March 20, 2021
By Robert Mickens | Vatican City
The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) recently declared that the Catholic Church does not “have the power to give the blessing (sic.) to unions of persons of the same sex”.
(Please try to ignore for a moment the linguistic limitations that seem to afflict almost every office of the Roman Curia these days and just try to follow the logic here.)
Predictably, a whole lot of LGBTQ+ Catholics and their supporters were extremely upset by this CDF statement, which was issued on March 15 as a one-word responsum (answer) to an 18-word dubium (question). And the answer, as everyone should have expected, was “Negative”.
But it wasn’t the responsum per se that caused so much hurt and anger. It was the one-and-a-half-page “explanatory note” that followed, which stated that “he cannot and does not bless sin”. “He”, of course, being God.
The logic behind the reasoning in this note is, no doubt, obvious in the minds of the celibate male clerics who staff the doctrinal office.
Some of them — including Cardinal Luis Ladaria, the 76-year-old Spanish Jesuit who is the CDF prefect — truly believe they are doing the best they can in the thankless and onerous job of defending Catholic faith and morals in an unbelieving and immoral age.
Also consider that this is the same tribunal of Church orthodoxy that produced the Vatican’s most recent articulation of the Church’s teaching on homosexuality.
The “Halloween Letter”
That was back in October 1986 in a letter that the then-prefect, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, sent to the world’s bishops on “the pastoral care of homosexual persons”.
The Vatican has not updated its position on homosexuality in the more than three decades since this text was issued. And many of those who are voicing outrage over the recent responsum on blessings for same-sex couples know this very well.
Among those who have feigned outrage are clerics who have become heroes to some and villains to others by advocating for greater recognition of LGBTQ+ Catholics while also claiming not to challenge current Church teaching.
Well, just to refresh everyone’s memories, that teaching is encapsulated in these few lines from the 1986 text that some still refer to as Ratzinger’s “Halloween Letter” (emphasis added):
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.
Therefore special concern and pastoral attention should be directed toward those who have this condition, lest they be led to believe that the living out of this orientation in homosexual activity is a morally acceptable option. It is not.
Given that this is still the Vatican’s official position, how could anyone honestly have expected that the responsum on blessing same-sex unions would or could be anything but negative?
The Church’s teaching on human sexuality in general is flawed
But the problem is not what was published on March 15th. And it is not even the 1986 letter. The real stumbling block is the Vatican’s official teaching on all human sexuality and the deeply flawed philosophy and anthropology that undergird it.
Most people who still have any connection to reality know that. Even a great many Catholics.
Yet the Vatican insists that the Church’s teaching on human sexuality continue to be based on bad science and a physicalist interpretation of so-called “natural law”. To put it crudely, it deems that any sexual act that is not, by its very nature, designed for and open to procreation is gravely sinful.
And so is sexual intercourse outside of a marriage between a man and woman. Period.
It may sound hurtful and discriminatory, but the Vatican’s assertion that it “does not have the power” to bless same-sex unions because it “cannot bless sin” actually makes sense according to this logic, as flawed or downright wrong as the logic may seem.
But until that logic is finally rejected and the teaching is allowed be informed by reality and good science… Well, you get the point.
The good news is that Pope Francis has already opened up a process to re-evaluate the Church’s understanding and teaching about human sexuality.
It started with the 2014 and 2015 Synod assemblies on the family, which led to the 2016 publication of the apostolic exhortation Amoris laetitia.
More and more bishops are speaking out
Bishop Johan Bonny of Belgium, a former Vatican official who was one of a number of bishops that has strongly criticized the recent CDF statement, noted that the responsum “undermines the credibility of both the ‘synodal path’ advocated by Pope Francis and the announced year of work with Amoris laetitia“.
Bonny said he was “embarrassed” by the responsum and said it “lacks the pastoral care, the scholarly grounding, the theological nuance, and the ethical rigor that were present amongst the Synod Fathers who then approved its final conclusions”.
That he and a growing number of bishops are speaking out against the CDF statement is also an encouraging sign that the pope’s process for re-thinking the teaching on sexual ethics is gaining momentum, even if it is slower than many would like.
Francis moved to give the process further legitimacy in 2017 when he literally gutted the John Paul II Institute on Marriage and the Family that the late Polish pope founded in 1981 to reinforce and defend the current teaching.
It is not far off the mark to say the recalibrated John Paul II Pontifical Theological Institute on Marriage and Family Sciences is just a longer name for what is in actuality the “Amoris Laetitia Institute”, as critics have derisively called it.
The tragedy of Catholics walking away
But let’s not kid ourselves, the CDF statement is regrettable in many ways and is likely to lead to some even more regrettable consequences.
The worst is that it will certainly be used by some homophobic and repressive governments or institutions — as well as certain Church leaders — to justify their continued discrimination of LGBTQ+ people.
The statement is also likely to lead more Catholics to walk away from their Church. And that would be a real tragedy.
It would also reflect a failure to understand the bigger challenge the current pope has placed before all of us these past eight years; that is, to play an active part in helping him renew and reform the Church.
Francis knows that neither he nor even hundreds of bishops can do it by themselves. But if we are to play a role in this enterprise we must be mature, adult and personally responsible believers.
Too often, even reform-minded Catholics expect change will only come through structural, legal or personnel moves implemented by those in authority — a better prefect for a particular Vatican office, a better bishop for this or that diocese, new rules to allow us greater freedom or an end to those rules that we feel too restrictive.
Ironically, this is the same clericalist and legalistic mentality that reformers often identify with the traditionalist, black-and-white Catholics they criticize.
A place in the Church for everyone
We need to start taking personal responsibility and living our faith now. We do not have to wait for permission. The Church is vaster and much more diversified than we sometimes want to acknowledge.
There are places in almost every diocese in the world where divorced and remarried couples are warmly welcomed to receive the Eucharist.
And there are places where gays, lesbians and transgender persons are welcomed just as openly. There are also priests who are more than happy to bless their unions.
These people and these places exist, even if they sometimes fly under the radar.
But one often gets the impression that too many Catholics are reluctant to do anything unless they get permission from a priest or bishop, or unless the Church gives official approval.
It is sad how many cradle Catholics who grew up loving their Church have walked away because someone inside the faith community — almost always an authority figure — hurt them in some way.
It may have been an awful experience in the confessional, though that probably happens less frequently than 50 or 60 years ago when people actually still went to confession.
We all need to protect our mental and spiritual health
Or it could have been because of a rude priest or a difficult Church teaching — usually centered on divorce, homosexuality, the way women are treated or some other sensitive issue.
We all need to do what we must to protect our mental and spiritual health, integrity, sense of dignity and personal worth. We need to protect ourselves from abusive or manipulative relationships, whether they are in our natural and extended family or in the Church we’ve been baptized into.
And, in fact, most of us have probably felt abused, undervalued, judged unworthy or manipulated at times by members of our own family, as well. We may even feel snubbed or rejected, especially those of us who are either gay, lesbian or transgender.
What do we decide to do with that? Most of us do not walk away definitively and change our names. But even those who do, cannot change their DNA. They still remain part of the biological family they were born into or, if they were adopted, into the family that raised and nurtured them.
Probably every child thinks about running away from home at one point while growing up, especially when they know Mom and Dad are not being fair or they know they don’t belong in a family whose members seem so different from them.
But most kids usually don’t run away in the end. Isn’t it odd that so many adults do, especially when it comes to the Church.
The Church is big. And it is very diverse. Even within the Roman part of the Church it appears there is room for everyone, even if it means living just inside the outer edges.
Responding to the Church as we respond to our family
That is usually what adults do in less-than-ideal family situations. A gay son whose parents or grandparents will not allow him to bring his boyfriend or partner to Thanksgiving dinner may decide to seek out an invitation to join other relatives.
A divorced and remarried woman who is not allowed to go to communion in one parish may look for one that is more accommodating.
Sometimes we seek a home and a welcome with those outside our immediate or extended families. Sometimes, with the encouragement of relatives, we find the strength to stay.
And this goes for our worshiping and faith communities, as well. No matter what we do, we cannot change our biological or spiritual DNA.
We can change our name or address, the people we call family or even move towards that part of the Church (perhaps another denomination) where we feel most at home.
Seeing our relationship with the Church in a way as similar as possible to our relationship to our biological family may be challenging, but it can be very helpful.
When the Church disappoints us, we might try to respond as we would to people in our nuclear or even extended natural family.
Why be disappointed or angry if grandma or dad will not give their “blessing” to some of our major life choices? Instead of cursing them or turning away from the entire family, we would do well to find our family support in siblings, other relatives and friends.
If that is what we truly seek, we will find it. It is very like to be somewhere within the families in which we grew up. Or it may be with the relatives down the street or across town.