One of the hot button issues that is sure to provoke controversy at, and after, the Synod on the Family is the Church’s teaching and pastoral practice regarding gays and lesbians. It is a difficult and complicated issue to be sure, and different cultures deal with homosexuality in vastly different ways. In what follows, I will address only the situation of the Church in the West.
In the history of the Church, no group of people, except the Jews, have been treated worse than gays and lesbians. And, like the Church’s treatment of the Jews, it is sometimes difficult to discern whether the Church was merely reflecting cultural biases extant at the time, or generating the animus on its own, or, more often, a mix of both. Certainly, the pronounced homosexuality of the English King William III – “who was not hostile to young men” as Churchill noted – did not prevent the pope from favoring English arms at different points in the War of the Spanish Succession. The pioneering scholarship of the late John Boswell on the relationship between Christianity, homosexuality and social tolerance demonstrated the complex ways that bias manifested itself over the centuries. Nonetheless, the dominant story of how gays and lesbians have been treated in Western culture is framed by a singular fact that turns out to be wrong. For centuries, people, including churchmen, believed that gay acts were the result of an aberrant choice, an instance of a heterosexual person engaged in a perverse act. We now know that a certain segment of the population, probably no more than three or four percent, experience homosexuality not as a choice but as a given, and for them, acting on their desire is not aberrant. That may not fit our moral categories, but there is no denying the fact that our cultural and ecclesial understanding of homosexuality has been distorted by a factual mistake for a very long time.
I recall reading a comment by a Dominican biblical scholar, who had spent most of his life in Israel studying ancient manuscripts. When asked about the relationship of the Catholic Church and the Jews, he said something like, “The relationship has been so hemmed in my misunderstanding and so devoid of mutual respect, perhaps it is best to say very little about the relationship today, for whatever we say is likely only to be misunderstood. Better to simply be together for a bit and learn about each other slowly and patiently.” In the case of sexuality, which is so intertwined with culture, such counsel is very wise.
Wise or not, such counsel is not really possible anymore. The “sin that dare not speak its name” now speaks its name without fear and all the time. The Synod Fathers may not have watched “Will & Grace” but the rest of us have. It is almost impossible to think of any long-seated cultural bias that has changed more swiftly and more comprehensively than the bias against gays and lesbians. Fifteen years ago, the idea of same-sex marriage was advocated only by a few esoteric writers and advocates – and one serious scholar, Jonathan Rausch – and today there are nineteen states where same sex marriage is legal, and a dozen or so countries. As Michael Kinsley noted in a controversial defense of Ben Carson’s right to state his opposition to same sex marriage without being labeled a bigot:
But Carson didn’t murder millions of people. All he did was say on television that he opposes same-sex marriage—an idea that even its biggest current supporters had never even heard of a couple of decades ago. Does that automatically make you a homophobe and cast you into the outer darkness? It shouldn’t. But in some American subcultures—Hollywood, academia, Democratic politics—it apparently does. You may favor raising taxes on the rich, increasing support for the poor, nurturing the planet, and repealing Section 14(b) of the Taft-Hartley Act, but if you don’t support gay marriage, you’re out of the club.
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I should note that Kinsley himself supports same sex marriage but even he was baffled both by the speed with which the change in societal attitudes took place and by the shocking intolerance of those who, but a few years prior, were championing tolerance. It is baffling.
The bishops of the United States may be baffled like Kinsley, but nothing excuses their response to the same-sex marriage phenomenon. It has been pathetic. If you know this one discrete thing about a person – he or she is gay – then, well, I am not going to bake her wedding cake and I am not going to allow his partner to get health care benefits. The response from the bishops is all the more remarkable because they certainly were less combative when the states began enacting no-fault divorce laws in the late 60s and early 70s. The issue of homosexuality seems to have hit a nerve. But, when, as happened just this summer, the Archbishop of Baltimore and the Bishop of Buffalo issue a blistering statement of opposition to President Obama’s proposed rule barring discrimination against gays and lesbians, and that statement from the bishops does not even mention God nor quote from the Scripture, the question must be asked: We are worried about secularism in the world? The camel’s secularist nose is inside the tent when bishops speak as if they were lawyers. This was not the first time either. I recall the remarks delivered by Archbishop Lori when he took possession of his see. He did not preach Jesus Christ, and Him crucified, but James Madison and him justified. It was appalling. The key point here is that if bishops behave like politicians, they will be treated like politicians, with all the nastiness and invective that comes with that designation and they will have no one but themselves to blame.
The Synod must also avoid turning the invocation of human dignity into a throwaway line. It is not sufficient to say, well, yes, we believe in the dignity of all people, including gays and lesbians, but we cannot support a law that would protect gays and lesbians from unjust discrimination. Indeed, it was suggested to the USCCB, both within the conference and without, that they draft a version of an employment non-discrimination rule the bishops could live with. That idea was shot down. It was killed not because such a proposal would have violated Church teaching. It was killed because of politics.
There is a different, and deeper, point as well. On Monday, Pope Francis began his morning homilies at the Casa Santa Marta again and that day he preached against “watered down Christians.” Those of us who wish to see the inadequacy of the Church’s teaching on homosexuality faced, and that teaching develop, are not asking anyone to water down anything. What we are pointing out is that for centuries, the Church seemed to focus only on the sin of homosexuality, and neglected other important teachings of the Church, such as the innate dignity of each and every human being. Gays and lesbians were seen in caricature, reduced to their sexual activity. That focus and that neglect have resulted in the inadequate theology we now have.
Last year, I reviewed Father Lou Cameli’s important book Catholic Teaching on Homosexuality: New Paths to Understanding. I wish that every Synod Father will have read this book before discussing the issue of homosexuality. It is perfectly, even rigorously, orthodox yet it points out ways the theology of the Church on this issue can become more adequate, more balanced. I will not rehash the points in the book I discussed but, for further reading, you can find my two-part review of Cameli’s book here and here. He charts the next potential steps, not looking too far ahead, not imposing an agenda, but searching the tradition itself for a way to better minister to gays and lesbians here and now. I have no particular influence in the choice of theologians to staff whatever commission will work between the two synods to develop proposals, but it would be a crying shame if Cameli was not one of those theologians.
The Synod cannot be silent on an issue like pastoral care for gays and lesbians. But, I hope that whatever comes from the Synod does not to read like it was written by an anti-gay bigot. I hope that the thoroughly misunderstood language about “intrinsically disordered” will be dropped as counter-productive and offensive. I hope the Synod will, without qualification, affirm the innate human dignity of all God’s children, including His gay and lesbian children. I also hope that on this issue, as on others, the Synod will help reawaken a less act-centered understanding of human sinfulness, that isolates certain actions, usually violations of the sixth and ninth commandments, while neglecting all else. I hope they will abandon the idea that the Church should oppose gay rights in civil legislation - it is time to disentangle the Sacrament of Matrimony from civil marriage. And, most importantly, I hope the Synod will follow the Holy Father’s lead and ask itself how it can bring the great news of God’s mercy to those Catholics who are gay and lesbian. For any of this to happen, the Synod Fathers must be attuned to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, whose presence was vouchsafed to the Church by Jesus Christ. Then, and only then, will the Synod bear fruit, on this issue and any other.