Until recently, where the Catholic Church stands on homosexuality was regarded as obvious. The stance of the church toward gays and lesbians and their distinctive activities was seen as negative, leading to judgments and condemnations. Of decisive importance was the negative moral judgment on homosexual acts as intrinsically evil. Even though the magisterium had distinguished between homosexual acts and a homosexual inclination, the intrinsic moral evil of the acts meant that while the sexual orientation was not sinful in itself, it represented an inclination to do sinful things and so had to be resisted.
Recently, the church in the United States has strongly resisted the movement to legalize same-sex marriage, arguing that it would legitimize intrinsically evil homosexual acts, that it would have very negative effects on the institution of marriage, and that it would pose a serious threat to religious freedom. Recent comments by Pope Francis in this magazine and elsewhere imply that there may turn out to be more complexity to the Catholic position. Francis has declared on several occasions that he has no desire to challenge or change Catholic moral teaching on sexual matters or to innovate in church doctrine. Presumably, he does not want to contradict himself or the long tradition of Catholic teaching on this subject, which has biblical roots and has shaped legal norms in most Western countries for a long time. So, what is the pope up to?
Trying to decipher the mind of a sitting pope is a perilous enterprise, especially when he is opening up a highly controversial topic in both church and civil life. The most a friendly and admiring moral philosopher can do is read his words and actions and offer suggestions about how to construe them so that they form a coherent picture. This is something that should be done before people celebrate or condemn what the pope has been saying. It is important to keep in mind that on this topic the pope is not using the ordinary means of presenting and developing church teaching, which would normally be done by formal addresses, statements from Vatican officials and, in a more lasting form, through encyclical letters.
One way to characterize what the pope is doing is that he is prodding us to think about what the stance of the church toward homosexuality should be, rather than what it generally has been. Now the word stance, while common enough in English, is not a theological term. Theologians and most bishops speak of church teachings and doctrines, of norms and principles, of moral judgments and moral conclusions. Drawing on legal reasoning and moral philosophy, they aim at conclusions that can be applied consistently across a wide range of cases.
A ready starting point is the condemnation of homosexual acts as intrinsically evil. This approach is rationalistic rather than experiential, though those who employ it may turn to experience to support their arguments. For the moral rationalist, there is no need to encounter the people who perform the acts in order to learn what they experience or what the acts mean to them. This is not to say there are no emotional factors at work in the condemnation. They may be kept in the background, but such emotions can be quite powerful.
For many years a powerful set of forces shaped the rationalist approach. There were legal prohibitions against homosexual activity; experts in psychology saw it as a form of arrested or incomplete development; people were reluctant to recognize this inclination in themselves or in family or friends. Homosexuality was considered shameful, disreputable, dangerous and sinful. It was something to be shunned, denied, marginalized and condemned.
For a generation this severely negative set of social judgments and practices has been under attack. It has now come close to collapse in large areas of the world, though it is alive and vigorous in many other parts of the world. In an almost complete reversal, public opinion in the United States and many other Western countries has shifted to such an extent that homophobia has now become the reality to be concealed and denied. The traditional view is now widely regarded as vulnerable, embarrassing and unpersuasive. It no longer serves as a norm that needs only strict enforcement and louder commitment in order to achieve full acceptance.
The Church’s Response
In the face of such an unsettling change in society, what is the Catholic Church to do? If adamant opposition to homosexuality is unlikely to yield positive results at a time when the church’s influence on society is generally declining, should the traditional teaching be abandoned? This would be craven, especially given the often admirable character of the church’s critical response to many socially dominant attitudes and practices over the centuries. Bishops are right to insist that church teaching is not to be determined by opinion polls or election results. It would, however, be wrong to think that such shifts in public perception do not raise serious difficulties, which are perilous for Christians to ignore. It is unlikely that lasting good can come out of any stance on human affairs that in effect says, “We know what we know; what we don’t know is not worth learning about; and what contradicts what we think we know is not worth thinking about.” Such a stance is incompatible with the harmonious collaboration between faith and reason that Pope Benedict XVI saw as a characteristic strength of Catholicism.
What seems to be called for is a time of critical reflection on the tradition to clarify what strengths are to be preserved and what continuities are to be affirmed even while searching for the sources of limitations in the teaching and acknowledging the development of new questions and problems. Critical reflection also needs to be directed to public opinion and to those who would mold it in a new direction, who often harbor naïve, incoherent and immature views, even while they think of themselves as knowledgeable and progressive. Both kinds of critical reflection require time and support for research and careful dialogue that will assess what is known and what is not known, what is hoped and what is feared. There is an ongoing need to coordinate research and information across the fields of biology, medicine, social science and ethics as well as to look seriously at the development of Christian and other religious teaching on this topic down through the centuries.
A “stance,” as contrasted with beliefs or theoretical positions, normally brings with it a realization that other factors are at work. It involves a response to positions or movements in the broader social and intellectual world rather than merely to arguments and criticisms in scholarly journals. Adopting or modifying a stance provides an opportunity to weigh other factors beyond a specific judgment on the moral rightness or wrongness of an act. One can consider alternatives to the stance and think about how others will respond to it. One can consider changing factors in the social context. One can acknowledge the limits to knowledge and arguments once found persuasive.
There are signs that Pope Francis is in the process of thinking along some of these lines. In taking a critical view of the previous stance, one need not abandon it. In changing a stance, even one that has been widely held and is deeply persistent, one may not be changing or reversing church doctrine. Indeed, Francis has repeatedly said that he does not intend to change church doctrine. This produces disappointment in many journalists and advocates; but ignoring what he affirms will lead to more serious and lasting disappointment. There is also a risk that both those who hope for a radical transformation of Catholic teaching on homosexuality and those who dread such a change may miss the point of the more discerning, more compassionate stance that the pope seems intent on introducing. They may judge him by criteria that might be appropriate for legal, political and journalistic activities but that would distort the character of the church’s pastoral relationship with those to whom it is called to minister.
Four important elements should mark a new stance toward homosexuals and homosexuality. The first is humility. We must acknowledge what we do not know and what we do not understand about the contemporary situation of homosexuals. This is an important point both for advocates of alternative lifestyles and for social and religious traditionalists. It is especially needed as we explore the difficult questions about how to understand the causes of homosexual inclinations and actions and how biological inheritance, historical experience and personal choice come together in shaping sexual orientation. Difficult questions also surround the social consequences of giving legal acceptance to same-sex unions, especially the effects of such a policy on the institution of marriage in Western societies. Humility is appropriate not merely for debate on broad social issues but also in the settings of family and friendship and in the decisions to seek and provide counsel and care for persons who are uncertain and distressed about homosexuality in themselves or others.
Second, we must show respect for the dignity of homosexual persons as creatures of the one God and Father of us all, as members of the community of the redeemed and as fellow citizens of the city and the world. The affirmation of traditional views needs to take place within an ethic of dialogue and must be marked by civility, compassion and charity. Desires that homosexuals should cease to exist, or that they should disappear from public space, or that laws should be enacted that would deny their human rights are simply not acceptable. Precisely because the disagreements over the moral assessments of homosexual acts and the future of relevant social institutions are real and are deeply felt, it is necessary to practice moral attitudes that will sustain conversation over time. This will help to bind the advocates of change and traditionalists. It should also restrain the mockery and denigration of people who in a spirit of honesty and faithfulness honor traditional social values. For in the church, we are called to show charity and mutual forbearance rather than to be victorious masters of cultural warfare.
The greater burden rests with those who, consciously or not, have been influenced in their attitudes and reactions by homophobia, by the fear and hatred of homosexual persons and acts. This can be manifested in schoolyard bullying, in malicious outing and violations of privacy, in blackmail and psychopathic violence. Many of those who are most critical of church teaching on sexuality have suffered wounds from homophobia, sometimes with the connivance of church members or, even worse, with their approval. For all these offenses against our brothers and sisters, there is need for repentance and conversion. As we turn to the future, there is a corresponding need to look critically at those who offer themselves as allies against gay and lesbian agendas.
Third, all parties need to show realism in acknowledging the problems of perception and trust that complicate our efforts to understand and collaborate with one another. We must be aware of the challenges to mature and responsible behavior that human sexuality presents to all of us, regardless of our orientation. There is a profound need for realism in acknowledging the ambiguities that mark our histories, both personal and social. God’s judgment is not likely to yield a simple division between heterosexual sheep and homosexual goats, just as God’s creation does not produce persons who remain consistently on one side of this divide. Expulsion of those with sexual differences from the sacred precincts of the church and expunging their acts and gifts from our institutional memory may express a detestation of intrinsic evil, but it also carries with it an effective denial of common humanity. We must not only be charitable with others, but also honest with ourselves. Realistic self-understanding leads to the abandonment of hypocrisy; realistic understanding of others prepares the way for acceptance in community. Looking seriously at the communities in which we participate will disclose a complex tapestry in which the multicolored threads of the rainbow catch and reflect light, increase splendor and range, and are to be gratefully received.
Realism also involves a recognition that the moral, personal and spiritual development to which we are all called in Christ is not identical with some form of legal or philosophical consistency or even with doctrinal orthodoxy. Nor, on the other hand, is it to be defined as the successful working out of one’s sexual orientation. Both of these distortions involve a reduction of the human person to one or more favored aspects of what is a richer, more complex reality. They also involve the substitution of an immediate, testable accomplishment for the movement of the soul toward the transcendent Other in faith, hope and charity.
Fourth, during this period of scrutiny and reassessment, we must be patient with ourselves, with each other and with the friends and allies of the contesting groups both in the public arena and in the life of the church. The tasks of sifting arguments, modifying laws and institutional arrangements, reshaping personal and social expectations and examining the effects of changes when they are proposed and when they are enacted are all tasks that are best done over time. The process of learning, listening, revising, beginning anew and encouraging participants on all sides and at all levels consumes immense amounts of time and energy. In the United States and elsewhere, the whole process is going to be conducted under the shadow of the sexual abuse crisis, which will be a continuing source of suspicion, fear and acrimony. The very American desire for quick and unambiguous outcomes will make the necessary patience shorter in supply and harder to sustain. We have to bear in mind that law and public opinion in the United States now understand and treat homosexual relations between consenting adults and the sexual abuse of minors and vulnerable persons as significantly different realities.
The new stance on the subject of homosexuality should open up possibilities for affirming the human dignity of homosexuals. It should also acknowledge their need for an appropriate form of pastoral ministry and should affirm a continuity of key values in a greatly changed social situation. For instance, the traditional teaching and practice of the church has presented faithfulness and fruitfulness as two of the great goods closely connected with sexual activity. Critics of homosexual practice have been honestly unable to see the continuing place for these values in same-sex unions. The desire of some homosexuals to adopt children as well as the desire of many homosexuals to enter into permanent unions can be seen as evidence of the power and attractiveness of these traditional values, even if they are being achieved in previously unacceptable ways.
Assessing the possibility for homosexuals to achieve these values in a sustainable way requires us to go beyond the current arguments about equal rights and equal protection for personal preferences to look carefully at actual lives and the way values are articulated and practiced. This can be one way of defending traditional marriage. But it is also a way of requiring the proponents of same-sex marriage to acknowledge the incompleteness of their approach and their arguments. Good intentions and earnest declarations do not constitute effective guarantees of lasting fidelity. The principal change would not be in the teaching of the church on the moral acceptability of homosexual activity, but in affirming and practicing pastoral ministry for persons engaged in irregular or questionable unions. Ministry would be carried on in a more tentative, inquiring spirit; it would be more intent on providing care and encouraging growth for persons, many of whom have known many sorrows, than in implementing policies within bureaucratic and legal frameworks.
Here we might apply a favorite metaphor of Pope Francis: those carrying on the ministry would function in a way like doctors in a field hospital. They would proceed from a genuine desire to understand the personal and spiritual aspirations of the persons in their care instead of simply repeating the equivalent of a fatal diagnosis, which is how repeated reliance on the notion of “intrinsic evil” will likely be perceived. This is not a proposal for adjudicating the numerous issues now under dispute, nor is it a theological program for resolving the problems of implementing change in this troubled area of the church’s theology and practice. But it may serve as a partial model for addressing similar problems in areas where Catholic Christians have been putting more energy into denunciation than into dialogue, where disjunctions and fractures have been growing in scale and lethality. Perhaps it is best conceived as a submission for the notice board in the field hospital.