The Tablet Blog
The Catholic Church and gay marriage
Fr Timothy Radcliffe OP
2 March 2012, 9:00
The Catholic Church does not oppose gay marriage. It considers it to be impossible. If it were possible, then we would have to support it since the Church tells that we must oppose all discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The issue is not gay rights but a wonderful truth of our humanity which is that we are animals: rational animals according to the Medievals, spiritual animals open to sharing the life of God. In the sacraments, the fundamental dramas of our bodily life are blessed and become open to God’s grace: birth and death, eating and drinking, sex and illness. St Thomas Aquinas says that grace perfects nature and does not destroy it.
Marriage is founded on the glorious fact of sexual difference and its potential fertility. Without this there would be no life on this planet, no evolution, no human beings, no future. Marriage is a plastic institution and takes all sorts of forms, from the alliance of clans through bride exchange to modern romantic love. We have come to see that it implies the equal love and dignity of man and woman. But everywhere and always it remains founded on the union in difference of male and female. Through ceremonies and sacrament, this is given a deeper meaning which for Christians includes the union of God and humanity in Christ.
This is not to denigrate committed love of people of the same sex. This too should be cherished and supported, which is why church leaders are slowly coming to support same sex civil unions. The God of love can be present in every true love. But “gay marriage” is impossible because it attempts to cut loose marriage from its grounding in our biological life. If we do that, we deny our humanity. It would be like trying to make a cheese soufflé without the cheese, or wine without grapes.
From the beginning, Christianity has stood up for the beauty and dignity of our bodily life, blessed by our God who became flesh and blood like us. This has always seemed a little scandalous to “spiritual” people, who think that we should escape the messy realities of bodies. And so the Church had to oppose Gnosticism in the second century, Manichaeism in the fourth, Catharism in the thirteenth. These all either had contempt for the body or regarded it as unimportant.
We, too, influenced as we are by Cartesianism, tend to think of ourselves as minds trapped in bodies, ghosts in machines. A friend said to me the other day, “I am a soul, but I have a body.” But the Catholic tradition has always insisted on the fundamental unity of the human person. Aquinas famously said “I am not my soul.”
Lynne Featherstone, the Equalities Minister, is right to say the Churches do not have an exclusive right to determine who can marry – but nor does the State, because we cannot simply decide by some mental or legal act what it means to be a human being. Our civilisation will flourish only if it recognises the gift of our bodily existence, which includes the amazing creativity of sexual difference, lifted up into love. Giving formal recognition to this through the institution of marriage in no way disparages the blessings brought to us by gay people.
Fr Timothy Radcliffe OP is the former head of the Dominicans.
Blog Response by ‘Andrew’
I cannot agree with the totality of the argumentation. Marriage is a social construct that pre-dates Christianity. It now takes a secular form and a sacramental form. The forthcoming consultation on ‘how’ (there is no ‘if’) refers to the former and definitively not to the latter. Foundational to the author’s argument is what he refers to as the “glorious” difference between males and females and, as always, refers to the biological function of procreation.
He also refers to same-sex civil partnersips and notes that these are becoming ‘possible’ for the Church, whereas gay marriage is ‘impossible’ due to the biological sameness between the individuals concerned. These arguments are not ultimately, but are rather immediately unsupportable.
Firstly, the biological difference between males and females is predicated on internal and external genitalia. Human beings are individual persons first and sexual functionaries
Second. The Church does not prohibit marriage between young couples where one or both is infertile and neither does She prohibit marriage between older couples, where one or both is beyond the reproductive age. Ipso facto, marriage is therefore about more than just sexual reproduction – it is about the solemnisation of love between two persons, not two sexualities which may be biologically active or may be twenty years beyond that where the ability to procreate ceases and where external and internal sexual appartus atrophies.
The argument about physical enactments of love in sexual intercourse cannot be restricted to male-female relationships. They are equally mechanically possible between two males, for example. I assert, then, that marriage is an action and then a state which brings together two people in a state of love and commitment which may or may not have ever been open to procreation.
As for the growing recognition of same sex civil partnerships, contrary to the author’s assertion, these are, in fact, ‘impossible’ for the Church. If She continues to maintain that ‘homosexuality is an intrinsic moral evil and a grave offence against the natural order (language which I consider hysterical) then an affirmation of civil partnerships sees the Church endorsing a state of permanent sin from which, technically, absolution is not possible due to intentional reasons.
We could add in this context the contention that homosexuality IS part of the natural order and that if it were not to exist, our currently over-populated Earth would be even more over-populated. Homosexuality may well be a natural mechanism in Nature to act as one limit on uncontrolled population growth.
If God did not countenance homosexuality then why does he make so many homosexuals? And why are so many called to the sacred priesthood and function extremely pastorally (and liturgically!)well within it?
The retort that St. Paul condens homosexuality is not possible – contextual analysis of his comments reveal no uinderstanding of homosexuality as an entity, but rather as an indulgence (men turn from their wives and burn with lust for one another…. – implying adultery and sexual recreation, not full homosexuality and love and commitment).
It has also been suggested that Paul was himself homosexual and that this was, in fact, his ‘thorn in the flesh’. It is a well known psychopathology that people who cannot cope with or hate something in themselves often project that hate onto others and punish it in proxy fashion.
Might such a phenomenon, indeed possibility, explain the visceral and disproportionate reaction to homosexuality from the Vatican? Priests in confession in parishes rarely act similarly, but are entirely more pastorally sensitive. Well, there is much mileage in such arguments but Archbishop Nicholas may be very surprised to learn that most practising Catholics do not have anywhere like the same ‘problems’ with this way of living – and he will be disappointed if he esxpects thousands to take to the street in visceral protest. We shall, as they say, see soon.
Andrew, 7 March 2012 15:12 (25 of 26)
Blog Response by ‘John Paton’
This is wisdom, and as things are it is difficult to disagree with. Where a wedge come in to the argument, though, is with the assertion that “gay marriage” is impossible because it attempts to cut loose marriage from its grounding in our biological life.” Work is being done on this. Stem cells from one woman may in time be able to be used to impregnate another. Two men may be able to use a surrogate. What will happen to this argument when good Christian couples show that same-sex marriage need not loose marriage from its biological grounding?
John Paton, 7 March 2012 6:28 (24 of 26)
Blog Response by ‘Vince Hodge’
We are having difficulty defining gay marriage because we do not know what heterosexual marriage is other than intuitively from our actions. Gay actions look different and hence intuitively must be different. A sacrament is God’s presence to the eyes of faith. Sacraments are not limited by the vehicle of presence. God determines where He is present. Is he absent from a loving gay relationship?
Vince Hodge, 6 March 2012
The R.C. ‘Tablet’ blog article, by Fr. Timothy Radcliff, O.P., seems to be in favour of the Church recognising Same-Sex Civil Partnerships, while yet denying the possibility of Same-Sex Marriage. His argument is largely based on the premise that Marriage is a state of being, divinely ordained, contracted between male and female of the species, open to the possibility of sexual congress leading to pro-creation.
This could be seen as a valid argument – if all Marriages between heterosexual persons were capable of facilitating pro-creation leading to children of the marriage. However, as one of the respondents to his article says: “The Church does not prohibit marriage between young couples where one or both is infertile and neither does She prohibit marriage between older couples, where one or both is beyond the reproductive age”. (cf.’ Andrew’) This invalidates the argument that Marriage must involve the ability to procreate.
However, in the face of claims by the community that Same-Sex Marriage ought be recognised by the State and perhaps even the Church; Fr. Radcliffe offers the alternative possibility of the Church recognising Same-Sex Civil Partnerships, while Marriage is to be reserved for heterosexuals. He has this to say:
“This is not to denigrate committed love of people of the same sex. This too should be cherished and supported, which is why church leaders are slowly coming to support same sex civil unions. The God of love can be present in every true love”.
It seems, therefore, that the Roman Catholic Church in England, like the Anglican Church of England, may soon be able to accept that a Same-Sex Civil Partnership ) could be a distinct possibility. It might be considered to deserve a Church Blessing!
My thought on this is that, if both Churches had got themselves into gear in the first place – accepting the fact that monogamous Same-Sex relationships could, in fact, be a part of God’s plan for the expression of mutual, faithful and monogamous love between two person of the same gender – there may not have been the current pressure for the institution of ‘Gay Marriage’.
After all, as Scripture says: “Love is of God’.
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand