The challenge of same-sex unions


At the last meeting of the Edinburgh Newman Circle before the Coronavirus lockdown, an Irish theologian considered the question of tradition and the challenge of same-sex unions.

In 2003 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), the Vatican’s department for doctrinal oversight, produced a document called Considerations regarding proposals to give legal recognition to unions between homosexual persons. This was in response to the growing political campaigning for acceptance of homosexuality as just one iteration of what it is to be human, and all the human rights associated with this – such as freedom from persecution and the right to have legal recognition of relationships.

While nobody would dispute the right of any organisation, especially a religious one, to speak on issues of the common good, the minimum one might expect is good research, cogent arguments and engagement with those most affected. This CDF document fails on all counts. It is badly constructed, muddled in its argument, shows no evidence of research and is lacking in any engagement with those most likely to be affected by it. Yet it is useful as a summary of Church teaching on same-sex marriage (though it refuses to the use the word marriage, preferring ‘unions’ instead). It is stated in the document that there is nothing new in it; its purpose is to reiterate the essential points of the question. These are that same-sex unions:

  • undermine the family

  • destabilize society

  • weaken procreativity

  • confuse youth and prey on the vulnerable

These claims are made without any evidence of qualitative research to substantiate them. So we need ask, are they true?

The information available on loving, faithful gay and lesbians experiences is still very new, and there is not a historical basis for evaluating it in the Church’s tradition. But the same applies to anything new needing to be evaluated that has not been considered before, for example, in the 1970s when IVF was developed to help couples conceive. That something wholly outside our frame of reference has not been considered before does not mean that it should not be done. One moral theologian, John Mahoney, suggests that ‘theological systems which account for everything and which leave no room for surprise are constricting the Spirit of God, and are just too neat to be true to reality’. (The Making of moral theology)

Let’s take the CDF’s points in turn:

Undermine the family

Despite its claim that same-sex parented families create obstacles in the normal development of children, the CDF offers no concrete evidence for this assertion. A number of longitudinal studies currently being carried out in different parts of the world actually show that not only are children not disadvantaged by same-sex parented families, but report very positive relationships. Another positive outcome is that the presence of children in same-sex unions can repair ruptures in relationships that occurred in the couple’s families of origin because of sexual orientation. The grandparent relationship is healing for all concerned.

Destabilise society

The document says that if heterosexual marriage was considered just one possible form of marriage the concept of marriage would undergo a radical transformation with grave detriment to the common good. There is simply no evidence that this is so. On the other hand there is empirical evidence that permitting secular same-sex marriage does not impinge on the marital intentions of heterosexual couples. More conservative gay people encourage same-sex marriage. Andrew Sullivan, an English journalist, and by his own admission quite a conservative Catholic, points out that there have been same-sex marriages existing in a variety of forms – they have just been ‘euphemised’. He says that legalising same-sex marriage would bring the gay/lesbian couple into the heart of the traditional family in a way that the family can understand. He also says that this familial identity could be properly discussed not in terms of sex, but in terms of their future life stories, their potential loves, and their eventual chance at some kind of constructive happiness.

In my own research, where civil partnership was introduced, it was the experience of some couples that the societal perception of ‘pervert partners’ suddenly changed to being ‘one of us.’ It opened up conversations – parents who had been extremely homophobic began to moderate their views. It also opened up private conversations where others in the community spoke about family members who were gay. Taking marriage seriously with all its commitments to stability, fidelity and permanence and offering that challenge to same-sex couples can only be a societal good.

Weaken procreativity

Again, there is simply no evidence for this. Once women and couples were able to control their fertility with a high degree of effectiveness, they did so. This was without reference to gay/lesbian couples – it was about their own relationships and their ability to rear and educate children and have opportunities for themselves outside child-bearing and rearing. The lengths couples are prepared to go to with IVF – both in terms of the financial and health implications – is evidence that procreativity is still as much a drive as it ever was.

Confuse youth and prey on the vulnerable

Contrary to this assertion, repressed sexuality is infinitely more damaging, finding expression in abusive behaviour – and the history of clerical sexual abuse is the most obvious example of this. All the gay and lesbian people who grew up in heterosexual families had ample opportunity to see and absorb what marriage is, for good or for ill. This is especially so in Catholic families, but this had no effect on the reality of their sexual orientation, because of its given-ness. Why should it be assumed that in same-sex headed families it will be any different? Where is the evidence?

Much is asserted on the basis of very little. Each of the claims is amenable to qualitative research to find out if it is true. But there is a steadfast refusal on the side of the teaching magisterium of the Church to engage in such research. Worse still, not only will it not engage in credible research but it sets out to actively punish those theologians who do. This brings us to the prophetic aspect of the Church. Many theologians take this prophetic dimension of Church very seriously and seek to make the Good News available as widely as possible. For moral theologians and pastorally sensitive church members, this inevitably brings them into contact with the LGBT community, many of whom ‘still experience God’s Word primarily as a weapon used against them’ (P.B. Jung & R.F. Smith, Heterosexism: an ethical challenge).

Given that within the Church’s own tradition there is the means of evaluating same-sex marriage, its current stance seems to have more to do with preconceived ideas and prejudice than honest engagement. I refer to the natural law tradition. Unfortunately, a particularly biological understanding of natural law underpins much of the resistance to same-sex marriage. But that artificially restricts the meaning of natural law.

In the tradition of the Church, natural law is understood to be the participation of humanity in the life of God – that divine spark in us that bestows us with the use of reason. Faith and reason has a long tradition in the Church, but in the case of same-sex relationships they become very restricted. You will see a variety of definitions of natural law. My own favourite is given by Donal Harrington in his book, What is morality? It is based on Bernard Lonergan’s transcendental precepts: be attentive, be intelligent, be reasonable, be responsible. Those principles which we need to employ to transcend our ego, our instinct to tribalism, our blindness to self-knowledge and also to overcome an anti-intellectualism which fosters fundamentalist thinking. All the things that act as stumbling blocks to authentically living out the gospel in community of equals.

It is the law of being open and attentive to our experience; of being intelligent and insightful in our inquiries; of being reasonable and comprehensive in our judgements; of being detached and responsible in our deliberations; and of being committed to the good we discover

This definition certainly opens the conversation – if the will to converse is present. However, that is still lacking, despite some positive comments by Pope Francis.

Scientific research has shown that same-sex attraction is very much part of nature, both in the animal and human kingdom. From birds to primates, from mammals to fruit flies. Much of this information was discovered in general biological/behavioural studies. It fits in neatly with Fr. James Alison’s definition of same-sex orientation as ‘a non-pathological, regularly occurring minority variation in the human condition’.

However, this new knowledge was not an impetus for the teaching office of the Church to start thinking about same-sex orientation and its implication for human flourishing. The Church leadership simply changed the premise of the argument. A new concept was introduced to sexual morality – complementarity. This may initially sound plausible, but the Church’s focus is not on a holistic complementarity of mind, body and spirit – it focuses mainly on the biological, which is only ever assessed in the male/female dyad. A holistic complementarity on the other hand ‘unites people, bodily emotionally, spiritually and personally, within the reality of a person’s sexual orientation’. (Salzman & Lawler, The Sexual Person: toward a renewed Catholic anthropology).

Sometimes the tradition of the Church is used as an excuse for avoiding change – we never did this in the past, so we can never do this in the future. This is to be wilfully blind to the fact that while tradition moulds us as human beings, we, in turn, mould tradition. It is a two-way experience. Taking ownership of tradition as a free, mature adult needs critical engagement with it. A necessary part of this engagement is interpretation. Narrowing this interpretation to one limited view serves nobody, and certainly not the Church, well. The choices and decisions made on behalf of the community of Christians affect the lives of a significant segment of humanity, especially where there is a claim to be a teaching authority. That is a responsibility that cannot be taken lightly. We need to remove our sandals and remember we are standing on hallowed ground when people of same-sex orientation talk about their experiences – their pain at our hands; their faith, their hope and their love. For they, too, are God’s holy people.

Angela Hanley is a theologian and author. Her most recent publication is ‘What happened to Sean Fagan?’ Her current interest and research is on same-sex marriage for Catholic gay/lesbian couples.

Feb/Mar 2020

In June 2019 Open House held a conference exploring possible new directions for the Catholic Church in Scotland. See conference papers.

Open House also held a conference on the role of lay people in the governance of the Catholic Church in November 2013. See conference papers.