Let's pause for a second and think of the many different Catholic camps -- we will leave the secular world out of this for a moment -- that exist when discussing a subject as complex as the moral status of sexual activity outside of marriage. I hope that this will help us dissect the celebratory coverage of the current Vatican talks on family issues.
This typology is my own (reminder: I am Eastern Orthodox, not Catholic) based on my observations of Catholic debates and media coverage of them.
* First of all, there are Catholics who believe that the church has been far too quiet in defense of its own teachings on sexuality. They note that, at the crucial level of local pulpits, Catholics hardly ever hear controversial teachings discussed, let alone defended. People need to hear the bad news before it becomes the Good News, in other words.
* Then there are Catholics who truly believe that, when viewed as a whole, the church's teachings are fine, but that the hierarchy has done a terrible job of presenting in public. Bishops have talked only about sin, with little to say about confession, repentance, grace, mercy, forgiveness, healing and salvation (in other words, the entire world of the Sacraments).
Let's pause for a second and look at what the Catechism of the Catholic Church says in its specific language about homosexuality (and read it all, not just the "intrinsically disordered" part).
This material is long, but crucial. Yes, I know that you have not been reading this in newspapers over the past few days.
2357 Homosexuality refers to relations between men or between women who experience an exclusive or predominant sexual attraction toward persons of the same sex. It has taken a great variety of forms through the centuries and in different cultures. Its psychological genesis remains largely unexplained. Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, 141 tradition has always declared that "homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered." 142 They 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 circumstances can they be approved.
2358 The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These persons are called to fulfill God's will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord's Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition.
2359 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.
Note several things, starting with the fact that the press coverage in the past 24 hours has focused on a changed "tone," as opposed to doctrinal content, in Vatican discussions of gay relationships. That's accurate and important.
However, we are not hearing about another crucial doctrinal element that, surely, is being discussed. You see, for critics the most infamous language in the Catechism focuses on "homosexual acts" as opposed to orientation. The "acts" are contrary to natural law.
Yes, the Catechism also says that the "inclination" -- think orientation -- is "objectively disordered," but it refers to these temptations as a "trial," not a sin. It's crucial to realize that in Catholic doctrine trials and temptations are a form of suffering and, when endured, should be seen as kind of martyrdom and a doorway to holiness.
One might even go so far as to say that faithful believers who do not yield to these temptations, or who struggle, repent and are forgiven, have the potential to receive spiritual gifts that they can offer their church and that the church must recognize and welcome.
Hold that thought. This would be true for all believers, in ancient Christian thought, who are called to singleness and celibacy -- gay and straight. It would be true with temptations in general, with all trials and struggles in this life.
At this point, the church then begins to engage the modern realities of relationships outside of the Sacrament of Marriage.
* Clearly, there are Catholics who believe that -- at the pastoral level -- priests need to have more flexibility in working with people whose sexual relationships are both (a) a potential source of strength in their lives and (b) clearly sinful in the eyes of centuries of Christian doctrine.
This is where things get tricky.
If you read the language of the debates, you will see that there are leaders who want to show mercy and kindness up front -- with little or no up-front talk about sin and repentance -- because they believe that this is truly the best, the most pastoral, way to bring wayward believers into the process of confession and reconciliation. This is, many believe, the Pope Francis way.
* Ah, but what if there are Catholics who SAY THIS is their approach but in reality they are not interested in that old confession of sin stuff at all? What if, at the level of local ministry, they essentially are saying that you open the door wide and then hope for the best, that in a post-Vatican II world you have to leave this up to the individual conscience? I mean, who goes to confession these days anyway? What are they supposed to confess? Talking about sin is so negative and modern life is so complex. You know?
* Finally, you do have Catholics who are engaged in a long, slow, strategic march through the structures of the institutional church to change the actual practice and doctrines of the Catholic faith. They want to move the pieces on the great doctrinal game board and a few of them are even open about that.
So, who are you hearing quoted the most in the news reports?
Go back to my "hold that thought" reference.
Some of the most interesting debates taking place in Catholicism these days on family and marriage issues revolve around the work of gay Catholics who are orthodox in their stance on church teachings, as articulated in the Catechism and elsewhere.
Yes, this is a complex crowd. There are important debates in these circles about the degree to which homosexual orientation itself should be seen as a unique gift from God and, by implication, a part of God's plan for creation. There are also debates here about the degree to which sexual orientation should be openly celebrated as a key source of a person's public identity. (Can orthodox Catholics use "gay" language in a way that is positive and helps the church?) I get all of that.
All I am saying is that the language used in these discussions is often very close to the language that news consumers are hearing from the Vatican -- filtered through the political, not doctrinal, lens of the press. The "tone" of the discussions in this niche in Catholic thought, and some content, is very similar to the current Vatican language that we are reading.
As a sample, here is a large piece of an "On Religion" column I wrote about one of these thinkers, Joshua Gonnerman of Catholic University, who was responding to an article by the gay activist Dan Savage.
Please let me stress: I am not asking anyone to agree with what he says or to debate it. I simply want readers -- especially journalists of good will -- to note the "tone" found here.
The point Savage got right, he said, is his claim that church leaders rarely offer serious responses to gay community concerns, such as the bullying of young gays or people who are perceived to be gay. Most religious leaders act as if they want gay people -- including believers -- to simply go way.
"The whole issue is constantly talked about in a culture wars context, instead of in a pastoral context," said Gonnerman, in a recent interview. "Instead of being a pastoral issue in the lives of real people, homosexuality is handled as an us versus them issue. ... Gay people must be treated as members of the family – not just pushed aside."
It is widely known, and often discussed, that the Catholic catechism teaches that homosexual acts are "acts of grave depravity," "intrinsically disordered" and "contrary to the natural law. ... Under no circumstances can they be approved."
While Gonnerman accepts these teachings, he is convinced that pastors also need to underline the catechism statement that gays are "called to fulfill God's will in their lives." Through chastity, true friendship, prayer and the sacraments they can "gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection."
Part of the problem, he said, is that in "far too many parishes there hasn't been a sermon on Catholic social ethics since the Second Vatican Council." It's time for people in the pews to "hear more about divorce, premarital sex, infidelity and contraceptives. ... Homosexuality isn't the only issue we face these days."
Meanwhile, many pastors assume the primary goal of ministry is to fill giant parish parking lots with minivans. While families are important, said Gonnerman, one reason so many Catholic leaders can't "find something to say to gays other than 'no' is because they don't know what they want to say to single people -- period." ...
Most of all, someone must be willing to help Catholics singles wrestle with questions about what God wants them to do with their lives, he said.
"You can't just tell people to carry their cross," said Gonnerman. "You can't have a vocation that's defined as 'no,' and that's it. There has to be more to life than not getting married and not having sex. At some point, the church must help us ask, 'What are your gifts? What is your calling?' "
Does any of that sound familiar right now?
Now, here is what I want readers to do. Dig into the following Washington Post report on this rough-draft Vatican document that lets the outside world hear one version of what is happening behind closed doors in these debates.
Much of what you will read runs parallel to the content found in Dawn's earlier "Wha' happened?!" post. Please read it, if you have not done so.
Now, try to place the various voices quoted into the typology offered above. I know that many or most readers will not agree on who is who, in a few cases. But look at the balance of the voices and the potential to talk to new and interesting. Note that, as usual, it is clear that doctrine is (a) the problem and (b) not really changing at the moment, sort of. And at the end there is an interesting voice who gets one single bite of ink.
The document didn’t alarm all traditional Catholics. Writer Eve Tushnet, a lesbian Catholic who advocates for celibacy, said she was struck by the document’s acknowledgment of the “mutual aid” same-sex couples provide one another.
“I think this is an attempt to stop propagandizing and acting as if the only good things ever done are done within faithful traditional Catholic marriages. When you do that, no one believes you,” she said.
Might Tushnet -- one of the key thinkers in this too often overlooked camp (gays and lesbians who accept the doctrines of the Catholic church) -- have had more to say on this?
By all means. You see, there are lots of Catholic voices who need to be heard on this, many of which are hard to label or stereotype. There is more to this debate than quoting the (yes, crucial) voices of doctrinally progressive Catholics and one quote from Cardinal Raymond Burke (or the obligatory conservative website).
See you at the next alleged earthquake. Keep watching for references to doctrine, sexual behavior, the Catechism, sin, repentance and Confession.