Saturday, November 3, 2012

A Priest Confronts Same-Sex Marriage

Like Obama and many others, my acceptance of the idea of marriage as applied to two people of the same sex has been evolving. If opinion polls and the media are right, Americans' attitudes toward this reality have been changing. This does not mean an automatic decline in homophobia but a greater acceptance of gay couples in society.

Attitudes in the Catholic hierarchy move with exceeeding slowness. Lately, they seem to be going back rather than forward. So, when the Archbishop of Baltimore recently asked that a letter be read in all churches urging the faithful to vote against a civil marriage protection amendment, one man, Richard T. Lawrence, was emboldened to speak his own mind.

As pastor of St. Vincent's church in Baltimore for 39 years, according to National Catholic Reporter, Father Lawrence gave his own respectful and carefully worded response. He is to be applauded for his courage.  No doubt his Archbishop is not pleased.

Here is what Fr. Lawrence had to say (I summarize the account in NCR):  I am in awe of parents and of all couples whose faithfulness to one another, in good times and bad, is a sacrament, a sign of God's faithfulness to all.

Clearly one of the Vatican II priests of the John XXIII era who are becoming more and more scarce, Lawrence cites that landmark council as signaling an eventual change in church teaching whereby we could recognize "the total, exclusive and permanent union of gay and lesbian couples as part of the sacrament of matrimony." Wow!

He cites the line from Genesis: "It is not good for man to be alone. I will make a suitable partner for him." So what if a guy's suitable partner is another guy?

Citing the church practice of marrying couples beyond the age of childbearing who pledge to devote themselves to each other, he asks, How can it be sacramental to bless the union of an elderly couple (straight) and not a gay couple? "Neither," he said. "will procreate but both can be sacraments of God's faithfulness..." 

Lawrence, a pastor who obviously has learned a lot about human needs in his long ministry and who values experience as well as doctrine, believes this is a line of future development in theology and perhaps even in church teaching. But if this is not even a possibility, can we not at least say that the civil marriage of gay and lesbian couples should be allowed by the state, if not the church?

Neither I nor Fr. Lawrence will live to see any change in the sacrament of marriage to include same sex couples, but I hope to see a change of heart, a more pastoral and caring openness--the type bravely displayed by Fr. Lawrence--on the part of bishops and others in authority toward homosexual unions.  Civil unions, apparently, do not suffice in most states, especially when a same-sex couple is raising children, as many do.

I don't see why we can't bless such unions and so honor the love they represent rather than add to the hatred and bigotry so often directed to homosexual people. (I say "we" because we who are Catholics are the church, as those in Rome tend to forget.)

The growing change in my attitude to this topic is far from unique and reflects human reality in the 21st century. Still, it's hard to use "marriage" and not mean a man and a woman. We are a church of tradition, yet this is a living, and lived, human tradition.

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