Editorial: Ireland vote for same-sex marriage a watershed moment for church teaching

by NCR Editorial Staff

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To help them prepare for this fall's Synod of Bishops on the family, the presidents of the bishops' conferences of Germany, Switzerland and France gathered with biblical scholars and theologians to discuss and clarify "the issues at the heart of the current debates on marriage and family," including "theology of love" and of sexuality as a "language of God and a gift precious to God." Let's hope that among the scholars they called upon were theologians like Creighton University's Michael G. Lawler and Todd A. Salzman. And let's hope they took a hard look at the results of the Irish referendum on marriage.

Dublin Archbishop Diarmuid Martin was correct when he called the overwhelming support for marriage equality in Ireland a "reality check" for the church -- it most certainly is, which is why the world's bishops should be discussing it.

But Martin got it wrong when he said the outcome was part of a social revolution. The overwhelming public support for a broader, more inclusive acceptance of marriage equality has certainly come swiftly, but is more evolution than revolution, which is Lawler and Salzman's point.

If Cardinal Walter Kasper is correct when he says that Pope Francis "wants a listening magisterium," let's hope that Francis, too, is listening to what the Catholics of Ireland are telling the church. They have made manifest in casting ballots what sociologists have documented in research and what Catholic families have experienced in the lives of their children, aunts and uncles, parents and even grandparents: "That God can be," to quote Jamie Manson, "as fully present in the relationships of same-sex couples as God can be in opposite-sex couples."

If the authorities are listening, they will clearly hear the call of the people for a thorough and honest re-examination of the church's teaching on sexuality.

It is time for church teaching to reflect what social science tells us and what Catholic families have long understood: Catholicism must cast off a theology of sexuality based on a mechanical understanding of natural law that focuses on individual acts, and embrace a theology of sexuality that has grown out of lived experience and is based on relationships and intentionality.

In January during his trip to Asia, Francis made seemingly contradictory statements about birth control. He spoke glowingly of Pope Paul VI as a courageous prophet, saying that with his encyclical Humanae Vitae, which affirmed the church's ban on artificial birth control, Paul "had the strength to defend openness to life."

But Francis also was quick to seemingly impose conditions on the encyclical: There are "particular cases" where the contraception ban may not apply and "responsible parenthood" (a term Paul also used) might require the limiting of births. We asked in an editorial at the time -- as did many others -- for Francis to clarify his stance.

We've seen this many times with Francis. Inviting a broader application of the "feminine genius" in church life, but holding the door to ordination firmly shut. Saying of gay people, "Who am I to judge them if they're seeking the Lord in good faith?" yet devoting Wednesday sermons to teaching about family life using traditional male-female images. In church governance, he calls for messy dialogue and consultation, but is not afraid to wield or not wield sole papal authority.

Call it the Francis two-step, or the Pope Francis shuffle. It is almost as if he is working out in public an internal dialogue.

On the issue of church teaching on sexuality, the time for dialogue is likely passed. Action is needed. The strongest message out of the Irish referendum is that on its teaching about sexuality, the church today faces a watershed moment, just as it did in 1968 with Humanae Vitae.

Paul VI could very well have been prophetic in his message about the dangers to married life and human dignity, but history shows his formula for addressing these dangers was disastrous. By rejecting the evolving thought about artificial birth control and married love -- documented by social science and the testimony of committed, faithful married Catholics on the papal commission he appointed -- Paul contributed mightily to the erosion of episcopal credibility.

Francis clearly has great expectations for the church, but his vision won't be realized if he loses a generation of Catholics by imposing on them a teaching they have clearly rejected. The loss would go well beyond the Catholic community. Francis risks losing the credibility the church needs to be an informed moral force in the world.

A version of this story appeared in the June 5-18, 2015 print issue under the headline: Ireland vote watershed moment for church teaching.

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