Jeremiah 31:31-34 I will place my law within them and write it upon their hearts.
Psalm 51:3-4, 12-15 Create a clean heart in me, O God.
Hebrews 5:7-9 Christ Jesus became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him
John 12:20-33 When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself.
I’m sure I am not the only person who was troubled by the statement released by the Vatican last Monday forbidding priests from blessing marriages of same-sex couples. Catholics who are in same-sex unions – among them some of our parishioners, family members and friends – were stung once again by our Church’s unsympathetic rejection of their choice to build a life of faithful love and mutual support in marriage. Many other Catholics were frustrated and embarrassed by the statement, not just for its simplistic reasoning but also for its utter unwillingness to wrestle seriously with this complex and challenging question that touches upon such critical areas of theology as human sexuality, the nature and purpose of sacraments, the goodness of all creation, and how we, as Church, should prayerfully discern how God wants us to act in this matter.
The Vatican’s statement did not come out of the blue. It was a response to a question sent to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith – the Vatican Office charged with safeguarding the Church’s doctrine. We don’t know who submitted the question to the Congregation, although many plausibly suppose it was forwarded by the German Bishops’ Conference, asking for clarification on how far they might go in recognizing and blessing same-sex unions. The German bishops are known to favor greater recognition of such unions.
As disturbing as the Vatican decree is, however, it need not be taken as the final word on this matter. While it’s true that we Catholics look to the magisterium – i.e., the teaching Church – for guidance in our life of discipleship, it’s important to remember that the magisterium is not confined simply to the Vatican. The teaching Church also includes all the bishops of the world, as well as women and men theologians who carefully study Church doctrine, seeking to present it in fresh ways to our modern minds, endeavoring to address issues of contemporary interest – like the proper care for the environment and our evolving understanding of human sexuality – issues that were, perhaps, not as pressing for the Church in earlier generations. Well, parts of the teaching Church have already loudly protested this latest announcement. Numerous bishops and theologians around the world have expressed their dismay, denouncing it as unacceptable, hurtful and clumsy.
We who are not bishops or theologians also have a role to play in the development of Church doctrine. Our belief in the sensus fidelium – i.e., the consensus of all the faithful with regard to some particular teaching – is an important criterion in assessing whether a teaching is trustworthy. Likewise, to be considered authentic, the teaching must be received by the Church-at-large and accepted as an accurate and appropriate expression of our faith.
Well, in fact, there are many ordinary Catholics who do not accept this latest teaching, especially because it contradicts our own lived experience. Whereas the Vatican statement declares categorically that “in God’s plan there is no resemblance … between heterosexual and same-sex marriage,” we who know women and men in same-sex marriages know that their faithful commitment and mutual support is in every way equal to those in heterosexual marriage. We recognize that their nurturing care of their children is as genuine and as sacrificial as any other parent. As pastors we are aware that their efforts to live as faithful disciples – loving, serving and forgiving others – are as sincere as the efforts of the rest of us. As parishioners we are grateful for their fellowship in prayer and their leadership in carrying out our parish mission in the spirit of friendship and colleagueship.
In today’s first reading, the prophet Jeremiah declares:
Behold the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt …. This is a new covenant that I am making with them: I will put my teaching within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. (Jeremiah 31:31-33)
So, my friends, if you want to know how our Church should celebrate, encourage and bless our sisters and brothers who choose love within same-sex unions, begin by looking, not at Vatican decrees, but within your own heart. It’s there that God has put his teaching, inscribing it on our hearts. Then, you might try to read and understand a few of the statements criticizing the decree – criticisms, by the way, that are presented by competent bishops and theologians. And finally an action item: How will our bishops, how will Pope Francis ever know how much this recent statement troubles us? How will they know that their disparaging dismissal of same-sex unions does not conform to our experience? How will they know how much you and I hunger for a respectful and open dialogue with bishops, clergy and lay people from all walks of life about the presence of our LGBT sisters and brothers in the Church, unless we write and tell them? So, for your Lenten penance this week, why not pick up a pen and pour out your thoughts to our archbishop and to the Pope’s representative here in the United States, the Apostolic Nuncio? Perhaps the teaching Church might benefit from the collective wisdom of the rest of us in the learning Church.
May God bless you and give you health!
For Further Reading