Civil Rights and Wrongs: America in the Wake of Bostock

The recent United States Supreme Court decision Bostock vs. Clayton County is yet another occasion for pause and reflection about the direction of our country.  Landing in the public square in the midst of a renewed national push for greater sensitivity to injustices committed because of race, this court decision that protects actively gay or openly transgender persons from employment discrimination seems a logical next step in our steady march towards a truly fair society.  However, one must look carefully beneath the standard cultural narrative to understand the differences as well as the similarities between the Black Lives Matter protests, and the Court ruling on gays and transgender persons.

A Matter of Civil Rights?

In both the contemporary societal discourse over racial justice as well as the discourse on questions surrounding gender and same sex attraction, the matter is quickly framed in terms of discrimination and dignity.  Each is viewed as a civil rights question.  The grounding principle that appears to demand that racial equality issues as well as sexual identity equality issues be viewed through the critical lens of legal fairness is the assertion that each identity is not chosen by the individual in question.

To put it simply:  if one is born this way, one cannot be denied opportunities based on that particular attribute.  If one is going to lobby for greater racial equality since one cannot control into which race one is biologically born, then one must also lobby for greater protection for persons who cannot control if they are born gay, or as some other gender than our classic categories of male and female, so the argument goes.  Presented in this manner, any reasonable person who is opposed to discrimination, as the Catholic Church indeed teaches one must be, has no choice but to support legal protections for racial minorities and sexual identity/gender minorities all in the same activist vein.

Besides, it is hard-hearted to ignore the cries of people who have suffered throughout history because of things they cannot control.  Our current post-Christian world has inherited from its recent Christian past a very keen, and appropriate, sensitivity to victims who have suffered at the hands of those who abuse power or status.  Racial minorities have suffered historically without question, and any societal or legal attempt to bring that to an end is laudable.  People who have been identified as gay, or who have exhibited tendencies of gender fluidity have also received cruel treatment historically.  The Catholic Church rightly condemns the cruel and undignified treatment of men and women with same sex attraction, or gender identity questions. People are people, and therefore they have dignity regardless of categories.

All of the above constitutes the driving cultural philosophy that is fueling the latest protests on race, as well as the cultural sentiment that birthed the June 15th Supreme Court decision on broadening anti-discrimination protection to include the area of sexual identity.  Taken on its own merits it is very logical, and it makes sense that many sincere Christians have not questioned this logic.

Biology Does Not Automatically Lead to A Lifestyle

However, a sincere Christian must also reckon with the unwavering voice of Divine Revelation which says that God has made us male and female.  Furthermore, the Scriptures and Church teaching repeatedly affirm the essential human capacity for making choices, allowing also for the same capacity to know that not all choices are good choices.  The definition of what is “good” in our choices is laid out openly in the Scriptures, and is clarified in Church teaching, and is validated in human nature.

“Choices,” both good ones and bad ones as defined by the measuring line of Christian teaching, when taken together can constitute a “lifestyle.”  “Lifestyles” can either be good or bad, or more often a mix of both.  What gives rise to the choices that in turn give rise to lifestyles is, by modern reckoning, a complex mix of both “nature” and “nurture.”  At the heart of this is the question of human free will and the ability to chart one’s pathway forward in life.  Are we truly free, or not?  Or are we bound by our biology so exclusively, that our biology leads inevitably to a “lifestyle?”

The often-ignored Catholic teaching on the distinction between a same sex inclination as opposed to a gay lifestyle is extremely important.  A same sex inclination, which is outside of one’s control, does not automatically lead to an actively gay lifestyle which is composed of a myriad of choices that are within one’s control.  To say that they are not is to say that gay people are not free people and are instead merely the sum total of their desires.

If one is born an alcoholic, or at least as a person who is by nature drawn to alcohol, is it inevitable that he or she become and remain an alcoholic?  The believing Christian says “no.” A practicing member of Alcoholics Anonymous says “no.”  That answer is rooted in the conviction that lifestyles are not inevitable because human freedom, even if clouded at times by inclinations and tendencies, is still, truly, free.   This must be so because if it were not, we would have no basis for personal responsibility in our society whatsoever.

Consider the matter of racism. If I am not truly free, and if I am born in a social environment that pre-disposes me to a lifestyle that is systemically racist, then it is impossible to expect me to ever be anything other than a racist.  Our civil rights movement relies on the presumption of control over choices and lifestyles, so that, as time passes, the so-called Confederate South can be dismantled to give way to a new order of equality, and a new lifestyle of justice.

Lifestyles Are Subject To Moral Evaluation and To Proper Discrimination

Herein lies what at least in theory should be the very important distinction between race as a civil rights question and sexual identity as a civil rights question.  Race ought not be a lifestyle or a choice. Taken at face value it is simply biology and therefore to discriminate based upon it and nothing else is a grave injustice.  “Gay,” on the other hand, is a lifestyle that is a result of choices.  It may have its origins in an inclination that is beyond one’s control, but inclinations do not automatically lead to choices anymore than being born in the South inevitably leads one to become a racist.  Not all people who drink too much alcohol remain in that lifestyle.  They make choices because they are free to adjust those choices to better ends.

If a gay lifestyle is a result of choices, it is also subject to objective moral evaluation based on established principles of what is “good,” or “bad,” or these days, “healthy” vs “unhealthy.” Once one has crossed into the realm of objective moral evaluation, one may, indeed one must, make employment decisions that properly discriminate between what is, and is not, acceptable behavior for employees based on institutional core values.  If free choices that constitute an actively gay lifestyle willingly violate the core values of an institution, especially one that is explicitly Christian, then the person in question must be fired, in just the same way that one must fire an overt racist or a dysfunctional alcoholic.

To push the issue further:  is “black” a biological category, or is it a “lifestyle?”  Of the two, if there is a distinction, what precisely is it that is being lobbied for in the important current conversation about dignity?  If it is biological only, the discussion should be simple: we do not ever, ever want to discriminate against black people.  If it is a matter of lifestyle, then there is room for blacks and whites to ask legitimate and objective questions about all that is “good” or “bad” about the “choices” that constitute the “lifestyle,” and what elements of it should and should not be protected in racial discrimination laws.  The exact same thing can be said about “white” biology and “lifestyle,” and any other category we wish to land on.

Is “gender” a matter of lifestyle or of biology? This is a complex question to be sure. To the extent that a set of behaviors by a person of one sex are discordant with, or are in denial of, their biological sexual reality, one also has to evaluate those same behaviors against objective moral criteria.  More easily grasped in our era would be an evaluation of the same behaviors based on what is “healthy” vs what is “unhealthy.”  Objective and classical Christian anthropology categorizes much of the behaviors surrounding gender discordance as unhealthy, demanding a compassionate therapeutic response that carefully distinguishes the dignified person from their sometimes undignified choices.  To suggest that an objectively unhealthy lifestyle should enjoy automatic legal protection without any acknowledgment of the essential distinctions between the person and their actions that require objective moral analysis does a grave injustice to their dignity as persons. It is tantamount to saying that they are beyond help.  The fact is that the nature of gender discordance is such that it should not be lumped in the same grouping with same sex attraction or questions of race.  Any attempt to do so by automatically equating it to another “lifestyle” or category of person is in reality an affront to human dignity.

Replacing One Form of Discrimination With Another One

The Supreme Court in its mistaken ruling has now elevated a lifestyle to the status of something that is immutable and not chosen.  The Court has said a person with same sex attraction has no choice but to act out on those desires.  In other words, they are not free.   In the case of persons with gender discordance, it has determined that no objective categories of healthy vs unhealthy can ever apply to them.

This might pass for something benign if it were not for the fact that the gay lifestyle as it is so often exhibited and practiced is directly opposed to the traditional Christian teachings on marriage and the family. Much the same can be said of gender discordant behaviors.  The Court has now elevated one lifestyle above another, meaning it has not created equality at all, rather it has simply created a reverse discrimination.

The new victim, the new oppressed group, are now traditional Christians.  The Court has decided that it is the Christians who must now “choose” to abandon an apparently backward “lifestyle” that is rooted in an irrational tendency to read and believe old books and a widely-discredited clergy. The Court has decided that Christians are free to change and abandon our old ways, and that other groups in society are not free to change their behavior at all. Not only is this illogical and contradictory, but it is also major assault on religious practice that ought to be protected by the First Amendment.

Worse than that, it is yet another example of intentionally rejecting, on our most fundamental legal layer of society, the Christian foundations upon which we once rested as a nation.  We have replaced the comprehensive and consistent ethos and anthropology of Divine Revelation with our own arbitrary patchwork of contradictory notions of personhood, power, freedom, and authority. It is the Court that has saddled us with increasingly contradictory notions of the meaning of personal freedom. It is the Court, and nothing else, that has decided it is the sole measuring line of what is “good” and what is “bad” when it comes to “lifestyles” and “choices.”

A Christian knows that only God sits in that role, not the Court, nor any other merely human institution.  Therefore, we must choose to actively disregard the flawed aspects of not only this latest Court decision, but also any other social movement that fails to adequately and consistently deal with the pressing distinction of “persons” vs “lifestyles.”  Our pressing national questions of race, personhood, identity, family, equality, and religion will only be adequately dealt with by our full embrace of all Christian principles, not a rejection of them.

About Father Nathan Reesman

On Twitter: @FatherReesman Father Nathan Reesman is a priest of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, ordained in 2006. He is the Shared Pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish, and also of Saint Frances Cabrini Parish, both in West Bend, Wisconsin. He is also the Courage and EnCourage chaplain for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. Courage is an apostolate of the Catholic Church that ministers to men and women who experience same sex attraction. Father Reesman is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, obtaining his Bachelors of Arts in Political Science in the year 2000. He completed his seminary studies at Saint Francis de Sales Seminary for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee in 2006, obtaining a Masters of Divinity. Father Reesman completed post-graduate studies at the University of Saint Mary of the Lake, Mundelein, obtaining a Doctor of Ministry in 2019.
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