Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.
I was raised Catholic, left the Church a long time ago when I became a born again Christian. About a year and a half ago I was feeling the call to look again at the Church. I have been studying Catholic doctrine, reading many books, writings on the internet, going to Mass, and of course praying. I believe I'm ready to come back, but one issue is holding me back.
This morning I read on the front page of the Philadelphia Inquirer that our U.S. senator, Bob Casey, son of the late great pro-life governor Robert Casey, is now for same sex marriage. The local Philadelphia news radio station made this announcement while calling Casey a devout Catholic. I recently started reading the ncregister and the ncreporter online. I knew the reporter was liberal, but I was surprised at a column the other day supporting same sex marriage.
Don’t be. Catholics are all over the map on any greatly controverted matter. Twas ever thus. The whole reason the Church needs a Magisterium is precisely because the sheep tend to easily scatter. Indeed, until a matter is definitively settled (and this is rare in the life of the Church) even the bishops tend to scatter on many issues. One of the marks of the Catholic tradition is a certain intellectual freedom and a culture of poking around at ideas from all angles.
My concern is where is the Catholic Church going to end up on this issue? I saw an interview with Cardinal Dolan this week where he stood firm on traditional marriage, but seemed to go out of his way not to offend anyone. I'm definitely not saying that we should intentionally offend, and I do strongly agree with the Catholic teaching of respect and love concerning this, but it almost seems like they don't want to call it sin anymore. I saw the photo of Pope Francis smiling with Joe Biden and I wonder why the pope doesn't courteously ask Biden why he is promoting same sex marriage. I also read the, hopefully rumor, that as cardinal, Pope Francis supported civil unions.
I am not a hater. I treat all with respect. I'm not someone who goes to rallies or protests on this issue, but I find it very hard to reconcile it with scripture. Do I have anything to be concerned about as far as the Church is concerned? Will I join the church only to see them in the future change their position on the issue? Pope Francis displays such love for all people he considers outcasts, could he possibly come to the conclusion that we must accept this change in light of the secular pressure?
Thank you for any insight you can give me.
I’m not up on Argentinian politics and I’ve heard some back and forth on the business of Bergoglio and civil unions, so I’m not competent to comment on that.
As to the perennial question that comes up in American politics about why bishops don’t go around calling down fire on bad Catholics in high office, I think this is a misconception of the office as a general rule, as well as a sort of romantic picture of things rooted in unreality. I can think of half a dozen reasons why a bishop does not choose to make a public scene with a pol, beginning with his awareness that today’s dramatic gesture spells tomorrow’s draconian punishment of innocents by the pols who, after all, control all the people with the guns. It may be a bad judgment call (I think sometimes it is) but in the end that’s all it is: a prudential judgment call and not a matter of doctrine.
The Church’s charism of infallibility does not prevent bishops from making massively stupid judgment calls (as the reassignment of abusive priests to work with children dramatically demonstrates). In a similar way, the Church’s charism of infallibility does not extend to judgment calls about how the Church should view many actions of the civil authority. A bishop may oppose, for prudential reasons, a tax on farmers that seems to him too onerous. That does not make his position infallible doctrine. It just makes it his opinion, informed by the Church’s teaching on justice for the poor, fairness, and such information he may evaluate according to his best lights. If he is an economist or comes from a farming background, he may well have special competence in the matter. Or he may be wrong, or relying on wrong advice or whatnot.
Similar issues obtain with how Caesar arranges his ducks with respect to taxation and economic benefits for homosexual “marriages”. At present, the posture of the Church here in the US has been to oppose civil unions because natural marriage is at the root of sacramental marriage and so the less we screw that up, the less societal damage the Church has to overcome in celebrating the sacrament and the less damage done to human persons in the world beyond the Church. But this is in the nature of a sort of rear-guard action as our culture de-Christianizes and the definition of “marriage” dissolves into incoherent and sentimental mush in the wider culture. The idea of the Church’s approach is that we should stave off as long as possible changes in the wider culture that are detrimental to the family (since Catholic social teaching is all about the preservation of the family as the fundamental human society made in the image of God the Blessed Trinity). So as long as possible, the Church urges citizens to not let Caesar redefine the word “marriage” to mean “whatever we like”. That’s because when “marriage” means anything, it means nothing. And defining the family to mean nothing is intrinsically bad for the family. So the Church exercises its dimming cultural influence on the wider non-Catholic world as long as she can to keep it from embracing this massively stupid and evil idea.
At the same time, just as in ancient Rome, the ultimate concern of the Church is not to run around lobbying Caesar as though its main mission was to be a political lobbyist and not the sacrament of salvation. So should the day come when the culture decisively turns against the Church on this (as I think likely) the Church will have a choice:1) face the fact that Caesar means to make the pretense of gay “marriage” a fact of civil law (and take steps to protect the integrity of sacramental marriage and natural marriage as much as possible), or 2) waste its limited resources fighting a doomed battle against the might of the state and the weight of decadent and confused Western culture. Just war teaching insists that it is necessary to have a reasonable prospect of success. In some places, success is still possible (as, for instance, in Northern Ireland and in many parts of the US). So there the battle should be pressed. But if, in other parts of the world, the Church has no hope of stemming the tide of the legal fiction of gay “marriage”, then it may well be prudent to propose the compromise of civil unions in the hope of keeping Caesar from coming after and punishing the Church for refusing to perform gay “marriages”.
Because legal punishment of the Church and the attempt to alter the sacrament itself will be the end game, make no mistake. This is all about creating a legal basis for persecuting the Church. And on the question of the sacrament (as distinct from whatever pretend paperwork Caesar wants to file in his offices), the Church will not budge (though doubtless some individual clerics will, just as some of them have performed fake “women’s ordinations”).
The issue always comes down to what is and is not negotiable in Catholic teaching. Civil unions have the potential for negotiability under certain circumstances where the Church is already operating at a massive disadvantage, because civil unions are basically about Caesar telling lies to himself, which he already does plenty of. But Caesar coming after Christ and telling him to change the form and matter of the sacraments themselves? That has zero negotiability and will never happen. The Church will no more approve of a gay sacrament of marriage than she will start conscecrating coffee and donuts in the Eucharist.