Jesuit priest Thomas Reese has a brilliant idea to reconcile US Catholic bishops with what is now the law of the land, gay marriage: Treat gay marriages just as they now treat remarriage after divorce.
Both are against Church teaching.
Some may have forgotten, though, that the Church once treated the “illicitly” married — the divorced and remarried who did not receive annulments — much as they treat gays today: shaming and ostracizing them and often firing them from jobs at Catholic schools, hospitals, and social service agencies.
But a half-century ago, despite Church opposition, divorce and remarriage started to become a social norm. Bishops, without endorsing that reality, eventually accepted it while continuing to forbid Church marriages without annulments. Now gay marriage, despite Church opposition, is fast becoming a social norm as well. Time to accept that new reality, Reese says, and to stop shaming and ostracizing and firing gay employees at Catholic institutions, too.
In an interview Monday, Reese said that this division between civil law and the Church’s moral law “is not some new idea we suddenly dreamed up in the 21st century. This has got very traditional roots in Catholic theory. In some ways, it goes all the way back to Augustine and Aquinas. Both of them, for example, had no problem with legalized prostitution, [understanding that] every moral law does not have to become a civil law,” he said. And trying to impose moral laws on a society that won’t accept them, he says, “can lead to all sorts of bad consequences.”
While gay marriage may remain an issue in the Republican presidential primary, it is not anymore in American society as a whole, he wrote in the National Catholic Reporter. A majority of Catholics now support it. Support among the young is overwhelming. “It is time for the bishops to admit defeat and move on. Gay marriage is here to stay.”
I read Reese’s NCR thesis just days after the Supreme Court’s June decision legalizing gay marriage and my own Crux column bemoaning the dilemma for pro-gay marriage Catholics. Once again, as much of America celebrated, we had to defend the Church against those who saw it as bigoted.
Reese doesn’t go far enough for those Catholics who want both married gays and the so-called “illicitly” married to be welcomed at Communion — not sheepishly approaching the altar hoping no one makes an issue of their status and turns them away.
But his idea does allow American bishops to move to a position of real tolerance without forcing them to endorse gays or gay marriage. The Supreme Court decision, after all, does not force any priest to marry gay couples. Nor does it demand that any religious group embrace gay marriage or stop preaching against homosexuality. So Church teaching could remain opposed to gay marriage just as it is opposed to divorce.
Thomas Reese, 70 in November, is a scholar, teacher, author, journalist, and priest who writes regularly for NCR. For seven years, he was editor of the Jesuit magazine America. But he resigned in 2005 under pressure from the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith after articles questioning priestly celibacy and the ban on women priests.
So it’s no surprise to find him offering a scenario whereby the US Church can at least scale back its anti-gay marriage crusade.
The Church right now routinely provides health and other benefits to those it considers “illicitly” married. It provides as well benefits to spouses in such marriages, and housing at Catholic colleges and universities.
As more and more states pass laws forbidding discrimination against gays in housing and employment, big Catholic employers who treat gay workers differently will surely face lawsuits and questions about government funding. That’s why firing gays in these big institutions, Reese says, is “pretty much over now.” And it will soon be over as well even in smaller high schools and grammar schools, he predicts. The Church, to be consistent about its teachings, “must really fire everybody who’s divorced and remarried or sleeping with somebody (not their spouse),” he says. But “they’re not.”
He also notes that just as Catholic judges have performed weddings and Catholic business have provided services — flowers, catering, etc. — to those remarrying in violation of Church teaching, they’re free to do the same with gay couples. There is nothing in Catholic moral teaching to prohibit this, “and the bishops need to make this clear for scrupulous Catholics.”
What’s particularly appealing to me about Reese’s ideas, which I have seen nowhere else, is that they’re in Pope Francis’ pastoral spirit of recognizing how Catholics live their real lives, in 2015, struggling, but trying. It’s not about rigidity and rejection, but acceptance and welcome. It’s about allowing gay Catholics to live in truth, not lies, not hiding, not pretending to be what they are not. As Thomas Merton himself wrote, sanctity consists in being your true self. “Therefore the problem of sanctity and salvation is in fact the problem of finding out who I am and of discovering my true self.”
Again, none of this goes far enough for those Catholics who want a complete embrace for gays in the church. But it would allow gay men and women to live, openly, as their true Catholic selves. And it would be an impressive start.