Theological foundations support same-sex marriage and societal progress, Parts 3 & 4

Modern Theology

By William P. Messenger

<<Part 2: Jurisdiction

Part 3: Sacramentality

Without question, the greatest gift the Church brings to any discussion of marriage is the sacramental aspect. It is language that is unique to faith and expresses the depth of the Church’s experience of the presence of Christ. In Catholic thought, sacraments emerge from the sacramental principle. That principle might be stated as follows: If something is true everywhere and all the time, it must be celebrated sometime, somewhere. Fr. Michael Himes, Professor of Theology at Boston College, develops this concept in his presentation “The Mystery of Faith, An Introduction to Catholicism”. An example by Fr. Himes regarding the building of churches serves the point. We believe and acknowledge that God is everywhere. Himes notes that God is no more present in the church building than in the parking lot or the supermarket or the bank. But the tendency is for us to take God’s presence for granted—to not think about it. Churches, however, heighten our awareness and focus our attention on the presence of God, enabling us to celebrate that presence in our lives.

At the most basic level, sacraments are experiences of God’s presence in human life. The Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches celebrate seven formal sacraments. That is to say that there are seven sacramental experiences that are common to the whole community. Most Protestant Churches acknowledge only two, and the Anglican/Episcopal Communion distinguishes between two primary and 5 minor sacraments. In determining whether or not to call an experience a sacrament of the Church, the classic definition has suggested that the sacraments “are instituted by Christ.” That does not mean, however, that we can scour the New Testament for proof that the historical Jesus said or did some particular thing to prove our list. At the same time there is nothing in the Scriptures or the teaching of the Church to suggest that our list of seven is exhaustive. As Michael Himes suggests, there are as many sacraments as there are things in the universe that reflect God’s presence. The Church sets aside seven specific events as common experiences for all of its members and calls them the seven sacraments. Could there be more?

Richard McBrien notes in Catholicism that the number is not the issue. “It was and always is up to the Church to determine whether certain acts flowing from its nature as a sacrament of universal salvation are fundamentally and unconditionally a realization and expression of that nature”. Historically, marriage was not always considered a sacrament.

It was formally declared so by Pope Innocent III in 1208, affirmed by the Second Council of Lyons in 1274, and finally defined by the Council of Trent in 1563. For the Catholic Church the concept of marriage as a sacrament is not problematic. Asking, “Was it instituted by Christ” is the wrong question. A better question is, “Is Jesus’ Spirit acting in his Church and is this a sign of that action”? Yes, in his historical life Jesus demonstrated an appreciation of marriage as sacred. But it is the reflection of the Church, guided by the Holy Spirit that determines marriage to be a Sacrament. This action of the Church is one product of Jesus’ promise to send the Spirit to guide us and teach us (cf. John 14:26).

Underlying the sacramental principle and the formal designation of “sacrament” is the reality that sacraments express what is already real. There is no magic in the sacraments. There are no special robes or incantations or wand waving that cause a higher or mystical power to make things happen. Even the sacrament of the Eucharist celebrates the fact that Jesus already is present. So it is with the other sacraments. For Catholics, Orthodox, and Anglicans, marriage is a sacrament that celebrates the reality of a love that is already present. We believe that this love is a gift of God. Moreover, we believe that when we are in the presence of love we in the presence of God.

The number seven is not exhaustive, nor can all the things in the universe that reflect God’s presence be formalized as Sacraments. Although any individual can have a deep and profound sacramental experience, the Church’s task is to identify those experiences that have a common character, that can be experienced by the larger community, and canonize them as Sacraments.

It is possible from this discussion that the Church, independent from what the state does, could identify another sacrament for same-sex unions, even if it chooses not to call them marriages. Though, it is unlikely at this stage of our faith’s development.

Traditional sexual mores are not easily expanded, even with the benefit of modern Scriptural scholarship. Inspite of the established ideals of sexual morality, the Church needs to address the fact that love does not always come in neatly defined packages. The bold fact is that there are many people who deeply love persons of the same-sex, and that love finds expression in sexual activity. If God is love, and if wherever we find love we find God, then some acknowledgement of same-sex unions is in order, and the designation of a sacrament is but one possibility.

Part 4: Canon Law

Two things can be concluded from the current development in the United States, Canada and other countries. First, some recognition of same-sex unions will become the norm in civil law. Second, it is unlikely that the Church will validate those unions, and even less likely that they will be given the status or designation of sacrament. Observing the tension and splintering of certain parts of the Anglican Communion over this same issue, one cannot expect the Catholic Church to jump into the fray just yet. Therefore, how do we resolve the emerging conflict between Church and state over same-sex unions?

In the current state of heterosexual marriage a major conflict already exists between Church and state. Catholic teaching holds that marriage is indissoluble, whereas the state regularly grants decrees of divorce. For Catholic couples this poses a particular problem with their Church if they marry again without ecclesial approval. There is a long-standing solution that while far from perfect, enables the Church to maintain its sacramental theology on Marriage and Eucharist, and at the same time exercise pastoral compassion toward its members. The solution is popularly referred to as the brother-sister relationship. It is rooted in Canon 915 of the current Code, and referenced in John Paul II’s “Familiaris Consortio”, paragraph 84. In this situation, a couple who are married outside the Church can continue to live in the same house, officially as if brother and sister, and participate in the Eucharist and other sacramental life of the Church. Such a situation is far from ideal, but it enables couples to continue to benefit from the civil rights and privileges of marriage, while technically not living in a marital relationship.

If a Catholic same-sex couple under current Church law would find themselves “living in sin”, just as a heterosexual couple does in a relationship not sanctioned by the Church then it seems that this precedent can be applied to same-sex unions.

Whether or when the Church should move in this direction is anybody’s guess.  Hopefully some common ground can be reached from these theological foundations. And with continued discussion, without the rancor that pollutes the current discourse, we can move forward for the betterment of society and the Church.

(Rev. William P. Messenger is a Catholic priest in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. He is also a novelist and a blogger for political and social justice issues.

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