A few weeks ago, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) issued a universal edict denying a church blessing for gay partners as part of the marriage ceremony.
* Editor’s Note: This column first appeared in the April 7 edition of Irish Voice, sister publication of IrishCentral.
Their stated reasoning for this general rejection centers on the alleged sin of gay sexual intimacy which the Vatican statement claims God could never bless.
At the start of his pontificate, on the plane back from a successful trip to Brazil, Pope Francis answered a question about homosexuality by asking: “Who am I to judge? He wondered why he should condemn a good-willed homosexual doing his best to lead a decent life.
This is hardly a controversial statement; it would gain approval in almost any business. However, the Catholic Church maintains a different perspective.
Francis’ predecessor, Benedict, described the homosexual lifestyle as “objectively messy,” and before him, John Paul II denounced the intimate behavior of same-sex couples as “against natural law.” It is this response to queer relationships that underpins the CDF statement.
The National Catholic Reporter, a leading Catholic newspaper, is covering the front page of a committed Catholic couple who wanted a priest’s blessing for their union on their wedding day. A sympathetic priest from the LGBT community performed the ceremony – in an episcopal church.
According to the gospels, Jesus never even addressed this issue, and focusing on his message of love and compassion, he had very little to say about prohibiting all sexual behavior.
The Catholic Church has certainly not followed his example in this regard.
Without deviating from the ideal heights of a chaste lifestyle, Francis promised a more pastoral approach to homosexuals. When he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he supported civil unions where the state recognizes same-sex marriage as legal – a position he also defended as Pope, emphasizing everyone’s need for a supportive family. .
While dealing only with civil arrangements, this thought drew much criticism from the strong traditionalist wing of the Catholic Church, especially in America. They reminded Francis of the basic Catholic teaching that all sexual activity should be limited to marriage and procreation.
No premarital sex, no contraceptives allowed, and certainly same-sex love is completely anathema. Catholic teaching on marriage is succinct: one man, one woman, once!
This attitude towards sexuality was largely integrated into the culture at large until the 1960s. Since then, there has been a transformation in thinking about what is permitted and appropriate between consenting adults. The ease of access to contraceptives has radically changed the behavior of homosexual and heterosexual couples.
It is no longer acceptable in Western culture to belittle people because of their sexual propensity. And Vatican statements, including the recent CDF, still advise that homosexuals be respected and treated with dignity.
Many homosexuals cast a cold eye on this statement, wondering how an institution that views their way of life as messy and unnatural can be sincere in wishing them good luck and offering them pastoral advice.
It is instructive to examine the changing perspectives on homosexuality through the lens of the American Psychiatric Association (APA). They considered it a mental disorder until their 1973 annual convention, when a slight majority of psychiatrists voted to remove this negative designation.
Instead, their Disorders Diagnostic Manual (DSM) called it a “referral disruption,” a halfway effort to include both parties in ABS. It wasn’t until 1987 that all negative connotations of being queer were completely removed from the DSM.
Cardinal Newman, the great 19th century thinker and convert to Catholicism, warned that human knowledge of God and ethical questions can never be frozen in time and that Church teaching must always be dynamic, open to new perspectives in response to advances in scientific knowledge and human experience.
Change, moving away from past positions, has always been a challenge for large organizations and this certainly applies to the Catholic Church. Popes tend to show unwarranted deference to the teaching of their predecessors.
Paul VI, anguished by the question of the use of contraceptives in the late 1960s, felt that he could not go against the teaching of Pius X1 in his encyclical Casti Connubi (Latin: du chaste marriage) published in 1930. Pie affirmed the traditional values in the region. of sexuality against the declaration of liberalization that same year by Anglican leaders at their Lambeth conference, which allowed the use of contraceptives by married couples under limited circumstances.
Either way, Paul went against the view of a clear majority of his advisory commission, primarily because he felt that straying from his predecessor would damage papal credibility. His encyclical Humanae Vitae (Latin: of human life), published in 1968, remains faithful to Casti Connubi and prohibits the use of condoms or the contraceptive pill even by married couples. The overwhelming majority of Catholics ignore this papal ordinance with, ironically, serious damage to the credibility that Paul sought to improve.
More recently, Francis answered the important question of the ordination of women by stating that his predecessor John Paul II had already excluded it, without sharing his own opinion. Interestingly, this is a central issue on the German church’s agenda in their important ongoing synod, and they are likely to recommend changes in this discipline. If other national and regional synods take a similar stance, Rome might not be able to stem the forces of modernity.
At present, any priest or bishop participating in a female ordination is subject to excommunication. Bad luck for the many women who feel called to priestly service.
These ecclesiastical regulations reflect the cultural beliefs of the past. The Vatican finds it very difficult to update and reformulate its belief system, especially in light of the positive advances in popular perceptions and scientific knowledge about the gay lifestyle.
Christians call on the spirit that permeates the universe, the spiritus mundi, to guide them. The Catholic theologians of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1964) emphasized the importance of what they called the sensus fidelium, the beliefs of the people in the pews, in gradually developing an understanding of controversial issues.
Vatican men occasionally live up to this concept, but in reality they want to keep the power to themselves and they have been really successful in this regard. The secular community, the non-clergy, has virtually no say in deciding the church’s teaching on the queer lifestyle.
Let us return to the recent CDF statement on the blessing of same-sex marriages. Rome’s decision sparked expressions of dismay in progressive religious circles. Cardinal Schonborn of Vienna said that as long as the request for the blessing is genuine and comes from a good heart, “it will not be refused.”
Seven of the ten Austrian bishops criticized the Vatican statement and 200 German theologians questioned a regulation that suggests the exclusion of same-sex couples from the love of God. And over 2,000 priests in Germany and Austria have pledged to continue blessing same-sex couples with the right disposition.
In America, Cardinal Tobin in Newark, of the progressive minority wing of American bishops, proudly welcomes gays to his cathedral and says the church’s approach to sexuality absolutely needs to be rethought.
Across the Hudson, New York’s large Catholic homosexual community would surely rejoice if Cardinal Dolan displayed similar magnanimity, but he is a leader of old-fashioned thought. He fully supports the CDF’s statement and, unfortunately, no priest in his archdiocese can offer a priestly blessing on the marriage of gay parishioners because the CDF at the Vatican has declared that God has excluded it.
(Blogs by Gerry O’Shea at WeMustBeTalking.com)