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Homosexuality and Marriage: Channeling your inner Dolan is not enough

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Mar 11, 2014

On Sunday night’s “Meet the Press” (NBC television), it was predictable that Cardinal Timothy Dolan would have been asked some pointed questions about gay marriage, civil unions, and homosexuality. I haven’t seen the entire transcript, but the Yahoo! News story we referenced in our own report includes reasonably extensive quotations on two of the questions. Oddly enough, Cardinal Dolan gave a thoughtful answer to the first and then answered the second in a way that undermines the first.

On civil unions and same-sex marriage, the New York Cardinal gave a fairly accurate assessment of Pope Francis’ recent comments and then went on to explain one of the Church’s primary concerns—that the result would be a weakening of the sanctity of (traditional) marriage:

It’s not something that’s just a religious, sacramental concern. It’s also the building block of society and culture. So it belongs to culture. And if we water down that sacred meaning of marriage in any way, I worry that not only the church would suffer, I worry that culture and society would.

I probably would not have said “I worry”. In fact, there can be no question about the catastrophic results of the erosion of marriage in both the Church and the world. We have already seen the evidence of destruction arising from a culture of promiscuity and divorce. This is not a matter of wondering what might happen or could happen. The only issue is whether a promiscuous people can admit the obvious. Still, fair enough; Cardinal Dolan did not speak as pointedly as he might have, but he did give a helpful response.

But then he was asked what he thought about Michael Sam, the University of Missouri football player who became the first to declare that he was gay before entering the NFL draft.

This is a fairly irrelevant question to address to anyone, perhaps especially the Archbishop of New York, who does not know Sam or his situation, and has no special pastoral responsibility in Sam’s regard. Without knowing Sam, it is impossible to know what his motives were for announcing that he is gay, or even what he means by that announcement. Perhaps he was simply being honest about something that could be problematic in the locker room; perhaps he wants to be the poster boy for breaking down barriers to homosexual activity in the NFL; perhaps he wants to improve his chances as a good draft pick, in case a team will take him for fear of being labelled “homophobic.”

Who knows? The best thing Cardinal Dolan could have done is simply to refuse to answer a question about a particular person whom he does not know. And perhaps part of his response suggests this is what he was trying to do. But if so, he should have avoided expressions like “Good for him” and “Bravo”:

Good for him. I would have no sense of judgment on him. God bless ya. I don't think, look, the same Bible that tells us, that teaches us well about the virtues of chastity and the virtue of fidelity and marriage also tells us not to judge people. So I would say, “Bravo.”

This answer is a disaster. By seeming to commend Sam’s announcement, Cardinal Dolan inadvertently dismisses the very things that worry him, and much more that should worry him besides.

A Teaching Moment?

If Dolan could not sidestep the question completely, then his pastoral responsibilities demanded that he make of it a teaching moment. It is fine to teach that this is not an appropriate occasion for judgment; but it is not fine to commend Michael Sam for announcing that he is gay without teaching something about what is being commended—and what is not. For example, one could commend Sam’s honesty while lamenting that Sam was very likely pressured by our culture to politicize his sexual inclinations. Or one could note the benefits of Sam’s frankness while expressing the hope that Sam has a proper understanding of same-sex attraction as a disordered attachment requiring enormous self-discipline.

The approach I would favor goes something like this: Both the loss of meaning and the politicization of sex in our culture make it very difficult for people to deal with sexual temptations in constructive ways. It is hard for them to recognize the difference between properly ordered and disordered inclinations. It is hard for them to recognize the need for self-mastery and integrity. It is hard for them to understand God’s plan for their lives as evidenced through both the natural law and Divine Revelation. Most people sense, deep down, that there is something wrong with all this. Our entire culture, obviously, “doth protest too much” to be wholly convincing. But people feel pushed down paths which lead only to despair. And so, despite apparent “liberation”, it is very hard for them to be happy.

Had Cardinal Dolan chosen this approach, he might have concluded: “You know, Michael Sam is not asking me this question in pursuit of his own good. You are bringing it up for some other reason. But I would be glad to know Michael Sam better and to offer him any help I can, especially the light of Jesus Christ and the Catholic Church, in understanding himself and in seeking the integrity and happiness he undoubtedly desires.”

Surely, with just a little more thought, Cardinal Dolan could have either sidestepped the question or said something constructive. He managed to do it on the marriage question, but then he stumbled badly. “Good for him”? “Bravo”? Neither Cardinal Dolan’s listeners nor Michael Sam himself should have been dismissed with such throwaway lines. Authentic love never obscures the truth. Every child of God deserves greater respect than this.

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Show 9 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: koinonia - Mar. 12, 2014 11:58 AM ET USA

    Thank you Dr. Mirus for an enlightening and instructive essay on the nature of the problem. Your conclusion is the foundation for any Catholic seeking to love his neighbor as he should.

  • Posted by: garedawg - Mar. 12, 2014 11:09 AM ET USA

    A good, Solomon-like answer would have been: "Michael Sam needs our prayers".

  • Posted by: dover beachcomber - Mar. 12, 2014 2:58 AM ET USA

    Your analysis is right on the money. Time and again lately, it seems that prelates cheerfully grant interviews to a hostile press, then fall right into the traps that they must have known would be laid for them. Usually, it's the laity that then must supply the clarification of Catholic doctrine that's been muddled by the very men we should be able to look to for clarity. Usually, it's too late to repair all the damage.

  • Posted by: jpbrooks - Mar. 12, 2014 1:05 AM ET USA

    I am a Protestant (though Catholic friendly) Christian. I think Dr. Mirus is correct in his assessment of the Cardinal's comments. However, presenting Christianity in an accurate and non-compromising, yet friendly, way to a hostile world is a very difficult task. And I commend the Cardinal for his efforts in that regard.

  • Posted by: lak321 - Mar. 11, 2014 11:28 PM ET USA

    We have got to pray a LOT more for priests, bishops, etc.

  • Posted by: fenton1015153 - Mar. 11, 2014 9:48 PM ET USA

    Is this the first misstep that Dolan has made concerning "gay" people? I don't think it is. As a prominent leader in the Catholic church he should be able to defend the faith in any situation. Is it time for Dolan to retire? I think it is.

  • Posted by: ZIP5DO@aol.com - Mar. 11, 2014 7:38 PM ET USA

    We are beginning to see these off the cuff answers without thinking from many quarters including the Pope.

  • Posted by: shrink - Mar. 11, 2014 6:01 PM ET USA

    Any bishop will have a difficult time addressing any issue of homosexuality when his own clergy are disproportionately homosexual; for Dolan it's a political calculation. Gays are deeply involved in the highest levels of society and in the Church, as Pope Francis has attested to. Dolan would offend many of his friends if he spoke clearly against the acceptance of the gay lifestyle. In a few years, Dolan will be quiet about gay marriage too, just like O'Malley is.

  • Posted by: jg23753479 - Mar. 11, 2014 5:40 PM ET USA

    I never watch television but I had read the transcript of his interview. Frankly, his statement was so disjointed that I concluded there must have been some technical problem in the TV transmission, one that ran several of his sentences together and made them unintelligible. After reading your explanation, I wish I had been right.

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