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Healthy signs of wit, compassion and courage

In a heap on the side of the desk reserved for "signs of sanity" a pile of clips and releases has accumulated since the start of the year -- all begging further notice but each falling through the cracks from one issue to the next.

The year's midpoint provides as good an excuse as any to revisit three of the items that deal with church leaders' reactions to the divisive issue of homosexuality.

Back in February, Archbishop William Levada seemed headed for a major showdown with San Francisco's leaders over the city's new domestic partners law that provided health insurance and other spousal benefits to the gay, lesbian and unmarried partners of its employees or employees of agencies that contracted with the city.

What was a matter of civil rights for gays and lesbians was, for Levada, an outright assault on church teachings with serious practical implications -- "$5.6 million in federal, state and local funds funneled through City Hall and spent by the church to help the poor, the homeless and people with AIDS," according to Don Lattin, a religion writer for the San Francisco Chronicle.

At a news conference, according to the Chronicle, "Levada began to shift the spotlight away from homosexuality and onto health care. Calling the absence of universal health coverage 'a national shame,' he said, 'I am in favor of increasing benefits, especially health coverage, for everyone.' "

The shift, wrote Lattin, "turned out to be the key to a compromise reached later in the week" between Levada and the city's leaders.

The compromise turned on a bit of semantics: Under the new proposal, employees of agencies that contract with the city are permitted to designate any "legally domiciled member" of the household to receive "spousal equivalent benefits." So an employee might designate a blood relative or a gay lover.

"Conservatives may be upset that Levada didn't take a harder line. ... Liberals may complain that the church merely danced around the question of homosexuality. But, for the moment, the yelling has stopped and the reporters are on to something else," wrote Lattin.

A hearty cheer from this corner for wit and a willingness to negotiate. It was a welcome relief from the bullying, absolutist tactics increasingly popular among the episcopal set these days.

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Some months back, a reader sent a clip of a column written by Fr. John Cunningham, pastor of St. Bridget Catholic Church in Mesa, Ariz., and published in the daily Mesa Tribune.

Under the headline, "Lack of love -- not homosexuality -- real threat to values," Cunningham wrote:

"I just finished reading yet another newspaper article wherein the writer purports to defend family values. But the approach and the tone bore the familiar stridency of right-wing rhetoric of fear and polarization, which consistently targets gayness as the greatest threat to the family."

Cunningham targeted gay-bashing clichés and told a story of a gay couple who exhibited fidelity and devotion of one partner to the other, who was dying of cancer. Such stories, he wrote, "dispel the misconceptions and stereotypes that thrive whenever the cultural climate is charged with fear and clouded by ignorance."

Knowledge of sexual orientation and other issues "has simply exploded over the past two decades," and wise people, writes Cunningham, are best served by keeping an open mind.

"The proponents of discrimination always invoke the highest authority for their justification while pandering to the grossest fears of the public." Scripture, he wrote, has been used to justify slavery, subjugation of women and as a mandate for the oppression of Jews.

"The soul of a healthy society is justice; the heart of authentic religion is love," Cunningham wrote.

At a time when the "religiously correct" posture too often is to scapegoat gays, such clear thinking makes an invaluable contribution to the culture.

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Most recently came the news of Bishop J. Keith Symons of Palm Beach, Fla., and his response to protests against a retreat for parents of gay and lesbian children given at a center in his diocese by Sr. Jeannine Gramick and Fr. Robert Nugent. The two have long ministered to gays and lesbians in the Catholic church. In a concise, clear statement, Symons cited the "Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons," prepared by the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Then, in a simple declaration, he backed the retreat "despite protests by a few well-intentioned but ill-informed persons." How desperately the church needs such examples of healthy compassion and courage.

National Catholic Reporter, July 4, 1997