“The Joy of Love”: Also for Lesbian and Gay Catholics?

At first reading, many lesbian and gay Catholics could be disappointed with Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation, “Amoris Laetitia” (The Joy of Love). There’s little enough about us to start with, and what there is, seems to do no more than restate the familiar but badly neglected platitudes about “respect”, and the need to avoid violence and persecution. Right up front in its opening pages, the document restates the mantra of the family as consisting of one man and one women, and children – and the purpose of marriage as intertwined with procreation. Later, there is yet again, a firm restatement of opposition to gay marriage. Above all, there is absolutely no hint of any change in the hurtful established Catholic doctrines on sexuality.

A handout picture released by the Vatican press office show Pope Francis (C) chairing an extraordinary synod of nearly 200 senior clerics in the Synod Aula at the Vatican on October 6, 2014. Pope Francis issued a strong signal of support for reform of the Catholic Church's approach to marriage, cohabitation and divorce as bishops gathered for a landmark review of teaching on the family. Thorny theological questions such as whether divorced and remarried believers should be able to receive communion will dominate two weeks of closed-door discussions set to pit conservative clerics against reformists. AFP PHOTO / OSSERVATORE ROMANO == RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO / OSSERVATORE ROMANO" - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS ==OSSERVATORE ROMANO/AFP/Getty Images

Closer examination however, reveals some cause for optimism, certainly in the longer term.




What is not said may be more important than what is explicitly stated. Most notably, there is no reference at all to the offensive term “objectively disordered”, or any hint of opposition to same-sex relationships (as long as they do not claim to be “marriage”).  Although there is a forthright objection to same-sex marriage, this is not listed among the many problems and dangers that are said to threaten actual families, or even the institution of marriage itself.

While the opening pages insist on coupling marriage (and therefore, love and sex) with procreation, extensive discussion later in the document places greater emphasis on the unitive value of physical love.  The title of the piece is “The Joy of Love” – and there is an extended, explicit celebration of love in its physical expression – of sex, as something to be enjoyed without shame or embarrassment.

Most important of all, in an important chapter on pastoral guidelines and the importance of the “interior forum”, there is a reminder of the clear distinction between what may be thought of as “objectively” sinful behaviours or conditions, and any moral judgement of a particular situation concerning a specific person. Drawing on a passage from the great theologian Thomas Aquinas, the conclusion we may reach is that even though those who remarry after divorce, or who live openly in same-sex relationships, may appear to be living in conditions of objective sin, their particular circumstances may negate that conclusion.

Thirty years ago, when I first considered returning to the Church after some years as a “lapsed” Catholic, the priest with whom I discussed my situation as an openly gay man in a sexual relationship with another, said that as my relationship was committed, loving and monogamous, he could not believe that God would want me to be denied the joy of sexual love that is available to heterosexual married couples. That priest may have been ahead of his time, but three decades on, with the new emphasis in “Amoris Laetitia” on the interior forum and attention to particular circumstances, on conscience and on the celebration of the unitive value of sex, I am confident that many more priests today will agree with the assessment I was given thirty years ago: gay men and lesbians in committed, loving and monogamous relationships should not be denied the joy of love.

This document has not changed any element of church doctrine – but it has undoubtedly created the conditions for change, especially in real-world pastoral practice.

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10 thoughts on ““The Joy of Love”: Also for Lesbian and Gay Catholics?”

  1. I think the ship has indeed changed course, albeit too subtle for many. But the ship can’t turn too quickly, else it might topple. We have a wise captain on board.

    I see an ongoing journey with Dublin 2018 as an important way point. Don’t you think it as a rather interesting choice of venue for WMOF? There, issues at hand would definitely need to be faced head on.

    Hopefully then, hearts on either side will be prepared to open up and realize that we’re all in the same circle, after all.

    1. Thanks William. On a facebook comment, I saw a striking image (in French). This was to the effect that Francis has not crossed the Rubicon, but has dipped a toe in the water, to feel the temperature. Sounds about right – but I think it goes much deeper than that. I suspect that he has in effect “crossed the Rubicon” – but is expressing himself, as you note, in terms too subtle for this to be too obvious.

      Elsewhere, I’ve come across an important observation that had passed me by. In a lengthy, detailed analysis posted to facebook notes, Stephen Lovatt argues that precisely in his rejection of gay marriage, Pope Francis has “obliquely” recognised the intrinsic value of same-sex unions, as long as they do not claim to be analagous to marriage. I think he’s right – it’s consistent with what a lot of leading bishops have been saying – but I hadn’t picked up the implicit recognition in the AL text.

      Coupled with the insistence on the importance of personal conscience, the observation that what may appear to be “objective sin” judged according to abstract rules may not be so in the particular circumstances of individual people, and a consistent castigation of the historic Catholic obsession with rules and doctrine, this is a real sea-change, at least in his approach to same-sex relationships. That doesn’t extend to gay marriage, but no matter. First step is to accept that gay people, including those in committed, loving sexual relationships, are NOT thereby living in obvious sin. That will be light years from where we were just a few years ago: what that means in terms of formal recognition of those relationships (blessings?), what they should be called, and a response to those who do in fact contract same-sex marriages in civil law, can be resolved later.

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