As many of our readers know, the Catholic Church’s Synod on the Family has been meeting in Rome for the last several weeks. The pastoral care of homosexual persons was among the most contentious issues at the Extraordinary Synod on the Family last year, and got a lot of attention in the lead-up to this year’s Synod. There was thus a great deal of anticipation—and even outright anxiety—regarding the final result.
The final report has now been released (in Italian). There was only one paragraph dealing with the pastoral care of homosexual persons. Here is an unofficial English translation of that paragraph (courtesy of Aleteia):
76. The Church conforms her attitude to the Lord Jesus who in a limitless love offered himself for every person without exception (MV, 12). Regarding families who live the experience of having within their family persons with homosexual tendencies, the Church repeats that every person, independently of his sexual tendency, is to be respected in his dignity and welcomed with respect, careful to avoid “every sign of unjust discrimination” (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Considerations regarding proposals to give legal recognition to unions between homosexual persons, 4). May special attention be reserved also for the accompaniment of families in which persons with homosexual tendencies live. Regarding proposals to equate unions between homosexual persons with marriage, “there are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family. Marriage is holy, while homosexual acts go against the natural moral law. Homosexual acts “close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved” (ibid.). The synod holds that it is entirely unacceptable that local churches suffer pressure on this matter and that international organizations make financial help to poor countries conditioned on the introduction of laws that institute “marriage” between persons of the same sex.
Over the last couple of days, several people have reached out to me to express frustration with how little the Synod said on the topic of homosexuality. Others were frustrated that the final report focused primarily on the pastoral care of families of homosexual persons, rather than addressing the pastoral needs of homosexual persons themselves. This is an understandable concern, especially in light of the amount of focus on homosexuality in the reaction to last year’s Synod, and in discussions leading up to the Synod this Fall. However, it’s worth emphasizing that this was the Synod on the Family, not a synod on sexuality more generally.
In the New Statesman, Rowan Williams—the former Archbishop of Canterbury—reviews two new biographies of Pope Francis: Paul Vallely’s Pope Francis: Untying the Knots and Francis: Pope of Good Promise by Jimmy Burns. One of the interesting points in the review concerns the difficulty of classifying Francis according to the usual American political labels:
Conservative or liberal? The Pope’s record might prompt us to ask whether these categories are as obvious or as useful as we assume. As various commentators have astutely noticed, the Pope is a Catholic. That is, he thinks and argues from a foundational set of principles that are not dictated by the shape of political conflict in other areas. It is difficult for some to recognise that his reasons for taking the moral positions he does on abortion or euthanasia are intimately connected with the reasons for his stance on capitalism or climate change.
The Catholic conservative who has unthinkingly rolled up the pro-life agenda with support for the death penalty, the National Rifle Association, US foreign policy and the uncontrolled global market finds this as shocking as the Catholic (or, indeed, non-Catholic) liberal who thinks in terms of a single “progressive” or emancipatory agenda that the Pope is failing to support consistently. But “conservative” and “progressive” imply that we all know there is one road for everyone on which we may move forward or backwards, rapidly or slowly. It doesn’t hurt to be reminded from time to time that this assumption can be an alibi for lazy thinking. The Catholic tradition of ethics and theology sets out a model of what is abidingly good and life-giving for human beings which does not depend on this model of a single road towards a given future. It is about making choices that bring you closer or otherwise to a particular vision of human well-being; and those choices do not necessarily map directly on to other, familiar taxonomies.
This is a point that has relevance well beyond the limits of the Church. We are all easily lured into what might be called “package deal” ethics: if you are committed to one cause you will probably be committed to a particular set of causes, even if there is no clear logical connection. The danger then is of reducing ethics to style, to a set of superficially matching accessories. It is an important jolt for us to have to come to terms with those who look for a deeper kind of consistency – whether they are radical libertarians uniting a pro-choice position with a deeply individualist social morality, or Catholics uniting an orthodox sexual ethic with root-and-branch hostility to market economics or nuclear arms. It was one of the choice ironies of the era of the Second Vatican Council that the stoutest defender of the inherited position on birth control – Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani – was also one of the fiercest advocates of nuclear disarmament. Having to think through the connections between our moral perspectives so that we can have intelligent arguments about them is a rather urgent need in the current climate, where policy and principle are so often created reactively and opportunistically. (Do I have any political party especially in mind? Perish the thought.)
In other words, it is futile to expect this pope or any other simply to fit the ready-made stereotypes. Pope Benedict “looked” conservative; Pope Francis “looks” liberal. Yet that tells you nothing at all of interest about them. And it obscures a simple fact: Benedict’s theology, though cast in a different and less accessible idiom, is entirely of a piece with all that Francis has said in his major public essays about evangelism and now about ecology. Even the contrast in style between them can be exaggerated a little. Paul Vallely notes that Francis has chosen to sit on the same level as his guests on formal occasions. Benedict did the same at the interfaith event in Assisi some years ago; he was also the first to break the taboo on the Pope eating in public with others.
Catholics, of course, have our own problems; if we have not altered our teaching on sexual ethics, few in the pews take it seriously. And so there is substantial pressure on the Synod Fathers from within the Church to alter teaching on remarriage after divorce, as well as pressure to alter the teaching on same-sex unions. In highlighting Evangelical discussions of inconsistency in sexual ethics, I’m not trying to cast stones at other Christians, but simply drawing attention to an important discussion of the need for greater consistency in discussions of marriage.
After discussing several ways that Evangelicals have adopted the view of marriage held the surrounding culture, Wax concludes:
When we share the same undergirding ideas about marriage as the culture, the Christian’s “no” to same-sex marriage looks arbitrary and motivated by animus toward our LGBT neighbors rather than being a part of a comprehensive vision of marriage that counteracts our culture in multiple ways.
We are not called merely to reject wrong views of marriage; we are called to build a marriage culture where the glorious vision of complementarity, permanence, and life-giving union of a man and woman, for the good of their society, can flourish. Rebuilding a marriage culture must be more than lamenting the current state of the world at multiple conferences a year. It must include the strengthening of all our marriages within the body of Christ: from the truck driver, to the police officer, to the teacher, and the stay-at-home mom.
Success is not having church members say gay marriage “is wrong.” Success is when the Christian vision of marriage is so beautiful that revisionist definitions of marriage “make no sense.”
Today is the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, whom I chose as my confirmation saint when I was received into the Catholic Church in 1999.
G. K. Chesterton’s biography of St. Francis was one of many books that helped introduce me to the truth and beauty of the Catholic faith. But Francis himself stuck with me in a special way.
I was particularly drawn by the powerful combination of joy and asceticism in his personality.
Asceticism was not new to me. I had grown up Southern Baptist, and joined the Presbyterian Church in America in college. I had been profoundly moved by Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship. I had also been committed to celibacy since my late teens. So though I have learned more of asceticism and the cross since becoming Catholic, I already knew about the cost and sacrifice involved in responding to Christ’s call to come and follow.
What I did not realize, until I encountered St. Francis, was the deeper “Yes!” that made sense of and gave life in the midst of the many things I had to say “no” to in order to remain faithful to Christ. Continue reading →
This is a transcript of my presentation with my mother, Beverley Belgau, at the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia, in conjunction with Pope Francis’s first pastoral visit to the United States. The World Meeting of Families is a global Catholic event, like World Youth Day. The first World Meeting of Families was called together by Pope St. John Paul II in 1994 to celebrate the International Year of the Family. It has grown into the largest gathering of families in the world, and this year’s meeting in Philadelphia beat all previous attendance records.
This was also the first time in the history of the World Meeting that an openly gay—and celibate—Catholic was invited to speak about his experiences in the Church and in his family.
Because of a room scheduling snafu, we started late (the room was filled to overflowing and hundreds of people were reportedly turned away). To make up, we cut some material on the fly. This reflects the original transcript, not the presentation as delivered. Because this talk highlights a lot of points we have made at Spiritual Friendship over the years, I’ve included links to other posts, if you want to learn more.
After the formal presentation, we answered audience questions for over two hours; even then, we only left because the Convention Center staff said we had to leave; there were still dozens of people in the room listening, and people in line waiting to ask questions. This speaks to just how important it is for the Church to take more time to talk about how families and parishes can respond to their lesbian and gay members with Christ-like love.
Given the length of the presentation, I have added numbered paragraphs to help locate material within the text. Continue reading →
What are some ways that Catholic families can respond to a family member’s disclosure that they are same sex attracted, or the announcement that they are gay or lesbian? Ron Belgau, a celibate gay Catholic who embraces and Church teaching, and his mother, Beverley Belgau, will share their own stories as a way of highlighting some of the challenges faced by same sex attracted Catholics and their families. They will also talk about how Catholics should respond with both grace and truth to gay or lesbian friends or family members who struggle with or reject Catholic teaching on chastity.
First, the short, un-nuanced version: I think that each movement has something positive to contribute to the Church. Courage provides anonymous support groups, while Spiritual Friendship is more public and works toward the day when gay and lesbian people can receive all the support they need in their families and parishes. Both of us agree that friendship is important for those who are trying to grow in chastity. Like the Pope, Spiritual Friendship is comfortable using the word “gay” to describe attraction to the same sex, while many in Courage misunderstand and criticize us for this. Spiritual Friendship tries to talk about the difficult intersection between friendship and same-sex desire in a way that takes the Catholic moral tradition seriously. Some (though not all) writers at Spiritual Friendship have some reservations about the 12-Step model Courage uses. And we all disagree in varying degrees with the Freudian theories of causation that Courage has adopted, though we haven’t made attacking those theories a priority.
Now, the much longer, more nuanced version. (Because this is a large topic, this is, unfortunately, a long post. In order to make it a little bit easier, I have broken it up into sections addressing different parts of the discussion. It may be easier to come back to it and read it a bit at a time, rather than trying to read the whole article at once.)
Update (9/18/2015):In his reply to this post (see his comment below), Deacon Russell says, “we can meet any time, face to face, to charitably address and correct things. I’d be all for that.”
He goes on to say, “As it is, now and forever, here is my challenge to you, Ron. We are engaged in public discourse. In that framework, I will gladly defend all my assertions and positions of the last three years in a direct exchange with you. I will do so charitably and fairly in any number of formats, including live and in person, publicly or privately. This offer will not expire. God bless.”
On July 1, 2015, I invited Deacon Russell to meet face to face with Saint Louis Auxiliary Bishop Edward Rice mediating our conversation. He did not accept. My offer still stands.
Original Post: I rarely respond directly to Deacon Jim Russell; I generally find that there is so much “spin” in his posts that it is difficult to find a productive point of engagement. I usually have responded indirectly, trying to present Church teaching in a positive way that I hope clarifies some of the misunderstandings about Spiritual Friendship that I see in his writings. A couple of points he makes in a recent article, however, may deserve direct clarification (especially in light of the timing of his post and the amount of media attention focused on me because of the World Meeting of Families).
The gist of my response is simple: despite Deacon Russell’s efforts at spin, there is nothing contrary to the Catholic faith in ideas like, “obsessing over sexual temptation is unhelpful,” “service to others is helpful in overcoming temptation,” and “friendship is an important avenue of support and intimacy” for those seeking to live a chaste life. But since these straightforward claims have sparked Deacon Russell’s critique, I am taking the time to respond to his criticism at length.
In my previous post, I drew attention to the way the Catholic Church frequently references friendship in her pastoral advice related to homosexuality. In this post, I want to examine the nature of friendship itself more deeply, particularly as it relates to two other crucial Biblical concepts: love and covenant. The relationship between love and covenant will be obvious to most contemporary readers; the connection between covenant and friendship, however, is frequently neglected in contemporary Christian teaching.
If we examine the Bible, however, this neglect should surprise us. Each of the three most important covenants in salvation history is characterized by friendship between God and the human representatives—Abraham, Moses, the Twelve Apostles—to whom He entrusts the covenant. Abraham, the great father of all who share his faith (Romans 4:16) is also called a friend of God (2 Chronicles 20:7; James 2:23). God “spoke to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend” (Exodus 33:11). And at the Last Supper, on the night when Christ instituted the new and eternal covenant, He said to the Twelve, “No longer do I call you servants, for a servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you” (John 15:15). He also frames His own sacrifice on the cross—the definitive act in salvation history—as an act of friendship: “Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). By calling His disciples friends, Jesus led Thomas Aquinas to conclude that charity (the Latin equivalent of agape love in New Testament Greek) was identical to friendship (Summa Theologiae IIa-IIae 23.1).
If we want to understand what God meant when He made covenants with His people, it’s important to understand what a “covenant” meant in the culture that God first spoke to. The most extensively described human covenant in the Bible is the covenant friendship between David and Jonathan (1 Samuel 18:3). For this reason, a significant portion of this post will focus on their relationship, which not only helps us to understand the connection between covenant and friendship at the human level, but also should help us to understand the connection between friendship and covenant in our relationship with God. If we persevere in faith and love, we will ultimately see God face-to-face, as Moses did (1 Corinthians 13:12, compare with Exodus 33:11). True friendship can thus give us a glimpse in this life of the love that we will experience in its fullness in Heaven.
Friendship has been an important theme in the Catholic Church’s pastoral guidance regarding homosexuality. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992), which provides a comprehensive overview of Catholic teaching,
2359 Homosexual persons are called to chastity. By the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom, at times by the support of disinterested friendship, by prayer and sacramental grace, they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection.
The Catechism also draws a more general connection between chastity and friendship:
2347 The virtue of chastity blossoms in friendship. It shows the disciple how to follow and imitate him who has chosen us as his friends, who has given himself totally to us and allows us to participate in his divine estate. Chastity is a promise of immortality.
Chastity is expressed notably in friendship with one’s neighbor. Whether it develops between persons of the same or opposite sex, friendship represents a great good for all. It leads to spiritual communion.