After the Darkness, a Great Light (Isaiah 9:1-7)

At this time of year, Christians can do well to look back, Janus like, at the past year, and simultaneously to look ahead. We look back on the calendar year, and the great advances in secular marriage equality symbolized by the USA Supreme Court judgement and the Irish popular referendum success, and to the Catholic Bishops’ Synod Assembly on marriage and family. That synod did not do anything concrete to improve the position of lesbian and gay Catholics directly, but in what was not said, and in the tone of the discussions, it is clear that as we look ahead at the start of the calendar year, improvements in pastoral practice are clearly on the way, at least in some parts of the world. Those improvements in turn will spread, and in time lead to a continuing evolution in doctrine itself.

Against this background, the words from Isaiah for the first reading of the Christmas midnight Mass have profound relevance and resonance for us.

The people that walked in darkness
has seen a great light;
on those who live in a land of deep shadow
a light has shone.
You have made their gladness greater,
you have made their joy increase;
they rejoice in your presence
as men rejoice at harvest time,
as men are happy when they are dividing the spoils.
For the yoke that was weighing on him,
the barb across his shoulders,
the rod of his oppressor,
these you break as on the day of Midian.
For all the footgear of battle,
every cloak rolled in blood,
is burnt,
and consumed by fire.
For there is a child born for us,
a son given to us
and dominion is laid on his shoulders;
and this is the name they give him:
Wonder-Counsellor, Mighty-God,
Eternal-Father, Prince-of-Peace.
Wide is his dominion
in a peace that has no end,
for the throne of David
and for his royal power,
which he establishes and makes secure
in justice and integrity.
From this time onwards and for ever,
the jealous love of the Lord of Hosts will do this.

Aquinas: Homosexuality “Naturally Against Nature”

At the heart of the disordered Catholic teaching on homosexuality, is the claim that the inclination is disordered, because it is “against nature”, and idea that has its roots in Saint Thomas Aquinas’ teaching on natural law.  This understanding of the orientation is contrary to modern findings from science, and also in conflict with much of the current trends in theological and exegetical research.

In Amours : L’Eglise, les divorcés remariés, les couples homosexuels” , the Dominican theologian Adriano Oliva shows that the traditional understanding of Thomas’ thinking may be part of that distorted tradition against which Joseph Ratzinger once warned we should be for ever on our guard.

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In the very first paragraph of the book’s section on homosexuality, Oliva sets out the core of his case:

Christian communities and the faithful manifest today diverse understandings of homosexuality, which can move away – sometimes quite radically – from the current teaching of the Magisterium. St Thomas did not develop a theory of homosexuality and, like all his contemporaries, when he discusses the various forms of lust, it includes the sin of sodomy. However, we find in his work, in a reflection not primarily of a moral order but of metaphysics, a brilliant intuition, of naturally “against nature”, that can explain the origin of homosexuality.

From the general principles of his doctrine, we will develop this intuition of Thomas to its logical conclusion, to develop new perspectives of understanding of homosexuality and integration of people and homosexual couples within the Christian community. We want to offer new answers to the questions posed today by the pastoral care of homosexual persons.  The present study, which may appear anachronistic in style, is intended to show that a welcome change from the Magisterium concerning homosexuality and the exercise of sexuality by homosexual couples not only corresponds to current anthropological, theological and exegetical research, but also to the development of an especially Thomistic theological tradition.

 By “naturally against nature”, is meant that while for humanity in general, it is against nature to have sexual relations with the same sex, Saint Thomas recognizes that for some individuals, an inclination (which we would call an orientation) to the same sex is entirely natural.  Oliva is not the first to spot what he calls this “brilliant intuition” in Thomistic teaching: Boswell pointed it out years ago, in Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality (pp 326 and 327, in my edition). However, he goes much further than Boswell, in reconciling this natural same-sex orientation with Aquinas’ unequivocal rejection of “sodomy”, and thinks through the implications.

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Adriano Oliva OP

Oliva shows how Aquinas distinguishes between impulses which are purely of the body, and those of the soul. The sins of sodomy (which in his thinking include much more than just same-sex intercourse), are rejected because they are purely physical, and spring from mere lust. However for people with a natural same-sex orientation, same-sex relationships are come from the soul, not from the body. As such, they are inherently good. The really important distinction in sexual ethics then, is not that between same-sex and opposite-sex activities, but between those of lust, simple physical self-gratification, and those of mutual self-giving in love.

From these observations of Aquinas, Oliva goes on to spell out the theological implications for the modern world, with our vastly expanded understanding of the nature of human sexuality, and taking account of theological developments  since the Middle Ages in which Aquinas was working. His conclusion is that for homosexual people, the Church should approve of loving same-sex  relationships (including their sexual expression), and while not equating them with heterosexual marriage, these relationships are sacramental, and should be offered Church blessings.

“Sacramental” Same-Sex Unions?

In recent years, it’s been notable how Christian responses to committed same-sex relationships have evolved, from universal hostility half a century ago, to a diversity of responses that range from  full-blooded acceptance of same-sex marriage, in church, and openly gay church leaders, to a more cautious “hate the sin, love the sinner”.

http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/12/18/most-u-s-christian-groups-grow-more-accepting-of-homosexuality/

Even in the Catholic church, there have been signs of some acceptance that committed same-sex unions may be sacramental, and deserving of formal blessings by the church, just as they were once done many centuries ago. This has been seriously proposed by many individual priests and theologians, and has even been formally discussed by the German bishops. (It’s entirely possible that with Pope Francis’ new emphasis on a more decentralized church, that such blessings in Germany will now continue, with at least tacit approval from the bishops, as long as they are “private”).

A recent book by Adriano Oliva OP, a distinguished theologian and specialist on Aquinas, a specialist in the work of Saint Thomas Aquinas, has provided sound theological support for the principle. In  Amours : L’Eglise, les divorcés remariés, les couples homosexuels”  he argues that contrary to the popular presentations, the great Thomas’ celebrated theory of Natural Law in fact supports committed relationships between same-sex couples with a natural orientation to the same sex.

The main thrust of his argument is that based on Aquinas’ teaching, we should accept that:

  • for some people, homosexual orientation is entirely natural
  • that for such people, loving same-sex relationships are good, and in accordance with divine plan
  • that their relationships should include sexual expression
  • that although being non-procreative, their unions can not be equated with marriage, they have intrinsic sacramental value of their own
  • and so, they deserve church blessings.

Among other delights, he quotes Aquinas using both Adam and Eve and the Holy Family to show that marriage is not all about procreation – and then uses Humanae Vitae, of all things, to make the same point himself.

Watch this space. Even with my limited French, with the help of the Google ebook edition and  Google translate, I’m finding a huge amount to treasure. As I work my way through it, I’ll have much more to share from this valuable new insight.

Malta Bishop: Gay Couples Welcome in Church!

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Bishop Mario Grech

In an interview with the Times of Malta, Gozo bishop Mario Grech has some important and helpful observations about the Church’s welcome for same-sex Catholic couples.  These included a statement that “of course” gay couples in civil unions are welcome in Church, and that gay couples accompanying adopted children through baptism, communion and confirmation are “most welcome”. This is of course standard Catholic teaching. As Bishop Grech puts it,

This is already happening and is fully accepted by the Church. The child or baby should not be held accountable for their parents’ deeds, decisions or way of life. Why should the Church deny the opportunity for same-sex parents wishing to give a Christian formation to their adopted children?

(emphasis added)

Continue reading Malta Bishop: Gay Couples Welcome in Church!

What is the “Formation of Conscience?”

Papal theologian: “”Conscience is the act of practical reason”

Gay and lesbian Catholics who disagree with Church teaching on sexuality know that the  best defence against our critics is the primacy of conscience, which is well established in Catholic doctrine. It’s also a theme which had renewed attention during the recent Synod of Bishops’ assembly on marriage and family, where the “inviolability of conscience” and the closely related “interior forum” received much attention.

Against this, orthotoxic rule book Catholics often retort that conscience is not simply giving way to personal feelings, but must be properly “formed”, implying that a well-formed conscience must be in accordance with the Catechism. The truth, however, is that accordance with conscience is neither a simple matter of licence, nor one of blind adherence to external rules.

So what is it? How are we to find a sound balance between these two extremes? Pope Francis’ personal theologian, Father Wojciech Giertych, put some important guidelines in a recent interview with Lifesite News. Continue reading What is the “Formation of Conscience?”