A Big Day for Marriage Equality, UK – and for Queer Catholics, Worldwide

Reality is chipping away at Vatican sexual doctrine, as is clearly demonstrated by recent responses by senior Catholic prelates to public debate on gay marriage, and abortion.

In the UK, it’s a big day for equal marriage, as the second reading of the bill is introduced to parliament. In commentary from across the Atlantic, Bob Shine of New Ways Ministry notes that a vote could come as early as today – and asks “What will the consequences be?

One immediate consequence, which has already occurred, is a shattering of the pretence that the Conservative Party is the “natural home” for lesbians and gay men, as spokesmen were trumpeting at the last election. Mr Cameron’s determination to push through with this has exposed deep rifts in the party – even bigger than over Europe. My suspicion is that a majority of their MP’s are opposed – but even with a conscience vote, some will hold their noses and abstain or vote yes, to protect their careers. It’s significant though that while many local party activists are making loud noises about losing the grassroots, younger party members are warning of the opposite. Just like the GOP in the US, the party is running the risk of losing future generations over this issue, even more than they did over the infamous Section 28 some years ago. Once again, the Conservatives have been exposed as the “nasty party”. In the Guardian today, Polly Toynbee notes that  “The gay marriage debate has uncovered a nest of bigots“. It will take them years to recover credibility with voters who are now young (let alone LGBT).

Conservative activists deliver a petition against equal marriage 2013

Conservative activists deliver a petition against equal marriage 2013

But it is the consequences for the Catholic Church, and its bishops’ strenuous efforts to derail the extension of marriage, that concern Shine:

The bishops  also released a document to Parliament condemning marriage equality and detailing the, by now, usual list of threats that equal rights are supposed to pose to society. Pink News reports the inclusion of more positive language on the part of the bishops, hinting as well that progress by the hierarchy is possible given changes in their past positions:

“The Catholic Church in England and Wales has made a surprising acknowledgement that same-sex couples make good parents…

“The document says: ‘We recognise that many same sex couples raise children in loving and caring homes…’

“The Catholic Church opposed the introduction of same-sex civil partnerships but it seems now to support the maintenance of a separate relationships system for same-sex couples.”

On the other hand, the bishops’ more positive message has been weakened by their predictions for the future. If the marriage equality bill is successful, the Catholic hierarchy promises devastating consequences for the rights of same-gender couples. A recent booklet affirms that educators and administrators not adhering to the hierarchy’s teaching on marriage could suffer consequences for continued employment in church institutions.

As with the Conservatives, the bishops’ activism against marriage has alienated many (especially the young), and divided their own people. When I made a visit to the weekday Mass this morning, I was not particularly thinking of gay marriage at all – but after Mass, the priest and other parishioners came up to me to say that they were praying for a satisfactory outcome to the debate – and I don’t think that their idea of “satisfactory” outcome is quite what the bishops intended when they asked for Catholic prayers on the subject.

But in the midst of all the episcopal fuss over gay marriage, there are distinct silver linings to be seen among the storm clouds. I’ve been analysing extensively the French bishops’ letter on gay marriage, with its call to respect and strengthen same – sex relationships with an improvement in the civil union legislation (known in France as PACS). Now, a similar, possibly more significant call has been made by Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, head of the Pontifical Council for the Family :

Vatican signals options for protecting gay couples

VATICAN CITY — A high-ranking Vatican official on Monday (Feb. 4) voiced support for giving unmarried couples some kind of legal protection even as he reaffirmed the Catholic Church’s opposition to same-sex marriage.

Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, head of the Pontifical Council for the Family, also said the church should do more to protect gays and lesbians from discrimination in countries where homosexuality is illegal.

- Washington Post

This is important, for its implicit recognition that  for the Pontifical Council for the Family, the word “family” must include consideration of all families – including some not previously accepted by the Vatican ideologues. It’s also significant that even the suggestion of this legal recognition for same – sex couples directly contradicts an earlier publication by the CDF, which states emphatically

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.

CDF: On Unions Between Homosexual Persons (2003)

This sets up direct opposition between the CDF, which is committed to protecting doctrinal orthodoxy (= Vatican ideology), and a council which is specifically entrusted with consideration of marriage and family – and, we should expect, more conscious of the principles of pastoral compassion, and of the realities of family life and sexual love. Such a council is also much more likely than an ideological guard dog like the CDF, to consider the evidence from natural and social science, alongside that from systematic or moral theology. The statement from the French bishops, for instance, was explicit that in reaching its conclusions on respect for same – sex unions, they were taking account of the evidence from social science – and that statement was prepared by the French bishops’ council for the family.

There’s another controversial element of church teaching where reality is also chipping away – on the very heated issue of abortion. In Germany, there’s been public outrage over the case of woman who had been raped, and then denied access to a morning after contraceptive pill, because the hospital she turned to is run, with government money, by a Catholic order.

Bishops to justify pill use in rape cases

German Catholic bishops are poised to drop their outright opposition to the “morning after” pill after a rape victim was refused the treatment at two church-run hospitals.

- Irish Times

This too, is significant, in signalling a small but important change in thinking, brought about by placing for once greater emphasis on pastoral care and concern, than on reproductive ideology – and for taking account of the findings of science. The immediate justification for this reconsideration is

Archbishop Meisner said he had shifted his position after a meeting with scientists. They told him not all morning after pills induced an early-term termination. Some just prevented egg fertilisation and were thus, he said, in keeping with church teaching.

Once again, reality has caused the implacable opposition to one concept in conflict with church teaching (abortion) to be be balanced, on pastoral and scientific grounds, by a softening of the previously hard-line opposition to another (contraception) – just as implacable opposition to equal marriage, is leading to a substantial reconsideration on another – legal recognition for other same – sex unions.

There is, of course, an important caveat: the French bishops make it clear that to be acceptable, these unions must be “chaste”. But this is a fig leaf. Just as the church insists that all married couples must desist from artificial contraception, and unmarried but committed loving couples should simply refrain from sexual expression of their lover altogether, but loyal Catholics in good conscience simply ignore those rule, we can expect that when the church comes to honour this new – found respect and recognition for same – sex couples in pastoral practice as well as in public statements, this expectation of “chastity” will be treated similarly by Catholics in the pews – and by the priests who minister to them.

At an English Gay Catholic, a reader put this question in a comments thread:

Is it proper to speak of homosexuality, in itself, as possessing dignity? The inclination is described by the Church as being intrinsically evil. How is that reconcilable with dignity?

In fact, the statement is easily “reconciled” with the description by the Church, by the possibility that in this, perhaps, the church is simply wrong.

Pope Benedict, as a young theologian, wrote about the value of tradition in Church teaching – but observed that alongside the valuable tradition, there is also a “distorting” tradition. When the bishops and approved theologians necessarily have no real – life experience of loving, committed and publicly acknowledged sexual relationships, it is surely possible that the current sexual doctrines are part of that “distorting tradition”.

More recently, in one of his weekly general audiences last year, Pope Benedict spoke of the importance to the Church of St Joan of Arc. He reminded us that she had been tried, convicted and burned by the recognized theologians and leaders of the church of her day – and was later exonerated, rehabilitated, and eventually canonized. He went on to explicitly draw the obvious conclusion: theologians and leaders of the church can be wrong. On sexual ethics, where the vast majority of Catholics simply do not agree that every genital act must be open to procreation, it is certainly possible that celibate, ivory tower theologians could be wrong.

Church documents are clear that church teaching must pay due attention to the findings of the natural and human sciences – but on the understanding of human sexuality, the Vatican has simply disregarded its own injunction, both on the centrality of procreation, and on the nature of same-sex affectional orientation.

There have recently been some signs of change: the French bishops council on marriage and the family, in their statement of firm opposition to gay marriage have acknowledged that based on the findings of science, there should be stronger civil recognition and protection for same – sex couples. Just this week, the head of the Pontifical Council for the Family, has said much the same thing. Both are in direct contradiction with the 2003 declaration by the CDF that all attempts at political recognition for such unions, should be opposed.

It now seems that in France, and in Rome, formal Church councils on marriage and family are now concluding that on the matter of recognition for these relationships – the CDF is wrong.


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