Imagine a line segment. On the farthest point left are the words, “Welcome and accompany homosexual persons.” On the farthest point right are the words, “God cannot bless sin.”
The CDF’s recent responsum on the question of the blessing of same-sex unions includes both these statements, but the reaction among Catholics to the Vatican’s responsum has tended to focus on one notion to the exclusion of the other.
As a result, the conversation on the inclusion of gay persons in the Church (as usual!) has resulted in people talking past each other. Instead of accompanying the marginalized, we are running into the same walls.
Take the right end of the line first. For many Catholics, “God cannot bless sin!” is their takeaway from the document. Among some of the faithful—call them the “Catholic Right”—you will find sentiments like “I told you so!”. CatholicVote’s Facebook page, for example, has a simplistic meme of Pope Francis’s smiling face with “God cannot bless sin!” plastered on it. “Thank you, Pope Francis,” CatholicVote declares with self-satisfaction. Forget the need for pastoral accompaniment and compassionate listening to gay Catholics. Sexual ethics is all that matters, apparently.
On the other hand, others—call them the Catholic Left—have read the responsum as a complete rebuke of same-sex couples and even gay Catholics more generally. For example, the National Catholic Reporter published a piece that accuses Pope Francis of hypocrisy—because somehow the adherence to Church teaching on sexuality contradicts the desire to accompany gay persons. After reminiscing over (an allegedly) once less-legalistic Francis, the article laments: “Where has that Pope Francis gone?”.
Let’s look at what’s wrong with this response—from our so-called “Catholic Left”—and then we will also be able to better respond to the Catholic Right as well. The problem stems from the acceptance—often unacknowledged—of sexual activity as the exclusive way of showing love for another. That is, there is a conflation between sexual unions and all unions between two people that has distorted how we approach committed relationships. If we cannot conceive of love or companionship without sex—that is, if sexual relationships are the de facto type of relationships—then of course any attempt to propose a third way will be unintelligible.
This conflation must be carefully untangled. Precisely because this idea of de facto sexual relationships is taken for granted, we must be careful not to let our assumptions drown out what the Church is actually saying. True, the above-mentioned distortion can often be exacerbated by the Church itself due to a tendency to focus on marriage and sexual morality to the exclusion of other types of relationships. Nevertheless, the Church’s official teaching provides the basis for drawing a clear distinction between sexual relationships and other meaningful relationships.
In the CDF’s reply, the key reason for its rejection of the blessing of same-sex unions is because “it is not licit to impart a blessing on relationships…that involve sexual activity outside of marriage” (emphasis mine). The Church teaches that sex is for marriage, and sex, in turn, is ordered towards the union of the spouses and the creation of new life. Per God’s design, two humans become co-creators with God; through sex, a new creature stamped with the image of God comes into existence. This is why the Church takes sex so seriously—not because its icky or bad; on the contrary, it is good and sacred!
Marriage and sex are intimately connected, then. Because of sex’s purpose—endowed by the Creator himself—all sexual activity that is not open to life and/or outside of marriage is inherently incomplete. Clearly, this includes much more than homosexual acts. An integrated and chaste sexual life is for everyone, then—not just the homosexual person.
Everyone desires love, closeness, and companionship, but marriage is not the only outlet for such needs. Unfortunately, because marriage is exalted today by both the Church and culture—though very differently—we find it hard to consider any other ways of living lives of intimacy and self-giving with others. The culture—including many Christians as well—thinks that because marriage is the primary way of sharing a life of love with another, then no one should be excluded from this.
Therefore, following this way of thinking, to exclude gay people from such love—from marriage—is totally unjust.
And in a sense, that thinking is perfectly correct, as far as it goes. But, again, the Catholic Church does not identify marriage in this way, in the first place. Marriage includes an “indissoluble union of a man and a woman open in itself to the transmission of life,” as the responsum affirms. Modern culture certainly does not see marriage as inherently “indissoluble,” nor does it see it as necessitating an openness “to the transmission of life.” It is no wonder, then, that the Church and larger culture often speak past each other when talking about marriage. They use the term itself differently!
What the “Catholic Left” must understand is that the Catholic Church ultimately derives its understanding of marriage from Jesus himself. While Jesus was certainly compassionate to those in “irregular situations”—think Samaritan woman—Jesus nevertheless doubled down on the call to an integrated and chaste life. Marriage, Christ affirms, is that divinely-instituted reality which makes man and woman “one flesh” and therefore incapable of being destroyed by divorce (Matt. 19:5-8). Adultery is not just a physical act but even takes place in our hearts through lustful thoughts (see Matt. 5:28).
Christ was not some hippie who freed sex from Old Testament legalism. Instead, sex is something created by God, with specific purposes in this life. Christ explicitly taught that sex is not something to which everyone is called. He acknowledges so-called “eunuchs,” some of whom are born that way but still others who make “themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 19:12). Clearly, for Christ, a life of love—to which we are all called—does not necessitate sexual activity. After all, Christ himself was celibate.
In fact, in the age to come, we “neither marry nor are given in marriage,” as Christ affirms (Matt. 22:30). Earthly marriage is but a mere symbol pointing to our union with God in Heaven, where we will partake of that eternal “wedding feast of the Lamb” (Rev. 19:9). Here and now, especially with so many distractions, it can be hard to remember our true purpose. Ultimately, though, our true fulfillment is found in Christ, the Church’s bridegroom.
This is where the above-mentioned “Catholic Right” often gladly enter to affirm that, yes, gay unions are not “even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family,” as Amoris Laetitia puts it (251). Many on the “Right” consider all attempts to recognize same-sex love as a way of undermining Catholic teaching. That is, even notions of dialogue or pastoral accompaniment are received with suspicion. The conflation between sexual relationships and all meaningful, committed relationships remains here, too, as it does with the Catholic Left.
The approach of those on the Catholic Right is to let their fear of doctrinal compromise prevent them from making space for gay Catholics.
After all, where are all the self-proclaimed “orthodox Catholics” intentionally reaching out to the LGBTQ community? If the Catholic Church is really meant to be the place where all people find a home, then where is the attempt to actually help gay persons flourish in the Church? The sentiment of good riddance is not only uncharitable but fundamentally unorthodox. If you think someone should feel out of place in the Church, then you do not think the Church is what Christ intended it to be.
Unfortunately, the CDF document does not do much to counter this tendency. Gay Catholics have long known that the Church considers gay sex to be sinful. Nothing new there. And when so many gay persons are only hanging on in the Church by a thread, repeated statements from on high about what is off-limits become incredibly numbing. Enough “no’s!”. How are gay persons to flourish in the Church?
Part of the answer goes back to untangling sex from love—including sex from same-sex love. Love includes much more than sex, and even the CDF suggests as much when it admits “the presence in such relationships of positive elements” that are “to be valued and appreciated.” This recalls the Synod on the Family’s midterm report, which said, “it has to be noted that there are cases in which mutual aid to the point of sacrifice constitutes a precious support in the life of the partners” in same-sex unions.
That language was ultimately thrown out in the synod’s final report, nor did it appear in its follow-up apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia. The CDF’s admission of “positive elements” will likely be overshadowed by its “negative” assessment of same-sex blessings—much to the celebration of the Right.
But the point cannot be understated: Love, even committed same-sex love, is much more than sex. So is there a way forward?
While there are surely many ways to approach this question, I offer the following considerations as a way for our bishops, pastors, and the Church at large to faithfully embrace Catholic teaching while also deeply considering the experiences of gay Catholics and the LGBT community more broadly. I believe that this proposal upholds and affirms Church teaching while still acknowledging love and commitment between people of the same-sex.
The Christian tradition has long offered examples of ways members of the same sex can join together in mutual self-giving and companionship. Eve Tushnet is one prominent Catholic voice speaking to these long-forgotten but much needed forms of same-sex love. She identifies not only the communal examples of such love, like monasteries and modern intentional communities, but also committed models between two individuals.
Such models are found in the Bible itself. Eve considers the covenant friendship of King David and Jonathan, among others. Throughout the Church’s history, there have been ways for members of the same sex to unite themselves together—for practical purposes but also out of genuine love. They would become part of and care for each other’s families.
Sometimes, such unions would even involve religious ritual. In Eastern Christian tradition, the priest’s blessing was involved in adelphopoiesis, or “brother-making,” whereby two members of the same sex would become as close as siblings. They would be considered “spiritual brothers.” The significance of this rite is suggested by the fact that it has even been used as an indication of same-sex unions in the past; however, such arguments try to squeeze more than the evidence actually provides.
Imagine how gay Catholics might feel if they knew that it was once totally acceptable not only to form special, committed relationships with members of the same sex but also to have these relationships blessed by the Church. Imagine how the Church could proceed to recognize the “positive elements” in committed, same-sex relationships if it only remembered its past religiously-based recognition of such love.
Gay Catholics want meaningful lives centered on relationship and self-giving like everybody else. It’s a sad fact that, in many churches, the best pastoral advice we receive is simply to remain celibate. And that’s it. But the Church can offer so much more.
The call for the Church is a call to creativity. We must be innovative. An openness to pastoral creativity—along with theologically-based critical thinking—is no threat to orthodoxy. Even if considering this proposal may make some Catholics uncomfortable, such an effort will ultimately illuminate the depths of that which is truly Christian, in the first place. We must not let our cultural assumptions restrain us—something that has largely paralleled the Church’s own ways of thinking. Even if this means opening the vault of the Catholic past, we must do it. Only in carefully listening and responding to the deepest desires of gay Catholics can we truly offer “the assistance they need to understand and fully carry out God’s will in their lives.”
The challenge is not simply to aim for the middle of the line segment I mentioned at the beginning. Rather, the call is for the Church to add more dimensionality to her response to this grave concern—to “think beyond the line.” As long as we continue to think of meaningful, committed same-sex love in terms of sex alone, we are not only neglecting the real needs of gay Catholics but also neglecting the fullness of the Church’s teaching.