By Phil Hall | June 18, 2004

One of the most effective, intelligent, mature and romantic love stories to come across the screen recently is, of all things, a documentary. The focus of the film are Edward DeBonis and Vincent Maniscalco, a gay couple in New York who want to marry in their Catholic faith. Their proposed union is not being presented as a political statement, but rather as a sincere affirmation of their seven-year relationship and their desire to share the sacred vows of marriage.

This is the foundation of “Saints and Sinners,” an extraordinary feature by Abigail Honor and Yan Vizinberg which calmly and gently demolishes every possible argument one could ever dream of hurling against the subject of gay marriage. The film’s appearance comes at a fortuitous time, given that gay marriage has become a subject of heated and often operatic debate. Yet this beautifully conceived and handsomely produced film addresses the issue from a pro-gay marriage side with a level of decency and humanity that one has to question why this is even an issue at all.

The Bible clearly states that the concept of marriage is the union of a man and a woman. There is obviously no way to get around that fact. The Bible also states that intimate relations between people of the same sex is a sin. This is clearly stated, too, and if one adheres to the sacred word there is no way to get around this fact. Of course, the Bible also states that any sex which takes place outside of marriage is a sin, and that sex between married couples which is not designed for the goal of procreation is a sin, and that divorce is also a sin. Conveniently, modern society has seen very little difficulty in getting around these clearly stated facts.

“Saints and Sinners” is an assault against a rigid Catholic theocracy which seems to be fairly selective in determining who is a sinner and who is not (sort of like using the Bible as a buffet). DeBonis and Maniscalco have a strong ally in Dignity NY, an organization of gay Catholics who seek to keep to the protocols and traditions of the faith while maintaining their right to live as openly gay adults. Dignity NY is not welcome by today’s church, although an openly gay priest, Rev. Raymond Lefebvre, officiates over the religious ceremonies (which are not held in Catholic-consecrated surroundings).

In the course of “Saints and Sinners,” the couple and their priest detail the special challenges that face this particular union. For DeBonis, it was a long and rocky road in coming to terms with his sexual identity. This involves flip-flopping between gay and straight worlds, even leaving the gay orbit to marry a college sweetheart he broke off with years earlier when he felt he was not heterosexual. For Maniscalco, the road to self-identity was somewhat less bumpy, though he faced the last-minute potential of humiliation when his family abruptly decided not to be part of his wedding.

For Rev. Lefebvre (who is still a practicing priest, having never been defrocked or excommunicated), there is the challenge of finding a church that would host the wedding. No Catholic institution would allow it, but a neighborhood Episcopalian church happily opened its doors. There was also the sticky problem of getting the wedding announcement published in the New York Times. While the newspaper recently changed its policy to accommodate same-sex unions, Rev. Lefebvre’s theological credentials and the physical environment of the ceremony (a Catholic wedding in an Episcopalian church?) confused the Times endlessly; the threat of pissing off the New York Archdiocese also seemed to weigh on the possibility of canceling the newspaper coverage. During the wedding ceremony, an awkward moment arises when Rev. Lefebvre prepares to give Communion and no one steps forward. The filmmakers, however, wisely acknowledge that both sides of the wafer and wine ceremony are on new ground: the wedding guests share the Times’ quandary on the legitimacy of the priest’s actions while the priest, officiating at a rare ceremony where a considerable heterosexual audience is present, assumed the Communion would be business as usual.

The polar opposites are also found elsewhere in the film where the Gay Pride Parade rolls past St. Patrick’s Cathedral. A scattering of protestors hold placards equating homosexuality with pedophilia (never mind that Cardinal Edward Egan was damn lucky not to get his sorry a*s hauled into court for obstructing the investigations of child abuse committed by priests under his authority). Yet the parade is thick with displays from gay advocacy groups which, admittedly, are tacky and rather offensive. Clearly both sides take pleasure in pissing the other off. Yet somewhere in the middle are DeBonis and Maniscalco, who clearly love each other and hold true to their faith, and who genuinely believe that their love is not an evil but an affirmation of the basic tenets of humanity and theology. Their actions are not a blatant statement, like the leather men or drag queens of the parade, but it is a positive statement of their desire to spend their years together as a loving couple.

In lesser hands, “Saints and Sinners” could have been a shrill experience–try finding a discussion of the subject in either the mainstream media or the gay media that doesn’t fall into tiresome name-calling. Yet the film pulls off a miracle by taking an emotional issue and presents it with a serenity that puts emphasis on reason and intelligence. DeBonis and Maniscalco are clearly in love with each other and even before their wedding they seem to have fallen into a pattern of behaving like a long-married couple. One scene at a clothier where Maniscalco gets DeBonis to buy a brighter tie rather than a conservative tie, even though DeBonis clearly prefers the darker hue and is making the purchase outside of his better judgment, is gentle and charming. Another scene finds them taking a dancing lesson to avoid the possibility of embarrassing themselves at the reception. Between them they have four left feet, yet their patience and the patience of their dance instructor makes their rhythm-challenged dilemma both funny and affectionate.

DeBonis and Maniscalco clearly state they are only seeking the same level of rights that any straight couple would receive. Their emphasis is not on legal rights (although it should be, given the state of current American laws), but the right to be able to affirm their love openly. They argue they are not trying to tear down the Judeo-Christian foundations of Western civilization–they just don’t want to be placed in a box by a society which lacks the maturity to acknowledge that some people take a different path to reach common goals.

The Bible has been used over the centuries to justify war, intolerance, slavery, racial discrimination, the extermination of people based on their faith, the abuse of women and children, financial chicanery, extremist political agendas and, increasingly, the persecution of people based on their sexual orientation. For a book whose main theme is love and respect (both of mankind and of God), it is inconceivable how such horrible behavior in the name of all that is holy could ever be justified with a straight face. “Saints and Sinners” present DeBonis and Maniscalco as true Christians who do not veer from their faith and do not fall into the temptation of taking vengeance against those who wrong them. Rather than have them bow to church doctrine, today’s church fathers could do well to learn a few things from them. And audiences will do well to find “Saints and Sinners” and give praise that the film addresses this touchy subject with such uncommon grace.

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