Not kidding

Catholic Charities depart from tradition
By MICHAEL BRONSKI  |  March 9, 2006

NOT KIDDING: Catholic Charities depart from tradition.While the battle over same-sex marriage dominates the headlines in the ongoing struggle for gay-and-lesbian equality, many other battles are just as important, if not more so. Two such issues — adoption rights and organized religions’ views on homosexuality — surfaced over the past week, and both reflected major social and theological shifts in two of our most important religious institutions. One skulks unashamedly into the past, while the other promises to move boldly into the future.

On February 15, four Massachusetts bishops instructed the board of Catholic Charities of Boston — the church’s principal social-service agency in the state, whose self-declared “mission” is “tobuild a just and compassionate society rooted in the dignity of all people” — to cease facilitating adoption by same-sex couples on the grounds that such adoptions are morally dangerous for children. (In the past two decades only 13 out of 720 placements were made to same-sex couples.) Over the past week, eight of the 42 Catholic Charities board members resigned in protest. Because many of its corporate and nonprofit contributors must abide by their own nondiscrimination policies, Catholic Charities may also lose millions of dollars in donations.

But as Catholic bishops in Massachusetts conspired to deprive gay and lesbian couples of basic civil rights under state law, a very different story was unfolding at an undisclosed site near Baltimore, Maryland, where on March 7 and 8 the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (the body that adjudicates religious law for Conservative Judaism) debated whether to discard the denomination’s traditional prohibitions against homosexual behavior, and recognize same-sex unions as well as ordain gay and lesbian rabbis. Commentary in the Jewish press suggests that the committee will likely liberalize interpretation of Halakah, or Jewish law.

Stepping back, we shouldn’t be surprised by either development. While the American Catholic Church has historically been liberal in its pursuit of social and economic justice and fairness to immigrants, and in its opposition to capital punishment and unjust wars, the same can hardly be said of its approach to sexuality — especially gay sexuality. Indeed, with its active campaign against same-sex marriage, its prohibitions on celibate gay seminarians, and even its injunctions against safe-sex education and the use of condoms to prevent the spread of HIV, the Catholic Church has become increasingly reactionary — especially over the past three years. This digging in of heels, of course, helps the church distance itself from its clergy sex-abuse scandals, but it also reflects the Vatican’s geopolitical situation: the Catholic Church’s real growth is taking place in underdeveloped countries with more-patriarchal sexual mores. Meanwhile, Conservative Judaism has become increasingly liberal — in 1985 it sanctioned the ordination of women to stem the defection of congregants to Reform Judaism (which made this decision 13 years earlier). Even so, from 1990 to 2000 Conservative Judaism’s share of the nation’s Jews shrank from 43 to 33 percent, with most of its former members opting for the more liberal thought of Reform Judaism. Not surprisingly, Conservative Judaism already lost its most deeply conservative adherents to Orthodox Judaism over the gender issue.

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