Homosexual Unions: Rejection? Mercy? Recognition?
Pablo Romero SJ, Revista Mensaje, Santiago de Chile, June 2015, pp. 14-18. Published with permission of the editor of Revista Mensaje.
We are in the middle of the Synod on the family. In October last year a first assembly was held and when finished its conclusions were made public in the Relatio Synodi. Reflection will continue at least until the assembly of October 2015 and, for that, as the spokesperson for the Apostolic See said ‘it is important not to over analyse the text’. Anyway, there is the wake of the debates, the document and the voting, published for the first time in history.
Especially the latter show a notorious lack of consensus, among other matters, on how to approach the pastoral work with homosexual people. The concluding text did not respond to the expectations of those waiting for ‘new words’ adding to what has been said on the matter and, thus, it is not risky thinking that this is related to the third of bishops displeased with the drafting of the numbers devoted to it .
What ‘new words’ could be expected, with more or less realism, from the Magisterium of the Church as to what regards the life of homosexual people? I think these could be placed in two levels. The first one is the attitude. Many are expected words expressing in a better manner the due ‘respect, mercy and asensibility’ the same Magisterium proclaims in the Catechism of the Catholic Church of 1992 (Nº 2358). Some are longing for expressions that no one can seriously discuss from a doctrinal point of view and that have this quality: ‘homosexuals are welcome in the Church’, ‘we want to listen to them’, ‘they should not feel shame for what they are’, ‘we know of the suffering when negatively stigmatised’, ‘they have many gifts to give’. A number of these expressions we know were, in fact, discussed and none of them made it into the final text. These would do much good. Also, some of us, along this line, dream of a Church asking for forgiveness.
There has been pastoral negligence and complicity in experiences of homosexuality tarnished by obscurity and suffering. And, lastly, it is expected we celebrate those that, even amidst hostility, have remained faithful to the Church and sought its growth. From them, we all have to learn.
Another level of ‘new words’ to be expected refers straightforwardly to the judgment on homosexual unions. Is it possible to say anything more than what has been said? Is it an illusion to think so? The next pages aim at showing what has been said to this day and, above all, what it ‘could’ be expected to be said.
What has been said to this day: magisterial rejection
I believe what has been said by the Magisterium in relation to what it calls homosexual ‘acts’ is known to many. And it is so for its clarity and for the insistency of using practically the same words in each document for the last forty years. This can be divided into: a judgment of the act, a main justification, other relevant justifications and a judgment to culpability. In the following, I make a brief summary of all this, in a manner, probably, of an aide-mémoire:
a. A judgment of the homosexual act.
No doubt has ever been expressed in a magisterial document regarding ‘[homosexual acts saying that] under no circumstances can they be approved’ (CCC, Nº 2357). The first time it was signalled in those terms was in the declaration by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) of 1975 ‘Persona humana’ in its Nº VIII. And in that text, it is added that ‘no pastoral method can be employed which would give moral justification to these acts’. The next time was the in the ‘Letter to the Catholic Bishops on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons’ by the same Congregation. This time, in 1986, the text repeats the same formula and specifies in its Nº 15 that ‘no authentic pastoral programme will include organizations in which homosexual persons associate with each other without clearly stating that homosexual activity is immoral’. In 2003, lastly, in a context of discussion of civil recognition, the CDF reiterated the judgment.
b. The main justification.
It could be said that the main justification used for the rejection has been the following: according to the objective moral order, these relations are ‘acts which lack an essential and indispensable finality’, or are, ‘intrinsically disordered’ (CDF, 1976, VIII). What would be this transgressed order? The orientation, by nature, of the sexual act towards procreation and that it demanded, for that reason, complementarity. Homosexual activity, on the contrary, ‘ is not a complementary union, able to transmit life; and so it thwarts the call to a life of that form of self-giving which the Gospel says is the essence of Christian living’ (CDF, 1986, Nº 7). This means, the argument of the Magisterium is the same one used for rejecting all sexual relations not open to procreation, although here it aggravates its judgment for the act is incapable of procreation.
c. Justification from the continuity with the tradition and the Scriptures
The Magisterium has noted the fact that the same rejection can be found along the Church’s tradition and is in perfect continuity with the Scriptures. Although it is recognised, especially in relation to the latter, that the Church proclaims the Gospel in a manner different today and in ancient days, ‘there is nevertheless a clear consistency within the Scriptures themselves on the moral issue of homosexual behaviour’ (CDF, 1986, Nº 5). Hence, the argument goes that it is not the case of isolated sentences in the Scriptures taken out of their context (issue defended by a significant number of the biblical theologians) but a coherence in judgment that is present in various passages of the Old and the New Testament, which is deeply rooted in the very theology of creation of Genesis: ‘human beings, therefore, are nothing less than the work of God himself; and in the complementarity of the sexes, they are called to reflect the inner unity of the Creator. They do this in a striking way in their cooperation with him in the transmission of life by a mutual donation of the self to the other’ (CDF, 1986, Nº 6). Also, the Magisterium has insisted that this same judgment is found in many ecclesial writings from the first centuries and ‘is unanimously accepted by Catholic Tradition’ (CDF, 2003, Nº 4).
d. The judgment regarding culpability.
If the objective judgment regarding the homosexual act seems clear, what is in it regarding personal culpability? In the 1975 declaration, the CDF makes the difference between the homosexual act, which is considered objectively contrary to morals and the culpability of the person. The latter, it says, is to be ‘judged with prudence’ (CDF, 1975, VIII) although, as stated above, pastoral methods recognising a moral justification should not be employed. The 1986 letter goes deeper in this regard, but places the emphasis on what relates to the moral non-justification.
Responding to a justifying position that argues a lack of freedom and alternatives on the part of the homosexual person, the CDF defends two points in Nº 11: it warns against generalizations in judging individual cases for the latter may reduce as well as increase culpability; and against the ‘unfounded and demeaning’ assumption of a lack of freedom of the person.
As it can be seen, the tone on which the magisterial judgment is formulated gives little room to interpretation. Even where in some declaration it is recognised that culpability is to be judged prudently, the emphasis is placed on those unions cannot be morally justified in any case.
Mercy or the homosexual union as the ‘lesser evil’
When thinking of ‘new words’ at doctrinal level, some think the calling to a ‘prudent judgment’ regarding personal culpability should make way to a more decided expression of mercy for those homosexual persons that have united in relations of engagement and cohabitation.
This appeal to ‘mercy’ has its roots in the experience of the knowledge of the suffering of homosexual persons in their life journey. The latter has often been marked by:
– A sexual orientation that was discovered from early on, not being chosen nor wanted.
– A social context hostile to homosexuality, where those who might be suspected of being homosexual or disclosed so, experienced ridicule, demeaning or even exclusion at the workplace and physical abuse.
– An ecclesial context where they encountered repeatedly stigmatisation, others insisting in that the orientation was a ‘disease’; harassment, through pejorative discourses and exclusion, this time ecclesial, for those making their orientation public, and more so for those deciding to live it. This brought along two added ‘weights’: the religious burden of the ‘sinful’ and the authority of the one saying so.
– A family context where the same dynamics could be replicated, with the added suffering for the child-teenager-adult homosexual who did not want to cause grief in those he/she loved so much.
– A homosexual experience that, in all the previous contexts, had the burden of the struggle against himself/herself, of loneliness, leading a double life and of risk.
Many of those claiming more ‘mercy’ have in their minds stories such as these or even more dramatic ones, such as those of teenagers who have ended up committing suicide. It is from that point of departure that a healthy mercy arises, which says ‘enough of so much unjust suffering’.
In addition, when looking at the future that the Magisterium demands for every homosexual, as is celibacy, many people also recognise this as an undue burden and an unrealistic route, at least if demanded for all. Even valuing celibacy as a calling, it demands support structures for it to be lived healthily and fruitfully. Structures that neither society nor the Church provide for the homosexual. Also, the experience of celibacy assumes a framework of meaning that is not universal. Demanding celibacy for all seems disproportionate and would exclude a good number of homosexuals from the ecclesial community. Watching Jesus, who sought the inclusion of those outcast in His time, many cannot be at peace with the magisterial rejection of all homosexual unions.
What does the request for ‘mercy’ mean then? Besides ‘new words’ expressing a new attitude, as we said in the beginning, there is the hope that at doctrinal level it was declared that ‘not every homosexual union is condemned and unjustifiable from the moral viewpoint’.
Is this unrealistic in the short or medium term, considering the declarations of the last decades? We do not know. Something like this would evidently go against a number of formulations by the CDF. And this makes it something difficult to happen in the short term. But a change in position is not unthinkable, claiming other principles of moral judgment with a long tradition in the Church, even longer than those stated in these declarations. I remember at least three that are intertwined:
a. The doctrine of the lesser evil. It can still be believed that homosexual unions are not something to be wanted in itself. But if the alternative was a bigger or invincible evil, as might be a dehumanising sexual life, or a solitude not bearable psychologically, certain homosexual unions, especially monogamous ones, could be tolerated as a ‘lesser evil’ and not be the object of condemnation. In fact, in the declaration by the CDF speaking on subjective culpability it made allusion to something like the aforementioned when pointing to the ‘impossibility of living the celibate life’. What happens is that the text requests not to ‘make general the particular cases’. The issue here would be checking whether we are talking of very particular cases and not of the general situation.
b. The role of conscience. The above issue regarding the two evils at stake, seen now from the homosexual person´s perspective who judges his/her better acting, leads us to the valuation of his/her own conscience. Again, although he/she can recognise that the active homosexual life is not the ideal – could his/her own conscience not lead him/her to assuming these relations under certain conditions? Would he or she not like that assume responsibility for his/her own life, and the calling to the search of good and truth in it? Let us remember that the Second Vatican Council, in its pastoral constitution Gaudium et Spes, vindicates the privileged place of the personal conscience in the search for truth (Nº 16) even for the very dignity of the person (Nº 17).
c. Heroism that cannot be demanded. Lastly, the doctrine of the lesser evil connects with another key of moral judgment of long tradition. Let us assume that indeed the judgment of these two objective evils can lead to concluding that a celibate life is possible, but at a great human cost. The Magisterium, in this situation, could encourage towards value of celibacy for the homosexual; but demanding it for all as the sole morally justified answer? Would it not be for many a truly heroic life and, although desirable, not demandable?
A ‘merciful’ position that can be asked from the ecclesial Magisterium could go along these lines and, as we have hinted, links with matters defended by the tradition of the Church. Furthermore, maybe when coming to future formulations, a different emphasis would suffice, highlighting what the CDF of 1976 has stated, but has taken care not to proclaim publicly so as not to generalise: the gelatinization of the subjective culpability. Mercy does not mean omitting an evil done, but admitting human frailty.
It is related to ‘we are not capable of everything’ and with morals being played ‘within the possible’. The clemency that goes with this mercy is not about regarding as less a certain human group or undervaluing their freedom. Mercy is the connection with actual people and sacred stories deserving of a unique treatment, even more if many of them have been marked by suffering. The last interventions by the papacy and the reflection of moralists and pastors during these last decades that go along these lines, make it not illusory thinking of these ‘new words’.
Hope in the recognition of homosexual love
All the above, although necessary and welcome, is insufficient for a wide majority of homosexual men and women, Catholic and non-Catholic. Furthermore for those that have come to accept their sexual orientation with a healthy pride as part of their identity and of what they are invited to share. The public struggle, but before that, the inner one of the same person, have been precisely that of not conceiving their orientation as a disorder that should be repressed, sublimated or in the best of cases ‘tolerated’; but as one of the ways of feeling that constitutes him/her as such.
We are not speaking here of a secondary characteristic of a person, in relation to which a value judgment is indifferent. In sexual orientation, desires of accompanying and being accompanied are expressed, of being contained and containing, as well of communication, affections and life projects, among many other things. Sexual orientation does not come down to the mere epidermal pleasure. Hence, saying that such orientation it not a ‘good’, is referring to that entire way of feeling, which forms the life of such a person from deep within. Thus, although it is true that such distinctions between the condition and the sexual expression can be made, the separation the Magisterium undertakes between ‘I accept you as a person’, ‘but your homosexuality is evil’ and ‘all of your homosexual acts are sin’ sounds violent to many, and I believe with just reason. In essence, in these words, many cannot find actual acceptance.
Conversely, not recognising homosexuality as a good opposes a certain Ethics of gifts by disregarding that it is ultimately “received”. It is as if it could not be totally understood that sexual orientation is one of those things in life that is simply received. From a certain worldview, its origin will be chance or ‘nature’. From the Christian worldview, its origin is God, for ‘He wanted it so’ or for ‘He invites him/her to receiving it as a gift’.
This last point has received significant support when the very World Health Organisation (WHO) has already removed it from its list of diseases in 1990. But, even if that had not been done, isn’t Jesus himself in his Gospel praxis the one inviting to relate to what is ‘received’ with love and kindness? (2 Cor:12,19). Isn’t it more relevant than wondering for the ‘origin of it’, always mysterious, to think how can this be the ‘occasion for the glory of God to act’ (Jn:9,3)?
In any case, the homosexual person loving him/herself also needs appreciating and celebrating this way of feeling. There will be no acceptance of him/herself as a gift if it is not recognised that his/her sexual orientation also is one. It is something crucial for the great majority. Hence, it is explained that part of the movement of the homosexual person is the vindication of the ‘pride of being so’. ‘I am homosexual’ becomes ‘I’m gay’. The word is an Anglicism meaning ‘merry’ and firstly referred to the ‘merry (happy)’ lifestyle of those practising male prostitution. Then, the word was adopted as acronym for ‘Good As You’. The two meanings refer to a vindication of the ‘merriness’ or ‘pride’ of being homosexual that, at the same time, becomes a mission of cultural transformation for moving from homophobia to the valuation of the difference and the grateful acceptance of what life or God give.
Now, can a ‘way of feeling’ be lovable, a certain range of desires and not their realisation? Hypothetically, yes: when these desires end up causing damage. But, is it the case? The WHO is already clear that is not. But before, the very gay people are those who have experienced in that in many cases, life lived in a couple, in particular, ‘with this specific person’, has been a present, a gift from God, an expression of care, predilection, of ‘my life is important for Him’, of ‘I am lovable’, and occasion for expressing that ‘my’ homosexuality can make another person happy and be expression of features of the love of God. That is the belief of many.
No one can take them from the conviction that ‘this person’; ‘this relationship’; ‘these years’ are something to be celebrated, thanked for; they are things for which they are happy and which they want to share.
The personal conscience that this is a loving experience that has dignified ‘me’, made me happy and has made others happy, is a dramatic contrast to the magisterial conscience that this is an objective disorder, that there is no love there, that this is not a part of God’s plan. Then, there is nothing left there but breakup. That which has been part of one person´s salvation story, for another one is part of his/her dehumanisation. What comes first? As ‘formed’ as the conscience may be, as much as is said that it should not act ‘autonomously’ and must obey the Truth, this Truth is shown in a place different to that which the Magisterium indicates. Acting with dignity is acting according to that conscience (Gaudium et SpesNº 17).
Now, it is true that personal conviction requests confirmation in community, which also can judge or recognize if there is love there. For that purpose, it can consider in its examination the ‘nature of the sexual act’, but care is to be taken as to such conception being so narrow it ends up excluding from ‘good’ complete realities of life. If it is considered that an essential requirement for ‘every’ sexual act, is the openness to the transmission of life and, therefore, genital complementarity, there is evidently no space for the homosexual act. But, if we considered the sexual act within a project of fruitfulness not reduced to procreation, and if we considered complementarity in a more integral sense, the doors for the recognition of its ‘good’ are open. Does this denaturalise the sexual act? I think not. Regarding the non-procreative fruitfulness, does the Magisterium not value the sexual act outside the natural fertility periods?
Does it not value positively also the sexual act of two people that, be it for age or for other circumstances, cannot procreate? It is clear that although one of the central purposes of the sexual act is procreation, human sexuality – for its strong symbolic sense – goes beyond that. As to complementarity, is genital complementarity a requirement? And what happens to people that due to invalidity no longer can generate such complementarity? Is it that they cannot express affection recurring to erotic love in its many forms?
Some will say, also, that the sexual act supposes certain stability and that even demands marriage as a definitive project of unity. Well, the opening to the good of these unions places us also in the search for the best way of supporting them.
In any case, the judgment of the ecclesial community cannot consider only certain conceptions of the ‘nature’ of things, but must also listen to persons’ narratives and testimony. Is not about morally justifying an action simply because the person carrying it out believes it to be good, but neither can a moral judgment be made without listening to them. And the experience of many ecclesial communities and many families is that of seeing how homosexual people that have made a journey as a couple, not only say they feel loved and growing, but also, they are seen so!
They are seen as if they have found a treasure in their lives that they celebrate. Normally, also, this feeling loved, as for everyone, turns them towards greater generosity and towards the search of sharing what they are receiving for free. It is not rare that based on that experience, they want to fight for the rights of others and risk life and reputation for that. Aren’t those proper signs that there is love there? It is obvious, but we must say, not ‘every’ homosexual union will be so. As in any heterosexual union, relationships of power or of mere selfish exchange that dehumanises sexuality can take precedence. The question here is to open ourselves to recognizing that there are (many) unions, in which there is love.
Is it realistic thinking of a magisterial recognition of homosexual love? I see three big difficulties for such recognition, at least in the years to come. It would mean, first, to go back along the path traced in the last years on the matter, including building on a paradigm of moral foundations different from those used in sexual matters. This is not impossible, but is a slow process that requires also a renewed view of the value of the tradition where evolution does have a place. Second, it would probably suppose a significant tension if not a breakup with part of the ecclesial community that will resist such recognition.
It is here I think that a renewed view is required, is required, both of the role of the Magisterium and of the kind of judgments the latter should put forward while thinking of the universal Church. Lastly, it supposes an inner transformation of the Hierarchy, which is also slow. This hierarchy comes from all the corners of the world, some of which still discuss whether homosexuality is a criminal offence. This situation conditions many judgments, and processes are not only slow but also most varied.
Hence, what many of us expect to happen at magisterial level is that, at least, a path is started with new assertions. ‘New words’ are required, even if they are insufficient and the debt remains. Words reflecting a change of attitude and a change in the manner of addressing the matter. In the meantime, the Christian communities that have experienced the gift of life of homosexuals will continue giving testimony of the presence of love among and between them.
1 See text and voting, especially Nos. 53 and 54 in http://press.vatican.va/content/salastampa/it/bollettino/pubblico/2014/10/18/0770/03044.html