Relationships, Not Acts: An Emerging Catholic Orthodoxy?

Recent statements by Cardinals Martini and Schonborn, and Bishop Geoffrey Robinson, have highlighted an important shift in Catholic thinking on homoerotic and other sexual ethics. Outside the isolation of the Vatican, there has been an important shift of emphasis from an exclusive concern with genital acts, to consideration of the quality of the relationships – and recognition of their value.

In recent weeks, I have reported three events that signal the beginning of a remarkable shift in thinking on sexual ethics by some Catholic bishops. First, came Bishop Geoffrey Robinson’s call for a fundamental rethink of the whole of sexual doctrine, the first bishop to acknowledge publicly that the entire structure is fundamentally flawed. Next, came reports of Cardinal Martini’s book, and his recognition of some value in same-sex relationships. Then, the one that has drawn the strongest public reaction, came the reports that Cardinal Christoph Schonborn of Vienna together with his fellow Austrian bishops had ratified the election of an openly gay man to a Vienna parish council. As the news spread that the election will stand, the reaction at some  conservative sites has been predictably shocked. They see it as a break with established Catholic teaching and tradition, but it is in fact the exact opposite – a return to an ancient, long-standing tradition in Catholic teaching and practice of respect for same – sex unions and intimate friendships, a respect that some modern bishops are now beginning to rediscover, honour and articulate themselves.  Even in the modern church, this is not in fact new, except in the ranks of bishops, who are now simply beginning to catch up with the rest of the Church.

To understand this, I offer first a brief summary of the historic shifts, and then outline how outside the Vatican and the bishops’ dicasteries, the real church has already changed.

Twelve centuries’ recognition and celebration of same – sex relationships.

Same – sex relationships in Christian Church history, and their recognition, took many forms. Many were emotionally intimate but celibate, befitting their status as monks priests or bishops, others were not. The Eastern church recognized the value of close friendships between men in the liturgical rite of “adelphopoiesis”, or “making of brotherhood”, the Western church had is equivalent, in the practice known as “sworn brotherhood” (or “wedded brothers”) in the West. By the Middle Ages, a number of leading bishops, abbots and saints recognized their value: St Aelred of Rievaulx wrote a book on their value, “On Spiritual Friendship”, and others wrote poems or love letters in praise of their own particular friendships.

The later suppression of same – sex relationships

From about the fourteenth century to the twentieth, under the Inquisition and later, close friendships between monks and clergy were actively discouraged, and actual sexual acts severely punished. But by the middle and late twentieth century, there began a subtle shift in Catholic thinking. The document, “Persona Humana“, in 1975   for the first time recognized the existence of “homosexual persons” as a distinct class of persons, and a same-sex orientation as an observable natural phenomenon. This forced some serious consideration of a pastoral response to this class of people, resulting in the 1986 Hallowe’en Letter, “Homesexualitatis Problema” (“The Problem of Homosexuality”), described as a letter on the “Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons”.  With its absolute prohibition on same -sex genital acts, and its description of the orientation as “intrinsically disordered”, the letter was met with widespread anger and outrage. The enduring resentment it caused has rather obscured what is probably more important: notwithstanding the contents of the document, and its status as the most recent authoritative statement on the subject, mainstream thinking in the Church as a whole has moved on, leaving it far behind.

Beyond its insistence that all sexual acts must be open to procreation, the most glaring weakness in the document is the extraordinary asymmetry in its treatment of two classes of people: heterosexuals are described consistently in terms of loving conjugal relationships, homosexuals only in terms of genital acts. Although the Vatican theologians of the twentieth century had finally recognized the existence of homosexual persons, it continued to ignore the existence of same – sex relationships, whether sexual or celibate. Even while insisting that a same – sex orientation was in itself not sinful, the only virtuous life it could hold out for such a person was a strictly celibate one  - which was tacitly assumed to be celibate.

From genital acts, back to relationships: some bishops adjust.

In recent years, some modern bishops, in beginning to recognize the value of close same-sex relationships, and of legal recognition for them, have made a connection with this ancient tradition, often in direct response to the prospect of equality being introduced to civil marriage legislation.

For example, in 2006, retiring Cardinal Theodore  McCarrick of Washington DC, said in an interview with CNN that while opposite – sex marriage was the ideal and should be restricted to between a man and a woman, there could be value in extending legal protection to same – sex couples by civil unions.

Two years ago this month (April 2o1o), Cardinal  Christoph  Schonborn, of Vienna made his observation (which has never been contradicted by the Vatican) that it is time for the Church to move beyond its obsession with same -sex genital acts, to greater concern for the quality of the relationships.

Other bishops, including Bishop Januario Torgal Ferreira of Portugal,  Bishop Francis Quinn of California, and Bishop Willie  Walsh of Ireland later followed, with similar remarks.

Meanwhile, in August 2oo9, in their attempts to forestall the possibility of legal recognition for gay marriage, the Portuguese bishops proposed civil unions as an alternative, which could be acceptable to them:

The president of the Portuguese Bishops’ Conference, Archbishop Jorge Ferreira da Costa Ortiga, said this week, “Civil unions can be legalized it that’s what is wanted, but they cannot be made equivalent to marriage.  This problem must be dealt with more slowly and with the involvement of society,” he said.

In the UK, Archbishop Vincent Nichols has made two important contributions to the debates. First, he stated in a press conference that he could see the value of legal provision for civil unions, and later wrote an extended article for the Catholic Herald, “In praise of friendship”. This article drew explicitly on the earlier writing of Cardinal Basil Hume, but also carried in it disctinct echoes of the medieval writers on same – sex friendship.

When the New Hampshire legislature was attempting to replace its existing marriage equality legislation with civil unions, the state’s bishops weighed in with their own support for civil unions (even though they had opposed them on their original introduction).

Bishop Geoffrey Robinson, addressing the New Ways Ministry symposium on relationships, called for a complete overhaul of the entire structure of Catholic sexual doctrine. At the heart of his call, was a critique of the traditional emphasis on genital acts (for couples of any gender composition), and a call for a new sexual ethic based on sound relationships.

Then in quick succession, came reports of Cardinal Martini’s book, in which he states clearly “it isn’t bad for two homosexuals to have a stable relationship”, and Cardinal Schonborn’s acceptance of the election of an openly gay man to a Vienna parish council. In his announcement, Schonborn stressed the importance of looking at the whole person, not simply at one part of his life. As the “whole person” includes his relationship, and the one part of his life that had caused some concern was his sexual partnership, this important decision simply put into practical effect his own words two years ago – to look beyond the genital acts, to the quality of the relationships.

The obvious rejoinder to the listing of bishops above, is that they are a mere handful, among thousands of bishops worldwide.  The small number who have spoken out publicly though, is misleading. When evaluating movement in the Catholic Church, it is important to observe what is NOT said, as much as what is. I think there are three important considerations here.

First, is that it is significant that except for Schonborn and Nichols, the other individuals I have named spoke up either in. entering or nearing retirement: at a time in their careers when they no longer need to watch their words to protect their jobs.  Others need to be more cautious, and we can be certain that what a handful of bishops are saying publicly, others are thinking privately, or even discussing with trusted friends and colleagues.

This is easily demonstrated, but pointing to the record: although I’ve been actively looking for it, I have still not come across any reports that Cardinal Schonborn’s original observation from 2009 has yet been contradicted by any senior person in the church. If there were any substantial disagreement, surely somebody, somewhere, would have done so? There has also not been any public rejection of Archbishop Robinson’s even more emphatic rejection of traditional doctrine (although admittedly, it’s still early days on that score).

Finally, I repeat another observation I have made before: amidst all the hysteria among Catholic bishops of the US, UK and Australia in opposition to proposed marriage equality, the arguments have all been against marriage, specifically. I have still not seen any public criticism of same – sex relationships, and no repetition of that nasty “disordered”.

So, I am convinced that among our Catholic bishops, there is a widespread rethink on gay relationships under way. But that’s only part of the picture, and not the most important part. In the Church as a whole, the thinking has moved way beyond just considering the need for reform. In starting to talk publicly about the need for reform, the bishops are doing no more than acknowledging what for the rest of us, is rapidly becoming the new orthodoxy: the bishops are simply catching up with the wider church.

Is change possible? Some conservative writers insist that Catholic doctrine is constant and unchangeable, and that “reform” is a dirty word, tantamount to heresy. That is nonsense. Throughout his career, as a young theologian and as pope, Benedict XVI has often referred to the need for change and its inevitability. He has written about the importance of guarding against the “distorting tradition” in church history, last year he spoke of how the example  of St Joan of Arc demonstrated that even the authorized theologians of the Church can be wrong, and their judgements overturned, and in an homily this week, he acknowledged that there could be some unhappiness at the slow pace of change.

Change in the Catholic Church, including Catholic theology,  is constant – but gradual.

Bishops are merely catching up with the rest of the Church

 the great majority of Catholic moral theologians writing today support revisionist positions in general

-Charles Curran

There is a more pressing reason for recognizing that change in sexual teaching is on the way. The bishops are only one part of the Church. In major sections of the rest of it, change is not just coming – it’s already arrived. We know from research, that the rules on artificial contraception are overwhelmingly ignored, undermining the foundation of sexual teaching: that every sexual act must be open to procreation. We also know that on many other aspects of sexual teaching, most Catholics do not agree with the authorized doctrine, including cohabitation before marriage, remarriage after divorce, masturbation, homoerotic relationships, and even abortion. (Most Catholics agree that abortion is morally wrong, but do not agree that it should be prohibited in all cases, even of rape or threats to the mother’s life).

 So, for most ordinary Catholics, change has already come. They know the rules, but simply disregard them as irrelevant to their lives. That in itself raises serious questions about the sensus fidelium – but I’m not going to pursue that, today. It’s too easy for critics to simply dismiss those in disagreement as somehow not “real Catholics”, whose opinions don’t matter.

Instead, I want to point to another group, whose opinions really do matter: the Catholic professional theologians and priests, whose business it is to know what they are talking about. There is compelling evidence that at the very least, a major proportion of these believe the teaching must change.

Over a year ago, about 40% of all professional theologians in Germany, Austria and Switzerland signed a public declaration calling for fundamental reform of the church, specifically including reform of sexual doctrine, among other demands. There will be many more who support the demands in principle, but did not sign, or who support sexual reform, but not the full list.

Chris named some prominent theologians who have articulated a system of sexual ethics that moves away from a foundation in procreation, to one based on sound and healthy human relationships - Todd Salzmann and Michael Lawler, and Sister Margaret Farley, and Dr James B Nickoloff , Bishop Geoffrey Robinson, James Alison , and Joshua Allen.

At least one moral theologian similarly believes that a strong majority of his peers want reform. In his foreword to “The Sexual Person” [Salzmann and Lawler], Charles Curran usefully describes how disagreement with Humanae Vitae, culminating in the publication in 1977 of “Human Sexuality: New Directions in American Catholic Thought”  led in effect to a division among theologians into two broad camps: what he calls a “revisionist” group, and another, committed to supporting the Magisterium. In his view, this is how they divide:

Within the Catholic theological community, all recognize that the great majority of Catholic moral theologians writing today support revisionist positions in general, but a strong minority defends the positions of the hierarchical Magisterium.  

That’s the professional theologians. What about the priests, who are not involved in theology full time, but are certainly well -trained in it, and are engaged full time in the practice and promotion of the Catholic faith. Do they count as “real” Catholics?

In Austria, about a third of all priests signed a remarkable “call to disobedience”, demanding much the same list of reforms as the theologians. Again, there will be many more who agree with the aims, but not with the extreme tactic of calling for disobedience. Similar public calls were later made by priests in Belgium and Ireland.

Privately, we know that a substantial proportion of priests do not comply with their vows of celibacy, and engage in sexual relationships themselves. Necessarily outside of legal marriage, these are self – evidently in contravention not only of their priestly vows, but also the broader Catholic doctrine.

It’s impossible to produce absolutely reliable figure, but it’s reasonable to assume that a strong majority, by their own actions, or by their acceptance of contraception by their parishioners, demonstrate a belief that there should be some changes in doctrine.

…in 1993 a BBC television reporter asked Cardinal Jose Sanchez, then head of the Congregation for Clergy, what he thought of the estimates and reports that between 40 and 50 percent of Catholic clergy were sexually active. He said on the television special, later seen by 90 million viewers, “I have no reason to doubt the accuracy of those figures.” 

-Richard Sipe

Many of those who do attempt to live within the vows, fall back in good conscience on masturbation as a means of relief to avoid temptation with another.

Pepe Rodriguez, a Spanish journalist, wrote La vida sexual del clero (The Sexual Life of the Clergy) in 1995. His conclusions included: that of the Spanish priests studied 95 percent masturbate and 60 percent have sexual relationships.

-Richard Sipe

Still more may attempt to live fully within the teaching for themselves, but will have seen, from their conversations with married parishioners, the harm that has been done by Humanae Vitae, and will recognize that it, at least, needs revision.

The bishops who have begun to speak about the need for reform of sexual doctrine, or for a renewed emphasis in pastoral care on “respect, compassion and sensitivity” and appreciation that there is more to gay lives then simple lust and genital acts, are welcome – but they are not leading the Church. They are simply catching up with the real Church. In time, the rest of their colleagues will come running to join them.

Then, when the authorized sexual doctrine has been encoded and documented, we will hear once again, that Catholic teaching is unchanging and has always been so – firmly founded in healthy human relationships.

Farley, MargaretJust Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics

Gramick, J. (Ed.). (1983). Homosexuality and the Catholic Church

Gramick, J., & Furey, P. (Eds.). (1988). The Vatican and Homosexuality: Reactions to the “Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons”.

Nugent, R., & Gramick, J. (1992). Building Bridges: Gay and Lesbian Reality and the Catholic Church .

Salzmann, Todd and Lawler, MichaelThe Sexual Person: Toward a Renewed Catholic Anthropology 

Soble, Alan. Sexual Investigations.


On- line Resources

Francoeur, Robert T:  Catholic Culture and Sexuality

Nickoloff, JamesIntrinsically Disordered’ :Gay People and the Holiness of the Church

Soble, Alan. Sexual Investigations. New York: New York University Press,1996. (chapter 4)

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