Answers to questions on Church teaching about same-sex marriage
Jesuit Father Peter Ryan, professor of moral theology and director of spiritual formation at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary, provided answers to a few questions regarding same-sex marriage after the issue was highlighted when President Barack Obama announced he has settled his "evolving position" to support same-sex marriage.
Q. I want to reference Church teaching. Here's what I have: Church teaching states that "(homosexual acts) are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstance can they be approved" (Catechism 2357). Also, homosexual persons are called to chastity. By the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom, at times by the support of disinterested friendship, by prayer and sacramental grace, they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection (Catechist 2359) Are these the best references, or is there a better one?
A. The answer to your question depends on the precise point you want the quote to support. Catechism 2357 refers to section 8 of Persona Humana (the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith's 1975 "Declaration on Certain Questions concerning Sexual Ethics"). Section 8 of that document (says):
"At the present time there are those who, basing themselves on observations in the psychological order, have begun to judge indulgently, and even to excuse completely, homosexual relations between certain people. This they do in opposition to the constant teaching of the Magisterium and to the moral sense of the Christian people.
"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.
"In regard to this second category of subjects, some people conclude that their tendency is so natural that it justifies in their case homosexual relations within a sincere communion of life and love analogous to marriage, in so far as such homosexuals feel incapable of enduring a solitary life.
"In the pastoral field, these homosexuals must certainly be treated with understanding and sustained in the hope of overcoming their personal difficulties and their inability to fit into society. Their culpability will be judged with prudence. But no pastoral method can be employed which would give moral justification to these acts on the grounds that they would be consonant with the condition of such people. For according to the objective moral order, homosexual relations are acts which lack an essential and indispensable finality. In Sacred Scripture they are condemned as a serious depravity and even presented as the sad consequence of rejecting God. This judgment of Scripture does not of course permit us to conclude that all those who suffer from this anomaly are personally responsible for it, but it does attest to the fact that homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered and can in no case be approved of."
In 1986 the CDF issued a document titled "Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons." It is not overly long, and it contains some important teaching. (By the way, in section 3, the article addresses a controversy that arose with respect to "Persona Humana" and resolves it by making a point that has become controversial, but which the catechism also makes: "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.")
The teaching of the catechism distills the central teaching of those two documents. If your purpose is to explain why the Church opposes gay marriage — or rather, considers homosexual marriage impossible and teaches that it is intrinsically wrong to engage in homosexual acts even within committed relationships—you might use some part of the following quotation from section 7 of "Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons":
"The Church, obedient to the Lord who founded her and gave to her the sacramental life, celebrates the divine plan of the loving and live-giving union of men and women in the sacrament of marriage. It is only in the marital relationship that the use of the sexual faculty can be morally good. A person engaging in homosexual behaviour therefore acts immorally.
"To chose someone of the same sex for one's sexual activity is to annul the rich symbolism and meaning, not to mention the goals, of the Creator's sexual design. Homosexual activity is not a complementary union, able to transmit life; and so it thwarts the call to a life of that form of self-giving which the Gospel says is the essence of Christian living. This does not mean that homosexual persons are not often generous and giving of themselves; but when they engage in homosexual activity they confirm within themselves a disordered sexual inclination which is essentially self-indulgent.
"As in every moral disorder, homosexual activity prevents one's own fulfillment and happiness by acting contrary to the creative wisdom of God. The Church, in rejecting erroneous opinions regarding homosexuality, does not limit but rather defends personal freedom and dignity realistically and authentically understood."
There are also many other important passages in that document.
Q. Similarly I want to note the Church's teaching that the Church is supportive of those who work for an end to the unjust discrimination and harassment of homosexuals. The Church is clear that any kind of persecution, bashing or lack of respect for basic human rights should never be tolerated. The Church teaches that a person's sexual attraction usually is not a choice and that for the most part sources of the situation are yet unexplained. They do not choose their homosexual condition; for most of them it is a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided (Catechism 2358). Isn't this an important point to make in any discussion of this matter?
A. People who experience same sex attraction should be treated with the respect due to all of God's children. The Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith makes this point in its 1986 "Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons":
"It is deplorable that homosexual persons have been and are the object of violent malice in speech or in action. Such treatment deserves condemnation from the Church's pastors wherever it occurs. It reveals a kind of disregard for others which endangers the most fundamental principles of a healthy society. The intrinsic dignity of each person must always be respected in word, in action and in law." (section 10)
This of course excludes all unjust discrimination. But the question arises as to what counts as unjust discrimination. Is the refusal to approve of homosexual acts or to grant legal recognition to same sex unions an instance of unjust discrimination? The Church considers this question in "Considerations Regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions between Homosexual Persons" (CDF, 2003): After discussing the witness of Scripture and setting out arguments from reason against legal recognition of homosexual unions, the document concludes:
"The Church teaches that respect for homosexual persons cannot lead in any way to approval of homosexual behaviour or to legal recognition of homosexual unions. The common good requires that laws recognize, promote and protect marriage as the basis of the family, the primary unit of society. Legal recognition of homosexual unions or placing them on the same level as marriage would mean not only the approval of deviant behaviour, with the consequence of making it a model in present-day society, but would also obscure basic values which belong to the common inheritance of humanity. The Church cannot fail to defend these values, for the good of men and women and for the good of society itself." (section 11)
This teaching is hardly likely to be warmly welcomed by the elite media. Nevertheless, that very teaching arises from a recognition of the dignity of persons who experience same sex attraction. One cannot reasonably conclude that if such persons did not choose their homosexual orientation, then their engaging in homosexual activity is natural and good for them, or that they are necessarily inculpable if they do engage in it. The "Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons" explains that while circumstances can sometimes reduce or remove culpability — just as they can sometimes increase culpability — "What is at all costs to be avoided is the unfounded and demeaning assumption that the sexual behaviour of homosexual persons is always and totally compulsive and therefore inculpable. What is essential is that the fundamental liberty which characterizes the human person and gives him his dignity be recognized as belonging to the homosexual person as well. As in every conversion from evil, the abandonment of homosexual activity will require a profound collaboration of the individual with God's liberating grace." (section 11)
Q. The secular world sees same-sex marriage as only a matter of time and that it is better for them to be in a committed relationship. How can this point be countered and how does this view weaken marriage and family life?
A. Advocates of same-sex civil marriage do assume that it is only a matter of time before it is approved—but why should we accept that assumption? Although various courts have overturned laws against gay marriage, and the New York state legislature approved it, proposals to grant legal recognition for same sex marriage are regularly and very soundly defeated when they are put before the people for a vote. Younger people apparently do favor legalizing gay marriage in greater numbers than do older people, but we should not assume that those who hold such views are impervious to argument, much less to the working of grace. We should not be intimidated into giving up the fight just because the secular world assumes gay marriage will eventually prevail. Rather, we should try to explain why legalizing gay marriage is bad for society.
Some argue that opposing homosexual civil marriage is mean-spirited: "Since heterosexuals remain free to marry as they wish, what's the harm in allowing gay marriage?" This argument fails to acknowledge an important truth, namely, that social institutions like civil marriage do not exist in a vacuum. They have broad and very profound effects on culture, and so also on what influences people's lives and choices. Advocates of gay civil marriage understand this, for it is evident in their very determination to convince public authority to adopt the conception of marriage they favor.
For the state to adopt that conception, however, would amount to teaching that marriage is not about the kind of one-flesh union that under the proper circumstances can result in human progeny, but instead about unions based on intensely felt emotional desires. Such teaching by way of public policy would inevitably harm marriage. Though rightly integrated emotion is good, emotional desires wax and wane, and cannot serve as a stable foundation for permanent unions. Nor do they offer an intelligible basis for treating marriage as an exclusive union limited to two persons.
Only a public policy that reflects the truth that the complementary one-flesh union of husband and wife is central to the meaning of marriage can adequately support marriage. Homosexual activity — like all sexual activity that is in principle incapable of reflecting that truth but instead contradicts it — is at odds with the God-given meaning of human sexuality. But if homosexual activity is wrong in itself and, as Paul teaches, jeopardizes one's salvation just as other grave sins do (1 Corinthians 6:9-10), we should not work to limit such activity to committed relationships. Rather, we should try to help people grasp the true meaning of human sexuality and encourage them to turn to our loving Father for the grace they and all of us need to live sexually pure lives.
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