MegaphoneIreland, of all places, was recently the first country to hold a public referendum in which the public approved the legalization of gay marriage.

The response of the Vatican was loud and clear.

The Vatican’s Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, referred to the vote as a ‘defeat for humanity’, a step which must be countered by the Church in efforts to ‘strengthen its commitment to evangelization’. I, for one, hope that means something other that shouting its teachings more often and more loudly until someone listens.

When it comes to a ‘defeat for humanity’, my mind turns more to thoughts of Hitler, Stalin,  Boko Haram, ISIS, and institutionalized slavery as historic episodes where humanity came close to defeat. Not so much thoughts of gay marriage.

Of course, what was so stunning in the vote (which wasn’t even close), is that in what had been a staunchly Catholic country, the public apparently doesn’t care what the Church teaches when it comes to marriage and human sexuality.

So how did we get to this point?

You cannot separate the Church’s position on homosexual marriage from the broader perspective of the nature of human sexuality and the place of marriage in God’s plan.

If we are to get past the hand-wringing and angry recriminations that do little good, we need to reflect on two issues as we consider how the words we use and the actions we take render a message easily ignored:

  1. A look at what is taught with regards to marriage and human sexuality
  2. How to enforce teachings in a modern, connected world

What is taught.

I admit, as a person who has occasionally challenged teachings and proclamations that sound a discordant note with something inside of me, I started to research this topic with the intention of uncovering what exactly it was in our catechism teachings with which I disagreed, tenants that could explain the dismissal of Church teachings on a national scale. (Not that I disagree with the teachings of contraception, but I have a friend…)

But despite my most cynical efforts, when it comes to the teachings about sexuality and marriage, I found that the core essence of what was being expressed was indeed consistent with a ‘truth’ that I could not deny:

The intimacy of sexual unions should never be considered casual; they embody a deeply personal sharing that are reserved for a man and wife. The sacrament of Matrimony marks the flow of grace to strengthen the union between husband and wife and their role as parents for the gift of children.

Who can disagree with that?

Regarding homosexuality, the Church calls those with such an inclination to chastity.

“What’s the problem with that?” wrote the heterosexual blogger.

There are two little words from the teachings however, that give me pause.

Paragraph 2370 from our catechism includes the definitive statement on the Church’s position on artificial contraception as initially described in Pope Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae:

“…every action which, whether in anticipation of the conjugal act, or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible” is intrinsically evil.


There certainly is a difference between the ‘marital act’ which is solely unitive in nature, and one which  includes the possibility for procreation. Married adults get that. Most, if not all married Catholic couples cherish and welcome those opportunities when intimacy and pleasure combines with the knowledge that new life is possible.

But when Church teachings argue that any instance when married Catholics use artificial contraception is an act that turns their intimacy into a something evil, then one begins to understand the meaning of overreach.

The teachings on marriage and procreation set the backdrop for today’s politically charged stage.

The Church’s opposition to gay marriage centers around the view of the family as the core unit of society, a family that originates with the love between a man and woman that brings forth new life. Relationships that are not open to procreation are something less than marriage, and society shouldn’t pretend that they aren’t.

I sometimes wonder how much better that message would be received if it weren’t for the catechism’s use of the word ‘disordered’ elsewhere in its teaching.

The catechism is pretty liberal with the term ‘disordered’, attaching it to everything from venial sins, unhealthy desire of a neighbor’s goods, the nature of warfare, masturbation, …and homosexual inclinations.

No spin by professional catechists and no impassioned statement contending a ‘love for the sinner while hating the sin’ can hide the common man’s interpretation that if you have homosexual inclinations, you are disordered.  There are no kind synonyms here. Attempts to disassociate inclinations from character fall short.

I do not understand the gay lifestyle. I firmly believe and accept that our sacrament of Matrimony is reserved for a man and woman. And I certainly accept the role of a married man and woman in raising the children they receive as gifts from God.

But there is something very wrong with language that, in effect, moves us to look askance at our gay brothers and sisters as ‘disordered’. At some time in our lives, we are all disordered as we act in ways that distance us from God. If ‘disordered’ must be used, apply it to the first person plural.

Given the Church’s reasoning behind the nature of marriage in which many heteros are engaged in ‘evil’ acts, and the perception that Catholics look at gays as persons who are disordered creations of God, is it a surprise that those outside the Church would question Her rationale in arguing that lifelong gay companions don’t deserve the legal protections afforded to married heteros?

And if you disagree.

The catechism is clear about the requirement that persons with homosexual inclinations cannot be the subject of discrimination.

It is quite different, however, if one publicly endorses activities in the civil setting that runs counter to Church teachings.

  • The Vatican refuses to accept the nomination of a French diplomat as ambassador to the Holy See because he is a gay Catholic
  • A music minister who had served his church for 8 years was dismissed after marrying his partner of 23 years
  • A manager of a Catholic parish’s food pantry was dismissed after coming out as gay
  • The Archdiocese of Miami has issued a warning to all employees that anyone opposing the Church’s position on gay marriage may be dismissed
  • A senior administrator for Catholic Relief Services resigned after person posted an un-official image of the administrator’s marriage to a partner of the same gender.

The Church bureaucracy has every right to expect its employees and representatives to uphold Catholic Christian teaching. It is legal and acceptable that our Church officials set standards that determine whether or not a person can be part of the club.

But if that is the case, why shouldn’t all public political activities be subject to review?  Shouldn’t Catholics who publicly support the Affordable Care Act be fired?  Should Catholics who voted in favor of abolishing the death penalty be promoted (assuming they haven’t previously been fired)?

Don’t any other teachings matter?  Isn’t belief in the Resurrection the key tenant of our teaching? How about the Trinity? Do employment applicants accept the responsibility to care for the poor? Are all heteros faithful to their spouses? Are married employees practicing artificial birth control? Should the next staff meeting ask employees for a show of hands about masturbation? (Stop giggling).

If adherence to Church teaching is a requirement, shouldn’t there be some kind of written test, and what is the passing grade for employment?

Church officials may argue that they are building an institution with persons whose beliefs support Church teaching, but in practice, such policies focus on the public behaviors that clash with teachings on sexuality and marriage. Name one person fired for questioning the doctrine of Purgatory.

Intended or not, the public practices of dismissing gay ambassadors and terminating administrators and educators who support civil gay marriage is part of the overall message the Church sends to the world, a message that says something like ‘we love them, but if they love someone, they’re fired.’

So what to do?

Teach the truth.

Earlier I mentioned that the core essence of Church teachings contain a wisdom and beauty that captures the kind of persons God calls us to be. But if the core truth of our Church teaching is a symphony, the things we do and words we use sometimes sound like a guy playing a kazoo. And like the musician who has no intention on changing the melody and its arrangement, attention turns more to the need to improve the skill of its delivery.

And there is opportunity here.

At a time when the Church’s apparent teaching authority is sorely suspect, there is an opportunity during the upcoming Synod of the Family to issue a re-statement of truths, a re-statement that will presumably be read, understood, and appreciated by the average reader.

I pray that someone, somewhere is drafting a new summary section that appears in the various sections of the catechism, a newly worded summary of what we know to be true of marriage and sex:

We know that the Catholic sacrament of Matrimony is granted to men and women as we pledge a new life of commitment to each other and to the family we pray we will be blessed with. We understand that the intimacy of sexual relations is a deeply personal gift to be exchanged between men and women who are committed to the permanence of this new life. Sexual relations outside this permanent commitment, and closed to the possibility of new life, are activities that are something less than what is possible between people of faith – and God never asks us to be less.

And if the Vatican editors really have a pressing need to use the words ‘evil’ and ‘disordered’, we could add a follow-up that puts those words where they need to be:

Any sexual activity conducted for self-gratification that disregards the spiritual, emotional, or physical interests of a partner, especially activities that violate persons who are physically or emotionally unable to understand or resist the nature of sexual relations, are evil activities that are intrinsically, gravely, disordered.

I don’t think there are any truths here that have been ‘changed’. In fact, one could argue that the second paragraph more forcefully and broadly condemns any act that takes advantage of a partner, including forms of sexual abuse between spouses as well as some of the more heinous acts against minors and the elderly.

What to do about civil gay marriage?

It is apparent that the handwriting is on the wall when it comes for Church’s need to separate civil marriage from our sacrament of Matrimony. It won’t be easy, and it won’t be pretty. But for those persons wanting a more fully developed sense of ‘identity’, the rite of Matrimony, as a service distinct from that of a civil ceremony, would remain everything Catholics have always said it should be. No compromises, no redefinitions,  just people praying for God’s grace to support a man and woman who pledge eternal faithfulness to each other and God’s plan.

In terms of ‘enforcement’ of Catholic identity through employment practices, the success of a Catholic institution has been, and always will be in its ability to carry out the mission of service. If institutional leaders believe that its employees must adhere to Church teachings, then be fair about it and require documented tests that cover all the essentials of our teachings in order evaluate how good a Catholic a person has to be in order to be employed.

And if one thinks that such a policy is an exercise of futility that focuses more on image rather than substance, then have the employees of Catholic institutions sign a piece of paper that includes the Apostle’s Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Beatitudes. Then tell them get back to work in service to the Gospel.

This is about marriage and the family.

The Church is correct in the importance of family as a societal unit.

But the language used in some of Her teachings, and in the hyperbole used by some members of the clergy, fly in the face of the truth understood by all people that you do not build something up by tearing others down.

The US Catholic Church has invested significant financial resources in the support of civil campaigns to prevent legalization of same sex marriages. In Minnesota alone, the church directed $650,000 to a 2012 campaign in support of an amendment defining marriage as something between a man and woman. The amendment lost by a narrow margin.

Regardless of how much the Church has spent nationally, 37 of the 50 states in the US, representing nearly 70% of the population, have approved same sex marriage. Not that popularity makes right. But such a widespread trend paints a picture that calls for better work to be done.

And if the Church objectives are to strengthen the family, the objective measures of success should involve something that has to do with Catholic families.

More than one in four marriages involving Catholics end in divorce, accounting for 11 million individuals. While Catholics have a divorce rate lower than other Christian denominations, there is evidence that more needs to be done to minister and support single heads of households and to root out the main causes of divorce. Heterosexual marriages aren’t failing because gays are living with each other.

That means greater emphasis on the (counter-cultural) view that a person’s promises and commitments should actually mean something, approaching millenials to better articulate the role of cohabitation in reducing the likelihood of a successful marriage between young persons, improved spiritual development programs for adults that place God’s plan above financial aspirations, and broader, more visible programs to provide recovery services from substance abuse and intervention programs to help marriages in trouble.

We have been working to bring the light of truth to our world for 2,000 years (4,000 if you count our Jewish buddies). We are now rightfully being called to be part of a New Evangelization to apply ‘new ardor, new methods and new expressions’ of the Gospel; to do so we must honestly asses how effectively the truth is being proclaimed in word and deed.

Our commitment to God’s promise is deep, but our passions and the shortcomings of human language sometimes project a message that fails to capture what can only be experienced.

When our message fails, our commitment to its truth demands that we focus less on blaming the listener, and more on examining if what we say and what we do truly reflect what we mean.