From viewing online media over the last few days, it is abundantly clear that the broad response to the recent document released by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has been one of great hurt and anger for very many people.

The content of the document was not at all surprising and very much in keeping with everything that has come before it. It affirms that relationships where there is sexual activity outwith marriage – including, but not confined to, those involving people of the same sex – cannot have their unions blessed by the Church; that despite “the presence in such relationships of positive elements, which are in themselves to be valued and appreciated”, any such blessing would be illicit, as the relationship itself is considered, by the Church, to be ‘disordered’. It adds that “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”.

The Congregation goes on to note that –

“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.”

This is perhaps the key to the position of the Church; the question is regarding sacramental marriage as understood by the Church. It does not comment here on civil marriage – gay or otherwise – but only on the sacrament of matrimony.

Also, it confines itself exclsuively to “relationships, or partnerships, even stable, that involve sexual activity outside of marriage” – it says nothing about those relationships where there is no sexual activity. And contrary to the belief of many, such relationships do indeed exist, both gay and straight. Sadly, much of the online response to the document from Catholic commentators, both individuals and institutions, totally ignored – or at least, failed to even consider – this particular point. As is usually the case, there was no differentiation whatsoever between sexuality and sexual activity.

Even more sadly, much of the online response was deeply lacking in charity and in any semblance of compassion toward those most affected by this document and what it had to say. Instead, many responses showed those self-described ‘good and faithful Catholics’ in their true light. And it was a particularly ugly sight to behold and incredibly dis-spiriting to read.

For the people affected most intimately by this document, there was – very understandably – a great deal of hurt and of on-going anguish. There was a clear sense – explicitly spoken of – that people who are both Catholic and gay, feel marginalised, excluded, placed squarely on the peripheries of the Church; for the most part, held at arm’s length and in great disdain by many – but treated with outright disgust by some. No Catholic should ever feel this way – and certainly not because of the Church herself. That is wrong.

All of this leads to a crucial question which – unlike the dubia which elicted the written response from the Congregation – is not only unanswered, but it is not even asked; what, exactly, is the place of gay Catholics within the Church?

In the 1975 declaration ‘Persona Humana (On Certain Questions Concerning Sexual Ethics)’, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith wrote this –

“A distinction is drawn, and it seems with some reason, between homosexuals whose tendency comes from a false education, from a lack of normal sexual development, from habit, from bad example, or from other similar causes, and is transitory or at least not incurable; and homosexuals who are definitively such because of some kind of innate instinct or a pathological constitution judged to be incurable.”

And so homosexuality was thus seen as a pathology, an illness, an abberation – at best, the product of abnormal development and, at worst, a “pathological constitution judged to be incurable”. The declaration continued to use language such as  “anomaly” and “intrinsically disordered”. The problem is, language really matters – especially when coming from an institution as old and as powerful as the Catholic Church. And the language used from that declaration onwards set a very particular tone.

The effects of that tone have had a very deep and long lasting effect on those people being discussed by the Church. They no longer saw themselves as being in any way equal to everyone else – without any action or intention on their part, their very nature was deemed to be less than that of everyone else around them. And to have the Church note carefully that their “culpability” was another question, requiring prudential judgement, didn’t really help matters. 

The declaration then noted that homosexuals must certainly be treated with understanding and sustained in the hope of overcoming their personal difficulties and their inability to fit into society”. Times have changed a lot since 1975 and gay men and women seem to be fitting into society just fine – the problem lies with fitting into the Church. 

The Congregation wrote on the subject again in 1986 in it’s ‘Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons’. And that document included this baseline statement –

“Although the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin, it is a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil; and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder.”

This was to be the starting point of any pastoral approach. Not surprisingly, this Letter – like it’s predecessor – was not terribly well received. Once again, the language set a clinical and pathological tone which was deeply disrespectful (even if unintentionally) to these human beings with their innate dignity given them by God, and it displayed a worrying lack of compassion and empathy. It is likely that many of those reading that Letter probably got no further and never went on to read the ‘theology of Creation and of the Divine Plan’ which the Letter later outlined. Once again, the language and it’s tone had hurt – and that hurt established an obstacle for some, whilst re-inforcing an already-present obstacle for others.

The Congregation’s Letter would note that “it is deplorable that homosexual persons have been and are the object of violent malice in speech or in action”; and yet the very language of the Congregation – and, therefore, of the Church herself – had once more added greatly to this very thing happening. Whilst the Congregation have been very vocal, speaking fairly often and very loudly on the subject of homosexuality, a similar degree of vocality and frequency have not been given to outrightly, explicitly and very clearly condemning the rampant homophobia which persist to this day within the Church. Going by much of what I have read over the last few days, this seems to be particularly present in the local parishes – and that indicated to me that a lot of work is both necessary and very much overdue. I noted a particular vitriol in those who post anonymously and whilst using Latin screen names, as though this gives credence and authority to their wickedness. Of course, it does not.

Thankfully, I have also read much which bucks that particular trend – from lay people, from some priests and from some within the hierarchy of the Church.

Archbishop Mark Coleridge of the Archdiocese of Brisbane in Australia very astutely noted this –

“A Church which says we can’t bless same-sex unions is equally obliged to ask how we might include same-sex couples.”

And Cardinal Blase Cupich of the Archdiocese of Chicage issued this statement in response to the Congregations’s declaration –

“Today’s response, issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, offers nothing new on the Church’s teaching on the Sacrament of Matrimony. Regardless, it needs to be read in the context of the teachings in the Catechism and the encouraging statements of Pope Francis to LGBTQ persons about their relationship to the church, as well as his urging that pastors welcome them with respect and sensitivity, recognizing, as the Congregation response does today, the many positive elements in same-sex relationships, ‘which are in themselves to be valued and appreciated’. Yet, the understandable reaction among many to this response will be disappointment. This should prompt us in the Church and in the archdiocese to redouble our efforts to be creative and resilient in finding ways to welcome and encourage all LGBTQ people in our family of faith.”

And so, from these two prudent voices (and no doubt from others which I have not yet read), finally the un-asked question was being addressed, which at least begins the process of finding an answer, even if that is a process of great duration.

I pray with all my heart for every single person who is, who has been, and who will be, affected by the situations addressed here. I pray, more than anything, that such people do not abandon the Church – no matter how tempting that might appear to be. My personal view is that this would be the wrong response. There is already a great division present – we all need to work toward beginning to heal it and to find some common ground, rather than widening the chasm further. And we cannot do this without the presence and the voices and the experience of the great numbers of gay people who are as much a part of the Catholic Church as anyone else. Such people need the Church; but the Church needs such people every bit as much.

And I pray in a special way for the priests and bishops of the Church – there may even be one or two gay men amongst them, too, for all I know – that their response to gay men and women within the Church in whatever role, might always be one of great compassion, charity and empathy; the same compassion, charity and empathy shown by Jesus Christ, in whose Name they act and minister.

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