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Academic Statement on the Ethics of Free and Faithful Same-Sex Relationships - Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research



Dr. Krzysztof Charamsa

In this time of epoch-making challenge the Academic Statement on the Ethics of Free and Faithful Same-Sex Relationships offers a powerful intellectual and spiritual manifesto in favour of both non-heterosexual people and the community of the Roman Catholic Church. Let me reflect on these four elements: time, message, people and the Roman Catholic Church.

The time of the epochal challenge

When the Nicolaus Copernicus published De revolutionibus orbium coelestium in 1543, formulating the heliocentric theory, he dethroned Earth and humankind from their position at the centre of the universe and triggered a radical crisis in biblical cosmology. The doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church seemed to be in danger and it took well over two centuries for Copernicus’ book to be removed from the Index of Forbidden Books. The ecclesial reception of his discovery, and the consequent updating of biblical understanding, was lengthy, and in the process it cost the freedom of Galileo Galilei and the suffering of many. This was eventually acknowledged by the papacy itself, which in 2000 asked for forgiveness “for the violence some have used in the service of the truth”.[1]

Later, in 1859, the publication by Charles Darwin of On the Origin of Species, outlining the basis of the theory of evolution, began the second great scientific revolution, and with it another challenge to the Roman Catholic Church. With Copernicus, the ancient geocentric cosmology supported by biblical interpretation fell; with Darwin, the traditional understanding of world history began to decline, undermining many certainties of biblical chronology. The biblical reference points concerning a definite beginning and end of the world slipped into indeterminacy. The entire understanding of reality was changing, requiring “being” to make room for “becoming”. The problem of the coexistence of biblical creation with evolutionary development had to be resolved, something which is possible, contrary to the initial impressions of church authorities. The ecclesial confrontation with the sciences of evolution was also tortuous: only at the end of the twentieth century did the papacy recognise that the theory of evolution is more than a scientific hypothesis,[2] and therefore a religious faith which sees itself as in agreement with human reason cannot avoid integrating its findings.

The Copernican revolution forced us to change our understanding of humankind in space; the Darwinian revolution demanded a new understanding of humankind in history and time. Both revolutions demanded a revision of the biblical interpretations and theological formulations that had hitherto provided certainty to the minds of Christians, and any attempt at an objective assessment of their correctness caused ecclesial authorities to fear betraying revealed truth. The difficulty seemed insurmountable, nourishing suspicions against and rejections of scientific discoveries, for too long discredited as “passing fads”, “ideologies irreconcilable with the faith” or “hypotheses lacking certainty”. Fear paralysed for years the start of a serious dialogue with up-to-date scientific knowledge.

In the twentieth century, scientific research brought about a third epochal revolution, which no longer concerned the space of the universe, nor the history of humankind, but our most intimate dimension: sexuality. The shift in thinking now involves the construction and understanding of the persons themselves, their identity and dignity as sexual beings marked by a diversity of sexual orientations. Facing this new challenge is probably even more difficult than the two previous revolutions, because it questions something central to being human: namely, being both an “individual” and “in relationships with others”. Once again, the age-old certainties and the hitherto unquestioned constants of our understanding of reality tremble before the challenge of discovery, with the mind of some Christians taking refuge more often than not in the rejection of developments in human knowledge.

In the past, biblical cosmology and historiography were in crisis, now biblical anthropology seems to be under threat. On that issue too the biblical message seems at first sight to contradict the findings of the human sciences. The Bible seems to oppose the fact that sexuality in its nature may not be defined by heterosexuality alone: instead, it includes a range of sexual orientations, among which is homosexuality. As with regard to the discoveries of the heliocentric system and the evolution of species, so too the contradiction between today’s understanding of human sexuality and the biblical message is only apparently insurmountable. The Word of God is in fact open to and prepared to accept the gifts of human reason regarding sexuality in general and same-sex sexual orientation in particular. The Church, therefore, is called once again to become aware of this openness of the revealed Word, a Word that is not afraid of the intelligibility and rationality of human knowledge. Before the intelligentia fidei lies the challenge of the third epochal revolution.

A message of hope in the hour of wavering certainties

The Academic Statement on the Ethics of Free and Faithful Same-Sex Relationships prepared under the auspices of the Wijngaards Institute for the Catholic Research prophetically captures the need for this critical hour in Christian history. The research concludes that “there are no grounds, either from science or from the Bible, to support the current Catholic teaching that every act of sexual intercourse has a procreative meaning and purpose, and that consequently same-sex acts are ‘intrinsically disordered’ because they lack procreative meaning and purpose” (§1.5). Therefore, it is urgently recommended that “the competent authorities in the Catholic Church set up an official consultation process to seek the opinion of Christian theologians and experts in other relevant disciplines with regard to the ethics of same-sex relationships” (§2.1). In such a transparent process of ecclesial study, the scientific authorities consulted should represent the views of the majority of the relevant academic communities. It is the responsibility of the competent church authorities to issue a new pronouncement revising the current doctrinal and moral position in the light of current scientific and biblical knowledge. The present research can be considered the first step in this process of maturation.

Even in the event that the magisterial authority of the Church lacks absolute certainty about the new human and biblical knowledge on same-sex sexual orientation, it will not be possible to deny at least the existence of well-founded doubts about the validity of the traditional systematisation of Church knowledge on sexuality. The community of believers cannot neglect for generations to come the task of addressing the justified objections of the sciences and biblical studies in such a vital area as sexuality. One understands, therefore, the urgency of a serious and objective confrontation by the Church with the intelligibility of sexual orientation. Same-sex sexual orientation, like heterosexual orientation, is not a ‘tendency’, the result of an individual’s choice, of some defect or unnatural factor. Rather, same-sex sexual orientation is the natural capacity for a deep emotional, affective and sexual attraction towards, and intimate and sexual relationships with, individuals of the same sex. Today there is no longer any doubt that the variety of sexual orientations is now much more than a scientific hypothesis, and as such it demands to be taken seriously by theological reflection.

It can be perceived that the need for a desired revision by the Church is also intrinsic to the official Roman Catholic position. Today it is becoming more common to admit that past certainties are being superseded, which can be illustrated with the following example. While the recent document on biblical anthropology of the Pontifical Biblical Commission definitively recognises that the biblical passage in Gen 19:1-29 has nothing to do with homosexuality,[3] the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church, which is binding on all Catholics, still uses that passage as the first biblical step in condemning homosexuality as a grave depravity.[4] This is just one of the doctrinal inconsistencies that – as recommended by the Academic Statement on the Ethics of Free and Faithful Same-Sex Relationships – now demand a thorough revision. Such a revision cannot be satisfied by merely passing over in silence the key passage responsible for a centuries-old homophobic interpretation of the biblical and post-biblical world.

Point by point the Academic Statement punctually demonstrates that the entire biblical argumentation long considered fundamental for the condemnation of homosexuality, can no longer be considered as such in light of the development of the human sciences and biblical studies. In this sense, the Declaration adopts and develops the other principle recognised by the above-mentioned document of the Pontifical Biblical Commission: “the Bible does not speak of erotic inclination towards a person of the same sex, but only of homosexual acts. And it deals with these in a few texts, which differ in literary genre and importance”.[5] Indeed, the biblical world could not have known same-sex sexual orientation as an essential characteristic of human sexuality. “While the biblical authors knew that some people were engaged in same-sex sexual activity, it is unlikely that any of them were aware that some people had what is now called a ‘homosexual orientation’, i.e. an innate, exclusive and permanent same-sex sexual attraction”.[6] For ethics, as for anthropology, the lack of knowledge about sexual identity is an obvious problem: one cannot conclude an exact ethical evaluation of acts of a sexual nature without an adequate understanding of the sexual nature of the subject of the acts themselves (agitur sequitur esse). Biblical texts were based on a knowledge of sexuality specific to their time, and they need to be read on the basis of the greater knowledge we have today.

In favour of the human person

There is an important difference between the development of knowledge about our sexuality and that about the solar system or the evolution of species. In the past, scientific novelties could remain, all things considered, matters not of primary importance for the daily lives and spiritual experience of most people. In contrast, today the understanding of sexuality touches every human being and directly involves their daily experience of interpersonal, family, social and ecclesial relationships, their love life, and above all their positive acceptance of themselves, their identity and dignity. In this light, there is much more urgency in religion’s duty to make sense of same-sex sexual orientation than in its duty to address the movements of the planets or the evolutionary developments of species. The right to a dignified life, an affective and psychosexual maturity free from unjustified conflicts of conscience, and a proper understanding of sexual rights and responsibilities, cannot wait unduly for a religious response consistent with up-to-date human and biblical knowledge.

The rigorous research offered in the Academic Statement is far from being an instance of sophisticated exegetical and theological output hardly accessible to non-specialists. In reality, behind academia there are people, and academia empathically stands on the side of people, especially when they represent the minority, the “last ones” who are, and must be, the primary concern of the Church. When people suffer, because they feel discriminated against and persecuted, rejected or marginalised because of doctrines, laws and disciplines, about whose correctness there are now well-founded doubts, the competent Church authorities have a religious and Christian duty to carefully and empathetically revise them.

A gift and a commitment for the Roman Catholic Church

The Academic Statement on the Ethics of Free and Faithful Same-Sex Relationships is a gift and a commitment to the Church desired by Pope Francis. Exegetes and theologians, aware of their scientific and Christian responsibility, address themselves to that “Church which ‘goes forth’ [which] boldly take the initiative”.[7] Their work “help[s] ‘the judgment of the Church to mature’”, a Church which “needs to grow in its interpretation of the revealed Word and in its understanding of the truth”,[8] because “Christian doctrine is not a closed system, incapable of raising questions, doubts, inquiries, but is living”.[9]

By presenting the progress of the humanities and biblical sciences to the Church, the signatories perform an act of intellectual honesty and trust in the Church as described with prophetic zeal by Pope Francis:

The Church has no wish to hold back the marvellous progress of science. On the contrary, she rejoices and even delights in acknowledging the enormous potential that God has given to the human mind. Whenever the sciences – rigorously focused on their specific field of inquiry – arrive at a conclusion which reason cannot refute, faith does not contradict it.[10]

The Pope himself anticipates a positive ecclesial response to the competent requests:

Listening means allowing oneself to be hit by reality. [L]istening must be the first step, but it must be done with an open mind and heart, without prejudice. [...] If I must listen, I must accept reality as it is, to see what my response should be [...] without preconceptions or pre-established positions, [and without] dogmatic prejudices.[11]

This academic research deals with the most intimate reality of the human person, and “realities are greater than ideas”[12]:

Realities simply are, whereas ideas are worked out. There has to be continuous dialogue between the two, lest ideas become detached from realities. It is dangerous to dwell in the realm of words alone, of images and rhetoric. [...] Ideas – conceptual elaborations – are at the service of communication, understanding, and praxis.[13]

Today the precious living “idea”, which for Roman Catholics is the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church, must face the anthropological challenge of sexuality. Pope Francis grasps this challenge with full awareness:

human self-understanding changes with time and so also human consciousness deepens. Let us think of when slavery was accepted or the death penalty was allowed without any problem. So we grow in the understanding of the truth. [...] After all, in every age of history, humans try to understand and express themselves better. So human beings in time change the way they perceive themselves. [...] In thinking of the human being, therefore, the church should strive for genius and not for decadence. [...] The thinking of the church must recover genius and better understand how human beings understand themselves today, in order to develop and deepen the church’s teaching.[14]

Accepting the human sciences on sexuality and seriously confronting them with the revealed Word, with the competent help of exegetes, theologians and scientists, is part of the called-for genius of a Church capable of courage and evangelical prophecy. Only such a strong spiritual identity makes it possible to grow in understanding of something which may once have been thought of as certain, just as in the past it seemed unimaginable that the discoveries of the Roman Catholic Nicolaus Copernicus and the Anglican Charles Darwin could be compatible with the truth of the Christian faith.

The confrontation of revealed truth, of which the community of Christians is the custodian, with the expertise of the human and exegetical sciences in the field of sexuality, solidly summarised by the Academic Statement, will allow us to consolidate and improve the current conceptualisation of Christian sexual ethics and its vision of the human being created by and for God’s love. Today’s scientific understanding of innate sexual orientations helps us to grasp the true starting point and the heart of religious anthropology: the person created in the image of God, who is the pure Relationality of Love. The Bible does not settle the scientific question of how sexuality is structured, but it teaches us the starting point and the ultimate purpose to which human sexuality must serve: love. In his time, the Roman Catholic Galileo Galilei defended the insight that that the Bible shows the way to go to heaven, not the way the heavens go. The first is the task of religion, the second is the competence of science. Today we are called to follow the same principle with regard to the universe of human sexuality: the Bible teaches us how one’s sexuality is realised in love, and not how it exists in its differentiated nature. The former is the task of religion, the latter the indispensable contribution of the human sciences.

[1] John Paul II, “Homily for the Day of Pardon” (12 March 2000), available at http://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/homilies/2000/documents/hf_jp-ii_hom_20000312_pardon.html.

[2] John Paul II, Messaggio ai membri della Pontificia Accademia delle Scienze (22 October 1996), §4, available at http://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/it/messages/pont_messages/1996/documents/hf_jp-ii_mes_19961022_evoluzione.html.

[3] Pontificia commissione biblica, Che cosa è l’uomo? Un itinerario di antropologia biblica (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2019), §§186-188, pp. 162-65, all translations from Italian mine.

[4] Catechism of the Catholic Church (Vatican City: Vatican Press, 1992), §2357.

[5] Che cosa è l’uomo?, §185, p. 161.

[6] Interim Research Report, §5.1.

[7] “Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii gaudium on the Proclamation of the Gospel in Today’s World” [Evangelii gaudium] (24 November 2013), §24, available at http://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/apost_exhortations/documents/papa-francesco_esortazione-ap_20131124_evangelii-gaudium.html.

[8] Evangelii gaudium, §40.

[9] Pope Francis, “Address to the Participants in the Fifth Convention of the Italian Church” (10 November 2015), §14, available at http://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/speeches/2015/november/documents/papa-francesco_20151110_firenze-convegno-chiesa-italiana.html.

[10] Evangelii gaudium, §243.

[11] Discorso ai redattori e collaboratori della rivista “Aggiornamenti sociali” (6 December 2019), available at http://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/it/speeches/2019/december/documents/papa-francesco_20191206_rivista.html, my translation.

[12] Evangelii gaudium, §§231-32.

[13] Evangelii gaudium, §§231-32.

[14] Antonio Spadaro, “Interview with Pope Francis,” 19 August 2013, §§96-99 (section entitled “Human Self-Understanding”), available at http://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/speeches/2013/september/documents/papa-francesco_20130921_intervista-spadaro.html.