National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  May 16, 2003

Two responses to Santorum ruckus

Critics from the fringe seek to smother democratic debate


On April 7, Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., gave an interview to The Associated Press that entered the controversial quicksand of homosexuality. Santorum defended the right of state legislatures to regulate sexual behavior, including homosexual acts.

Santorum’s words about homosexuality provoked an avalanche of criticism. In two Washington Post op-eds, Richard Cohen called the senator “a moron.” The ferocity of the reaction against Santorum suggests a demonization.

Santorum is the third highest-ranking member of the Senate Majority. President Bush publicly confirmed his confidence in the senator through spokesperson Ari Fleischer who announced that the president “believes the senator is an inclusive man.” The Washington Post answered with an editorial chastising President Bush for not rebuking Santorum.

And the mud keeps flying.

Clearly, much more is at stake than Rick Santorum’s political fortunes. Nothing less than adoption, abortion, euthanasia and marriage are at issue.

The attacks are meant to silence Santorum and smother democratic debate. Activists such as Cohen know that their own positions are not mainstream. Only a few fringe groups aim to deregulate everything regarding sexuality. In fact, even Santorum’s harshest critics recognize that his comments, considered so outrageous by a few, will probably not deter his reelection in Pennsylvania within five years.

Those trying to shut down the reasoned, public debate of the constitutionality of laws regulating sexuality do so because, within the democratic process, theirs is a lost cause. They therefore seek alternative instruments, outside public debate and popular vote, to bring about the social revolution they pursue. The implacable rule of the totalitarian thought police exists to censor public debate. And, with their hope stoked by the successes of Roe v. Wade, they aim to circumvent the elected legislature and impose their view of society through judicial diktat.

In the interview, Santorum discussed Lawrence v. Texas, a case currently being considered by the Supreme Court. Refreshingly, Santorum addressed the question head on. He could have sidestepped the battle by repeating an airy and vacuous sound bite. Instead, Santorum advanced his position regarding homosexuality with arguments from constitutional law and political science.

First he made two distinctions: between persons, whom we should always respect, and activity, some of which merits our condemnation. Santorum then spoke of the role of the family in society and how the common understanding of family is founded on marriage. Marriage has always been understood in all societies as between man and woman. Of course, some primitive societies and today’s Islamic countries also understand marriage in the plural, between one man and several women. But the vast majority of Americans consider monogamous marriage between man and woman a necessary component of civilized society.

After explaining that the future of society depends on children and that children result from the sexual union between a man and a woman, Santorum spoke those provocative and now famous words about marriage. “It’s not, you know, man on child, man on dog, or whatever the case may be. It is one thing. And when you destroy that you have a dramatic impact on the quality …”

It’s not easy to find reasoned argumentation within the reactionary responses of Santorum’s critics, but most include the following elements: a dogmatic reference to the right to privacy, an impassioned fantasy of the police knocking on bedroom doors in the middle of the night, and frenzied claims about the intolerance of those who try to legislate morality or impose their own religious beliefs.

Far from attempting to impose Catholic doctrine, Santorum made the very ordinary assertion that sexuality is related to reproduction, that today’s children will lead tomorrow’s society, and that, therefore, sexuality is of public interest. A few have attempted to brand Santorum with the accusation of bigotry and religious fundamentalism. But he never referred to religious faith, papal doctrine or Christian morality. He only articulated a prevalent American belief. Despite the impression given by some of his most inflamed critics, Santorum never morally equated sodomy with polygamy, incest or bestiality.

Whether or not you agree with Santorum’s comments about marriage and the constitutionality of the laws that regulate it, consider what would happen if the vehement aspirations of his critics were taken seriously, really seriously. Imagine the consequences if the Supreme Court of the United States were to pronounce a new right to privacy and vigorously enforce it.

If those who advocate a strong constitutional right to privacy have their day in the Supreme Court, then all legislation that currently prohibits and prosecutes private conduct among consenting adults would be nullified. Just imagine the consequences of this hypothetical judicial overreach. All forms of prostitution, pornography, polygamy, adult incest, bestiality, euthanasia, reproductive cloning -- even smoking cigarettes -- would suddenly be protected activity under the umbrella of the right to privacy. Some have spoken of a slippery slope toward the legalization of incest, polygamy and even worse things that are hard for most of us to imagine.

Santorum’s respect for the relative autonomy of secular affairs reflects the vision of the Second Vatican Council, with its affirmation of the responsibility of the laity in public life, and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s recent doctrinal note concerning Catholic politicians, with its recommendation for Catholics to promote just policy with persuasive arguments based on reason. Santorum’s defense of traditional marriage and family relied on rational argumentation ready for the public square, without any appeal to the authority of faith or even a reference to his Christian faith.

The expediency of state legislatures regulating sodomy should be a question open for discussion. The repeal of any outdated legislation should be effected through the democratic process. Rather than poisoning the political process through personal denunciations, Santorum’s critics should engage him on the merits of his public arguments and enter the democratic public square.

Fr. Robert A. Gahl Jr. is an American who teaches at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome.

His extreme views are out of step with most U.S. Catholics


Georgetown theologian Chester Gillis got it half right when he told The Washington Post in April that Sen. Rick Santorum had been “listening to the bishops or maybe the pope” before his tirade against gays and lesbians. Gillis should have continued, “when it comes to the regulation of human sexuality.”

Through selective listening, Santorum manages to dismiss Pope John Paul II’s condemnation of capital punishment and preemptive war and his advocacy of a “preferential option for the poor.” He also overlooks the pastoral imperative of the church and fails in the compassion that he and his conservative brethren arrogate to themselves.

Our official catechism teaches that gays and lesbians “must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity.” To liken them to aficionados of bestiality and incest is neither sensitive nor a sign of respect.

Santorum misses -- or perhaps chooses to ignore -- the message of “Always Our Children,” the American Catholic bishops’ 1997 admonition that we uphold the dignity of all and defend gays and lesbians against injustice and discrimination.

To pander to Republican homophobia, Santorum selectively reflects a Catholic viewpoint on homosexuality, but hardly the Catholic viewpoint. He portrays accurately a constricted, rules-based Catholicism but certainly not the reality most American Catholics live today.

Because it interprets morality almost exclusively through the prism of sexuality, the Santorum brand of extremism misses the full, inclusive message of scripture and tradition.

Unfortunately, in part because its adherents proclaim their devoutness so loudly and often, it paints a far too narrow picture of the church.

Fortunately, theirs is a marginal and shrinking fragment.

Most Catholics gave up listening to the bishops on sexual morality long before we discovered that many of them enabled and covered up for serial child rapists.

By 1999, only 20 percent of Catholics trusted church leaders to decide the morality of homosexual behavior, down from 32 percent in 1987. Even fewer (10 percent) followed the bishops’ line on artificial birth control, down a mere 2 points in 12 years. Rejection of the hierarchical view of sexuality is even more pronounced in Santorum’s post-Vatican II generation, further isolating him into a minority of a minority. (The figures are from American Catholics: Gender, Generation and Commitment, 2001, by sociologists William V. D’Antonio and Dean R. Hoge of The Catholic University of America, James D. Davidson of Purdue and Katherine Meyer of Ohio State.)

On one level, it is disturbing to read in the transcript of the interview his “man on dog” vulgarism, which discomfited even a tough Washington reporter, but it demonstrates the kind of unhealthy fixation with sex that at least contributed to the clergy-child abuse scandal.

On another level, a pinched perspective on sexuality comes as no particular shock to Catholics in northern Virginia who are exposed regularly to the ultramontane (“We’re more Catholic than you are”) belief that a crusade against feminists, gays, abortion, stem cell research and birth control is the one true path.

Nor should Santorum’s views shock anyone familiar with his own oddities.

Here is a United States senator who, in an interview with the Zenit news agency barely two weeks before his outburst to The Associated Press, relegated tolerance to the lower levels of priority among American virtues.

Here is a public figure so distrustful of the public schools (not to mention Catholic schools) that he homeschools his children.

We do not quarrel with Santorum’s right to speak his belief -- indeed we must, to paraphrase Voltaire’s “Essay on Tolerance,” defend to the death his right to say it -- but we can insist that his intolerant speech exceeds the bounds of civil discourse, embarrasses Catholics and disqualifies him for high office.

James Webster is a journalist in Arlington, Va.

National Catholic Reporter, May 16, 2003

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