BY GARRY EVERETT
Anti-discrimination legislation was introduced into most modern democratic countries in order to combat unjust practices perpetrated on minority groups, or in the case of women, less dominant groups.
We are all familiar with those pieces of legislation that outlaw unjust practices in social and workplace situations, which result when a more powerful group exercises their preferences at the expense of less powerful groups.
This occurs in ways that actually harm those who are less powerful – psychologically, socially, materially. Most States in Australia. The Commonwealth Government and the states employ anti-discrimination Commissioners, or their equivalent, in order to help ensure that unjust discrimination is prevented.
The Catholic Church has a history of seeking exemptions from some of the provisions of the anti-discrimination legislation. One clear example is that of Catholic employers who claim exemption so that they do not have to employ homosexuals.
Catholic schools fall into that category. Some would say we "crave" such exemptions. Recently Fr Frank Brennan quoted Cardinal Pell as saying that sometimes it is necessary to discriminate against some individuals in order for organisations to maintain their “identity and to do their job effectively”. Cardinal Pell made reference to the Greens and Amnesty International, suggesting the Greens should have a right not to employ climate skeptics.
The notion of claiming exemption from the requisite legislation, in the case of Catholic employers and homosexual persons, is not, I believe, as transparent as it first appears.
In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, para 2358, it is stated: “They (homosexual people) do not choose their homosexual condition”; and “Every sign of unjust discrimination against them should be avoided.” If Catholic employers claim there are grounds for discriminating against such people, then patently the grounds must not be “unjust”.
What then might be the just grounds for so discriminating?
I have a reasonable background in social justice, but I must say I find it difficult to formulate an answer to my own question. Usually, the arguments for discriminating against homosexual persons in Catholic employment are based on a notion of the effect of “witness” or “advocacy” by homosexual persons regarding a homosexual “lifestyle”, and the perceived undesirable effects of these actions on impressionable young people (students). This, in my opinion, seems based on judgements which derive from fear, lack of knowledge, or some prejudice which has not been sufficiently contested. In other words, the basis for the judgements does not seem to meet the Catechism’s criterion of “just”.
Let us examine this proposition a little more closely. At the time of employing a heterosexual Catholic, steps are taken to ensure that the person is of good character. This can mean, in terms of their sexual orientation, that if they are not married, then he or she is not, in what Frank Brennan terms, “irregular situations.”
If this standard is regarded as “just” for heterosexuals, what would be the equivalent requirement for a homosexual person? What is “an irregular situation” for a homosexual person? In what way might it be different from an irregular situation for a heterosexual person?
We can put it more bluntly in order to clarify the perspective. If we assume that an un-married, heterosexual Catholic potential employee, is not “living with” another heterosexual person of the opposite sex, do we also assume that this is witness to or advocacy of heterosexual “lifestyle”? Hardly. Further, if that situation was to change, are we compelled then to terminate the employment? Would that be just?
The answer used to be “only if it were a cause of scandal in the community”. Pursuing this line of thought to its end reveals that we should not equate the notion of person with one of his or her actions. Imagine if the Church was equated with one of its unjust actions, and therefore rejected by all on that single basis.
The question now arises, “What stance do we take with respect to the employment of homosexual people”? The exemption craving suggests that we prefer not to answer the question (nor perhaps, even to have it raised), but rather to choose not to employ because he or she is a homosexual. To me, this does not appear to be just.
In my opinion, exemption here is being used as a way of avoiding the hard processes of acting justly and discerning wisely. It also appears to be a way of avoiding scrutiny about our reasoning. Worse, it perpetrates an approach that offends the wisdom of para 2538 of the very Catechism which the employment practices are supposed to help uphold.
Another view of the exemption claim with respect to homosexual people, is that the Church has explained its reasons, and made them public. Whilst this is true, such a claim makes no allowance for the fact that scientific and theological research, together with the experience of psychiatrists and psychologists, and that of homosexual people themselves, indicate that the Church’s teaching on this matter is in need of review.
For example, is the “inclination” of a homosexual person, natural? The Catechism says homosexual people do not choose this orientation, so how did they acquire it? Is it God –given? Is it part of nature? Should homosexual people be regarded as coming within the framework of the natural law theory? What is the meaning of the priority of love in relationships? I don’t think we should be too eager to pronounce judgement in these circumstances.
In statement quoted above, Cardinal Pell argues that if Amnesty International could not be exempt from employing someone who supports dictatorships, then Amnesty could not maintain its identity. This may well be true, but in the example, dictatorship is framed as being in direct opposition to the aims of the employing organisation. Equating that example to the one of a Catholic employer being asked to employ a homosexual person, is illogical, it seems to me.
A homosexual person is, by definition, not only not in opposition to Catholicism, but, more importantly, a person who “must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity” (para. 2358). Catholic institutions employ non-Catholics; atheists; and others who may be seen as not in favour with the Church. Sometimes, Catholic identity is strengthened by the presence of those who are different. After all, the Gospel is based on inclusive, not exclusive practices. It is difficult to see how these considerations can lend support to a general claim for exemption from anti- discrimination legislation designed to enhance the human rights of homosexual persons.
To my mind, it appears that we crave exemptions, using arguments which do not always meet the criteria established by our own Catechism.
Garry Everett is deputy chair of Mercy Partners in Queensland and a former Deputy Director of the Queensland Catholic Education Commission and previous chair of the Brisbane Archdiocesan Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace.
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