Critics from the fringe seek to smother democratic debate
By FR. ROBERT A. GAHL JR.
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.
Santorums 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 Santorums political
fortunes. Nothing less than adoption, abortion, euthanasia and marriage are at
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 Santorums 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
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
todays 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
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. Its 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
Its not easy to find reasoned argumentation within the reactionary
responses of Santorums 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 todays
children will lead tomorrows 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
Whether or not you agree with Santorums 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.
Santorums 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 Faiths recent doctrinal note concerning Catholic
politicians, with its recommendation for Catholics to promote just policy with
persuasive arguments based on reason. Santorums 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
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, Santorums critics should engage
him on the merits of his public arguments and enter the democratic public
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
By JAMES C. WEBSTER
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
IIs 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
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
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 Santorums 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. DAntonio 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 (Were 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 Santorums views shock anyone familiar with his own
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 Santorums right to speak his belief --
indeed we must, to paraphrase Voltaires 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.