The Vatican came out this week and confirmed that it would not be “blessing” same sex unions. My two cents will be shared with you in this column, after a few initial observations.
There are seven sacraments recognized in the Roman Catholic rite: Baptism, Act of Reconciliation, Holy Eucharist, Confirmation, Matrimony, Holy Orders and, Last Rites.
I’m old enough to remember when the Act of Reconciliation was called “Penance” and when Last Rites were called “Extreme Unction.” I’m also old enough to be one of the only people at Mass saying “And Also With You” while the rest of the congregation is saying “And With Your Spirit.” The smug looks I get from my neighbors in the pews says “Haven’t been to church since we changed the script, have you, Christine?”
My point is that the church changes certain things all the time, adapting and updating as it sees fit. My Italian grandmother was a little flustered when Vatican II essentially deep-sixed Latin from the service, and forced the priest to turn around from the altar and face the faithful in our pews.
Beyond the changes in language and style, there have been some more substantive changes, including allowing for “altar girls,” allowing lay persons to distribute communion, allowing women to participate more fully in the liturgy and delighting butchers everywhere by removing the “no meat on Fridays” prohibition. Along the way, they also got rid of some totally respectable saints, like Christopher and-to my grandmother Philomena’s disgust, Philomena. She carried the weight of that injustice with her to the grave.
However noteworthy, none of these changes significantly altered church teaching. That’s because, for whatever else you might think of it, Catholicism does not change with the times, with cultural evolutions, or with the whims of the woke.
The sacraments are not optional rules that we can update depending upon group membership. They are not resolutions that can be periodically tweaked so that the demographics of the club can feel more “involved” in activities. They are fundamental, inalterable, doctrinal precepts that define the character of the church itself.
In the years that I’ve been writing about culture and politics and other non-controversial stuff like that, the confluence of Catholicism and evolution has been a frequent topic of discussion. Ironically enough, I’ve found that non-Catholics are often the ones most sympathetic to my position — namely, that the struggle between conscience and compromise is a hard one. When I wrote about the very difficult decision to get a vaccine that was in some way connected to elective abortion, a reader sent me this moving response:
“I don’t always, but I read your column this morning. (I admit, I tend to skip it because we seem to have little in common.) I wanted to share with you, while I am an elected official (D) and I “don’t see abortion as the greatest modern evil” – I did not laugh at your feelings. Not at all. My eyes are not glazed over. I feel empathy for the dilemma you faced, the same way I do whenever individuals feel they are in a position of moral compromise because of sincerely-held personal beliefs.”
Those words are exceptional, not the least because they came from someone who stands on the opposite side of issues. It is rare, in this day and age, to find that sort of grace.
Which brings me to the topic at hand.
When the Vatican came out and said that it would not bless same-sex unions, it shouldn’t have been a surprise, even with this kindler, gentler pope. The sacrament of matrimony is reserved for two people, one heterosexual man, and one heterosexual woman. It is not designed for two gay men, or two lesbians, regardless of how devoted they are to one another.
That is why the old term “living in sin” was coined. A man and a woman living together with biblical knowledge of each other (and possibly of the Bible too) is also condemned by the church. There is a very bright line about what sort of union gets the sacramental imprimatur.
You might say, well, okay but why can’t they “bless” the union without giving it sacramental gravitas? That’s easy. How do you approve something that violates your rules? If you have any sense of self-preservation, you don’t.
Some have taken that as yet another insult to the LGBT community. Others have gone so far as to say that the church cares more about protecting pedophile priests than it does about the feelings of devout gays and lesbians. Totally expected, totally trite.
The point is that matrimony is a sacrament that applies to a “union” of two individuals, and has very little to do with the intrinsic worth of those individuals. Bad people get married. Bad Catholics get married. Believe me, I know them.
But the institution of Catholic matrimony transcends the flaws in its human participants. The church has aspirational values, and one of them is to promote the beauty of a union open to the creation of human life.
The pope has consistently made clear that the church still embraces its gay and lesbian members, going so far as to say “Homosexual people have a right to be in a family. They’re children of God and have a right to a family. Nobody should be thrown out or be made miserable over it.”
But that is very different from saying that a union which violates church teaching should be permitted simply out of a sense that we don’t want to hurt those who violate those teachings not in their identity (which cannot be changed) but by their actions.
This isn’t about updating names, eating meat instead of fish sticks or kicking out some saints. This is about what it means to be Catholic.
For some people, that will mean saying goodbye. Those who remain, like me, have reasons that transcend the things that can be expressed in words.
Christine Flowers is an attorney and a Delaware County resident. Her column appears Sunday and Thursday. Email her at email@example.com.
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