The controversy over Duck Dynasty’s patriarch Phil Robertson’s interview in GQ may make some of us want to seek shelter from the hostile bombardment of those who would silence anyone who dares to speak of homosexual acts as sins. The fact that few would want to defend everything that Phil said in the way that he said it, perhaps is a further prompt to duck. But those of us who would fight for a culture of life and who know we need to be a part of the new evangelization should embrace these opportunities to have important discussions with our family, friends, acquaintances and co workers.
For those of you who are out of the loop, Phil Robertson is a self-proclaimed redneck who, in reply to a question from an interviewer about what acts he considered sins, mentioned homosexual acts, followed by bestiality, adultery, fornicators, idolaters, the greedy, drunkards, slanderers, swindlers. His remarks were a near verbatim quotation of St Paul’s 1st letter to the Corinthians 6:9. He then spoke in anatomically explicit language about the body parts that heterosexual males prefer as opposed to those body parts that some of those who engage in same sex sexual acts prefer (and also seem to be a point of desire for many heterosexual males addicted to pornography). A&E suspended Phil for these remarks (which they have since rescinded) and a firestorm started about many things, among them Phil’s right to say what he said, A&E’s right to suspend him and whether Phil was hate-filled and insensitive. Phil was accused of being hate-filled, un-Christian, an ignoramus, and someone who reduced those who have same sex attractions to their sexual appetites and condemned them to hell.
Here I want to address especially whether we Catholics should distance ourselves from Phil’s remarks or defend them. For my part, I think Phil is largely guiltless of most of the charges made against him: he was not equating homosexuality with bestiality anymore than he was equating greed with bestiality and he was not condemning any individual to hell; he was giving a list of sins that the Christian tradition has long understood as on God’s list of objectively gravely sinful actions. Phil himself acknowledges forthrightly that he has been a practitioner of a many objectively gravely sinful actions who has been saved by Christ. He knows Christ’s redemptive grace is extended to all other sinners as well and has given great personal witness of his ability to reach out to and love those embroiled in destructive and sinful life styles.
Nor am I offended by his use of anatomically correct language to describe sexual acts though he opened himself to boatload of trouble by what he said (he apologized for his “coarse language” but there are times and places where graphic language is advisable). Indeed, I think our unwillingness to describe accurately what acts involve can sometimes reduce our persuasiveness. Even the word “abortion” is too abstract: speaking of dismembering an unborn child is much more forceful speech. If more people knew precisely what kind of sexual acts homosexuals – and heterosexuals whose desires are shaped by use of pornography — perform, with whom, and how often, and what are the common consequences, there would be fewer who think homosexual acts and pornography are just another way of living out one’s sexuality.
And what can anyone do in a brief interview? Phil was not given an opportunity to lay out a fully nuanced presentation of the Christian understanding of homosexuality and I don’t know that he could. He spoke as a blunt, straightforward “Bible-thumping” believer. Anyone who watches the show would have known what he thought and why; there should have been no surprises for A&E. As several wags have stated, a “reality” show couldn’t handle this kind of reality.
Nonetheless, I do think Catholics should make some careful addenda to Phil’s interview. An important one is that it is hard to say that those with same-sex attractions make the simple choice that Phil seems to lay before them: the attractiveness of female sexual parts in contrast to the male parts preferred by some homosexuals. Again, the statement is helpful in driving home that point that it is not natural for males to be sexually attracted to males and I think that is what Phil was trying to convey. Yet, the fact is that heterosexual males are attracted to women not solely because of their “parts” but because of their femininity and homosexual males seem drawn to other males because of their masculinity.
There are other points that also need to be made. Phil ceased being an adulterer, alcohol and drug abuser through the grace of God and returned to his loving and forgiving wife. I am not suggesting that his repentance and conversion were easy but the decision of someone who has lived out his or her same sex desires, to forego sin is, I think, incomparably more difficult. There have been several individuals who suffer SSA who have defended Phil because they accept God’s word and recognize the unnaturalness of homosexual attractions. But they don’t have loving and forgiving spouses and children to return to. In fact, by extricating themselves from the gay community, they have increased, at least for a time, the profound sense of loneliness and alienation to which all human beings are prone, especially those who are “different.” This is something we must all keep in mind; we should never act like deciding to live a chaste life for anyone, especially someone who experiences SSA, is simple. It is not a matter of just changing one’s “preferences”. It is a very wrenching struggle with powerful appetites, deep wounds, and habits that at least to some extent balm those wounds. We must realize what we are asking of people and help them with our prayers, sacrifices, understanding, and friendship.
Perhaps what Catholics need to do in a discussion about such remarks as Phil’s is initially to distance ourselves somewhat from him and say we have some concerns about the piece as well. Certainly we should defend him against misinterpretations of what he said, but we should not get trapped into making it a discussion about what he said, or his “right” to say what he said or even how he said what said. The discussion should be about why homosexual acts, adultery, fornication, bestiality, greed, drunkenness, swindling (among other acts) are serious sins and why they would make a person unworthy of the kingdom of God. Perhaps the easiest way to do this is to open the Catechism and work through the section on sexual sins. Why all the various sexual sins are grouped together will become clear. Male and female image Christ and his Church; both unions are the source of new life. Any use of sexuality not consistent with the image is sinful.
Moreover the basic distinctions would need to be made about the difference between judging the sinner and the sin. I was appalled that some likened Phil’s remarks to those of Martin Bashir who spoke in the vilest of terms of what he thought Sarah Palin deserved. Phil was not speaking of individuals nor was he saying anything vile even about groups of people — not of homosexuals, adulterers or others. Most importantly, whereas Bashir was speaking out of hatred, Phil was speaking out of love. Phil wants to spend eternity with reformed sinners; he does not want to condemn them to hell. In fact, he is willing to take a lot of heat to try to save sinners from damnation.
Phil Robertson never wanted to do Duck Dynasty – he is happiest when duck-hunting, but his love for God and others has caused him to put himself forward to preach the gospel. We will want to do so differently from him but we must do so. We must struggle to find the right way to engage others on these sensitive, unpopular issues because the fate of souls lies in the balance.