Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The ethical limits of "love the sinner, hate the sin"

A bit of a rambling account follows, and I will endeavor to have more overtly polytheistic content in the future, but I write about whatever piques my interest and today this happens to be it.

I'm sure many folks have been confronted with the Christian catch-all "love the sinner, hate the sin" approach to ethics. It implies that while Christians should be discerning of what they view as unethical behaviour, they should never loose sight of the fact the sinner is still a person and so ought to be forgiven for their transgression. This has been an especially visible tack of the Catholic Church, when it comes to dealing with issues which are accepted by society (to some degree or another) but at loggerheads with Church doctrine.

In my case, there is a particular issue which is going on in the parish halls and school board meeting rooms, and there doesn't seem to be an end in sight. I believe this issue highlights the very real limitations of the "love the sinner, hate the sin" philosophy and creates an eye opening example of the tricky nature of religion and the public sphere. The issue is "gay positive" clubs in Catholic schools.

Now, not to digress too much, but a little history may be necessary for those who were born outside of Ontario. Ontario has, for the majority of its existence, had two separate public school systems; one Protestant and one Catholic. Over the course of the last half of the 20th century, the Protestant school system was gradually secularized, simply becoming "public schools". The Catholic system, however, did not secularize and continues to be publicly funded. As a result of its, unique status, the various Catholic School Boards have had to walk a fine line between government guidelines and Church doctrine. Earlier this year this tension came to a head when the Halton Catholic Schools declined to allow the formation of student run "gay-straight" clubs. The issue was sensationalized (a little) when the Chair of the Board made an idiotic comment which compared such clubs with "Nazi groups". At issue was the necessity of all Ontario school boards to have an "equity and inclusive education policy" in place to stem the rise in homophobic bullying. Eventually the board dropped its ban on such groups and they have been allowed to form. In fact this sparked a much wider debate among other Catholic boards, with the same result in almost all jurisdictions; "gay-straight clubs" have been given permission to form. But, the story doesn't end there.

A recent article in the Toronto Star picked up this topic, with less than three weeks to go before school resumes, to see how it has developed. Not so well it would seem. Despite the fact that the issue of allowing such groups to be formed was agreed upon months ago, the issue at present is what to call them:
“It’s been a struggle; we want to have groups to help these students so they don’t feel suicide is the only option — suicide rates among homosexual young people are higher — but some people get caught up worrying that we’re going to forget about our Gospel teachings, and cause panic, so it’s taking longer than expected,” said association president Nancy Kirby
And there in lies the rub, and my point. The Catholic boards want to help reduce an atmosphere of intolerance and fear for sexual minority groups, and help prevent kids from falling into despair. At the same time, they have a rather clear doctrinal position to uphold as members of the Catholic faith; Homosexuality is not accepted:
2357 Homosexuality refers to relations between men or between women who experience an exclusive or predominant sexual attraction toward persons of the same sex. It has taken a great variety of forms through the centuries and in different cultures. Its psychological genesis remains largely unexplained. Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity,141 tradition has always declared that "homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered."142 They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved.
However, there is a distinction made between "homosexual persons" and "homosexual acts", one is to be loved, respected and supported, the other is to be abhorred and opposed; love the sinner, hate the sin. According to Catholic teachings, those who find themselves attracted to members of the same sex/gender/ etc. are called to practice chastity, as these attractions are a trial to be overcome. If this is starting to sound a little like conversion therapy, that the moral duty of homosexuals is to suppress (or better yet, overcome) their problematic attraction to members of the same sex, it's because it is. The problem for the boards now is that they have no idea what to call these clubs. Many have banned the use of "gay-straight", "rainbow", or any other names which may give the impression that homosexuality is in anyway being approved of.

I understand, rather well, the complex nature of ethics and their applicability. I understand that ethics are not simple and require a great deal of thought and reflection. I understand the desire of the Catholic school boards to adopt the provincial guidelines, and their honest desire to help students as best they can. I also understand that this issue is as close as one can get to cognitive dissonance without spiraling into outright contradiction. At the end of the day, regardless of how much these school boards try to foster an atmosphere of tolerance or respect towards GLBT students, it is empty. It is empty because these people are seen to have an affliction, one which they must overcome to be inline with catholic teaching. These students are wrong to be attracted to people of the same sex/gender/ etc., and the Catholic boards will simply not move on such doctrinal issues.

At the end of the day the message to students is as confusing as it is infuriating: "You are welcome here, you are safe here; just be aware that you are wrong to feel this way. Understand that there is something wrong with you, and that the negative atmosphere which pervades same-sex sexual identity is caused, first and foremost, because homosexuality is wrong. People shouldn't be persecuted for sinning, but people shouldn't seek to sin in the first place. We love you, we just hate what you are." Think about kids, especially teens, who are dealing with a lot of emotional stress an the pain associated with developing a sense of self and identity. These kids are then told that they have a moral responsibility to love their fellow students, but are also morally compelled to oppose the feelings their gay classmates may have. It is simply cynical, and wholly self serving, and I'm not sure how else it could come across.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not trying to disparage the Catholic school system. I do not doubt that the vast majority of educators, trustees, council members, clergy and others who work for the system want to ensure that students feel safe and are free from bullying. I just recognize that the efforts to do so are contradictory when it comes to GLBT students. I think it is reasonable to posit that the basis of homophobic bullying is the position that homosexuality is wrong.When the institution designed to protect the safety of a given student, is also a root cause of the negative atmosphere that student needs protection from; how can the effort comes across as anything else but hollow?

The notion that one can effectively separate an individual from their actions, is at the root of the "love the sinner, hate the sin" aphorism. Yet actions, better than anything else, define who were are. Belief or thought without action is little more than imagination. I believe the issue described above highlights why such an approach to ethics is at best misguided, and at worst meaningless.