At first glance, today’s statement on same-sex unions by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is thoroughly uninteresting. It gives the expected answer to the question, “Does the Church have the power to give the blessing to unions of persons of the same sex?” The CDF says no, by making a few arguments. First, the CDF argues that it is not licit to give blessings to relationships that “involve sexual activity outside of marriage… as is the case of the unions between persons of the same sex.” The CDF acknowledges that these relationships may have valued and appreciated “positive elements,” but it argues that these are not enough to justify blessing a “union not ordered to the Creator’s plan.” Second, the CDF argues that such blessings are not licit “because they would constitute a certain imitation or analogue of the nuptial blessing invoked on the man and woman united in the sacrament of Matrimony.”
The Holy See Press Office has shared Pope Francis’ approval of the CDF statement, perhaps underscored by the statement’s inclusion from Amoris Laetitia: “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.” As always, this will dismay Pope Francis advocates who praise his pastoral sensitivity but forget his longtime commitment to doctrinal consistency. Pope Francis does not appear to see these two approaches to his office as contradictory. Perhaps he believes they are mutually supporting and mutually required. He believes he can argue (as he has) both that civil law should provide some protections for same-sex couples, and that the Church should not give formal blessings for same-sex unions.
In any event, the CDF statement has been read with dismay by many gay rights activists, both within and outside of the Church. But to read it as simply a restatement of traditionalist homophobia misses some of the ways in which the statement moves in a direction unseen previously from the offices of the CDF.
On “Positive Elements”
The first thing to note is the explicit recognition of “positive elements” within same-sex unions. Previously, Catholic traditionalists have argued that the “disordered” nature of same-sex relationships precludes the existence or recognition of positive goods of such relationships. Many have taken a pathological approach to same-sex desire, arguing that libido would dominate and distort any possible goods. The recognition of “positive elements” in same-sex unions “which are in themselves to be valued and appreciated” represents a rejection of this position, and a more complex approach to the intricacies of same-sex love and commitment. We know Pope Francis is willing to talk about the value of gay persons and relationships. This is the first time we’re seeing the CDF do so.
What Type of “Union”?
The second thing to note is what precisely the CDF means by “homosexual unions.” The document rather unartfully uses both the terms “unions of persons of the same sex” and “homosexual unions.” One should note, however, that these are not terms encompassing all same-sex relationships and unions.
As stated earlier, the blessing of these unions are opposed by the CDF on two primary grounds. First, they involve sexual activity “outside the indissoluble union of a man and a woman open in itself to the transmission of life.” Second, they are viewed as analogues to the Catholic vision of marriage, and blessings would “constitute a certain imitation or analogue of the nuptial blessing.”
Regarding the first objection, not all same-sex couples are sexually active, and this for a number of reasons. Some may involve a partner with a disability precluding sexual activity. Others may center upon different forms of affectivity, possibly perhaps because one or both of the partners identifies as asexual. And others may involve partners who wish to affirm the Church’s teaching on sexuality. This last group might find the CDF statement degrading and demoralizing, ultimately undermining their pursuit of chastity:
But even so, I would exhort such Catholics to consider themselves exempt from the CDF statement to the extent that it does not apply to them. The CDF statement does not appear to possess a conception of the chaste same-sex couple, and so couples exercising chastity should consider themselves a challenge to its limitations.
Such couples may also see a route opening up to a blessing. The CDF views as the illicit relationships those which (1) involve extramarital sexual activity and (2) form their self-conceptions as analogues to marriage. To the extent a same-sex relationship can operate within these limitations, it transcends the objections to a blessing. The illicit relationships are not any form of “same-sex relationship,” but relationships characterized by the two features outlined.
The call to chastity seems conceptually straightforward enough. Searching for a relational analogue in the modern West (which provides legal recognition for committed relationships solely on the basis of contract, parentage, or marriage) may be more difficult. Some have proposed friendship, though I have some concerns about this.
Finally, one ought to note the self-consciousness hanging over both the CDF statement and the Vatican Press Office commentary. The statement opens by acknowledging the good faith with which many propose blessing same-sex relationships: “Such projects are not infrequently motivated by a sincere desire to welcome and accompany homosexual persons, to whom are proposed paths of growth in faith, ‘so that those who manifest a homosexual orientation can receive the assistance they need to understand and fully carry out God’s will in their lives.'” It repeatedly condemns unjust discrimination and feels a need to explicitly say that the statement itself is not a form of unjust discrimination. Similarly, the commentary clarifies that “the negative judgment of the blessing of unions of persons of the same sex does not imply a judgment on persons.”
Those who disagree with the CDF conclusions are likely to also disagree with these softer and more defensive statements. But regardless, this softer and self-conscious posture when discussing same-sex relationships and desire is significant for the CDF, a congregation known for hard-hitting condemnatory statements on these issues. Pope Francis is not the only Church leader concerned about presenting a pastoral tone. The CDF seems to have taken up this concern as well, even if it proves to be temporary.
One can reasonably see the CDF statement as one of progression, rather than entrenchment. The conversation around same-sex desire and relationships seems to be expanding in the Church. Though Catholics of my generation, perhaps because of our age, tend to feel that the expansion is moving at a snail’s pace (or backwards), it’s hard to overstate how much has changed in the last 40 years. I’d like to move forward, to conversations on topics such as the possible benefits of normalizing same-sex relationships in the Church (even for doctrinal conservatives). The Church may be a ways off from this conversation, but even the CDF seems to be moving in that direction.
Chris Damian is a writer, speaker, attorney, and business professional living in the Twin Cities. He received his B.A. in Philosophy from the University of Notre Dame and his J.D. and M.A. in Catholic Studies from the University of St. Thomas. He is the author of “I Desired You: Intellectual Journals on Faith and (Homo)sexuality” (volumes I and II). He is also the co-founder of YArespond, a group of Catholic young adults seeking informed and holistic responses to the clergy abuse crisis. In his free time, he enjoys hosting dinner parties and creative writing workshops.