Lessons from Acushnet, The Anchor, May 25, 2012

Fr. Roger J. Landry
The Anchor
May 25, 2012

Prior to last Tuesday, the beautiful town of Acushnet was known mainly to residents of the south coast of Massachusetts. Most in other parts of the Commonwealth — not to mention outside its boundaries — would have had to use atlases or the Internet to locate this charming place of bogs, farms and a world-famous golfing equipment company. That all changed on May 15 with six words placed on the rectory lawn sign facing the city’s main intersection, “Two men are friends not spouses,” placed there by the parish director of Pastoral Services in response to President Barack Obama’s May 9 newly-announced support for the redefinition of marriage to embrace two men or two women. The phrase was meant to express in a succinct way the Church’s teaching that those of the same sex not only can but are called to love each other, but that that love is not meant to take on the form of romantic or spousal love (what the Greeks called eros) but rather the deep love of friendship (philia) consistent with the self-controlled and -sacrificial love (agape) that Christ Himself gave and called us to imitate.

For Jesus and those who follow Him, love and truth are always united. Christ very clearly spoke about the truth of marriage when He said (Mt 19)  that in the beginning God made them male and female (not male and male, or female and female) and for this reason a man shall leave his father and mother (not two fathers or two mothers) and cling to his wife (not to whomever he is sexually attracted) and the two shall become one flesh (which refers not merely to the ephemeral physical contact involved in sexual activity but to the fusion of the flesh of a man and a woman in a child, a fruit of which those of the same-sex are obviously incapable).

Jesus also said that what God has joined, man must not divide, and this can be interpreted not just with regard to a particular man and a particular woman in a particular marital bond, but also to the marital communion intended in general between man and woman: The union of man and woman in marriage cannot be rent asunder to make marriage a husbandless or wifeless union. To believe in Jesus means to believe in what He taught. To follow Jesus means to seek to imitate the way He showed us how to love. St. Francis Xavier Parish was giving witness to its authentically Christian faith in the public square by reiterating the particular type of love to which those with same-sex attractions are called.

Based on the media attention the six-word message garnered, however, one might have thought that instead of reiterating the Church’s teaching on the meaning of marriage and the love of friendship, St. Francis Xavier had put up a message calling for the condemnation of all those with same-sex attractions. One young woman started a Facebook campaign calling the message “hateful,” as if the six-word message had been, “The Church hates gays and lesbians.” Soon a blast got out to the wider gay community. A few picketers showed up. Others started bringing other posters. Many started calling. And, curiously, within hours all the major television stations in Boston and Providence were coming to Acushnet to do interviews and live reports about the protests to putative Catholic hate-mongering. It’s worth noting — as a commentary on the media’s coverage of the Church as well as the issues concerning gays and lesbians — that five days a week, 240 students attend St. Francis Xavier School to learn the Church’s teaching on truth and love in classrooms and on Sunday more than 800 worshippers come to hear it from the pulpit. These activities garner no media attention at all. Yet when as few as three people come to hold protest placards on the city sidewalk near a parish sign — even after the message had been changed the following day to announce the Ascension Thursday Mass schedule — television from all the major news affiliates of the two closest metropolises somehow show up.

To the media’s credit, however, once journalists had arrived to cover a hyped-up story on homophobia and anti-gay hatred, they recognized, in talking with pastor Msgr. Gerard O’Connor and director of Pastoral Services Steven Guillotte, that not only was that animus totally absent, but another type of hatred — one of the most underreported forms of uncivility and bullying in our culture — was. And they reported it. They were shown various posters that had been left on the property. “Jesus freaks, come to your senses. Jesus freaks, pray for death,” said one. Another went straight after the Blessed Mother in a mockery of the angelic salutation, “Hail Mary, Virgin Whore.” Facebook and verbal messages referred to both pastor and parishioners as pederasts — a facilely-employed and relatively ubiquitous ad hominem used against Catholic ministers and believers today, especially whenever the Church speaks on human sexuality.

The message that captured the journalists’ attention most was a voicemail left by an unidentified woman. In the span of 54 seconds, she somehow managed to employ 16 expletives while threatening, “Seriously, your Church should be burned,” insisting “God isn’t real,” and saying that the town of Acushnet, St. Francis Xavier Parish, and the Catholic Church and her teaching should nevertheless all go to hell. Apparently, God doesn’t exist but hell does. It didn’t take advanced degrees from Columbia school of journalism for reporters to figure out that such messages were hardly consistent with a side admonishing the Church to “Spread love, not hate,” as one poster left on the property declared.

What is the larger lesson to be learned from what was really going on in Acushnet? It’s about the verbal nuclear attack that the gay movement regularly employs against the Church for her opposition to the redefinition of marriage. Whenever the Church expresses its principled objection to the redefinition of marriage — not only out of fidelity to Jesus’ teachings but out of concern for the future of our nation, because of the importance of the marriage between one man and one woman for the procreation and education of our nation’s future citizens, teachers, defenders, and leaders — she is accused of “homophobia,” “gay-bashing,” and “hatred.” This is part of a strategy directed against the Church and Christian believers that has been publicly described by various gay leaders.

Notice that when President Obama, up until the “evolution” he announced on May 9, stressed his support for marriage as the union of one man and one woman, he was never accused of an irrational fear of those with same-sex attractions or of despising gays. When President Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996, passed overwhelmingly by Democrats and Republicans in both the House and the Senate, they weren’t accused of collective antipathy toward gay fellow citizens. It’s only when Christian believers defend marriage as the union between one man and one woman that we begin to hear the accusations of hatred and homophobia. Why? The reason, gay strategists have declared in interviews, is because with politicians and citizens in general, the gay movement is trying to persuade them patiently to abandon the wisdom of the centuries about marriage and redefine its meaning as the crowning achievement of the social normalization of same-sex behavior. But since those who truly believe in Jesus and His teachings will never be persuaded of the same-sex ideal of marriage as a husbandless or wifeless institution with no intrinsic connection to children flowing from that privileged bond — and the Catholic Church in particular is seen as a bulwark against this revolution in social and sexual morés — what needs to be done is demonize and marginalize believers’ convictions altogether. Nobody, after all, likes to associate with “bigots,” especially in the politically-correct milieus of education and media that mold public opinion.

In Acushnet, this strategy backfired. The real bigotry at play — against Catholic teaching and faithful Catholics— was exposed. The Church loves and welcomes those with same-sex attractions and defends them against all unjust discrimination. But the Church’s — and society’s — defense of marriage as the union of one man and one woman is not unjust discrimination, because gays do not have the right to change what marriage means and is. The “right to marriage” is not the unlimited right to marry anyone one wants. Laws rightly discriminate against certain types of attempted “marriages” in order to protect what marriage is and thereby serve the common good, and to affirm that those of the same-sex do not have the right to marry each other is not unjust discrimination any more than to say that people do not have the right to marry kids, or siblings, or another person’s spouse. It’s not hateful or homophobic to say this; rather, it’s the common sense and wisdom of the centuries, even from before the Church was founded. The truth about marriage as the union of one man and one woman, however, is also part of what the God of love has revealed. This is a message that all Catholics should confidently, charitably, and courageously proclaim from their rooftops, bell-towers and parish lawns.