For North Carolinians, it has been a strange and hopeful couple of weeks on the moral judgment front.
First came the dizzying undoing of the state’s 2012 constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. Then came reports from Rome that Roman Catholic bishops, responding to signals from Pope Francis, were taking a more welcoming approach to same-sex and unmarried partners. The first draft of a document on family being considered by the Synod of Bishops contained this stunning sentence: “Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer the Christian community.” The document also tellingly uses the term “sexual orientation” rather than “sexual preference,” accepting that being gay is not a choice but an inherent part of a person.
Some reporting on these very different yet related events casts them as a sea change, a sudden shifting in the currents of cultural and religious attitudes. They were dramatic developments, yes, but hearts and minds remain divided.
Many who supported the same-sex marriage ban still believe it is the proper stance. They consider it both a defense of traditional marriage between a man and a woman and a bulwark against moral erosion. Surely Catholic leaders, including the much admired and applauded Pope Francis, are not endorsing homosexual sex or accepting same-sex marriage. Church doctrine hasn’t changed, and some Catholic bishops have tried to tamp down expectations raised by the draft document.
Hope and relief
Even if the twin events did not signal a disappearance of disapproval in North Carolina or a fundamental shift in a 2000-year-old church, there was something immensely positive about the two. It was not a triumph, but it was a welcome start. And even if all do not celebrate these shifts in attitudes, all should feel relieved. For what seems to be melting is the paralyzing and exhausting weight of intolerance, a shutting out and wishing away.
It is a resistance that claimed a moral basis but was overwhelmed by the demands of fairness and humanity and, yes, Christianity. Something about this transition from implacable opposition to growing acceptance also bodes well for the closing of less divisive issues. Could change be coming for such emotional and bitter issues as the long, intractable and destructive war on drugs, the split on taxation, the role of government and, to really hope, immigration?
That’s not to say we have buried differences in two weeks. But cracks are showing. Even the anger and bitterness over the police shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, might have opened a new and needed discussion of the gulf between whites and blacks that endures beneath the surface of racial acceptance and the symbolism of the first black president.
Middle East intolerance
It is notable that this is happening as the Middle East plunges into disarray. For all the political and geographic issues involved, the conflicts there are ultimately about intolerance within Islam. As one great religion considers acceptance of the outcast, another seeks the obliteration of its own believers, divided by what seem to outsiders to be arcane distinctions among Shiites, Sunnis and Alawites. ISIS rallies its followers and seeks recruits by calling for resistance to Western “crusaders.” But they are the ones crusading, killing under the flag of faith, capturing their version of a holy land with a sword of intolerance.
As ISIS takes a portion of the Mideast backward, the movements toward acceptance and inclusion in North Carolina, across the United States and within the Catholic Church speak to the renewing power of democracy and Western values. Not everyone approves. Much remains to be done. But over the past two weeks, rulings by federal courts and discussions within the oldest and largest Christian church released a tremor of change.
When it comes to the rights and standing of gay people, and perhaps on other equally divisive issues, there is hope that we are not locked into our differences of opinion and moral perspectives. Laws and churches and attitudes can change. Divisions can be overcome. We can accept and include and move forward.