The Rainbow Pope

Catholic University’s Harvey Milk Ban Reflects A Church In Transition

Catholic University banned a screening of Milk for “LGBT Awareness Month”—and that makes it right in line with the Church’s still-restrictive doctrine.

AF archive/Alamy

Earlier this week, the Catholic University of America banned its College Democrats organization from screening the film Milk, about the slain gay rights pioneer Harvey Milk.

Homophobia, right? Hate? Not so fast. In fact, the incident is a fascinating snapshot of a Catholic community in the midst of a difficult, fits-and-starts transition.

First, there are a few qualifiers. The CUA administration didn’t ban the film—in fact, it was shown back in 2011 without incident. It didn’t even cancel the screening; it postponed it. Why? Because the marketing of the screening included a rainbow flag and said it was to be the kickoff of “LGBT Awareness Month.”

This crossed the line, the university said, between education about LGBT people (permitted) and advocacy for them (forbidden). CUA has a longstanding policy that bans “advocating for positions contrary to Catholic teaching.”

This was also why CUA had, in 2012, rejected an attempt to start a campus LGBT organization—which is why the gay students are now working with the College Democrats. According to the Catholic news website Crux, the university stated that “there is a fine line, easily crossed, between a group dedicated to education and support of individuals who identify themselves as homosexuals and one that engages in advocacy on behalf of a homosexual lifestyle.”

But wait a minute. Didn’t Pope Francis say, on an airplane last year that “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”

Well, yes, but what casual observers may not understand is that, papal infallibility notwithstanding, that statement didn’t change official Church doctrine. Culturally, Pope Francis’s statement may have signaled a sea change in the Church’s treatment of LGBT people. Certainly, it has played a role in countless shifts—the inclusion of gay groups in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade and Cardinal Dolan’s supportive statements when the policy changed last month.

Legally, however, nothing has changed. In fact, not only has the new Pope not changed the Church’s teachings that gay people are “intrinsically disordered,” he hasn’t initiated any processes that would eventually do so.

Nor was the Pope’s statement actually that new. In fact, Jesus said it first, in Matthew 7:1—“Judge not, lest ye be judged.”

The catechism of the Catholic Church, meanwhile, contains the same ‘hate the sin, love the sinner’ equivocation as ever.

“Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that ‘homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered,’” it reads. “They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved.”

And yet, it continues, “The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.”

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Okay, but still, “Homosexual persons are called to chastity.”

In other words, gay people are cursed with deep-seated disorder and are to be treated with compassion. But homosexuality itself is still evil.

So when the administration of Catholic University of America is charged with prohibiting anyone from “advocating for positions contrary to Catholic teaching,” what choice does it really have?

In the old days, these questions were easy. Everyone hated gays, and the Pope regularly denounced them. Popular prejudice, papal edict, and Catholic dogma were all perfectly aligned.

Now, however, they are coming apart. An openly gay member of CUA’s College Republicans club [sic] rightly noted that the administration’s decision represents a “generational disconnect” between students and administrators. It is also out of line with the temperament of Pope Francis’s remarks. But it’s right on the dogma.

As is often the case when the letter and the spirit of the law begin to fray, legal creativity gets called upon to mend them.

In this case, it’s clear that Milk-gate will be resolved by different marketing materials and, in CUA’s words, assurances that “the program is presented as an educational event, as originally planned.”

Of course, such assurances are just legalistic games. Anyone who watches Milk is bound to be moved by the injustice suffered by the gay community and the courage of Harvey Milk. You don’t need speakers to “advocate” for LGBT people. The genius of Dustin Lance Black’s script is how it shows the rightness of the cause without the need to preach. (Black, incidentally, has tweeted his support for the students; now perhaps he’ll visit CUA for the screening, making it a far bigger event than it would’ve been.)

But legalistic games are what is called for right now. CUA is caught between a rock-solid Catholic doctrine and a hard place of public opinion. Legalism gives it some wiggle room.

And why stop there? Why not agree that while a sexual act may be religiously forbidden, the secular legal regulation of that act is a separate issue entirely? My religion forbids the eating of pork, but I would fiercely defend the (secular) right of anyone to eat it—and to be free from stigma, violence, and marginalization for doing so.

It’s also worth reflecting on what the “fine line” between education and advocacy really means. On some issues, you can be educated and be left basically neutral. Should the United States expand its campaign against ISIS? Highly educated people will disagree, and no amount of factual information will necessarily decide the issue.

LGBT equality is different. As we have seen over the last five years, when reasonable people are educated about sexuality—that it’s a trait not a choice, that there are wild gays and quite tame ones, that love is good—the education, itself, does the advocacy.

Of course, there are still plenty of opponents of same-sex marriage, and of gay people generally. But their factual claims are growing ever more specious; unsubstantiated fears about changing definitions of marriage, weird Natural Law arguments about the design of human anatomy, that sort of thing. So specious, in fact, that they are increasingly seen to be rationales to cover outdated forms of prejudice.