Ross contributes to the debate today, making roughly the same argument as I have but stressing more firmly that there is no actual doctrinal change (and even, according to Ross, no change in the blanket discrimination against gay seminarians). Juan Cole is even more dismissive:
[I]t seems to me that Pope Francis is just saying what many evangelicals say– hate the sin, love the sinner, celibate gays are welcome in the congregation, etc. And he’s putting a further precondition on acceptance, that gays not band together as a pressure group. So they have to be celibate and seen but not heard, sort of like children.
But both Cole and Douthat note a very different change in tone from Benedict’s stern strictures about “objective disorders” to Francis’ expansive “They are our brothers.” So the question becomes: does this tone mean something substantive in the life of the church? Or is it just brilliant spin, decontaminating the brand while upholding its Ratzingerian substance?
Here’s what I would argue: the tone is intimately related to the substance, and the one cannot logically be changed without the other. Which is why this recent statement reveals the incoherent tension at the heart of the church’s teaching about homosexuality – a tension that at some point has to be resolved.
Here’s why. Recall Ratzinger’s central innovation in the argument in 1986:
Although the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin, it is a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil; and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder.
What Ratzinger was saying is precisely that, in the case of homosexuals, hating the sin but loving the sinner is not a Catholic option. Because in the case of homosexuals, their sin is integrally related to their very nature, which they cannot change. The part of their nature that is objectively disordered and they cannot change is, moreover, that pertaining to love and sex and family, arguably the very things that make most of us happy. So gay people truly are deformed in the most profound way possible – morally crippled and constrained by their very nature.
Why would Ratzinger have taken that huge and painful leap that is so anathema to the spirit of inclusion in the Gospels? Because in Catholic teaching, acts flow from being. It is absurd in Catholic thought to talk of something in nature that is entirely neutral and yet always leads to an intrinsic moral evil if expressed.
To see why, try and come up with a serious analogy within Catholic theology for the argument that homosexuality as not sinful in itself but is always sinful when expressed. I’ve been trying for twenty years.
Take the sin of envy, for example, which is part of our common human nature and is always a sin when expressed in an act. But it is not a neutral condition, as the 1975 Letter said of homosexuality; it is a sign of our fallen nature. It does not occupy some neutral ground before being expressed. It is part of original sin for all of us.
Or take alcoholism. Some people are alcoholics by nature or genetics, which is why it is hard to describe being an alcoholic as sinful, since it isn’t a choice, like homosexuality. But the choice to drink, like the choice to express love sexually for gay people, is nonetheless a sin for alcoholics. I think this is the best analogy I’ve heard in this long debate. But it falls apart on one obvious ground. Unlike sodomy, drinking itself is not sinful for everyone, according to the Church. For most people, it’s fine. Jesus himself turned water into wine to keep the wedding party going.
But sodomy is barred as sinful for all people, straights as well as gays. The Church does not say, as it does for alcoholism, that it’s fine for straight people to have non-procreative sex, but not for gays. It says it’s a sin whether committed by a heterosexual or a homosexual. So again, the teaching on homosexuality appears unique, as if it were an argument designed to buttress a pre-existing prejudice, rather than an argument from the center of the church’s teaching.
So maybe being gay is a form of disability for Benedict. But the church’s teachings about the disabled bear no relation to its teachings about homosexuals. The former are embraced, brought to the front of the church, cared for, defended, championed, as any Christian organization must and should. The latter are silenced, pathologized and told not to be all they can be, and specifically to avoid any expression of love, passion, family or relationship with a partner or spouse, i.e. to live a life of unique isolation and suffering, simply because of who they are. Tim Padgett gets the problem:
How can the Catholic church declare homosexuals “disordered” and their lifestyle an “intrinsic moral evil,” yet expect us to applaud its “love” for gays somewhere beneath all that homophobic bigotry? My mother was born in Mississippi and has often told me of Southern whites in the mid-20th century insisting they could love a black person even if they hated the black race. No, you can’t have it both ways. So it makes no more sense to me in the early 21st century to hear Pope Francis claim to love gays while I know that when he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires he called Argentina’s legalization of gay marriage a “grave anthropological regression.” Or to hear celebrity evangelical pastor Rick Warren profess admiration for gay friends but then keep saying that it “might be a sin” for them to sleep with each other.
This is indeed the nub of it. A theologian reader explains why:
What was done by the author(s) of the 1986 document (let us call them Ratzinger, who at least signed it) was to tie a logical knot that could now work greatly in gays’ favor, if only, as you suggest, some in the press were better able to understand it, and so face down spinning Archbishops such as your own. The knot was to point out that in order for it to be the case that all gay sex is sinful (which is what many Bishops would love to be able to maintain without any logical consequences) then you have to maintain that the condition itself is objectively disordered. This, of course, many Catholic spokespersons try to run away from doing, since many of them know it is false, and not all of them are fully accomplished liars.
But what this means is that if, as appears to be the case, being gay is not an objective disorder then according to the logic proper to Catholic faith, which recognizes that acts flow from being, it is also not the case that all gay sex is sinful. Ratzinger was logically correct that the absolute prohibition against loving same-sex acts cannot be maintained if it is accepted that the inclination is “neutral or positive” to use the language rejected by the 1975 document you refer to.
What the 1986 document bequeathed to us (apart from a huge amount of pain, anguish, and despair) was not only a mistaken characterization, but a logical recognition that if the characterization is mistaken, then so is the absolute prohibition. This is the double bind that most Bishops dance around, and are allowed to dance around by a press that imagines “Church teaching” in this area to be a special category, the rules of a private club, and not a matter which depends quite simply on what is true about the human beings in question.
I hope and pray that Papa Bergoglio knows where he’s taking this. Which means I hope and pray that he, unlike so many of his colleagues, is not stuck in the double-bind, and thus will be able to unbind us all into living the truth, which is what Popes are for.
I hope so too. The Catholic faith is one designed to be examined by reason. Yet reason reveals that its core teaching on homosexuality requires it to describe an entire class of people as inherent moral deviants, regardless of what they do or say or how they live their lives. That final assertion is simply incompatible with reason and with Christianity. At some point, it will collapse. And with it, the entire edifice of the tortured teachings on sex that the Catholic hierarchy is so desperate to maintain.
I doubt Pope Francis is doing this consciously or as a means to bring the Church to its senses on this question. But his expression of Christian love and charity toward gay people is a direct rebuke of the doctrines he says he still supports. And at some point, what cannot be logically sustained will fall.
(Photos: Pope Benedict XVI, Franciscans arriving for the inaugural mass for Pope Francis, and the Jacob Epstein’s statue of Lazarus in New College, Oxford. By Getty Images.)