On Bishops’ Decrees Against Gay Catholics’ Funerals, the Real Scandal Is Discrimination

Michael Lawler, left, and Todd Salzman

Two U.S. bishops’ decrees that would deny funerals to Catholics in same-gender marriages were voted by Bondings 2.0 readers as the worst Catholic LGBT news story of 2017. When issuing their decrees, Bishops Thomas Paprocki of Springfield and Robert Morlino of Madison were ostensibly worried about the public scandal such funerals might cause.

But theologians Todd A. Salzman and Michael G. Lawler argued in the National Catholic Reporter that the real scandal is the decrees themselves. They summarized their argument:

“Their decrees so lack any ethical, canonical or pastoral justification that they can cause public scandal, not the scandal of promoting homosexual behavior by permitting the church funeral of a deceased same-sex partner, but the scandal of promoting discriminatory attitudes of unjust judgment and condemnation of homosexual partners. The lack of the Gospel virtues of love, mercy and compassion in their decrees, their implied and unsupported presumption of the condition of a dead person’s spiritual life, and their outmoded Pius X approach to the authority and inviolability of personal conscience can all cause the public scandal of promoting discrimination against gay and lesbian couples. “

Salzman and Lawler made three points in their essay: 1) the real scandal is the denial of a funeral because it is that act, and not the act of holding a funeral, which could lead Catholics to commit evil (i.e., discriminate against lesbian and gay people); 2) the bishops’ misunderstand the meaning of “grave sin”; 3) the bishopsdid not sufficiently respect the role of conscience. What follows is a summary with key quotes, but for readers interested in understanding their argument in a deeper way, I recommend reading the whole essay.

On the first point, Salzman and Lawler quoted the Catechism, which defines scandal as “an attitude or behavior which leads another to do evil.” The theologians inquired as to what exactly is scandalous in this discussion about funerals for married lesbian and gay Catholics, whether it is the funeral itself or the bishops’ behavior in denying a funeral. They wrote:

“It is hard to imagine, and no argument is provided to fuel the imagination, that a church funeral for a deceased same-sex spouse would lead Catholics to believe either that the church no longer teaches that homosexual behavior is wrong or that homosexual behavior is now moral.

“The language of the church describing homosexuality as an ‘objective disorder’ and the specious language from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops about ‘not unjust discrimination’ of homosexuals in opposition to the Employment Non-Discrimination Act have caused infinitely more scandal than any church funeral for a deceased same-sex spouse has done or is likely to do.”

In short, the bishops’ implied support for discrimination against lesbian and gay people is what would really lead Catholics to commit evil. That is why it is the decrees, not the funerals which cause scandal.

Salzman and Lawler’s second point is nuanced, drawing a distinction between grave matter and grave sin. To oversimplify, grave matter is objective while grave sin is subjective. For something to be a grave sin in a person’s life, they must have both “full knowledge” and “deliberate consent.” The theologians admitted it would be hard to argue a Catholic does not have full knowledge of church teaching against homosexuality. But they also recognized there are mitigating circumstances, including psychological and/or social factors, that could mean someone does not have deliberate consent. In short, there are reasons why grave matter (e.g. the immorality of same-gender sexual activity) may not mean grave sin. They continued:

“It is uncharitable, unjust and discriminatory for a bishop to issue a decree denying a church funeral to a deceased same-sex partner on the presumption that the deceased died in grave sin. It is also against the law of the Catholic Church which prescribes that the deceased who are not guilty of grave sin because the conditions for grave sin are not known to have all been met ‘must be given ecclesiastical funerals according to the norm of law’ (Canon 1176).”

Salzman and Lawler’s third point concerned conscience. They wrote, “the two bishops also ignore the consistent Catholic doctrine on the authority and inviolability of a well-formed conscience.” After citing the authority of Thomas Aquinas, Vatican II, and Pope Francis, they explained:

“In this authentic Catholic perspective, a Catholic makes concrete moral judgments by following his or her personal conscience, a practical judgment that he or she should or should not engage in this particular behavior or should or should not have this particular attitude. . .

“In the case in which a same-sex couple judges, according to a well-formed conscience, that intimate sexual behavior within their relationship is not wrong but right, they are morally justified in following that judgment. Their homosexual behavior would certainly violate the Catholic norm condemning homosexual behavior, but it would not be a bad attitude and gravely sinful. It ought not, then, to be used without evidence to justify claims of public scandal.”

Salzman and Lawler returned to their overall point that the real scandal involved in Bishops Paprocki and Morlino’s decrees are the decrees themselves, not providing a funeral for a Catholic who was in a same-gender marriage. They then concluded:

“The church has caused enough hurt to homosexuals in her history. It is time for the hurt to end and to be replaced with understanding, compassion and acknowledgment of the dignity of every human being, including every homosexual human being.”

Salzman and Lawler have articulated in an incisive argument what so many Catholics knew in their hearts when news of these anti-LGBT decrees became public in June and in October of last year. Hopefully more bishops and pastors will ground their ministry in good theology like this to prevent further scandal in the future.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, January 17, 2018

4 replies
  1. Richard Boyle, OSM
    Richard Boyle, OSM says:

    I really wish Rome would weigh in on this shameful issue of injustice and a complete failure to recognize the Law of Love which is the Gospel and Our Lord’s command…individual bishops frequently act more like mini monarchs than shepherds or pastors.

  2. Kris
    Kris says:

    Notwithstanding Salzman’s and Lawler’s well-articulated critique of these deeply unjust and discriminatory episcopal decrees, there is still an unfortunate tendency, even among such fine theological minds, to debate relational homosexuality in purely sexual terms: grave matter, from a moral point of view, is reduced to physical intimacy. This, really, is a form of homophobic prejudice, but a more insidious kind, since it distorts a form of love by crucifying it on the cross of misrepresentation.

    There is, too, other ‘grave matter’ in good homosexual relationships: fidelity, for example; patience in relationally troubled periods; self-sacrifice, facilitating a continued mutuality of love which is genuine for its self-giving. Such grave matters as these (from the perspectve of virtue) are never , oddly enough, weighed in the moral balance by pastorally small minds like Papockri and Morlino. It points up the worrying disconnect between how such men think and act, and how Jesus reached out to the goodness (and potential for goodness) he saw in the moral and ritual outcasts of his time. Where he recognised hope, they see only darkness, and presumed ground for public judgement and condemnation.

    The contrast is indeed scandalous.

  3. Friends
    Friends says:

    Call it a slam dunk by those two eminently qualified theologians. As I’ve suggested so many times before: it’s the stunted emotional frustration and the enforced loneliness of an unnatural celibate lifestyle, which causes these bishops to rage against lovingly bonded and fully-legally-married same-sex couples. The sin of rash judgment is being committed by these sadly isolated and often emotionally frustrated bishops — not by the loving couples whom they quite wrongly and uncharitably criticize. What will it take to drill this basic understanding into the Catholic clergy-at-large? And what more will it take to get Pope Francis to fix the problem, by stating very clearly that ALL faithful and lovingly bonded human relationships are blessed by Jesus and Our Heavenly Father?

  4. Alicia Alvarado
    Alicia Alvarado says:

    I pray and hope that more bishops will can to their senses and make statements of inclusion for everyone. That ALL are created equal. That like Friends stated All faithful and lovingly bonded human relationships are blessed by Jesus and Our Heavenly Father. What does it take to do that?


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