Having Their Marriage Doctrine–and Changing It, Too

August 24, 2014

Christine Hernandez

The Catholic hierarchy’s position on marriage is clear to all: one man, one woman, for life. Defending this belief has caused bishops to spend millions of dollars in a decade-long attempt to stop marriage equality’s spread. Public discourse around same-gender couples attaining marriage rights has been framed in near-apocalyptic language by some bishops, and much pastoral harm has been caused as a result.

Yet, a court case in Alabama reveals just what it might take for Catholic officials to “redefine” marriage, as they often claim LGBT advocates are trying to do.

St. Pius X Catholic School in Mobile has had three lawsuits filed against it by parents claiming the school failed to protect their children from severe bullying, one of which comes from the lesbian mother of a child known in court documents as “A.S.” AL.com reports on the strange development:

“In court, lawyers for a Catholic school in Mobile seemed to endorse the view that a lesbian partner is an equal parent to the birth mother…Lawyers for the school sought permission to take sworn testimony from Christine Hernandez, the partner of the student’s mother who has helped raise the child.”

St. Pius X’s lawyers claim Hernandez has represented herself as the parent of A.S. in the past, including in official capacities where parental consent was needed. The child’s mother sought to block Hernandez from being forced to give testimony “on the grounds that state law bans recognition of same-sex marriage,” and Mobile Country Circuit Judge Sarah Stewart agreed saying Hernandez and A.S. are “legal strangers.”

A further twist is that Hernandez is co-counsel, with David Kennedy, in the bullying lawsuits, and she would need to be removed from this case and potentially the two other ones if forced to testify. Hernandez is also involved in an adoption lawsuit which claims the same same-sex marriage ban being used to prevent her from testifying is unconstitutional. The newspaper article explained:

“In an interview, Kennedy said that notwithstanding his view of the law, it remains on the books until a court decides otherwise.

” ‘In Alabama, the law of the land is still that a child can have one mother and one father but certainly not two mothers,’ he said.

“Even without the same-sex marriage issues, Kennedy argued, Hernandez still should not be made to testify. He pointed to legal precedent setting a high hurdle for compelling lawyers to testify as fact witnesses in cases involving their clients.”

Kennedy added that even if the same-sex marriage ban were deemed unconstitutional, Hernandez could not be considered a legal parent in the bullying lawsuit without marriage or adoption paperwork on file.

For her part, Hernandez released a short statement on the issues involved, saying:

” ‘This case is not about me. This case along with the other three that we have filed to date is about the children…The children that cried out for help and were ignored.’ “

Does this mean that the possibility of losing a legal case, and the resulting financial payout, can make Catholic officials change their definition of marriage?  It certainly seems they are willing to so for such circumstances.

This is not the first incident where Catholic leaders have sought to maintain their doctrine, while simultaneously changing it when advantageous for them. In 2013, lawyers for a Colorado hospital claimed fetuses were not, in fact, unborn children and did not possess legal rights.  The hospital was being sued for the deaths of two seven-month old fetuses, and the lawyers for the hospital defended the institution by saying fetuses were not people–a position in direct contradiction with the Catholic hierarchy’s consistent stance against abortion on the grounds that fetuses are indeed unborn children.  Perhaps there are more cases like this, when Catholic doctrines once declared infallible and immutable shift for legal and/or financial reasons?

If Catholic leaders want to claim moral positions in society then, at the very least, they must at least be willing to follow them. It adds insult to injury when bishops who ignored pleas from LGBT people and their families to stop the harm being done by opposing equal rights suddenly change those very beliefs just to win lawsuits. They cannot claim a principled position when it is so readily changed for advantage.

This case in Alabama is a prime example of how flawed and fragmented thinking on LGBT issues is, whether in the court system or in the church’s theology. I hope our bishops will one day welcome each person and every family for who and what they are, as created by God. We ask the simple question: would it not be better for every Catholic before the law and before God to stand on the side of justice and equality for all?

And when that day comes, I hope the church’s leaders’ shift in thinking will come as a result of love, not lawsuits.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


Mandating Celibacy for Gay People Reveals Deep Incoherence in Church’s Teachings

August 7, 2014

Yesterday, Bondings 2.0 asked whether a Catholic understanding of mandatory celibacy for lesbian and gay people was becoming the new ‘reparative’ therapy option among conservative Christians. Today, we look at Catholic teaching on celibacy from a different angle – and ask what this magisterial requirement of mandatory celibacy for lesbian and gay Catholics reveals about the hierarchy’s teachings on homosexuality.

In July, America magazine posted an interview with Catholic lesbian writer Eve Tushnet in which she laid out the argument that gay Catholics can affirm their sexual orientation while abiding by the hierarchy’s teaching against same-sex relationships, including mandatory celibacy. You can read that interview in full here.

Katie Grimes, writer on the Women in Theology blog responded to Tushnet in two posts, available here and here, to reveal why “A lesbian who accepts her sexuality already defies church teaching just by existing.”  Grimes examines Tushnet’s argument using an ethical paradigm known as virtue theory. Grimes makes the claim that if one argues that homogenital acts are indeed unconditionally evil, then what would logically follow is that a sexual orientation towards such acts must also be considered evil as well. Grimes explains:

“Thomistic virtue theory describes the relationship between actions, habits, and character…But because virtue theory cares about not just what we do, but also who we are, it recognizes that our thoughts and desires possess more than merely instrumental importance. Rightly ordered thoughts and desires are good in and of themselves. A good person does not merely do the right thing; she both desires to do the right thing and she takes pleasure in acting rightly. Goodness involves more than just what we do.”

Flowing from this theory, Grimes says that we would then have to posit that a lesbian woman or gay man wills evil when they experience sexual feelings for a person of the same-sex, for to act on that desire would be evil. Though not reducing a gay orientation to sex alone, the desire for sex is a constitutive part of sexual attraction. Therefore, Grimes writes:

“If a woman finds herself deriving pleasure from the thought of sexual contact with the bodies and beings of other women, she ought to react to these thoughts just as you or I would if we suddenly started fantasizing about torturing a poor little bunny rabbit.

“We would be horrified and alarmed. We would seek to eradicate these thoughts from our minds as soon as possible. We would recognize them as an incitement to sin. We surely should not accept these thoughts as a constituent part of our personalities…

“So too with sexual orientation. Even if a person acquires the desire for gay sex through innocent happenstance, she retains and cultivates these malignant desires only if she chooses to. As gay and lesbian people know all too well, one comes out of the closet through a struggle born out of a resolute and long-deliberated choice…

“Tushnet rightly calls on the church to make room for its lesbian and gay members. But perhaps lesbian and gay Catholics struggle to find a home within ordinary Catholic parishes because there is no place for them in the pages of magisterial teaching.

“The magisterium tells lesbians and gays to be but do not do. But, if one should not do, then neither should one be.”

Thus, Grimes concludes that “A lesbian who accepts her sexuality already defies church teaching just by existing.” By drawing the virtue theory logic on homosexuality to its logical conclusion, even while she disagrees with it, Grimes reveals the deep incoherence in the hierarchy’s teaching. A desire for something which is sinful is itself sinful as well in a virtue ethics framework, and  disproves the idea that mandatory celibacy as the attempted middle ground by people like Eve Tushnet, is a workable solution.  The hierarchical position cannot logically claim, as it does, that a homosexual orientation is not sinful while at the same time claiming that homosexual activity is.

Yesterday’s post noted Catholicism’s mixed history on celibacy, highlighting both the beautiful gift it has been for so many in the Church’s history and the damage that forced celibacy does to our understanding of this gift.. If other Christians seek to learn from Catholics about celibacy, they should look to those of our saints who have lived single lives in service to the world. They should not look to illogical understandings of sexual orientation that condemn too many LGBT people to lives of hurt and loneliness.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


Is Celibacy the New Form of Reparative Therapy for Lesbians and Gays?

August 6, 2014

Religion News Service published an article this week entitled “Gay, Christian and … celibate: The changing face of the homosexuality debate,” which examines how the concept of celibacy is re-shaping the conservative religious establishment’s approach to lesbian and gay issues.   That is a shame for gay and lesbian people, religion, and, most of all, celibacy.

According to the article, with reparative therapy falling into greater and greater disrepute, many of its former proponents are now promoting celibacy as the proper option for lesbian and gay people.  Using Exodus, one of the former premier religious reparative therapy groups, the article states:

“When Exodus shut down in 2013, some said it spelled the end of ex-gay ministries that encourage reparative or conversion therapy for gays to become straight. Ex-gay groups such as Restored Hope Network stepped in to the gap, but many religious leaders are now encouraging those with same-sex orientation or attraction to consider a life of celibacy. . . .

“Earlier this year, the 50,000-member American Association of Christian Counselors amended its code of ethics to eliminate the promotion of reparative therapy, and encouraged celibacy instead.”

Not surprisingly, these conservative religious groups have looked to Catholicism, which has a long tradition of celibacy, for support in this endeavor.  The article states:

“Some evangelicals mine Catholicism’s centuries-old tradition of celibacy, said Wesley Hill, a professor of New Testament at Trinity School for Ministry, who wrote Washed and Waiting, a 2010 book on being gay and celibate.

“‘They already have a rich history of celibacy that I had to discover as an evangelical,’ Hill said. ‘Twenty years ago, being gay would be considered irredeemably bad, something to be delivered from or be changed. (Celibacy) leads me to form close bonds with friends, to have self-denial and sacrifice.’ ”

There is no doubt that celibacy can be a beautiful, satisfying, and enriching way to live.   And Catholicism’s history is filled with many holy and virtuous celibates.   But these conservative Christians will be making the same mistake that Catholic leaders have made for decades by saying that celibacy is the only moral option for lesbian and gay people.

Catholicism, and perhaps more accurately, early Christianity viewed celibacy as a gift and a calling.  It was something that grew out of a personal relationship with God and also seen as a way of responding to this relationship.  It was never something that was required of a whole class of people.  It was seen as a calling, a vocation, which arose out of one’s spiritual longings and experiences.

In the Middle Ages church officials eventually did make it a discipline and requirement for ordination to priesthood, but it was something that, in most of the ordinary circumstances, no one was morally required to adopt because of an outside moral obligation.

Most importantly, for the most part celibacy was seen as something that grew in the context of community.  Religious celibates enacted their calling with the mutual support of others who shared a similar call in a monastery, convent, and eventually in religious life that stressed apostolic ministry.

So, when Catholic leaders make the case that celibacy is the moral requirement of all lesbian and gay people, they are actually re-imagining a totally different understanding of what celibacy is.  Instead of a calling, it seems to be imagined as a punishment or a remedy.  Celibacy of this kind cannot be life-giving to individuals or to the community of the Church.

I have met many lesbian and gay Catholics who are called to celibacy.  They live their lives as priests, in religious communities, and as lay people active in the world.  Their celibacy is a calling, a response, and a choice.  For them, it is a joy.

I have also met a number of celibate people, both homosexual and heterosexual, who experienced this life practice as a burden and an unwanted cross.  For some, it is viewed as an endurance test rather than as a spiritual aid.  They are not happy people, and I cannot imagine that God wants them to live so unhappily.

For conservative Christians to turn to celibacy as a way to deal with an unwanted homosexual orientation, they are not experiencing the gift of this practice in the way that God intended.  If they are turning to Catholicism for a model in how to live celibacy, they should also pay attention to the way that Catholics have abused and mistreated this potentially beautiful gift.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

Related article:

Slate.com: “Thou Shalt Not Forsake Thy Celibate Christian LGBTQ Brethren”

 

 


Spanish Nun: Same-Gender Relationships Are a ‘Sacrament’ of God’s Love

July 21, 2014

Spain’s Sister Teresa Forcades is a well-known activist for women’s rights, political autonomy in her home country and region, and economic justice. She has been labeled “Europe’s Most Radical Nun,” and she challenges the Church as often as she challenges unjust structures in society.

This Benedictine nun is also an advocate for LGBT people, offering the following insights in an interview earlier this year. Sr. Forcades goes beyond allowing for LGBT people to express themselves sexually and have relationships to celebrate them as profound and beautiful signs of God’s love in the world:

Sr. Teresa Forcades

“The religious analysis that understands sex as something that is intended for procreation is a utilitarian view of human love and is contrary to Christian spirituality. To surrender to the mystery of an interpersonal relationship is to surrender to growing towards being an image of God, towards incarnating what God represents on earth. Upon entering, you receive a gift, that this union could engender a child, but that’s perfectly compatible with you being able to be responsible and use contraception when you please…

“So I think that homosexual love is perfectly understandable to the church, because it has what is essential: it’s not having children, but an open intimacy to an interpersonal relationship that includes respect for the integrity of the other. Two people who love one another, desire one another, and respect one another are giving testimony: this is the sacrament, a visible sign — like baptism — that’s saying, ‘This creature is accepted in this community as any other.’ Trinitarian theology says that all sacraments are an embodiment of God’s love. God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are different but they are not complementary. Love is not necessity; it’s not when I need you because I’m missing something. It can’t be utilitarian love.”

A tip of the hat to Michael Bayly who writes on on Catholic LGBT issues at The Wild Reed for drawing attention to Sr. Forcades’ powerful words. She has long been a proponent of LGBT rights, and a recent profile in The Guardian notes of Sr. Teresa:

“Before she took her vows in 1997, Forcades tested the other nuns by giving a talk on a group of gay Catholics who celebrated their sexuality as a gift from God. She was humbled by the nuns’ humane reaction and, so, joined them.”

In March, Sr. Teresa visited Baltimore and lectured on a variety of justice-related issues. She views change in the Catholic Church as many do, a bottom-up effort, saying:

“When I talk about church, we talk about how the Gospel inspired us. There are many kinds of church, and I identify with the people at the bottom, at the base. Many people have a hope that the Catholic church might change because of the pope, but if you look at history, change comes from bottom up, not from top down.”

You can read more about that visit in the National Catholic Reporter or read a profile of Sr. Teresa in The Guardian by clicking here.

From her lips to the bishops’ ears! But, in the meantime, it is those same-gender couples living out this sacrament of God’s love who are not waiting for change in the Church, but creating it from the bottom up. Gratitude that Sr. Teresa is willing to speak that truth to power, as she so often does!

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


Are Vatican Officials ‘Feeling with the Church’?

July 8, 2014

Do you disagree with the hierarchy’s explication of a certain Church teaching? If so, then it is likely you misunderstand the teaching due to a lack of proper education, according to the Vatican-appointed International Theological Commission.  This thought was expressed in the Commission’s recent document, Sensus fidei’ in the Life of the Church.

The Commission is composed of theologians appointed by Pope Benedict XVI tasked with further understanding the concepts sensus fidei and sensus fidelium, defined in a  Catholic News Service article as “the capacity of individual of individual believers and of the church as a whole to discern the truth of faith.” Cindy Wooden explores the document further, quoting it at length:

“When a significant portion of the Catholic faithful ignore or reject a church teaching, it is often — but not always — a sign that social and cultural pressures are weakening their faith or that church leaders simply have not found a way to explain the teaching, said members of the International Theological Commission…

“Particularly drawing on the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, members of the theological commission rejected the idea that Catholic laity are to blindly obey everything the pope and bishops tell them. However, the document emphasized the importance of assuming church leaders are correct, trying to understand the basis for their teaching…before claiming to be able to discern that a church teaching needs adjustment…

” ‘The sensus fidei also is essential in helping the church respond to modern problems and challenges because it gives “an intuition as to the right way forward amid the uncertainties and ambiguities of history, and a capacity to listen discerningly to what human culture and the progress of the sciences are saying,’ the document said.”

The document is respectful of lay people in its words, saying they have a “right to be heard.” Yet, it also urges scrutiny when the laity do voice their beliefs as those who dissent are, at times, responsible for “promoting deviations from the Christian faith, particularly on moral issues.” The hierarchy is only criticized for failing at explaining teachings which Catholics reject.

Several bloggers rightly criticized the document, released around the same time as the Instrumentum laboris for this fall’s Synod. Kelly Stewart, a former staff member of New Ways Ministry, blogged at the National Catholic Reporter:

“But defenders of sexual and reproductive orthodoxy seem to assume, again and again, that feminists, LGBT people, progressives, and many mainstream Catholics disagree with official teaching because they don’t know what they’re talking about. This assumption grounds the central argument of “Sensus Fidei”…

“So if most laypeople reject official teaching on a given issue, it must be because they don’t understand it. If they don’t understand it, it must be because of weak faith, cultural brainwashing, or poor catechesis…

” ‘Consideration’ and ‘consultation,’ it seems, are useful insofar as they help institutional church leaders more effectively explain our lives to us. Listening to laypeople isn’t about learning anything substantively new, then. It’s about learning how to talk differently about the same teachings. A way for church leaders to repackage widely rejected ideas and go on explaining gender to women, homosexuality to gays and lesbians, and marriage to married couples — whether or not they know what they’re talking about.”

Fellow blogger Ken Briggs writes in a similar vein:

“If you’re a Catholic who disagrees with something your church teaches, you’re invited by the hierarchy to examine what’s wrong with you…The idea that intelligent, well schooled Catholics maturely and soundly examine the church’s logic and find it to be mistaken and/or contrary to their faith experience never enters the picture…

“What cripples this attempt to rationalize dissent from the outset is the prior assumption that officially declared teaching is virtually infallible. It must be protected like a mother grizzly her cubs. The ‘faithful’ may have lots of ‘sense’ but it’s not welcome if it clashes with unalterable Truth. It’s a show of supreme confidence, of course, but reveals a cavernous insecurity about the ability of doctrine explained even correctly to hold its own. If the judgment against women priests were so convincing, for example, why did Pope John Paul II forbid Catholics from even discussing it? Such matters give witness to the simple question that threatens the shaky thinking: ‘what if the dissenters are right?’ “

One criticism often leveled at more progressive Catholics is that they fail to “feel with the Church” or sentire cum ecclesia, an ambiguous term never clearly defined in such criticisms. Pope Francis recently included dissenting Catholics among three groups he considers “half-Catholics,” alongside rigid traditionalists, and those who use the Church for personal gain.To flip the question, I wonder whether the unnamed theologians behind this document, and Cardinal Gerard Mueller of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith who signed off on the document, are themselves now “feeling with the Church.”The Church, as is often repeated, is the People of God, the vast majority of whom are lay people living in the larger world rather than in an ecclesiastical institution. More than ever, these lay people are educated and engaged in the life of the Church, and they are challenging traditional understandings of sexuality, marriage, family life from their positions of faith and experience. To ‘feel with the Church’ today should mean to take the sensus fidelium seriously and respect the laity’s rightful place in the teaching ministry of the Church.

The Commission’s document makes clear that some Vatican officials are not ready to listen and learn from the laity, seriously engaging our perspectives and even our disagreements in the common cause to understand and enact the Gospels. There is much good in the era of Pope Francis, but this document reveals just how much change is still needed.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


Catholic LGBT Advocates React to ‘Disappointing’ Synod Working Paper

June 29, 2014

Sr. Joan Chittister

In May, Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister wrote that the upcoming Synod of Bishops on marriage and family life would be a chance for Church leaders to “do things right.” However, the Vatican’s working paper (in Latin, instrumentum laboris) released this week is leaving many observers and Catholic LGBT advocates with the impression all is not quite right.

The working paper, which Bondings 2.0 covered earlier this week, compiled questionnaire responses from around the world with the aim of furthering discussions at the meeting this fall.

Equally Blessed LogoEqually Blessed, a coalition of four Catholic organizations seeking LGBT equality, released a statement expressing its members’ disappointment with the working paper. The coalition members are Call To Action, DignityUSA, Fortunate Families, and New Ways Ministry. Thestatement said, in part:

“We are disheartened that the challenges of families trying to reconcile their unambiguous love for their lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) family members and Church teachings that are too often harsh and divisive are not addressed…

“The Bishops once again claim that the problem is not that their teachings clash with the Biblical teaching of love, but that Catholics are unaware of the teachings. Catholics are not unaware, rather they have long struggled with these teachings, and ultimately reject them as inconsistent with the Gospel. US Bishops have spent millions of dollars defending their right to discriminate against our families, a fact that increases the alienation of many families from the Church.

“We are living the faith we love and speaking up for the Church we believe in.  Celebrating the diversity in our Church is integral to our understanding of a faith that stands up for those on the margins and recognizes the face of God in everyone.”

Marianne Duddy-Burke

Marianne Duddy-Burke

In a separate statement for DignityUSA, executive director Marianne Duddy-Burke said:

“Many Catholics hoped that the upcoming Extraordinary Synod on the Family would be an opportunity for real dialogue with Church leaders on issues that are very important in our day to day life. Instead, what we see is a rigid adherence to existing teaching, and what we hear are complaints that the people of the Church are misinformed or uneducated. This is a gross simplification and incredibly insulting…

“It fails to show any acknowledgement of the profound love and commitment shared by many same-sex couples, minimizes the realities of LGBT people raising children, and fails to offer any hope to families who love their LGBT members unconditionally, but struggle with Church teachings that are too often demeaning. Furthermore, the bishops continue to show a severe lack of understanding of transgender identities. If they begin to truly listening to our transgender kin, they will learn much.”

Jim FitzGerald

Call To Action’s opinion was expressed by executive director Jim Fitzgerald:

“When Catholics heard last year that the leaders of their Church were seeking feedback on the topic of ministry to the family, they responded enthusiastically, sharing their experiences, insights and desires. Catholics believed it was a new moment in which leadership would listen and honor their voices, experiences and wisdom…

“While today’s report is a disappointment, today’s Catholics are not. They do get it: they understand perfectly well the call to love rooted in the Gospel. Catholic parishes, schools and communities across the country will continue to live with love, welcoming our brothers and sisters who’ve struggled through divorce, remarried with love, stood proudly as LGBT persons or used contraception when creating their family.”

While disappointment is a common reaction for many, Francis DeBernardo reminded Bondings 2.0 readers on Thursday that this working paper is not the last word on marriage and family.

Perhaps the wittiest response to this document came from veteran church observer Jesuit Father Thomas Reese, who quipped:

“The document acknowledges that ‘the primary task of the church is to proclaim the beauty of the vocation to love,’ but there is little beautiful or inspiring in this document. If married life is as boring and joyless as this document, I am glad I am celibate.”

There is still time for bishops to listen to Sr. Chittister’s words from earlier this year, when she expressed caution and  hope about the synod:

“The first time the church found itself in major public discredit, the reformers of the 16th century were crying out for serious review of both the theology and practices of the church. They railed against clericalism, the wealth of the church, the use of arcane language that distanced the laity from its inner operations and made them second-class citizens, the sale of relics, the conferral of indulgences in exchange for alms, and a theology that left laypeople to be docile and unthinking consumers of a faith long bereft of either witness or spiritual energy.

“The answer of the church at the Council of Trent (1545-1563) to these concerns was 150 anathemas at the very thought of change.

“Or, in other words, Trent’s answer to the pressure for renewal of the church was more of the same. Only this time, they went even further and added an index of forbidden books to dampen any more of that kind of thinking in the future; the total rejection of the vernacular to make general discussion of just about anything ecclesiastical impossible for laypeople; greater episcopal control; and more and better rules for everything else.

“But the need for change and real renewal never went away.”

Chittister points out that, similarly the bishops are gathering to address the question of reform and renewal and there is a chance to “get it right” in how the institutional Church will respond to a changing world:

“Thinking may be the sign of a healthy group, but it is not the sign of a complacent, tractable or acquiescent group. Once people begin to think together, community sets in, energy sets in, possibility sets in, and new life sets in. For them all.

“Trent’s 150 anathemas were a mistake that lost half of Europe to the church, that divided the Christian community for 400 years, that plunged Catholicism into the Dark Ages of thought, and that left the Christian witness adrift in “the scandal of division.”

“From where I stand, it looks as if we have been given another opportunity to do it right this time. The only question is whether or not the bishops who were entrusted with gathering the answers of the laity to these questions will start at all. Let alone go all the way.”

If there is one hopeful sign in all of this, it is Pope Francis. He has both the ability to influence the Synod towards a more compassionate and inclusive conclusion and the belief that dialogue can help the Church resolve all problems, as he reiterated in a homily last May:

” ‘By sharing, discussing and praying, all problems in the Church can be resolved, with the certainty that gossip, envy and jealousy never lead to concord, harmony and peace. There too it was the Holy Spirit who crowned this understanding and this enables us to understand that, when we let ourselves be guided by the Holy Spirit, it leads us to harmony, unity and respect for different gifts and talents’.”

Let us pray that this Synod’s working paper will be treated much like the documents released at the beginning of the Second Vatican Council, which were thrown out and rewritten entirely to insure the joy of the Gospel and a positive view of the world were included.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


Synod Document is First, Not Last, Word on Marriage and Family Issues

June 27, 2014

One of baseball legend Yogi Berra’s memorable quotations is “It ain’t over till it’s over.”

I was reminded of the wisdom of that sentence yesterday when I first heard the news that the Vatican has issued the working paper (in Latin, the instrumentum laboris) for the upcoming synod on marriage and the family to take place in Rome this coming October.   There have been high hopes for this meeting, especially since the Vatican has asked lay people for their opinions on various topics, and especially since several bishops have noted that lay opinion has been strongly calling fo r changes on certain aspects of church teaching on marriage and family.

But the content of the document released yesterday does not seem to signal any hope for change.  Joshua McElwee of The National Catholic Reporter synthesized the document in this way:

“Struggles faced by faithful around the world in following Catholic teachings stem mainly from ineffective education in those teachings and the pervasive effect of a relativistic culture, states the guiding document for an upcoming Synod of Bishops on the family.

“The document, anticipated by many Catholics as a barometer for what to expect from the synod, also strongly reinforces church teachings regarding the indissolubility of marriage, the restriction of marriage to heterosexual couples, and that partners must be open to having children.

“At the same time, the document states, the church must respond with mercy to the struggles of families to adhere to sometimes controversial teachings — like those prohibiting divorce and remarriage, contraception, cohabitation, and same-sex marriage — and ‘support her children on the path of reconciliation.’ “

While it is commendable that the document is stressing Pope Francis’ constant themes of mercy and of meeting people in whatever situation they are living, the troublesome part of the document is that it views the secular world as a problem, rather than as a dialogue partner.  McElwee’s synthesis continued:

“Responses to the synod office’s global consultation — which saw bishops’ conferences around the world answer a long questionnaire on how Catholics perceive church teachings — were ‘in agreement on the underlying reasons for the difficulty in accepting Church teaching,’ the document states.

“Among those reasons: ‘the hedonistic culture; relativism; materialism; individualism; the growing secularism; the prevalence of ideas that lead to an excessive, selfish liberalization of morals; … [and] a culture which rejects making permanent choices.’ “

I’ve no doubt that some of these factors affect the way some people approach church teaching, however, I have met far too many people who disagree with church teaching on matters of marriage, sexuality, gender, and family who are motivated, instead, by a deep faith.  Their positions were arrived at after much study, reflection, discussion, and prayer.  Their disagreements grow out of their lived and examined faith, not some worldly “monsters” that this document discusses.

This is the same kind of thinking that was evident in the International Theological Commission’s document “‘Sensus Fidei’ in the Life of the Church,” which was published on the Vatican’s website.   You can read the summary of that document here, and you can read an excellent commentary by seasoned religion journalist Ken Briggs here.

If the bishops of the world ignore the reality that disagreement comes out of a deep faith, they do so at great peril to themselves and to the church.

On LGBT issues, the document is not totally problematic.  For example, Reuters’ news story on the document focused on the fact that there seems to be some agreement already that children of lesbian and gay couples should not be prohibited from baptism.   The story quotes the document:

“. . . .when people living in [same-sex] unions request a child’s baptism, almost all the responses emphasize that the child must be received with the same care, tenderness and concern which is given to other children.”

Some other sections are half-good, half-bad.  For instance, there is a recognition that the Church must engage with the scientific world on the issue of homosexuality:

“Many responses and observations call for theological study in dialogue with the human sciences to develop a multi-faceted look at the phenomenon of homosexuality.”

That’s good.  That’s a difference from the 1986 Vatican document on homosexuality which said the Church did not need science.

Yet this good statement is undercut by the statement which immediately follows it, which says that the dialogue with science should be conducted through Vatican offices:

“Others recommend collaborating with specific entities, e.g., the Pontifical Academy of the Social Sciences and the Pontifical Academy for Life, in thoroughly examining the anthropological and theological aspects of human sexuality and the sexual difference between man and woman in order to address the issue of gender ideology.”

It’s hard to think that Vatican officials will learn anything new if they conduct their inquiries with a closed or biased mindset.

There is also a recognition that Church leaders have not always been good at developing pastoral ministry with gay and lesbian people, particularly those in committed relationships:

“On the whole, the extreme reactions to these unions, whether compromising or uncompromising, do not seem to have facilitated the development of an effective pastoral programme which is consistent with the Magisterium and compassionate towards the persons concerned.”

Yet, a few paragraphs later, the document states:

“The great challenge will be to develop a ministry which can maintain the proper balance between accepting persons in a spirit of compassion and gradually guiding them to authentic human and Christian maturity. In this regard, some conferences refer to certain organizations as successful models for such a ministry.”

If by “authentic human and Christian maturity,” the bishops are saying that ministry should help gay and lesbian people develop a healthy acceptance of their sexuality and the formation of their adult consciences, I’d be all for it.  Yet, sadly, I don’t think that is what they mean.

All of this brings me back to “It ain’t over till it’s over.”  Let’s remember that this document is the first word on the synod, not the last word.  It’s true that it doesn’t get off on a positive note, but I believe that there will be some interesting debate in October and that we won’t know the final outcome until the meeting closes.  Let’s remember that this synod will most likely be very different from those held under Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI when the instrumentum laboris was often written by the Vatican Curia, and bishops in synod were simply asked to rubber-stamp it.  Pope Francis has already shown that he wants more discussion and collegiality from bishops.

More harmful than the specific remarks on lesbian and gay people, though, are the remarks that the reason that Catholics don’t agree with church teaching is because they have succumbed to a secular mindset.  We’ve heard that remark time and again from U.S. bishops, especially in the context of same-gender marriage, but it is simply not the whole truth.  It’s very convenient to have a scapegoat. It’s much more challenging to face up to the reality that faithful Catholics are calling for change.

(Bondings 2.0 will continue to report on various responses and interpretations of this document in the coming days and weeks, so check back for further posts.  For previous posts on the upcoming synod, click “Synod 2014″ in the “Categories” section in the right hand column of this page.)

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

Related articles:

Associated Press: “Vatican concedes many Catholics ignore core teaching on sex and contraception”

Catholic News Service: “Synod document cites cultural and economic threats to family”

 


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