BOSTON—The Catholic spiritual leader of Chicago visited Boston College recently, where a doctoral student pressed Cardinal Francis George about the Church's recent opposition to civil-unions legislation recently passed by the Illinois General Assembly. George told student John Falcone his "argument was not with Mother Church but with Mother Nature," adding that anyone who advocates same-sex marriage or its equivalent "has lost touch with the common understanding of the human race."
"No one has the right to change marriage," George went on to say, neither "the Church" nor "the state."
While it is one thing "creating laws so that people don't feel persecuted," the cardinal explained, "don't create a law that says apples are oranges." For a lawmaker to do so, George added, he "betrays his vocation to pass good law," especially problematic for a "Catholic lawmaker."
Like many Catholic families with LGBT family members, even his own, George acknowledged his oldest nephew is gay and a "fine man."
The cardinal archbishop came to Boston College at the invitation of the university's School of Theology and Ministry as well as the Church in the 21st Century Center. The school and the center co-sponsored George's lecture Dec. 7. His talk drew upon themes from his recently published book, The Difference God Makes: A Catholic Vision of Faith, Communion, and Culture.
George spoke for 35 minutes and then took several questions from the audience of more than 125 people. Tape recording was not permitted because, he said, "When I give lecture as a bishop, snippets are put together and taken out of context," becoming "an exercise of manipulation, a game of gotcha."
Falcone and another Boston College graduate student, Ryan Nocito, both wore rainbow sashes, widely regarded as visible indicators of solidarity with LGBT rights and full participation in the Catholic Church. Other students wore rainbow armbands and ribbons.
Falcone said that he attended the lecture after reading a Facebook posting about George's lobbying against civil unions in Illinois. "I was upset about that," Falcone said. "People should not be able to say things with impunity. I want to remind them that they are causing trouble, and they cannot get away with it."
Falcone said that he wrote to the dean of the School of Theology and Ministry ahead of time, informing officials that he would be at the lecture. George appeared not to be taken by surprise with the question.
"What I heard in his response," Falcone said, "is that most important aspect the Church's lobbying against same-sex unions is that marriage is between a man and woman, and homosexuality is unnatural."
George's talk focused on a theme of "Catholic communion in our time and the future." The Church teaches that the human "sense of self is essentially related," he said. "We are born related and spend a lifetime growing into those relationships."
At the same time, the Catholic Church holds up universal truth claims based on faith, George argues in his book.
But contemporary culture privileges individual rights, George said. Downplaying the communal, American culture encourages a self-understanding "defined by personal choices" he said.
At the same time, secular culture is suspicious of faith-based claims about universal truth. "The postmodern mind," George argues in his book, "deconstructs traditional truths."
Nonetheless, George encourages dialogue, or conversation, between faith and culture. But if the Church bumps up against cultural norms it cannot accept, then "We have to change the culture," he said.
A primary vehicle for cultural change, George suggested, is the legal system. In America, there is a near "religious veneration for the Constitution" and the law, he explained. "The law is an arbitrator of what is right or wrong. The law teaches us the rules of the game."
Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of Dignity USA, an organization of gay and lesbian Catholics, attended the lecture. "It crystallized for me very clearly in a way that I hadn't heard before so compellingly, why opposition to same-sex marriage has become such a priority for the bishops and their focus on laws as the only arbitrator of morality in the country," she said.
Duddy-Burke spoke with George briefly after the lecture and said she would write the cardinal to see if he would meet with her for conversation.
Chris Pett, president of the Chicago chapter of Dignity, said he was encouraged by the cardinal's openness to dialogue. "He can be very pastoral, he can listen and be respectful," said Pett who has met with George twice over years but was not in Boston for the lecture.
Still, for Pett, there is a disconnect. "We have a body of knowledge," he said. "We know more about human sexuality than we did 100 years ago. And the Church doesn't acknowledge any of that. They keep coming back to Adam and Eve."
There is yet another disconnection for the Church. As The New York Times reported Dec. 15, the Catholic Church has relented in France, citing the National Confederation of Catholic Family Associations, which now says civil unions do not pose "a real threat" to marriage and the family.
A larger issue also remains. "The debate within the church is whether to view innate attraction to the same sex as a deformity of human nature or as an alternative form of human sexual nature," said Lisa Sowle Cahill, a professor of Christian ethics at Boston College, quoted in the Times Dec. 17.
Chuck Colbert holds a master of divinity ( 2002 ) and licentiate degree ( 2005 ) from the Weston Jesuit School of Theology, now a part of the Boston College School of Ministry and Theology. He is a Jew by choice ( 2004 ) in the Reform movement.