A few days ago the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) somehow captured global headlines for doing something that is not particularly noteworthy, and certainly not surprising.
In a brief statement – called a Responsum – the CDF responded to a question about whether or not the Church can offer “blessings” to same-sex unions. The carefully-worded answer was, in brief, “no.” “[T]he Church does not have, and cannot have, the power to bless unions of persons of the same sex,” concludes the statement.
In other words, the CDF reiterated, once again, what the Catholic Church teaches and has always taught for the past 2,000-plus years: Marriage is the union between one man and one woman, and any sexual activity outside of marriage is sinful. Since the Church cannot bless sin, neither can it bless unions that are predicated upon sinful behavior.
None of this should come as a surprise to anyone. The Church’s teaching on marriage and the sexual act has been consistent throughout its history and is well-known to most people. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, quite unambiguously: “The sexual act must take place exclusively within marriage. Outside of marriage it always constitutes a grave sin and excludes one from sacramental communion.” (CCC 2390)
However, to read the many media reports on the Vatican’s statement, you would think that the CDF had done something very shocking indeed. Many spoke of a “ban” on blessing same-sex unions, as if the Church had come up with some harsh new rule specifically targeting individuals with homosexual inclinations.
To read the statement, however, is to wonder what the fuss is about. The CDF merely notes, with gentle wording, that the only moral use of the sexual act is within a marriage between a man and a woman open to life, and that blessings, as sacramentals, cannot be conferred on sinful sexual relationships. It reminds pastors that “men and women with homosexual tendencies must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.” Because of the Church’s great care and respect for human dignity and each individual person, the CDF adds that it “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.”
Furthermore, this “ban” does not exclusively target homosexual couples. The same approach would also apply to heterosexual couples in adulterous, fornicating, or polygamous relationships. Regardless of how much the people in such relationships love one another, their misuse of the gift of the sexual act means that the Church cannot endorse their relationship with a blessing.
As the CDF statement explains:
[W]hen 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.
Rebellion Within the Church
On the one hand, I am quite encouraged by the CDF statement, which, while pastorally sensitive, is also unambiguous in its teaching.
In recent years powerful lobby groups, both within and without the Church, have been pushing for the Church to change its teachings on sexuality and marriage. At times, Pope Francis has seemed to indicate sympathy towards some of these efforts, something that I have found quite troubling. In a documentary released last year, for instance, the Holy Father appeared to endorse the idea of legalized “civil unions” for homosexual couples – something that the CDF under Cardinal Ratzinger had clearly said could not be supported (“In those situations where homosexual unions have been legally recognized or have been given the legal status and rights belonging to marriage, clear and emphatic opposition is a duty,” the CDF said in that 2003 statement). Whether justified or not, many people expected the Pope, or the Vatican, to soon go one step further, offering a formal endorsement of same-sex unions.
The fact that the CDF published such a clear statement, and that it was approved for publication by Pope Francis, is proof that whatever the forces pressuring the Church, the Holy Spirit is still guarding Her, and ensuring the preservation of true doctrine.
On the other hand, the reaction to the statement is deeply concerning, portending troubling times ahead. Unfortunately, it is not only the usual suspects outside the Church who are openly criticizing the statement – i.e., the secularist media and left-wing pressure groups. Many within the Church, including priests and bishops, are also openly criticizing the statement.
In Germany, 60 priests signed a statement saying they will defy the CDF, and bless same-sex couples. Another 350 priests in Austria signed a similar statement. Both of those statements used similar wording, saying that the priests will “continue” to bless such unions – highlighting the fact that many priests in Europe are already openly defying Church teaching. Another statement condemning the CDF responsum was signed by 230 theologians in Germany and elsewhere.
And it isn’t only priests that are signaling their dissent. Several bishops have also indicated their intent to pursue a different path, regardless of what the CDF says. “I feel ashamed for my Church. I mainly feel intellectual and moral incomprehension,” said Belgian bishop Johan Bonny in a statement. In the U.S., Cardinal Blase Cupich, while noting that the responsum said “nothing new” about marriage, also added that it is “understandable” that many people feel “disappointment.” Experienced Vatican watchers are also pointing to the fact that while Pope Francis apparently approved publication of the statement, he himself did not affix his name to it – possibly suggesting that he has mixed feelings about it.
The boldness of some of these expressions of defiance suggests the existence of an undeclared schism within the church, with a considerable number of priests, bishops, and theologians holding and promoting a position that is wholly out-of-step with the Church’s teaching on a crucial matter.
Reclaiming Church Teaching
The widespread shock and anger found in much of the media reporting, and even from many Catholics, highlights the discouraging fact that many people are deeply confused about what the Church teaches about marriage and the sexual act, and why it teaches what it does. Many people simply view the Church’s teachings as being harsh and judgmental, condemning people who “love” one another for no good reason.
Clearly, our culture is deeply confused about human dignity and the sacredness of marriage and the sexual act, and this confusion has infiltrated the walls of the Church Herself. Where the Church, her ministers, and her faithful should be beacons of light, showing another way forward, a more loving way, all too often we are finding the exact same confusion as in the broader culture.
I am very grateful that at a time when confusion is reaching such a peak, the CDF’s new statement has provided us with a great opportunity to dispel the many misunderstandings about Church teaching!
Fundamentally, the CDF is upholding the truth about the human person. After all, written into the nature of the human person is a call to union and communion with and between one man and one woman. This union is indissoluble and by its nature procreative, participating in the generation of a new human life. Nature has a plan for human sexuality, and it doesn’t involve homosexual acts.
To “bless” any act contrary to the nature of the human person and the nature of marriage is contradictory. A same-sex couple cannot generate children because the nature of their sexual activity is not capable of procreation. There is no sexual complementarity. Moreover, there are two different kinds of sexual activity that should not be spoken of or treated as if they were the same – the conjugal act between one man and one woman, and a homosexual act.
Sexual intimacy is a mystery that symbolizes marriage and only belongs in marriage. Outside of marriage, conjugal relations are essentially untruthful. In upholding the good of the human person and of marriage, we are opposed to what threatens the context of sexual intimacy – i.e., premarital sex, extramarital sex, homosexual activity, etc.
Whereas the culture tends to view the modern approach to human sexuality and the sexual act as “broad–minded” and “liberating,” and the Church’s teaching on the same as being excessively “narrow” and “restrictive”, the reality is the exact opposite. The Church’s teaching on these subjects are so broad that they take into account the way the sexual act affects the whole person and impacts not only the people engaged in sexual behavior, but also others around them (especially their children), and society.
The modern approach, on the other hand, reduces the sexual act to a biological transaction that has no intrinsic meaning or purpose, and which is utterly private. This understanding of human sexuality is not only horribly reductionist, stripping the sexual act of much of its beauty and richness, but has also unleashed much suffering – through widespread divorce; the creation of an exploitative dating culture, characterized by mutual use rather than the pursuit of love; the consequent, ubiquitous disenchantment about romance and the possibility of finding true love; an explosion in STDs and out-of-wedlock births; the near-ubiquity of hardcore and degrading pornography, which exploits the actors and actresses and enslaves many people in addiction, and so on.
The wisdom of the Church’s teaching is in how it captures the totality of what the sexual act is about: not just a source of physical pleasure, or even an expression of love between a couple, but also the means by which humans establish families, and contribute to the health and continuity of society. The Church’s view of sexuality is that the sexual act that is exclusively reserved to married couples is so noble and so powerful, that it must be carefully protected and nourished, integrated within the person, and within society.
The Church, in teaching that the sexual act is reserved for life-long unions of a man and a woman, is not against sex or against love. Instead, the Church is for sex and for love, including love for children, who have a right to be born into a stable union, and to be raised by a mother and a father. The problem with same-sex unions, or other sinful sexual relationships, is not that two people love one another, but that their love is expressed in a way that misuses and reduces the gift of sexuality, and thereby harms themselves and others.
For understandable reasons, this message is not nearly as popular as the message that people should pursue as much sexual pleasure as possible, in whatever ways they want. The good and the true are often not nearly as immediately alluring as the sinful and the untrue. To sin is easy; to be virtuous is hard. Nevertheless, the great saints and sages have always taught the same message: that the hard work involved in living in accordance with the good and the true is worth it. Wisdom is, in large part, the capacity to see through the superficial glitter of sin, and to recognize the subtle, but deep beauty of goodness and virtue.
The Church’s message about human sexuality, marriage and the sexual act, and the call to chastity, is a harder message to sell than the message of the Sexual Revolution. Nevertheless, it is our duty to do our best to find new ways to explain the truth about them, and to set the example ourselves by joyfully living according to this truth. I am grateful to the CDF for holding the line, and for giving us some encouragement in this fight.