‘Amoris Laetitia’ and gay marriage: a closer look

Pope Francis met with a former student and his same-sex partner during his visit to the United States in September.

Cambridge, MA—Like many of you, I have not had time yet to digest "Amoris Laetitia," Pope Francis’ loving and open apostolic exhortation on the family, in response to the Synod on the Family. Like many commentators, and like you who are reading this, I am grateful for his charitable and sensitive tone. I admire his ability to thread the needle, so to speak, engaging complex moral issues for the sake of a global church with great skill. It will take a while for us to digest it, and I look forward to discussions on it in parishes, on campus, etc.

Here I would like to comment on the opening sentences in No. 251, on gay marriage—or the impossibility thereof. In discussing the dignity and mission of the family, the Synod Fathers observed that, “as for proposals to place unions between homo­sexual persons on the same level as marriage, there are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for mar­riage and family.”

As you know, I am not an ethicist, nor even a very practical person, so I do not wish here to engage the substance of the debate about gay marriage as a legal, moral and religious issue. But I can, simply as a reader, make three points. First, I cannot help but be struck by the rather formal, one might say cold, tone of the paragraph. It seems to be out of keeping with Francis’ ordinary way of speaking, and seems to be in contrast with the preceding paragraph, which had a warm tone to it:

The Church makes her own the atti­tude of the Lord Jesus, who offers his bound­less love to each person without exception. During the Synod, we discussed the situation of families whose members include persons who experience same-sex attraction, a situation not easy either for parents or for children. We would like before all else to reaffirm that every person, regardless of sexual orientation, ought to be respected in his or her dignity and treated with consideration, while ‘every sign of unjust discrimination’ is to be carefully avoided, par­ticularly any form of aggression and violence. Such families should be given respectful pasto­ral guidance, so that those who manifest a ho­mosexual orientation can receive the assistance they need to understand and fully carry out God’s will in their lives (No. 250).

I note, too, that No. 250 twice speaks in the first person: “we discussed” and “we would like before all else to reaffirm…” No. 251 is by contrast more distant, lacking the “we,” instead simply observing that “the Synod Father observed…” It may be too much to read into the choice of words, but perhaps Francis is implicitly distancing himself from the judgment passed in No. 251.

Second, No. 251 proceeds by way of quotation, and text scholar that I am, I could not help but trace the quote that makes up the bulk of it. It is indeed quoted first of all from the 2015 Synod document:

Regarding proposals to place unions of homosexual persons on the same level as marriage, “there are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God's plan for marriage and family” (No. 76).

But this in turn is also a quote, from the 2003 Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith statement, Considerations Regarding Proposals To Give Legal Recognition To Unions Between Homosexual Persons:

There are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God's plan for marriage and family. Marriage is holy, while homosexual acts go against the natural moral law. Homosexual acts “close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved” (No. 4).

By the way, the quoted words here are from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2357:

Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.” They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved.

Why is this trail of citations interesting, to me at least? I think it tells us that the point being made has a lineage in recent Vatican teachings—but also that Francis seems content to quote the synod, which is quoting the C.D.F., which is echoing the Catechism. There is a trail, but it is also an old one.

Though not a scholar of the papacy of Francis, I think he would have spoken differently had he spoken in his own voice. Think for instance of how he spoke of abortion in his September 2015 letter to Archbishop Rino Fisichella, President of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization, on the Year of Mercy:

The tragedy of abortion is experienced by some with a superficial awareness, as if  not realizing the extreme harm that such an act entails. Many others, on the other hand, although experiencing this moment as a defeat, believe they they have no other option. I think in particular of all the women who have resorted to abortion. I am well aware of the pressure that has led them to this decision. I know that it is an existential and moral ordeal. I have met so many women who bear in their heart the scar of this agonizing and painful decision.

I am sure the pope believes that abortion is a great evil, but the section of the letter I have quoted is remarkable for its sensitivity to women in trouble. If the pope had written about gay marriage in his own voice, I don't think No. 251 would have been the result. If some men and women, struggling for love, stability and family, choose to enter a gay marriage, might this not be a similar, analogous “this agonizing and painful decision” that merits the pope’s compassion, rather than the cold assertion made in No. 251?

Third, while I am not an ethicist, I am a comparativist, and so I found myself perplexed at the definitive words in No. 251: “There are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for mar­riage and family.” Not at all similar, nor even remotely analogous? I wonder.

I wonder in part because, as readers know, I teach at Harvard, and in the very diverse, sometimes mind-boggling and headache-producing environs of the Divinity School. (More on that another time.) But in this context, I am in contact with persons in gay married relationships all the time. No relation is perfect, I am sure, but in these marriages I most often observe: honest, open, mature love; commitment, often over many years; fidelity and loyalty to one another, for richer or poorer, in health and in sickness; Christian faith, lived out in a deep human relationship; and, in several cases, great devotion to raising children. I am edified by these relationships, these marriages.

I grant that none of this, including my opinion, adds up at all to the evidence required to persuade the Vatican to rethink its stance on gay marriage. But it should be evident to anyone with their eyes open, that gay marriage is in many ways similar to marriage as is esteemed by the church, and that analogies abound, including those I have mentioned. It is hard to see how or why Pope Francis might think that gay marriage could be entirely dissimilar and equivocally unlike heterosexual marriage. It is hard to see why Pope Francis, even if quoting quotes from other documents, would be willing to say that the marriage of a gay couple is entirely outside God’s plan. Is there anything or anyone outside God's mercy and compassion? Later in "Amoris Laetitia" Francis writes,

We put so many conditions on mercy that we empty it of its con­crete meaning and real significance. That is the worst way of watering down the Gospel. It is true, for example, that mercy does not exclude justice and truth, but first and foremost we have to say that mercy is the fullness of justice and the most radiant manifestation of God’s truth. For this reason, we should always consider “inad­equate any theological conception which in the end puts in doubt the omnipotence of God and, especially, his mercy.” This offers us a framework and a setting which help us avoid a cold bureaucratic morality in dealing with more sensitive issues. Instead, it sets us in the context of a pastoral discernment filled with merciful love, which is ever ready to understand, forgive, accompany, hope, and above all integrate. That is the mindset which should prevail in the Church and lead us to “open our hearts to those living on the outermost fringes of society” (No. 311-12).

Though I am a Jesuit, I do not have the pope’s ear, nor the ear of those who have the pope’s ear. But were I to speak to him, I would thank him heartily for "Amoris Laetitia," its content and tone—and also ask him to rewrite No. 251 in light of Nos. 311-312, in his own hand, from his own heart.