In March, the Vatican launched a year of reflection on Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love) about family. To ensure that LGBTQ perspectives and dimensions are included in our church’s discussions of this document, Bondings 2.0 is publishing a series of theological reflections over the year. This month’s installment is from Michael G. Lawler and Todd A. Salzman.
Michael G. Lawler is the Amelia and Emil Graff Chair Professor Emeritus of Catholic Theology and Todd A. Salzman is the Amelia and Emil Graff Chair Professor of Catholic Theology at Creighton University. Together they have published: Sexual Ethics: A Theological Introduction(2012); Virtue and Theological Ethics: Toward a Renewed Ethical Method (2018); Introduction to Theological Ethics: Foundations and Applications(2019); Pope Francis and the Transformation of Catholic Health Care Ethics (2021); and numerous scholarly articles in Theological Studies, Louvain Studies, Horizons, Heythrop Journal, Irish Theological Quarterly, Commonweal and America.
Same-sex civil unions have been in the news following the release of Evgeny Afinevsky’s documentary Francesco, documenting Pope Francis’ impact on people throughout the world as a result of his many travels. In the film the pope offered a response to a letter he had received from an Italian gay couple asking him how they should live as a committed couple and raise their children in a church that judges their union and their sexual acts as “intrinsically disordered and can in no case be approved of.”
Homosexuals “are children of God and have a right to a family,” the Pope responded, soundly based on Catholic teaching. In the context in which Francis was speaking, the phrase “have a right to a family” may be understood in the sense that LGBTQ children should not be rejected by their parents, but it can also be interpreted to mean that they themselves have a right to have children by fostering or adoption. No Catholic who understands the Church’s social teaching about the God-created equal human dignity of every person could doubt the truth of the statement of the human dignity of lesbian and gay persons.
Francis’ support of same-sex civil unions is consistent with his statements regarding “irregular situations” in his Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia (AL). “It can no longer simply be said,” Francis teaches, “that all those in any ‘irregular’ situation are living in a state of mortal sin and are deprived of sanctifying grace” (AL 301). That teaching seriously challenges the prevalent Catholic teaching that those living in “irregular” situations, like same-sex civil unions, and engaging in sexual intercourse, are living in a state of mortal sin. Although no official church document has ever cited this particular passage from Thomas Aquinas, Pope Francis cites one of the scholar’s more well-known arguments and invites all to incorporate it into their pastoral discernment: “Although there is necessity in the general principles [such as treating people with human dignity, respect, and compassion], the more we descend to matters of detail the more frequently we encounter defects…. In matters of action, truth or practical rectitude is not the same for all as to matters of detail but only as to the general principles…. The principle will be found to fail according as we descend into detail” (AL 304).
This argument is popularly stated as “the devil is in the details.” It is critical and instructive to discern both what Francis is saying and not saying here. He is clearly saying what he has always believed, namely, that homosexual unions are not to be thought of as in any way analogous to heterosexual marriages. He is just as clearly not saying, as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) said in 1975, that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered and cannot be approved of.” As an empathetic and compassionate pastor, he argues, speaking of the CDF without naming it, that we “cannot feel that it is enough to apply moral laws to those living in ‘irregular’ situations as if they were stones to throw at people’s lives. This would bespeak the closed heart of one used to hiding behind the church’s teachings, sitting on the chair of Moses and judging at times with superiority and superficiality difficult cases and wounded families” (AL 305).
Francis’ writings and statements on same-sex civil unions are hard to reconcile with the CDF’s March 15, 2021 statement prohibiting Catholic blessings of same-sex civil unions, which claims that God “cannot bless sin.” The statement seems more an attempt by ecclesial conservatives to undermine Francis’ compassionate perspective than an actual representation of his position. Francis’ pastoral approach is not to judge with superiority and superficiality but to ask the hard questions about the details and circumstances of those living in “irregular” situations.
Pope Francis’ “new pastoral methods” in AL, which require that “different communities will have to devise more practical and effective initiatives that respect both the Church’s teaching and local problems and needs,” have opened the door for the organic development of Catholic doctrine. In one sense, his support for the legalization of same-sex civil unions puts him at odds with the official sexual doctrine of the Catholic Church. In another sense, it roots him firmly in the social doctrine of the Catholic Church that promotes human dignity, opposes all discrimination, and teaches that homosexual people “must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity.”
Pope Francis neither accepts nor promotes the marriage of same-sex couples in the Church, and his defense of their civil unions is aimed at protecting the dignity and rights of LGBTQ couples and also the rights and privileges of heterosexual marriage. He does, however, recognize and promote legal protections for human dignity in both civil and church law. His pastoral statements defending same-sex civil unions should be read as an attempt to balance those two realities in a way that promotes human dignity, welcomes members of the LGBTQ community into the Church family, and treats them with “respect, compassion, and sensitivity.”
In AL, Pope Francis has pushed ajar the door for the organic development of Catholic sexual teaching. It will require courageous bishops, pastors, laity, and LGBTQ individuals to work to push that door wide open and to let the light and truth of the gospel Jesus shine on antiquated, hurtful, and alienating church teachings on LGBTQ ethical issues.
—Michael G. Lawler and Todd A. Salzman, Creighton University, April 14, 2021