Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Catholicism And Gay Marriage: A Journey

This post is not intended to offend anyone, convert anyone, or change anyone's opinion about anything. It is merely meant to provide a better understanding of the issue of gay marriage from the perspective of a person who is struggling to adhere to the Catholic faith while also believing that gay people should have a right to marry.* Please do not sent me hate mail or post mean comments!

When I think back on my very first views about homosexuality, I guess you could say that I used to be homophobic. I used to judge gay people (if only in the silence of my heart). But that was when I didn't know them. Homosexuality was totally foreign to me. I had never befriended anyone who was openly gay. I never had a conversation with anyone who was known to be gay. It was very easy and comfortable to dismiss gay people from a distance. It's way too easy to judge an entire class of people when you have no personal connection to them.

Then I went to college. My world expanded. I met plenty of new people, many of which were gay. Some I didn't know were gay until several years later. Guess what? They were awesome. They were great people. They were kind. They were smart. They were passionate. I really liked them. They were some my really good friends. My world rocked a little. I struggled a lot at first but as I started to understand the world from their perspective and at the same time see how they were so much like me, I realized I could no longer judge or condemn them.

Fast forward to now. My conservative-leaning self fully supports gay marriage. In a secular, civil society, there is no way we can deny gay people the right to a secular marriage. It's absolutely ridiculous not to. Because I embrace homosexuality from a secular standpoint, I struggle with being a Catholic sometimes. When I hear stories about students from Catholic schools protesting the firing of teachers and vice principles for marrying a person of the same sex, I'm conflicted. The secular me thinks it is wrong to fire someone because of who they marry. But as long as we are talking about a religiously-affiliated institution, the Catholic Church has every right to enforce its teachings and theology. And the Catholic Church has the full authority to define a Catholic marriage. Even when that is contrary to widely held secular opinion and beliefs. And when people berate the Church I love for enforcing its doctrine (even when I am conflicted about that doctrine), I tend to get defensive.

I don't know exactly where I stand in the Catholic Church. I love the Church. I love its teachings. I just have this little hang-up regarding homosexuality. And for those of you who are not Catholic but like me have opinions or qualms about the Catholic Church's stance on gay marriage, I urge you to take a little journey. I'm not asking you to change a single thing about the way you think or pray or love. I simply want you to journey with me. And for just a tiny moment, set aside everything you thought you knew about Catholics. Feel free to judge, but wait until the end.

I just told you that in the past, I was homophobic. Back then, I couldn't imagine or even begin to understand what love could be like between anyone other than a man and a woman. And despite my lack of imagination or understanding, I judged. I judged without understanding, therefore, I was prejudiced. (I still don't really understand gay love, just as I'm sure gay people do not understand straight love. But I keep my mind open and embrace that people are different).

The prejudice applies both ways. People who want to see changes in the Catholic Church regarding homosexuality, well they need to first understand Catholic theology. Because if you just judge a religion without understanding it, guess what? You are just as prejudice as I was.

Here are four things you need to know about Catholicism.

One. According to Catholic teaching, the Church and it's theology is divine and perfect. However, the Church is made up of people who are not perfect. These people make mistakes. Like me, they judge. They apply Catholic teachings according to their own agendas. They selectively choose what Christian principles they like and which ones they don't. They are only human and they are bound to fail. Again. And Again. Just because the people of the Church make mistakes, does not make the theology flawed. (You may think it is flawed for other reasons, just don't base your opinion on the mistakes of mortal men and women who are themselves fallible).

Two. Catholics believe in absolute truth and not relativity. There are absolute truths that were passed down from Jesus to his disciples and through his works. While church practices and policies may change over time (ex: the Mass used to be performed solely in Latin), the core beliefs and directives that come straight from God cannot change. They are absolute. There is right and there is wrong. And that does not change. If the Catholic Church could change its teaching based upon societal whims, the entire point of Catholicism would be defeated. This is why there is only one Roman Catholic Church, with one doctrine, and one set of core beliefs. You walk into any Roman Catholic Church across the globe and you will get the same thing. This separates Catholic Churches from the many sects of protestant Christian Churches (from a Catholic perspective).

Three. Catholics are not limited to the Bible. Yes, the Bible is God's Word (which can and has been twisted into all kinds of interpretations) but it is not everything. Think about it. Not everything Jesus did was carefully written down. Catholics have another source of theology. It's called Divine Tradition. Divine Tradition is a collection of teachings that have been passed down throughout history. They include additional teachings from Jesus that are not originally found in the Bible but were passed down by word of mouth (in fact, many of these traditions pre-date the Bible, which was not written until several hundred years after Jesus). They also include the writings and teachings of the Doctors of the Church.

This is kinda cool. It means that Catholicism is not limited to a book that was written hundreds of years ago. But... despite this, the Church cannot be changed externally by social demands. Catholic teaching comes from God himself and through Catholic theologians and the popes through divine inspiration. Pope Frances may seem radical on many issues. However, from what I can tell he has never made any statement that is not consistent with the teachings of the Catholic faith. Nor has he "overturned" any Catholic doctrine.

Four. Catholic teaching is not bigoted. Yes, Catholicism is against gay marriage. But not because Catholics just hate gays and lesbians (although I'm sure there are plenty of bigots in the Catholic Church as anywhere). Rather, the Catholic Church's very definition of marital sex precludes homosexuality. Marital sex is the only sex that the Catholic Church accepts as moral (as distinguished from adultery, sex before marriage, etc). According to Catholic teaching, marital sex requires two things (1) that the sexual activity be an act of friendship through which two people express their commitment and affection, and (2) a union which is open to procreation. Under Catholic teaching, if a union between two people is not open to procreation, then the spouse is treating the other person merely as an "object" solely for his or her own pleasure. Sex is a giving and taking fully and completely of another person. According to Catholic teaching, if you take procreation out of the equation, you are not fully giving or receiving the other person or the possibilities that God may have in store for you. Sex that precludes procreation is immoral according to Catholic teaching. Despite its unpopularity, this doctrinal teaching is not subject to change with social demands.

(There is so much more to say about this last point. Especially regarding marriage itself-- Catholics believe that a marriage is between three: a man, a woman, and God himself. But that pretty much covers the basics.)

Considering the Catholic understanding of morality and the Catholic definition of marital sex, sex (and thus marriage) between people of the same sex simply cannot be recognized in the Catholic faith as these things are contradictory. I completely understand how gay people are infuriated by this teaching. And I'm not trying to change anyone's mind. I personally have my own trouble with it considering my political/civil beliefs. I just hope that people will understand that Catholic theology boils doing to marital sex's integral element of procreation and not some deep-seeded hatred or prejudice against people who are gay (although I am not denying that there are Catholics who, being human and prone to mistake, do have these feelings and prejudices).

I'm not trying to change anyone's mind. I'm not going to tell people that they should be less upset about these issues. In fact, as I struggle myself, I fully understand the anger that some people are experiencing. I just want non-Catholics to understand exactly what the Church teaches and the internal dialogue and debates that many Catholics (such as myself) have on this subject. I also want people to be aware that Catholic teachings cannot change from external pressure and I think this is very important to maintaining the integrity of any faith or religion.

*Caveat: this post is based on my understanding of Catholic teaching as I remember them from church school and college courses- I may be a bit rusty. And in no way do I claim to speak for the Catholic Church.


  1. Great post! As a fellow Catholic and supporter of gay marriage, I too struggle with our religion sometimes. It is such a contradiction for the Church to say God loves ALL people, but at the same time seem to inflict a sort of punishment on a large group. I do think it's important for the Church to be firm in its beliefs and teachings, but at the the same time, should it be changing a bit with the times? That shit IS deep.

  2. What a fantastic post! Your understanding and explanations of the Catholic teaching sounded right to me; in fact, as I read-I was thinking of points to make, and you in fact had already made them. Thank you, too, for pointing out that the Catholic Church as a whole does not seek to "judge" or "bigot" against men and women who are attracted to the same sex. I am a practicing Catholic and while I do not struggle with the Catholic stance on this issue, I respect and applaud your understanding of the Catholic teaching and am excited to see where your journey takes you. :)

  3. Occasional lurker here. You've got me curious now. So does this mean that someone who is infertile can't be truly married and enjoy marital sex (such as due to a medically-indicated hysterectomy, or childhood chemotherapy/radiation, or simply post-menopausal)?

    1. I just looked this up. People who cannot procreate due to age, illness, or injury CAN have marital sex with their spouse. The philosophical reasoning behind this was a little too deep for me to untangle in 5 minutes before bedtime though.