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

Unfortunately, Santorum, Vatican in step

Some defenders of Sen. Rick Santorum -- the Catholic League for Civil and Religious Rights and National Review’s Kate O’Beirne among them -- argue that the Pennsylvania senator’s provocative comments on the legal rights of gays mirror authoritative Catholic teaching.

Regrettably, they’re right.

In a rambling interview with The Associated Press, Santorum argued that a Texas law criminalizing homosexual sex should be upheld by the Supreme Court. Overturning the law, said Santorum, is one more slide on the slippery slope to an American Sodom.

“If the Supreme Court says that you have the right to consensual 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. Does that undermine the fabric of our society? I would argue yes, it does.”

On a roll, Santorum continued: “It all comes from, I would argue, this right to privacy that doesn’t exist in my opinion in the United States Constitution, this right that was created, it was created in Griswold -- Griswold was the contraceptive case -- and abortion. And now we’re just extending it out ... whether it’s polygamy, whether it’s adultery, whether it’s sodomy, all of those things, are antithetical to a healthy, stable, traditional family.”

Like Santorum, the Vatican believes the law is an appropriate venue to stymie what it views as immoral sexual activity.

Eleven years ago, for example, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith released a document, “Some Considerations Concerning the Response to Legislative Proposals on the Non-Discrimination of Homosexual Persons,” the salient point of which is this: Discrimination against gays and lesbians is justified to the degree that it promotes the “common good,” specifically the traditional family unit. In considering the merits of legislation related to gay rights, the congregation said Catholics should oppose initiatives that “protect homosexual acts,” whether in “public or private.”

Meanwhile, the congregation’s January “Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life” is equally explicit: “Legal recognition” should not be extended to same-sex couples.

In a head-on collision with church teaching, the Supreme Court is being asked to provide just such recognition: to grant -- by invoking privacy or equal protection rights -- “protection to homosexual acts.”

It is the Vatican and Sen. Santorum who are on the slippery slope, as both fail to grasp an essential component of the American experiment in self-governance: All that we view as immoral need not necessarily be made illegal.

Citizens are free to condemn the private consensual sexual activity of their neighbors and to persuade others not to engage in such activity. But they should not be entitled to wield the coercive power of the state -- the police, the courts and the prisons -- to stop such private acts.

The church certainly has enormous wisdom to impart on matters of moral human behavior. At the same time, church teaching on an array of issues having to do with sexuality and sexual expression is too often based on ancient misunderstandings of human nature and human behavior. It is woefully uninformed by modern science and responsible modern theological investigation. Its approach to homosexuality has little credibility with increasing numbers of Catholics who have had to face the reality of homosexuality among their own children and wider families. That essential human experience leads them, understandably, to conclusions different from church teaching.

Artificial contraception, premarital sex, adultery, divorce and myriad other practices are condemned by the Vatican. Catholics have a choice: accept the teachings, reject them while remaining a part of the church, or leave. Fair enough.

But in citing Griswold, is Santorum arguing that individual states should have the right to ban the sale and use of contraceptives? That anti-adultery statutes be enacted, and those currently on the books enforced? That divorce -- surely an anti-family practice -- be outlawed? If so, the No. 3 ranking Republican in the Senate has placed himself far outside the American mainstream, which sees no contradiction in lamenting many of the practices it allows under law.

This is not, as some would have it, a namby-pamby, I’m-OK-you’re-OK form of tolerance. It is simply a recognition that in a pluralistic and democratic society, error has rights. (And, perhaps, is not error at all.)

Santorum, ironically, seemed to acknowledge just that in his conversation with AP. “If New York doesn’t want sodomy laws, if the people of New York want abortion, fine. I mean, I wouldn’t agree with it, but that’s their right. But I don’t agree with the Supreme Court coming in.”

So, to be clear: Santorum’s objections to the moral decay he sees overtaking this nation disappear as long as this march to Gomorrah is carried out on a state-by-state basis. Federalism trumps immorality. Here, at least, it would appear that he is in conflict with Rome, which, unlike conservative Republican ideologues, pays little heed to the nuances of a federal system.

Finally, there is the question of Santorum’s tone.

“That’s not to pick on homosexuality,” he told AP. “It’s not, you know, man on child, man on dog, or whatever the case may be.”

By equating homosexuals with child molesters and animal abusers, Santorum appears to have strayed from the church, which condemns “violent malice in speech or in action” against gays.

“Such treatment deserves condemnation from the church’s pastors wherever it occurs,” according to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, because “it reveals a kind of disregard for others which endangers the most fundamental principles of a healthy society.”

Amen to that.

National Catholic Reporter, May 9, 2003

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