What is particularly interesting about Professor Alain Thomasett’s recent paper on narrative theology, in that he shows how existing teaching could accommodate support for same – sex couples, without any change in core sexual doctrines. It is also important that he made his argument to an important gathering of German, French and Swiss bishops, as part of a study day to prepare for the forthcoming Rome synod on marriage and family.
Calling for a change in sexual doctrine, or for respect for same – sex couples, are no longer particularly new in the Catholic Church, at least not in Europe. It’s been claimed that probably a majority of moral theologians now agree that fundamental change in needed, and in recent years, many of them have gone on the record with formal calls for just such a change. Also, there are now many senior bishops and cardinals who have said publicly that the Church should be able to recognize the value of civil unions.
The problem is that the synod has not been called to consider any change in teaching, which would be fiercely resisted by a solid block of more conservative bishops. The key to seeing the significance of Thomasett’s argument, is that he is not calling for any change in teaching, but simply the application of all the teaching in appropriate context, and not a reflex reaction to abstract sexual acts.
He notes, for example, that while homicide is clearly regarded as unacceptable in formal Catholic doctrine, the context makes all the difference: killing in self – defence is not the same as premeditated murder. He also draws attention to the overriding importance of personal conscience, and of attention to the sensus fidelium (or “sense of the faithful”). And so, while doctrine continues to assert the teaching in Humanae Vitae that artificial contraception is not acceptable, in practice, pastoral tolerance for contraception by particular couples is widely accepted. In the same way, an extension in pastoral practice to recognition and acceptance of particular same – sex couples, including civil unions or possibly even church blessings, is not all that far – fetched.
There is certainly no prospect of any change in Church teaching at the October synod. However, the bishops of Germany, France and Switzerland in attendance will be well – briefed on how the interpretation and application of existing teaching could well be accommodated. We can expect that these ideas will also be well received by many of their colleagues, especially those from elsewhere in Europe – and also by Pope Francis himself, who will ultimately sign the final assessment of the synod’s conclusions.
After the synod, we should expect that some bishops at least, again especially in some European countries, will return to their dioceses with an enhanced understanding of how acceptance of same – sex couples in pastoral practice, is not after all, necessarily in conflict with Church teaching.
From the start of his papacy, Pope Francis has frequently noted that Catholic teaching not only can change, but must constantly evolve. This idea of the need for evolution in teaching has been widely taken up also by others, and was a common thread running through all the papers presented to the Rome study day. Francis has also expressed a desire for many decisions in Church governance to be taken lower down the hierarchical chain, for example by national bishops, without referring everything to the Curia. Such decisions at national level would certainly include the application of pastoral practice.
Could this include blessing same – sex unions? Possibly, yes. When Germany’s association of lay Catholics recently called several changes in the Church, including the blessing of these unions, the response of Cardinal Marx was that these could not be accepted “unreservedly”. The implication is that they could be acceptable, with some reservations. He did not specify quite what these reservations would be.
Already, there are individual priests in many countries who are willing, under the radar, to conduct blessing ceremonies for particular same – sex couples, especially where these and the quality of their relationships are personally known to them. It is likely that after the synod, an improved tone in pastoral practice would encourage more to do so – and encourage some bishops to turn a blind eye to the practice. As the number of same – sex couples in legally recognized unions continues to increase, and as the Protestant churches increasing accept both gay clergy and gay marriage, in church, we should expect that in practice, Catholic blessings of same – sex couples will likewise increase – both in number, and in visibility, just as the use of contraception, and cohabitation before marriage, are now widely accepted in practice.
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