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?

“We are called by name, not by category”

That is the closing line in theologian James Alison’s response to a question about same-sex marriage. A gay man, priest and former Dominican who describes his current canonical status as “anomalous,” Alison responds to questions about his thoughts on a variety of issues about the hierarchy’s teaching about homosexuality. The Commonweal magazine interview is definitely worth a read, but requires some distraction-free time to take it in fully.

There’s a lot to take away; here are a few things that jumped out at me:

On forms of idolatry:

Spending time, as I do, with people on both sides of the Reformation divide, I find strict parallels between the temptations to which either side is prone. Protestantism is tempted to bibliolatry, and Catholicism is tempted to ecclesiolatry. Both are forms of idolatry that involve some sort of grasping of security where it is not to be found. This grasping ends up by evacuating the object grasped (whether the Bible or the church) of meaning, turning it instead into a projection of the one grasping. The nonidolatrous approach is when we allow ourselves to be reached and held by a living act of communication from One who is not on the same level as either Bible or church, but of whose self-disclosure those realities can most certainly become signs.

In response to the question: “Are there things that Catholics who support your view on homosexuality do that drive you crazy?

Such things [many kinds of protests and demonstrations] feed ecclesiastical delusions of holy victimhood. They effectively give church leaders an excuse to put off the slow, humble task of beginning to imagine forms of truthfulness of speech.

From my experience, I would add to this the casual, frequent, and not apparently thought-through attempts at re-defining core elements of Catholic faith and practice that occur in some circles. In particular, the areas of sacrament and liturgical practice — largely because it’s what most of us DO as Catholics — seems sadly subject to this.

On the distinction between the institutional Church’s condemnation of homosexual acts as “disordered,” but not the condemnation of homosexual persons as persons:

This does seem to me somewhat of a Ptolemaic discussion in a Copernican universe. Of course there is a notional distinction between talking about what someone is, and talking about what someone does. The question is not “Does the notional distinction exist?” but “What use is being made of the fact that such a distinction can be formulated?” When the distinction is made in the discussion of gay people to which you refer, it is subservient to a conviction brought in from elsewhere—that of the objectively disordered nature of the inclination….

…it seems to me quite patent that here we have an unwieldy bid to fit a reality into an acceptable framework, rather than learning from reality how to adjust a now unreliable framework…

And finally, as a closing thought to where things currently stand in the institutional Catholic Church and where we might be headed in the years again, given what we have:

Until all this is resolved, people like me find ourselves, I guess, muddling along in this messy transitional period in the life of the church, resting in Our Lord’s good cheer!

The Symbolic Significance of Vestments

Although there was much to recommend and rejoice at during the recent DignityUSA Convention held here in Washington, DC, one of the things that troubled me was the ambiguity that seems to pervade some of the organization’s liturgical celebrations, both at the national level and in many local chapters. In particular, it seems that there is a lack of clarity between what a “presider” is and what a “presbyter” is. Nowhere was this confusion more evident than in the convention’s Eucharistic liturgy, as well as other liturgical celebrations.

Without delving in to the many elements of Roman Catholic Sacramental Theology as it relates to Eucharist and Orders, one not-so-small thing jumped out at me repeatedly. It seems that whenever anyone was leading a prayer, he/she wore a stole. Such loosey goosey use of liturgical vesture robs these important vestments of their liturgical value and contributes to confusion.

Liturgist Aidan Kavangh put it clearly:

“Vestments are sacred garments rather than costumes or billboards. They are meant to designate certain ministers in their liturgical function by clothing creatures in beauty. Their symbolic strength comes not from their decoration but from their texture, form and color. The basic vestment of major ministers is the stole, which bishops and presbyters wear around the neck and deacons wear over the left shoulder. No other ministers wear stoles in the Roman Rite,” [emphasis added]. (Elements of Rite: A Handbook of Liturgical Style, Aidan Kavanagh, Pueblo Publishing Co., 1982, p. 19)