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OPINION: Responding to Pope Francis’ Message on Civil Unions

Is This the Message We Need? A Response to Pope Francis’ Message on Civil Unions

The news media is abuzz with the news that Pope Francis has endorsed same sex civil unions. Some outlets call this move a distinct change from the rigid dismissal of same sex couples by the Vatican in the past and a sign that the Catholic hierarchy is becoming more “inclusive.” But is this message what the world needs at this moment?

I agree that the change in tone and Pope Francis’ broadly appealing theological voice is welcome and highly appreciated by many Catholics who have despaired for decades about a more welcoming and embracing Church. But the change in tone is not a signal that a change in doctrine, theology or the practice of the Church is forthcoming.

It is important to remember that Pope Francis’ words today are not an “official” announcement or change of policy. Discerning Catholics and others therefore should take media reports as “hype” that not only feed us with news, but also shape our emotional and intellectual responses and reactions to a news item. The New York Times is particularly gushing with its headline “Pope Francis, in a shift for Church, voices support for Same-Sex civil Unions.

Perhaps the New York Times, like the rest of us, is exhausted with the constant flow of terrible news—political, environmental, and economic. Perhaps we all want to hear that there is hope in a more enlightened and accepting leadership. For when the leader of a billion Catholics all over the world speaks, his words mean something.

Celebrating Pope Francis’ message on Civil Unions would be a mistake in my view. For a while now, the Catholic Church has been engaged in an effort to demarcate the lines of secular and religious in a way that deepens the divide. In 2010, the English translation of changes to the liturgy was introduced to the English-speaking world. It was a change that Pope John Paul II had initiated in 2000. The changes were telling.

To take one example, the official response to the celebrant’s “The Lord be with you,” became “And with your Spirit.” The earlier response had been: “And also with you.” The emphasis on the Spirit of the celebrant was disturbing. Was the celebrant only Spirit? Did he not have an embodied reality? Or, was he in such an “ontologically changed” state, that he was now closer to the Divine Spirit than ordinary people? Clearly, a new anthropological hierarchy was being established, with the male priesthood’s gendered power obscured for a theology of clerical proximity to the Divine.

Moreover, ignoring embodied reality is a first step in dismissing the prophetic and difficult work accomplished by Catholic feminist theologians like Elizabeth Johnson, Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Rosemary Radford Reuther, or M. Shawn Copeland. The arguments made by these incredible women were theological ones and, for that reason, very dangerous for the officials of the institutional church.

Dismissing embodiedness implies that the body does not belong in the realm of the sacred. Hence, bodies cannot make theological arguments, especially bodies that identify as women, who certainly also cannot do theology. By this logic, feminist theologians are not theologians; feminist theologians are secular thinkers. They belong in secular institutions, not in seminaries or departments of theology. Women’s rights, and arguments for inclusivity and equity, ought to be relegated to the secular and dismissed as non-theological arguments.

Today’s lurid headlines continue the move by the official Church to deepen the division between the secular and the religious. Civil Unions are guaranteed by the State, as long as a secular tolerance for gender and sexual minority rights are upheld. A State that is inflected by religious sensibilities however, guarantees nothing. Celebrating civil unions therefore is premature and shortsighted.

For many Catholics, the Pope’s endorsement of civil unions evades the bigger issue of marriage. Many Catholics believe in the sacrament of marriage, drawing on simplistic readings of the account of creation in the Hebrew Scriptures. As feminist theologians have argued for more than fifty years now, the creation stories are about the power of God creating, not about the institution of opposite sex relations.

Feminist theologians have also pointed out that marriage in early Christian Scriptures was considered less desirable than being a disciple. Other feminist theologians have interpreted Jesus’ eschatological vision as deeply challenging to traditional patriarchal marriage and that Paul affirmed the missionary ideal of asceticism over marriage. In the long view of the Christian theological tradition, marriage was “secular,” that is, belonging to the world, and not to religion. Marriage as sacrament gradually developed over time, in response and reaction to movements within Christianity, consolidating clerical and institutional power.

Marriage as a sacrament is also highly problematic for women in particular. Traditional theologies of marriage focus on the text from Ephesians 5:25. In such theologies, women are placed in a subservient, subordinate, and obediential role, in need of a man who “saves” her. In more progressive Catholic theologies, marriage contributes to the unity of Church because it results in the growth and health of the community.

Marriage therefore is not about the recognition of romantic or sexual love or attraction or indeed about the will to love. Its traditional function is to be a symbol of the relationship of God and Christ to the world, best seen in the way the Church relates to God. It also depends on sexual binaries that divide the  world neatly into male and female. The church is thus “feminine” in its relationship to the “masculine” God.

Hence, the Pope calling for an acceptance of civil unions is not theological revision at all. In fact, his words reinscribe a division between the mundane world and the sacred world of the institutional church. In this institutional church, women are in a subservient and obediential role. As Sr. Ilia Delio said a few days ago, in her response to Pope Francis’ latest encyclical Fratelli Tutti, religion has evaporated in a technologically saturated world. Most of us now live in that secular world where the latest technological gadget garners far more attention than the Pope’s encyclical. As with his words on Civil Unions, and in the encyclical, the Pope’s words are hollow; he does not speak to the Church’s deeply ingrained racism, sexism or homophobia. He does not speak of the astounding corruption in the Vatican and of the continuing crisis of clerical sexual abuse. This is not religion we can use.

Here at PSR, we focus our energy on ameliorating these inequities and attempting as far as we are able, to provide a safe and affirming space for people whose bodies have been brutalized by traditional Christianities. But PSR is also a space where we continue to ask difficult questions. Some may say that we are being argumentative. I would say that PSR’s theological mission is to ask a simple question: is this what the world needs? To say that the secular world can offer more belonging than the religious world is to cast us all–straight, queer, trans, same-sex loving–into the despair of living in a world without God because God can only exist in the religious sphere. Spiritual rootedness requires that we assert that God is everywhere, in all bodies, in all manner of love. Such spirituality is religion the world can use.

Civil but Not Sacred: Pope Francis on Same-Sex Unions

Considered from the vantage point of pastoral care, Pope Francis’ recent approval of civil unions for same-sex couples, captured in the film documentary Francesco, can be taken as a positive, albeit small, step in the Catholic Church’s long and decidedly negative relationship with lesbian and gay people.  By reaffirming the stance he took on civil unions in Argentina while archbishop of Buenos Aires a decade ago, Francis is certainly living into his reputation as a religious leader who pays attention to the pastoral needs of Catholics and attempts, at least at some level, to make the church a more inclusive community of faith.

But civil marriage is not sacramental marriage and here’s the hard truth in Francis’ reiteration of his support for same-sex civil unions: in his eyes, the sacredness of the sacrament of marriage remains reserved for heterosexual couples.  While, in Francis’ words, homosexuals may “have a right to be a part of the family” since they are “children of God,” in no way do lesbian and gay couples have equal status with straight couples when it comes to marrying within the Catholic Church.

In short, it remains official church teaching that same-sex relationships cannot be considered “efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us” (the definition of “sacrament” offered by The Catechism of the Catholic Church #1131).  Same-sex marriages that are rooted in the loving commitment between spouses, therefore, can never be deemed equal in value to loving and committed heterosexual relationships, which alone merit church sanction and blessing.

Furthermore, the pope’s comments in this documentary do nothing to change, or even temper, official Catholic doctrine that homosexual sex, even within a loving relationship, is always “intrinsically disordered.”  Again, in the words of the current Catechism (#2358), homosexual acts are “acts of grave depravity” that are “contrary to the natural law [because] they close the sexual act to the gift of life [and] do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity.”  As the final sentence in this section of the catechism concludes, “Under no circumstances can [homosexual acts] be approved.”

One has to wonder how the pope can offer his approval of civil unions for same-sex couples when, presumably, he must realize that most same-sex unions include sexual activity between the partners.  As some have noted, perhaps this is because the pope is playing into the long-standing – and increasingly invoked – division between “the sacred” and “the secular” evidenced in Vatican pronouncements: heterosexual sacramental marriages are equated with the “holy” while homosexual civil unions are something much less and, as such, are to be relegated to the secular, the sinful, that is, the “unholy.”

Still, if these unofficial remarks by the pope on the topic of same-sex civil unions are taken as a voice of support for the civil rights of lesbian and gay people in countries – and especially in predominantly Catholic countries – that is a good thing.  If one considers the plight, for instance, of queer people today in Ireland and Poland, two European countries with deep roots in Roman Catholicism, perhaps Francis’ comments can move the Polish government to follow the lead of Ireland in protecting the human rights of its LGBTQ citizens.

It is sometimes said that the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church is so slow to change its position on matters of doctrine because it is accustomed to think in terms of centuries rather than in mere decades.  That the church has in the past changed its position on doctrinal issues is clear (take, for example, official church teachings on the lending of money at interest, the place of Jewish people within Christian societies, or interreligious marriages), but in this day and age there is simply no excuse for a pope, especially one who touts his commitment to the basic Gospel values of love and inclusion, to take such incremental steps in righting the wrongs of the church with regard to its treatment of LGBTQ persons as well as other marginalized groups within the church, such as women, people of color, and divorced and remarried persons.

Pope Francis: we queer Catholics call upon you and the entire church to recognize and bless the many loving and committed marriages between people of the same gender.  As the first pope to sanction civil unions for same-sex couples, we challenge you to extend your oft-stated support for the marginalized of this world by recognizing our full humanity as children of our Incarnated God.  Know that our marriages are sacramental because they are embodied signs of God’s working in the world.  By recognizing our unions as sacred – and as sacrament – you can give truth to your words that everyone has “a right to be a part of the family” since we are all “children of God.”

Bernard Schlager, PhD (he/they)
Associate Professor of Historical and Cultural Studies
Pacific School of Religion
Executive Director
The Center for LGBTQ and Gender Studies in Religion (CLGS)

22 October 2020

The views and opinions expressed in this presentation are those of the individuals and do not represent official policy, position or views of the Pacific School of Religion.

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