Will Catholicism Ever Bless Gay Marriage?

By Conor Friedersdorf

Just as a federal judge in New Orleans upheld Louisiana's ban on gay marriage this week, Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, the French entrepreneur, Catholic, and feminist, argued at The Week that while the coalition that embraces same-sex unions may keep growing, the expectation that Christians will eventually accept them is mistaken.

"The false premise goes something like this: Christianity, as a historical social phenomenon, basically adjusts its moral doctrines depending on the prevailing social conditions," Gobry writes. "Christianity, after all, gets its doctrines from 'the Bible,' a self-contradictory grab bag of miscellany. When some readings ... fall into social disfavor, Christianity adjusts them accordingly. There are verses ... that condemn homosexuality, but also verses that condemn wearing clothes made of two threads, and verses that allow slavery. Christians today find ways to lawyer their way out of those. Therefore, the implicit argument seems to go, if you just bully Christianity enough, it will find a way to change its view of homosexuality ..."

That partly captures my intuition about the future.

In the last 15 years, I've witnessed attitudes toward homosexuality change radically in the Catholic community where I grew up. I now frequently interact with practicing believers who've concluded that extending marriage rights to gays is more consistent with Jesus's teaching than fighting to prevent same-sex unions. These friends and acquaintances aren't yet a majority of religious believers. But they haven't merely given in to social pressure or "bullying"—they've embraced gay marriage after earnest moral and spiritual wrestling. Since I find their reasoning to be both sound and in harmony with changing social norms, I cannot help but conclude that more religious believers will convert to their way of thinking, following the long tradition of religious Christians changing with society.

My suspicion is that regarding homosexuality as sinful will prove no more integral to Catholicism than did, for example, believing earth was at the center of the universe. (For the record, I am a theist who believes in the historical Jesus and the wisdom of many of his teachings. I am agnostic about most religious questions.) 

Gobry argues people like me are wrong "because the history of Christian ethics actually shows that the faith has been surprisingly consistent on the topic of sexuality," and "Christian opposition to homosexual acts is of a piece with a much broader vision of what it means to be a human being that Christianity will never part with." This argument is familiar. I've spent many hours trying to understand the perspective of orthodox Catholic friends. I have listened to hours of lectures based on Pope John Paul II's Theology of the Body. I find it very difficult to boil down the arguments presented therein, and like Rod Dreher, I believe that "Gobry has written one of the most compact and elegant explanations of the traditional Christian position on same-sex marriage that I have ever seen."

To engage this conversation, I'll lay out Gobry's reasoning, explain why I find it unpersuasive, and solicit whatever counterarguments the majority of us who aren't persuaded by traditionalists are allegedly missing. Gobry's general belief: "Christianity's view of sexuality isn't some encrusted holdover from a socially conditioned patriarchal era on its way out, but is instead deeply connected to its understanding of who God is and what human beings exist for."

He writes:

The story Christians have been telling for 2,000 years goes something like this: The God who made the Universe is also, by his very nature, Love, and he made human beings with a very lofty vocation. Humans are meant to reflect His glory in the world; to be like God, that is to say, to be lovers and creators. Everything in the Universe has been put here to be used by God's children to reflect his loving glory—and to teach them about God's love.

While I fail to see how lizards that went extinct before the dawn of man, bubonic plague, and the smallest rocks on Mars were put here in the Universe "to be used by God's children," it seems to me that a Christian can believe every word in the above passage and embrace gay marriage. Just as platonic friendships can be said to reflect God's glory (insofar as they involve humans who love one another) even though they're in no way procreative, so too with romantic, same-sex relationships. I've watched same-sex couples talk about their love for one another. That seemed as close to what Godly love might look like as anything else I've seen. Gobry goes on:

This is particularly true, or so the story goes, of the unique sexual complementarity between men and women. The sexual act is meant to reflect God's love by fostering a union at once bodily and spiritual—and creates new life. 

Even accepting, for the sake of argument, that procreative sexual acts between men and women are particularly reflective of God's glory, that does not logically imply that non-procreative sexual acts—acts less reflective of God's glory, in this framework—could not also reflect God's glory, even if less fully. Catholics manage to believe that consuming the Eucharist (as at the Last Supper) fosters a unique union with God without concluding that consuming normal bread or wine is sinful, or that gathering with friends for a casual meal is verboten.  

Gobry continues:

The complementarity of the persons in a marriage reflects the complementarity of the Persons of the Trinity, and the bliss of marital union is an inkling of the bliss of the union of the Persons of the Trinity. The fruitfulness of the marriage act reflects that God is a creator and has charged man to be an agent of his ongoing work of creation. And, finally, if God's love means total self-giving unto death on a Cross, then man and wife must give themselves to each other totally—no pettiness, no adultery, no polygamy, no divorce, and no nonmarital sexual acts. 

Arguments of this sort have long been particularly unpersuasive to me. Even assuming a belief in a Holy Trinity, it seems strange to imagine that humans understand the Holy Spirit so well as to identify sound analogues to it; arbitrary to assume that God intends the relationship among Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to be the model for all sexual relationships; and (even assuming the Holy Trinity ought to be our model) questionable at best to declare that the relationship between man and woman reflects or parallels the complementarity of the Trinity. Let's look closely at that last claim.

As a participant in the thought-provoking comment thread at Dreher's blog put it, "So, the ideal marriage involves a member of each of the three sexes? Actually, since we tend to refer to all the persons of the Trinity as male, wouldn’t the proper analogy be a gay threesome? I’m only kind of joking, but this is to point out that you can do anything with analogies." Quite so. I could craft a dozen human-relationship iterations with plausible parallels to the structure of the Trinity. No Christian, looking upon my frames, would take the parallelism as persuasive evidence that my made-up notions of Godlike relationships are the one true way. If Christians want to point to tradition or biblical passages about homosexuality as the basis for their believe that it is sinful, I understand, however much I might disagree. What I have never understood is why some Christians find the metaphor-based arguments persuasive, let alone conclusive. 

The same commenter, raising a related point, writes, "I've wondered why, if 'the sexual act' is supposed to be a symbol of humans’ unique relationship with God, why he would not have made that clear by making humans the only species to procreate sexually. I can understand restraining the sexual impulse as a uniquely human ability, but to put so much symbolic weight on intercourse itself, as though it weren’t one of the rifest behaviors in the animal kingdom, has always seemed a little weird."

The belief that sexual intercourse is special among human behaviors—that it can bring us closer than most anything else to our Creator—at least seems intuitively plausible to me. The notion that procreation, more than any other human activity, brings us closer to creating seems even more intuitively plausible. Even if I knew both of those things to be true, however, I would not feel compelled or even inclined to declare homosexuality to be wrong. I just don't see why that follows.

And while there may be theologians who can construct an elaborate, counterintuitive yet internally consistent explanation for why Christianity and approval of homosexuality cannot coexist, I don't think those arguments will prevail against a much simpler, more intuitive argument: God created all of us, including gays and lesbians, in His image; Jesus bade us to love one another and treat others as we'd want them to treat us; and it is therefore good to celebrate when two men or two women created in God's image express their love for one another.

Perhaps Christians will come to believe that while procreative sex, conception, and birth encompass an exalted cycle, one uniquely indispensable to the endurance of all life and thus worthy of celebration, God also intended homosexuality to be with us as long as humans endure, as a reminder that the purpose of sex is not just procreative—it's also a gift intended to be a source of pleasure and a way to express love. I don't assume that I've hit on God's actual purpose, but I see nothing about my story that's less plausible than the others that are told. Why, sex for procreation, sex for pleasure, and sex as an expression of love could even be said to reflect the complementarity of the persons of the Trinity: Each part is good even considered entirely by itself, yet still complementary together. If that arbitrary extrapolation doesn't persuade you, I understand why.

Here's what I expect to happen. As anti-gay bigotry declines, a greater proportion of Christians than ever before are succeeding in an obligation they've always had: to love gays and lesbians. While some who love gays and lesbians nevertheless think gay sex is sinful, I predict love of gays and lesbians will correlate inversely with the belief that homosexual acts and gay marriages are sinful. If I'm right, traditionalist Christians can at least take solace that when this cultural shift is complete, there will be more love and less hate here in America. It's hard to imagine that Jesus wouldn't prefer that to the previous arrangement. 

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2014/09/will-catholicism-ever-bless-gay-marriage/379668/