The following is a guest reflection from Father Satish Joseph, PhD. As some of our regular readers have noted, us regulars here at CMTdotcom have had some difficulty in writing and posting on same sex marriage, for a variety of reasons (some of which reasons might be shared in future posts). We know that silence speaks – but what it says is not always clear, and no more so is that the case than at this blog, with its range of voices. Here is one pastor’s voice, spoken with conviction and pastoral concern. The editors’ hope is that perhaps this response from a pastor who also writes about Catholic moral theology questions may lead to some further discussion and further posts… and will likely raise further questions!
Last week, the Supreme Court made a landmark decision on same-sex marriage. I assume that some of you are thrilled about this decision and others tormented by the same. The official statement from the American Catholic bishops has been clear on two aspects. First, it considers the SCOTUS decision contrary to the long-held biblical and church doctrine. As Archbishop Dennis Schnurr said, “Under the false banner of ‘marriage equality,’ the United State Supreme Court today redefined marriage by judicial fiat.” He also affirmed that “traditional marriage is the cradle of the family, the basic building block of society.”
On the other hand, the official statements were also empathetic of same-sex couples. I think Archbishop Schnurr said it best when he stated, “… It is undeniable that families headed by same-sex couples are growing in number and visibility. These families deserve everyone’s love, respect, compassion, sensitivity and, where appropriate, pastoral care from the Church.”
It must be noted here the understanding of homosexuality has changed over time. The biblical understanding of homosexuality is directed toward homosexual acts of people of the same gender. Contemporary definition of homosexuality refers to it as a fundamental orientation. This later understanding is only about a hundred and fifty years old and has been widely accepted only in the last forty years.
I believe that difficult issues are best talked about as mature Catholics. My purpose today is not to make a statement but to foster honest and respectful conversation among us. In offering this reflection, I wish to follow the two-fold direction of the bishops.
First, let me say a few words about the Catholic doctrine on marriage and family. In general, all Catholic doctrine finds its basis in Christian scripture. Even though the Bible was composed in ancient times, we believe that it reveals enduring truths. Some of these enduring truths concern marriage and family. One of the first and primary institutions that the Bible reveals is the human family. God created man and woman as equal companions to love each other and to be with each other in mutual and lasting fidelity (Gen 3:21-24). God also entrusted them the task of procreating and thus ensuring the continuation of the human race (Gen 1:27-28). All this they must do in love and fidelity to God, who was their Creator. Catholic theology calls this natural law. To go against what God in nature has ordained for the human race is to violate what is most inherent to human beings. Violation of this law is treated rather strictly in the Old and New Testaments. It is called sin.
A full reading of the Old Testament, however, also reveals that marriage and family as monolithic institutions underwent several significant changes. For example, it seems that it was culturally and religiously acceptable for the childless Abraham and Sarah to have an heir through the slave woman, Hagar (Gen 16:1-16). Similarly, polygamy existed in the Biblical times despite the original intention of the Creator revealed in Gen 2: 24. King Solomon, for example, (who had 700 wives and 300 concubines) was castigated by God not so much for his polygamy but rather because he established altars to the gods of some of his non-Israelite wives (1 Kings 11:9-13). Another development was the practice of divorce. (Deut 24:1-4). By the time Jesus appeared on the scene, divorce was firmly established within the Jewish legal system. (Mt 19:7).
In the New Testament, Jesus’ teaching on marriage is scant at best. When he did teach on this topic it was in the context of divorce. Jesus considers divorce contrary to divine law unless, of course, the marriage is null and void from the moment of its inception (Mt 19:9). It is significant, though, that Jesus directs his questioners to the original intention of the Creator (Mt 19:4-6). Jesus made no statements about homosexuality. Perhaps the need never arose. Paul, on the other hand, who wrote his epistles within the context of Greek and Roman societies, was unequivocal in its condemnation of homosexuality (Rom 1:24-27; 1 Cor 6:9-10). 1 Contemporary church teaching on marriage, family and homosexuality is built upon the above biblical data. The church categorically believes marriage to be between one man and one woman, lived in a monogamous relationship which is simultaneously open to life at all times and in every way. Immaterial of the changes that are occurring in society, the Church considers it her duty to uphold this doctrine. Even if she chooses to undertake the arduous and complex task of adapting her doctrine to the demands of the modern world, she cannot alter scripture. She may understand and interpret scripture differently, but she cannot change scripture. The church upholds these doctrines not because she is arrogant or inflexible, but rather, because her doctrinal beliefs must necessarily be consistent with sacred scripture. The church cannot uphold any doctrine contrary to scripture.
The same scripture that provides the basis for her doctrine also makes room to accommodate the complexity of human existence. Whether it was the childless Abraham and Sarah ensuing an heir through Hagar or a child born in crime (David’s son Solomon) becoming the king of Israel, the authors of sacred scripture appreciate and accommodate the complexity of human life. With regard to Solomon, 2 Samuel 12:24 tells us that God loved this child born under unusually devious circumstances. Jesus, though the Son of
God, was exemplary in this regard. He often gave precedence to the needs of the human person over otherwise firmly held regulations and doctrines. For example, when confronted by the Pharisees about his disciples breaking the Sabbath by grinding grains of wheat in their hand and eating it (Mk 2:23-28), Jesus recalled another instance in the Old Testament (1 Sam 21:2-4) where the human person took precedence over prevailing laws. And then Jesus approved this perspective by saying, “The Sabbath was made for man and not man for Sabbath” (Mark 2: 28). It is reasonable to conclude that Jesus was not discounting the Sabbath regulation but that he was providing ‘pastoral care’ for his beleaguered disciples just as David in the Old Testament was providing pastoral care for his hungry companions. When the bishops ask us to provide pastoral care for gay, lesbian and same-sex couples, it is something similar that they are suggesting. We are not in a position to change scripture or divine law. But appreciating the complexity of human sexuality, neither can we neglect, ignore, condemn or refuse to care for those in our midst that need our compassion and love. The example of Jesus is quite the contrary. The church must follow the example of our Lord Jesus Christ.
That brings us to the reality of same-sex couples among us. The simplest approach one can take toward it is to look at biblical data and church doctrine and then condemn it in fidelity to divine and natural law. However, by taking this simplistic approach, one would be overlooking the complexity of human life and more specifically of human sexuality. Archbishop Schnurr is more realistic when he says that same-sex couples “deserve everyone’s love, respect, compassion, sensitivity and, where appropriate, pastoral care from the Church.” Perhaps someday the church will find newer and more meaningful ways to respond to the needs of same sex-couples.
Today, my own response to the Supreme Court judgment on same-sex marriage is based on the above two points: fidelity to doctrine yet appreciating the complexity of human life and providing the pastoral care that is so urgently needed. In recent times, I have had numerous conversations with parents who feel pained that their gay and lesbian children find it hard to be in communion with the Church. This pain is shared by gay and lesbian Catholics. Their pain comes from the rejection they encounter. I, too, have gay and lesbian friends. Some of these friends are same-sex couples who are married and have adopted children. We also have gay and lesbian parishioners among us. In the spirit of the USCCB document “Always Our Children: A Pastoral Message To Parents Of Homosexual Children And Suggestions For Pastoral Ministers” (and based on my own personal convictions, [the other priest here] and I have always welcomed people from all walks of life into our parish community. That includes the LGBT community. Not to do so, I believe, would be contrary to the gospel mandate of universal love. I have also come to know some of my gay and lesbian friends very personally. I have come to understand the authenticity of their sexual orientation. Their dreams, hopes and aspirations on the human, social and spiritual level are not different from any of us. My gay and lesbian friends are genuinely good, faith-filled and loving people who seek communion with the Church. They seek a relationship with God in the same way I do. They seek faithful and monogamous love like many of my heterosexual friends do. Their sexual orientation does not make them immune to maternal and paternal instincts or the desire for sexual intimacy. As I said earlier, these are complex realities. As a pastor, I look for guidance from sacred scripture, church doctrine, the example of Jesus and the direction of our bishops in offering pastoral care to the LGBT community in our parish. I have also become aware of the struggles the LGBT community face. Often times, the discovery of their sexual orientation, the acceptance of it, and sharing it with the family and society is accompanied by immense struggles. I have tried to put myself in their shoes. I cannot imagine trying to hide my sexual orientation as a straight man, and more so, trying to convince others to accept my sexuality. I cannot fathom being rejected because of my sexual orientation. This makes me raise many questions. Why should someone who discovers himself or herself having same-sex attraction face rejection, prejudice and insult? It seems to me that their lives are already difficult. Should people, society and most of all, the church make it even more painful? Today, to balance Catholic doctrine with the pastoral care that the LGBT community demands is one of my most daunting challenges. Pastors like [the two of us] are not willing to sacrifice either of the two demands made on us.
It is encouraging to know that the SCOTUS ruling allows religious organizations to continue to uphold their religious beliefs. As Justice Kenney wrote, “Finally, it must be emphasized that religions, and those who adhere to religious doctrines, may continue to advocate with utmost, sincere conviction that, by divine precepts, same-sex marriage should not be condoned.” The court’s decision was a civil decision and not a religious one. It approached the issue from the perspective of equality. Contrary to earlier fears,religious organizations that do not conduct same-sex marriage will not lose their tax-exempt status.
I understand that I might be inviting both appreciation and criticism for this reflection. I have chosen to take the risk of engaging both those in favor and against the SCOTUS ruling in meaningful conversations. If we must, let us agree to disagree with each other, but may we never agree to treat each other with disdain. May the Holy Spirit guide us as we strive to be the Church of our Lord Jesus Christ.