Things are getting pretty wild out on the East coast. The National Organization for Marriage, for instance, plans to protest same-sex marriages taking place across New York State on Sunday, July 24. As I’m sure you’re aware, New York legalized civil marriage for same-sex couples last month in what’s been called a “breakthrough victory” for marriage equality. NOM’s planned protests remind me of Fred Phelps’ picketing of gay people’s funerals and the funerals of U.S. soldiers. Fear and bigotry sure are ugly.
Meanwhile in Boston, a vocal minority of Catholics are going absolutely ape-shit over the “scandal” at St Cecilia’s Church, i.e., the parish’s recent “Gay Pride Mass” and the “pastoral malpractice” of its ongoing Rainbow Ministry. Blogger Joe Sacerdo (no, that’s not his real name) is convinced that St. Cecilia’s parish priest, John J. Unni, and the Rainbow Minisrty “are obviously largely unaffected by the uproar, and are continuing down their merry path.” Accordingly, Joe’s threatening to take the matter to Rome!
Also in Boston, the publication The Boston Pilot recently featured a commentary by Catholic priest Tad Pacholczyk of the National Catholic Bioethics Center. The gist of Pacholczyk’s article is that even if a “gay gene,” is discovered, it wouldn’t justifying gay “behavior,” by which he means sexual behavior. “Even if we have genes that predispose us towards certain behaviors,” declares Pacholczyk, “ we still have a space of freedom within ourselves, and do not have to engage in those behaviors. Our genes may impel us strongly in certain behavioral directions, but they can’t compel us.”
No real sexual theology
Note that there’s no mention of sexual orientation – that inner reality that for the majority of people moves us to certain affectional and sexual relationships. Rather, there’s just the typical Roman clerical fixation on certain sexual acts. Also, I don’t know anyone – gay, straight or anywhere in-between – who would disagree with the idea that we’re not bound to follow every urge we may have – sexual or otherwise. Of course we’re free to choose how to express our sexuality. We can, for instance, seek and build relationships of mutual love and respect; relationships that bring out the best in an individual and his/her partner and allows both to flourish. At the other end of the spectrum we can selfishly use others solely for our own sexual gratification. Official teaching of the clerical caste doesn’t allow the former for gay people. That’s because the church has no real sexual theology – only a marital theology that dictates that sex is only ever moral when it takes place between married heterosexuals and when it is open to biological procreation. Thus no sexual relationships for the gays – ever! This is the “party line” of the church’s clerical caste.
The Catholic people, however, overwhelmingly reject such a stance. This rejection needs to be taken seriously. Why? Because the Catholic tradition teaches that the collective wisdom of the laity on such important matters needs to be listened to and allowed to shape church teaching. Sadly that is not happening – well, at least at the level of the clerical caste. It is happening, however, among the Catholic people and among Catholic theologians. This is both hopeful and significant as these two groups are two of the three magisterias of the Catholic Church.
Let us not forget that in Catholicism, the hierarchy, the theologians, and the wisdom of the laity are equally recognized as authentic sources of truth. They are the three magisteria. And when one considers what Catholic theologians and the Catholic people are thinking and saying about the issue of homosexuality and same-sex relationships, then, at the very least, we have to acknowledge the possibility that the Vatican’s teaching on this issue may not actually be the Catholic teaching. An excellent example of a relatively recent change based on the sense of the faithful is the fact that the vast majority of married Catholics are practicing birth control in spite of the official teaching of the hierarchy. This particular teaching does not make good sense to the Catholic people as it does not fit with their lived experience. I believe we’re seeing the same situation emerging (blossoming, actually) around the issue of homosexuality and gay rights – including gay marriage rights.
Beyond Vatican stenographers
Anyway, I was originally going to devote this post to critiquing the underlying assumptions and ideas of Tad Pacholczyk’s article “'Gay Genes,’ Sexual Attractions, and the Call to Chastity,” but then I realized that I've already done this in a number of previous Wild Reed posts. (See, for example, here, here, here, here and here.)
Instead, I want to offer the best of what Catholic theologians are saying about sexuality. These theologians aren't simply Vatican stenographers, but men and women open to God’s transforming presence throughout the entire church – including within the experiences and insights of the Catholic people.
I begin this series with an excerpt from Daniel Helminiak’s 2004 article “Grace Builds on Nature: A Gay Catholic Theological Response to the Vatican’s Statement on Gay Marriage.” This article was first published in White Crane: A Journal of Gay Spirit, Wisdom and Culture. It was also published as “Gay Marriage: A Response to the Vatican,” chapter 12 of Helminiak’s book Sex and the Sacred: Gay Identity and Spiritual Growth.
I share this and future insights from Catholic theologians and grassroots lay organizations so as to highlight not just the emerging insights on sexuality within the wider church, but the blossoming of such insights. And we know they are blossoming by the fact that they represent what the majority of Catholics in the West accept and believe about issues relating to gender and sexuality, and what increasing numbers of Catholics in other parts of the world are beginning to recognize and accept. I’m thinking in particular of Catholics in Latin America.
Also, as I discovered from Catholics for Marriage Equality MN’s recent presence at the Basilica Block Party, “protesting” those things one may not agree with isn’t always the best course of action. Folks tend to be more open to ideas and insights when they are presented in positive and proactive ways. That’s what this series starting today is all about: a positive and proactive presentation of (perhaps, for some, new) ideas and insights on sexuality that are blossoming beyond the confines of the Roman Catholic hierarchy.
And so without further ado, here is Daniel Helminiak's thoughts and insights on the Vatican's narrow identification of sexuality with procreation.
The Vatican’s core argument against gay marriage or unions can be stated in an equation: marriage = sex = procreation. The Vatican allows sex only in marriage and ultimately for the sake of procreation, so same-sex marriage cannot qualify. Supposedly, the linkage between these three elements is inviolable, and, supposedly, this linkage expresses the nature of sexual relationship itself. The appeal is to a version of “natural law” built on ancient and medieval speculation. Many others who oppose gay marriage unwittingly buy into this same argument.
Contemporary insight into the nature of human sexuality shows that the Vatican equation is wrong. The Vatican emphasizes the basest dimension of sex: the biological production of offspring; and it devalues the distinctly human dimension of sex: the bonding of hearts and minds in interpersonal relationship. In contrast to all animal species, only humans routinely have sex during infertile periods, only humans routinely have sex face to face, and only human females routinely experience orgasm. These biological facts in themselves point to non-biological facets of human sexuality as the distinctly human ones. In humans sex is first and foremost about personal bonding and only secondarily, incidentally, about the procreation of offspring.
The official Catholic position on this point needs to be challenged outright. It is disturbing to realize that this skewed understanding governs all Catholic teaching about marriage and intimate human relationships. However, this rejection of the official Catholic conclusion is not a rejection of the Catholic presupposition. Natural law remains the basis of this whole discussion. However . . . on the pivotal question, What is the nature of human sexuality? the Vatican is wrong.
Since the Second Vatican Council in the mid 1960s, official Catholicism has weighed the procreative and the interpersonal ("unitive") dimensions of sex equally, but this theoretical equality does not redress the imbalance in the Catholic position in practice. Insistence on procreation defines the Catholic teaching and controls its every practical application, whether to same-sex relationships or any other sexual question. The Vatican champions an understanding of sex as a barnyard-animal affair, and, as is blatant in the document on gay marriage, the Vatican downplays the interpersonal meaning of human sexuality. This position flies in the face of all that personal experience and the human sciences reveal about sexual intimacy.
The position of the Vatican is lucid and consistent, but it is also glaringly mistaken. Yet only it allows the Vatican and the bishops to reject lesbian and gay relationships out of hand. And only it supports the Vatican’s call to secular society to reject gay unions. The Catholic hierarchy is pushing its sectarian agenda and, in the name of a misconceived “nature,” expecting the rest of society to go along.
– Daniel Helminiak
"Gay Marriage: A Response to the Vatican"
Sex and the Sacred: Gay Identity and Spiritual Growth
"Gay Marriage: A Response to the Vatican"
Sex and the Sacred: Gay Identity and Spiritual Growth
NEXT: Part 2
For more of Daniel Helminiak at The Wild Reed, see:
The Non-Negotiables of Human Sex
In the Garden of Spirituality: Daniel Helminiak
Spirituality and the Gay Experience
See also the related Wild Reed posts:
Stop in the Name of Discriminatory Ideology!
Relationship: The Crucial Factor in Sexual Morality
Responding to Bishop Tobins' Remarks on Gay Marriage
The Many Manifestations of God's Loving Embrace
A "Fruit" Reflects on the Meaning of "Fruitfulness"
Getting It Right
A Wise and Thoughtful Study of Sexual Ethics
The Standard of Sexual Ethics: Human Flourishing, Not Openness to Procreation
Joan Timmerman on the "Wisdom of the Body"
Human Sex: Weird and Silly, Messy and Sublime
Sex as Mystery, Sex as Light (Part 1)
Sex as Mystery, Sex as Light (Part 2)
Making Love, Giving Life
Italian Cardinal Calls for a "New Vision" for Sexuality
A Catholic Statement of Support for Same-Sex Marriage
Tips on Speaking as a Catholic in Support of Marriage Equality
Image: Michael J. Bayly.