On December 18 the Vatican, with the Pope’s approval and full authority, issued a declaration called Fiducia supplicans: On the Pastoral Meaning of Blessings that called for clergy to offer some form of blessing to gay couples. The mainstream press was overwhelmingly sympathetic to it. Interviewed by NPR, Father James Martin, a high-profile gay Jesuit priest, called it “a great Christmas gift to LGBT+ Catholics.” Gay Catholic organizations were over the moon. On the day the declaration was issued, the newsletter issued by DignityUSA, the world’s oldest organization of gay Catholics, reported that its chapters are “celebrating” the Vatican’s “important recognition that [same-sex] relationships can be holy.”
Meanwhile, the pushback from conservative bishops around the world was instantaneous, and in some cases included outright insurrection. A German cardinal dubbed the Pope’s call “blasphemy.” An Italian archbishop baptized the pontiff “a servant of Satan.” Bishops in Kazakhstan, Malawi, and Zambia refused outright to allow any blessing of gays on their turf. The director of the Jesuit Institute South Africa, surveying bishops across the continent, summarized: “I think there is a rebellion already that’s started to say, ‘We’re not going to implement this.’” The declaration has, in short, raised the prospect of schism.
The intensity of the negative reception appears to have caught the Pope off-guard. The Vatican usually rolls out policy shifts at a glacial pace, but in this case, a new set of dictates was issued on January 4, just two weeks after the original declaration, intimating a panicked response. In doing so, the Pope could not but be aware that the world’s second-largest Protestant denomination, the United Methodist Church, had in December finally formally split apart over the issue of its clergy marrying gay couples.
The set of clarifications make one formal concession to gays: they affirm that the declaration’s call for clergy to perform gay blessings is not something that local bishops can flatly override. But on every matter of rite and doctrine, the clarifications side with the declaration’s conservative critics, rendering the formal concession vacuous. For starters, local bishops can open-endedly mull over how to adapt and modify the blessings to fit local conditions. In addition, bishops are allowed, at their sole discretion, to claim that the gay blessings might trigger anti-gay violence and so ban them altogether on faux-paternalistic grounds.
More significantly, the clarifications go a long way to show just how little the blessings amount to—if anything. In them, we learn a lot about what the blessings are not. The clarifications give an answer to a question of scope left lingering in the declaration―what or who, exactly, is getting blessed? The answer is that there can be no blessing of the “union” of those seeking the blessing. When this restriction is paired with the further clarification that the blessing must not take a form that might be mistaken for a “rite” or “ritual,” it permits—perhaps even requires, as some bishops have already taken it to mean—that the members of the couple be blessed seriatim: first the one, then the other, on two clearly distinguishable occasions.
Then there is the question of what value the blessing confers upon the blessed. First, the blessings—which, the January 4 clarifications make clear, “must above all be very short” and take only “a few seconds”—are “not a consecration of the person nor of the couple.” In other words, they are not a conferral or declaration of sacred status—thus separating the blessings from marriage and the other Catholic sacraments. But even less than this valuation, the blessings are “not an approval or ratification of anything,” “not an endorsement of the life led by those who request them,” and “even less are they an absolution.” That is, the blessing does not constitute a release from the guilt or penalty of sins.
The blessings, in short, are not so many things. Yet the fact that they have enchanted so many invites taking a deeper look at what the declaration says of the moral system that formally justifies and psychologically motivates it. Since this examination requires wandering into matters theological, the mainstream press has been chary to take on the task, admittedly not an easy one. The New York Times’s Catholic opinion writer Ross Douthat has noted that “[the Pope’s] strategy of trying to change Catholic practice without changing Catholic teaching is late-Soviet in its ideological acrobatics.” Still, the Papal position is intelligible. What affirmatively is the blessing the Pope has in mind for gay couples? And is it cause for celebration among gay Catholics, their friends, and their allies?
The declaration’s key move is to draw distinctions between types of blessings and between types of things that get various types of blessings. On the one hand, there are “descending” blessings, which come from God and praise certain good behaviors and situations in virtue of their very goodness. First among them are the sacraments, like baptism, communion, and marriage traditionally understood, which are marked by “efficacious signs of grace”—the divine dwelling in the human—that makes these acts sacred and strengthens the blessed to carry out their proper work in the world. The sacrament of marriage, for example, helps married couples overcome adversities, avoid temptations, and raise families properly.
But a genuine willingness to change one’s wicked ways also counts as a good, praiseworthy thing. Only in turning away from their sinful lives can gay couples be afforded such descending blessings. In the words of the declaration, “a blessing may be imparted that . . . involves the invocation of a blessing that descends from God upon those who—recognizing themselves to be destitute and in need of help—do not claim a legitimation of their own status . . . that they may be freed from their imperfections and frailties.”
In addition, there are “ascending” blessings which come not from God but from humankind. These often take the form of thanks and well-wishing, but also of encouragement for the blessed “to live better, and to respond to the Lord’s will.” Under the new dispensation, the blessing procedure by humans is afforded to gays in the form of well-wishing and encouragement, but not as “praising, celebrating, and thanking.”
For gay couples, both sorts of blessings—whether heavenly or humanly sourced—require that the blessed “live the Gospel of Christ in full fidelity, so that the Holy Spirit can free these two people from everything that does not correspond to his divine will and from everything that requires purification.” This view of gays is baked right into the sample text that the clarifications offer for use in such blessings. The model text concludes: “Lord . . . free them from everything that contradicts your Gospel and allow them to live according to your will.” The blessed are required to live within that vison of things: a vision in which gays, to the extent that they are gay in any way, have no place. The blessing sets them on a corrective path away from thinking of themselves as gay and living as gays in order to line up with the Divine Plan: to “be conformed to God’s will.”
Yet both the declaration and the clarifications are silent on exactly what God’s plan amounts to for gays—leaving the Church’s traditional doctrine on homosexuality to continue to stand.
This doctrine has three prongs. First, gays must forgo any genital engagements, because all same-sex sexual acts constitute an intentional turning away from the natural function of genitals and the basic good which is the production of human life. Same-sex sexual acts are sinful in this view because they are “contrary to nature.”
Second, the Catholic moral universe contains what are called the near occasions of sin: those thoughts, feelings, activities, people, and situations that, in their very nature or due to the frailty common to humanity, can entice a person to sin. The near occasions are not sins in themselves but must be actively avoided anyway. So no romantic feelings, sinful thoughts, soulful glances, kissing, handholding, raves, und so weiter.
Third, and most importantly for the issues at hand, same-sex desires are not to be considered as a morally neutral state of affairs, one with the potential, like a fillet knife or money, for both good and evil. Rather, as the Vatican’s infamous 1986 Letter on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons put it, same-sex desire is a “moral disorder” and “ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil.” Why? Because all actualizations of these desires’ potential—that is, decisions to act on them—are themselves sins, unlike the products of different-sex desires. We owe this clarification to the current Pope’s immediate predecessor Benedict XVI, who gets points for straightforwardness.
The current Pope has done nothing to change this doctrine—no surprise, since it follows directly from the antecedent claim that all same-sex sexual acts are intrinsically evil. Instead, his declaration holds out the possibility that gays who have same-sex desires as a matter of biology rather than choice, habit, or “corruption” can change “through faith,” their sexual orientation because through God, “all things are possible.” Here the Pope pairs with Evangelicals in holding that gays can and should try to “pray away the gay.”
Pretty much every commentator center and left has mistaken the upbeat rhetoric of the declaration paired with a real shift in practice―the blessings earlier denied gay people are now required―to signal either a shift in Catholic values or a disengagement of Catholic practice from doctrine. But the declaration and clarifications make neither of these moves. Instead, the declaration forthrightly reasserts the “traditional doctrine” on matters of sexuality. In doing so, far from separating practice and doctrine, it laces doctrine further into the day-to-day operations of the Church.
The mainstream press and gay Catholic activists misinterpret the significance of the restrictions which the declaration places on the performances of gay blessings. The gay blessings must arise spontaneously; they cannot use a fixed liturgy, take place at an altar, involve the exchange of vows, or avail themselves of other trappings which the popular imagination might take as signaling a marriage ceremony. Yet the proceedings are still called “blessings,” and so are taken by press and activists to be a gift: a legitimate form of value-instilling praise from a legitimate source of praise and blame, though given in a smaller amount than in blessings given straight couples.
But if the new gay blessing is a gift, it is a gift that keeps on taking. Gay individuals who ask for blessings are expected to sign off on the whole package of doctrinal views on gay emotions, actions, and existence. The gay blessing is a call for gays to recognize themselves as broken people: to sin no more, to avoid the near occasions of sin, and to understand their very existence as a gay person to be not a morally neutral state, but an “objectively disordered” one inexorably bent toward “intrinsic evil.” Taking the blessing requires giving up one’s gay identity. It is not a draught of weak tea; it is spiritual poison.
Still worse, any gay person who is aware of the moral matrix in which the prospective gay blessings are framed and yet goes ahead and asks for one helps ratify and entrench anti-gay doctrine in an institutional form, one that people in general will recognize as a ritual, even if the Church would like to think otherwise.
The change of practice initiated by the declaration is a contribution to gay self-hatred, not gay self-acceptance and affirmation; it is a pledge of allegiance to gay worthlessness in the form of encouragement to stop being gay in action, thought, and identity. Indeed, the Church’s new gay blessings are a moral step backwards: the former total ban on blessings, at least, did not require the gay person to commit to the view that they, as gay, are damaged goods.
Nonetheless, if gay Catholics who receive the blessings feel good, why should gays who are not Catholic, their friends, relations, and allies, even care about all this? Indeed, wouldn’t an intervention in these circumstances be paternalistic, preventing people from finding their own bliss?
The problem with giving a free pass to gay Catholics seeking blessings is the damage the new blessings cause. In accepting the gay blessing and so ratifying the Catholic worldview of gay people, blessed gay couples degrade all gay people. The damage done is not (at least directly) to gays’ freedom but to their dignity and equal status in society. The gay blessed sign off on (if not themselves agreeing with) the view that the status of being gay is an objective moral disorder, which, in turn, requires viewing all gays as having less than full human worth, a lower rank on the Great Chain of Moral Being than non-gay people. The gay blessings ally the gay Catholic blessed with those who oppress gay people by viewing gays as, in the words of the clarifications, a pollution in need of “purification.” In throwing their lot in with the oppressors, the gay blessed become aligned with them. It’s that simple. Criticism of the gay blessed is thus not paternalistic: it works rather to honor the dignity of all gay people.
Ironically, the glee of gay Catholic activists and the gloom of disgruntled conservative bishops mirror each other in their misunderstanding of what the gay blessings come to. The Pope is correct, in the clarifications, in asserting that the new blessings are not heretical—ongoing protests by African cardinals to the contrary notwithstanding. The blessings extend and entrench the old ways of thought and traditional values.
Why did the Pope issue the declaration after all? It was mostly done as a matter of strategy: in a time when Catholic Church attendance in the United States is plummeting, the Church needs to try to keep gays from abandoning it, taking family, friends, and allies with them. The Vatican pretends that the new gay blessings, in the words of the clarifications, are just “simple expressions of pastoral closeness” that help bind the gay person to the Church. Yet in issuing the declaration, the Pope, one known for showboating, is grasping at cheap moral credit and popular acclaim by counting on people’s inability to see his sleight of hand.
With his newly confected blessings the Pope tries to enlist gay people as active participants in the abuse the Church hurls at them. The liberal press, glammed by anything royal, has been desperate to give the Pope points at least for what it perceives as his good intentions, a generosity of spirit, and a new-found humility, but his moral stance is rather, at best, that of willful ignorance of the damage his declaration is causing the souls of gay folk. And thanks to unbent doctrine, at the end of the day, virtually all gays, blessed or not, upon dying, are still going straight to hell.
Of course, the Church has other options. It could abandon its attempt to give ethics a rational basis in natural law. Catholics don’t stick with the Church because it’s a rational system; they don’t feel compelled to condemn masturbation, for example, on the grounds that it’s an unnatural use of the genitals. That sort of move no longer has moral heft beyond a handful of Jesuits and philosophy professors at Catholic universities.
Notice that the concept of unnaturalness has completely dropped out of the ongoing debates about the morality and legality of abortion. Up until the mid-nineteenth century, the Catholic Church opposed all abortions not because they considered each an instance of murder but because they all constituted, like masturbation, an unnatural use of the genitals. Now, having shifted the onset of personhood back from quickening to conception, the Church views all abortions as immoral on the grounds that they are killings of babies—no special need here to invoke the unnatural uses of organs, although in this case, the Church’s actual stance on abortion hasn’t yet changed after abandoning such arguments.
The motivating force that keeps Catholics tethered to the Church is a particular set of beliefs held not on the basis of reason, but on faith about the special status Catholicism gives the sacraments. The dimension of faith by which Catholicism is set apart from all other brands of Christianity is its view that the sacraments—including eucharist, marriage, and holy orders—are miracles. They cause the divine to become an active presence in the temporal order. Sacraments are the rituals by which the divine is made manifest to and dwells within humans. Famously, in eucharist, the wafer and wine consumed by the celebrant aren’t just symbols of the body and blood of Christ—the Protestant line on the matter. No: through the sacrament, they miraculously become these holy substances, accompanied by their distinctive redemptive powers. Isn’t something analogous to this faith-lofted hope the very thing after which all religiously inclined people are hankering in some form or other? It is certainly what gay Catholics are seeking for their unions—for them to be, in the words of DignityUSA, made and marked as “holy.”
Though appeals to natural law as a general matter have fallen by the wayside for Catholics who fill the pews, natural law continues to be centrally important to the Catholic hierarchy and in particular the Vatican’s theological think tank, the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, which issued the declaration and clarifications. For the Church, the moral order it espouses is an architrave held up by twin pillars—Faith and Reason. And this structure explains why it has dug in its heels on gay issues. Any moral theory worth its salt has to have at least some resonance with people’s lived experience.
When it comes to natural law, homosexuality is now the only area of human experience where appeals to unnaturalness resonate in wide swaths of the population. If the Church used masturbation as its paradigm example to illustrate that natural law is the right moral theory, it would now be laughed out of the court of public opinion. But the yuck factor, a visceral queasiness and repulsion, that many people still feel about gay folk and gay acts appears to give natural law such moral oomph, such ethical energy that it has as an explanation of a thing’s moral status. But by digging in in this way, the Church exploits a confusion of a psychological state (queasiness) and a moral one (censure-worthiness) to keep aloft its whole natural law doctrine. Disgust at gay love and gay acts is the last remaining pole holding up the tent of natural law.
Ironically, the rational thing for the Church to do both practically and doctrinally is to abandon appeals to rationality, to fold the tent of natural law, and turn its embrace and grasp toward the beauty of its cherished symbols of grace: Gothic spires, lancet arches, light refracted through rose windows, and, as even Evelyn Waugh’s atheist protagonist Charles Ryder has an inkling, marble apses serving as field hospitals. The Church could, of course, abandon natural law arguments and still oppose gay love and acts, but it is not clear what would remain in its quiver. In refocusing on faith and the sacred, it could take the first step toward recognizing in gay couples an instance of the basic human good that is love.