is married to campaign manager Jim Jordan, head of Massachusetts Democratic Sen. John Kerry’s bid for the presidency, gave Santorum a chance to clarify his comments before the story was run but he declined to do so, saying, “I can’t deny that I said it, and I can’t deny that’s how I feel.” The Associated Press published the story April 19.

Referring to Lawrence & Garner v. Texas, a case before the Supreme Court about the constitutionality of a Texas sodomy law, Santorum said, “If the Supreme Court says that you have the right to consensual [gay] sex within your home, then you have the right to bigamy, you have the right to polygamy, you have the right to incest, you have the right to adultery. You have the right to anything.”

The constitutionality of sodomy laws was decided once before by the Supreme Court in 1986. That court ruled 5-4 that no constitutional right for consenting adults to have homosexual sex exists. The present Supreme Court plans to rule on Lawrence & Garner v. Texas in June.

Santorum, a conservative Catholic, told The Associated Press, “I have no problem with homosexuality -- I have a problem with homosexual acts, as I would with acts of other, what I would consider to be, acts outside of traditional heterosexual relationships.”

Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, a national Catholic group advocating for the rights of lesbian and gay Catholics, told NCR that such comments demonstrate ignorance about homosexuals. “To compare bigamy, polygamy and incest with sexual orientation shows he is unaware of the emotional, psychological and constitutive makeup of sexual orientation,” he said.

“Most Catholics, gay or straight, would not equate homosexuality with bigamy or incest. Mainstream Catholics are becoming more aware that homosexuality is not a deviation from sexual orientation but is just another sexual orientation. They see it as a normal variation, rather than an unnatural deviation.”

He said that there are obvious differences between homosexuality and incest, for instance. “There is no loving mutual relationship involved in incest.”

He said that Santorum’s comments have made many people very angry. The comments “don’t show a full understanding of the church’s teaching, which is that orientation is more than sexual activity and more than sexual desire.”

James Hitchcock, a history professor at St. Louis University, and an author of the forthcoming book The Supreme Court and Religion, told NCR that he thinks Santorum’s point is essentially correct. “If there is a right to homosexuality, then it is a little hard to see why there should not be a right to polygamist or bigamist relationships.” He said, however, that he would exclude incest from the list, which usually occurs between an adult and child.

Mercy Sr. Sharon Euart, former associate general secretary for the U.S. bishops’ conference now working as a consultant on matters of canon law, told NCR, “I don’t think comparisons are helpful in this area in this regard, because they can create divisiveness and can cut off dialogue. On the other hand,” she said, “I think it is important for people to point out why certain actions are wrong and why people feel so strongly about their immorality.”

Jesuit Fr. Joseph Fessio, chancellor of Ave Maria University in Naples, Fla., told NCR that the meaningful question Santorum’s comments raised is “whether certain acts are gravely disordered. Once the level of gravity is reached, how gravely disordered they are is not particularly significant.”

Jesuit Fr. James Keenan, professor of moral theology at Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, Mass., told NCR that he found Santorum’s remarks to be incendiary. He said they appeared to be “part of a rhetoric designed to alienate gays and lesbians and those who support them from having any substantive discourse in their own right.”

“Santorum,” he said, “is talking about the Texas law in which people were arrested for sexual activity. I don’t know of anyone at the Vatican who advocates arresting anyone for sex outside of marriage.

“I know of no bishop who believes that practicing homosexuals should be arrested. … We don’t look for punitive civil sanctions for people who violate the church’s teaching on chastity. That [Santorum] would use this case to state what the church teaches indicates that he really needs to know more about what the church does teach. I’m not too sure if he’s really interested in saying what the church teaches. I think he’s using a sound bite to convey a rhetoric of alienation.”

Among Republican senators to take issue with Santorum’s comments, according to a Los Angeles Times report April 25, were Oregon Sens. Gordon Smith and Susan Collins and Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe.

Smith said Santorum’s comments were “hurtful to the gay and lesbian community,” while Snowe called the comments “unfortunate remarks” and said they “undermine Republican principles of inclusion and opportunity.” Collins said the comments were “regrettable” and said she disagreed with his analysis.

The Republican Unity Coalition, an alliance of homosexual Republicans, called on Santorum to apologize for the comments. It characterized Santorum’s linking of gay sex with bigamy, polygamy and incest as “false and harmful comparisons that do not distinguish between conduct that is harmful and hurtful to fellow humans and society, and conduct between consenting adults in the sanctity of their own home that harms absolutely no one.”

Among advisers to the coalition are former President Gerald Ford and Rep. James Kolbe, R-Ariz. The Times noted that Kolbe is the “only openly gay Republican in Congress.”

Fr. John McCloskey, a member of conservative Catholic organization Opus Dei and director of Washington’s Catholic Information Center, told NCR, “I believe that the majority of Americans would be in complete agreement with [Santorum].”

DeBernardo said that the comments did reflect “the Vatican’s focus on sexual activity.” He noted that this focus is not that “of all U.S. Catholic leaders including some U.S. Catholic bishops. Many individual bishops have started ministries to U.S. lesbian and gay Catholics. They do not focus on sexual activity, but rather on the dignity of homosexual persons,” he said.

Among prominent Democrats calling for Santorum to step down as chairman of the Republican Conference following the remarks were former Vermont governor and current presidential candidate Howard Dean, and Sen. Jon Corzine of New Jersey, head of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Corzine said the comments were so “divisive and unfortunate” that “everybody would be well served if he stepped aside from [his] leadership position.”

In a statement calling for Santorum to resign from the leadership position, the Democratic committee compared the comments to those made by Trent Lott in December, which appeared to offer an endorsement to Republican Sen. Strom Thurmond’s 1948 run for president as a segregationist candidate. Public criticism of the remarks by Lott came from leaders across the political spectrum including President Bush and eventually led Lott to resign as leader of the Republicans in the Senate.

In response to such calls for resignation, Hitchcock told NCR, “Well, I hope he stays in there. He has stated something that is essentially correct. I would not like to see the Republican Party become an agency for the promotion of homosexual rights. The Republican Party has embraced at least the rhetoric of family values. If Santorum were to resign that would be a clear signal they are backing off on their commitment.”

DeBernardo declined to say whether he thinks Santorum should step down, but said, “I think that he needs to learn more about Catholic outreach to gay and lesbian people, to learn more about homosexuality from accurate resources. I think it is unfortunate that an adult in his position has such a lack of information about adult sexuality.”

Santorum was defended by Tennessee Sen. Bill Frist, who replaced Lott as Republican leader in the Senate. According to the Post-Gazette, Frist called Santorum “a consistent voice for inclusion and compassion in the Republican Party and in the Senate, and to suggest otherwise is just politics.”

According to Keenan, the debate here is actually about another issue: “When will bias about sexual orientation be considered unacceptable? That is what this debate is really about. But that bias that we are seeing here is a bias where people can be arrested for what many Catholics consider to be an expression of love.”

President Bush is yet to comment on Santorum’s remarks. According to the Post, Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said, “The president typically never does comment on anything involving a Supreme Court case.” After a reporter said that Bush recently offered an opinion on a Michigan affirmative action case yet to be decided by the court, Fleischer noted that he had used the word “typically.”

DeBernardo said Bush’s silence “does imply assent to Senator Santorum. I think when a statement is made like that, which is so egregious and so false, it is important for other leaders to correct him in the public forum. His silence is a tacit approval.”

Gill Donovan is an NCR staff writer. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, May 9, 2003

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