Today’s post is from guest blogger Xavier M. Montecel, a doctoral candidate in theological ethics at Boston College, where he also works as an adjunct faculty member in the Department of Theology. He is also an adjunct faculty member at Salve Regina University, Rhode Island. He penned a previous commentary on the pope’s civil unions remarks for The National Catholic Reporter.
In the weeks since Pope Francis’ comments on same-sex civil unions were made public, much has been made of what he did not say. Most Catholic commentators have observed that his support for civil unions is not new but only the reiteration of his already established position. Furthermore, it is clear that the pope has not introduced a change in Church teaching on marriage and sexuality. The endorsement of civil unions for same-sex couples serves to safeguard Church doctrine, not to make room for its development. Recent guidance issued by the Vatican’s Secretariat of State to apostolic nuncios worldwide would seem to confirm this.
Still, try as one might to reign in the impact of his remarks, the fact remains that for the first time as pontiff, Francis has explicitly endorsed the legal recognition of same-sex couples. Although some Church officials have attempted to distance the idea of civil unions from homosexuality, the pope’s view is plainly intended to ease the social and economic burden of gay and lesbian couples.
As a result, gay and lesbian Catholics have found hope in Francis’s remarks. This is not because his words suggest an imminent change in the Church’s official position on “homosexual activity.” We know better than to expect that to happen anytime soon. Instead, our hope emerges from the now very real possibility that finally, in the eyes of our Church, we might fully belong within the human community and within the scope of the common good: the social expression of God’s vision for human flourishing.
Before Francis’s endorsement reached the public, the position of the Church was clear: with due respect to the dignity and integrity of gay and lesbian persons, it is not possible to speak of same-sex couples, as couples, within the scope of the common good. Since Church doctrine claims that homosexual activity is contrary to the natural law, the practice of same-sex relationships must be regarded as corrosive of the social fabric and antithetical to the common good. This is because the common good is the good of the community as a community, organized according to the moral requirements of the natural law. That which violates the natural law may be tolerated in society, if the common good requires that, but it can never participate in that good and certainly never contribute to it.
Therefore, among the “threats to the family” that have preoccupied the magisterium in the last several decades, the social acceptance of same-sex relationships has figured prominently. From a Catholic perspective, the family is the fundamental unit of human society, a microcosm of the whole within which moral values are formed, including the values that order social relations. To embrace same-sex couples within the family, it seemed, would be to introduce into society a negative moral influence–a morally destructive form of human relationality. In this light, same-sex couples have been regarded as emblems of human relationship broken by sin. Any homosexual person or couple who wished to be included in the family and the common good would be required to leave the bodily expression of their sexuality behind.
Francis has proposed an alternate vision. By affirming that gay and lesbian people have a right to be included in the family, while at the same time affirming the possibility of legal recognition for same-sex couples, he has opened space for thinking of us and our relationships at the very center of the family and the common good. Even if Francis did not intend to say that same-sex couples may adopt children, the point remains. He has acknowledged that same-sex couples, precisely as couples, are a valid and valued part of the human community. And moreover, he has acknowledged they have something to contribute to the great work of human flourishing within community.
This inclusive vision of the common good is precisely a matter of Catholic doctrine and, in fact, it touches the very heart of Catholic Social Teaching. Pope John XXIII famously defined the common good in his encyclical Mater et magistra as “the sum total of those conditions of social living that make it possible for persons to readily and fully achieve the fullness of their humanity.” The common good is the good that we build and enjoy together as a community. This community must include all people and it even embraces nonhuman creation. It seeks the wellbeing of the whole, which cannot be realized if any are excluded. It prioritizes the poor and the outcast. It strives to give all people what they need in order to fully realize their human dignity.
Pope Francis has opened the possibility for gay and lesbian Catholic couples to be acknowledged as whole persons bonded in a morally meaningful way, committed to one another in body and spirit, and contributing to this ongoing project of the common good. We too have something to offer in the building of a more human world, and we too deserve access to those goods that enable us to live humanly. This has powerful consequences, whether Francis intended so or not, for Catholic moral doctrine, which to now has only seen same-sex relationships as antithetical to human flourishing and destructive of the social body.
Perhaps the pope’s comments were intended only as an act of mercy. No one should be cut off from certain social goods because of their sexual orientation, and Francis stood by that. However, what he has said also involves an unavoidably theological conclusion: that gay and lesbian people and their relationships, if they belong within the family and civil society, contribute to the common good and therefore to God’s vision for human community.
It is difficult to overstate the impact of this idea. This is because it is not possible, from a Catholic theological perspective, to separate altogether the “secular” sphere of civil society organized around the common good from the “sacred” sphere of the Church organized around the sacraments and hope for salvation. There is only one history, one humanity, and one world. All is touched and transformed by the grace of God, which draws human beings into the fullest expression of their humanity. If gay and lesbian couples contribute something to the common good, then they must also contribute something to the Church and to our hope for salvation.
—Xavier Montecel, Boston College, November 17, 2020