Note: This commentary was first published February 14, 2014 at Terence Weldon's blog site, Queering the Church.
For all but those who choose not to see, it’s become blindingly obvious that across the whole gamut of sexual ethics, formal Catholic doctrines must change, and that includes doctrines on same-sex affectional orientation and relationships.
It won’t happen at this year’s family synod, although the global consultation in preparation for it has highlighted the great gulf between Vatican doctrine and actual Catholic belief and practice. This could just lead to some recognition of the need for some changes, in line with Pope Francis’ hint (in “Evangelii Gaudium”) that these are issues that “need further reflection and study”. More probably, the synod could see some marked adjustments to pastoral practice, and changes in practice will lead, in time, to substantive change in doctrine. One way or another, sooner or later that change will come – and could come more quickly than people expect.
The question is, how will that change come about? It certainly won’t be a simple matter of the CDF saying, “Sorry, guys. We were wrong. Here’s the new deal”. It’s not true that Catholic teaching doesn’t change – it’s done so constantly over 2000 years, and will continue to do so. Even Pope Francis has referred to the necessity and inevitability of this evolution in Catholic teaching, but that’s the key. Catholic change is always gradual: evolution not revolution.
Professor Charles J Reid of University of St Thomas, Minnesota, has reflected at Huffington Post on one possible way in which this doctrinal evolution could develop. He is writing specifically about a path all the way to same-sex marriage, but before we get there, we’ll need to see just the acceptance of simple relationships, possibly as civil unions. It’s already notable, without formal change in doctrine, that the resistance to full marriage equality has led some senior bishops to accept the value of civil unions, and that amidst all the heated rhetoric about the supposed “evils” of gay marriage, there’s been remarkably little said about the inherently “disordered” nature of the relationships themselves. That’s progress. The gradual Catholic evolution towards formal doctrinal change has already begun.
In developing his argument, Reid begins by noting that Catholic moral theology rests on the foundations of “Christian anthropology”. This seeks an accurate understanding of the human person, in order to develop rules and norms of behaviour which are not contrary to human nature, and which promote “a genuine understanding of human flourishing”.
The prevailing anthropology, he notes, is based on John Paul II’s “theology of the body”, which emphasises the complementarity of male and female, and the importance of sexual reproduction. On those grounds, the theology of the body, and any Christian anthropology that rests on it, cannot support same-sex marriage. Reid does not attempt to counter this conclusion (which certainly could be done), but takes another tack, instead.
He turns then to an alternative set of premises, beginning with human reason and human psychology – entirely respectable starting points in Catholic thinking about sex and marriage.
For Thomas Aquinas, whose conclusions about sex and marriage became so influential in later Catholic thinking on the subjects, the careful application of human reason was of great importance. More recently, the application of human psychology to questions of marriage, has been influential in the development of approaches to annulment,
Applying these two principles, and taking into account information from recent findings from psychology, leads to the inevitable conclusion that same-sex attraction is simply one part of the “natural variability of human sexuality”.
What it means to be human, in other words, not only embraces male and female, but it may also, in some cases, include same-sex attraction. If Catholics take this line of reasoning seriously, then it becomes impossible to speak of same-sex attraction as “objectively disordered.”
This much is reasonably well known, and must surely lead to some recognition of same-sex relationships. But in discussing marriage, Reid moves on to territory that is less familiar, at least to me.
But what of marriage? Here, one might turn to St. Augustine’s Treatise on the Goods of Marriage. In the opening sentence of this work, St. Augustine defines marriage as “friendship” – amicitia. The human person, St. Augustine asserts, is a “social being” made that way by our “human nature” (humana natura).
The three “great goods” of marriage according to Augustine, are procreation, unity and fidelity. The surprise is that among these, Augustine does not, as popularly supposed, place procreation at the apex.
For Augustine, the true significance of marriage was not procreation, but the enduring friendship of two human beings who are innately social creatures.
So, already we have some grounds for an evolution in Catholic doctrine that widens the meaning of marriage to include same-sex unions, but there remains a further problem, going back beyond Aquinas, all the way to Augustine. That is the Augustinian proposition that all sexual intercourse must be open to procreation – at least, theoretically so. That is “the core of the Catholic Church’s teaching on contraception”.
Reid does not explore any further just how that difficulty might be resolved, noting that to do so, would require a rethink of the very foundations of all its sexual ethics, which he describes as “a very large undertaking indeed”.
However, that very large undertaking has, in effect, already begun. The global consultation on Catholic belief, undertaken in preparation for the Extraordinary Synod on Marriage and Family, has already convincingly demonstrated that in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Belgium and Luxembourg, there is near universal rejection of this Augustinian assumption. The bishops’ reports from the remaining countries of Europe and also of North America are likely to show the same thing. Meanwhile, the Univision survey of twelve countries on five continents corroborate the European bishops’ reports, and show that even in Africa, the most conservative countries (in terms of Catholic belief), support for the traditional doctrine on contraception is no more than about 50%. Augustine’s principle may have underpinned Catholic sexual doctrine for a millenium and a half, but that does not mean it must stand forever. We already know that the majority report of the papal commission on birth control that preceded Humanae Vitae found that contraception did not need to be absolutely precluded, and found some way around Augustine. It’s not too difficult to imagine that majority report being dusted off, and reconsidered.
Related Off-site Links:
Do Progressive Catholics Care About Doctrine? – Bob Shine (Bondings 2.0, February 15, 2014).
Homosexual Relationships: Another Look – Bill Hunt (The Progressive Catholic Voice, September 8, 2012).
The Many Manifestations of God's Loving Embrace – Michael Bayly (The Wild Reed, August 16, 2007).