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Unnecessary Roughing

This article originally appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times on Nov. 19, 2013.

By Cristina Traina

As Gov. Pat Quinn prepares to sign a marriage equality bill on Wednesday, Catholic prelates continue to offer unnecessarily stinging words to gays and lesbians.

Admittedly, the Catholic LGBT community wasn’t expecting the Church and its bishops to welcome the law with a brass band. Yet there are good theological reasons for Catholics who embrace traditional definitions of sacramental marriage to tolerate civil same-sex marriage — and even to promote it.

The words of Pope Francis offer important lessons that could guide outraged prelates such as Springfield Bishop Thomas Paprocki, who is expected to lead prayers of supplication and exorcism for “the evil wrought by same-sex relations” during the bill-signing ceremony, and Chicago’s Cardinal Francis George, who has declared the bill “a bad law.”

Pope Francis certainly has not promoted same-sex marriage — especially in the Church. But he and his predecessor, Benedict XVI, both have made arguments that suggest their willingness to distinguish the low bar of public policy and civil law from the high bar of Christian moral ideals. Most importantly, they and others in the Catholic hierarchy seem to see these laws and policies as means of nudging people toward spiritual and moral renewal.

To understand this dichotomy requires a subtle trip through Vatican-speak that news outlets rarely have the luxury of making. Interviews with Pope Francis published this fall in the Jesuit magazine “America” and the Italian newspaper “La Repubblica,” for example, revealed a reorganization of priorities.

Without hinting at an alteration of Catholic sexual norms, Francis has signaled that Catholic teaching on sex should not eclipse the Church’s core messages of mercy, welcome and active concern for the poor. “The heart of the message of Jesus Christ,” he said, is “proclamation of the saving love of God.” He added that “it is not necessary to talk about (Catholic opposition to abortion, contraception and gay marriage) all the time.” Believing that these conclusions follow from the good news of salvation does not entail believing that they are central to it.

Equally telling is the fact that in preparation for a General Synod of Bishops to be held in 2014, the Secretary General of the Vatican Synod of Bishops, Lorenzo Baldisseri, recently announced a global poll to learn how parishes and dioceses handle pastoral care and welcome for a number of “non-conforming” populations, including same-sex-partnered households.

The potential implications of this move for lay involvement in official Catholic discernment — for instance, the bishops of England and Wales are conducting an online survey of ordinary Catholics — are extraordinary, but so are the implications for the Church’s attitude toward same-sex civil marriage. With the clear assumption that same-sex marriage is a cultural reality, the poll is trying to determine how the Church should minister to gay and lesbian couples and their families.

The last example brings us to Pope Benedict XVI, who in 2010, according to an explosion of newswires, reversed Catholic teaching, cautiously approving the use of condoms to reduce transmission of HIV/AIDS. What the pope actually said — as the Vatican quickly confirmed — was quite different but no less important.

He argued that for a person who has been practicing unprotected sex, using condoms out of concern for others “can be a first step in the direction of moralization, a first assumption of responsibility, on the way toward recovering an awareness that not everything is allowed and that one cannot do whatever one wants.”

Though the Church disapproves of condoms, the reasoning goes, using them for the right reasons might lead a person gradually toward greater moral concern and away from a self-indulgent approach to sex.

The implication is that the Vatican is beginning to view “irregular” behavior like condom use and same-sex marriage as opportunity rather than as threat. Without abandoning its rejection of either, it shows signs of seeing both as indications of people’s aspirations to love, fidelity and concern for others — as nascent yearnings toward a holy life.

Pope Benedict acknowledged the integrity of people who want to use condoms to forestall the spread of an often-fatal disease, though the Catholic Church teaches that sex should be confined to marriage and that monogamy and abstinence are better protection than condoms against HIV/AIDS. American bishops could follow suit by acknowledging the integrity of same-sex couples who want to marry, declare their fidelity, and raise children together, though the Catholic Church teaches that marriage should be confined to heterosexual couples.

Of course, this grudging case for marriage equality falls far short of the full endorsement for which Catholic gays and lesbians hope. After all, the Catholic Church’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has condemned same-sex marriage as self-indulgent and harmful to children. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has come out forcefully against same-sex sacramental marriage.

Illinois bishops seem to be following these precedents rather than the popes’. During the Oct. 22 March on Springfield for Marriage Equality in Illinois, Paprocki reinforced the point by forbidding self-identified marchers to pray in the Springfield Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. And as Chicago’s Francis Cardinal George correctly points out, Pope Francis’s much-quoted quip “Who am I to judge?” referred to celibate gay priests, not to same-sex couples.

Still, Pope Francis and his predecessor seem to be edging toward the idea that practices with which they disagree may still lead people toward greater love and care toward others and therefore toward God.

Marriage equality, in other words, could support contemporary popes’ visions of conversion, evangelization, and welcome.

The implication of the popes’ actions is clear: marriage equality could be an important stepping stone to a holy life and therefore just might be good law.

- Cristina Traina is a professor of religious studies at Northwestern University.

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