Although there is a lot of excitement about the upcoming Vatican synod on marriage and family life, that hope is a little dampened by the fact that only bishops will be participating in the sessions. While it is true that bishops were encouraged to consult their laity about various topics, including pastoral care of families headed by same-gender couples, not all bishops did so, and those that did sometimes interpreted negative evaluations to church teaching as being caused by poor catechesis and communication. That is simply not the case. For many, many Catholics, their criticism of church teaching on divorce, contraception, same-gender relationships, comes from their lived experience of faith, and many years of study and reflection.
One Catholic theologian who has influenced many Catholics’ thinking on sexuality is Sister Margaret Farley, RSM, Professor Emerita of Christian Ethics at Yale University Divinity School. We’ve reported on Sister Farley’s work before, and even have a summary of her framework for sexual ethics outlined on another blog page.
Recently, The Tablet featured an essay by Farley in their series which is looking ahead to the synod. She used this opportunity to argue that there is no good reason to limit marriage only to heterosexual couples. She begins her argument with an historical assessment:
“For so long as the Catholic tradition considered sex as justified only when it is intended for the procreation of children and for so long as gender complementarity was seen as the only natural context for sex, there was, of course, no room for any positive valuation of homosexual relationships.
“In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, these foundations of sexual ethics began to be questioned. New biblical, theological and historical studies of the roots of moral norms, new understandings of sexuality itself and new shifts in economic and social life all contributed to major developments even in Catholic ethics. The dominant historical motifs all underwent significant changes. The idea that the procreation of children is the sole justification of sexual activity is gone (the shift is visible in the documents of Vatican II, in Humanae Vitae and subsequent church teaching). The view of sexuality as fundamentally disordered is also pretty much gone from Catholic thought. Although moral theologians still underline the potential of sex for sinfulness (as in sex abuse, rape, exploitation, adultery and so forth), the preoccupation with its destructive power that used to dominate Catholic discussion of sex has been seriously modified.
“Rigid stereotypes of male/female complementarity have also been softened: gender equality, the mutuality of sexual relationships, an appreciation of shared possibilities and responsibilities now appear in middle-of-the-road Catholic theologies of marriage and family, as well as in official church documents and papal teaching.”
Her analysis of the role of gender in marriage discussions as compared to other discussions is a key to her argument. She summarizes the traditional view, and then points out an important inconsistency:
“Sex is natural and good in itself in loving heterosexual relations, but sex once again becomes a thing of danger and disorder in gay and lesbian relationships. We are careful not to make sharp distinctions between male and female roles when we talk about the education of girls, career opportunities for women, and shared parenting, but fundamental gender difference suddenly reappears when critics take aim at an acceptance of same-sex relations. “
Farley moves away from a definition of marriage as being primarily a procreative institution, and she notes that theologians are moving toward a definition that stresses relationship:
“Many theologians see the mutual consent of the partners in the form of a covenant or binding contract as the core reality of marriage, and ‘marital’ commitment as a special sort of covenant or commitment. It includes a commitment to love and to accept being loved – with a love that is sexual but not only sexual. It is an exclusive commitment. And it is a commitment to a framework for living and loving, to a permanent blending of loves, a weaving of a fabric of life together, that embraces both moments of powerful intensity and the ‘everydayness’ of life.”
With new understandings of gender in the theological world, we can recognize that gender is not an essential factor in a marriage union. Farley explains:
“For many, marriage is understood as between two persons, two equal persons. For each person, the gender of the other matters. But for the institution and sacrament of marriage, it need not matter. In a world where it would not matter whether persons were gay or straight, marriage would still be as important as it is today. Indeed, it might finally be as important as it should be.”
The real sacramentality of marriage, argues Farley, comes not from gender differentiation, procreation, or ritual, but in the ordinary living out of the commitment two people make to one another:
“The marital sacrament is in the event of covenanting, of ‘marrying,’ but is also in the life that continues from there. The grace of committed love – shaped and grounded in faith – is not all at once. The story of commitments is in their beginnings and in their end. But it is the ‘in between’ that counts the most. Like our lives in every respect, love has a past, a present and a future. The meaning of the past is in the present, and the meaning of the present will be revealed more fully only in the future. Time is within us. Hence, the Sacrament of Marriage is in the everyday, in the choices to ratify commitments, the efforts to grow in patience, understanding, forgiveness and the ‘little by little’ of welcoming love.
“All of this is true, or can be true, of same-sex marriages, as of all marriages. These same-sex marriages include imagining and making a world in which unjust discrimination ceases to exist. Their journeys perhaps require the courage to refuse to be outsiders, or to let ignorance and irrational bigotry threaten the hope for a better world. For this, they can hope in sacramental grace, and (because grace is not an automatic track to or guarantee of fuller life) they can work with this grace.”
Farley’s analysis provides a most Catholic evaluation of what is essential in marriage, and reflects the ways in which humankind has grown into a more equal and just view of persons, gender, and relationships. It would be great if the bishops in synod could hear her analysis so that they could take this very holy and healthy view of relationships into consideration as they deliberate about pastoral care in the areas of marriage, sexuality, and family.
If you are a subscriber to The Tablet, you can read the entire essay by Sister Margaret Farley by clicking here.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry