When Dr. Johnson famously suggested that patriotism was the last refuge of scoundrels, he wasn’t demeaning patriotism. Rather, he was criticizing clever rhetoricians who, to advance their own political agendas, fired off patriotic chaff while undercutting the sovereign’s legitimate authority. What scoundrels called “patriotism” was in fact sophistry – word games to confuse the gullible.
The same unsavory tactic is at work when activists appeal to the complexity of Catholicism to distort Catholic teachings that are in fact quite clear. Here’s the most recent, and brazen, example.
This past May, the Massachusetts Legislature’s Judiciary Committee was considering H.3190, the “Marriage Affirmation and Protection Amendment,” which states that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts understands “marriage” to be a union of one man and one woman. By amending the state constitution, H.3190 would pre-empt any decision by the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts that could require the state to issue marriage licenses to homosexual couples. The Massachusetts Catholic Conference, speaking for the state’s bishops, publicly supported the bill.
Father James F. Keenan, S.J., professor of moral theology at the Weston School of Theology and next year’s Gasson professor at Boston College, publicly opposed H.3190. Stressing that he appeared before the lawmakers as both priest and moral theologian, Father Keenan offered the Judiciary Committee members copies of an article he had recently published in Theological Studies, which, he suggested, would help the lawmakers “appreciate” the ways in which contemporary Catholic theologians “differentiate” in complex moral and political situations.
You are now imagining, perhaps, that Father Keenan intended to “differentiate” between the regnant media stereotypes of a homophobic Catholic Church and the truth of the matter? Think again. What Father Keenan wished to “differentiate” for the legislators was “the Church’s theology of chastity” and “its theology of justice” – by which move, Keenan concluded that the Marriage Affirmation and Protection Amendment “is contrary to Catholic teaching on social justice.” Why? Because defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman is, in Father Keenan’s precise words, “active and unjust discrimination against the basic social rights of gay and lesbian persons.”
Which is, at the very least, disingenuous.
A few months before Father Keenan’s testimony, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican office charged with promoting sound theology and defending orthodoxy, issued a “Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Involving the Participation of Catholics in Political Life.” The “Note” was personally approved by Pope John Paul II. It is inconceivable that Father Keenan was unaware of this statement, which was widely discussed in Catholic circles. This is what the “Note” says on the question addressed by H.3190:
“When political activity comes up against moral principles that do not admit of exception, compromise, or derogation, the Catholic commitment becomes more evident and laden with responsibility. In the face of fundamental and inalienable ethical demands, Christians must recognize that what is at stake is the essence of the moral law, which concerns the integral good of the human person…[Thus] the family needs to be safeguarded and promoted, based on monogamous marriage between a man and a woman, and protected in its unity and stability in the face of modern laws on divorce: in no way can other forms of cohabitation be placed on the same level as marriage, nor can they receive legal recognition as such” [emphases in original].
Father Keenan failed to inform the Judiciary Committee of the most recent, authoritative Catholic statement on the matter at hand. As the “Doctrinal Note” makes clear, Father Keenan’s judgment on H.3190 is not congruent with the Church’s teaching. Defining marriage as the stable union of one man and one woman is not an invidious act of discrimination; it is sheer sophistry to suggest that the Catholic Church would regard a law defining marriage in those terms as unjust.
The legislators of Massachusetts presumably understand what caveat emptor means in this case: don’t buy a theological pig in a poke. What remains to be seen is what Father Keenan’s religious superiors, and the administration, alumni, and donors of the Weston School of Theology and Boston College, do about this breathtakingly bold misrepresentation of the Catholic Church’s position on marriage law.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.