St. Norbert College announced Dec. 15 that Cardinal George would be its spring commencement speaker. Ten days later, Cardinal George, responding to news about a gay pride parade possibly interrupting church services at a Chicago area church, used an unfortunate analogy. While he said he meant no disrespect to gays, his words made it seem so.
“You don’t want the gay liberation movement to morph into something like the Ku Klux Klan, demonstrating in the streets against Catholicism,” Cardinal George told Chicago reporters.
In recent months, concerns over growing infringements on religious liberty have vexed the U.S. bishops. For example, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services denied grant funding to the bishops’ Migration Refugee Services because the agency declined to provide or refer contraceptive service, abortions or sterilizations.
In addition, the U.S. Agency for International Development has asked Catholic Relief Services and other aid organizations to distribute condoms in their HIV prevention activities and to provide contraception in their international relief and development programs. Another agency, the Department of Justice, criticized the federal Defense of Marriage Act, endorsed by the U.S. bishops, which defines marriage as the union of a man and a woman. The DOJ has called the law discriminatory.
Last September the U.S. bishops formed an Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty to study what they believe is a growing problem. So it was under this cloud of controversy that Cardinal George reacted to the parade’s upcoming procession in front of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church while Mass was to be celebrated.
“When I was talking, I was speaking out of fear that I have for the church’s liberty and I was reaching for an analogy which was very inappropriate, for which I’m sorry,” Cardinal George said. “I didn’t realize the impact of what I was saying. … Sometimes fear is a bad motivation.”
The parade has since been rescheduled so as not to disturb Mass-goers.
Within days of issuing his initial remarks, a movement began on the St. Norbert campus calling on St. Norbert College President Thomas Kunkel to disinvite Cardinal George as commencement speaker. An online petition accompanied the effort. On Jan. 3, Kunkel said the college would not rescind its invitation to Cardinal George.
What was gearing up to become a contentious commencement day in De Pere should now be a teachable moment for all. For his part, Cardinal George acknowledged that his words “wounded a good number of people.”
“I have family members myself who are gay and lesbian, so it’s part of our lives. So I’m sorry for the hurt,” he said.
While the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains that homosexual acts are “intrinsically disordered” and “contrary to the natural law,” it also says that gays and lesbians “must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity.”
Being true to both teachings, as Cardinal George discovered, is not easy and he offered these words for all of us to ponder:
“The question is, ‘Does respect mean that we have to change our teaching?’ That’s an ongoing discussion, of course. … I still go back to the fact that these are people we know and love and are part of our families. That’s the most important point right now.”