One of the great question marks still hanging over Pope Francis’ tenure as Bishop of Rome is whether any actual doctrinal changes will occur. Damon Linker has a provocative and honest piece out wondering if “liberal” Catholics even care about doctrine any more – because so many have been content simply to celebrate the sharp transformation of tone in the Francis era and the new emphasis on Christianity as an urgent and empowering and demanding way of life. Money quote:
I had assumed all along that liberal Catholics wanted to liberalize Catholic doctrine — that they wanted to bring the church, as I wrote in TNR, “into conformity with the egalitarian ethos of modern liberalism, including its embrace of gay rights, sexual freedom, and gender equality.” But here was a liberal Catholic telling me I’d gotten it all wrong. The pope’s warm, welcoming words are “everything,” Trish said, because doctrine, including that covering contraception and divorce, is “useless.”
As someone who, to be honest, has been exhilarated this past year by the re-emergence of a genuine, living, breathing Christianity in the Vatican, I’m not in the same camp as “Trish”. But it also depends on what you mean exactly by doctrine.
If by doctrine, you mean the core tenets of the Creed I recite at Mass by heart (or at least used to until Benedict added all sorts of anal-retentive clutter), then I do not favor any changes in doctrine. I believe in what I say. Sometimes, of course, it is hard to believe something that is beyond my real understanding. I’ve thought about, meditated on, puzzled over and marveled at the doctrine of the Incarnation, for example – for me, the most radical of all Christianity’s improbable claims. I believe in it until I can’t, at which point, I embrace a mystery – what Pascal called “the use and submission of reason.” But I am utterly unworthy – morally and intellectually – to offer any real critique of these mysteries; and because I feel and know the living presence of Jesus in my own life, because that presence seems to me both human and divine, and because Jesus has rescued me so many times from myself and from the world, I accept what I cannot understand.
Then there are questions of morals. And readers know I find the natural law arguments that I have been told to believe in about human sexuality and the family to be both incoherent and unpersuasive precisely as “natural” law. (See the relevant chapters in Virtually Normal and The Conservative Soul.) I see Aquinas through the prism of our modern, and far deeper, knowledge of human biology and evolution and my own human experience as a homosexual in modernity. But over the decades I have written on this, I haven’t done more than ask the Church hierarchy to confront and grapple with what I see as incoherence, or cruelty, or anachronism in its sexual teachings. I have, for example, been passionate in backing equal civil marriage rights; but I have never made a case for including gay couples in the sacrament of matrimony, because I think we need a much deeper and slower and conscientious discussion before we think about that kind of change in a two-millennia-old faith. But, alas, both John Paul II and Benedict XVI not only forbade such a discussion but also enforced some of the most insulting and condescending views about who we homosexuals are, spoke about us as inherently drawn to evil by our very nature, and refused even to address us as fellow-Catholics or as fellow human beings.
But Francis has changed that. He famously sent out a questionnaire to all Catholics asking for our views on questions of the family, of sexuality, and of our actual lives in the modern world. It’s in preparation for a Synod later this year in Rome to air those very subjects – the kind of honest, real dialogue Benedict spent a lifetime squelching, stigmatizing and censoring. No one knows where it will lead. But the dialogue is as important as any result. It’s a start. Glasnost is returning to the church again.
And so when the leading Catholic theologians in Germany produce a response to the questionnaire that deeply challenges the rigid doctrines the hierarchy has deployed to understand and enforce sexual morality, it’s a sign of a real paradigm shift. Catholics are part of a faith that cherishes the life of the mind, that asserts that Christianity is fully compatible with reason until mystery intervenes, that in the beginning, as John has it, was logos. And logos was with God. And logos was God. With a Jesuit at the helm, that is arguably truer than ever.
So what do these theologians say? It turns out – quite something. The full document is embedded below. Some highlights:
In response to a question regarding the church’s teachings on the value of the family, for example, the theologians respond that the church’s teachings are “practically not accepted” and “often lacks in [their] relation to experience.” Continuing on that subject, the theologians also state that people “are not satisfied when the Church proposes only celibacy and marriage as legitimate forms of life … In the light of the Gospel, the question should be examined whether other forms of life could be relieved of the verdict of sin,” they state … Responding to questions on the church’s prohibition of artificial contraception, the theologians state that “even the most committed Catholics don’t perceive their practice of artificial contraception as a conflict with their involvement in the Church which might lead to changes in their sacramental practice.”
But what is the positive vision the theologians offer instead? I recommend reading the full document, but NCR has a great summary:
Moving to their proposal for a new paradigm of evaluating sexual acts, the theologians say the church needs to appreciate the nakedness and vulnerability people experience in their sex lives.
They state that such a paradigm would have at least three dimensions:
A caring dimension to “protect that which is fragile.” Marriage, the theologians state, “could then be understood as an institution that protects this fragility, not as an institution of obligation.”
An emancipatory dimension that “opens new perspectives when vulnerability has become violation … As an emancipatory ethics, Christian sexual ethics has to take the side of those who lose in relationships, the ones who are left and hurt to the core,” they state. “It rejects all forms of sexual violence.”
A reflexive dimension that “accepts vulnerability and counters the banalization and routinization of sexuality.” … “As a reflexive ethics of vulnerability, Christian sexual ethics know the ontological value of vulnerability,” they state. “The joy of intimacy can be experienced only when it is possible to be vulnerable without being violated.”
That last line is quite beautiful to me. Why? Because it sees just how fraught a sexual encounter must be for two human beings, and therefore how radical a form of mutual respect is required to allow it to be joyful. Yes: joyful. Instead of seeing sex as intricately bound up in sin, policed by doctrine, subject to rules first seriously devised in the thirteenth century, Catholics can see the intimacy and vulnerability of sex as requiring a kind of grace to remove from it all forms of power, exploitation, and disrespect. This is not the language of rights-based liberalism. It is the language of reason, experience and respect for the profound and great gift of sexuality and its capacity to emancipate us, to show us a way to truly care for one another, and to protect the vulnerable in an avenue of joyfulness.
It removes at once the instrumental view of sex-as-solely-procreation and replaces it with something – dare I say it? – more Christian.
I want to re-read and reflect on this document some more. I hope you do too.
(Photos: Getty Images)