Sunday, October 4, 2015

A Wish List for the Synod on the Family

The 2015 Bishops' Synod on the Family is finally upon us and so I would like to offer my personal wish list on the direction I hope the Church's teachings on marriage and the family will take. The standard here is "achievable", not perfection.

1. De-linking marriage, sex, and procreation

By allowing menopausal women to marry, the Church is already acknowledging that marriage has purposes beyond mere procreation. By permitting and instructing couples in natural family planning, the Church recognizes that sex does not necessarily have to be linked to making babies -- a change from religions that consider women to be unclean during their menstrual cycles and advise men to abstain from sex with them at those times,conveniently the times when they are also least likely to conceive. The time has come to de-link these three items. What are some of the implications?

a) Childless couples: Despite Pope Francis' laments about modern couples who selfishly refuse to have children, many couples choose to have fewer or no children for good reasons. Some of those reasons include when pregnancy or childbirth could endanger the wife's health, not wishing to pass on a negative genetic trait, not being financially or emotionally able to assume the burden of child-rearing (and having children when a couple is not ready can stretch a marriage to the breaking point as well as lead to spouse and child abuse), or simply forgoing the pleasures of family life to devote time to service such as missionary work. Such couples should be able to get married in the Catholic Church without having to lie about their intentions with respect to starting a family.

b) Marriage and Impotence: Canon Law 1084.1 is unequivocal: "1. Antecedent and perpetual impotence to have intercourse, whether on the part of the man or the woman, whether absolute or relative, nullifies marriage by its very nature." And yet this impotence is usually due to illness or disability. Think of a severely wounded veteran who comes home with the dream of marrying his girlfriend and then is told by his parish priest that this is quite impossible. Church teaching needs to change to recognize that the couple themselves are the authors of the sacrament of marriage and that if, after due counseling and discernment, the couple still wish to marry, they should be allowed to do so even if there will be no sex or children. Impotence should not be an impediment to marriage, nor should it nullify it, unless it has not been fully disclosed to the partner.

c) Birth control: If every act of sexual intercourse does not have to be open to procreation, it follows that couples should be allowed to use any available family planning method that is not abortifacient. At the very least, the following methods should be permissible in addition to NFP and abstinence: all barrier methods such as condoms and diaphragms, spermicidal creams, vasectomy and sterilization. The Church's teaching on children needs to move from constant openness to life, to responsible parenthood. Families should be encouraged to have the number of children they want and can provide for, not "as many as God gives them." And couples should be able to choose from an array of tools to help them achieve this.

2. Homosexuality

Yesterday, we were treated to the spectacle of a Polish priest and theologian who was the assistant secretary of the International Theological Commission of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Fr. Krzysztof Charamsa, coming out in an Italian newspaper with his Spanish partner, Eduardo. At a later press conference, Charamsa used a stronger word to describe their relationship -- "fidanzato", which can be boyfriend or fiance. Fr. Charamsa, who was ordained in 1997, was promptly terminated from all his duties at the Vatican -- both his position at the CDF and his teaching positions at two universities, the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum and the Pontifical Gregorian University. His fate as a priest is in the hands of the Bishop of the Diocese of Pelplin in Poland, Msgr. Ryszard Kasyna, who immediately issued a canonical admonition to Charamsa "to return to the way of Christ's priesthood" and asking "all priests and the faithful to pray for this intention." In effect, Fr. Charamsa is being treated exactly like a heterosexual priest who has admitted publicly to violating his celibacy vow, with an additional reference to his public opposition to Church teaching on homosexuality.

This unfortunate blurring of two separate issues -- the Church's position on homosexuality and its celibacy rule -- will detract from Fr. Charamsa's message. It would have been far more effective for him to have either come all the way out and resigned from the priesthood as heterosexual priests in similar situations have done so as not to be leading a double life, or to have simply stated (without the boyfriend in tow) that as a gay priest and theologian, he would like to suggest some changes in the Church's teaching on homosexuality. I contrast this with recently deceased Fr. John McNeill who wrote his landmark book The Church and the Homosexual in 1976, publicly acknowledging his own sexual orientation yet being discrete about his personal life. The book was written over a decade after McNeill met the man he would eventually marry, Charles Chiarelli. McNeill was instrumental in the founding of DignityUSA and was able to continue to minister as a priest, even though a year after the book's publication, the CDF forbade him from speaking or writing anymore on the topic. Ten years later he was expelled from the Jesuits after Pope Benedict XVI's crackdown on gays in the priesthood. After his expulsion from the Jesuits, McNeill wrote several more books on gay theology. Fr. Charasma, on the other hand, has never used his academic credentials or position to offer a theological defense of homosexuals in the Church.

So what is my wish list for the Synod on this issue?

a) Striking pejorative and unscientific language about homosexuals from Church teaching documents. CIC 2357: "tradition has always declared that 'homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.' They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity." CIC 2358: "This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial" and similar language. These words are both unkind and untrue. Healthy homosexuals do not experience their orientation as a "trial." What IS a trial is having to deal with the Church's blatant homophobia.

b) Distinguish between civil/legal marriage and sacramental marriage and quit interfering in the struggle of homosexuals for marriage equality. Pope Francis laid out this reality when he addressed the bishops attending the World Meeting of Families. "Until recently, we lived in a social context where the similarities between the civil institution of marriage and the Christian sacrament were considerable and shared. The two were interrelated and mutually supportive. This is no longer the case," the pope said. He goes on to deplore this but then cautions the bishops against saying that "it was all better back then" and "the world is falling apart and if things go on this way, who knows where we will end up?." Instead he reminds them that their duty is "to seek out, to accompany, to lift up, to bind up the wounds of our time. To look at things realistically, with the eyes of one who feels called to action, to pastoral conversion. The world today demands this pastoral conversion on our part. 'It is vitally important for the Church today to go forth and preach the Gospel to all: to all places, on all occasions, without hesitation, reluctance or fear. The joy of the Gospel is for all people: no one can be excluded' (Evangelii Gaudium, 23)."

c) Finally, the Church needs to stop discriminating against LGBTQ lay employees in hiring and promotion. Bottom line: If a heterosexual person isn't fired for getting married, a homosexual employee should not be fired either. Fordham University in New York demonstrated the correct response this summer when Dr. J. Patrick Hornbeck II, chairman of the university's Theology Department, married his partner, Patrick Anthony Bergquist, at St. Bartholomew's Episcopal Church, where the latter is a youth minister. Fordham briefly reiterated the Church's opposition to same-sex marriage, wished the couple blessings and said that Hornbeck "like all University employees, students and alumni, is entitled to human dignity without regard to race, creed, gender, and sexual orientation."

Many other people have fielded proposals in areas like Holy Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics and what to do about cohabiting couples, and some of those proposals have already found their way into the Instrumentum Laboris so I will not got into these matters here. I simply pray that the bishops remember Pope Francis' urging to build a Church that is as loving and inclusive as possible so that all our families might have a place at the table.