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Archbishop Cardinal George in 2011. Photograph by Adam Bielawski (CC BY-SA 3.0).
During Christmas week, Chicago's Roman Catholic Archbishop Cardinal Francis George ignited a firestorm of criticism by comparing the city's gay pride parade to the Ku Klux Klan. In response, there have been calls for his resignation and an invitation from a gay-friendly theologian to attend the gay pride parade with her. The controversy raises some interesting questions.
The Cardinal made the comparison as he expressed opposition to a new route of the Chicago Gay Pride Parade that will take the annual event past one of the city's oldest Catholic churches. In an interview with Fox News, he expressed support for the pastor of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church who feared that the parade, held on the last Sunday in June, might interfere with the Church's mass schedule.
"You don't want the gay liberation movement to morph into something like the Ku Klux Klan, demonstrating in the streets against Catholicism," said Cardinal George.
The Cardinal's remarks were denounced as inappropriate and disrespectful by gay officials, including Greg Harris, a state representative whose district includes the parade route.
The Gay Liberation Network issued a statement that said, "In comparing LGBT rights advocates to the KKK, the cardinal shows he is not an honest man of faith trying to better the world, but rather, a mendacious one trying to deflect criticism of church policies that promote discrimination. It is ironic that George chooses to mention the KKK, as they are but one of the most extreme examples of organizations which have used religion to shield themselves from criticism of their hateful policies."
A petition on Change.org by Truth Wins Out that called for his resignation quickly attracted hundreds of signatures and now has almost 5,000. The petition says that George's "outrageous comparison of the LGBT community to the Ku Klux Klan was so degrading and hurtful that apologizing will not be sufficient. George's only road to redemption is handing in his resignation. If he has a shred of dignity and a shard of class he will immediately step down."
Meanwhile, the organizers of the parade reached an amicable compromise with the local priest, agreeing to change the starting time from 10:00 a.m. to noon in order to avoid any interference with anyone who wanted to attend the Church's regularly scheduled masses.
In response to the criticism, the Cardinal at first seemed to be conciliatory. He appeared on television and softened the original statement, saying that he did not mean to compare gay people with the KKK, only the gay parade and the KKK parade. Then, on the official archdiocesan website, he posted a statement that seemed to double-down on his original comparison and adopted the familiar stance of conservative Christians that they are being victimized and bullied by the gay movement for equal rights.
The Cardinal wrote: "The Chicago Gay Pride Parade has been organized and attended for many years without interfering with the worship of God in a Catholic church. When the 2012 Parade organizers announced a time and route change this year, it was apparent that the Parade would interfere with divine worship in a Catholic parish on the new route. When the pastor's request for reconsideration of the plans was ignored, the organizers invited an obvious comparison to other groups who have historically attempted to stifle the religious freedom of the Catholic Church. One such organization is the Ku Klux Klan which, well into the 1940's, paraded through American cities not only to interfere with Catholic worship but also to demonstrate that Catholics stand outside of the American consensus. It is not a precedent anyone should want to emulate."
It is, of course, more than a stretch to allege that gay pride parades exist to interfere with Catholic worship or to demonstrate that Catholics stand outside of the American consensus. It is, not to put too fine a point on it, a lie.
Perhaps the best--or at least most generous--response to the Cardinal's intemperate and ill-informed comparison came from an unexpected source, a distinguished theologian who teaches at the Chicago Theological Seminary, Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite. In a Washington Post "On Faith" column, Professor Thistlethwaite described the gay pride parade as "a deeply spiritual event, combining a celebration of the diversity of humanity with a zest for life lived truthfully." She denounced the Cardinal's intolerance, but went further: she invited him to attend the parade with her and to march with the Chicago Theological Seminary's Pride group.
Professor Thistlethwaite said that she has issued the invitation "in full confidence that the cardinal would be welcome in the Seminary's Pride group" because The United Church of Christ has as its motto, "No matter who you are, or where you are on life's journey, you are welcome here." "We practice," she said, "what we like to call a 'radical welcome' and that includes the cardinal."
In addition, she said, "I would like to invite the cardinal because I have become an ally of the LGBTQ community and it has been an incredible spiritual and theological journey for me. I would like to share with him a small part of how important this journey can be for Christian leaders as well as parishioners."
"I have learned so much from what a spirituality of truthfulness teaches, and how it can illumine a great deal about the Christian Gospel, as well as about theology, ethics, pastoral care, and worship," she continued. "Over the years of teaching and learning with gay students, faculty, and staff colleagues, both at the seminary, around the nation and indeed around the world, I have gained from their courage in facing up to a world that is hostile to their very humanity, and challenging churches that claim they are not included in God's love and care. Despite all the hurtful and harmful religious messages, many LGBT people nevertheless come to know God's love and affirmation for exactly who they are."
Professor Thistlethwaite's column may be found here: Cardinal George, you're wrong about Chicago Gay Pride.
Other responses to Cardinal George's comparison of the gay pride parade with the Ku Klux Klan may be found in this article by Kate Sosin in The Windy City Times: Cardinal reiterates KKK comparison.
It is unlikely that Cardinal George will accept the invitation. He seems, instead, to have joined a campaign by American bishops to present themselves and religious people generally as victims.
An article by Laurie Goodstein in the December 29, 2011 New York Times entitled Bishops Say Rules on Gay Parents Limit Freedom of Religion focuses on the Illinois Roman Catholic bishops' response to the requirement imposed on Catholic Charities not to discriminate against gay couples in their foster care and adoption services, which are funded by taxpayer money. For all their stated concern about children, the bishops have shut down their facilities rather than abide by the law.
As Goodstein remarks, having been rebuffed by the courts, the bishops complain of "what they see as an escalating campaign by the government to trample on their religious freedom while expanding the rights of gay people. The idea that religious Americans are the victims of government-backed persecution is now a frequent theme not just for Catholic bishops, but also for Republican presidential candidates and conservative evangelicals."
She also points out, however, that "the bishops face formidable opponents who also claim to have justice and the Constitution on their side. They include not only gay rights advocates, but also many religious believers and churches that support gay equality (some Catholic legislators among them). They frame the issue as a matter of civil rights, saying that Catholic Charities was using taxpayer money to discriminate against same-sex couples."
What I wish she had done is question how "Catholic Charities" can in good conscience call itself a charity. The organization is funded overwhelmingly by taxpayer dollars--in 2010, it received nearly $2.9 billion from the government, about 62 percent of its annual revenue of $4.67 billion, while only 3 percent came from churches. Rather than a charity, which implies doing good deeds with one's own funds, Catholic Charities is actually a government contractor.
It seems to me that any organization that is funded by the government has, at the very least, an obligation to obey the law and not to discriminate on the basis of religion or characteristics such as sexual orientation and gender identity.
Truth Wins Out plans to continue its call for Cardinal George's resignation by running a large ad in Sunday's Chicago Tribune. Wayne Besen, Truth Wins Out's executive director, said, "This is not a legitimate fight over religious liberty as George wrongly implies, but a vivid example of religious bigotry fueled by a mean-spirited analogy that linked innocent, law abiding families with the KKK. We will stand up against such lies and speak out when LGBT people are unfairly maligned."
This is the ad: