The Synod and the Status Quo

By Timothy Kirchoff
October 27, 2014

The aftershocks have at last begun to subside after last week’s Synodal “earthquake”; people have started to recognize that the relatio is intended to be a provisional document for further discussion leading up to next year’s synod. It is therefore appropriate that the discussion has moved toward the content of the synod discussion and away from the sensationalized politics of the event itself.

One element of the discussion that has been thus far under-explored is the relationship between the language the synod was considering with respect to homosexuals and same-sex couples, and the approaches that American Catholic institutions—parishes, schools, and charities—have been taking to the spread of same-sex marriage. It was, after all, a question about a specific policy—whether gay men might enter seminaries—that prompted Pope Francis’ oft-quoted and oft-misunderstood line, “Who am I to judge?” We should think carefully about what questions these situations and these institutional responses to them raise so that both the policies and the conversations that they start will be opportunities to express Catholic truths in a courageous, clear, and compelling way.

Of all these situations, that of the charities is most easily explained. Nondiscrimination laws place an ultimatum before Catholic adoption agencies: They must either place children with same-sex couples or lose their state license—conform or be closed. Some have chosen to secularize, abandoning their explicit Catholic character in order to continue serving the poor, while others have called the state’s bluff and chosen to close their doors; both approaches are neatly encapsulated here.

The Synod doesn’t seem to have paid much attention to this dilemma: The closest it comes is in paragraph 54 of the final document (still not released in English for reasons possibly related to the controversies related to mistranslations in the interim relatio), which argues simply that international aid should not be predicated on the receiving nations’ recognition of same-sex marriages. The dilemma should not exist in the first place: Catholic charities should not be forced to choose between serving the poor and serving God.

The controversial relatio post disceptationem included the statement that the Church should “emphasiz[e] that the needs and rights of the little ones [being raised by same-sex couples] must always be given priority,” but it is not made clear precisely what rights and needs are being discussed. Whether the document is referring to the right of a child to a mother and father or to a more general suite of rights I cannot guess.

Parishes, parish schools, and Catholic high schools that have been in the news for reasons related to same-sex marriage seem to have adopted more or less the same approach, summarized by New York Times columnist Frank Bruni as “‘I do’ means you’re done.” Openly gay teachers at Catholic schools are told that they must either obtain a civil divorce or lose their job; the openly gay couple in Bruni’s column is told that they cannot receive communion while they are still civilly married.

Curiously enough, the Huffington Post, in its initial coverage of the Seismic Synod, described these sorts of measures as characteristic of harsh treatment of LGBT Catholics. The fact that the same-sex couples in almost all these cases seem to have rallied the most vocal members of their communities to their side supports the common narrative that the average American Catholic isn’t particularly attached to the Church’s teaching on marriage, but the pastors’ and administrators’ actions don’t quite qualify as harsh. Although I am quite ready to believe that LGBT Catholics are regularly marginalized, these instances are far from the best examples of marginalization. It seems clear that, in all or most of these cases, it was only when the same-sex couple became a clear cause for public scandal that the administration stepped in: Until they either entered a civil marriage or, in some cases, conceived a child through artificial reproductive technologies, these openly LGBT individuals were members of the community in good standing, even if they were living with an individual of the same sex.

It seems that these parishes and schools were already very nearly living up to the standard set by paragraph 50 of the interim relatio, of “guaranteeing to [homosexuals] a fraternal space in our communities [...] without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony.” It is only when these teachers’ and employees’ public actions amounted to an unequivocal and unmistakable endorsement of views on marriage and family that are incompatible with Catholic teaching that the pastors and school administrators in these cases have sought to administer discipline.

It’s possible to critique these firings or threats of firings in any number of ways (indeed, fault might be found in the conduct of virtually any of the schools that have made their way into the news for these controversies), and Daniel J. Daly concisely and carefully explores the ethical dimensions of these decisions in a piece published in America magazine earlier this year. Of all of the issues that Daly raises, the criteria that seem to be least frequently satisfied in the existing cases are a) clarity of communication regarding the fact that these activities will in fact threaten these employees’ status in the community, and b) transparency in the process by which it is initially decided that these activities actually do render an individual unfit to be an educator in a Catholic school.

A third response to same-sex marriage that has been embraced by several prominent Catholic organizations, including Catholic Health Initiatives and the University of Notre Dame, is extending all benefits given to opposite-sex spouses to same-sex spouses as well. This response has been very widely regarded as scandalous, and not entirely without reason: it seems on its face to be an absolute, even gratuitous concession to the change in the laws, and Notre Dame’s refusal or inability to issue a strong defense of the Church’s teaching on marriage as more than just a Catholic peculiarity only makes it seem like a concession to the spirit of the age as well.

That said, I think it’s possible to argue that, rather like the firings previously discussed, it is not necessarily that the idea itself (in this case, granting benefits) is categorically wrong, but rather, that the implementation is flawed in that it fails to respect the uniqueness of the institution of marriage. We might easily imagine extending some sort of benefits to same-sex partners of employees out of recognition of what paragraph 52 of the interim relatio called the “mutual aid to the point of sacrifice [that] constitutes a precious support in the life of the partners.”

I am disappointed that this sort of language did not find its way into the final document because it is through such language that we can best engage our cultural opposites. In demonstrating a clear understanding of their strongest arguments, we demonstrate that we have listened to them and thereby invite them to return the favor. Undoubtedly there will be those who will try to spin any such statements as signs of weakness, but I daresay that either refusing to engage these arguments at all—or worse yet, engaging strawmen—is a much clearer sign of a lack of confidence in the truth about marriage.

This, in the end, is what I take to be the challenge lying before the synod with respect to Western society: not simply reasserting Church teaching, but offering careful and coherent explanations for why the teaching is what it is and why our policies, in turn, are what they are. In doing so, we need not be afraid of acknowledging that people living in far-from-ideal circumstances in terms of sexual morality have nonetheless managed to construct relationships that are laudable at least in part.  We shouldn’t be afraid to speak of “precious support” between same-sex partners or of a praiseworthy charity and hospitality among same-sex couples that take in needy children, or even to say that couples that use artificial reproductive methods may be acting out of an understandable (if flawed in a characteristically modern way) desire to play a significant role in the lives of some portion of the next generation.

The Church, after all, has long recognized that it can be virtuous for people of the same sex to live together, sharing all of life’s joys and burdens, caring for each other in illness, and even taking in and raising needy children; She calls these institutions monasteries, not marriages. We can readily affirm whatever imperfectly pursued or imperfectly realized goods might be found in same-sex relationships because we can be totally confident that all of these goods can be pursued and realized more perfectly in the Catholic Faith. When we cast aside the gratification of our egos and appetites for the sake of God and neighbor, we begin to realize our destiny as human beings: It is ultimately this—not some vague sentimentality—that makes the family the true school of charity.