Pope Francis’ exhortation Amoris Laetitia—which insists that love is the sign of a family and the glue that holds it together—and his encyclical Fratelli Tutti—which calls us to wide relationships of care and connection—are inspiring models for married partnership. Don Clemmer’s recent U.S. Catholic article on fruitfulness in marriage beautifully illustrates what’s right—and problematic—about these teachings. The article showcases opposite-sex marriages animated by mutual love and hospitality toward the world. Spanning race, age, ability, and religious tradition, populated by biological or adopted children or no children at all, they bear fruit in social justice, sustain their parishes, open the doors of their homes, and help others discern their own vocations to love and mercy.
The article is a wonderful reminder that vibrant, God-centered relationships call us to be our best selves individually and inspire us to collaborations that we could neither imagine nor undertake on our own.
The featured opposite-sex couples reminded me of Catholic same-sex couples I’ve known. When the mother of one partner became too ill to live on her own, they welcomed her—and the developmentally disabled cousin for whom the mother cared—into their home and nursed them for the rest of their lives. All the while, the couple were opening their home for prayer and hospitality and continuing their vocations in education and diversity. Another couple—one member Catholic, one member Baptist—adopted a child and saw that child though addiction struggles in adulthood while each served in their own churches and the community in every imaginable role. A third couple welcomed an ill sibling and cared for him while passionately fulfilling vocations in public health and theology. To know all of them has been to be bathed in a light of a love that both comforts me and calls me out of myself.
Like the opposite-sex couples in in the article, all three were powered by deep faith in God and a desire to share God’s love with each other and the world. And like them, all three have used this love to fuel their outward-facing vocations, both individually and as a couple. The difference? As same-sex couples, they could not be sacramentally married, despite their enthusiastic embrace of Francis’s vision of marriage as a platform for love, justice, and mercy.
We might say, “So what?” God’s lavish grace can and clearly does flow outside the boundaries of the sacraments. All three couples I know have breathed it abundantly. If they receive the grace of marriage anyway, does it matter if we deny them the outward sign of that grace?
Clemmer’s article answers this question by its silence on same-sex marriage and near silence on sexual orientation. There is just one queer person among the couples featured, a wife who is in a mixed-orientation marriage with an ostensibly straight man. Yet no mention is made of the enormous, enduring challenges of mixed-orientation marriages like theirs. There is no hint of how the couple’s faith helps them navigate those obstacles in a world where LGBTQ+ and straight folk alike tend to consider them pariahs, therapists and priests tend to range from clueless to outright discouraging, and the overwhelming majority of such marriages ends in divorce. Instead, Clemmer implies that the husband’s love will be enough to carry them through.
Clemmer cites another couple’s adult sons—one son gay, one son a person of color—as examples of their inclusive family welcome. The father, a deacon, attends Black Lives Matter rallies in support of racial justice, to the perplexity of his presumably white fellow deacons. What did he and his wife teach their gay son about the Church’s attitude toward loving relationship? Do they march in pride parades or support LGBTQ+ Christian organizations? If they do, this support is not mentioned as part of their outward-facing ministry.
These silences are not the fault of the author, who sought out a diverse, inspiring group of married couples. Rather, they illustrate the damaging consequences of the Roman Catholic Church’s insistence that same-sex relationships are purely selfish and that we LGBTQ+ persons must shun them while praying for the grace to endure and overcome our natures. Until the Church recognizes justice-seeking, loving, generous couples of all kinds with the sacrament that acknowledges the grace they manifest, the Church will be preaching a hospitality that it does not practice. Until it openly names and compassionately supports the unique challenges of mixed-orientation marriages, it will be encouraging all Catholics to seek spiritual and moral guidance for their sexual lives elsewhere. Beyond the pain we suffer as LGBTQ+ Catholics, it denies the whole Church the benefit of our ministry as godparents, confirmation sponsors, and ministry workers of all kinds.
May Pope Francis himself listen to the words he has preached. “Our relationships, if healthy and authentic, open us to others who expand and enrich us,” he insists. “As couples or friends, we find that our hearts expand as we step out of ourselves and embrace others.” So many of us hunger for support rather than condemnation from our Church when we do exactly that. May it be so.
—Cristina Traina, Fordham University, February 3, 2021