The Vatican’s declaration that priests may not bless same-sex unions is not surprising. What is deplorable is the explanation that this cannot happen because “God can’t bless sin.” It does make you wonder what Rome sees when it sees a same-sex couple. Like heterosexual couples, the distinguishing mark of their union is the love that binds them together. And surely, most assuredly, God is eager to bless love. The Vatican doesn’t see a loving couple. It sees two people who have sex in a way it considers unnatural. The sexual activity, like that of a heterosexual couple, symbolizes and strengthens the loving union that is the point of it all. Any adult, anywhere and at any time, can have sex, and some of it is probably sinful. God wouldn’t bless that kind of sexual activity, any more than God would bless theft or violence. But God, unlike the Vatican, is not obsessed with sex. God is obsessed with love. Real, genuine love is its own justification, and I am pretty sure that God smiles on it and, in all probability, is nothing like as curious or censorious as the Church when it comes to bedroom behavior. After all, it was love that we were created for.
One of the clearest positions of the Church on the nature of priesthood is that the priest acts in persona Christi, that just as Christ is the head of his body, the Church, so the priest acts in his place. Christ is the head of the church, not bound by the laws of the Church. The Spirit of Christ blows when and where it will. The Holy Spirit is the love of Christ at work in the world, and the priest acts as Christ’s representative or agent. The Vatican obviously believes this, because it is the basis for the otherwise baseless rejection of the sacramental ordination of women. So surely if the priest stands in persona Christi and if Christ is the sacramental presence of God in the world, and if God is obsessed with love but not with sex, then it doesn’t seem altogether wrong for the priest to be blessing same-sex unions. It seems like common sense. A marriage ceremony blesses the love between two people, not the sex they have. Or does it, for the Vatican?
It’s a pretty well-known fact that the Pope favors civil unions for same-sex couples, though in all probability he sees it as a way for them to attain legal status and protections, rather than as the next best thing to sacramental marriage in the church. But surely the Pope is not just suggesting that civil marriage can be cover for sinful behavior. The CDF’s declaration that “God does not bless sin” seems to be more than a little at odds with the famous “who am I to judge” remark of Pope Francis. God and not the church is the judge of sin. Not even the Pope, by his own estimation. But the language of the CDF’s text cannot but remind one of the consternation of the Jesuit priest on Pope Paul’s birth control commission. “But if we change the rules and allow birth control,” he is reported to have expostulated, “then what about all the people we have sent to hell in times past?” Judgments about sin in the mouths of human beings are prime examples of hubris. I think it was Jesus who discouraged this kind of language when he advised that the one who is without sin should cast the first stone.
Francis de Bernardo sees the Vatican statement as unsurprising and impotent. I would add disappointing. But the charge of impotence is worth thinking about a bit more. De Bernardo argues that the lay faithful simply do not share the Vatican disapproval of same-sex unions, and at least in the United States he has good statistics to back him up. Of all Christian groups measured by their support for or tolerance of same-sex marriage or civil unions, the Catholics are the most “gay-friendly.” I find this reassuring, though as a theologian, I want to explore the ecclesiological consequences of a rift between the magisterium and the rest of us. I am not going to say the sensus ecclesiae, because that includes the clergy too. But when a sizable majority are OK with same-sex relationships and even marriage, we are evidently looking at magisterial teaching that has not commanded assent. We need to apply the same logic to this as we do to the Church’s dead-letter ban on birth control or its absolute rejection of women in ordained ministry. If the teaching isn’t persuasive, then there are only three possibilities. Perhaps the vast majority of us are simply blindly sinful, guilty of vincible ignorance and need to come to heel. Or perhaps the teaching is not being expressed sufficiently clearly. Or perhaps it is bad teaching. The CDF presumably favors the first option. The majority of the rest of us don’t.
It seems pretty clear that what makes sex sinful is not the absence of sacramental marriage but the absence of love. If the Church wishes to continue to insist that same-sex unions are not candidates for sacramental marriage, that is the Church’s prerogative, though that does not make it in itself a correct judgment. But it is absolutely unacceptable that any loving relationship be declared beyond God’s blessing. The Church evidently believes that God blesses all individuals, gay and straight alike, made in the divine image and likeness. But apparently not the former if they enter into a loving relationship. How crazy is that?
Paul Lakeland is a teacher, scholar and director of the Center for Catholic Studies at Fairfield University.