Tuesday, October 07, 2014

On the Feast of Sts. Sergius and Bacchus, Thoughts on Marriage Equality in the U.S. and the Vatican's Synod on the Family

"Marriage of Saint Sergius and Saint Bacchus" (2013)
by Tony de Carlo.

One of the many pearls of wisdom that has stayed with me from my 2004 interview of Catholic theologian and author Mary Bednarowski is the following response by Mary to my question about authority within the Catholic tradition.

I understand “authority” as residing in both the individual and the community. For quite some time I’ve thought about “authority” as that in which I can place my trust. For me that means that as an individual who is a member of a faith community, I have to exercise my own conscience as an informed adult within the framework of the moral guidance offered by my community. If my conscience is not “clear” – that is, if I don’t know where I stand on a moral issue – I must seek clarity. Sometimes it comes from within the Church. Sometimes it comes from the culture in combination with the Church. Sometimes the culture in some aspect or another is, for the moment, ahead of the Church. As an individual and as a member of a community, I have to figure out how to hold it all together. It is my obligation to come to know “in what I can place my trust.” This whole ongoing process is informed by human experiences – mine and others, individual and communal. However we understand the workings of God in our midst and whatever our doctrine of the Church, there is no institutional Church that exists apart from the human community and its experiences and struggles.

I've been reflecting on Mary's words in light of two events that I believe clearly illustrate her observation that sometimes the culture is ahead of the church. The first of these is the Vatican's Synod on the Family, which began this past weekend and which I'll discuss later in this post. The second is the news that the U.S. Supreme Court has declined to hear appeals from five states that were challenging lower-court rulings legalizing same-sex civil marriage. At first glance, this decision may not seem particularly important, but it's actually quite significant. By declining to hear these appeals the court has given a final legal stamp of approval to marriage equality in five states: Indiana, Utah, Oklahoma, Virginia and Wisconsin. It has also set the stage for legalization in six other states that also fall under the lower courts' jurisdiction: Colorado, Wyoming, West Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina. As a result of the Supreme Court's decision, the Washington Post declared that the legal argument over same-sex marriage is "all but over."

Beyond the hierarchy

In light of these two events serving as an example of "the culture being ahead of the church," or more accurately, the hierarchy of the church, here's a relevant quote from Simon Rosser, another wise and inspiring person I interviewed in 2004.

The Church is in a tough place right now. On the one hand, the Church teaches that science and theology can never be truly in conflict since Catholicism teaches they are reflections of the same God. On the other hand, Catholic sexual theology is about 150 years behind science in some fundamental assumptions about sex and sexuality.

The theology of human sexuality that the Church is teaching is seriously disturbed, so science/medicine and theology appear at times diametrically opposed. Part of the problem is that as the scientific world advanced, the Church first didn’t keep pace with change, and then became a refuge for those frightened of change, including the psychosexually underdeveloped. I don’t think it’s fair to expect the Church to be ahead of science, but when it lags so far behind, it loses credibility and starts becoming extremist.

The headline today of a National Catholic Reporter article initially gave me hope that the bishops gathered in Rome may actually be thinking about moving away from their "disturbed" and "extremist" sexual theology.

"Among First Synod Discussions: Changing Harsh Language, Trying 'Graduality'," read the headline of Joshua J. McElwee's article. Yet I soon discovered that this "graduality" doesn't refer to the gradual movement on the part of the bishops to a place where church teachings on sexuality are reflective of the findings of both science and human experience. Rather, according to Cardinal Vincent Nichols, who spoke to reporters at today's daily briefing, the theological notion of "graduality," which apparently is indeed a recurring theme of the synod, refers to Catholics "growing toward adherence or understanding of church teaching throughout their lives."

So it seems it's always the people who must change, who must conform their lives to church teaching, and never the other way around. Although this is disappointing to hear, it's not particularly surprising. After all, the clerical leadership is very much entrenched in its erroneous and dysfunctional sexual theology. I really don't expect it to evolve beyond it anytime soon, a failure that is both pathetic and sad.

Still, things are moving in the right direction beyond the hierarchy, as recent events in the U.S. concerning marriage equality attest, and as can be discerned in the experiences and insights of many Catholics attuned to the transforming love of God in the lives, relationships, and families of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. A number of these Catholics gave presentations at "The Ways of Love," a conference focused on the pastoral care of homosexual and trans people, and which took place in Rome in the days leading up to the synod. As well as reporting on this conference, the folks at New Ways Ministry are doing a stellar job in covering the synod itself from a gay Catholic perspective.

It's also crucial to remember that just because the bishops aren't evolving, gradually or otherwise, in their thinking about sexuality, it doesn't mean that the church, as people of God, is not. I've long maintained that the problem isn't that Catholics don't have an informed and healthy theology on sexuality. We do! It's been and continues to be developed and articulated by many people, including John McNeill, Fran Ferder and John Heagle, Jeannine Gramick, Mary Hunt, Daniel Maguire, Joan Timmerman, Daniel Helminiak, Cletus Wessels, Margaret Farley, James Alison, Todd Salzman and Michael Lawler, Tina Beattie, Francis DeBernardo, Bishop Geoffrey Robinson, and many others. Perhaps most fundamentally, this alternative theology is being embodied, lived out, by Catholics.

The crucial question is, when will the bishops, the gatekeepers of orthodoxy, acknowledge this and allow the experiences and insights of Catholics to shape official Catholic teaching on sexuality? The ongoing failure on the part of the bishops to engage in this process is a major problem for the credibility and life of the church.

Sergius and Bacchus

I think it's something special that yesterday's major step forward for marriage equality occurred so close to today's feast of Sts. Sergius and Bacchus, whom some consider the patron saints of gay marriage. Of course, it's also interesting, and somewhat ironic, that the feast day of these saints coincides with the Vatican's Synod on the Family. Others, too, have noted and remarked on this, including Terence Weldon.

As the bishops in Rome continue to deliberate on marriage and the family, while largely ignoring queer families, it’s appropriate to recall that the synod coincides with the memorial of two saints, Sergius and Bacchus, who remind us that the Christian Church has not always so studiously avoided any recognition of same–sex relationships, but has in fact blessed and even celebrated them.

And then there's theologian Daniel Maguire's perspective and advice to the bishops, found in his 2008 book Whose Church?, and still very relevant for today.

The Catholic hierarchs, lagging again behind the wisdom of the Church [as understood as the people of God], are very upset by same-sex unions. “Disordered,” they call them. Help, however, is available to these bishops, right in their tradition. Same-sex unions are found in the first thousand years of Christianity and were even liturgically celebrated. Rather than fulminating against same-sex unions, the bishops should kneel and say a prayer to Saints Sergius and Bacchus, a same-sex couple whose marriage is preserved in a seventh-century icon showing Jesus as the pronubus (official witness, “bestman”) at their wedding.

Related Off-site Links:
Vatican Begins Landmark Synod to Discuss Family Life – James Reynolds (BBC News, October 5, 2014).
Pope Seeks "Open" Debate on Family Issues as Progressives Seek Change and Conservatives the Maintaining of the Status Quo – Nicole Winfield (Associated Press via The Star Tribune, October 5, 2014).
You've Got Male: A Synod on the Family Slideshow – Mary E. Hunt (Religion Dispatches, October 6, 2014).
One Step Closer to Marriage Equality – The Editorial Board (The New York Times, October 6, 2014).
The Supreme Court Just Quietly Made Marriage Equality the Law of the Land in Many States – Ian Millhiser (ThinkProgress.org, October 7, 2014).
60 Percent Of Americans Soon Will Live In States With Marriage Equality – Sam Stein and Amanda Terkel (The Huffington Post, October 7, 2014).
Here's What Could Happen Next in the States That Still Ban Gay Marriage – Brad Heath (USA Today via The Huffington Post, October 7, 2014).
These States Still Won't Issue Same-Sex Marriage Licenses – Roxana Hegeman (Associated Press via The Huffington Post, October 7, 2014).
Same-Gender Couples Mentioned in Synod Talk, But Not In a Very Positive Way – Francis DeBernardo (Bondings 2.0, October 7, 2014).
No Change in Doctrine from Synod, Say Bishops – Thomas Reese (National Catholic Reporter, October 7, 2014).
Catholic Church Reform's Alternate Gathering on the Family Highlights Lay Vocation – Joan Chittister (National Catholic Reporter, October 2, 2014).
Clericalism and Laity-ism: Twin Evils in Our Church – Brian Willette (The Progressive Catholic Voice, July 6, 2011).
Saints Sergius and Bacchus: Male Couple Martyred in Ancient Rome – Kittredge Cherry (Jesus in Love Blog, October 7, 2014).

UPDATES: Sex, Marriage and the Catholic Church – Tina Beattie (The Guardian, October 8, 2014).
The Supreme Court, Same-Sex Marriage and the Synod – Maureen Fiedler (National Catholic Reporter, October 9, 2014).
Bishops Rethinking Development of Theology and Annulment Process at Synod – Joshua J. McElwee (National Catholic Reporter, October 9, 2014).
Two More Cardinals Back Communion for Divorced and Remarried – John L. Allen Jr. (Crux, October 9, 2014).
Gay Rights Groups Hail New Catholic Tone – Nicole Winfield (Associated Press via Yahoo! News, October 10, 2014).
Cardinal Raymond Burke Takes Break from Vatican Synod to Say Ugly Things About Gay Relationships – Antonia Blumberg (The Huffington Post, October 10, 2014).
Vatican Debate on Gays Provokes Strong Reaction from All Corners – Josephine McKenna (Religion News Service, October 10, 2014).

For more of Sergius and Bacchus at The Wild Reed, see:
Sergius and Bacchus: Martyrs, Saints, Lovers
Honoring (and Learning from) the Passion of Saints Sergius and Bacchus
Sergius and Bacchus: Martyred Lovers
Photo of the Day – October 7, 2013

For more insights from Daniel Maguire, see the previous The Wild Reed posts:
Quote of the Day – April 10, 2012
Daniel Maguire: "Heterosexism, Not Homosexuality, is the Problem"
Daniel Maguire on the Progressive Core of Catholicism
Daniel Maguire on Catholicism's "Long History of Demeaning Sexuality"
Daniel Maguire on Sex as Liturgy
Daniel Maguire in Minneapolis

Image 1: "Marriage of Saint Sergius and Saint Bacchus" (2013) by Tony de Carlo.
Image 2: A 7th century icon of Saints Sergius and Bacchusfrom St. Catherine's Monastery on Mt. Sinai, Israel, now in an art museum in Kiev, Ukraine. (Wikimedia Commons)


wild hair said...

You summarize the situation in the Catholic Church regarding sexuality today in an excellent way.

I recall during the civil rights era in the US that the US bishops were often referred to as the "tail light" not the "head light."

I am not encouraged by the Synod even with all the excitement around listening because there are no ears in that hall so far willing to speak about gay and lesbian families, families with a gay son or daughter, or even blended families. Yeap, the bishops are still 150 years behind.

This is a wonderful meditation of the Feast of two great gay saints, Sergius and Bacchus.

Michael J. Bayly said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Wild Hair!

Kittredge Cherry said...

Thanks for the link back to the Jesus in Love Blog. I'm glad you share my enthusiasm for Tony de Carlo's new painting of the marriage of Sergius and Bacchus.