Same-Sex Blessing Reaction Echoes Rollout of Humanae Vitae

Just as they did in 1968, Catholic dissidents push alternate narrative ahead of official Church teaching.

LEFT: Pope Francis celebrates Mass for Pentecost on May 31, 2020, at St Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican. RIGHT: Official portrait of Pope St. Paul VI, author of the encyclical ‘Humanae Vitae.’
LEFT: Pope Francis celebrates Mass for Pentecost on May 31, 2020, at St Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican. RIGHT: Official portrait of Pope St. Paul VI, author of the encyclical ‘Humanae Vitae.’ (photo: Remo Casilli/AFP via Getty Images and Fotografia Felici/Wikimedia Commons)

For Catholics who welcomed the Vatican’s recent statement barring blessings of same-sex unions, the flurry of objections that followed has seemed eerily reminiscent of the outcry against the 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae

Just as St. Paul VI’s letter articulating the Church’s stance against artificial contraception was met with vociferous opposition from those who had hoped for a change, so those who want the Church to alter its views on homosexuality and marriage expressed open dismay with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s March 15 statement. And in both instances, some of the resistance has emanated from theologians, religious and priests, and higher levels of the Church — even some bishops and cardinals. 

Likely the best-known public dissent from Humanae Vitae was led by Father Charles Curran, then a professor of moral theology at The Catholic University of America, who helped draft a statement that urged couples to let their consciences direct them in the matter of artificial contraception. It was signed eventually by more than 600 other priests and theologians and publicized by The Washington Post

Similarly, more than 200 theology professors in the German-speaking world have openly criticized the document on blessings of same-sex unions. In an opinion column published in a Belgian newspaper, Antwerp Bishop Johan Bonny said he felt “shame for my Church” and apologized to those for whom the Vatican’s response is “painful and incomprehensible.” The Belgian bishops’ conference has supported his concerns. And, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, archbishop of Vienna, has said he was unhappy with the congregation’s explanation and will continue to bless same-sex couples under certain circumstances. 

Additionally, the Parish Priests Initiative, an Austrian-based group claiming to have 350 members and more than 3,000 lay supporters, has pledged to defy the Vatican decree, known as a responsum, and to continue blessing same-sex unions. 


U.S. Impact 

In the U.S., reaction to the CDF document from bishops and priests has been more measured, and some say it is unlikely to rise to the level of objections to Humanae Vitae

Gerard Bradley, law professor at the University of Notre Dame, who has written on both same-sex “marriage” and the Curran case, told the Register he does not think opposition among U.S. bishops will be more than sporadic and individualized. Among the laity, he said, progressive Catholic publications will lament it, and conservative Catholics will claim it as a win on one front. But he added, “By and large, I think Catholics will ignore it.” 

From the fight over Humanae Vitae and the way in which the Church handled it, as George Weigel has written in The Courage to Be Catholic, a “culture of dissent” was born. Theologians, priests and religious learned they could repudiate a papal encyclical with few serious consequences. Laypeople in turn learned that everything in the Church could be questioned, giving birth to “cafeteria Catholicism,” which Weigel calls “another child of the Humanae Vitae controversy.”

Now, just as most Catholics in the pews think the Church should allow contraception, many have adopted the culture’s attitudes toward same-sex “marriage.” According to the Pew Research Center, a majority of Catholics in the U.S. (61%) and Western Europe (57% to 92%) support same-sex unions. 

Even with the Vatican’s prohibition, Bradley said many priests likely will continue to bless same-sex unions privately and outside churches, convincing themselves that if they do not do so in a church or within the context of a liturgy, they are not being disobedient. 

In the longer run, he predicted, “The world’s bishops will learn to live peaceably with a culture and Catholic population that is totally accepting of ‘gay’ relationships, even if the bishops don’t authorize priests to perform blessing ceremonies.” 

Bradley said this is similar to the way the U.S. bishops now deal with contraception: “Church teaching remains as it is, but it’s inoperative on the ground.” 


Fidelity Failure 

Still, failing to deal with dissent at the outset can have other repercussions, as has been seen from the Church’s experience with Humanae Vitae.

Father Gerald Murray, who wrote a column decrying the opposition to the CDF pronouncement on the part of bishops, particularly Antwerp’s Bishop Bonny, told the Register he believes the Holy See has to act soon to correct the errors of those who have said they will continue to bless so-called same-sex marriages and unions. 

“Otherwise,” he said, “the Vatican will face tremendous strife, which will be caused by shepherds who are unfaithful to their mission.”

He pointed out in his column that bishops at the time of their installation publicly swear an “Oath of Fidelity” to “hold fast to the deposit of faith in its entirety” and “avoid any teachings contrary to it.”

Yet, he said in the Register interview, bishops and priests who believe an adaptation of marriage should be granted to homosexual relationships do not believe the Church’s teaching to be binding and certain. 

“That is horrible because the Church has always taught this and always will,” said Father Murray. “It’s impossible for the teaching to change.” 

He said he would not be surprised if there were more opposition to the Vatican’s ruling than has been seen so far in the U.S.

Father Murray also observed that Catholics with same-sex attraction who seek to uphold the Church’s teaching by remaining chaste become discouraged when they hear bishops and priests claim homosexual relationships and lifestyles are good things that need to be affirmed by the Church. “They feel abandoned and betrayed because many have left the homosexual lifestyle and realize the liberating power of virtue and grace as opposed to the dark effects of sin in their lives,” he said. “There’s a sentimentality being preached by people who claim that because people are upset we have to affirm what they’re doing. That has never been the Church’s teaching on any moral question.” 


Forgetting the Faithful

Indeed, David Prosen, author of Accompanying Those With Same-Sex Attractions: A Guide for Catholics, told the Register, “What has been so loud for so long are those that want the Church to change or want to change the wording of the Catechism. It left me feeling as though those of us who are striving to live the chaste life are being totally ignored.”

When he read the CDF responsum on the question of same-sex union blessings, he said, “I was smiling from ear to ear. It was the first time in a long time that I felt the Church has my back.” Now that the Vatican has taken a stance on same-sex unions, he said, “I hope that they’re going to honor that. If they don’t, there’s probably going to be some who are very blatant about it and are going to [perform blessings]. And it’s sad because it’s going to continue to cause more confusion and division in the Church.” 

Anne (not her real name), whose son is civilly “married” to a man, said she and her husband also felt affirmed by the CDF statement. 

 “This is a very helpful document for parents like us because it applies as much to us as it does the Church. We cannot bless the union of our son with another man, although we can still love them as individuals.” Anne said the document provided the language for why she and her husband did not participate in their son’s “wedding.” 

Like Prosen, Anne said she is frustrated by bishops who fail to acknowledge Catholics like her and her husband. 

“They seem to be concerned only about the people who have trouble with Church teaching and don’t recognize a lot of us are struggling to be faithful.” She compared the stand she and her husband have taken to using natural family planning in a contraceptive culture. 


Perilous Moment 

Asked what the Church could learn from its experience with Humanae Vitae, Notre Dame’s Bradley said it would be helpful if Pope Francis would publicly adopt the CDF statement as his own. Given that is unlikely to happen — and that the Pope’s involvement in the statement has been called into question by some in the media — he said the burden will fall upon individual bishops. “Recognizing the peril of the present moment, each ordinary should forthrightly and in a very visible and public way adopt the instruction as his own teaching and how it excludes anything like a blessing or any other kind of approval, ratification, endorsement or encouragement of any sort of same-sex sexual relationship.”

As for the implications for the integrity of the Catholic faith if the Church fails to send the right message about this issue, Bradley said, “The Church teaches that sexuality affects all aspects of the human person in the unity of body and soul. If you redefine marriage to include same-sex couples or even allow the culture to redefine it without pushing back, you have undermined the meaning of marriage and blasted sexual ethics to smithereens. The effects will be catastrophic for holding the faith.”