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12 min

Let the hate flow

Attempts to silence & scapegoat a Calgary bishop reveal our inability to engage the ugly & impolite

Both the old, dead pope and the new, live one decreed that queer people are evil. Credit: (Tucker Doherty)

“Fucking Catholics never clear their fucking ice!”

While I am normally a model of civility, I found myself barking this absurd declaration as I slipped on a snowy sidewalk behind my local church. It may be true, of course, that churches are particularly negligent in their snow removal duties – the burden of owning such large tracts of urban land. But as I recovered my balance and my composure, I realized how my anger had been brewing.

Not coincidentally, I stumbled but a few days after the old pope, the one who’s dead now, published his final book, in which he once again used the word “evil” to describe homosexual relationships.

No self-respecting person can endure hurled insults without striking back at some point, however clumsily. Homosexuals have largely turned the other cheek in the face of religious name-calling. We are a gentle, angry people. But the concurrence of this year’s same-sex marriage debate with the transition from old pope to new is proving to be a heavy burden for homosexuals to bear.

Catholic leaders correctly remind us that both the old, dead pope and the new, live one decree that queer people are evil – not just homosexual acts or relationships, but homosexuals ourselves. Meanwhile, the media puts the best face on the Church, launching a protracted Pope-athon that urged us all to join in the mass worship of these same two men.

Surely a breakdown in civility is the only logical outcome. Strangely, though, our reactions to date have largely been civil, even bureaucratic.

Frederick Henry, the Catholic bishop of Calgary who has been a tireless and vocal opponent of same-sex marriage, pushed some of us over the edge. He received not one, but two human rights complaints in response to a sermon he delivered in January, an abridged version of which also appeared in a Calgary daily paper. Is this what queer activism has been reduced to? The gays are angry! They’re filling out forms!

When I first heard there was a cleric in Alberta railing against same-sex marriage, I must confess, I assumed we were dealing with someone unhinged and rabid. I envisioned foaming at the mouth, and fire-and-brimstone warnings, like those exciting American Christian fundamentalist preachers. As the faithful wave their God Hates Fags signs and seethe unfettered hostility, US homosexuals point and screech: “See! See!” No such luck with Bishop Henry.

Henry is often portrayed in the media as a crackpot, a loony, someone on the extreme fringes of Catholicism. In fact, the bishop is merely doing his job: he is spot-on when it comes to the Church’s sparklingly clear and simple position on homosexuality.

What’s more, some of the bishop’s statements appear to be significantly more friendly to homosexuals than Catholic doctrine allows, to the degree that I wouldn’t be surprised if he was censured for being too soft on us.

How odd, then, that Henry is scapegoated by media intent on airbrushing Catholic homophobia, insisting that the bishop take the fall when he’s just following orders. And how sad that our singling out of Henry with human rights complaints merely assists in this illusion.

Dear Henry

I had the pleasure of visiting Calgary last month, and I wrote to Bishop Henry in the hopes that we might meet for a chat. He politely declined my offer, but he did briefly respond to some written questions I sent his way. As well, I took the time to review his on-line archive of writings. The texts are complemented by a photo of the bishop, in which he sports a warm smile, a frock of sensuous purple and a crucifix large enough to conjure memories of the one Linda Blair used on herself in The Exorcist.

Henry’s pet topics include civility and the need for courtesy in modern life. These missives read like treatises for tolerance and diversity in our pluralistic society.

“Don’t irritate people, or wound them, by failing to see their point of view,” he counsels.

This advice seems at odds with his unwavering denunciations of his gay brothers and lesbian sisters. When I ask him about it, he sidesteps my question, responding, “It is possible to love someone but not approve of their behaviour or lifestyle.” I had forgotten how smooth priests can be.

The bishop is often personable. There are attempts at humour in his writings: he quotes from a Wizard Of Id comic strip, and in discussing the definition of marriage, he takes time out to offer up some playful definitions of his own: Barium is “what doctors do when patients die;” Cauterize is “made eye contact with a nurse.” Oh stop it, Bishop Henry, my sides hurt! Elsewhere, he confides, “I consider myself a very sexy person.”

The mood changes when we get to matters of Church doctrine, and the gay stuff. While human rights complaints are kept secret, media reports and information forwarded by Henry highlight specific excerpts from his January letter, On Same-Sex Marriage. One excerpt of note: “Since homosexuality, adultery, prostitution and pornography undermine the foundations of the family, the basis of society, then the State must use its coercive power to proscribe or curtail them in the interests of the common good.”

It’s unclear which coercive powers Henry is urging the state to use. When I ask him if he means that homosexual acts should be illegal, he says no, and points me to a subsequent pastoral letter in which he attempts to clarify his position. There, he somewhat clumsily argues: “The time has come for the government of Canada to use its coercive powers to legislate that a couple being married must be one man and one woman.” Perhaps, in the face of the complaints, he’s backpedalling. Still, even if he did think we should all go to jail, why shouldn’t he say so?

Stephen Lock, the Alberta regional director for the gay lobby group Egale Canada, describes Henry’s letter as “problematic and worrisome.” But while Michael Valpy reported in The Globe And Mail that Egale was supporting the first human rights complaint, Lock says that’s “not quite accurate,” adding that he spoke to Valpy before Egale had formulated its position.

Egale’s executive director Gilles Marchildon clarifies that while the group “respects the right of individuals to launch a human rights complaint,” it is not formally supporting the investigations. “Bishop Henry is entitled to his opinion – as erroneous as it is, in our view – and is free to express it. He should realize, though, that his statements can be misconstrued and do not contribute to an enlightened debate in society.”

Pope says no

Henry’s use of the word “evil” to describe gay sex is also drawing fire. “It’s a sad day for gay and lesbian Catholics when a Canadian Catholic bishop describes our relationships as evil,” writes Helen Kennedy in a press release from Challenge The Church, a group of progressive Catholics. The Globe reported that the group supports the human rights investigation. Kennedy did not respond to my request for clarification.

The Toronto Star editorialized thus: “[Henry] added that ‘an evil act remains an evil act whether it is performed in public or in private.’ This is a stand the Canadian Conference Of Catholic Bishops should promptly distance itself from. So should leading individual Catholic prelates.”

The Globe And Mail editorialized, “He should be reprimanded and his views repudiated by the church hierarchy.”

Why? When it comes to the Church’s position on homosexuality, evil is truly everywhere. Here’s a sampler platter:

The cozily titled On The Pastoral Care Of Homosexual Persons was prepared by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now better known as Pope Benedict XVI. It states: “Although the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin, it is a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil; and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder.” In 2003, Ratzinger formulated the Church’s position on legal same-sex unions: “Those who would move from tolerance to the legitimization of specific rights for cohabiting homosexual persons need to be reminded that the approval or legalization of evil is something far different from the toleration of evil.” Note the characterization and condemnation, not just of same-sex marriage, but of broadly defined relationship recognition.

Indeed, most of the phrases people find objectionable in Bishop Henry’s writings and speeches appear to be quotations from Ratzinger.

PFLAG priest?

If Henry’s nastiest comments on homosexuality come straight from the pope and the Catholic party line, his more compassionate side flies in the face of Catholic doctrine.

Back in 1998, Henry wrote in a pastoral letter, “There are indeed people infected with ‘homophobia’ and under no circumstances can anyone justify violence and gay-bashing.” This more or less jives with Church teaching in Ratzinger’s Pastoral Care decree, which states that “violent malice” against homosexuals “deserves condemnation from the Church’s pastors wherever it occurs.” But just a few lines later in the Ratzinger document, the Church’s compassion comes to an abrupt halt:

“But the proper reaction to crimes committed against homosexual persons should not be to claim that the homosexual condition is not disordered. When such a claim is made and when homosexual activity is consequently condoned, or when civil legislation is introduced to protect behaviour to which no one has any conceivable right, neither the Church nor society at large should be surprised when other distorted notions and practices gain ground, and irrational and violent reactions increase.”

Ouch! As far as I’m concerned, these lines – written by Ratzinger at the behest of John Paul II – are the key to understanding the shared position of these two venerated men. They betray a personal hatred – callous and mean-spirited – rarely seen in Church’s trademark style of calm, measured, “love the sinner” benevolence. No bones about it: Homosexuals are evil; Violent reactions, while distorted, are understandable.

The statement also slams anti-discrimination protections for homosexuals, which were popping up around the time it was written in 1986. But Henry appears to support such protections, even though he denies this when I ask him outright. In the same letter that prompted the human rights complaints against him, Henry writes, “There are human rights laws which say… landlords may not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. These decisions uphold the rights of the individual and, at the same time, strengthen Canadian society.” In a 2002 letter titled Defining Marriage, Henry wrote: “It may be that a broader spectrum of long-term commitments… deserves more formal recognition and support…. ” When I asked him if this is an expression of support for same-sex civil unions, he retreats somewhat, telling me, “I am in favour of the recognition of adult interdependent relationships, which is broader than same-sex unions and not dependent upon sexuality as a defining characteristic.”

Still, the Church is unwavering in its insistence that Catholics oppose any legislation recognizing gay relationships. When Ratzinger outlined the Church position, he included specific instructions for Catholic politicians:

“When legislation in favour of the recognition of homosexual unions is proposed… the Catholic lawmaker has a moral duty to express his opposition clearly and publicly and to vote against it. To vote in favour of a law so harmful to the common good is gravely immoral.”

I’m not seeing a lot of wiggle room here.

During the last federal election, Bishop Henry was widely criticized in the media for suggesting Paul Martin is a bad Catholic for supporting same-sex marriage legislation. Once again, however, the bishop is correct.

Opium of the media

There is no excuse for the widespread media fallacy that Bishop Henry is out of step with Catholic teaching. And there is no excuse for the media’s failure to accurately report and confront the Catholic Church’s position on homosexuality in all its vile clarity.

The media are loath to tar the country’s largest religion with the brush of bigotry. We tiptoe around faith issues, not wanting to offend sacred sensibilities. We soft-pedal difficult truths in the name of cultural sensitivity and social harmony. But harmony is merely fabricated when we conceal serious conflicts and ugly ideas. Sadly, Canadians don’t rise to the challenges of free speech because we think it’s rude.

The torrent of papal boosterism that followed John Paul II’s death was particularly obscene. The same media who decry colonial legacies or American cultural imperialism touted the phrase “one billion Catholics” with all the beaming pride of a McDonald’s sign. Just how did such a grand chunk of humanity become Catholic, and how does it serve them now? In Canada, we know from tragedies like residential schools that religious conversion is often a horror story of cultural obliteration and abuse of power. In Africa, the Church’s contribution to the AIDS pandemic is perhaps John Paul II’s greatest atrocity, but one the media conveniently sidelined during the festivities. It wasn’t just Canadian media being swept up by the spectacle of one pope’s death and another’s election. When Benedict greeted international journalists at his first press conference as pope, everyone stood and applauded him. When he thanked them for helping the Catholic Church, they applauded again.

As the front page headlines assured me the whole world was in mourning, as television reporters gushed over pilgrims in Rome, I felt for the first time that I understood how societies embrace fascism, how people lose their perspective in the face of charismatic leaders, seductive mystical rituals and expensive spectacles. In covering the papal transition, our media committed the two gravest Canadian sins: we fawningly deferred to authority, and we refused to name injustice because it’s impolite.

Ow, you’re hurting my feelings

Sadly, many gay people won’t abide impolite speech, either. We have come to equate hate speech with any opinion which doesn’t agree with ours, or which we find insulting. And many of us actively support making criminals out of people who say things that make us feel bad.

“I understand the anger,” says Egale’s Marchildon. “We hear from people in the community who say Egale should sue or file complaints,” over all manner of commentary. When Canada’s hate speech law was amended to include sexual orientation, he notes, “There was a lot of confusion over what hate propaganda involved.” That’s why, he says, it’s important for Egale to clearly support Charter rights of free expression.

He’s right, although he admits, “It’s difficult to define the line.” As Lock outlines Egale’s position, I sense a struggle. Lock muses on the distinction between Henry’s letter to parishioners and its publication in the Calgary Sun. “How far can a representative of a faith community go? It’s one thing to teach to your own faith community, but is it right for him to be telling the rest of us?” Admirably, Lock returns to Egale’s principled defence of free speech, reminding himself that it cuts both ways. It’s true: When religious leaders ask for the right to bless gay unions, few gay people will suggest they’re overstepping their bounds.

Lesbian author Camille Paglia has warned that gay activism’s Achilles heel may be its refusal to understand the importance of religion to those who wish us ill. “I have been warning and warning for years that the insulting disrespect shown by gay activists to religion… would produce a backlash over time,” she wrote a few years back, pointing out the important role religion played in the abolition of both slavery and racial segregation in the US.

As hard as it is to endure the onslaught of insults and ignorance, Henry’s complainants have taken the wrong tack. It’s tempting to want to shut people up when they disagree with us, but we must vigilantly resist the urge to abuse our current social climate, one that takes allegations of homo-phobia more seriously than ever, one that can use a simple label of homophobia to dismiss.

Canadians prefer order to liberty, and order won’t have us entertaining ideas. What are we afraid of? Frankly, I live a more examined life having been exposed to widely expressed objections to homosexuality. Many of us, at some point in our lives, weigh these objections quite seriously. Some of them have validity: How will my life have value if I don’t have children? Will I become one of those fussy fags who substitutes the nurturing of a child for the fetishistic polishing of a shiny, expensive toaster? Or will I channel my energies more creatively, into cultivating art or friendships or communities?

And do I have the self-discipline required to manage the delicious yet dangerous fleshly delights of a gay life? Anyone who’s been on the scene for any length of time knows that Christian fears of unbridled libido and bacchanalian feasts are not entirely superstitious. Some gay men disappear into an obsessive, compulsive black hole, a pleasure trap of sex and drugs. Some of them never return.

Of course, at some point it becomes tiresome to endlessly revisit the same arguments. Those of us raised in the tradition of Catholic psychic self-flagellation can disappear into a parallel hole – a pain trap – equally obsessive and compulsive, filled with endless guilt and self-loathing.

Still, no one benefits when we turn a blind eye to hatred and ignorant attitudes; they must be confronted head-on. It’s folly to sweep hostility under the carpet, where you can’t monitor it. Warring nations consider it the greatest advantage to know what their enemies are thinking.

But is there a line that should not be crossed? Lock and Marchildon both defer to Canada’s hate speech law, which Egale supports, when I ask what kind of statement would warrant an investigation. Both men say they would seek to stifle speech that advocates murder. Personally, if someone is planning to kill me, I’d like to hear about it first.

On the heels of V-E Day commemorations, the reasons for hate speech laws loom large. Sixty years after Germany’s surrender, people are still confounded as to how a tolerant, cosmopolitan society so quickly morphed into a genocide machine at the hands of a charismatic dictator.

Hate speech allegations often dog faith leaders, as complainants fear their sway over their flocks. Native leader David Akenahew was recently on trial for for saying Jews were a “disease” and for praising Hitler for the Holocaust. As nasty as his utterances may be, I cannot conceive of anything we gain, knowing that he holds these views, in preventing their expression. Do we really expect to prevent violence and hatred by driving violent, hateful language underground?

German authorities allowed, with some restrictions, a neo-Nazi march to proceed through Berlin on V-E Day. To counter the demonstration, chancellor Gerhard Schroeder spoke to Berliners on giant TV screens propped up all over the city.

There you have free speech in action: Let the hate flow, expose it and pull out all the stops with a strong rebuttal. Our problem in Canada is that we’re too polite to muster a rousing retort.

* David Walberg is publisher & editor at large at Pink Triangle Press, which publishes Xtra.