Here's a line from The Catechism of the Catholic Church that is not, I would wager, particularly well known. It has to do with the overall treatment of gays and lesbians in modern society:
"They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These persons are called to fulfill God's will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord's Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition" (#2358)
That's strong stuff: every sign of "unjust discrimination" should be avoided. Without getting too theological, Catholics know that a "sign," as it is used here, can mean not just any evidence of discrimination, but anything that points to something discriminatory. In any event, even if you quibble about what "sign" means, that word "every" is clear. Every means every.
Of course most Catholics -- in fact, most educated people around the world -- know well the other teachings from the Catechism on the topic of homosexuality, which are very clearly stated. Most, for example, would know the teaching set forth in #2357, which states that homosexual acts are "intrinsically disordered." But the full teaching of the Catholic church on homosexuality and homosexuals often surprises many people -- including some Catholics. (That's one reason I would like to focus on it here: it's somewhat less well known.) In #2359, for example, the Catechism says that gays and lesbians who live chastely "can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection." That's strong stuff, too: it means that gays and lesbians who live chastely can lead holy lives, and even strive to become saints. After all, that's what approaching "Christian perfection" means: sanctity.
Given that the Catechism sets forth the church's opposition to "every sign of unjust discrimination" of gays and lesbians, I wonder how many Catholics will be celebrating President Obama's signing of the repeal of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" law today, after its passage by both houses of Congress. The law had previously prevented gays and lesbians who serve in the armed forces from publicly identifying themselves as homosexuals. Originally, the Clinton-era law was, as I understand it, intended to protect gays and lesbians from "witch hunts," that is, formal investigations leading to their ejection from the service. (And indeed, some who admitted their orientation in the past few years were dismissed, which removed many fine men and women from active duty when the country could probably least afford it -- during wartime.) But that earlier law is now judged to be "unjust" by the majority of American lawmakers.
The fact that the gay and lesbian soldiers who were willing to give their lives for their country were unable even to admit their presence within the military, seems about as far as you can get from any reasonable definition of "respect," to quote the Catechism. Much less is it treating them with "sensitivity and compassion." How compassionate is it to tell a soldier: "Feel free to sacrifice your life; just don't expect us to admit that you're here"?
As I see it, the repeal of DADT is not about marriage, or sexual activity, but about something else, and something perhaps more important: simple human dignity. And the innate dignity of the human being is an overarching theme of Christian theology, Catholic teaching and the Catechism: "The dignity of the human person is rooted in his creation in the image and likeness of God" (#1700). The repeal also turns on a question of justice, another overarching theme of Catholic teaching. As Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon, said as the Senate debate opened. "If you love this country enough to risk your life for it, you shouldn't have to hide who you are." By saying to gays and lesbians, "Yes, you are here with us," the country honors them; and honor is a constitutive element of "respect," and is also related to social justice. This subtle concept is something that the Catechism illustrates in a beautiful line: "Honor is the social witness given to human dignity, and everyone enjoys a natural right to the honor of his name and reputation and to respect" (#2479).
Since today's repeal of DADT says nothing about gay marriage (nor would it have been approved by lawmakers if it had), since it does not contradict church teaching on that matter, and since it takes a strong stance against "unjust discrimination" against gays and lesbians, as the Catechism encourages, will Catholics rejoice over this news? In the past, when Congress passed, or the president signed, a bill offering protection for a marginalized group of people, the church would often take notice. Remember that the Catechism sets forth a strong line on this -- "every sign of unjust discrimination." That's pretty broad. Still, I wonder if there will be much rejoicing for this respectful, compassionate and sensitive act of justice.
This blog entry was first published at "America: The National Catholic Weekly".