The Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith’s response to the question of whether the Church has the power to bless same-sex unions, and the reaction that ensued upon its publication, is a moment of reckoning for Catholics. Although the Catholic understanding of sexuality will always engender opposition among many, we would not face the level of outcry that we do today had we emphasized that chastity is for everyone according to their state of life.
In that sense, gay people have every right to feel singled out by the Church as though their conduct were uniquely sinful. The pastoral problem of opposite-sex couples not knowing what marriage is—or not being willing to accept it—is far more widespread than gay unions. It begins with heterosexual Catholic couples who are married after having received insufficient instruction on what the Church believes. From them it swells outward, becoming a wave of wrong ideas, founded upon ignorance, that overwhelms their children and, through them, the wider culture.
When have you ever heard a homilist speak on what marital love is? When have you heard one speak about what marital indissolubility is? Or what it means to be fruitful in marriage—and how it’s not only physical but also spiritual (thus possible for infertile couples)? When have you ever heard a homilist speak about how both marriage and “celibacy for the kingdom” are vocations to holiness—and that, in terms of our ultimate goal of heaven, they are two paths to the same goal of perfection?
I remember when the first edition of my book The Thrill of the Chaste came out, I was asked to speak at a Legatus meeting in Wilmington, DE. My book was for single young adults; the audience were all married, so I figured they wanted to learn how to speak to their college kids. I gave my usual talk about what sexual attraction is and how it’s meant to help us learn to grow in godly love, and how chastity teaches us this. (A more recent and in-depth version of this talk can be found here.)
Afterwards, one of the organizers of the talk took me aside and chided me for avoiding mention of contraception. The woman said she knew that many of the couples there were contracepting, and that I should therefore have used my talk to tell them why it was wrong. It was then that I realized that, in the Catholic Church, failure to live up to the divine law is always the other person’s problem.
And that’s why our catechesis is so messed up. We speak about the problems that we ourselves don’t have.
But if we begin instead by speaking about what is love and what love is for, then we will find we are teaching ourselves as we teach others. If we continue along that route, we will still arrive at the point where we must explain the “hard teachings” on homosexual acts, contraception, and so on. But those teachings will then be placed in their correct context: as part of a purgative yet ultimately rewarding path to holiness that we are all on, whether we are gay or straight, married or unmarried.
That basic catechesis on love is what Pope Benedict XVI aimed to provide with Deus Caritas Est. Deus Caritas Est came out at the height of the Christopher West fad, when he was promoting a hypersexualized interpretation of John Paul II’s theology of the body (TOB). As a result, West (whom I publicly critiqued in 2010) published a book, The Love that Satisfies, in which he tried to fold Benedict’s encyclical into his “holy sex” narrative.
But ultimately Deus Caritas Est had a very brief shelf life with the West/TOB crowd, because it didn’t discuss homosexuality or contraception. Instead, Pope Benedict XVI gave basic catechesis on love, thus laying the groundwork not only for more specific teaching on hot-button issues, but also for his later encyclical Caritas in Veritate, which enraged the George Weigels of the world by critiquing capitalism. Benedict knew the Church has to teach about first things first and second things second. He took a similar approach with his comment about gay prostitutes’ use of condoms being a “first step” towards morality, which earned him attacks similar to those Francis suffered when he said “who am I to judge.”
Much as the US Church failed to receive Deus Caritas Est, it likewise failed to receive Amoris Laetitia. And that’s how we got where we are today. People in the pews don’t understand what the Church teaches on gay unions because they don’t understand what it teaches on love.
And that is a shame. Catholics need to know that, no matter how much our faith glorifies the union of a husband and wife as an analogy both of Trinitarian fruitfulness and of God’s covenant with the Church (and rightly so, for Scripture speaks of this “great mystery”), even marriage is going to leave us dissatisfied.
No human being completes us. Children don’t complete us. Only God completes us. We live and die trying to learn that and bring Christ to others.
Hardly anyone tells you this (notable exceptions include Fr. Edward Dowling, S.J., in his recorded talks, and Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen in Three to Get Married), but real marriages involve falling in love, marrying, and—sooner or later—hitting a wall. And when you hit that wall, you keep loving. And, like Tom Jones (not the Welshman) wrote in The Fantasticks, the wall never goes away! The wall must remain! You break it down together with your spouse, and then you find another wall, and another, and another.
And yet, something happens. You find yourself, over the course of time, seeing God in your spouse more and more. And you find yourself thinking and feeling and loving with a heart that is more like Christ’s. Because although you’ve given up on finding satisfaction, you find yourself closer to it, even though you know you’ll never, ever be satisfied in this life. And that’s a good thing.
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Dawn Eden Goldstein, S.Th.D., is the author of several books, including The Thrill of the Chaste and My Peace I Give You: Healing Sexual Wounds with the Help of the Saints. She has taught at seminaries in the U.S., England, and India. Currently she is writing a biography of Father Edward Dowling, S.J., who was a spiritual adviser to Alcoholics Anonymous founder Bill Wilson.