The German Church has convened a synod which will reach its conclusion in 2023. The Synodal Path – as it is sometimes called – has had a strong presence in Germany, becoming a central movement for change within the Church. One of the ideas floated by the representatives of the movement is blessings for same-sex couples. In the last few days, some German bishops have come out in support of this movement called ‘#OutInChurch.’ The chairman of the Synodal Path, the Bishop of Aachen Helmut Dieser , said on January 24th that their discussions ought to ‘lead to a further development of the Church’s sexual morality.’
Discussions about sex have been present since the birth of the Church. The Book of Leviticus and Saint Paul speak of unnatural acts between people of the same sex. Saint Augustine and many other Church Fathers speak of sex as a good in itself, divinely ordained by God for the procreation of children, but sinful when practiced outside of the confines of the marital bond. With Saint Pope John Paul II and his ‘Theology of the Body’, the second good of human sexuality became further clarified: sex is not merely for the end of procreation, but also of uniting two loving people who have the ability to form a family. After all, without this desire for unity, the question of progeny is difficult to raise.
Perhaps the issue at the heart of the current debate, both within and without the Church, is a linguistic artifice introduced in the 19th century: sexuality. Before this, no notions of ‘sexuality’ existed as we are not defined by our sexual desires, at least not primarily. It is a modern misconception that sexual preferences, amongst the most basic elements of human life, define our personal identity. What the Church has always condemned are certain actions. Hence it is not the person in question who is targeted by the strictures of the moral law. People desire others, and people fall in love. An object of desire can vary over time, but when we fall in love and seek a romantic relationship it is not with an object, but a subject. It is the person as a free subject with whom we seek to unite, aiming at the fullness of what this love can bring: a family. To illuminate this vexed issue we ought to raise the question which the late philosopher Roger Scruton asked: can there be something immoral innate in a desire? Are all forms of desire the same? To consider this question about actions and their origin is not to target a person.
In answering this question the Church upholds only one standard for all people: human sexuality is for the potential of progeny and, linked to this, the unity of a loving couple. When these two ends are present, sexuality is correctly ordered. ‘Perverse’, the technical term used for their absence, has become loaded. Its definition is simply something turned away from the right end.
Make no mistake, this will be a burning issue for the Church in the coming years. The movement for sexual liberation, which started in the 60s, is still alive. Despite the satisfaction of its continued calls for ever greater liberality the lobby appears far from sated. The Church will always be called to speak on these matters, as it is always on the side of the individual soul, and so must care for the well-being of all, since it is the Earthly vessel for the Universal care that Christ has for His children.
As always, reality is more complicated than manuals, documents or prejudices suggest. On one hand, we hear of those who refuse to befriend those of same-sex inclinations, refusing to celebrate Christmas or other occasions in their company. On the other, we hear of those who, like the #OutInChurch movement, seek to transform the faith into something new. The problem with both is that neither acknowledge the fixed statutes of the faith: some actions are sinful, and all people are in some greater or lesser internal disorder. To help us navigate our way to the Truth, the Church must steer a middle ground between false extremes, precisely because it should not be driven by an agenda other than the one instituted by Christ. To some, this will prove challenging, to others the Church will seem extreme and harsh. But the Faith is our standard, not any subjective interpretation of the Faith.
The Church cannot change its doctrine. This is impossible and any talk of doing so misses the point. Instead, the Church must be a home for all people, no matter their inclinations, sins, habits or weaknesses. But the Church must also uphold a standard, since it is a standard given to us by God Himself. One must be sensitive to the struggles of each individual, but the Church cannot conform to every individual struggle. Rather, we must all conform to God’s will. If we do not, we might find ourselves in a position similar to Henry VIII, looking in at an institution that we once sought to bend to our will, from without.
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