Bishop’s Sad Tirade a Reminder of a Darker Era
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
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
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
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
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
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
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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