On Monday, March 15th, Pope Francis demonstrated the limits to his “reformist” policies. He expressed his agreement with a Vatican Responsum from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) regarding blessings for same-sex unions. The question to the CDF was: “Does the Church have the power to give the blessing to unions of persons of the same sex?” The Responsum answered with a very firm NO, saying that same-sex unions are “not ordered to the Creator’s plan.” The CDF says acknowledging those unions is “illicit,”and that God “cannot bless sin.”
Once again we see the papal paradox. In his public rhetoric, Pope Francis is positive and supportive of gay people; but in official ecclesiastical policy, he remains rigidly closed and negative. It reminds me of Pope Paul VI, who had seemed open to change on sexual morality but then issued his 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae reiterating the church’s ban on artificial contraception.
For many people today there will be more anguish, confusion, and anger. The Belgian Catholic Bishop of Antwerp, Johan Bonny, wrote in an opinion piece in the Belgian newspaper De Standaard on Wednesday, March 17, that he feels “shame for my Church” and “intellectual and moral incomprehension” after Pope Francis approved the “negative” response to a question about whether Catholic clergy have the authority to bless same-sex unions.
Jamie Manson, journalist, president of Catholics for Choice, and a member of the LGBTQ community, said in an interview with NPR’s A. Martinez: “You know, my sense is that this will be a final blow for a number of Catholics who really had been holding onto hope because of Pope Francis. The media had such a love affair with him, and I think people were really holding on tight to the last threads of hope. And this could be the final blow.”
Nevertheless, we do need to examine the issue with knowledge and an open mind. I suggest an examination using the four traditional sources of moral knowledge: scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. Historically, moral theologians have relied upon these four sources in formulating norms to guide human behavior. When there is a conflict between these sources, a process of research, dialogue, and discernment must be undertaken to determine the best course of action. That’s where we are today.
This weekend I can only offer some discussion/thought starters. I do recommend an excellent book by Todd Salzman, Professor of Theology at Creighton University, The Sexual Person. Todd is a pastoral-minded theologian who writes with knowledge, perception, and human sensitivity.
SCRIPTURE – Up to now, the traditional religious condemnation of homosexual behavior has been based on: Genesis 19:1-11; Leviticus 18:22, 20:13; Romans 1:26-7; 1 Corinthians 6:9; and 1 Timothy 1:10. In the light of contemporary Catholic and Protestant biblical scholarship, however, it is impossible to affirm that these texts provide a solid foundation for condemning homosexual acts today. They cannot be taken literally but must be interpreted in terms of the authors’ times, culture, and social contexts.
The context in which both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament condemn homosexual acts was shaped by the socio-historical understanding of the times in which they were written. The understanding, back then, was that all human beings were naturally heterosexual and, therefore, any homosexual behavior was unnatural, a perversion, and immoral. That biblical assumption is now shown to be scientifically incorrect. Some people are, by nature, homosexual.
No doubt the most influential biblical account leading to the condemnation of homosexual acts has been the biblical account about Sodom in the book of Genesis. A contextual exegesis, now agreed upon by most contemporary biblical scholars, shows that the homosexual interpretation of that account is really not accurate. The clearer sin in both the Hebrew text and the original Hebrew context was the sin of inhospitality. A prime affirmation of this interpretation is found in Jesus’ mention of Sodom were his disciples accorded inhospitality. (Luke 10:8-12)
TRADITION – Relying upon the historical critical method, it is clear that traditional interpretations of scriptures condemning homosexual acts lack legitimacy. An historical-critical perspective does not support the old “traditional” normative conclusions as applicable to contemporary understandings of homosexuality. The old tradition is time-bound. A new tradition is already taking shape.
REASON – The heterosexual orientation is an innate, deep-seated, and stable orientation to, predominantly, persons of the opposite sex. It is natural. The homosexual orientation is a similarly innate, deep-seated, and stable orientation to, predominantly, persons of the same sex. It is natural. A person’s sexual orientation is neither chosen nor readily changeable. It simply is.
Sexual acts – whether heterosexual or homosexual – are moral when they are natural and expressed in a truly human, just, and loving manner. As Todd Salzman so clearly sums it up: “Sexual acts are moral when they are reasonable, and they are reasonable when, as a result of careful attention to and understanding of all the relevant human circumstances, a person makes an informed judgment that a given sexual action is according to right reason and facilitates human flourishing.”
EXPERIENCE – Dr. Mary E. Hunt, co-founder and co-director of the Women’s Alliance for Theology in Silver Spring, Maryland, responded to the March 15th papal statement this way: “Catholics in many parts of the world already bless same-sex unions. That genie left the bottle some years ago. Now that the Vatican has hoisted its flag, they may regret not staying quiet. I foresee story after story of good Father So-and-So who blessed Bob and Bill, Olivia y Cristina, Jacques et Georges. More common are the stories not of priests, many of whom remain too timid to bless themselves, but of lay people, indeed whole communities that gather to affirm the goodness of couples who love.”
A gay Catholic priest and professor of theology and social ethics at Fordham University, Bryan Massingale, said priests who want to engage in pastoral outreach to the gay and lesbian community “will continue to do so, except that it will be even more under the table…than it was before.”
Support for same-sex marriage among Americans as a whole has grown since Gallup analytics began asking about it in 1996. As of 2020, two in three US adults (67%) say marriages between same-sex couples should be recognized by the law as valid, matching the previous high Gallup measured in 2018.
Most US Catholics, according to Gallup, believe that same-sex unions should be legal; and they go farther than the pope and support marriage for same-sex couples. Catholics, who constitute more than a fifth of US adults, have been consistently more supportive of same-sex marriage than the population as a whole, for more than a decade. Pope Francis’ comments will please some US bishops but will most likely make little difference for the belief of Catholic laypeople in the United States, where same-sex couples have enjoyed full marriage rights and protections since 2015.
And so, one way or another, we still move and must still move ahead. – Jack