Faithfully Extending Faith: Will the Church ever recognize same-sex unions?

Monarch Butterfly

In a recent Daily Meditation (July 17, 2017) from Richard Rohr, OFM guest writer Brian McLaren makes this statement: “Jesus and Paul were not denying their religion . . . ; they were faithfully extending it [emphasis added], letting it grow and flow forward.” McLaren’s point is that Christians in every age must overcome the tendency to let their faith be just another ossified institution of rules, power structures, and laws that fail to fully meet the needs of the contemporary world. To do this, Christians must always look to Jesus. There, McLaren asserts, is where we see the overarching teaching of Jesus on the supremacy of love. “The new commandment of love meant neither beliefs nor words, neither taboos, systems, structures nor the labels that enshrined them mattered most. Love decentered [and] relativized everything else; love took priority over everything else.”

I remember first pondering the supposed conflict between my own sense of self as a gay person and the “long-held teaching of the Church” that homosexuality was sinful. How could this be?, I wondered. How could the Church’s teaching on the purpose and place of human sexual expression be so very different from my own growing understanding of myself as created “in the image and likeness” of God, of someone who is flawed, yes, but who is fundamentally good? I fed my reflections not only with my own lived experience, but with a knowledge base of philosophy and theology expanded throughout my college and seminary years.

The word that eventually came to mind to describe this tension was incomplete. As far as the Church’s main and positive notions about human sexuality were concerned, this made sense to me. The basic relational values of mutual respect, faithfulness, commitment, and openness to new life seemed spot on. But the other notions — those that are negative or proscriptive and which have the effect of being more burdensome than liberating  — these did not seem to fit with the radical message of Jesus to “love one another as I have loved you.”

Knowing that the Church holds to a belief in the Development of Doctrine — that the richness of the Gospel can yield new insights and greater understanding in every generation — could it be that our understanding of human sexuality was also growing, deepening, and extending as we became more aware of the natural (i.e. God-given) diversity in this dimension of human experience?

Take, for example, whether a committed same-sex relationship could be licit, valid, even sacramental. Church teaching holds that the two “ends” of marriage are its unitive and procreative ends — a loving union between two persons who are open to new life. However, the Church recognizes and accepts as fully sacramental those heterosexual unions where there is absolutely no possibility of “new life” in the form of biological children. Think of those with significant health conditions or couples who marry in advanced age. Here, a more generous theology is called for. A theology which sees “procreative” as more than just the begetting of biological children. This more generous theology recognizes how such unions can be procreative by the ways such couples extend themselves, give of themselves, and share their life with family, friends, community. Why could the same generous theology not also recognize the validity and sacramentality of similarly-committed same-sex couples?

Clearly the institutional Church is a long, long way from recognizing not only the sacramentality of same-sex unions, but even their civil legitimacy. All that notwithstanding, is it possible for us, in love, to be like Paul and countless others who have gone before us in faith? Can we lovingly, not fearfully, “read the signs of the times” and — with open ears, eyes, minds and heart —  be willing to see the ways in which the Spirit might be challenging us to extend our faith, so that the joy of the Gospel might be known to all peoples and in every generation?

Two Rainbows — What Is and What is Yet To Be

Double Rainbow

Double Rainbow

“But some things you know deep in your heart: that all human beings are made in the image of God…” That’s from Andrew Sullivan’s wonderful essay on yesterday’s historic Supreme Court ruling. It also includes a phrase that is the title of these pages and expresses a belief I’ve “known in my heart” for as long as I can remember.  The new header above — a double-rainbow after a Spring thunderstorm here in Florida just a few weeks ago — seems to me symbolic.

The lower, brighter rainbow is more clear, more brilliant. It seems closer to the Earth, closer to home, and for me symbolizes the wonderful progress God’s LGBT children have made in seeking recognition and acceptance within civil society. The upper rainbow — less clear, less brilliant, but still there — to me symbolizes the progress that has yet to be made within the Church. I pray for the day when both rainbows will be brilliant and bright, expressive of the full diversity that is within God’s human family, and the welcome, love and acceptance that all People have for one another.

The Sensus Fidelium of Catholic Ireland

(Source: The Irish Times)

(Source: The Irish Times)

Ireland is a country with a huge Catholic majority. Though recent data indicate a decline in those who identify as Catholic, at least 84% of the population still do (Central Statistics Office Ireland, 2011). Ireland has also just become the first nation in the world to approve same-sex marriage by popular referendum. This historic change came about not by legislation passed by elected officials and not by judicial decree. It came about through the most democratic tool available to a free people.

Termed a “national act of inclusion” by former tánaiste (deputy prime minster) Eamon Gilmore, in Catholic theological language Friday’s vote can also be seen as an act expressing the sensus fidelium (sense of the faithful) in this overwhelmingly Roman Catholic country where religious faith is deeply embedded in the lives and culture of the people.

Is there a lesson here for Catholic leaders both in Ireland and around the globe? Perhaps this vote is telling the world that as Catholic Christians, Irish men and women have a deeper understanding of the Gospel than those whose role it is to preach it. Perhaps this vote is telling the world that the Gospel of Jesus — so strongly interwoven into the everyday lives of a faithful, evangelized people — challenges people everywhere to recognize that all persons, regardless of sexual orientation (or race or ethnicity or language or skin color or….), are children of God called to live lovingly, openly and honestly — just as God created us.

As an Irish-American, I am so very proud today of the country where my grandparents were born; so very proud of my many cousins and “relations” whose grandparents never left “the auld sod” and today are part of a new Ireland that has spoken loudly, clearly and forcefully.

Has a Catholic school teacher ever been fired for … greed? gluttony? advocating war?

When asked why long-time Catholic high school teacher Ken Bencomo was fired, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles had this to say:

“‘However, if a teacher or school employee makes a public display of behavior that is counter to church teaching – such as homosexuality, sex outside of marriage, having a child outside of marriage – that can impact their employment status,’ said John Andrews, diocese spokesman.” [emphasis added]

KenBencome-MarriageBencomo, who is gay, married his partner in a civil-ceremony when same-sex marriage became legal in California after the US Supreme Court’s recent ruling on California’s Prop 8.

Why do institutional Church leaders always limit their understanding of “church teaching” to things related to sex?  Is this what they understand Christian life to be mainly about? Is this what they believe Jesus suffered and died for, i.e. so that gay people wouldn’t have sex and that the Church’s rules about marriage would be followed?

How many Catholic school teachers or administrators have been fired  for inadequately living up to the Gospel values of faith, hope and love? What Church workers have been disciplined for failing to do works of charity, or putting into practice the demands of social justice?  How many diocesan employees — including bishops, priests, deacons, and religious sisters and brothers — have lost their jobs because they failed in doing the corporal works of mercy of …

  • feeding the hungry?
  • giving drink to the thirsty?
  • clothing the naked?
  • sheltering the homeless?
  • visiting the sick?
  • ransoming the captive?
  • burying the dead?

My point is not that anyone should lose his/her job for failing to do these things, or otherwise inadequately putting into practice the mandates of the Gospel — because every Christian falls short in one way or another of our call to discipleship.  And yet, even if one accepts the particular “Church teaching” Mr. Bencomo is supposed to have violated, did Jesus Himself ever condemn or punish or harm anyone whom He believed to be failing in some virtue or Gospel value? For those unfamiliar with the Gospels, the answer is No. Even to the so-called “woman caught in adultery,” Jesus says, “Nor do I condemn you.”

Despite Pope Francis’ recent declaration of “Who am I to judge?” when asked about gay priests, apparently many Church leaders feel quite well-equipped to judge and condemn their gay brothers and sisters.

Dolan is Disingenuous re: LGBT People and “Defense of Marriage”

NYC archbishop Timothy Cardinal Dolan

NYC archbishop Timothy Cardinal Dolan

“We gotta be – we gotta do better to see that our defense of marriage is not reduced to an attack on gay people.”  These words from NY Cardinal Timothy Dolan sound friendly and encouraging. They sound as if they echo his earlier statements in the same interview with George Stephanopolous recognizing even gay people are created in God’s “image and likeness” and that he (Dolan) loves gay people too.  All well and good! But if Dolan and other Catholic leaders claim that their “defense of marriage” is not an “attack on gay people,” then why did we never hear about bishops “defending marriage” until the issue of public recognition of same-sex unions and civil marriage became a viable reality in the US? Why is it that the high divorce rate among heterosexual Catholic couples wasn’t enough to spur the bishops to “defend marriage”?  Why is it that the economic pressures on the American family practically demanding that both parents work outside the home — leaving so many children to essentially raise themselves — didn’t cause the bishops to speak out and “defend marriage”?

Dolan’s Irish joviality and good-natured humor make him a darling of the media. We want to believe him and take what he says as true. Facts and history, however, tell a different tale.  The truth is that the Church’s “defense of marriage” is a direct response to the recognition by the majority of Americans and people of good will around that world of a truth that the bishops will one day regret not recognizing sooner.  That truth is this:  all persons, including God’s LGBT sons and daughters, are created in the divine image and likeness; and by this very fact, every human person has the right to live his or her natural and God-given sexuality as he/she understands that gift to be.

Until Cardinal Dolan and other Catholic leaders own the truth that their so-called “defense of marriage” is nothing but an “attack on gay people” and that their words and actions don’t mesh — not until then will LGBT Catholics be truly welcomed in the religious home that is ours and that we refuse to give up.

Priest-Mayor and Gay Marriage in France

ElieGeffray

Elie Geffray, priest and mayor of the village of Eréac in Brittany

What a great story from the French countryside! This evening’s All Things Considered tells the story of a Catholic priest who supports same-sex marriage in France and — when that becomes law — will officiate at civil weddings in his capacity as mayor.

French Catholic Priest Plans To Marry Same-Sex Couples In New Job As Mayor

The Holy Family: Non-Traditional Family Values

HolyFamilyIconIn the Catholic liturgical calendar, today is the Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Ironic, isn’t it, that this feast — in which Catholics hold up for reverence a three-person family where a man marries a woman and raises a child not his own — is used by religious leaders to condemn the dire, unforeseen consequences of allowing God’s LGBT sons and daughters the right to form their own loving, committed relationships and families. A letter from the Catholic archbishop of Birmingham (England), Bernard Longley, which is being read today in parishes throughout that diocese, is the latest example of a Catholic bishop reminding us of what peril awaits should the UK move forward with Prime Minister David Cameron’s proposal to legalize same-sex marriage.

Ever since the struggle for gay rights began to focus on the right to marry the person one loves, opponents of gay rights have shifted their arguments from attacking gay people directly to seeing such demands as an “attack on the family.” By seeking the same rights to form loving, committed, marital relationships as their heterosexual brothers and sisters, gay people were accused of undermining “traditional family values” in which a wife and husband raise the offspring of their union in the “the traditional family.”

As the iconic non-traditional family, perhaps the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph should become the new poster symbol in the continuing struggle for gay rights.

Why Benedict XVI is wrong on same-sex marriage

Pope Benedict XVI

Pope Benedict XVI

According to Pope Benedict XVI, God actually does make mistakes. Despite what most religious people from practically every tradition have believed for millennia, the all-knowing and all-powerful Creator of the Universe isn’t quite perfect after all. That’s the only logical conclusion one can reach if one takes at face value Benedict XVI’s recent statements regarding same-sex marriage during his annual Christmas message to the Roman Curia. (The full text in the media and from the Vatican is worth reading, as well as the story as reported, with excerpts, in the Vatican’s Daily Bulletin.)

Referring to “a very detailed and profoundly moving study” by the Chief Rabbi of France, Gilles Bernstein, that describes “the attack we are currently experiencing on the true structure of the family,” Benedict states that:

“…it is now becoming clear that the very notion of being – of what being human really means – is being called into question. … According to this philosophy [of gender], sex is no longer a given element of nature, that man has to accept and personally make sense of: it is a social role that we choose for ourselves, while in the past it was chosen for us by society. … People dispute the idea that they have a nature, given by their bodily identity, that serves as a defining element of the human being. They deny their nature and decide that it is not something previously given to them, but that they make it for themselves. According to the biblical creation account, being created by God as male and female pertains to the essence of the human creature. This duality is an essential aspect of what being human is all about, as ordained by God.”

Benedict is clearly an intelligent man, but there are so many problems with his words here that it’s almost hard to know where to begin. The fact that he questions sex as something that we have “to personally make sense of” boggles the mind and makes one wonder how, or if, the pope has ever explored his own sexuality! Gender or sexual identity is not something that people “make…for themselves,” nor is it given to individuals by society. It is, rather, something that individuals discover for themselves. Certainly one’s physical body is an essential element of this discovery, and for many millions of individuals, this journey of discovery follows a similar trajectory, finding themselves attracted naturally to members of the opposite sex and forming relationships that lead to what is so facilely labeled “the traditional family.”

HoldingHandsBenedict, however, seems unable to recognize that within the immense diversity of God’s creation there is more than one possible expression of human sexuality, more than one possible path our journeys of self-discovery take. In addition to the physical body we each have, our own individual psychology and character, indeed our very souls, are essential in that self-discovery, helping find answers for ourselves to the eternal question, “Who am I?”  The nature of the individual person fully includes one’s body, but it is not defined by one’s body; reduced to a sort of biologism that is behind this line of papal thought. One’s sexual identity is part of who we are as individuals, and it is an identity that is discovered and embraced, not created or chosen at will.

Who among us has stood back from our own life and experience, surveyed a smorgasbord of gender options and pondered the question, “Hmmm? What gender should I choose for myself?” and then moved into action based on that choice? Ask any human adult on the face of this earth, “when did you choose your sexual orientation? what factors went into your deciding to be attracted to men/women? how old were you when you said to yourself, ‘I think I’ll be heterosexual (or homosexual, etc)’?” Any honest person will say, “I never did such a thing; I never made such a choice. It’s simply something I came to know about myself; it’s my nature and part of who I am.”

Benedict goes on to state his continued critique of what he understands as a flawed perspective even more bluntly:

“From now on there is only the abstract human being, who chooses for himself what his nature is to be.”

The pope claims that those who recognize the reality of gender, gender identity, and sexual orientation have reduced the human person to a mere abstraction. For those who are familiar with the pope’s appeals to Natural Law theory in support for his condemnation of the rights of God’s homosexual sons and daughters, could the papal logic be more mixed up than this?  It is precisely the “abstract human being” that the pope himself wants individuals to be, fitting into his notion of a generic version of human nature, based not on the lived experience of flesh and blood human beings, but on his abstract and generalized pictures of male and female. Human persons, however, are not abstract; we are concrete, individual, flesh and blood creatures — billions and billions of us as diverse as are the combinations of genes that make us who we are.  And, each and every one of us as individuals — not abstracts — represent the image and likeness of the Creator.

The pope’s words reveal a conflict between two positions that the Church wants to hold — two positions that are inherently contradictory. The first is the Church’s rightful recognition (as seen in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, CCC) that sexual orientation is a God-given reality; and the second is subsequent statements that a homosexual orientation (or “inclination,” to use the Church’s word) is “disordered.”

You can’t have it both ways — unless you believe in a God who make mistakes. If sexual orientation is a choice (and no one is claiming that it is), then Benedict’s conclusions about a homosexual orientation/inclination as “disordered” could arguably be correct (but then it wouldn’t be correct to describe it as an “inclination,” would it?).  If, on the other hand, sexual orientation is not a choice, but a God-given reality, then by that very fact it is good, no matter where on the spectrum of possibilities we find ourselves as individuals.

Confirmation Confusion in Minnesota (and Canon Law)

Canon Lawyer Edward Peters

Edward Peters, JD, JCD is a canon lawyer. I occasionally follow his blog, as he sometimes has interesting posts about his take on Church matters in the public eye. I say “occasionally” because his blog does not allow comments or feedback, so I prefer not to give my own time to bloggers who do not allow for such engagement. After all, isn’t engagement and interaction what blogging and the tools of social media are all about?  In this regard, I think Dr. Peters confuses “blogging” with “lecturing” … but I digress.

That said, his recent post, Confirmation and advocacy of ‘gay marriage’ [sic] cries out for response.

Two points:

First, my “[sic]” notation is to draw attention to the fact that Dr. Peters is one of those folks who puts the phrase gay marriage in quotations or otherwise off-sets it as a means of communicating that they do not think such a thing is real.  If he were speaking to you in person, you could just see him holding up both hands and making finger-quotes as he voiced that phrase, as if to say, “they call it ‘gay marriage,’ but we know such a thing doesn’t really exist.” They think that God’s gay sons and daughters — living their full humanity, including their sexuality, as given by God — are incapable of entering into marital relationships with someone of the same sex. Instead of seeing with open eyes and thoughtful minds the evidence from so many human sciences, including theology  (not to mention the lived experience of millions of gay men and women living in committed relationships), Dr. Peters prefers the blinders of ecclesiastical legality to the truth self-evident to so many.

Lennon Cihak

Second, Dr. Peters’ post discusses the situation of a young man who has been denied the Sacrament of Confirmation for his opposition to Minnesota’s recent ballot initiative that would have included in that state’s constitution language limiting marriage to one man and one woman. Peters focuses his brief post on the meaning of “proper disposition” as one of the criteria necessary for the Faithful to share in the sacraments.

I do not take issue with this basic principle of sacramental theology. The sacraments in our Tradition are indeed not to be taken lightly and must be appreciated as the gifts they are, a means by which God’s People share more fully in God’s grace.  Sacramental participation requires a minimal understanding of what a particular sacrament is all about; a freely-expressed desire to share in the sacrament; and the expressed intention to live one’s life as best one can with the fundamentals of Christian faith.

Peters, however, goes on to observe the distinction between “internal disposition” and “external disposition” as follows:

Generally “proper disposition” is not a question of internal disposition (such as interior faith, fervor, or grace) but rather of external disposition (public demeanor, dress, and conduct). The state of a would-be recipient’s soul is not determinable, of course, but his or her attitudes and conduct are observable (we’re talking Facebook, no?), and potentially actionable.

In all fairness, Peters does not state explicitly that the pastor’s action in this situation was correct. A benign interpretation of Peters’ post could be merely that it points out that Church order allows for a pastor to refuse the sacraments in certain circumstances. Priests and pastors do and should have this right. After all, a pastor can and must deny marriage to someone who is already married, or Eucharist to someone who is not Baptized and has no intention of living the Christian life (as they, the potential recipient, would declare).

Nonetheless, a more likely interpretation of his post is that Peters supports the pastor’s decision — and it is with this, i.e. that the pastor’s decision was correct, that I (and others) take issue. Despite what Dr. Peters’ and the USCCB say formally about civil marriage, the fact is that a majority of American Catholics support the rights of God’s LGBT sons and daughters to marry the person they love. Would Dr. Peters deny the sacraments to these millions of Catholics? Or only to those who wear a rainbow ribbon on their lapel or post a supportive photo online? And, of course, why be limited to support for civil-marriage as the litmus test for deciding appropriate “external disposition”? There are countless issues where millions of Catholics hold different positions than do official Church leaders — civil divorce, war, immigration, capital punishment, to name but a few.  Would every Catholic, for example, who holds that civil divorce should be allowed in a pluralistic society likewise be denied the sacraments?

My point is this:  the denial of confirmation to this young man was a bad decision.  Using the sacraments as tools of discipline (especially when that discipline is misguided) is a bad idea.  It’s a lesson that this pastor — and the US bishops — need to learn.

Evidence, not Opinion: What the bishops should embrace about homosexuality

I spent this past week at a conference in San Francisco on ADHD, the annual conference of the non-profit organization where I work. The closing plenary was by a renowned neurologist, Dr. Martha Denckla from Baltimore’s Kennedy-Krieger Institute. Dr. Denckla is a true scientist, relying on the facts and what empirical data show in drawing her research conclusions.

During the Q & A after her presentation she was asked by one attendee, “What’s your opinion of [some named product making claims about alleviating ADHD symptoms]?” Without missing a beat, Dr. Denckla replied, “I prefer not to have opinions. I prefer evidence over opinions.”

Russian icon from the collection at Hillwood Museum.

Such wisdom would serve well current Church leaders who continue to bury their heads in the sand, choosing to remain blind to the incontrovertible evidence about what it means to be gay. As the US Catholic Bishops have their fall meeting in Baltimore this week and discuss (as no doubt they will) what to do in response to last week’s election, the wisdom of those words deserves repeating. The bishops (both in the US and around the world, including Rome) would do well to take a dose of humility for a change and simply listen. They should listen to the evidence of the lives of LGBT people, their families and friends, as demonstrated in the favorable votes in four states on same-sex marriage. They should put aside their opinions, based as they are on outdated and incorrect understandings of human sexuality, and they should listen to the evidence that tells us that:

  • being gay is a given, not a choice;
  • being gay for a gay person is just as ‘natural’ as being straight is for a straight person;
  • the struggle for LGBT rights — including the right to marry the person you love — is about gay people and in no way diminishes the marriages of straight people.

As the US and worldwide bishops continue to look away from the clear evidence of research and most especially the evidence of the lived experience of God’s LGBT children, they run the risk of being guilty of remaining in what moral theology calls “vincible ignorance.”  Unlike “invincible ignorance” which cannot be overcome due to one’s own efforts, vincible ignorance is that lack of knowledge for which one is morally responsible. As shepherds of God’s People, bishops have an obligation to know the people they are called to serve.

They have an obligation to listen to the stories of gay men and women who live lives of deep Christian faith and who live in faithful, committed relationships.  They need to listen to the stories of parents whose gay children have suffered bullying and abuse at the hands of others inspired, in part, by the hateful language of “disordered” and “unnatural.”  Perhaps especially they need to listen to the stories of their own lives (many bishops, no doubt, are gay themselves) as well as the stories of their family members and friends.

The lived experience of God’s People is not only a legitimate source of insight into clarifying and articulating anew the Christian message in every age; it is a required source of such insight. If we really believe that God is actively involved in the lives of His People, then it is the evidence of God’s action in human lives that deserves recognition, respect, and support.