On the Question of Blessing Gay Unions
C.S. Lewis had a wise policy. He always resented officers who stooped down to instruct enlisted men on struggles they themselves never experienced. Consequently, he resolved never to do the same. That’s why he never talked about homosexuality or gambling, because neither held the slightest attraction to him. Somebody once replied, “So then, all those moral struggles you talk about in The Screwtape Letters and other books….?”
Yes. It was true. All of them. As he put it, “My heart (I need no other) sheweth me the wickedness of the ungodly.”
I mention this by way of preface, because it is not my intention to offer free advice to LGBTQ people in what follows, but simply to try to analyze what is going on in the current contretemps from the perspective of somebody who believes and tries to practice the Catholic faith.
“Ah! But you admit that you think homosexuality is a sin!”
If by that you mean I think homogenital sexual acts are sinful, then yes. How many times do I have to say that I believe the Church’s teaching before people believe me?
But that is light years from saying, “Gays are more sinful than I am” or “It is a sin to be attracted to the same sex” or “Gays need to repent extra super more than the rest of us” or “Gays should get out of the Church” or “God hates gays for loving who they love” or “Gays can never please God” (a particularly beloved lie among the Fortress Katolicus crowd, who seem to exult at the thought of driving people away from Jesus).
As I already said and reiterate here, I have become convinced that the core failure of Catholic witness to LGBTQ people is that we nearly always begin, not with the fact that they are made in the image and likeness of God and ones for whom Christ died, but with the conviction that they are enemies, saboteurs, and irredeemably broken problems who must constantly be told they are broken, not loved; rejected, not cherished. Who, hearing such a message dinned into their ears day in and day out would not flee such an anti-community? To me, the truest sign of miraculous grace in the world is the persistent faith of gay Catholics in the face of such unremitting hostility from their brethren. I cannot account for it apart from the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit.
That said, I think it worthwhile to take a look at the brief statement of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and break down what is going on in it. Many are deeply scandalized by it, in no small part because Pope Francis raised hopes that the Church was taking a different approach to its gay members when he offered that he believed that gay couples deserved civil protections, including legal rights and health care benefits. Some would argue that this is something different than endorsing civil unions, but I cannot for the life of me see how. It was to be expected that many would assume the Francis was therefore just about to wave the magic papal wand and suddenly authorize some sort of blessing for gay unions. Not marriage, exactly. But something marriageish.
I was never among that crowd, simply because I know something of how doctrine develops in the Church and what can and cannot be done. That is not (as we shall see) because I believe there is no way for the Church to acknowledge anything good whatsoever in gay relationships, but because I am aware of how slow and painstaking the Ents of Rome are when mulling over a question, particularly a question that pertains to the seven sacraments. These are, remember, people who literally took forty years of hooming and homming to conclude that the Beatles were a pretty good band. When you look up “Rapid Response Squad” in the phone book, you are never going to find the Magisterium of the Catholic Church in the Yellow Pages. Rather, what they tend to do is take forever to think things over and when they come to a conclusion, make shocking developments that seem counter-intuitive to Reactionaries, flabbergast the world, seem like novelties, and in fact be in accord with the Tradition. That is what Acts 15, Nicaea and Vatican II (to name just three councils) all have in common. It takes more than a mere pope to absorb the stunning changes to the conception of the family that technology, economics, and rapidly evolving mores have flung at the Church’s Tradition in the past 50 years. There is not going to be a sudden stroke of a pen resolving the tension between the Church’s teaching on the sacrament of Marriage and the wide menu of family arrangements (of which gay marriage is but one expression) currently available in our culture. Expecting there would be was naive.
The reason is, from a doctrinal perspective, simple. There is only one form of sexual expression compatible with the Tradition and there always has been: one man and one woman in indissoluble sacramental union open to the transmission of life. That is the sacrament of Marriage. It excludes not merely gay unions, but all heterosexual unions that do not fit that description, including adultery, polygamy and polyamory, fornication, prostitution, etc. Other filters apply as well, including such things as incest, age of consent, and so forth. But the point is simply that one of the core functions of the Church is to guard the sacraments, and Marriage is a sacrament. She can no more tailor the sacraments to the personal tastes of the flock than she can decree that since lots of people like cookies and milk better than they like bread and wine, the Eucharist can be celebrated using those elements instead.
Once you get this, the CDF’s response to the question of blessing gay unions, though a painful blow to gay Catholics, is not all that hard to understand. Nor is it (as we shall see) the end of the conversation, and that should be a hopeful thought, as we will see tomorrow. What I propose today is that we see what the Church does–and does not–say about the question.
Responsum of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to a dubium
regarding the blessing of the unions of persons of the same sex
TO THE QUESTION PROPOSED:
Does the Church have the power to give the blessing to unions of persons of the same sex?
First thing to note: The Church insists that she cannot–not will not–bless gay unions. In short, she has not the power. Why? That is what the Explanatory Note exists to document.
In some ecclesial contexts, plans and proposals for blessings of unions of persons of the same sex are being advanced. Such projects are not infrequently motivated by a sincere desire to welcome and accompany homosexual persons, to whom are proposed paths of growth in faith, “so that those who manifest a homosexual orientation can receive the assistance they need to understand and fully carry out God’s will in their lives”.
“Ecclesial contexts” is very important here. The Church is limiting the discussion to the involvement of the sacerdotal priesthood in the act of “blessing”. So what? So this: not all blessings are done by priests. Laity have the power and authority to bless in certain situations. They lay hands on their kids at bedtime. They say grace at dinner (“Bless us, O Lord, in these thy gifts….”), etc.
Next, note that the Church is perfectly well aware that the desire for some way of affirming gay people and their love for one another is a Good Thing. We will return to that fact later.
On such paths, listening to the word of God, prayer, participation in ecclesial liturgical actions and the exercise of charity can play an important role in sustaining the commitment to read one’s own history and to adhere with freedom and responsibility to one’s baptismal call, because “God loves every person and the Church does the same”, rejecting all unjust discrimination.
And again, the Church affirms that gay people can, in their particular situation in life, still be called to discipleship to Jesus and therefore can be, like anybody else, saints. This is light years from the “If you are gay, you should just clear out!” attitude of Fortress Katolicus.
Among the liturgical actions of the Church, the sacramentals have a singular importance: “These are sacred signs that resemble the sacraments: they signify effects, particularly of a spiritual kind, which are obtained through the Church’s intercession. By them men are disposed to receive the chief effect of the sacraments, and various occasions of life are sanctified”. The Catechism of the Catholic Church specifies, then, that “sacramentals do not confer the grace of the Holy Spirit in the way that the sacraments do, but by the Church’s prayer, they prepare us to receive grace and dispose us to cooperate with it” (#1670).
Blessings belong to the category of the sacramentals, whereby the Church “calls us to praise God, encourages us to implore his protection, and exhorts us to seek his mercy by our holiness of life”. In addition, they “have been established as a kind of imitation of the sacraments, blessings are signs above all of spiritual effects that are achieved through the Church’s intercession”.
Now we start to get to the nub of the issue. Remember: this is a response to a dubium: that is, a question proposed by shepherds and those charged with the sacramental care of the flock. It is, if you will, a technical question, not a mere sentimental one. A “blessing” here is an ecclesial action and such actions are sacramental–that is, connected to the seven sacraments. If I, as a layman, bless you when you sneeze, it is not an ecclesial action. If a priest blesses you with holy water, he is using a sacramental that is connected to, but not identical with, the sacrament of Baptism. Likewise, if he blesses your dinner, he is performing an ecclesial act related to the Eucharist. If he blesses your wedding rings, he is making them sacramentals of your sacrament of Marriage. The idea is always the extension of the Incarnation into the whole of the created world, first through the seven sacraments and then beyond into all creation.
Here’s the thing though: though all creation is good (including, especially, every human person) and therefore can be blessed, there are also certain things that are, at the very least difficult to reconcile with the revelation. To get the hang of it, consider the case of the USS Corpus Christi, a nuclear attack submarine that some genius at the Pentagon christened. Eventually it was renamed USS City of Corpus Christi because some Catholic politicians rightly objected to “blessing” a weapon of mass destruction. What it symbolized was so radically contrary to the gospel that the dissonance of the symbol with the thing symbolized was unacceptable. This is the problem the Church faces with the concept of blessing gay unions. Because precisely the nature of a sacrament is that it symbolizes what it does and it does what it symbolizes–and the sacrament of Marriage, before it is about the marriage of two particular baptized people, is about the Marriage of Christ the Bridegroom and his Bride the Church. We mortals are participating in that Cosmic Marriage as we are participating in our wedding:
Consequently, in order to conform with the nature of sacramentals, when a blessing is invoked on particular human relationships, in addition to the right intention of those who participate, it is necessary that what is blessed be objectively and positively ordered to receive and express grace, according to the designs of God inscribed in creation, and fully revealed by Christ the Lord. Therefore, only those realities which are in themselves ordered to serve those ends are congruent with the essence of the blessing imparted by the Church.
For this reason, it is not licit to impart a blessing on relationships, or partnerships, even stable, that involve sexual activity outside of marriage (i.e., outside the indissoluble union of a man and a woman open in itself to the transmission of life), as is the case of the unions between persons of the same sex. The presence in such relationships of positive elements, which are in themselves to be valued and appreciated, cannot justify these relationships and render them legitimate objects of an ecclesial blessing, since the positive elements exist within the context of a union not ordered to the Creator’s plan.
Furthermore, since blessings on persons are in relationship with the sacraments, the blessing of homosexual unions cannot be considered licit. This is because they would constitute a certain imitation or analogue of the nuptial blessing invoked on the man and woman united in the sacrament of Matrimony, while in fact “there are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family”.
The declaration of the unlawfulness of blessings of unions between persons of the same sex is not therefore, and is not intended to be, a form of unjust discrimination, but rather a reminder of the truth of the liturgical rite and of the very nature of the sacramentals, as the Church understands them.
The Christian community and its Pastors are called to welcome with respect and sensitivity persons with homosexual inclinations, and will know how to find the most appropriate ways, consistent with Church teaching, to proclaim to them the Gospel in its fullness. At the same time, they should recognize the genuine nearness of the Church – which prays for them, accompanies them and shares their journey of Christian faith – and receive the teachings with sincere openness.
This is what it comes back to. On the one hand, a sacerdotal blessing is a sacramental act. Such acts are, by their nature, related to the seven sacraments. The sacrament of Marriage is and always has been between one man and one woman open to the transmission of life in the Catholic Tradition, because Marriage is the sacramental icon of Christ the Bridegroom and His Bride the Church. The Church–which cannot play around with the matter of the sacrament of Marriage any more than it can play around with baptizing people in champagne or using donuts and coffee for the matter of the Eucharist–is leery of blessing gay unions just as it is leery of blessing polygamous or polyamorous ones. Not because such unions are incapable of being loving and mutually supportive and beneficial for the participants, but because they are not capable of being what the Church has always understood to be marriage, based on the the teaching of Jesus Christ himself. The Church is bound by what Jesus reveals marriage to be in Matthew 19 and related texts.
On the other hand, the Church is absolutely bound to the fact that human beings–every human being and all human beings, including those who are LGBTQ–are “the only creatures on earth whom God has made for their own sake” (Gaudium et Spes). In other words, the law is made for man, not man for the law. All systems, including ecclesial systems, exist for the good of the human person, not vice versa. That is why the CDF goes on:
The answer to the proposed dubium does not preclude the blessings given to individual persons with homosexual inclinations, who manifest the will to live in fidelity to the revealed plans of God as proposed by Church teaching. Rather, it declares illicit any form of blessing that tends to acknowledge their unions as such. In this case, in fact, the blessing would manifest not the intention to entrust such individual persons to the protection and help of God, in the sense mentioned above, but to approve and encourage a choice and a way of life that cannot be recognized as objectively ordered to the revealed plans of God.
At the same time, the Church recalls that God Himself never ceases to bless each of His pilgrim children in this world, because for Him “we are more important to God than all of the sins that we can commit”. But he does not and cannot bless sin: he blesses sinful man, so that he may recognize that he is part of his plan of love and allow himself to be changed by him. He in fact “takes us as we are, but never leaves us as we are”.
For the above mentioned reasons, the Church does not have, and cannot have, the power to bless unions of persons of the same sex in the sense intended above.
The Sovereign Pontiff Francis, at the Audience granted to the undersigned Secretary of this Congregation, was informed and gave his assent to the publication of the above-mentioned Responsum ad dubium, with the annexed Explanatory Note.
Rome, from the Offices of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the 22nd of February 2021, Feast of the Chair of Saint Peter, Apostle.
So that is where things stand at the moment. There is, inherent in the conversation between the doctrinal and pastoral expressions of the Church, a tension between the ideal and the lived experience not only of the Church’s members, but of the pastors trying to shepherd them and accommodate their concrete circumstances. The dubium arose precisely out of that pastoral experience: a Tradition extending back 2000 years to the Church’s eagerness to accommodate the enormous variety of its members and be “all things to all”. The CDF’s answer likewise comes out of the sacramental Tradition: a Tradition extending back 2000 years and eager to protect the sacraments entrusted to her. That is deeply disappointing to the LGBTQ members of the Church, but unsurprising given the sacramental theology of the Church, and the speed with which the Magisterium typically develops doctrine.
At the same time, I am inclined to think that this will, by no means, be the last word of the Magisterium on the matter and I have some speculations–only speculations–on how things might develop in the future. Of which more tomorrow.