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True And False Religious Freedom

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On Sept. 4, the Democratic convention in Referendum 74 of the national platform issued an official statement of belief in expanding martial status and rights. No sooner did the Democrats affirm same-sex marriage than the U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops voiced opposition. The hierarchy was "deeply saddened" by the endorsement. The bishops were ready with self-serving concern for the status quo. Gay marriages, they replied, undermine the "very cornerstone of society" and "erode or ignore the unique meaning of marriage."

The bishops have good reason to be distressed but not over the brave political support of basic human rights for LGBT people but for their knee-jerk reaction. Predictably, the bishops use the current buzzwords in lieu of genuine thoughtfulness to mask discrimination: marriage equality, they assert, violates "religious liberty." Religious liberty? The hierarchy is entirely free to express disagreement.

Liberty for the bishops is a synonym for power and control, their power, their control. They aim to impose unquestioned submission to their self-styled rectitude. Unlike Jesus' freedom to challenge the elders and scribes, liberty by contemporary authoritarian lights deprives others of their rights. Such unchristian Christianity adds a new type of suffering on LGBT people.

I am a 78-year-old gay man who is a practicing Catholic. The older I get, the more clearly I see how official church teaching on sexuality presents a false idea of freedom and misconstrues Christianity. As in scripture, intolerance in daily life binds and traps. Subjugation comes early. Ecclesiastical homophobia burdens a LGBT child with recrimination and shackles the child in religious censure. Prejudice effectively cuts off young gay people from themselves, others, and God.

In my new memoir "Hidden: Reflections on Gay Life, AIDS, and Spiritual Desire" I look back on my Catholic past to see how false religious freedom provides a benediction for oppression. By stigmatizing gay people as sinful, the church deprives us of our human rights. But Christianity at heart is a community of inclusive open-mindedness. Against the false freedom that traps LGBT people in judgmental animosity, I have found that true religious liberty frees us to be ourselves and to love, which is crucial to biblical revelation.

The most striking demonstration of being free to love came to me in 1981 during the peak of the AIDS crisis. Though the church had not been a mother to her gay children with AIDS, they came anyway to the afternoon liturgy at St. Joseph's Church here in Greenwich Village. In their time of utmost need, those with AIDS brought life back into a church that left them for dead. Seeking the true God of love was their act of spiritual defiance. These gay men, mostly young, taught me that religion was not helpless and the world was not ugly. The sheer desperate tenacity of the love of life in these stricken men expressed deep spiritual commitments. They moved toward the altar for nourishment with a justifiable dignity that the authorities lacked.
The vitality of their appeal stood out in sharp relief against the lifeless Christianity that vilified their gayness. Not from the dead spirit of clerical condemnation but from these famished bodies the Eucharist rises. At the liturgy, persons twisted with disease were not the reviled carriers of plague rejected by society. Bodies that were hosts for infections sought the host of sacred healing.

Their return to the church that spurned them showed me that the divine spirit was far beyond any barrier of separation that humans erected for themselves. The love that dare not say its name, much less demand marriage equality, howled out from its heart with what voice it had left to reclaim its place in God's plan. Worship, not arbitrary doctrine, modeled a church to which all could feel at home with a sense of moral belonging.

It took the love of those with AIDS to elevate homosexuality out of a subculture and into the national prominence that has culminated in the recent political call for marriage equality. Persons with HIV practiced true religious liberty. They were doing in free obedience what they believed they had to do. Trust came not from rule decreed from the top down. Faith rose out of the bodily need and interior disposition each had of the creator upon whom they utterly depended and freely sought.

A lot has happened since the 1980s AIDS crisis. The passage of time has increased the liberating relevance of the freely expressed faith of early persons with HIV. They took up the authentic gospel way to the altar. They show the bishops how to free themselves of fear and to love those who love love.

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