We’re bound to offend, so let’s speak plainly
This morning at Mass, I distributed the Australian bishops’ recent pastoral letter on marriage. Despite its assertive title — Don’t Mess With Marriage — it is a very mild document.
The document presents a case for traditional marriage which seeks to be as inoffensive as possible. By this measure, the document has failed. Here’s a few headlines to prove it:
- Anti-same-sex marriage booklet sent to Catholic schools ‘degrades’ gay students
- Catholic Church “desperate” after handing out anti-gay marriage booklets to children: Brisbane priest
- Penrith Catholic students burn ‘anti-gay’ booklets
- Don’t Mess With Marriage booklet could breach Anti-Discrimination Act
The supreme irony in this is that the document nowhere refers to the Church’s “most offensive” (read, most counter-cultural) moral teachings. No mention of the grave immorality of homosexual acts. No mention of objectively disordered inclinations. These teachings constitute the elephant in the room.
I spoke to a priest last week who was quite animated in his defence of traditional marriage. “Marriage can only occur between a man and a woman. If a same-sex couple came to me, I’d be very happy to bless them. I’d pray that they find God in their love for each other, and goodness in their life together. But it’s not marriage.”
Right. It’s not marriage. But what that priest said isn’t Catholic teaching either. A gravely immoral relationship can’t be blessed. This priest’s position is incompatible with the Catholic moral tradition. But it’s not incompatible with Don’t Mess With Marriage. I don’t wish to suggest that the bishops’ pastoral letter condones same sex relationships. That’s a logical leap too far. But certainly, the letter is ambiguous. It fails to present the full Catholic teaching on the subject.
For this reason, I also distributed to parishioners a much more comprehensive document. In 2003, Pope John Paul II approved the CDF’s Considerations Regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions Between Homosexual Persons. The title is much longer than the Australian bishops’ letter, but the document itself is much shorter. It’s also much more “offensive” — in that it doesn’t mince words and includes very direct exhortations.
Sacred Scripture condemns homosexual acts “as a serious depravity… (cf. Rom 1:24-27; 1 Cor 6:10; 1 Tim 1:10). This judgment of Scripture does not of course permit us to conclude that all those who suffer from this anomaly are personally responsible for it, but it does attest to the fact that homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.” This same moral judgment is found in many Christian writers of the first centuries and is unanimously accepted by Catholic Tradition.
When legislation in favour of the recognition of homosexual unions is proposed for the first time in a legislative assembly, the Catholic law-maker has a moral duty to express his opposition clearly and publicly and to vote against it. To vote in favour of a law so harmful to the common good is gravely immoral.
Here we have language which is deeply provocative, and I can understand why it wasn’t used in the Australian bishops’ pastoral letter. The bishops want to teach and edify. They don’t want to offend.
But here’s the thing. Catholic teaching on homosexuality is offensive to a growing proportion of the population. We only have to review those headlines above to confirm it. As disciples of Jesus Christ, Catholics need to be comfortable with this. Our Lord, who of course excelled at speaking the truth with love, wasn’t very nice. He offended people left, right and centre. Why should things be different for us?
The furore caused by Don’t Mess With Marriage despite its mild presentation, suggests to me that we may as well be direct and avoid ambiguity. Hence my recommendation to parishioners to take and read both the bishops’ letter, and the CDF’s Considerations.
Many times in the last few years, I have heard bishops and cardinals call for a review of the language the Church uses. To cite a recent example, consider Cardinal Diarmuid Martin’s response to Ireland’s gay marriage yes vote:
“It’s very clear that if this referendum is an affirmation of the views of young people, then the Church has a huge task in front of it to find the language to be able to talk to and to get its message across to young people, not just on this issue, but in general.”
I think this is dead wrong. It’s also a bit patronising. “Marriage equality” activists aren’t offended by the language of Catholic moral teaching. They’re offended by the content. The Church has never waged a petty war of words. The Church is engaged in the noble battle of ideas.
Put another way, the “messaging remedy” is not semantic. The remedy is something which was banished from the Church’s seminaries and universities and schools 50 years ago, at great cost. The remedy is apologetics.