Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Beyond the Hierarchy: The Blossoming of Liberating Catholic Insights on Sexuality (Part 1)


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 justify 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
pp. 154-155

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.


Blue Eyed Ennis said...

Thanks Michael,
This is lucid and coherent and the links are ones I will have a look at too. Surely fidelity and integrity is what love is about and that has no boundaries or gender specifics ?

kevin57 said...

You've stated this theology many times, Michael, and I thank you for it. I found it particularly "consoling" this morning, after reading comments to an ncronline interview with newly named Archbishop Chaput to Philadelphia. In the interview, Chaput says that gays need to know that the Church "welcomes" them, but that gay marriage is "THE issue" of our times. Many of his defenders actually believe this, in the midst of worldwide economic meltdown that portends to strip the poor of the little they have, amidst ever-expanding wars...and from a guy who in Denver supported a parish that expelled a child of lesbian parents! Incredible

bobfett11 said...

Another excellent commentary. And yes that is incredible, Kevin. You are so right.

bobfett11 said...

The article by Tad Pacholczyk was interesting. It is something that he mentions alcoholism. Why do so many of those that dislike gay people have a tendency to compare them to alcoholics? Father Pacholczyk refers to chastity as the successful integration of sexuality within the person. So what exactly does this mean? He refers to chastity in continence. So it seems that he would consider gay men to have a successful integration of their sexuality if they never had an orgasm? Would they then be considered "continent"? I wonder what percentage of healthy males are actually totally continent in a sexual sense. According to Father Pacholczyk this is a path to inner peace. Mark

brian gerard said...

Excellent commentary, Michael.

TSVDP said...

I find it interesting that the "Old Catholic Church" which might be a bit like your Sedeva (I'm trying to say something like Sedevacanist meaning something like the Seat of the Pope is empty) however it is said churches like Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) says per wikipedia:

"The Old Catholic Churches in Germany, Switzerland, Austria and the Netherlands view homosexuality as moral, permit gay and lesbian priests, and bless gay couples.[citation needed] These should not be confused with the Roman Catholic Church, nor should one confuse the positions of the Old Roman Catholics (traditional Old Catholics) with those of traditionalist Roman Catholic groups who hold the identical position of the Roman Catholic Church."


There might be an Old Catholic Church in Minneapolis but I'm not positive on it. I don't find too much on it on the web and obviously, the Old Catholic Church seems to originate from the Netherlands, etc.


This Church has been around for a long long time but I don't know where one can find much information on it.

I love the Tridentine Latin Rite Mass.

Terence Weldon said...

Thank you for choosing to concentrate on the positive features in Catholic tradition, and not just responding to the garbage spewed by the idiots who think they control the Catholic church. We are all church, and we must never forget it.

Constantly responding to the oligarchs and rule-book Catholics is tempting, but ultimately a losing game. Attempting to grapple with nonsense simply confirms the idea that it matters - which, in the grand scheme of things, it does not.

We know, from empirical research and from our own lived experience, that most Catholics simply do not accept the CDF party line on sexuality, in just about any dimension. Catholics were an important force in the ultimately successful fight for marriage equality in NY, and will be also in future battles.

We need to give more prominence to the voices of sanity within the Catholic Church. I look forward to future posts of this kind.