Years ago, when I occasionally crossed the threshold of our local Catholic Church for reasons other than funerals, I ran into Chicago’s Archbishop, Francis Cardinal George, in the lobby of the office building where I worked. You may know that Cardinal George, an admitted White Sox fan, was the Chicago Archdiocese’s penance for having had a reasonably moderate and generally open minded prelate, Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, who was beloved here but did the one thing the Vatican likes least: He listened when people talked. Even people who weren’t, you know … Catholic.
So when Cardinal Bernardin passed away, the Vatican sent us a White Sox fan. Er, I mean, a doctrinaire conservative.
But I’m not a vindictive guy. White Sox fan or not, he was the Cardinal and I was, nominally, at least, a Catholic, and we had priests and nuns in the family. So I thought the sporting thing to do would be to say “hello” to to the man, who was then still relatively new to the position. Only I flinched. The problem was, as I was crossing the lobby, he stepped into a waiting elevator and was about to head up to wherever he was going … and so I quickly blurted out only thing that came to mind.
Yeah, that’s right. I said to the Archbishop of Chicago, the head of one of the largest Catholic diocese in the world and a member of the body that rules the Church and selects popes … “Hey, Cardinal.”
He was pretty nice about it, actually. He stepped out of the elevator and extended his hand. “Do I know you,” he asked.
No, I explained, just a local parishioner; just wanted to say “hi,” and, like, “welcome aboard,” or whatever …
And that was about the extent of it. But I was mortified. No good deed goes without completely awkward silences, and all that.
Anyway, as it happened, the wife and kids and I were going over to my mom’s house for dinner a couple of nights later, and who should be there but my aunt, Sister Mary Brian Durkin, O.P., a Sinsinawa Dominican nun of, I don’t know, upwards of 65 years. Meaning she’d been a nun for upwards of 65 years; she was 80-something at the time.
In any event, I felt compelled to tell her about the Hey, Cardinal affair. I felt compelled to tell her every uncomfortable detail of it, like going to confession. I mean, I can’t believe I said … “Hey, Cardinal”!
And you know what she said? She said: “Big deal.”
She said, “He’s just a man, like anybody else. He puts his pants on one leg at a time” – yeah, my aunt, an 85, 86 year old Dominican nun, referenced the putting on of the Cardinal’s pants – “So you said hello to him. He should be so lucky.”
Let me tell you something about Sister Mary Brian. She wasn’t one of those bullheaded nuns who stood at the front of a classroom and rapped kids’ knuckles with rulers. She was an educated woman. She was a retired college professor. She had traveled the world. She knew members of the British Parliament, and had exchanged correspondence with C.S. Lewis back in the day. She was nobody’s fool.
And she had a damn point. Even if you believe in papal infallibility (a greatly misunderstood concept), there ain’t no such thing as infallible Archbishops, not even in the Church of Rome.
So why do I tell this story? Because as the Illinois General Assembly begins to debate a bill that could make our state the tenth in the country to grant full marriage rights to gay and lesbian couples, Francis Cardinal George has once again demonstrated just how mundane his pants-putting-on really is. And by pants-putting-on, of course, I mean, his moral thinking. Duh.
The General Assembly could vote this week on the Religious Freedom and Marriage Fairness Act, a bill legalizing gay marriage in Illinois, and on Tuesday Cardinal George issued a letter urging Catholics to ask their representatives to vote against it.
The cardinal’s argument is along the lines of Abraham Lincoln’s admonition: “How many legs does a dog have if you call the tail a leg? Four. Calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it a leg.” Says George, “Marriage comes to us from nature. . . . It is physically impossible for two men or two women to consummate a marriage, even when they share a deep friendship or love. Does this mean nature is cruel or that God is unfair? No, but it does mean that marriage is what nature tells us it is and that the State cannot change natural marriage.”
… “We will all have to pretend to accept something that is contrary to the common sense of the human race,” his letter predicts. “Those who continue to distinguish between genuine marital union and same sex arrangements will be regarded in law as discriminatory, the equivalent of bigots. This proposed legislation will have long term consequences because laws teach; they tell us what is socially acceptable and what is not. . . . When the ways of nature and nature's God conflict with civil law, society is in danger.”
This, you see, is garden-variety hooey. This is hooey that puts its pants on one leg at a time.
Of course, nature doesn’t give us marriage. Of course, “nature’s God” doesn’t give us marriage. The law does. Churches can have whatever types of ceremonies they want, and they can call them whatever they want. Churches can “marry” adult men and twelve year old girls. Churches can “marry” one man and a hundred women. Churches can make up whatever rules they want, but only the law can say what is or isn’t a marriage. If a church marries people whom the law does not permit to be married, the church’s “marriage” is a legal nullity, and no cardinal, priest, rabbi, vicar, pastor or imam has the power to make it a marriage under the law.
Only the law can say what is or isn’t a marriage … and the law shouldn’t discriminate against people on irrational bases like sexual orientation. Because discriminating against people based on sexual orientation? That’s bigotry. Garden variety, put-your-pants-on-one-leg-at-a-time bigotry, and all the flowery language in the world can never alter that immutable fact.
Hey, Cardinal. Illinois is moving forward on marriage equality because it’s the right thing to do. And you? You’re not that special.