The pope’s pastoral outreach to the divorced and civilly remarried in his apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (“The Joy of Love”) has been widely praised, but some feel that gays got short shrift.
Pope Francis explores the possibility of those in “irregular” marriages receiving Communion after having entered a process of conscience formation and discernment with their pastor (“the internal forum”) and other committed Christians. He also calls for compassion and flexibility when ministering to engaged couples cohabitating without the benefit of marriage.
“Hence it can no longer simply be said that all those in any ‘irregular’ situation are living in a state of mortal sin and are deprived of sanctifying grace,” the pope wrote.
The pope does not, however, explicitly single out gay couples as privy to this discernment of conscience. When Francis does address gays, it is to reiterate Church teaching that same-sex unions cannot be considered on equal par with heterosexual marriage “or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family.”
Does Pope Francis intend to communicate that the “irregular situation” of gay couples is more egregious than the divorced and civilly remarried, or those living together? Is he suggesting that gays are deprived of the “sanctifying grace” offered to others?
Neither of these appears to be Francis’s intent.
The pope’s reason for not equating same sex unions with heterosexual marriage is that “no union that is temporary or closed to the transmission of life can ensure the future of society.” For the Church, and therefore for Francis, conjugal love in marriage and procreation are inextricably linked.
Critics decry this reasoning as promoting a double standard, since some heterosexual couples can’t procreate either, yet in Amoris Laetitia the Pope seems to welcome them enthusiastically:
“At the same time, we know that ‘marriage was not instituted solely for the procreation of children’…Even in cases where, despite the intense desire of the spouses, there are no children, marriage still retains its character of being a whole manner and communion of life, and preserves its value and indissolubility.”
Detractors of the pope’s message also suggest that excluding gay people from full participation in the sacramental life of the Church promotes the very discrimination Francis opposes when he writes, “Every person, regardless of sexual orientation, ought to be respected in his or her dignity and treated with consideration.”
In Francis’s view, however, the Church’s prohibition of same-sex marriage is not discriminatory, because the denial to marry is not based on sexual orientation.
Gays are not the only ones deprived of sacramental marriage in the Church, because there are numerous canonical impediments to marriage. The Church will also not marry anyone who is “absolutely impotent,” that is, unable to have vaginal intercourse both before and after the marriage. A valid marriage needs to be able to be sexually consummated.
In the Church’s view, a same-sex couple (along with others enumerated in canon law) simply cannot meet the marital requirement of a potentially procreative sexual union.
Some are surprised to learn that a disabled person, or someone injured in an accident who cannot have sexual intercourse, also cannot validly marry in the Church. This, too, is criticized as discriminatory. Why should one be penalized for a condition beyond one’s control?
It’s not dissimilar to: If sexual orientation is innate (some would say “God-given”), why would God create inherent conflict, hardship and inequality?
The Church maintains that natural law reveals the purpose of sex and marriage to be the maintenance and propagation of the species, according to God’s plan and is evident in the Scriptures. The potential to procreate is a constitutive element of that plan; thus Church teaching about sex and marriage is based upon this ideal.
Law is made for the norm, not the exception.
Critics see this teaching as archaic and ignorant of the advancement of the social sciences. They argue that the Church needs to come into the 21st century and be inclusive of the “exceptions” without making them feel like ostracized, second-class citizens.
Gay civil marriage is now legal in the United States and fourteen other countries, a trend most see as continuing to gain ground worldwide. Some warn that if the Church continues to stick its ecclesial head in the sand, it will be buried like an ineffectual relic.
The Church is also criticized for making marriage all about sex. What about the other important dimensions of marriage, such as mutual caring, encouragement, fidelity and growing old together?
While not denying these are significant, the Church maintains that one does not have to be married to embrace them. The same cannot be said of sexual intimacy that has the potential of transmitting life.
The Church’s teachings will continue to be scrutinized in light of Pope Francis’s attempt to make the Church more relevant and compassionate. Although Pope Francis does not alter teaching in Amoris Laetitia, he makes it clear that the teaching presents an ideal that many cannot fully actualize.
Referencing Saint John Paul II, Francis writes about the “law of gradualness,” one that acknowledges the moral good is attained in various stages of growth. We are all on the way, but none have fully arrived.
Francis encourages further dialogue, and leaves the door open for further evolution of Church teaching and practice. Realistic about the existential lived realities of relationships and family life, he calls the Church to minister to people wherever it finds them:
“Let us not forget that the Church’s task is often like that of a field hospital…It is a matter of reaching out to everyone, of needing to help each person find his or her proper way of participating in the ecclesial community and thus to experience being touched by an ‘unmerited, unconditional and gratuitous’ mercy. No one can be condemned forever, because that is not the logic of the Gospel! Here I am not speaking only of the divorced and remarried, but of everyone, in whatever situation they find themselves.”
“Everyone” surely includes gay people, even if Pope Francis doesn’t explicitly say so.
While more specificity may have been welcomed, his words in Amoris Laetitia assure us that the first pope known to have uttered publicly the word “gay,” continues to believe that mercy trumps judgement every time – for everyone.
Father Edward L. Beck, C.P., is an on-air Religion Commentator for CNN.