First, the pope and his comments. Following are excerpts from USA Today's report on Benedict's March 9 address to the visiting delegation of U.S. bishops, a delegation that included Archbishop John Nienstedt of the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis (pictured with the pope at left). Also following are my comments on various aspects of what the pope said.
"Sexual differences cannot be dismissed as irrelevant to the definition of marriage," [the pope] said. True, but "sexual differences" aren't simply about the apparatus found between two different sets of legs! The primary sex organ, after all, is the brain. From my observation, most gay couples embody a beautiful complementarity of the masculine and the feminine – even though they share the same anatomical features.
He also denounced what he called the failure of priests and bishops to instruct Catholics in core church teachings on human sexuality, saying many Catholics seem unaware that living together outside of marriage was "gravely sinful, not to mention damaging to the stability of society." Hmm. A teaching church needs to be, first and foremost, a listening church. Maybe it's time for the bishops to listen to the wisdom embodied in the insights and experiences of sexually active Catholics – gay and straight, married and single. Perhaps such listening will facilitate a reappraisal of what is "gravely sinful." Also, where is the evidence that people "living together outside of marriage" is "damaging to the stability of society"? It's a rather sweeping statement and one that accordingly requires both clarification and support.
The entire Christian community, he said, must recover an appreciation of the virtue of chastity. Of course, by "chastity" the clerical caste of the Roman Catholic Church means either celibacy or sexual intercourse between a married heterosexual couple that's always open to biological procreation. I think chastity as "purity of heart," or of our deepest intentions, is a better, fuller and much more helpful understanding. For one thing it opens up the possibility of thinking and talking about moral sexual activity between same-sex couples.
. . . Benedict said a weakened appreciation for traditional marriage and the widespread rejection of responsible sexuality had led to "grave social problems bearing an immense human and economic cost." He didn't elaborate on what the cost was. No, though I'm sure there is a cost for irresponsible sexuality – for both individuals and the wider community. The thing is, however, many same-sex couples are living loving and responsible sexual lives. And such lives are not damaging heterosexual marriages or wider society. Furthermore, in seeking civil marriage rights, gay couples are seeking societal recognition that they are indeed doing the exact opposite of rejecting "responsible sexuality." They're embracing responsible sexuality. You would think the pope would welcome that.
And then there's that old "traditional marriage" chestnut! Members of the Catholic clerical caste actually seem to believe that their understanding of marriage – one man and one woman for life – was what God ordained at the dawn of time. Never mind humanity's long history of polygamy, arranged marriages, treating women as chattel, etc. In the patriarchal world of the Bible, even illustrious figures such as David and Solomon had more than one wife. The truth is, our understanding of right-relationships, and thus of marriage, has and continues to evolve. And we're now at a point were many are recognizing and welcoming the fact that same-sex couples are quite capable of embodying marital love – that beautiful expression of love that is exclusive for the couple involved, enriching for their lives, benefits both the couple's and the wider community's flourishing, and is thus generative. This last reality should not be narrowly defined as biological procreation. For as poet and theologian David Weiss reminds us:
Sexuality is indeed intended to be procreative, to give life; but our own prejudice – perhaps our desire to stem the flow of God’s creative energy into the world – has led us to understand this in a narrow, biological fashion. But truly, to find ourselves partnered in longing love with another person is to find that we have company in the work of caring for creation. Whether you are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or straight – whether you are celibate or sexually active, single or in a relationship – one truth that we hear in the biblical creation account is that human beings were created to tend the Garden, to guide creation’s bounty and to tend its scarcity in ways that promote the flourishing of all. That’s why we’re here. The joy that we know sexually in our bodies is there, at least in part, to lure us into the holy act of caring for all that is embodied, for all the ecological diversity that reflects God’s rampant desire for incarnation.
We don’t need a partner to do this. But if in our partnerships we fail to look outward and tend to the corner of creation around us – whether that is children or other humans, animals or ecosystems, or simply our household resources – if our love for another person does not spill out into these areas, we have missed something of the presence of God. God is always engaged in the care of life, especially among the vulnerable. And no one need shrink from the expectation that Christian sexual love should be procreative. Lived well, it always is.
Ah, what a refreshing take on the richly diverse beauty of human sexuality! How I long for the bishops of my church to be open to such beauty and to be able to articulate such insights!
Meanwhile in Detroit . . .
How I also long for the bishops to focus on actual threats to people's lives and to the common good. Those who gathered in Detroit on March 9 for the aforementioned White House-sponsored conference on LGBT youth homelessness certainly seem to be aware of some of these real threats and accordingly have their priorities right.
Did you know that about seven percent of American youth identify as LGBT and that of those youth who are homeless, more than 40 percent are LGBT?
"The phenomenon where well over 100,000 young people are cast out of their homes and denied economic support because they are gay is the most terrible example of homophobia in our time," says Ali Forney Center executive director Carl Siciliano (pictured at right in 2005 with the late Bea Arthur). "It is really problematic, and I don’t think there will be an adequate government response until it becomes a priority within the LGBT movement."
According to Siciliano, "the fundamental issue here is equality . . . not marriage or serving in military, but not having equal access to your parent’s home, love, and support. It is harder to deal with because it’s not a matter of changing the law. There needs to be a massive public education aimed at helping parents cope with and accept their gay kids, and a commitment to providing beds so these kids aren’t dying in the streets. That’s got to be what the gay community is calling for."
I appreciate how Siciliano's words challenge the priorities of all of us.
Clearly both the LGBT community and groups like the clerical caste of the Roman Catholic Church need to start acknowledging and taking action on the very real problem of LGBT youth homelessness. It's disheartening that, as evidenced by their misguided priorities, those in positions of authority within the Catholic Church are further from this place of acknowledgement than are most members of the LGBT community. It shouldn't be like this. The bishops should be at the forefront of efforts to address and help homeless LGBT youth. And yet instead they fabricate and obsess on phantom dangers to civilization of gay marriage! It's not only disheartening, it's ludicrous and thus embarrassing! Accordingly, I think for the rest of Lent, and especially when I'm participating in Catholics for Marriage Equality MN's weekly Lenten prayer vigil outside the chancery, I'm going to make praying for the bishops' journey to such a place of recognition and action a priority. I welcome you to join me in this prayer.
See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Marriage: "Part of What is Best in Human Nature"
Relationship: The Crucial Factor in Sexual Morality
The Non-Negotiables of Human Sexuality
The Many Manifestations of God's Loving Embrace
A Head and Heart Response to the Catholic Hierarchy's Opposition to Marriage Equality
Getting It Right