Last edited: February 16, 2005

Bishop’s Sad Tirade a Reminder of a Darker Era

Toronto Star, January 22, 2005

By Jim Coyle

The last half century or so of human progress must have been extremely hard on the Roman Catholic bishop of Calgary.

Things were so much simpler and easier when women were safely in their place, gays were safely in the closet, priests were safely in charge, and coercion and intimidation were the natural order of things.

This week, in a froth of fundamentalism and bigotry reminiscent of, oh, perhaps Ian Paisley in his prime, Bishop Fred Henry issued a pastoral letter arguing the state should use its coercive power to proscribe or curtail homosexuality, which, he fumed, is of a kind with adultery, prostitution and pornography.

If this epistle was not the last desperate shriek of a man who fears he’s on the losing side of a difficult debate, it will certainly do until something better comes along.

The poor, turbulent priest—traumatized that here and there across Canada a man and man, or woman and woman, are living, not as terrorists, not as telemarketing scammers, but as, ye gods, married couples—must be having some sort of delusional flashback.

Back to an age when shaming was an instrument of choice among clergy, back to a time when ignorance was the preferred condition of benighted parishioners.

When my father was a boy in Ireland, the priests used to read from the pulpit, when dissatisfied with the fruits of the collection plate, the precise pittance contributed by each of their pious but woefully impoverished families.

How’s that for coercive power?

It was not until after my good Catholic mother arrived in this country, not until she was a married woman in her 20s, that it was brought to her consciousness for the first time that such a concept as homosexuality existed.

How’s that for proscribing and curtailing knowledge?

When I was a Catholic schoolboy, in Grade 6 I think it was, the teacher one day played for the class a film about some distant part of the world. It must have been made by those pornographers at National Geographic, because there presently appeared on the screen, in jerky black and white, the image of a woman breast-feeding a child, a nipple fleetingly visible.

Naturally, the teacher dove to turn on the lights in order to eliminate from our impressionable view this smutty work of the devil.

But, alas, in shedding light on the situation (in order to keep us in the dark), she brought into shocking (and thrilling) view the boy at the back (a recent arrival from Europe a bit older than us and put back a grade because he couldn’t speak English) with his hand inside the pristine white blouse of a classmate of similar origin and magnificent endowment.

How’s that, the poor teacher must have lamented, for being caught between a rock and a hard place?

All this, of course, happened long ago—and the passing of such times of righteous vigilance is something Bishop Henry appears deeply to regret.

In all, the mind fairly boggles at the fear and loathing that a few words from Leviticus continue to unleash.

I’m no theologian—and, as many will quickly note, not all that good a Catholic—but I am pretty sure of this: I may have sired four sons, but an authority higher than me will determine much of what forms and defines them, from the redness of one’s hair, the blueness of another’s eyes, the irascibility of one’s temper, the gentleness of another’s soul, to the nature of their sexuality.

If one turns out to be gay, I know only this: I would not want his life to have any less potential, any fewer rights and delights, than those of his brothers.

At base, marriage is our culture’s ultimate personal commitment. And it is commitment on which all durable things and all strong communities are built, because it is only on commitment you can make plans for the long haul.

Without commitment, you’d never sign a mortgage, never start a family, never start at the bottom and work your way up. You wouldn’t even plant a garden.

If gay people are among us (and they seem always to have been), and if it can be reasonably expected they always will be (and the past being the best predictor of the future it would appear they will), why would anyone deny them the right to make that sort of commitment—a commitment in which we generally so exult, from which so much of value generally flows, and which in no sense diminishes the commitment and rights of others?

In truth, it’s always been a little difficult to take without a notably arched eyebrow lectures on sexuality by celibates, lectures on equality issues from a church that still bars women from its clergy.

But by this entry into the same-sex marriage debate—in thoughts and language so abhorrent, so absurd, so intolerant, so out of touch with what is expected of modern government, so wanting in love, compassion and Christianity—the bishop has all but disqualified himself from further credible participation in it.

Though, there is one small point on which he might elaborate.

Why is it—the fear being so frequently raised that the legalization of same-sex marriage will lead to the legalization of polygamy—that the only people one hears talking about polygamy, or for that matter practising it, are heterosexual males?

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