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 the Public 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.