Things have moved very quickly, taking the Church by surprise. The movement for the recognition of same-sex marriages and civil unions has been astonishingly successful. While the Catholic hierarchy rejects all legal acceptance of same-sex couples, its arguments are unsatisfying, especially because they are unaccompanied by a viable alternative proposal. Meanwhile gay and lesbian couples exist, known and appreciated by their friends and families, at least in liberal democracies where ancient homophobic attitudes are in retreat. Catholic bishops in these countries feel obliged to raise their voice, offering a warning that they see as a prophetic, counter-cultural witness. Unfortunately, given the actual play of forces today, this aligns the bishops with countries where homosexuality is a taboo subject. Stressing in rather abstract terms the respect due to homosexual persons, the bishops have been loath to enter into dialogue with LGBT folk or even with theologians favorable to gay rights, on the pretext that to open such dialogue would in itself compromise church teaching.
Though wishing to exclude from the presbyterate people with ‘deeply rooted homosexual tendencies’ or who are sympathetic to the ideology of gay liberation, the Church cannot bring its official discourse into harmony with the real life of its clergy, much less that of the laity. Lack of dialogue with the contemporary experience and perception of sexuality leaves the hierarchical Church in bondage to impoverished categories. Without the oxygen of debate and consultation, one’s ideas of how gay people live and think is bound to lack phenomenological sophistication. To assume that one knows all there is to be known on the subject, having discoursed on it authoritatively for centuries, leads to embarrassing scenes when a concrete statement has to be made. An example is Cardinal Zenon Grocholewski’s explanation of what is not covered by the above mentioned category of ‘deeply rooted tendencies’: they could be due to ‘an uncompleted adolescence, some kind of curiosity; or perhaps accidental circumstances, a drunken state, maybe particular circumstances like a person who was imprisoned for many years…Or, these acts are done because one wants to obtain some sort of advantage’ (interview, Vatican Radio, 29 November 2005). Another example is the writings of Tony Anatrella, a Jesuit psychoanalyst, consultor of the Pontifical Council for the Family and the Pontifical Council for Health. He writes as follows: ‘The will to contest the norms and invariants of society in the name of homosexuality shows clearly that it is a social solvent. Homosexuality cannot be a political matter as currently suggested, except as a suicidal demagogy in a depressive society that has lost its fundamental bearings’ (La Documentation catholique, 21 September 2003, 810). ‘We have reached an absurd situation in which homosexuality is not only made a norm, but in which in some demand that homophobia be made a criminal offense. This fluid and perverse concept ensures that it will no longer be possible to express a criticism or make a joke about homosexuality without being charged with homophobia, recognized as a legal fault when it is above all a projective interpretation’ (811). ‘We are faced with an anthropological “heresy” comparable to Arianism and a new conflict of ideas that will be more costly than Marxism’ (805-6). ‘The banalization of homosexuality is all the more disturbing in that it concerns a minority and marginal phenomenon... We are in a society of appearances, which claims, in the name of tolerance and the prevailing superficiality, that everything has the same value and the same meaning’ (806). This jaundiced vision has less to do with theology than with a summary Freudianism that one critic characterizes as ‘brutal’ (Lefebvre).
Moral teaching cannot abstract from the lived situation of those to whom it claims to apply. If one insists exclusively on principles, leaving their application to pastor wisdom, which in its turn is impoverished by an exaggerated fear of betraying the principles, one risks finding one day that these principles, worked out at a great distance from reality on the ground, have become anemic and sterile. A credible moral reflection would demand attention to the testimonies of those who have lived the different possibilities of gay and lesbian experience, so as to measure soberly the various values in play. This dialogue could be enriched by steeping our reflections in literature, which illuminates from a thousand angles the complexity and variety of human relationships, even if a heavy censorship has made its text difficult to decipher in the case of gay realities. Such exposure threatens theology with the loss of its certitudes about the unalterable essences of love, marriage, and friendship. Humanity remains a territory unknown to itself, for the more it is explored, the more the enigmas multiply. The Bible, if well read, in a liberative key, espouses and deepens this complexity; church discourse, to do the same, needs a new praxis of dialogal openness and self-critique.
An Undeniable Reality
Same-sex couples are part of the ordinary fabric of social life in many countries, and their very presence constitutes a refutation of a number of long-dominant notions. Understanding and appreciation of this phenomenon is obligatory for ‘the Church, expert in humanity,’ to quote the incipit of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s ‘Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Collaboration of Men and Women’ (31 May 2004).
Change is happening slowly, as leading figures express such understanding and appreciation. Cardinal Schönborn, pleading for ‘a morality of happiness’ instead of a ‘morality of duty,’ declared: ‘As regards the theme of homosexuality for example, we should consider more attentively the quality of a relationship, and also speak of that quality appreciatively. A stable rapport is certainly preferable to the case of someone who is content to live freely his promiscuity’ (European Info Press, 12 July 2010). Cardinal Martini writes: ‘I know homosexual couples, highly esteemed men and social figures. No one has ever asked me to condemn them, and it would never occur to me to do so.’ Such prudent and measured declarations will seem timid or even hypocritical, to those impatient with the slowness of the church response to new situations. But such are the crumbs in which liberal Catholics find consolation, and which suffice to unleash the zeal of delators. These murmurs of ‘princes of the Church’ are pointers to the path that is opening before the Church as it learns to express respect for loving gay couples.
Some believe that it will be enough to apply pastoral tact in tolerating imperfect situations, according to the approach of Jan Visser, one of the authors of the CDF document Persona humana (January 1976): ‘When one is dealing with people who are so deeply homosexual that they will be in serious personal and perhaps social trouble unless they attain a steady partnership within their homosexual lives, one can recommend them to seek such a partnership, and one accepts this relationship as the best they can do in their present situation’ (L’Europa, 30 January 1976; Surlis). When secular society is recognizing the dignity of gay couples in new legislation, this pastoral respect seems to fall short of the welcome these couples want from their churches. It is very regrettable that the Church did not develop more this pastoral encouragement of faithful couples in the 1970s: it would have diminished the ravages of AIDS.
A Futile Campaign
Theologians thinking of these questions may find themselves torn between Vatican and episcopal authority on one side and the feeling of the majority of the faithful on the other. This gap was apparent in Ireland in June 2010, when several polls showed that 84% of the population favored a civil partnerships law condemned by the bishops as injurious to the dignity of marriage and the freedom of conscience of marriage registrars (who themselves said nothing on the subject). Such episcopal declarations lack persuasive force because they are not accompanied by a process of consultation and dialogue, and because the bishops avoid defending their positions in public debate. One suspects that the declaration was a gesture made under Vatican pressure, and the same may be true of another declaration by the bishops of Northern Ireland in 1982 denouncing the decriminalization of homosexual acts, fifteen years after the rest of the UK. (The Victorian law was abolished in the Irish Republic as late as 1993, with only a slight murmur from the bishops.) Curiously, the Vatican itself now declares its opposition to criminalizing acts between consenting adults (in the statement of Archbishop Celestino Migliore at the United Nations, New York, 19 December, 2008; but his successor Archbishop Silvano Tomasi qualified this on a later occasion). The entire regime of episcopal declarations risk becoming inoperative. One feels that instead of giving lessons to the gay community and society in general from a lofty height they need rather to adope the humble posture of one who seeks to learn. Without church encouragement, many gays and lesbians have sufficiently appreciated the values of love and fidelity to opt for monogamous union as their preferred lifestyle. Nor is this the only aspect of wisdom or prophetic vision that is emerging in gay circles.
The Vatican has pursued a campaign against same-sex marriage and also against civil unions, a successful one in Italy, the only major West European country to offer no civil recognition to gay and lesbian couples. In the US, some bishops have spent huge sums on this campaign, without consulting the faithful on the opportuneness of this use of their contributions. The expression abortionsamesexmarriage was a refrain in the conversation of several bishops according to James Martin, SJ (blog, America 17 May 2010), an association also made in a papal discourse at Fatima, 13 May 2010: « Les initiatives qui ont pour but de sauvegarder les valeurs essentielles et premières de la vie, dès sa conception, et de la famille, fondée sur le mariage indissoluble entre un homme et une femme, aident à répondre à certains des défis les plus insidieux et les plus dangereux qui, aujourd’hui, s’opposent au bien commun. » The logic here is slippery. Abortion is an act of death, same-sex marriage a project of love; it is strange to see them as equally injurious to the common good. Such tactics also risk enfeebling the church argument on abortion.
In these debates, the authority of the bishops is weakened also by the memory of a sinister history. The ‘purification of memory’ called for by John Paul II in his act of penitence for the crimes of the Church in 2000 concerned particularly the persecution of Jews in medieval Christendom. No mention was made of the no less insidious persecution of gay men and women, executed, imprisoned, deprived of freedom of conscience and expression, throughout the same centuries. While insisting on the duty to respect homosexual persons, the Church finds nothing to reproach itself with on this score either in the past or the present. Perhaps we are moving toward a shift like that marked by the encyclical Catholicae ecclesiae in 1890, in which for the first time the Vatican denounced the principle of slavery, just after Catholic Brazil became the last country to abolish it. Leo XIII’s claim that the Church had always opposed slavery was hard to square with Pius IX’s 1866 teaching that the buying and selling of slaves was compatible with natural and divine law. Analogically, drastic modification of church teaching on gay issues is unlikely as long as a great number of the faithful, in Africa and elsewhere, are likely to take offense, but change, if it does come, will build smoothly on the positive notes in the Catechism and the understanding shown in pastoral practice.
The charter of the campaign against juridical recognition of same-sex couples is a document of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, ‘Considerations Regarding Proposals to give Legal Recognition to Unions between Homosexual Persons’ (August 2003). It begins by describing homosexuality as ‘a troubling moral and social phenomenon,’ and quotes Persona humana’s description of it as an ‘anomaly’ some people suffer from. ‘No ideology can efface from the human spirit the certainty that marriage exists solely between a man and a woman, who by mutual personal gift, proper and exclusive to themselves, tend toward the communion of their persons.’ Style apart, gay marriage advocates would object only to the word ‘solely’ here, an exclusion based on the claim that homosexuals acts are neither procreative nor unitive: ‘There are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family. Marriage is holy, while homosexual acts go against the natural moral law. Homosexual acts “close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved”’ (#4, quoting the Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 2357). The document envisages a limited civic tolerance for same-sex couples, but warns: ‘Those who would move from tolerance to the legitimization of specific rights for cohabiting homosexual persons need to be reminded that the approval or legalization of evil is something far different from the toleration of evil. In those situations where homosexual unions have been legally recognized or have been given the legal status and rights belonging to marriage, clear and emphatic opposition is a duty. One must refrain from any kind of formal cooperation in the enactment or application of such gravely unjust laws’ (#5). Perhaps the authors are thinking of the way that prostitution is a tolerated ‘evil’ that must not be positively approved.
The ‘grave injustice’ of such approval would consist in the propagation of a false sexual ethics damaging to the common good. It is indeed true that legal recognition of same-sex unions brings to young gays, and old ones too, the message that their affectivity is normal and natural, that they have the right to follow their heart and express themselves sexually. This is indeed a radical departure from traditional church teaching, yet it is not clear that it occludes the values of heterosexual marriage; it might even contribute to a renewal of our understanding of conjugal love and creativity.
‘Homosexual unions are totally lacking in the biological and anthropological elements of marriage and family which would be the basis, on the level of reason, for granting them legal recognition. Such unions are not able to contribute in a proper way to the procreation and survival of the human race. The possibility of using recently discovered methods of artificial reproduction, beyond involving a grave lack of respect for human dignity, does nothing to alter this inadequacy. Homosexual unions are also totally lacking in the conjugal dimension, which represents the human and ordered form of sexuality. Sexual relations are human when and insofar as they express and promote the mutual assistance of the sexes in marriage and are open to the transmission of new life’ (#7). The questions of bioethics seem to belong to another debate, for they concern sterile heterosexual couples as much as same-sex couples. The many Catholics who have relatives and friends in same-sex unions will balk at the statement that these unions lack any trace of conjugal warmth or of human sexuality, and will conclude that the authors are in thrall to homophobia.
The document continues repetitively without furnishing any real argument. Gay unions are ‘activities which do not represent a significant or positive contribution to the development of the human person in society.’ ‘Not even in a remote analogous sense do homosexual unions fulfil the purpose or which marriage and family deserve specific categorical recognition. On the contrary, there are good reasons for holding that such unions are harmful to the proper development of human society, especially if their impact on society were to increase’ (#8). ‘It would be gravely unjust to sacrifice the common good and just laws on the family in order to protect personal goods that can and must be guaranteed in ways that do not harm the body of society’ (#9). ‘The common good requires that laws recognize, promote and protect marriage as the basis of the family, the primary unit of society. Legal recognition of homosexual unions or placing them on the same level as marriage would mean not only the approval of deviant behaviour, with the consequence of making it a model in present-day society, but would also obscure basic values which belong to the common inheritance of humanity’ (#11).
Empirically, it seems clear that same-sex unions are beneficial for the partners, as leading psychological associations have regularly found. A case can be made that the acceptance of gay couples contributes to the common good as well. But this is not a dialogal document, and the ‘good reasons’ it alleges are in consequence not articulated in a persuasive way. The poverty of the argumentation betrays its lack of truth, since truth is not tight-lipped but abounds in reasons and illustrations; even the Ten Commandments come with a garrulous commentary (Ex 20:1-17). The tautological refrains of the document convey a sense of hollowness and even desperation, as do the protestations of national episcopacies modeled on it. Jacques Lacan distinguishes psychoanalysis from this kind of tautology, ‘from that which is found embodied, I would say, in the discourse of Wittgenstein, namely a psychotic ferocity, besides which Ockham’s well-known razor, which says that we should admit no logical notion except what is necessary, is nothing’ (Lacan, 69-70). Tautological ferocity can become sacred rage: ‘In his interpellation of that chosen people, the characteristic of Yahweh is that he fiercely ignores, in the moment he announces himself, all that exists of certain practices of the religions then proliferating, and which are based on a certain type of knowledge—of sexual knowledge. (158). We have constructed a castle of propositions on sexuality that remains as empty as the Tractatus logico-philosophicus and as tangential to the lived reality of human beings. No doubt we will live with such presentations of unalterable moral law for a long time, but one cannot help thinking of Paul Durcan’s poem, ‘Irish Hierarchy Bans Colour Photography’:
After a Spring meeting in their nineteenth-century fastness at Maynooth
The Irish Hierarchy has issued a total ban on the practice of colour photography…
Colour pictures produced in the minds of people,
Especially in the minds (if any) of young people,
A serious distortion of reality;
Colour pictures showed reality to be rich and various
Whereas reality in point of fact was the opposite. (Fallon/Mahon, 277)
A Constructive Project
To form a judgment on same-sex marriage, one must distinguish between the civil and the theological arguments. Many same-sex couples are looking only for equality before the law, in matters of visas and immigration for example, and they welcome the possibility of marriage as the maximal assurance of this equality. To build a stable same-sex relationship, over time, demands great energy, and legal obstacles have aborted many such projects. The discouraging words of a Maltese bishop, Mario Grech, show the mentality behind those obstacles: ‘According to the secularists, marriage is merely a legal contract to safeguard the emotional well-being of the parties, be they of the same gender or of different sexual orientation. Permanence, exclusivity, openness to life do not belong to this type of marriage where everything is negotiable. Everything depends upon the will and consent of the parties involved in this experience’ (The Times of Malta, 4 July 2010). The reference to emotional well-being is less paternal and benevolent than that of the Yahwist’s God, for whom ‘It is not good that the man should be alone’ (Gen 2:18).Such repression of love is a social tragedy, one of many marking the history of homosexuality.
Cardinal Bergoglio in Argentina likewise speaks as follows against gay marriage (approved by the Argentine Senate on 15 July 2010): ‘Let's not be naive, we're not talking about a simple political battle; it is a destructive pretension against the plan of God, We are not talking about a mere bill, but rather a machination of the Father of Lies that seeks to confuse and deceive the children of God’ (Lifesitenews.com, 9 July 2010). In reply, President Cristina Kirchner said: ‘Expressions like “God’s war” or “the devil’s plan” are reminiscent of the times of the Inquisition, especially when they come from those who should be working for peace, tolerance, diversity, and dialogue… It feels like the times of the Crusades.’ Thousands of young Catholics demonstrated against the new law; one wishes that the Church had an equal capacity to mobilize them in favor of social justice.
The main argument advanced against gay marriage on the civil front is that it changes the definition of marriage, undermining the institution itself. But historically, even within Catholicism, matrimony has been quite malleable in its forms (see Noonan). Divorce has already made a great breach in our society’s understanding of marriage, and it could be argued that stable gay marriages work in the opposite direction to this. The major role played by will and consent in modern marriage, which Bishop Grech seems to regret, has dissolved many aspects of older matrimonial cultures that now seem oppressive. The entire topic of homosexual men or women being forced by social pressure into heterosexual marriages, perhaps particularly relevant to China and Japan, is one that has not been properly studied.
Some moral theologians wonder if marriage really suits gay individuals and if it is not rather facile to welcome it as a ‘solution.’ Can the inveterate Donjuanism of gay males—or males in general?—adjust to the constraints of an institution created to meet needs that have nothing to do with homosexual interests? Many who are attached to the carnavalesque and Dionysan freedom of gay culture resist a social project that aims to ‘make an honest woman’ of gay men. They fear a new situation where love for another person of the same sex can have consequences as grave as those traditionally associated with love of the other sex. Marriage proposals did not figure in the lives or even the dreams of LGBT folk until recently. Now will it become again a sign of dubious morality for a man to say ‘I live with another man,’ drawing the response, ‘why not sanctify your union by making it official?’ The matrimonial drama of humanity, of which literature underlines mostly the sad aspects, will now become a reality for gays too. The possibility of gay marriage also changes the practical coordinates of personal life for many gay Catholic priests, who may now follow the example of hundreds of thousands of their confreres who have left the ministry to marry, for their wives refused the insecurity and clandestinity of concubinage. Some who have settled down, in the best of cases, in ‘a discreet and mature friendship,’ perhaps with the approval of superiors, will be forced to choose between ministry and life as a couple.
All such questions, and the famous ‘problem of homosexuality’ itself, are posed today most often in practical terms rather than in moral or psychological ones. Theoretical orthodoxies are of less concern than the question of how to live. A salutary pragmatism asks for arrangements permitting wise deployment of affective and sexual energies; perhaps a similar pragmatism, rather than a lofty blueprint, lay behind the construction of our matrimonial institutions in the course of history.
If we pursue the argument to the ontological level, we might apply the principle that St Augustine opposed to Manichaeism, that of the fundamental goodness of being: ‘They are not well in their wits to whom anything that Thou hast created is displeasing’ (Confessions VII, 20). Augustine defended the goodness of marriage against the Manicheans, underlining its ‘goods’ of fides, proles, sacramentum (fidelity, children, sign of divine love). Continuing in the same direction, one might affirm that same-sex unions, including the chaste spiritual friendships admired in some saints, share analogically in these goods, particularly if one substitutes for actual offspring the creativity that gay couples show, as in the lifelong collaboration of Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears. The Church could not bless such creative relationships (though today a private blessing might not be refused), yet it is hard not to see in them a sign of divine love, and some elements in Christian tradition encourage one to do so; see the quasi-matrimonial ceremonies to bless unions between two men or two women brought to light by John Boswell (291-341).
No one objects to friendship, it will be said, but only to the sexual acts that separate sexuality from the transmission of life. This objection carries little force in world where contraception is accepted. Some revamp the older grounds of condemnation: that gay sex contradicts the natural order (though Cardinal Ratzinger excluded such words as ‘unnatural’ and ‘perverse’ from the 1986 document Homosexualitatis problema). Interestingly, St Thomas Aquinas saw the homosexual instinct as ‘connaturale secundum quid, connatural in certain respects’ (Summa theologica I-II, q. 31, a. 7); the text, drawn to my attention by David Norris as he prepared his High Court case to have homosexuality decriminalized in 1980, is cited by McNeill, but with an incorrect reference (q. 37 for q. 31). It is not a pro-homosexual text, since Aquinas says the same thing of bestiality and cannibalism. The 1986 document, claiming to offer ‘a perspective which finds support in the more secure findings of the natural sciences’ (#2), sees the homosexual orientation as ‘an objective disorder’ in that it is ‘a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil’ (#3). This disordered desire is explained, as in case of ‘concupiscence’ in general, by reference to Original Sin. Here it is against Augustine himself that one must pursue the anti-Manichean argument. The devalorization of the flesh and its beauty, what Rowan Williams called ‘the body’s grace,’ has been corrected in modern theology of marriage, which seems to be in tension with the continued practice of painting same-sex relations in the demonic colors.
Even those who agree with the Vatican that homosexual acts can never be countenanced might still, on the pastoral level, invoke the principle that ‘love covers a multitude of sins’ (1 Pt 4:8). After all, for long stretches of Christian history sex in marriage was seen as a site of venial sin, which has to be tolerated for a greater good. The testimony of gay couples that physical acts deepen and strengthen their affective union should be taken into account before the non-unitive nature of gay sex is dogmatized.
Psychoanalysis has inherited the association of sexuality with Original Sin, treating homosexuality as a deficiency of which the origins are sought in some infantile ‘fall.’ The discovery of homosexual instincts and behaviors throughout the animal kingdom has boosted the view that same-sex attraction is natural and normal. Psychoanalysts object that this abolishes freedom of choice and makes sexuality something mechanical and determined, ultimately subject to genetic manipulation to suppress the homosexual gene. They continue to interpret homosexuality in connection with a family plot in infancy, but no longer in terms of a fall or failure; rather, they defend ‘the dignity of an unconscious choice though a precocious one’ (Ph. Kong, personal communication).
Homophobia may have archaic and profound roots, even in the animal kingdom as Konrad Lorenz is said to have noted, but the Christian task is to transform such ancient phobias rather than succumb to them. The obsession with sodomy, monumentalized in the pyres of the Inquisition, has deep psychological roots, which one can discern even in the reaction of St John Chrysostom to what subsisted of ancient license in Antioch and Constantinople. His golden voice was a blessing for the Church, but a curse for Jews and gays:
All passions are shameful, but especially the mania for men (kata tôn arrhenôn mania)... See what emphatic words [St Paul] uses! He does not say that they loved (êrasthêsan) or desired (epethumêsan) one another, but ‘They burned with passion (exekauthêsan en tê orexei autôn) for one another’ (Rom 1:27)... He shows that the pleasure contains in itself this punishment. If they don’t feel this, but enjoy it, don’t be surprised: maniacs and those afflicted by frenzy wound and mistreat themselves miserably, while others weep for them, they laugh and are happy with what they are doing... If one condemned a young girl to allow stupid animals into her virginal bed and to have relations with them, and she took pleasure in that, would she not be all the more to be pitied in that her lack of shame made her illness incurable?... I affirm that these men are guiltier than homicides... This crime surpasses any you can name... I say that not only have you become a woman, but I will add that you have ceased to be human... You deserve to be chased, stoned by men and women... See how you have changed yourself not into a dog but into a still baser beast... Eunuchs, even after castration, are still useful, whereas nothing is more useless than a man changed into a whore… How many hells will be required for them? If you laugh at the word hell, if you are unbelieving, remember the fire that consumed Sodom... Consider the enormity of this crime, which made necessary an anticipatory image of hell... What is more infamous? O fury! O delirium!... O beings more irrational than beasts, more impudent than dogs! For nowhere among animals does one see such unions. (Homilies on the Epistle to the Romans, IV)
Predecessors in this rhetorical tradition include Philo and Clement of Alexandria, successors include St Peter Damian. Mark D. Jordan has examined these sad writings in depth along with present clerical hypocrisies, with the idea that a disease must be diagnosed fully before it can be healed.
Chrysostom’s nightmarish vision is still potent in Christian and Muslim imagination, and is even embraced as a source of virtuous satisfaction. It is in its name that gay adolescents are hanged in Iran. Along with anti-Jewish rhetoric, it inspired the ‘anticipations of hell’ constructed by totalitarian governments in the last century. When bishops express ‘compassion’ for the ‘sufferings’ of homosexual persons (who are always ‘they,’ never ‘us’), they rarely note the church contribution thereto and sometimes suggest, in harmony with Chrysostom, that homosexuality as such is the cause of the sufferings.
Nauseated by this, some ask if the Bible is a book of death. The Church enables us to read the Bible discerningly, in the light of natural law and core gospel values, and emphasizing the great texts that make of it a book of life. But in the case of homosexuality the Vatican still cites isolated verses, such as Romans 1:26-7 with their strange etiology of sexual orientation, in the same style as the fundamentalists. No effort is made to seek in the Gospel a more integral vision of gay people’s lives and the values behind the demand for respect of couples. Today Catholicism suffers from an eschatological deficit and scarcely knows how to espouse the dynamic of the gospel proclamation of the Kingdom. If the Kingdom is an inclusive community, breaking down the barriers between castes, nations, sexes, it must include the person in his or her entirety, including the sexual dimension. It is no sign of the Kingdom to demand that people hide their sexuality and feel perpetually uneasy about it.
A deep change in Catholic teaching has been long awaited. The lack of progress in the debate is due largely to disciplinary measures taken against ‘dissidents’ such as Charles Curran, John McNeill, Jeannine Gramick. On this front at least, one who wishes to exercise in the Church today the human rights of freedom of opinion, freedom of expression, freedom of publication, and freedom of conscience must be ready to pay the price of excommunication. The ‘great reversal’ expected by James Alison seems utopian as yet. Radical questioning is resisted, for it opens the appalling prospect of admitting that the Church has gravely erred in a domain that affects all human beings, namely sexuality. It also prescribes that everything must be rethought, and that the wisdom and practices of the past were only provisional efforts to grasp and enact the values of love. Thus many closed questions would again become open ones, quaestiones disputatae (Johnson). The structure of Catholic moral teaching is perhaps not as logically impregnable nor as historically homogeneous as was taught.
Seeking an ontological basis of these moral and practical questions, several options are possible. Theological reflection will be guided by the compass of biblical and patristic tradition, which accords a high status to monogamous heterosexual unions (raised to sacramental dignity, under certain conditions, since the late middle ages). Does this tradition encourage skepticism about gay unions, or can it be invoked to embrace them as an extension of matrimonial values? The theological debate on this has scarcely begun. I content myself with listing varioius possible lines of thought:
(1) Traditional monogamy, still glorified in our culture, remains the essential form of marriage, to which gay marriages should conform as far as possible. Perhaps in practice most heterosexual marriages, in their infinite variety and multiple failures, realize only imperfectly this ideal form, which may be better reflected in the life of many same-sex couples, who have had to surmount daunting obstacles. Traditional marriage includes a reference to procreation, which for some undercuts the very possibility of same-sex marriage, and for others inspires emulation of the nuclear family through adoption. The most intense resistance to same-sex marriage focuses on this point, especially when children are procured by artificial means.
(2) Alternatively, one could see the traditional ideal as having entered a crisis, perhaps a salutary crisis. The popularity of PACs (civil unions) as alternatives to marriage in France is a sign of this. Perhaps a new culture of marriage is being constructed, with gay and lesbian couples playing a key role. Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, spokesman of the US bishops on this topic, denies to both Church and State the right to redefine marriage, since its structure and teleology have been defined from the beginning by God. But his seems incompatible with the variations of marriage in the course of history, since the patriarch Jacob with his four wives, mothers of the twelve tribes of Israel. This historical pluralism in the cultures of marriage suggests that to a great extent the institution is a cultural construction not immune to creative revision.
(3) Another viewpoint would see heterosexual marriage and same-sex unions as differing in nature, each construction its own principles and processes. The difference might entail an ontological inequality, as between sterile and fertile marriages, which could coexist with equality of respect on the legal level. Or one could affirm the fundamental equality of both as constructive human projects. Such an open-ended view would free gays and lesbians from the yoke of matrimonial egalitarianism, a puritan ideology that puts pressure on them to prove themselves to be the same as everyone else. Historical researches, not only on Europe but on all cultures, could stimulate the imagination, suggesting other models or paradigms for same-sex relationships that might do better justice to their distinctive character.
(4) In much of the debate people proceed as if there is no essence of marriage at all. Seen merely as a legal and financial arrangement, equality of access to it can be seen in a monochrome way, and in the US limitations of that access are easily paralleled with the racist ban on miscegenation. If that pragmatic approach prevails, marriage becomes a specialty of religious communities, which may leave the sphere of civil arrangements to its own devices.
No doubt one could find many other possible perspectives for a rethinking of marriage. The unresolved questions thus arising should not inspire panic or defensiveness, but should be discussed serenely, in a quest to establish or re-establish solid human values, combining a recognition of the diversity of human sexuality and affectivity with consideration of the common good, the goals of society as a whole. I hope that these reflections, no doubt too concerned with a clerical and Catholic past, will encourage others to construct a more affirmative vision of same-sex experience as a theological locus.
‘It’s a vexed question,’ said my dear aunt, Maureen Murphy (b. 1916) after we watched former President Mary McAleese express her support for gay marriage in an interview on Irish television (9 October 2012). Mrs McAleese has always been an ardent defender of gay rights, like her predecessor Mary Robinson, but such admired voices do not ensure that the Irish people will give the nod to gay marriage in the referendum scheduled for 2015. The debate is already rumbling, and all too likely to become a tedious rehash of US ‘culture wars’ rhetoric, in which gay marriage has become the most salient focus of discord.
In the three years since the above essay was published, gay marriage, previously legalized in the Netherlands (2001), Belgium (2003), Spain, Canada (2005), South Africa (2006), Norway, Sweden (2009), Portugal, Iceland, Argentina (2010), has become legal in Denmark (2012), Brazil, France, Uruguay, New Zealand (2013), England, Wales, and Scotland (March), bringing the total to 18 countries. Previously legalized in Massachusetts (2004), Connecticut (2008), Iowa, Vermont (2009), New Hampshire, District of Columbia (2010), it has since become legal 12 American States, making a total of 18.
In France, the bishops produced a statement on gay marriage that was of a higher argumentative level than the Vatican statements criticized above and that showed considerable understanding of the human factors involved. Unfortunately, the church-backed campaign against gay marriage played out in a dismal way. The mobilization of huge crowds offered a platform for right wing demagogues and even encouraged acts of violence. It may also have supplied oxygen to the elements behind a 58% rise in anti-Semitic attacks in 2012 and the shocking anti-Semitic ‘Day of Anger’ march in Paris, 26 January 2014.
While the opponents of gay marriage called for dialogue, I came across no serene and mature discussion of the issue in Catholic circles during my stay in Paris at the height of the controversy (Oct. 2012-Mar. 2013), apart from a few dissenting articles in La Croix. Instead, there was a certain amount of manipulative propaganda, as in the promotion of Philippe Ariño’s strange book on ‘the truth about homosexuality’; a conflicted gay man, Ariño holds that gayness is about rape fantasies. The book was taken up by parishes, used in adult education, and received a rosette from the leading Catholic bookshop, La Procure, though its account of Catholic teaching is a caricature.
Some parishes claimed that in rallying against gay marriage they experienced a new esprit de corps, which I could not see as a reassuring sign of a healthy church. Many a dinner party was ruined by explosive arguments on the issue. Though not covered by President Hollande’s legislation, the topics of surrogate mothers and sperm banks aroused the most unease. The opposition were given huge amounts of parliamentary time to make their case, but they wasted it on empty rhetoric. Now they grimly foresee anthropological catastrophe down the road. And even if the normalization of gay couples and their families proceeds apace without visible ill effects, this will prove nothing, they insist, any more than the normalization of abortion makes it morally acceptable.
Cardinal Bergoglio, mentioned above, has come across in his public utterances as Pope Francis as a quite gay-friendly churchman, notably in his famous one-liner, ‘Who am I to judge,’ and in his pastoral attention to the existence of gay couples and their adopted children. Commentators parse papal utterances and body language as minutely as courtiers those of a King. A leading gay publication The Advocate chose Francis as their Person of the Year, grateful for the crumbs falling from his table. The hard line represented in the CDF document cited above will continue to be maintained by Cardinal Gerhard Müller, whom Der Spiegel (27 January 2014) characterizes as playing ‘bad cop’ to Francis’s ‘good cop’; it was refreshing to hear Francis’s friend Cardinal Maradiaga advise Müller publicly that he should lighten up.
The legalization of gay marriage is but one element in a general improvement of the condition of LGBT folk in Western democratic societies, though it is one of immense symbolic impact against the stigmatization of gayness. It is perhaps only a matter of time until other societies, including Japan, follow suit. If this is indeed a promotion of the human welfare, freedom, and dignity of a vast number of people, it cannot be opposed to the spirit of the Gospel: ‘I ask you, is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to destroy it?’ (Lk 6:9).
In Memoriam: Paul Surlis
The Irish moral theologian Paul Surlis, who urged me to publish the English version of this essay, has just left us, on 29 May 2014. His ‘theological note’ on Persona humana explains how the 1975 document was supposed to draw on both the manualist and personalist schools of moral thought. But Cardinal Pietro Palazzini, of the manualist tradition, inserted material from a book of his own and the personalists were ignored.
However, it was a manualist, Jan Visser, who supplied the basis for a liberal pastoral interpretation of the document: ‘Visser distinguishes between a moral theology that embodies absolute, inflexible principles, and a pastoral theology that concerns itself with persons and individual situations where the principles of moral theology could be applied leniently out of compassion and sensitivity to personal needs. Visser adheres to the view that, judged in terms of principles, homosexuality is intrinsically immoral. But when counselling a homosexual person, Visser is concerned with enabling this person to live a Christian life in his or her concrete situation. In the L’Europa interview, he explained, “when one is dealing with people who are so deeply homosexual that they will be in serious personal and perhaps social trouble unless they attain a steady partnership, within their homosexual lives, one can recommend them to seek such a partnership, and one accepts this relationship as the best they can do in their present situation.”’
‘In any case, the Vatican has never revoked his interpretation of leniency in pastoral practice for homosexuals in a stable relationship, and it stands as a quasi-official interpretation of a curial declaration by one of its official authors. These facts lead me to conclude that we should challenge the position that the declaration Persona Humana is an integral part of Catholic teaching on homosexuality when, in fact, it is the view of one school of Roman theologians, and, in particular, of one cardinal who would foist his personal views on the universal church as “Catholic teaching.” It is unacceptable that teaching documents formulated by a few curial officials and their theologians should be used to justify punitive treatment of theologians and pastoral practitioners like Gramick and Nugent. But it is also the fault of overly timid bishops and religious superiors if they fail to call the Vatican’s behavior what it is—a scandalous abuse of power.’
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