For the first time in known history, a Roman Catholic bishop has explicitly called for the Church to recognize and bless committed same-gender relationships. New Ways Ministry strongly applauds this bold and courageous move.
Bishop Johan Bonny of Antwerp, Belgium, made his comments in an interview with De Morgen, a Belgian newspaper that was published on December 27, 2014. He called for the Church to recognize the faithfulness and commitment of same-gender couples in the same way that the Church recognizes the relationships of heterosexual couples. A news story about the interview in The National Catholic Reportercontained excerpts translated into English, including:
“There should be recognition of a diversity of forms. We have to look inside the church for a formal recognition of the kind of interpersonal relationship that is also present in many gay couples. Just as there are a variety of legal frameworks for partners in civil society, one must arrive at a diversity of forms in the church. … The intrinsic values are more important to me than the institutional question. The Christian ethic is based on lasting relationships where exclusivity, loyalty, and care are central to each other.”
Bonny acknowledged that the pontificate of Pope Francis, which has offered greater openness to LGBT issues, has motivated to speak his mind. On whether the Church will eventually bless lesbian and gay couples’ relationships, he said:
“Personally, I find that in the church more space must be given to acknowledge the actual quality of gay and lesbian couples; and such a form of shared-life should meet the same criteria as found in an ecclesiastical marriage.… And we have to acknowledge that such criteria can be found in a diversity of relationships and one needs to search for various models to give form to those relationships.”
Bonny also stated that he still considers that heterosexual marriage should maintain its unique place in the Church:
“This relationship will continue to retain its own particular sacramental character and liturgical form. But this particularity does not have to be exclusive nor does it have to close the door on a diversity of relationships whose inner qualities the church can acknowledge.”
“Indeed, we need to seek a formal recognition of the kind of relationship that exists between many gay and lesbian couples. Does that recognition have to be a sacramental marriage? Perhaps the church could much better reflect on a diversity of forms of relationships. One has the same kind of discussion about civil marriages. In Belgium the same model (for civil marriages) exists for man-woman relations as well as for same-sex relations.”
Bishop Bonny’s statements are the first time a bishop has explicitly called for ecclesiastical recognition of same-gender couples, but it is not the first time that a bishop has shown support for such ideas. In the 1990s, Bishop Jacques Gaillot of Evreux, France, was removed from his diocese, in part because he blessed a gay couple’s relationship. Bishop Geoffrey Robinson, a retired auxiliary bishop of Sydney, Australia, has called for the Church to revamp its sexual ethics in a more progressive way, and in a way which would open the possibility of recognizing and blessing same-gender relationships. Many bishops and other church leaders have recently been calling for legal recognition of same-gender couples, though none has gone so far as to ask for recognition from the Church for these couples.
Bonny was in the news in September 2014 when he released a paper in advance of the synod on marriage and family, in which he called for greater openness to gay and lesbian couples, divorced and remarried people, and cohabitating partners.
“Do not underestimate the significance of this. Bonny advocates a change from principles long held as unshakable, something no bishop could have done under the dogmatic pontificates of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI.”
New Ways Ministry strongly applauds Bishop Bonny’s call for ecclesiastical recognition of same-gender couples. His request is based on the fact that the moral qualities of faithfulness, loyalty, and care which characterize lesbian and gay couples are the very same principles which characterize the unique form of heterosexually married couples. These principles are the same ones which the majority of Catholic theologians today say should be the basis of the Church’s sexual ethics, instead of basing these ethics on a procreative standard and the outdated concept of male-female complementarity.
Gay and lesbian Catholics and their supporters will surely welcome Bishop Bonny’s call, as this call has been expressed for many decades now, though previous papacies have tried to silence it. It comes at a time when the entire Church is focused on the idea of marriage and family as we discuss these issues in this year between the synods. Bishop Bonny’s statements will have a profound effect on this discussion because he is raising an idea which has too long been suppressed, but which many in the Church have desired. He gives voice to a major segment of Catholicism which has previously been voiceless.
Courage breeds courage. Let’s pray that other bishops will follow Bishop Bonny’s example and speak out for recognizing the holiness in the committed relationships of lesbian and gay couples.
Here in Rome, where church officials are preparing for the opening of the extraordinary synod on marriage and family today, the mood is high, and many people here are saying, that it’s really difficult to say what the outcome of the meeting will be. There is much hope for change in many of the issues concerning marriage, family, sexuality, but many people are saying that the composition of the synod participants, the fact that the process of this synod–including the request for input from the laity–and how influential in which direction Pope Francis will be all make it difficult to predict outcomes.
One bishop’s voice was heard loudly and clearly in Rome in the last few days, not by church leaders, but by Catholic LGBT people and ally advocates. Bishop Geoffrey Robinson, a retired auxiliary of Sydney, Australia, spoke at the Ways Of Love conference on pastoral care with LGBT people, about which we posted yesterday. The gathering in Rome was to discuss new possible approaches to LGBT people that the synod could take. Bishop Robinson, who many readers may remember spoke at New Ways Ministry’s Seventh National Symposium in 2012, outlined a new approach to sexual ethics for the Church that would recognize the goodness and holiness of same-sex committed relationships. His talk was a highlight of the conference, and I will try to outline some of the main points below.
Bishop Robinson began by dismantling some of the crippling assumptions that underline current church teaching, most particularly the idea that sexual sins are among the most grievous that humans might commit:
“Striking a king or president has always been considered a more serious offence than striking an ordinary citizen. In line with this, it was said, the greatest king by far is God, so an offence against God is far more serious than an offence against a mere human being.
“Because all sexual sins were seen as direct offences against God, they were, therefore, all seen as most serious sins. Sexual sins were seen as on the same level as the other sin that is directly against God, blasphemy, and this helps to explain why, in the Catholic Church, sexual morality has long been given a quite exaggerated importance.
“For centuries the Church has taught that every sexual sin is a mortal sin. In this field, it was held, there are no venial sins. . . .
“This teaching fostered belief in an incredibly angry God, for this God would condemn a person to an eternity in hell for a single unrepented moment of deliberate pleasure arising from sexual desire. This idea of God is totally contrary to the entire idea of God that Jesus presented to us, and I cannot accept it.
“My first rebellion against Church teaching on sex came, therefore, not directly from a rejection of what the Church said about sex, but a rejection of the false god that this teaching presented.”
Robinson also objected to the presumption that the Church’s sexual ethics should be based on judging the solely of sexual acts:
“. . . [T]he teaching of the Church is based on a consideration of what is seen as the God-given nature of the physical acts in themselves, rather than on these acts as actions of human beings. And it continues to do this at a time when the whole trend in moral theology is in the opposite direction.
“As a result it gets into impossible difficulties in analysing physical acts without a context of human relations. For example, some married couples find that there is a blockage preventing the sperm from reaching the ovum, but that in a simple procedure a doctor can take the husband’s sperm and insert it into the wife in such a way that is passes the blockage and enables conception. But the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith condemned this action because the physical act was not considered “integral”, even though the entire reason for this intervention was precisely that the couple wanted their marriage to be both unitive and procreative.
“The Church’s arguments concerning sex are based solely on the physical act in itself rather than on the physical act as an action affecting persons and relationships.”
Focusing in on lesbian and gay sexuality in particular, Robinson challenged the presumption of “natural law theory” opposing same-gender relationships:
“It was God who created a world in which there are both heterosexuals and homosexuals. This was not a mistake on God’s part that human beings are meant to repair; it is simply an undeniable part of God’s creation.
“The only sexual acts that are natural to homosexuals are homosexual acts. This is not a free choice they have made between two things that are equally attractive to them, but something that is deeply embedded in their nature, something they cannot simply cast aside. Homosexual acts come naturally to them, heterosexual acts do not. They cannot perform what the Church would call ‘natural’ acts in a way that is natural to them.
“Why should we turn to some abstraction in determining what is natural rather than to the actual lived experience of human beings? Why should we say that homosexuals are acting against nature when they are acting in accordance with the only nature they have ever experienced?
“The Church claims that it is basing itself on ‘natural law,’ but a natural law based on abstractions is a false natural law. Indeed, it brings the whole concept of natural law into disrepute.”
The bishop began an outline of a new basis for sexual ethics, based more on the teachings of Jesus than on any other outside philosophical theory. He began this section of his talk by quoting Scripture:
“ ‘If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea’ (Mk.9:42).
“ ‘Then they will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’”(Mt.25:44-45)
“In these two quotations Jesus identifies with the weakest persons in the community, and tells us that any harm done to them is a harm done to himself.
“I suggest that this harm done to people is the real sin in matters of sex, the only sin that angers God.
“I suggest, therefore, that we should look at sexual morality in terms of the good or harm done to persons and the relationships between them rather than in terms of a direct offence against God.
“Following from this, may we say that sexual pleasure, like all other pleasure, is in itself morally neutral, neither good nor bad? Is it rather the circumstances affecting persons and relationships that make this pleasure good or bad, e.g. a good pleasure for a married couple seeking reconciliation after a disagreement, a bad pleasure for a man committing rape?”
After critiquing a reigning ethic of sex in the contemporary world that only cautions people to “do no harm,” Bishop Robinson supplies an ethic based more on the commandment to love our neighbor:
“I suggest that the central questions concerning sexual morality are: Are we moving towards a genuinely Christian ethic if we base our sexual actions on a profound respect for the relationships that give meaning, purpose and direction to human life, and on loving our neighbour as we would want our neighbour to love us?
“Within this context, may we ask whether a sexual act is morally right when, positively, it is based on a genuine love of neighbour, that is, a genuine desire for what is good for the other person, rather than solely on self-interest, and, negatively, contains no damaging elements such as harm to a third person, any form of coercion or deceit, or any harm to the ability of sex to express love? . . . .
“Many would object that what I have proposed would not give a clear and simple rule to people. But God never promised us that everything in the moral life would be clear and simple. Morality is not just about doing right things; it is also about struggling to know what is the right thing to do. It is not just about doing what everyone else around us is doing; it is about taking a genuine personal responsibility for everything we do. And it is about being profoundly sensitive to the needs and vulnerabilities of the people with whom we interact.”
To catch all of Bishop Robinson’s nuances, examples, and explanations, I urge all who are interested in this topic to read his entire text which can be found on the conference’s website. You will be enriched by reading all of Bishop Robinson’s nuances, examples, and explanations, as well as additional arguments.
As the synod opens today, I pray that other bishops will listen to voices like Bishop Robinson’s, whose approach to all sexuality is so rooted in the teachings of Jesus.
One week from today, Pope Francis will open the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops to discuss the topic, The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization. For Catholic LGBT advocates, there has been great anticipation of the event, perhaps mainly because Pope Francis asked the bishops of the world to consult the laity on marriage and family topics, and, even more so, because pastoral care of families headed by same-gender couples was one of the areas for which input was sought.
Today has been set aside as a day of prayer for the Synod, and Pope Francis has composed a Prayer to the Holy Family for the Synod. You can access this prayer, and other prayer intentions for the Synod, by clicking here. Of course, we ask that you include in your prayer for the Synod that the concerns of families with LGBT members or those headed by same-gender couples will be heard and responded to pastorally by the bishops.
When the Synod opens on Sunday, October 5th, New Ways Ministry representatives will be in Rome. Both Sister Jeannine Gramick, Co-Founder, and Francis DeBernardo, Executive Director, will be traveling there to participate in several events surrounding the Synod, and also with the hope that they will be able to provide a pro-LGBT voice in the public discussions of the Synod that the media will offer. In addition, DeBernardo will travel to Portugal for the first international meeting of Catholic LGBT groups.
The following are the various events that these three people will participate in:
“The Ways of Love: International Conference on pastoral care with homosexual and trans people,” Friday October 3, 2014, at the Waldensian Faculty of Theology, Aula Magna, via Pietro Cossa 40, Rome. For more information, and to see the line-up of speakers, click here. (For a previous blog post about this event, click here.)
“Lets’s witness our hope,” a forum for Italian Christian LGBT groups, Saturday and Sunday, October 4-5, 2014, at Centro Pellegrini Santa Teresa Couderc, Via Vincenzo Ambrosio 9, Rome. For more information about this event, click here.
“The Path from the 2014 Synod to the 2015 Synod: The Pastoral Challenges for Welcoming LGBT people,” a lecture by Bishop Geoffrey Robinson, Wednesday, October 8, 2014, Via Marianna Dionigi, 59, Rome. This lecture is sponsored by Nuova Proposta, a Christian LGBT organization in Rome. For more information, click here.
“When Identity Becomes a Crime: Criminalization of Homosexuality Globally,” an international conference, Saturday, October 11, 2014, 4:30-6:3o pm, at the Capitoline Museum, Sala Pietro da’ Cortona, piazza del Campidoglio 1, Rome. The speakers will be Frank Mugisha, a Ugandan LGBT activist, Jules Eloundou, a human rights defender from Cameroon, André du Plessis, UN program and advocacy director for ILGA World, and Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry’s executive director. Dr. Michael Brinkschröder, a co-president of the European Forum of LGBT Christian Groups, will moderate. Bishops participating in the Synod are invited to attend. The event is sponsored by the City of Rome and Dutch Ministry’s Department of Education, Science & Culture.
While in Europe, New Ways Ministry’s Francis DeBernardo will also travel to Portugal to attend a meeting of Catholic LGBT groups from around the globe who are gathering to discuss the inauguration of a world-wide association for those who work for LGBT equality in the Church. The meeting will be held in the city of Portimão on October 6-8, 2014.
28 organizations from 16 different countries will be attending this first World Congress of Catholic Homosexual Associations. Organized by Rumos Novos, a Portugese Catholic gay and lesbian group (whose name, incidentally, translates as “New Ways”), this meeting’s theme will be “Building Bridges.” According to the meeting’s website:
“This congress invites us to look with serenity and deepness towards our Church and our life, allowing that on ‘both sides of the bridge’ light can brighten the view of all, often distorted by prejudices, fears and sorrows.”
DeBernardo will be a speaker at the conference, addressing the topic of the gifts that LGBT people bring to the Church.
José Leote, the coordinator of the conference, in an interview with Algarve Daily News, said the meeting’s participants will send a letter to Pope Francis. They will ask the pope, among other things, that gay and lesbian people will experience “integration at all levels of the Church and the possibility of working in parishes without the stigma of sexual orientation.”
“The congress will take part in two phases, the first being a public phase and open to anyone interested, and a second part reserved for representatives of the associations in which the basis of the future World Organisation is to be set.”
While New Ways Ministry asks for your prayers for the Synod, especially that LGBT concerns will be heard, we also ask your prayers for Sister Jeannine and Francis DeBernardo, as they journey to these events. Please pray that God will bless them with wisdom, courage, and fortitude during these important events.
As you probably already know, in October this year, the Vatican will be hosting a world synod of bishops to discuss marriage and family issues. Just days before that meeting begins, an international group of Catholic supporters of LGBT people will be meeting in Rome, along with representatives of the Waldensian Church and of the civil society, in order to discuss about how to renew the pastoral care with a view of fully including the LGBT people, and same-gender couples and families.
A keynote speaker at the event will be Bishop Geoffrey Robinson, a retired auxiliary bishop from Australia who is the author of the book, Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church. Bishop Robinson was a featured speaker at New Ways Ministry’s Seventh National Symposium in 2012, where he called for a total re-vamping of the Catholic Church’s teaching on sexuality.
In addition to Bishop Robinson, the other speakers will be:
James Alison, Catholic theologian and priest. Originally from the United Kingdom, he residesin Brazil and has worked extensively on homosexuality and Catholic faith, in particular on Catholic consciousness and gay consciousness; Antonietta Potente, theologian and Italian Dominican nun based in Bolivia. She will offer a reflection on a new approach of the Gospel to the LGBT people; Letizia Tomassone, Waldensian pastor, President of the Commission on Faith and Homosexuality of the Baptist, Methodist, and Waldensian Churches in Italy. She will tell about the path that these Churches have undertaken before openly including the LGBT people and couples; Joseanne Peregin, President of the Christian Life Community in Malta and mother of a homosexual man. She will tell about the feelings and the fears that Catholic parents may have when it comes to homosexual children.
In anticipation of this conference, the website for the meeting has been posting interviews with some of the conference organizers, an international group of people from five continents. Below is a sampling from some of those interviews, describing the needs of LGBT Catholics and the hopes for the syond. Clicking on each name will bring you to the page with the entire interview with that person.
“When the PACS (Civil Union bill) was introduced in 1999, the Roman Catholic Church’s reaction was quite hysterical, with demonstrators chanting ‘Les pédés au bûcher!’ (‘Burn the faggots!’). When last year (2013) the present government introduced a law allowing marriage and adoption for same-sex couples, there were once again enormous demonstrations, sometimes violent.
“The Church paid for special trains and buses to carry demonstrators to Paris and in churches the faithful were asked to pray for the demonstrators. But officially no members of the hierarchy took part in these demonstrations: some of them just went along before the demonstrations to congratulate and encourage the demonstrators.
“The archbishops of Paris and Lyon made quite strong public statements, likening homosexuality to, for example, zoophilia. Since the law has been enacted, the climate has become quieter and rumours are going around that a large number of the bishops regret the excessive language of last year.
“Even so, the bishop of Bayonne, earlier this year, went to Russia to congratulate Putin on his energetic persecution of homosexuals. On the other hand, two or three bishops have made definite attempts to set up some dialogue with homosexual groups and there is also some contact with influential theologians.”
“I think this synod is a great opportunity for bishops to discuss LGBT people, relationships, and families. It is the first time the bishops are covering the topics of marriage and family in a synod since the question of legal marriages for gay and lesbian couples has become a reality. Many bishops from around the world have already publicly acknowledged that most Catholics do not accept the moral condemnation of loving, committed lesbian and gay relationships.
“If these bishops are honest, I think they will realize that this rejection of the church’s teaching is not because people don’t understand it, but because Catholics of good faith have reflected prayerfully on their experiences of lesbian and gay people and couples and have witnessed something holy in their lives and commitment.
“It’s also the first synod under Pope Francis. I think the bishops know that people around the world have responded positively to Francis’ new, welcoming approach to LGBT people. I think they will realize that any negative statements from the synod about lesbian and gay couples will alienate a great number of Catholics in the pews.”
“Pointing out new ways where the ecclesial communities and homosexuals can meet and discover a new meaning for the announcement of the Gospel is what is needed. The idea is to follow in Abram’s footsteps, who wasn’t defeated by fear, who didn’t stand still in Harran where his father took him, who didn’t want to know in advance where the Lord was taking him, who didn’t ask for reassurance but only God’s promise to keep him under His blessing. (Gen. 12:1, 2).
“Homosexuals’ experience is deeply connected to Abram’s vocation: just like him, they need to face a horizon they don’t know, go down a road of which the final destination is unknown and the challenge of turning their homosexuality into sanctity without role models or points of reference. Just as happened to Abram, they will hear their old friends ask: ‘Why are you doing this? Live your life and give up unrealistic ambitions. Don’t walk roads you are not familiar with.
“But just as Abram did, they will hear God’s promise echo in their hearts: it is absurd to human reasoning (‘I will make you into a great Nation’, the Lord said to him when he was seventy-five and with no children because of his wife’s barreness) and it is demanding (‘Go from your country, your people and your father’s household’). This promise, apart from His blessing (‘I will bless you’), has no warranty (‘Go to the land I will show you’). There is only an undefined destination that the Lord will point out on the way. Yet it is God’s promise.”
In addition to the three people quoted abover, other conference organizers include:
Francesco Boschi (REFO, Italy); Michael Brinkschroeder (European Forum of LGBT Christian Groups, Netherlands); Marianne Duddy-Burke (DignityUSA, United States); David Musonda (Dette Resource Foundation, Zambia); Innocenzo Pontillo (Progetto Gionata, Italy); Andrea Rubera (Nuova Proposta, Italy); Diane Xuereb (Drachma LGBT, Malta).
At the end of May, New Ways Ministry’s Co-Founder Sister Jeannine Gramick participated in a marriage equality debate with Springfield, Illinois’ Bishop Thomas Paprocki. The debate took place in Phoenix, Arizona, and was sponsored by the Jesuit Alumni of Arizona. You can read the blog post and news story about the event here.
Though Sister Jeannine spoke from an outline, she has since crafted her remarks into a readable text, and we present that to you below. The text of Bishop Paprocki’s remarks can be found on the Diocese of Springfield website.
Same-Sex Marriage and Change
By Jeannine Gramick, SL
In 1971, while I was a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, I met a young gay man and his friends who turned my thinking around. I remember a young woman who was intelligent, socially responsible, had a healthy sense of self-esteem, and was working for her rights at the ACLU. I was impressed by a lesbian couple who cared lovingly for their two children.
I believed that I had never met a homosexual in my entire life although, of course, I unknowingly had. Some years later I remade the acquaintance of a high school friend who discovered her lesbianism when she fell in love with a woman in medical school. She then understood her feelings toward the boys at the Saturday night dances we attended at a local parish. I remember her saying, “They’re really nice guys, but I feel for them like I feel about my brother.”
My personal experiences began to clash with what I had been told—not by the Church (for I don’t remember ever hearing the word “homosexual” as I was growing up in the 1950s in Philadelphia)—but by society. Society told me that gay people were sick and perverted. But most of the homosexual people I encountered seemed as well-balanced psychologically as the heterosexual people I knew. The term “disorder” just did not fit. Except for the fact of their sexual orientation, my new friends seemed no more different from my heterosexual ones.
Just as my personal views changed, I noticed change among Catholics in the pew regarding their attitudes about lesbian and gay people. Like me, Catholics were reading newspaper and magazine articles about research that showed that a large percentage of people have same-sex feelings. In fact, professionals told us that homosexual feelings and attractions are perfectly natural for anyone. Catholics heard about the judgments of the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association that homosexuality was not an emotional disorder. While they were learning all this new information, they were discovering that their sons or daughters, their brothers or sisters, their aunts or uncles, and their friends, were lesbian or gay. Like me, Catholics listened to the stories of the people they loved. Hearts, as well as minds, started to change.
In the 1990s, I began a more formal pastoral ministry with parents who have lesbian or gay children. During retreat weekends, I heard grief in their voices as they told me how sad they felt because their children no longer went to church. Over the years, I noticed that the sorrow and anguish were replaced by bewilderment and anger at the institutional church. They now ask me, “Why doesn’t the Church accept my child? I want the same happiness for my gay son as for my heterosexual daughter. I want them both to be able to share a life with someone they love.”
I have tracked public opinion polls on Catholic attitudes toward same-sex marriage since the early 1990s. At that time, about 20% of Catholics were in favor of same-sex marriage. By 2003, the percentage had doubled. A decade later, the percentage had risen to 59%. If same-sex marriage is specifically defined as civil marriage, the level of Catholic acceptance jumps to 71%. (These polls were commissioned by ABC News and The Washington Post.)
Catholics have indeed changed their opinions about homosexuality. In fact, 56% believe sexual relations between two people of the same gender is not a sin, according to thePublic Religion Research Institute.
While the Catholic faithful now generally accept same-sex marriage, the Catholic hierarchy has not, although there is recently an openness to accept civil unions for lesbian and gay couples. Most prominent among these Church leaders, of course, is Pope Francis.
Before he became pope, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio publicly condemned a proposed same-sex marriage law in 2010 in Argentina as the work of the devil. We now know that, in heated, closed-door debates, he advocated civil unions as a compromise position. In the end, because he was President of the Bishops’ Conference, his public remarks reflected the views of the majority of the Argentine bishops, not his own views. During the political debate, a gay rights leader and theologian wrote a pointed letter to Cardinal Bergoglio. Shortly thereafter the man received a phone call and met twice with the Cardinal, who reaffirmed his support for civil unions and legal rights for lesbian and gay persons.
Six other cardinals have advocated civil unions for same-sex couples: Theodore McCarrick, retired Archbishop of Washington, DC; Carlo Martini (now deceased) of Milan; Christoph Schonborn of Vienna; Ruben Salazar of Colombia; Cardinal Godfried Danneels, Archbishop Emeritus of Brussels; and Rainer Maria Woelki of Berlin.
For example, last year at a major Church sponsored conference in Mannheim, Germany, that drew more than 50,000 Catholics, Cardinal Woelki told the assembly, “When two homosexuals take responsibility for one another, if they deal with each other in a faithful and long-term way, you have to see it in the same way as heterosexual relationships.” His statement recognizes and affirms the qualities of care, trust, commitment, and fidelity that are marks of a marriage. Of course, Cardinal Woelki did not use the word marriage. He stated that the relationship between a man and a woman was the basis for creation. Nevertheless, his words of support for civil unions amazed the crowd of assembly participants.
Also last year, a parish priest denied a gay man in a partnered relationship his elected seat on the parish council. The man asked to meet with Cardinal Schonborn, the influential Archbishop of Vienna. After inviting the man and his partner for lunch, the Cardinal stated that he was impressed by the gay couple’s commitment to living a life of faith, humility, and dedication to the Church. Commenting that the lifestyles of many parish council members do not conform to the ideals of the Church, the Cardinal reinstated the man to the parish council. This year at a lecture in London, Cardinal Schonborn reiterated that same-sex relationships need respect and civil protection.
Two national Bishops’ conferences and about a dozen bishops and archbishops throughout the world have likewise given public support to civil unions. Two of these prelates are Vatican officials. In February of this year, Archbishop Vincent Paglia, head of the Pontifical Council of the Family, said that the Church could recognize private law solutions for same-gender couples to prevent injustice. He condemned discrimination against gay and lesbian people because of their dignity as children of God. He said he would like Church officials to oppose bills that would make homosexuality a crime.
These remarks were followed by those of Archbishop Piero Marini, President of the Pontifical Committee for International Eucharistic Congresses, who said, “In these discussions, it’s necessary, for instance, to recognize the union of persons of the same sex, because there are many couples that suffer because their civil rights aren’t recognized.” In his press interview, Archbishop Marini also said that the election of Francis has generated an air of freedom and a window of springtime and hope.
The most substantial challenge to official Church teaching comes from Bishop Geoffrey Robinson, a retired bishop from Australia. In his current book, For Christ’s Sake, and in a previous book, Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church, Bishop Robinson calls for a radical reexamination of the Church’s teaching on all sexual issues, which would affect both homosexual and heterosexual relationships. He believes that sexual morality should be based not on authority, but on people taking responsibility for their actions and their lives. Bishop Robinson is asking Catholics all over the world to sign a petition for a third Vatican Council to begin worldwide discussions not only among the bishops, but also among all the members of the Church. See “For Christ’s Sake! Stop Sexual Abuse for good!” or http://www.change.org/en-AU/petitions/pope-francis-the-vatican-for-christ-s-sake-stop-sexual-abuse-for-good
These actions and comments indicate that the official Church is beginning to acknowledge a need to rethink homosexual relationships and, according to some bishops, its theology of sexuality.
How can we explain these changes in attitude among Catholics? Why have Catholics’ views altered or been modified to be more accepting of lesbian and gay persons and their love relationships? I believe that part of the explanation in understanding any complex issue rests in obtaining correct information. Historians, anthropologists, biological and social scientists, and other professionals have helped us grow in our awareness of the nature of homosexuality in general, and of same-sex marriage in particular.
The meaning and rituals of marriage have varied over time and culture. The Israelites held no belief that marriage was between one man and one woman. In that patriarchal society, a man could have more than one wife if he could afford it. The great kings David and Solomon attested to the practice of multiple wives. The story of Adam and Eve was not an endorsement of monogamy among the Hebrews; monogamy became an ideal of prophets, such as Ezekiel and Hosea.
In the early Christian church, marriage had no religious significance. Christians merely adopted the customs of the culture. Marriages were arrangements made by the civil government of Rome that defined rights and responsibilities, provided continuity in society, and facilitated the inheritance of property. Weddings were private ceremonies, with no official sanction from church or state. None of the liturgical books in the early Church mention wedding ceremonies.
In the late 4th century in some parts of the Christian East, it was considered an honor if a priest or bishop blessed the couple during the wedding feast. A century later, the priest participated in the ceremony by joining the couples’ hands or putting a garland over their hands. This ritual may be the origin of the expression, “to tie the knot.” By the 8th century, marriage ceremonies were commonly held in a church, with legal recognition. By the 11th century, church officials required that marriages at least be blessed by a priest. With the fall of the Roman Empire in the West in the 5th century and the decline of the Empire in the East from the 11th century, the institutional church exerted more and more legal control over marriage. By the 12th century, a priest was obliged to conduct the ritual.
By the late 12th and 13th centuries, marriage began to be regarded as a sacrament to be regulated by church officials. Many theologians of the time objected to this sacramental view of marriage because marriages involved financial arrangements. It thus appeared as though grace, which comes from the sacraments, could be bought and sold. Furthermore, the institution of marriage existed before Christ, but if the sacraments were instituted by Christ to give grace, how could Christ have instituted marriage? Thirdly, marriage involved sex, which was considered polluted in some way.
In his book, Same-Sex Unions in Pre-modern Europe, the medieval historian, John Boswell, presents numerous ceremonies that celebrate same-sex unions. Boswell found and translated more than 60 manuscripts of such ceremonies between the 8th and 16th centuries. These ceremonies had striking word and visual parallels to ceremonies of heterosexual unions. For example, both kinds of ceremonies commonly included the joining or tying of right hands with a stole. Both kinds included a binding with a stole or veil, or the imposition of crowns, or making circles around the altar.
Boswell claims that Church authorities accepted these same-sex ceremonies prior to the 13th century, after which they were considered illicit. Almost all historians agree that the late 11th and early 12th centuries were periods of openness & tolerance, and that the social and ecclesiastical climate became less tolerant in the 13th & 14th centuries, as inquisitions to investigate unorthodoxy began to appear. Scholars have generally accepted the authenticity of the manuscripts Boswell unearthed and the accuracy of his translations, but they have largely disagreed with his interpretations of the facts. Many claim these same sex unions were celebrating brotherly love, not marriage; however, the striking similarities to heterosexual marriage ceremonies cannot be denied. Many question whether Church authorities endorsed these ceremonies, but their existence indicates that they were approved in at least some parts of the Christian world where they were celebrated.
Same-sex unions are being sanctioned today in the United States by large segments of the Catholic community. I believe that another explanation for this acceptance, more important than the additional knowledge we have about marriage, is the personal experience of knowing friends, neighbors, relatives, or co-workers who are lesbian or gay. Lesbian and gay people have come out in record numbers in recent years. Their personal testimonies are affecting the hearts and minds of Catholics because our most profound beliefs are shaped by personal experience.
A number of years ago, I had a providential meeting on a plane with Benedict XVI before he was elected pope. I was making a pilgrimage to Munich and we both happened to be on the same flight from Rome. In our 20- minute discussion about lesbian and gay people, I asked him if he had ever met any gay people. “Yes, in Germany,” he said. “In Berlin, they were demonstrating against the pope.” This was his experience of gay people—in a conflict situation. Apparently, he had not heard the personal stories of lesbian or gay people and how they feel about their lives, their beliefs, and the struggles they have encountered from society and the church. I explained to him that lesbian and gay Catholics are often ridiculed by those who ask, “How can you stay with a Church that oppresses you?” “They stay,” I said, “because they love God and their Christian faith.”
Only when we meet lesbian and gay people in the ordinary circumstances of life, will we see them as the normal human beings they are. Only then will we begin to question our notions about same-sex marriage. We then ask the central question: What is the essence of marriage? What did marriage mean before the Christian era? What did it mean in pre-modern Europe? What does marriage mean today? In 2004, the board of the National Coalition of American Nuns answered the question this way: “Love, care, and commitment to another human being, not gender or procreation, form the essence or meaning of marriage.”
The Church’s Teaching
How can Catholics reconcile this new view of marriage with the traditional teachings of the Church? How can Catholics, who love the Church as their spiritual family, formulate a framework in which lesbian and gay people can live justly and wholly within the tradition of the faith community they love? Too often the application of the church’s teaching on social justice toward lesbian and gay persons seems to be thwarted or usurped by the official teaching on sexual ethics. What is needed is a continued development of sexual ethics by the Christian community.
In the first centuries of the Christian era, sexual ethics was not wedded to procreation. This came only with the early Church Fathers, particularly Augustine, who believed that procreation was the only justification for sexual pleasure and marriage. After many centuries, the official Church acknowledged that the love of the couple was a secondary purpose of sexuality and marriage. Vatican II taught that procreation and mutual love were equally important. Contemporary moral theologians have developed the teaching still further. They maintain that the procreative purpose can be broadened and described as creativity for the community. Using traditional Catholic theology based on natural law, this approach acknowledges that our appreciation of what is natural for the human person has also developed.
The thread woven throughout these remarks is change: change in my personal opinions, change in the attitudes of U. S. Catholics, change in the public statements of some high ranking church officials, change in our understanding of marriage, change in our personal experiences, and change in the Church’s official teaching on sexual ethics. Too often we are frightened by change because we are comfortable with the status quo and are skeptical that one change will lead down a slippery slope of still more changes with which we cannot cope. When I fear change, I remind myself of the words of Cardinal John Henry Newman, who said in his Development of Christian Doctrine, “To live is to change and to be perfect is to have changed often.” Let us pray to Blessed John Henry Newman to help us accept the changes needed in our Church.
A few weeks ago, Bondings 2.0reported on Australia’s Bishop Geoffrey Robinson’s call for a new Vatican Council to address the sex abuse crisis and sexuality generally. Bishop Robinson led the investigation of Australia’s clergy sex abuse crisis, and the experience transformed his views on sex and power in the Catholic church. Recently, Jamie Manson interviewed Bishop Robinson for The National Catholic Reporter. At the close of the interview, Manson asked Robinson, “What keeps you hopeful?” His answer:
‘Cardinal John Henry Newman, before he became a Catholic, wrote to a friend, ‘There is nothing on this earth so ugly as the Catholic Church and nothing so beautiful.’ We’ve all seen the ugliness, and abuse is one of the ugliest chapters of all, but I’ve also seen the beauty, mostly in all of the good people I’ve worked with over the years. I don’t want to just walk away and leave that beauty behind. So I’ll work to overcome the ugliness wherever I can.”
Bishop Geoffrey Robinson, a retired auxiliary bishop of Sydney, Australia, has published a new book in which he calls for the Catholic church to institute a Third Vatican Council to discuss how to prevent sexual abuse in the church, which he proposes would also include re-examining a number of other sexual and gender-oriented topics, as well. And he is starting a global movement to get Catholics to call for such an event.
Readers of Bondings 2.0 may remember that Bishop Robinson made headlines back in March of 2012 when he spoke at New Ways Ministry’s Seventh National Symposium in Baltimore and called for a total re-thinking of Catholic sexual morality. He had previously been prominent because of his role as the Australian bishops’ representative to handle that country’s clerical sexual abuse crisis. That experience helped him see the church and sexuality in a different light, and he wrote a book of his new insights, Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church.
Australia’s The Age newspaper reports on his new initiative to seek a Vatican III Council. which Robinson calls “a Catholic spring”:
“Retired Sydney bishop Geoffrey Robinson has launched a petition for ordinary Catholics to seek another global church council like the 1960s reforming Vatican II council. But at ”Vatican III,’ he says, there must be as many lay people as bishops to make sure the hard questions get asked.
“He believes that only a ”Catholic spring’ like the revolutions that ended the Marcos regime in the Philippines, totalitarian governments in the Arab world and communism in eastern Europe will move the Vatican to make the changes that are needed.”
Robinson lays out his call for a new council in his new book, For Christ’s Sake: End Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church … for Good, which will be published in Australia on Tuesday, June 4th. The Age describes the publication:
“The book is about the powerful cultural factors that block the church from attacking the causes of abuse, rather than merely responding afterwards. Bishop Robinson believes the church is still trying to ‘manage’ the problem rather than confront it.
” ‘Ultimately the only way to deal with abuse is prevent it. Once it’s happened, anything you do is second-rate – you can’t cure it or restore people to the way they were before,’ Bishop Robinson said.
“The biggest obstacles he identifies are papal infallibility, obligatory celibacy, the professional priestly caste, the absence of the feminine throughout the church, and an immature morality based on authority rather than people taking responsibility.”
Bishop Robinson’s efforts toward a Vatican III are supported by two other Australian prelates: Bishops Pat Power of Canberra and Bill Morris of Toowoomba. A change.org petition has already been launched in Australia for lay people to endorse the need for a Council. With no publicity it has received 10,000 signatures in about two weeks. U.S. and European versions of the petition will be launched this summer, and Bondings 2.0 will let you know about these developments as soon as they are announced.
You can learn more about Bishop Robinson and his ministry byvisiting his website.
New Ways Ministry supports Bishop Robinson’s call for a new Council with lay participation. The only way that our church can heal is if all the voices on the many diverse forms of sexuality are heard and considered.