From New Ways Ministry
While we were in Washington State last week doing educational programs on Catholic support for marriage equality in anticipation of that state’s referendum on the issue in November, Sister Jeannine Gramick, co-founder of New Ways Ministry, and I met with several pastors and parish leaders who earlier this year had refused the local archbishop’s request to use their parishes to collect signatures for petitions to put the new marriage law to a ballot test.
Our discussion was lively and encouraging. For one thing, we learned that there were many more parishes that had refused to collect signatures than had made the news accounts back in April. We knew about a handful, but it turns out there were probably close to twenty that abstained from the collection. In fact in one deanery (a geographic division) of the diocese, the pastors of all twelve parishes had met and agreed corporately not to allow signature collection.
The pastors we met said they mostly had two reasons for their refusal: 1) they believed that collecting signatures would cause great divisions in the parishes; 2) many of the parishes have an explicit welcome to LGBT parishioners and their families, and they felt that collecting signatures would be a sign of inhospitality.
Response from parishioners has been universally positive about the decision not to support the signature campaign. A number of the priests said that the announcements of the decision received standing ovations from their congregations. The few parishioners who disagreed expressed their thoughts quietly and respectfully, and the priests felt that the decision helped to open up avenues of dialogue.
During our discussion, we learned about one pastor, in particular, who has been very public and vocal about not supporting measures to defeat marriage equality. Fr. John Whitney, SJ, of St. Joseph Parish, Seattle, has added a section to the parish’s website about the upcoming referendum. In that section, he includes a letter describing his decision as well as his perspective on Referendum 74. He begins:
“Many of you may have read in the media that St. Joseph, among other parishes, has decided not to allow the gathering of signatures for Referendum 74, which aims at repealing the marriage equality bill passed by the State of Washington. This referendum is supported by the Archdiocese of Seattle, who has asked the Knights of Columbus to collect signatures at various parishes. Although many of you have offered support for the decision not to allow signature gathering here, I believe all of you deserve an explanation of the reasoning behind the decision.
“The primary reason for not allowing this petition is the nature of the worshipping assembly. Women and men of all opinions, orientations, backgrounds, and motivations are welcomed at this altar, and are encouraged to pray for wisdom and unity, even as we all work to create social policies that respect our faith and support each other. The Church should not be a place of coercion, but of discernment, as each member of the Church (as well as each citizen), decides whether a proposal such as Referendum 74 makes us more or less like the Kingdom described by Jesus. To have petitioners at the doors seems to me inappropriately coercive and contrary to the mission of the Church, especially in the Sunday assembly.”
Fr. Whitney goes on to describe why he feels the church is not the place to debate the referendum:
“Further, the nature of the piece of legislation makes it inappropriate to be brought into the context of our worship, I believe, since Referendum 74—like the marriage equality act it seeks to overturn—concerns civil marriage, not the covenant of Catholic marriage, which is a matter of faith and exists in the Church through the ministry of every couple. Although the Archbishop has the right and responsibility to speak and educate the community about legislation, I believe that this level of involvement around the issue of civil marriage is ill-considered, and risks placing the Church on the side of injustice and the denial of civil rights. Thus, I cannot in conscience allow such signature gathering at St. Joseph. I am not telling others how to vote, but I think that a Catholic, in good conscience, can oppose this referendum and should not be pressured to support it in the context of Sunday mass.”
In addition to his statement on the parish website, the pastor also posted Archbishop Peter Sartain’s letterrequesting signatures, and an FAQ sheet from the Washington State Catholic Conference on why Catholics should oppose marriage equality. Fr. Whitney explained his approach:
“Finally, I want to be clear that the Archbishop empowered pastors to make the decision about whether or not to allow signature gathering, and that we are not acting in opposition to his leadership. I am committed to offering his words directly to this community, when that is requested, and to encourage all members of the community to read them respectfully and thoughtfully, as part of the formation of conscience for any Catholic. In those rare situations where I may disagree with the Archbishop’s conclusions, I do not intend to use the pulpit or bulletin to debate, since that is not the place. As I have said, I think such debates belong outside the Church.”
He closes with a hope and prayer for unity among Catholics, even those divided by the marriage equality issue:
“It is of primary importance in all this, however, that we know we can be one community, united in heart and mind, only if we believe that every person is loved by God and valued in his or her humanity. We must listen to one another with respect—to the reality of our experiences and the grace of our call, in Christ. Hearing and loving each other is the root to true discernment, for it is in this communion that the Spirit is present and the Church—the true Church, for whom Christ was crucified and to whom he gave his body and blood—made flesh.
“May we hear God in our midst and always live to do God’s will in our world.”
On the website, Fr. Whitney provided a link for people to easily respond to him and/or to the archbishop.
We need more pastors like Father Whitney who speak forthrightly and who encourage respectful dialogue among their parishioners and between parishioners and their pastoral leaders.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry
- Washington State Catholic Pastors’ Refusal Continues to Inspire (newwaysministryblog.wordpress.com)
- Yakima, WA Diocese To Collect Money To End Marriage Equality (dgsmith.org)
- Catholics For Marriage Equality Events In Washington State (dgsmith.org)
- Catholic priest faces excommunication after launching new parish (jsonline.com)
In the Catholic Church, US bishops have been in a froth over health care funding for contraception – even though the overwhelming majority of ordinary Catholics have been practising birth control for decades. In the UK and Australia as well as the US, Catholic bishops are mobilizing against marriage equality – even though most Catholics support it. Just a handful of Catholic bishops are grudgingly acknowledging that there could be value in alternative legal recognition for same – sex partnerships, while most Catholics just do not see these relationships as even a matter of morality at all.
In the Anglican / Episcopal church, where governance is more democratic and leadership is more in touch with their members, things are different. The English church has a formal working group engaged in studying the issues around human sexuality, which has just announced the appointment of expert advisers to assist its work, and the US Episcopal Church is even further ahead. There, says the presiding bishop, “it’s a done deal”
- US Episcopal Presiding Bishop, on Gay Clergy And Birth Control (queeringthechurch.com)
- Vatican establishes district for Episcopals (mysanantonio.com)
Many of you have probably heard the news that (from New Ways Ministry Blog):
“On the second day of New Ways Ministry’s Seventh National Symposium, From Water to Wine: Lesbian/Gay Catholics and Relationships in Baltimore, Bishop Geoffrey Robinson of Australia summoned the Catholic Church to rethink its teaching on sexuality- for heterosexuals and lesbian/gay people. (The full text of his talk can be found on his website.)
The National Catholic Reporter news account of the bishop’s talk cites his call for
‘a new study of everything to do with sexuality’ — a kind of study that he predicted ‘would have a profound influence on church teaching concerning all sexual relationships, both heterosexual and homosexual.’
‘If [church] teaching on homosexual acts is ever to change, the basic teaching governing all sexual acts must change,’ he said. . . .
‘If the starting point [as in current church teaching] is that every single sexual act must be both unitive and procreative, there is no possibility of approval of homosexual acts,’ Robinson said.
He proceeded, however, to question that natural law argument, especially as laid out by recent popes, and to suggest that a more nuanced reading of divine commandments in scripture and of Jesus’ teaching would lead to a different set of moral norms — starting with a change in church teaching that every sexual act or thought that falls outside a loving conjugal act open to procreation is a mortal sin because it is a direct offense against God himself in his divine plan for human sexuality.
‘For centuries the church has taught that every sexual sin is a mortal sin. The teaching may not be proclaimed as loudly today as much as before, but it was proclaimed by many popes, it has never been retracted and it has affected countless people’, Robinson said.
‘The teaching fostered a belief in an incredibly angry God,’ he added, ‘for this God would condemn a person to an eternity in hell for a single unrepented moment of deliberate pleasure arising from sexual desire. I simply do not believe in such a God. Indeed, I positively reject such a God.'”
- Bishop, Governor, and Theologian Highlight Symposium’s Second Day (newwaysministryblog.wordpress.com)
- Bishop urges change in all church teaching on sexual relationships (queeringthechurch.com)
By Terence Weldon
With British bishops on the attack against proposals for gay marriage claiming that they are defending “traditional” marriage, it is important to remember that their representation of marriage history is misleading. When Mexican bishops made similar false claims about the history of marriage, I responded with a post on the history of marriage, as described by a specialist on the subject – a Catholic, Jesuit professor of history at a Catholic university.
Here follows that post, republished:
In Mexico, Cardinal Norberto Rivera has attacked the Supreme Court ruling that upheld same sex marriage in Mexico City, calling it “evil”. It is not surprising that a Catholic bishop should oppose marriage equality, and while I sharply disagree with him, I must respect his right to express an opinion. He also says it is wrong to go against Christian doctrine that recognizes only marriages between a man and a woman. Again, barring a quibble or two about the effect of disagreement in conscience, even as we disagree with this, it is clear that this is orthodox Catholic teaching.
However, in invoking Christ himself, he goes way too far.
He called same-sex unions “inherently immoral,” saying they “distort the nature of marriage raised by Christ to the dignity of a sacrament.”
This is sheer garbage.
I am not aware of any Gospel passage that endorses marriage as been between one man and one woman. Can any reader point to me one? Christ most certainly did not raise marriage to the dignity of a sacrament – not even the institutional church did that, until the twelfth century, after half its history had passed. Exploring this history has proven fascinating.
Compare the first two accounts I found. This is Wikipedia:
…..first-century Christians placed less value on the family but rather saw celibacy and freedom from family ties as a preferable state. Paul had suggested that marriage be used only as a last resort by those Christians that found it too difficult to remain chaste.
Augustine believed that marriage was a sacrament, because it was a symbol used by Paul to express Christ’s love of the Church. Despite this, for the Fathers of the Church with their profound hostility to sex, marriage could not be a true and valuable Christian vocation. Jerome wrote: “It is not disparaging wedlock to prefer virginity. No one can make a comparison between two things if one is good and the other evil” (Letter 22).Tertullian argued that marriage “consists essentially in fornication” (An Exhortation to Chastity“) Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage said that the first commandment given to men was to increase and multiply, but now that the earth was full there was no need to continue this process of multiplication. Augustine was clear that if everybody stopped marrying and having children that would be an admirable thing; it would mean that the Kingdom of God would return all the sooner and the world would come to an end.
This negative view of marriage was reflected in the lack of interest shown by the Church authorities. Although the Church quickly produced liturgies to celebrate Baptismand the Eucharist, no special ceremonial was devised to celebrate Christian marriage, nor was it considered important for couples to have their nuptials blessed by a priest. People could marry by mutual agreement in the presence of witnesses. This system, known as Spousals, persisted after the Reformation. At first the old Roman pagan rite was used by Christians, although modified superficially. The first detailed account of a Christian wedding in the West dates from the 9th century and was identical to the old nuptial service of Ancient Rome.
There are obvious difficulties with relying on Wikipedia as a source – but it does at least provide us with references to substantiate its claims. Now look at the Catholic Encyclopedia:
That Christian marriage (i.e. marriage between baptizedpersons) is really a sacrament of the New Law in the strict sense of the word is for all Catholics an indubitable truth. According to the Council of Trent this dogmahas always been taught by the Church, and is thus defined in canon i, Sess. XXIV: “If any one shall say that matrimony is not truly and properly one of the Seven Sacraments of the Evangelical Law, instituted by Christ our Lord, but was invented in the Church by men, and does not confer grace, let him be anathema.”
This can do no more than quote the council of Trent, which claims that the sacramental view of marriage has “always” been taught – totally disregarding the verdicts of church fathers such as Tertullian, quoted above. On marriage as on so much else, the Vatican likes to refer to a “constant and unchanging tradition”, or to claim that it has “always taught”. These claims are seldom supported by real evidence, and must be received with scepticism.
Then I found an impressive on-line history of marriage , in a lengthy outline by Stephen Schloesser, a Jesuit priest and professor of history, which he submitted to Massachusetts Senator Marian Walsh in 2004, during the turmoil in that state over gay marriage. Here are some extracts – the introduction, and (mostly) just a summary of the main paragraph headings:
Maybe the most frustrating thing I have heard in the recent debate is this claim that has become a mantra: that we are in the process of changing some allegedly unchanging 3,000-year-old institution called “marriage.”Of course, the decision to grant marriage licenses would be a “change” in marriage practice – but“marriage,” whatever that is, is always in the process of being changed. To pretend that its alteration is somehow a rupture in what is otherwise a three-thousand year continuity is just silly.
It seems helpful to me to recall what traditional marriage is: it is a community’s legal arrangement in order to pass on property. In it, a male acquires (in the sense of owning and having sovereignty over) a female for the sake of reproducing other males who will then inherit property.
In Roman law, the authority of the paterfamilias over his wife and children was absolute, even to the point of death. (Even during the enlightenment), Catholic reactionaries opposed the idea of women and children having independent rights and insisted that puissance paternelle (the absolute power of the father) was rooted in nature.
In Judaism, polygyny is found throughout the Old Testament until the inter-testamental period.In general, a survey of traditional Old Testament marriage makes the reader very grateful that we are not bound to follow its precedents or precepts.
Early Christianity was really not into marriage. St Paul counseled his followers: “It is better not to marry.”Augustine (following St. Paul) counsel ed marriage as a remedy for concupiscence – i.e., satisfying male sexual desire in a non-sinful way.In general, during the early medieval Church, all sex is a problem, and all sex is equally a problem.
Marriage, both in the Roman and the early medieval periods, was the moment that marked the passing of the rights over a woman from her father to her husband. She wasn’t a person under the law.
Serial polygyny was regularly practiced by early medieval kings famous for their Christian piety. Their marital practices did not trouble the Church. Concubinage was also widely practiced among the European elite, and this practice was unproblematic, even in the eleventh century. Divorce was also completely unproblematic until the twelfth century.
In the twelfth century, the idea of marriage as a “sacrament” – i.e., as something fundamentally regulated by the Church – was established along with priestly celibacy and primogeniture.
The simultaneous appearance of these practices shows the way in which the preservation of property suddenly became an issue of great anxiety: celibacy prevented church property from passing on to priests’ wives and children; primogeniture insured that property remain intact as it passed on to only the eldest son; and Church surveillance of marriages made sure that an authority larger than, say, the most powerful warrior / aristocratic families on the block, was overseeing the passing on of dowries – e.g., Eleanor’s region of the Aquitaine. Women became the means of medieval corporate mergers: families consolidated power and property, both by means of dowries as well as by being the producers of male heirs.
Marriage as an “emotional unit” as opposed to an “economic unit” was largely an invention of the early nineteenth century. Bourgeois marriage was a classbound arrangement.
Conversely, for the males, prostitution is seen as an integral part of the new arrangement of marriage.
Divorce, finally legalized again in France in the 1880s, emancipated men but perhaps not women unless they had reserved some independent means. It too was part of the new emotional understanding of marriage, i.e., as something not arranged by parents but rather entered into partly because of emotional desires.
It is hardly coincidental: this is also the period during which the idea of “homosexuality” – and then, later, “heterosexuality” – was invented.
Catholic ideas about marriage and sexuality are in constant conversation with the wider society/culture’s evolving values and needs.
As late as the Code of Canon Law of 1917, the official position continued to be depressingly materialist: the purpose of marriage was considered to be “procreation,” while a secondary end was a “remedy for concupiscence.”
This genuinely two-millennia-old view changed on New Year’s Eve, 1930.(following the Lambeth Conference decision to approve contraception). The papal encyclical Casti Connubii introduced a fairly shocking innovation: one of marriage’s “second ends” was the “unity” between the spouses.The 19th-c. invention of marriage as an “emotional unit” in which two persons came together not merely to procreate but in order to form a sphere of emotional support – a thoroughly modern meaning of marriage – was accepted by the papacy.
On October 29, 1951 came a second important innovation in Catholic views. In one of the most insignificant settings possible – i.e., not an encyclical or synod but rather an address to Italian midwives -Pius XII suggested that couples, as long as they did not use “artificial” contraception, could arrive at a moral decision to be sexually active in a way that did not lead to procreation.
Between the years of approximately 1948 to 1963, the Catholic bishops of New England lobbied furiously against the legalization of contraception. John Ford, a Jesuit moral theologian who was the most aggressive proponent of the anticontraception stance (and taught in Weston, Mass.) admitted letter that the “natural law” argument had failed; if the point of “natural law” arguments was to convince any “rational person” (unlike, e.g., Scripture, which would convince only a religious believer), and if all these rational persons were rejecting the Catholic position, then what did that say about the law’s “natural” aspect? Eventually, the bishops abandoned this fight and made a distinction between public policy and personal religious practice.
To summarize: when one compares the 1917 Catholic view of marriage – “procreation” as a primary end, “a remedy for concupiscence” as a secondary end – with the 1969 view expressed in both the Vatican Council and encoded in canon law – “the community of the whole life” that includes both the “unbreakable compact between persons” as well as the “welfare of the children,” one can see that the change in Catholic doctrine and law has been nothing short of astonishing.
The full piece is the most useful outline of marriage history and the church I have come across. I have selected here only the bits that refer specifically to the history of Christian marriage. There is much more on marriage in other cultures, and on the church and homosexuality. I strongly urge that you read it in full – or download or bookmark it for future reference, as I have done.
Follow Terence’s amazingly energetic and theologically responsible blog, Queering The Church. Amazing stuff.
- An Authentic, Catholic History of Marriage (queeringthechurch.com)
- Marriage Equality and History of Marriage: Some Catholic Resources (bilgrimage.blogspot.com)
- Theologian James Alison: Same – sex Unions Are Not Second – Best. (queeringthechurch.com)
- A Catholic Case For Same-Sex Marriage (dgsma.wordpress.com)
- Senior London Cleric: “Embrace Gay Marriage” (Contrast with Catholic Bishops) (queeringthechurch.com)
Friends Jeannine Gramick and Frank DeBernardo from New Ways Ministry had an excellent Valentine’s Day Op-Ed in The Washington Post. In one of the most well prepared (both theologically and sociologically) essays I’ve read, they make the case for marriage equality:
In forming our consciences, Catholics also consult scripture and our theological tradition. Here, again, there is little firm reason to oppose marriage equality. The Bible presents us with a marital landscape that includes polygamy, concubinage, temple prostitution and Levirate marriages (in which a man is bound to marry his brother’s widow.) Jesus disputed the Mosaic law on divorce, saying that what God has joined man must not separate, but this dictum was modified in the letters of St. Paul.
When we see the manifold changes that marriage has undergone throughout history, many Catholics wonder why our bishops believe that heterosexual marriage in its current 21stcentury state is a matter of divine revelation.
Those who delve into the theology of marriage will encounter the writings of St. Augustine of Hippo, who articulated what Christians have come to call “the goods of marriage.” These are enumerated in contemporary terms as partnership, permanence, fidelity and fruitfulness. Same-sex couples demonstrate all of these attributes just as opposite-sex couples do, unless one defines “fruitfulness” narrowly as the ability to procreate. But many heterosexual couples cannot or choose not to procreate, and the church marries them anyway.
The deeper one looks into the church’s core teachings, the more one realizes that the bishops are not representing the breadth of the Catholic tradition in their campaign against marriage equality. Nowhere is that more true than in the area of Catholic social justice teaching.Catholic social teaching requires that all people be treated with dignity, regardless of their state in life or their beliefs. It upholds the importance of access to health-care benefits, the protection of children, dignity in end of life choices, and, most importantly, the promotion of stable family units. Marriage equality legislation would be an obvious boon to same-sex couples and their children in each of these areas, yet the bishops are spending millions of dollars opposing it.
Brilliant. If you’re a pray-er, these two deserve all you can give them.
- Catholic Case for Same-Sex Marriage Is Part of Religion’s Next Great Awakening (newwaysministryblog.wordpress.com)
- Washington State Governor Signs Same Sex Marriage Into Law (crooksandliars.com)
- NYT/CBS Poll: Catholic Religious Leaders Out Of Touch (dgsma.wordpress.com)
- Majority Of New Jersey Voters Support Marriage Equality (thinkprogress.org)
- If You Really Want Marriage Equality in Washington, Then Pull Out Your Wallet (slog.thestranger.com)
He’s talking about the contraception dustup, but he really clarifies something beautifully. Andrew Sullivan in Newsweek:
“There was a time not so long ago when Catholics and other Christians weighed various moral claims to find a balance. Sometimes, the lesser of two evils was preferable. For centuries, for example, Catholic theologians, including the greatest, Thomas Aquinas, argued that human life begins not at conception but at some point in the second trimester. For centuries the Catholic Church allowed married priests. For centuries Catholics believed that extending the end of life by extreme measures like feeding tubes was a violation of natural death, which Christians of all people should not be afraid of. But this ancient, moderate, pragmatic reasoning has been rejected by the last two popes, who have increasingly become rigid, fundamentalist, and hostile to prudential balancing acts in the real, modern world we live in. Their radical fundamentalism—so alien to the spirit of the Second Vatican Council and to so many lay Catholics—has discredited the core priorities of Christianity, failed to persuade their own flock, and led to increasing politicization. And the obsession among Catholic and evangelical leaders with an issue like contraception stands in stark contrast to their indifference to, for example, the torture in which the last administration engaged, the growing social inequality fostered by unfettered capitalism, the Christian moral imperative of universal health care, and the unjust use of the death penalty. That’s why younger evangelicals are also alienated. They want to refocus on issues of the poor, prison rape, human trafficking, and the kind of injustices Jesus emphasized, rather than on these sexual sideshows the older generation seems so obsessed with.”
- How did American Catholics get ourselves in this predicament? We did it with the best of intentions. But we did not stop to think… (ricochet.com)
- Catholics Defend The President (dgsma.wordpress.com)
- Contraception and the Cost of Culture Wars (themoderatevoice.com)
- Never Waste a Good Crisis (challies.com)