The topic of homosexuals, gay marriage, and Catholicism weighs heavily on people’s minds. I understand how confusing and hurtful Church teaching seems on this issue, and a good friend has been gently nudging me to address this for a while now. His most recent comment to me is as follows:
One thing, as you might imagine, that I wonder about with the Catholic position on procreation is where, exactly, it leaves same-sex couples. Obviously the Catholic Church’s position on homosexuality is no secret, so I get in terms of systematic theology. But in life, in practice, and with a Pope who has opposed same-sex marriage and adoption but has also said some pretty impressive (and I think holy, Jesus kinds of things) about embracing people regardless of sexuality…how does this all fit?
It’s been a journey, but my understanding of my faith has led me to support same-sex marriage, and a I think these kinds of conversations have to keep happening. Even in the progressive UCC, lots of churches are slow to embrace official “Open and Affirming” status for a variety of reasons, some of which are well-considered and pastoral…even while being, in practice, exactly that.
My friend deserves a good answer. Everyone who is confused or hurt by the Church does. This week, I’m going to do my best to give you one. This week I’m not going to talk about Pope Francis. Instead, I am going to try my best to talk like him. Here we go…
First, it’s not possible to separate the theology from the praxis. If you don’t practice what you preach, it’s hypocrisy. If you don’t have a rudder, you can’t steer your ship. I think everyone agrees that a consistent ethic is ideal, and that that ethic should be one of goodness. For Catholics, the most fundamental ethic is the source of our existence. God created all people in His image and likeness; this marks us as having a priceless value that commands an almost divine dignity.
I’ve often heard that the Church’s position on gay marriage denies the value and dignity of homosexuals. In all fairness, it certainly seems that way. Homosexuals are losing out on civil benefits that their straight counterparts take for granted, and on top of that they are made to feel like their love is not as good as a straight couple. From this perspective, both the moral and economic dignity of homosexuals is impugned.
That’s a heavy charge, linking personal dignity with the ability to get married. And that’s what moves us to what this debate is really about: defining the purpose of marriage. We’re asking what marriage was created for, the reason for its existence. We’re looking at settling an issue of theology, of abstract ideology, to suit our desired practices.
Marriage, civilly speaking, has serious economic considerations. From the government’s perspective, the more people get married, the better. When people argue that a ban on gay marriage hurts the economic dignity of homosexual couples, they make a valid point because marriage has been made an economic tool. This is the purpose of marriage in the civil sense. The Church doesn’t take economic dignity into consideration, however. A person’s right to civil benefits isn’t necessitated by their state in life; their very existence necessitates the right to civil benefits. When talking about marriage, economics is a secondary function for the Church.
The Church and society don’t agree that economics offers a legitimate reason why marriage exists. Both agree that marriage entails a moral component, though. It is on moral grounds, then, that the Church’s position should be understood.
Let’s go back to being made in God’s image. This simply means that we were created, as individuals, to manifest certain qualities as we moved through life on Earth. These qualities remain constant because God is constant. Circumstances may change, but the qualities can’t. I do mean can’t; insinuating that God can be something other than Himself amounts to negating His existence. The point to this is that circumstances do not substantially affect our personal dignity. Slavery doesn’t lessen a person’s created value. Being a mass murderer doesn’t lessen it, either. These only change a person’s outer appearance.
I think we can all agree that a person’s outer appearance, as described above, has some effect on our created value. If we are created to be the likeness of God, but use our life to look like everything but God, then that’s a problem. That would be like Picasso putting his personal touches on the Mona Lisa. The created value of Mona Lisa is still there, but it’s overshadowed by whatever you want to call Picasso’s work.
Marriage, in the eyes of the Church, is a praxis that guides two people’s outer appearance to reveal God’s likeness. Marriage is not an end to itself. It’s only a means to an end. All things should lead to God, and all people should reveal Him. Homosexual marriage leads neither to God nor helps homosexuals reveal their created likeness of Him. Not in theory, and not in practice.
Heterosexual marriage accomplishes this in theory. This is the argument that most people hear given by theologians, bishops, cardinals, and conservative religious pundits. But the reality is that in practice, heterosexual marriages are not guaranteed to do what they were made to do. It is a disparity between theory and practice that is rightly called out. In fact, I think it should be called out more. Broken heterosexual marriages have grossly obscured marriage’s fundamental dignity and set the stage for this entire debate. But the theory-pushers are correct on one thing: inconsistent praxis does not invalidate theory.