Gay activist Dan Savage went straight for the jugular in his recent remarks on bullying at a national conference for high school journalists.
The problem, he said, is the Bible.
To state the matter in terms that can be used in family newspapers, the sex-advice columnist repeatedly proclaimed that the Bible contains far too much bovine excrement.
"People often point out that they can't help ... with the anti-gay bullying, because it says right there in Leviticus, it says right there in Timothy, it says right there in Romans, that being gay is wrong," said Savage, in an Internet clip that went viral.
The key is to ignore the bovine excrement in the Bible "about gay people," he said, the "same way we have learned to ignore ... the Bible about shellfish, about slavery, about dinner, about farming, about menstruation, about virginity, about masturbation. We ignore ... the Bible about all sorts of things."
For serious Christians, it's hard to list all the errors and unfair accusations in Savage's broadside, according to Joshua Gonnerman, a doctoral student in historical theology at the Catholic University of America. For starters, it's impossible to dismiss the "prime document of the Christian faith," which is "inspired by the Holy Spirit."
Christians must insist, he added, that Savage was "no less wrong to dismiss traditional sexual morality. On this point, scripture and tradition always have spoken with one voice, and the churches cannot, in good conscience, reject that voice. The traditional sexual ethic is the only possible antidote to the rampant commodification of human persons in contemporary culture."
The twist is that he made these arguments in a First Things essay entitled, "Why Dan Savage Was Right." In it, Gonnerman identifies himself as a "Christian who is committed to chastity," who embraces Catholic teachings on sexuality and who happens to be gay.
The point Savage got right, he said, is his claim that church leaders rarely offer serious responses to gay community concerns, such as the bullying of young gays and people who are perceived to be gay. Most religious leaders act as if they want gay people -- including believers -- to simply go way.
"The whole issue is constantly talked about in a culture wars context, instead of in a pastoral context," said Gonnerman, in a recent interview. "Instead of being a pastoral issue in the lives of real people, homosexuality is handled as an us-versus-them issue. ... Gay people must be treated as members of the family -- not just pushed aside."
It is widely known, and often discussed, that the Catholic catechism teaches that homosexual acts are "acts of grave depravity," "intrinsically disordered" and "contrary to the natural law. ... Under no circumstances can they be approved."
While Gonnerman accepts these teachings, he is convinced that pastors also need to underline the catechism statement that gays are "called to fulfill God's will in their lives." Through chastity, true friendship, prayer and the sacraments they can "gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection."
Part of the problem, he said, is that in "far too many parishes there hasn't been a sermon on Catholic social ethics since the Second Vatican Council." It's time for people in the pews to "hear more about divorce, premarital sex, infidelity and contraceptives. ... Homosexuality isn't the only issue we face these days."
Meanwhile, many pastors assume the primary goal of ministry is to fill giant parish parking lots with minivans. While families are important, said Gonnerman, one reason so many Catholic leaders can't "find something to say to gays other than 'no' is because they don't know what they want to say to single people -- period."
Rather than seeking anonymity in large churches, Gonnerman thinks many singles -- gay and straight -- should join smaller parishes. In that setting, a higher percentage of the faithful will know who they are, as individuals, and thus learn more about their lives, beliefs and struggles.
Most of all, someone must be willing to help Catholic singles wrestle with questions about what God wants them to do with their lives, he said.
"You can't just tell people to carry their cross," said Gonnerman. "You can't have a vocation that's defined as 'no,' and that's it. There has to be more to life than not getting married and not having sex. At some point, the church must help us ask, 'What are your gifts? What is your calling?'"
Terry Mattingly is the director of the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities and leads the GetReligion.org project to study religion and the news.
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