The UK government has recently initiated a “consultation” on same-sex marriage. The Anglican dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral has urged the Church of England to welcome any couple that wishes to take on the virtues of Christian marriage. The senior Catholic cleric in the UK, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, has strenuously argued the Vatican’s position and opposes and possible change in British law.
This week’s edition of excellent UK Catholic newspaper The Tablet features three prominent Catholic thinkers–Timothy Radcliffe, Martin Pendergast, and Tina Beattie–reflecting on the issue of marriage in the Church.
‘Marriage is founded on sexual difference and potential for fertility’ by Fr. TIMOTHY RADCLIFFE, former Master General of the Dominican order and a widely respected spiritual guide, author, and lecturer.
The Catholic Church does not oppose gay marriage. It considers it to be impossible. If it were possible, then we would have to support it since the Church tells us that we must oppose all discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The issue is not gay rights but a wonderful truth of our humanity, which is that we are animals: rational animals according to the medievals, spiritual animals open to sharing the life of God.
In the sacraments, the fundamental dramas of our bodily life are blessed and become open to God’s grace: birth and death, eating and drinking, sex and illness. St Thomas Aquinas says that grace perfects nature and does not destroy it.
Marriage is founded on the glorious fact of sexual difference and its potential fertility. Without this, there would be no life on this planet, no evolution, no human beings, no future. Marriage takes all sorts of forms, from the alliance of clans through bride exchange to modern romantic love. We have come to see that it implies the equal love and dignity of man and woman. But everywhere and always, it remains founded on the union in difference of male and female. Through ceremonies and sacrament this is given a deeper meaning, which for Christians includes the union of God and humanity in Christ.
This is not to denigrate committed love of people of the same sex. This too should be cherished and supported, which is why church leaders are slowly coming to support same-sex civil unions. The God of love can be present in every true love. But “gay marriage” is impossible because it attempts to cut loose marriage from its grounding in our biological life. If we do that, we deny our humanity. It would be like trying to make a cheese soufflé without the cheese, or wine without grapes.
From the beginning, Christianity has stood up for the beauty and dignity of our bodily life, blessed by our God who became flesh and blood like us. This has always seemed a little scandalous to “spiritual” people, who think that we should escape the messy realities of bodies. And so the Church had to oppose Gnosticism in the second century, Manichaeism in the fourth, Catharism in the thirteenth. These all either had contempt for the body or regarded it as unimportant.
We, too, influenced as we are by Cartesianism, tend to think of ourselves as minds trapped in bodies, ghosts in machines. A friend said to me the other day: “I am a soul, but I have a body.” But the Catholic tradition has always insisted on the fundamental unity of the human person. Aquinas famously said: “I am not my soul.”
Lynne Featherstone, the Equalities Minister, is right to say the Churches do not have an exclusive right to determine who can marry – but nor does the State, because we cannot simply decide by some mental or legal act what it means to be a human being. Our civilisation will flourish only if it recognises the gift of our bodily existence, which includes the amazing creativity of sexual difference, lifted up into love. Giving formal recognition to this through the institution of marriage in no way disparages the blessings brought to us by gay people.
Timothy Radcliffe OP is a former master of the Dominicans. His latest book is Taking the Plunge: living baptism and confirmation, to be published by Continuum on 28 April.
Timothy Radcliffe is trying to be typically generous to lesbian and gay people in his comments. Nevertheless when he states, in much less strident tones than some religious leaders, that “marriage” cannot be redefined by either State or Church, he has got himself into a double bind. Church and State have frequently redefined marriage and its structures over centuries due to a variety of factors: cultural patterns and religious influences, as well as social and human development. The model of marriage that we have today is rooted more strongly in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century social patterns than it is in earlier religious traditions.
In the Hebrew Scriptures, David could write of the love shared between himself and Jonathan as surpassing even that of a man and woman. The relationship between the Roman centurion and his beloved “servant” who was healed (made whole) by Jesus in the gospel story is now widely accepted by scholars to indicate an affirmation of the love between the two men. Then there is the love between Ruth and Naomi, between Felicity and Perpetua, if the traditions are to be respected.
I believe Timothy Radcliffe risks idealising marriage too strongly, seeing it through his own dedicated prism of vowed celibacy. He states that “marriage is founded on the glorious fact of sexual difference and its potential fertility”. But the social and anthropological structures of marriage are rooted not in biology but in relationality. As the Hebrew Scriptures say: “It is not good for a person to be alone.” Also, what of those who clearly have no potential for fertility – are they to be prevented from marrying, limited to a version of civil unions?
Faith communities have redefined marriage throughout their history, countenancing and rejecting polygamous marriage, allowing divorce and remarriage, and the Second Vatican Council stated that the ends of marriage are twofold, not solely based upon procreation. In medieval times the focus was so strongly on betrothal rites that marriage, in some places, was a rarity, since so few people could fulfil the social and economic requirements for a marriage to take place before the altar. And what of all those “sworn brotherhood” rites, adapted also to include same-sex female partners, identified by researchers such as Alan Bray and John Boswell? In spite of all this, I am not a supporter of same-sex marriage for myself. I hold, conscientiously, that the institution of marriage, in spite of all its cultural and social variability, is essentially patriarchal and not a status I wish to adopt.
The essence of civil unions is that they are based on an equality of persons legally expressed in a mutual signing of a contractual covenant, rather than expressed in vows of subjection, one to another. It is this value of equality that same-sex couples in civil unions bring to the common good. Rather than buying into a marital bond, the sacramentality of such unions is what many of us strive to live out. It is to be hoped this will increasingly be recognised by faith communities and their leadership. Happily, many congregation members, parents and families have got this message.
Martin Pendergast is gay, Catholic and a founder member of the Cutting Edge Consortium, which promotes equality and human rights across religions and beliefs.
If we allow the marriage between Christ and the Church to become the mystery within which all human loving participates and towards which all human love is drawn, and if we accept that sexual love is good even when it is non-procreative, can we not go beyond this “impossibility” of gay marriage?
Marriage is not just about sex but about a lifelong commitment to bodily unity in difference with another human being in all the interwoven materiality of our lives. Yes, of course, we are our bodies, and in some species (not all) the reproduction of the species depends upon heterosexual intercourse. Yet couldn’t marriage become an inclusive rather than an exclusive sacrament?
A good heterosexual marriage models a fertile way of human loving that entails a lifelong commitment to the other and an openness to the vulnerable outsider (a newborn child is definitely such a person, but so is any person in need of the love and stability that a loving relationship can offer). A sexual relationship – homosexual or heterosexual, fertile or infertile – which is turned in on itself and closed to others, which lacks permanent commitment for better or worse, or which is violent and abusive, is not what Christians mean by marriage.
If we want to understand the sacrament, we need to look to Christ and the Church, not to the abundant diversity of participation within that sacramental love that constitutes our bodily human relationships. I’ve been married for 37 years and I have four children, but the loving relationships of my gay friends have helped me to understand more deeply what marriage means as a partnership of equals. I hope that they in turn have been enriched by their married heterosexual friends, and have better understood what their love means within the sacramental love of Christ and the Church.
In these times of radical change in our understanding of sexuality and human dignity (especially the full and equal dignity of women in this life and not just in the life to come), maybe we heterosexuals need the marriages of our homosexual friends to help us to understand what marriage looks like when it’s not corrupted by traditions of domination and subordination.
Professor Tina Beattie is director of the Digby Stuart Research Centre for Catholic Studies at the University of Roehampton.
Read more from The Tablet.