Dr. Robert A. J. Gagnon
Fr. Jerry J. Pokorsky
Dr. Robert A. J. Gagnon is the author of The Bible and Homosexual Practice and professor of the Bible at Houston Christian University. He holds a BA from Dartmouth, an MTS from Harvard Divinity School, and a PhD from the Princeton Theological Seminary.
The Vatican’s Dicastery (i.e., administration; formerly, Congregation) for the Doctrine of the Faith has issued, with Pope Francis’s approval, a document called Fiducia Supplicans (hereafter FS) that contains a section allowing priests to offer “non-ritualized blessings” to “couples of the same sex” (III.31-41). It is a master-class example of doublespeak.
On the one hand, the document denies that such a non-ritualized or informal blessing gives any legitimacy to homosexual unions. On the other hand, it provides the foundation for precisely such legitimation by treating the union as something that qualifies as a blessing.
Note well: I just used the word “union.” The prefect of the Dicastery that put out FS, Cardinal Victor Fernández, has since its publication attempted a distinction between a blessing of the “couple” and a non-blessing of the “union.” Yet, as his predecessor prefect, Cardinal Gerhard Müller has rightly observed, “This is emptying a word of its meaning, since what defines a couple as couple is precisely their being a union.” I follow normal usage in treating “couple,” “union,” and “relationship” as more or less interchangeable.
The incest analogue
Substitute for “same-sex couple” an adult-committed “man-mother or sister-brother incestuous couple,” or worse still, a “pedophilic couple,” and you will get the point that “blessing” at any level is incompatible with a sexual behavior that is deemed morally abhorrent to God.
Can you imagine the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 5, who was outraged by the Corinthian toleration of an incestuous relationship, permitting the believers at Corinth to give a blessing for all that is good in that very same relationship between the Christian man and his stepmother? I can’t because it is historically impossible. Nobody with even a bare minimum of theological and ethical acumen could possibly argue otherwise.
I understand that some will bristle at the comparisons with adult-consensual incest or pedophilia. Pedophilia is worse, and I cite it only as an example of the outermost extremes to which the logic of FS absurdly takes us, since even in pedophilic relationships (think classical Athens), some might argue, not everything that happens is without trace of any expression of care.
As for adult-committed incestuous relationships, the authors of Scripture (and implicitly Jesus himself) treat homosexual practice as worse. Both can be practiced as adult-committed relationships, and both are problematic because they attempt to unite persons who are too much alike structurally or formally (one on the level of sex or gender, the other on the level of kinship), exhibiting insufficient otherness.
Yet homosexual practice is not just an assault on a principle extrapolated secondarily from the foundation of sexual ethics. The male-female prerequisite is the foundation (as Genesis 1:27 and 2:24 make clear, both cited by Jesus in Mark 10:6-7 with parallel in Matt 19:4-5), as the basis for limiting the number of partners to two (no concurrent polygamy and serial remarriage after divorce). Likewise, we may infer that the principle for rejecting even adult-committed incestuous bonds (viz., excessive structural sameness) is first established at creation in God’s intentional creation of two complementary sexes.
Moreover, uber-sameness is greater with homosexual couples than it is with incestuous couples since sex or gender is a more essential component of sexuality than kinship. This explains why there are loopholes for incest prior to Levitical law but never any loopholes in ancient Israel for engaging in homosexual practice.
Again, if clerics should never bless an incestuous couple (and I assume that the authors of FS would not promote that, given the clarity of Paul’s response to the incestuous man at Corinth), they surely shouldn’t bless a homosexual couple, which Jesus and the authors of Scripture viewed as even worse than incest.
Don’t be cruel
We are not advocating here for cruelty toward those engaged in sexual sin. Jesus was known for reaching out in love both to sexual sinners and to exploitative tax collectors.
What is less well known, both then by the Pharisees and today by modern Pharisees on the left, is that Jesus conducted this outreach in the context of intensifying God’s ethical demand both for sexual purity and against exploiting the poor (tax collectors had a reputation for doing the latter). Indeed, Mark pinpoints as Jesus’ summary message, “The time has been fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the gospel” (1:15).
Everyone can be reclaimed by repentance and faith, which precludes a willful persistence in a pattern of egregious sexual sin. Withholding the blessing of an immoral union or of the “couple” essential to such a union is not the same as withholding a blessing to a sinful individual who wishes to cease from sinning. The “sinful woman” who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair as a response of gratitude to divine forgiveness is not going to exit the door to return to her sinful behavior with other persons.
What would be cruel is conveying the false impression that God is in some way blessing the immoral union. For that would leave the “couple” lost in their sins and dead to God, rather than (as in the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15) as found in repentance and alive to God. Such a false conveyance puts the immoral “couple” at high risk of being excluded eternally from the kingdom of God. That’s cruel.
Homosexual relationships are not marriage-lite
Contrary to what FS assumes, homosexual relationships are not just a diluted, less-thriving, second-order version of heterosexual marriage. Homosexual intercourse is viewed by Scripture as abhorrent to God (even more than adult-consensual incest), incurring for the impenitent the maximum penalty of exclusion from God’s eternal kingdom.
Homosexual relationships are held by Scripture to be an egregious dishonoring of the participants who treat themselves as half their own sex (two half-males make a whole male, two half-females make a whole female) in contradiction to the Creator’s creation of them as wholly male or wholly female.
Again, as Jesus taught us, the foundation of marriage is God’s intentional design of “male and female” as sexual counterparts. Each of the two sexes is one-half of a sexual whole. Each completes sexually the other (anatomically, physiologically, psychologically). For Jesus, the sexual binary or twoness of the sexes established by God at creation was the basis for limiting the number of partners in a sexual union to two.
So, no, homosexual relationships are not just a deficient alternative to a male-female marriage. They are a categorical and absolute rejection of the very foundation of marriage. No blessing of any sort can be given to such a relationship without denying what Jesus viewed as foundational to all sexual ethics.
The flawed rationale behind blessing what is good about homosexual relationships
FS states that “there is no intention to legitimize anything, but rather to open one’s life to God, to ask for his help to live better, and also to invoke the Holy Spirit so that the values of the Gospel may be lived with greater faithfulness.” Again, this is doublespeak.
The only way to “live better” and to “live with greater faithfulness” is to dissolve the relationship completely. One can’t morally improve the homosexual relationship in any meaningful way that would honor God, any more than an incestuous relationship can be improved apart from dissolving it.
The document adds: “In a brief prayer preceding this spontaneous blessing, the ordained minister could ask that the individuals have peace, health, a spirit of patience, dialogue, and mutual assistance—but also God’s light and strength to be able to fulfill his will completely.” This is more doublespeak.
Praying for a homosexual couple to have more patience with one another and to help each other does not provide even a partial fulfillment of God’s will for the relationship. For God has no will for the relationship to exist at all. The fundamental problem with the relationship is not an incapacity to demonstrate mutual patience and assistance but rather the fact that it is a homosexual relationship.
“To fulfill his will completely” suggests that a homosexual relationship partially fulfills God’s will when it is conducted in a loving fashion. Such an assumption is as false here as it would be for an incestuous, polyamorous, adulterous, or pedophilic relationship.
Still more doubletalk
It is mere window dressing when FS asserts that “the form of which [blessing] should not be fixed ritually by ecclesial authorities to avoid producing confusion with the blessing proper to the Sacrament of Marriage.” A sexual relationship that can be blessed informally will invariably over time be blessed in a formally ritualized way. We are just slowly boiling the frog here.
FS unseriously refers to a blessing “upon those who—recognizing themselves to be destitute and in need of his help—do not claim a legitimation of their own status, but who beg that all that is true, good, and humanly valid in their lives and their relationships be enriched, healed, and elevated by the presence of the Holy Spirit” (my emphasis).
The very existence and continuance of the homosexual relationship represents a claim to legitimacy on the part of those in the relationship. To contend that those coming for a blessing “do not claim a legitimation of their own status” is false on its face. Else, they would not be in the relationship at all. And there is no “enriching” or “healing” of the relationship possible, which in God’s eyes needs to have stopped yesterday.
The document claims that the blessing can have as its purpose: “so that human relationships may mature and grow in fidelity to the Gospel, that they may be freed from their imperfections and frailties, and that they may express themselves in the ever-increasing dimension of the divine love.”
Again, the problem with homosexual relationships, what makes them abhorrent to God, is not that they need to further “mature and grow in fidelity to the Gospel,” as if they already reflected some minimal amount of fidelity to the gospel but just needed more of the same. The relationship by its very existence manifests a profound unfaithfulness to the gospel from the get-go.
The only way to free homosexual relationships from their imperfections
The only way that such relationships can be “freed from their imperfections” is to end them immediately. It is not a question of an “ever-increasing dimension of the divine love” as though the participants in the homosexual relationship are already on the right trajectory. This is akin to claiming that continuing to travel further in the wrong direction, only with greater ease, is an improvement of the journey.
The authors of FS, seeking to appease those who rightly see this “blessing” for what it is (viz., a first step at full approval), warn that “this blessing should never [sic] be imparted in concurrence with the ceremonies of a civil union, and not even in connection with them. Nor can it be performed with any clothing, gestures, or words that are proper to a wedding.”
Prior to this document’s release, homosexual unions were “never” officially blessed at all in the Catholic Church (though some rogue clerics have violated the church’s official teaching). In fact, only two years ago in the 2021 Responsum of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Catholic Church declared, “It is not licit to impart a blessing on relationships, or partnerships, even stable, that involve sexual activity outside of marriage… as is the case of the unions between persons of the same sex.”
“Never” in FS means only “never” in the present moment, not for all time to come. The logic of the informal blessing demands a move ultimately to a formal blessing in a context that approximates or appropriates marriage. For FS recognizes many goods in the homosexual union, speaks of improving that relationship, and treats it as a second-order form of marriage.
Pope Francis is, I think, ordering a seismic shift in the Catholic Church’s teaching on homosexual relationships with the ultimate goal of the full endorsement of such relationships. He is doing as much as he can do to hasten that development, short of provoking an all-out Catholic civil war.
The response of the Prefect Emeritus of the of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Müller, which I saw only after I had completed the penultimate version of this piece, has warmed the heart of this Protestant by his constant appeal to the biblical witness:
Innovations cannot go beyond what was revealed to them once and for all by the apostles as the word of God…. In fact, there are no biblical texts … to support the conclusions of FS…. A first observation is that there is no basis for this new usage in the biblical texts cited by FS…. For in the Bible, a blessing has to do with the order that God has created and that he has declared to be good. This order is based on the sexual difference of male and female, called to be one flesh. Blessing a reality that is contrary to creation is not only impossible, it is blasphemy.
Amen to that.