Faith, gays and chastity
HOMOSEXUALITY AND THE CHURCH: TWO VIEWSJohn Haldane
- 3 March 2007
Plans for pastoral outreach to Catholic homosexuals drawn up by the Diocese of Westminster fail to acknowledge the efforts of those who live following ancient teaching of the Church, according to a leading philosopher and pontifical consultor
Following the furore surrounding the Catholic Church's policies on gay adoption, the recent statement by the Diocese of Westminster "concerning its outreach and ministry to homosexual persons" has provided further occasion for critical comments on Church teaching from within Catholic circles. It would be understandable, therefore, if, feeling somewhat beleaguered, the Church sought to play down its teachings or to placate its internal critics. These, though, would be mistakes: the first a failure of intellectual integrity and moral virtue, the second an act of imprudence and injustice.
The recent Westminster statement speaks of the diocese having become increasingly conscious of particular pastoral needs present in parts of London's West End, and more precisely of the desire of "a number of homosexual Catholics, together with their parents, families and friends, for pastoral care". In response, after setting out church teaching on these matters, and noting that Masses serving these interests have been taking place in Islington and in Soho (at the Anglican Church of St Anne's), the diocese proposes as part of "its pastoral outreach to homosexual people" a bimonthly Mass to be held at Our Lady of the Assumption in Warwick Street, Soho.
The Masses at St Anne's have been running since July 2005, arranged by the "Soho Masses Pastoral Council" (SMPC) for "lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered [LGBT] Catholics, and their parents, families and friends". It is from discussions between the diocese and the SMPC that the recent initiative has emerged (although no mention of this group is made in the announcement). A response by the SMPC is given in its own statement of 4 February, "Our Places at the Table", which, while expressing satisfaction at "an agreement that [these Masses] will particularly welcome LGBT Catholics, their parents and their families", takes issue with its use of the language and substance of traditional Catholic moral teachings.
The diocesan initiative recognises the pastoral needs of some of those on whom the Church's longstanding teaching on sexuality may rest heavily. Well intended, therefore, and explicit in maintaining church teachings, it nevertheless gives rise to certain risks: first, encouraging or even recognising sectionalist interest; secondly, confusing and giving scandal to the faithful; thirdly, undermining the efforts of those who, though of homosexual inclination, strive to live according to the Church's teachings and seek no special privileges; and fourthly, compromising the conduct of the Mass and the gift of the Eucharist.
Many of those involved in the SMPC seem to me to be participating in the sacramental life of the Church on their own terms and not in respectful fidelity to its teachings. Bidding prayers used in the Soho Masses celebrate and seek blessing for same-sex unions following their civil partnerships. They are remembered on the third Sunday of each month. This is an example of a recent bidding prayer used at St Anne's: "For all who have entered into civil partnerships during this past month, and for all who are keeping their first anniversaries around this time: that God will preserve them in love and faithfulness."
It is said by internal critics of church teaching that there is a diversity of theological reflection on the matter of human sexuality, in particular in relation to sexually expressed same-sex attraction. It is also said that the authority of church teaching depends on its reception and on the sensus fidelium. These claims seem often to be advanced either in ignorance or with the intention of undermining traditional understandings.
From the Council of Jerusalem, the Church has promulgated essentially the same teaching on matters of sexual practice, and there simply is no other body of conciliar, catechetical or magisterial teaching at odds with this (see the historical references to the Declaration on Certain Questions Concerning Sexual Ethics, 1975). Also the sensus and consensus fidelium are not like the responses to a political opinion poll or social survey trend. They presuppose faithful participation in the life of the Church and have to be considered not in one time and place but across all times and all places.
The question, therefore, is not "what do secularised Catholics living in Britain or Western Europe, and deeply immersed in its values, think?" but "what have the faithful over the centuries and across the continents thought and lived?". Some of the recent critical commentary cites the name of Newman as if in support of change, but this only shows their ignorance of what Newman said and wrote (most relevantly in On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine).
The risks of confusing and giving scandal to the faithful, and of exploitation of the gift of the Mass, are obvious enough, but equally important is the seeming failure to give explicit support for groups that do seek to live in accordance with church teaching, groups such as Courage and Encourage. The aims of Courage are defined by its five goals: chastity (live chaste lives in accordance with the Catholic Church's teaching on homosexuality); prayer and dedication (dedicate one's life to Christ through service to others, spiritual reading, prayer, meditation, individual spiritual direction, frequent attendance at Mass and the frequent reception of the Sacraments of Reconciliation and the Holy Eucharist); fellowship (foster a spirit of fellowship in which all may share thoughts and experiences and so ensure that no one will have to face the problems of homosexuality alone); support (be mindful of the truth that chaste relationships are not only possible but necessary in a chaste encouragement to one another in forming and sustaining them); good example (live lives that may serve as good examples to others).
These noble Christian goals are heroically pursued by members of Courage and others, and it was a missed opportunity in a statement on outreach and ministry to homosexual persons not to express explicit appreciation of those who seek to live in accord with the Church's teachings, and not to acknowledge the good work of organisations such as Courage. It must be saddening for members of these to see groups hostile and unfaithful to the Church's teachings given attention while they who strive to live in accord with the only teaching that has ever been promulgated by the Church go unacknowledged, let alone praised.
It would be fitting, therefore, if the Westminster Diocese were now to take an early opportunity publicly to differentiate between homosexual groups opposed to and others faithful to church teaching, and in particular to quote and commend the five goals of Courage, all pursued in line with the one, ancient, universal and continuing teaching of the Church that sexual activity belongs exclusively within the marital union of one man and one woman.
In times of opposition and contradiction, when other difficulties afflict the Church, it can seem opportune to attend sympathetically to critics, but prudence and justice dictate honouring the faithful and the loyal, for they are the life of the Church in season and out of it, whose faith and practice give meaning to the expression sensus fidelium.
See James Alison's article