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A priest and politics

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February 3, 2012

It may be rare to encounter a multicolored gay pride flag upon entering a church. But Brandeis’ Catholic chaplain, the Rev. Walter Cuenin, proudly displays the rainbow flag in the Bethlehem Chapel’s foyer. With the word “Peace” written across the middle, the flag symbolizes a proclamation of acceptance and unity for each person who may walk through the Bethlehem Chapel’s doors.

Cuenin bases his decision to exhibit a gay pride flag on a tale about Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. According to Christian tradition, when Mary and Joseph arrived at a Bethlehem inn, Mary was forced to have her baby in an outside stable since there were no rooms left at the inn. Cuenin connects this story to Brandeis’ Bethlehem Chapel by using the multicolored flag to portray that “in this Bethlehem, there’s always room for everyone in the inn.”

The Republican presidential primary race, however, has included several debates where candidates voice their opposition to Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and gay marriage, often invoking religion in the process.

Rick Perry, for example, released a video in December stating, “There’s something wrong in this country when gays can serve openly in the military but our kids can’t openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school.”

Although Perry has since dropped out of the presidential race, many Republicans continue to use religion to validate their political views. Republican candidate Newt Gingrich, who converted to Catholicism when he married his third wife, recently compared gay marriage to paganism.

“It’s pretty simple: Marriage is between a man and a woman. This is a historic doctrine driven deep into the Bible, both in the Old Testament and in the New Testament, and it’s a perfect example of what I mean by the rise of paganism,” Gingrich said in a conference call with religious rights advocated last week.

Meanwhile, Cuenin, a self-proclaimed Democrat, uses religion and his worldly observations to advocate a more open position.

He believes that allowing openly gay people to serve in the military is in fact a very positive step. As Cuenin points out, almost all of the major developed countries in the world don’t prohibit openly gay people from joining the army.
Cuenin is currently an ally of Brandeis’ LGBT group, Triskelion. He claims that while the Catholic Church does not support gay marriage, it does welcome gay people to its churches. In fact, when he was a pastor for a larger church nearby, Cuenin had even performed a baptism for the baby of a gay couple.

“The Catholic Church opposes gay marriage, so I cannot directly say I support it, but I have seen from my experience that for many people it creates a much healthier environment … For example, if you were to go to Provincetown in the summer time, where a lot of gay people go, it’s a radically different place today than it was 20 years ago,” Cuenin said. “They are there with children and married, raising kids, so they go home at night. In other words, it has transformed the whole gay scene … it hasn’t led to total debauchery. In some ways, it has pulled people back together,” Cuenin said.
Cuenin views many of the Republican candidates’ attitudes about other political topics difficult to accept as well. For example, Cuenin points out that Rick Santorum’s efforts to add creationism to schools’ curricula goes against the official ruling of the Catholic Church. Catholicism doesn’t read the Genesis story literally anymore and thus does not view the creation narrative as the biological description of the beginning of the world.

Likewise, Cuenin isn’t in favor of Santorum’s war on contraception. While the Catholic Church does not permit the use of artificial contraceptives, Cuenin doesn’t believe that contraceptives should be prohibited from all Americans. Instead, he would like to help Catholic people make the decision on their own.

While Cuenin follows the Catholic Church’s ruling against abortion, he believes the United States should provide solutions for lowering the abortion rate, rather than banning abortion all together. He says that President Obama’s plan to include contraception in health care plans could help lower the abortion rate. He furthermore promotes the inclusion of sex education in school curricula.

“Ironically, United States of America has very high teenage pregnancy rates and abortion rates because we are so conflicted over sex education,” Cuenin said.

Cuenin would additionally like to see better maternal support systems put in place for pregnant women. According to Cuenin, it would be easier for women to keep their children if they were offered longer maternity leave, more day cares and improved health care.

Although the Catholic Church opposes abortion, Church leaders are usually willing to offer psychological counseling and support to anyone who has had an abortion in the past. Cuenin described a story about a bishop in Great Britain who had been working with a poor, pregnant young woman. Although the bishop had offered the woman financial and emotional support, the woman decided to have an abortion. Nevertheless, the bishop picked up the woman from the clinic afterward, brought her home and made her a cup of tea.

“Now that to me expresses two sides of a very complicated question. You need to support what you believe in, and at the same time you need to support people who may choose to do things you don’t believe in. In this case, [the bishop] showed great compassion even though he was hoping she wouldn’t have that abortion,” Cuenin said.
Many people may assume religion and the Republican Party go hand in hand. Whether about the rights of minorities, justice for the poor or even immigration rights, however, Cuenin has proven that religious people can adopt open, progressive views on social issues.

Following the teachings of the Catholic Church, Cuenin fully supports the rights of immigrants and undocumented students. And although Cuenin has received complaints for his support of both gay rights and women’s rights in the past, he continues to offer acceptance and guidance to anybody who asks.

“When I was a pastor of a large church … I would always say I welcome everybody to this church, whether you’re gay or straight, divorced or remarried. Sometimes people in authority can take that the wrong way, but my understanding of being Christian is someone who welcomes everybody.”

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