As a priest in the Episcopal Church in New York City, I'm used to people assuming they know what I think about certain topics, and often getting me wrong. For one thing, I'm more conservative politically than most people in this city--certainly among those who are openly gay, as I am. So when Sen. Rick Santorum recently got in hot water for his comments about a sodomy case before the Supreme Court, I felt for him. If I were to discuss homosexuality with the senator, we wouldn't agree on much. But I sensed that people weren't paying attention to what he was really saying, and what he wasn't.

Santorum's main point was that the Supreme Court is still dealing with a problem it created in 1969, when it adduced a right to privacy that doesn't exist in the constitution. As a number of constitutional scholars have pointed out, the suggestion that there is a fundamental right to privacy fails to address that what people choose to do within their private realm can still be wrong. All manner of things, many of which we might find abhorrent, can arguably be protected as long as they are done in private. Senators, after all, shouldn't be barred from airing their views about constitutional law.

But then Santorum went on to list some of the awful things he thinks might be going on in private, among them homosexual acts. He makes the trite and thoughtless comparison of adult homosexuality with polygamy, incest, and rape--all lumped together in a morally equivalent pile. This moral equivalence fails to discriminate which acts are--and should be--genuinely criminal and which are expressions of love.

The distinction the senator does make is between those expressions of love and the person making them. "I have no problem with homosexuality," he explained during the interview with the AP. "I have a problem with homosexual acts."

This position simply does not wash. Sexual orientation is achieved at such an early age, and is so deeply a part of one's emotional and physical being, it is futile and inaccurate to call it a matter of volition. It is, for most of us, a part of who we are: just as Santorum is drawn to love a woman, I am drawn to love one of my own sex. I would go so far as to say that sexuality is a matter of how God has made us.

From his comments, however, it seems the senator would agree that homosexuality is something which we cannot change, but believes homsexuals should struggle to lead a continent life. What he seems to be suggesting is mandatory celibacy, in which people deny who they are and live in a way for which they are neither constituted nor prepared. This destructive and repressive phenomenon has had its day, and usually left behind it an trail of broken lives.

Living a celibate life is a gift, a gift from God given to very few--often those who are called to community life. One discerns this gift by prayer, reflection, and spiritual direction, not by an external decree. (I recognize here that I am offering an inadvertent critique of mandatory clerical celibacy required by the Roman Catholic Church, but that would be the subject of a separate argument.)

So, to love the sinner and hate the sin is, in my view, inconsistent with the best of Christian teaching. It does immeasurable harm to gay men and lesbians seeking to discern their identity and their place in a world where men and women seem made to love one other and to live in sacred covenant with each other.

Does this mean Santorum should be deprived of his leadership position in the Senate? In other words, has Santorum sufficiently abused his public forum that he should be deprived of it? I think not.

Santorum's position is not held by only a small group of people. As I understand it, his position is approximately the same one held by his church, the Roman Catholic Church, some 47 million strong here in this country alone. Should the senator be punished for articulating the moral standards of his faith? Would those calling for Santorum to step down exact the same punishment were he a Muslim or a Hindu? The American Constitution assures all men and women the right to the free exercise of their religion, and while I might--and do--wish the Roman Church and conservative protestant churches believed as I do, they don't. And they have every right to their position.

Twenty-five years ago, the position of gay and lesbian persons in the Episcopal Church was not as secure or open as it is now. Back then, I served on the staff of a bishop in the West. One my fellow staff members was a heterosexual man who plainly did not think much of gay men. Occasionally he made disparaging comments or shared jokes that caricatured gay behavior. In making personnel decisions, he'd sometimes take sexual orientation into account in a negative way.

Now some people in the office, probably most of them, didn't know that I was gay. I don't fit many of the stereotypes. Naturally shy, I keep my private life just that--private. I began slowly to change that. It was not my style to confront anyone, but I began slowly to allow my identity to become clearer. At the same time, I was called to work quite closely with this senior staff person. He became accustomed to relying on me for a number of projects and thinking of me as a colleague and professional partner in ministry. We worked well together. And slowly, he began to get the picture.

Slowly too, he began to take positive positions about the place of gay men and lesbians in the church. Later as a bishop, he became one of the church's leading spokesmen for gay rights. In one speech, when asked about gay rights, he said that many years ago, a particular priest helped him to change his mind about how he felt and what he believed. I think--just think--that I know who that was.

Those around Senator Santorum--numbering, I am sure, some gays and lesbians--might begin to assist him on a similar journey. He is wrong--but he has the capacity to be a strong spokesman for a better way. I hope his colleagues can begin to help him to move forward.

But--ask him to leave the table? No, not by a long shot. He represents a significant point of view, and we need him at the table, in the dialogue, helping to forge an ethic which supports equal protection of the laws and an equal access to the benefits of society--values I think he would share with me.

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