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Why Can’t the Church Support Gay Marriage?

The topic of homosexuals, gay marriage, and Catholicism weighs heavily on people’s minds. I understand how confusing and hurtful Church teaching seems on this issue, and a good friend has been gently nudging me to address this for a while now. His most recent comment to me is as follows:

One thing, as you might imagine, that I wonder about with the Catholic position on procreation is where, exactly, it leaves same-sex couples. Obviously the Catholic Church’s position on homosexuality is no secret, so I get in terms of systematic theology. But in life, in practice, and with a Pope who has opposed same-sex marriage and adoption but has also said some pretty impressive (and I think holy, Jesus kinds of things) about embracing people regardless of sexuality…how does this all fit?

It’s been a journey, but my understanding of my faith has led me to support same-sex marriage, and a I think these kinds of conversations have to keep happening. Even in the progressive UCC, lots of churches are slow to embrace official “Open and Affirming” status for a variety of reasons, some of which are well-considered and pastoral…even while being, in practice, exactly that.

My friend deserves a good answer. Everyone who is confused or hurt by the Church does. This week, I’m going to do my best to give you one. This week I’m not going to talk about Pope Francis. Instead, I am going to try my best to talk like him. Here we go…

First, it’s not possible to separate the theology from the praxis. If you don’t practice what you preach, it’s hypocrisy. If you don’t have a rudder, you can’t steer your ship. I think everyone agrees that a consistent ethic is ideal, and that that ethic should be one of goodness. For Catholics, the most fundamental ethic is the source of our existence. God created all people in His image and likeness; this marks us as having a priceless value that commands an almost divine dignity.

I’ve often heard that the Church’s position on gay marriage denies the value and dignity of homosexuals. In all fairness, it certainly seems that way. Homosexuals are losing out on civil benefits that their straight counterparts take for granted, and on top of that they are made to feel like their love is not as good as a straight couple. From this perspective, both the moral and economic dignity of homosexuals is impugned.

That’s a heavy charge, linking personal dignity with the ability to get married. And that’s what moves us to what this debate is really about: defining the purpose of marriage. We’re asking what marriage was created for, the reason for its existence. We’re looking at settling an issue of theology, of abstract ideology, to suit our desired practices.

Marriage, civilly speaking, has serious economic considerations. From the government’s perspective, the more people get married, the better. When people argue that a ban on gay marriage hurts the economic dignity of homosexual couples, they make a valid point because marriage has been made an economic tool. This is the purpose of marriage in the civil sense. The Church doesn’t take economic dignity into consideration, however. A person’s right to civil benefits isn’t necessitated by their state in life; their very existence necessitates the right to civil benefits. When talking about marriage, economics is a secondary function for the Church.

The Church and society don’t agree that economics offers a legitimate reason why marriage exists. Both agree that marriage entails a moral component, though. It is on moral grounds, then, that the Church’s position should be understood.

Let’s go back to being made in God’s image. This simply means that we were created, as individuals, to manifest certain qualities as we moved through life on Earth. These qualities remain constant because God is constant. Circumstances may change, but the qualities can’t. I do mean can’t; insinuating that God can be something other than Himself amounts to negating His existence. The point to this is that circumstances do not substantially affect our personal dignity. Slavery doesn’t lessen a person’s created value. Being a mass murderer doesn’t lessen it, either. These only change a person’s outer appearance.

I think we can all agree that a person’s outer appearance, as described above, has some effect on our created value. If we are created to be the likeness of God, but use our life to look like everything but God, then that’s a problem. That would be like Picasso putting his personal touches on the Mona Lisa. The created value of Mona Lisa is still there, but it’s overshadowed by whatever you want to call Picasso’s work.

Marriage, in the eyes of the Church, is a praxis that guides two people’s outer appearance to reveal God’s likeness. Marriage is not an end to itself. It’s only a means to an end. All things should lead to God, and all people should reveal Him. Homosexual marriage leads neither to God nor helps homosexuals reveal their created likeness of Him. Not in theory, and not in practice.

Heterosexual marriage accomplishes this in theory. This is the argument that most people hear given by theologians, bishops, cardinals, and conservative religious pundits. But the reality is that in practice, heterosexual marriages are not guaranteed to do what they were made to do. It is a disparity between theory and practice that is rightly called out. In fact, I think it should be called out more. Broken heterosexual marriages have grossly obscured marriage’s fundamental dignity and set the stage for this entire debate. But the theory-pushers are correct on one thing: inconsistent praxis does not invalidate theory.

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A New Doctor of the Church

Pope Francis declared Saint Gregory of Narek a Doctor of the Church this morning. From Vatican Radio:

St. Gregory of Narek is widely revered as one of the greatest figures of medieval Armenian religious thought and literature. Born in the city of Narek in about 950 A.D., St. Gregory came from a line of scholars and churchmen.
St. Gregory received his education under the guidance of his father, Bishop Khosrov, author of the earliest commentary on the Divine Liturgy, and from Anania Vartabed, abbess of Narek Monastery. He and his two brothers entered monastic life at an early age, and St. Gregory soon began to excel in music, astronomy, geometry, mathematics, literature, and theology.
He became a priest at the age of 25 and dedicated himself to God. He lived most of his life in the monastery of Narek, where he taught at the monastic school. St. Gregory began his writings with a commentary on the “Song of Songs,” which was commissioned by an Armenian prince. Despite his reservations that he was too young for the task, the commentary became famous for its clarity of thought and language and its excellence of theological presentation.
He also wrote a number of famous letters, sharagans, treasures, odes, melodies, and discourses. Many of his prayers are included in the Divine Liturgy celebrated each Sunday in Armenian Churches around the world.
St. Gregory’s masterpiece is considered to be his Book of Lamentations. Also known as Narek, it is comprised of 95 prayers, each of which is titled “Conversation with God from the depth of the heart.” A central theme is man’s separation from God, and his quest to reunite with Him. St. Gregory described the work this way: “Its letters like my body, its message like my soul.” He called his book an “encyclopedia of prayer for all nations.” It was his hope that it would serve as a guide to prayer for people all over the world.

I’m always excited to get to know a new (to me) saint; I’m geeking out over the fact that this particular saint started his writing career with the Song of Songs (the topic of my Master’s thesis and hopefully my academic future)!

St. Gregory of Narek, pray for us!

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The Banal Evil of the Broken Love Story

Imagine my great surprise when, a few years ago, I was told that my marriage was an anomaly. I don’t remember much of the exact wording, but I think the phrases “not normal” and “freakishly harmonious” sum it up well. I was frankly dumbfounded that the love my husband and I have for each other was being summarily dismissed as an aberrant example of a untenable ideal.

I hadn’t thought of my marriage that way before. I was blessed to grow up in a family filled with strong, happy marriages. I never thought that marriage was effortless. Neither did I have the illusion that a happy marriage required perfect people. The examples that I grew up with taught me that marriage is supposed to be an easy union between two people who are perfect together. I just thought that’s how it was supposed to be.

Hence my marriage never felt like something strange. Even as I came to know people who had difficult relationships and failed marriages, I didn’t consider my experience of marriage anything other than normal. I was moved for the broken-hearted because they were getting less than my normal, and I knew they deserved, at the very least, what I had. I still believe this. I’m very vocal in this belief, too. One of the few things I will run my mouth off about, actually.

I’ve come to find that I am a part of a very small minority who holds this belief. Most people believe that there is no such thing as the “perfect-for-me” soulmate. There is no “happily-ever-after.” A relationship that doesn’t involve at least a weekly fight isn’t a healthy one. The best people expect is “good-enough” and “happy-ish.” Forever is replaced with “for now.” Is this really what normal is supposed to look like? Is this all happiness amounts to?

Frowny-face-Agnes-reverse-small

I don’t think so. An “ideal” marriage, like the one I describe above, should not be dismissed because not everybody has one. In fact, why do we call this an “ideal” and not a “norm?” I argue that difficult “norms” have been relabeled as “ideals” to ease the sting of our failures. Kind of a I couldn’t do it, so it’s an unreasonable standard type of mentality. You could apply this argument to many other topics. The Christian faith is a classic victim of this line of thinking.

I don’t mean to impugn any of the suffering that is experienced by a bad situation. Whether its in love, politics, religion, or what-have-you, the infliction of pain and suffering is disgusting and wrong. But is it fair to say that a singularity of failure, or even many singularities, proves the failure of an entire “norm” or “ideal?”

I think it’s exactly the opposite. A norm or ideal wouldn’t exist if there wasn’t proof that it can and does exist. In the case of marriage, a freakishly harmonious marriage can also be called a complete one. There is nothing that is missing in the marriage. There is nothing you could add to make it better. Anything less means that there is something missing. Depending on how dysfunctional, maybe many things are missing. The point is, less-than-whole is a ridiculous standard to start with.

Think about it in terms of faith. Adam and Eve started out whole. They were in complete harmony with each other, God, and nature. Then they broke. Pieces fell away, and the rest of human existence has been about picking up our missing pieces. Humans didn’t start broken. We aren’t meant to stay broken. That is why we have Christian norms and ideals, like the 10 Commandments and the reality of the Incarnation. These norms and ideals were created to fix our brokenness. Do these lose their fundamental purpose and power because people failed to get it right the first time and twisted these creations into their own personal Frankenstein?

Let me ask another question. Is your worth as a person lessened by those who treat you badly? The answer, to both questions, is NO.