“Infallible” Teaching on Gay Sex

September 10, 2011 at 1:15 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 14 Comments
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A couple of weeks back, I posted an article about my letter to the Tablet, the newspaper of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, in which I suggested that the bishop would do better to address the harm effected by the increasing wealth gap in this country than to fixate on gay marriage. This week a reader, Dan, posted a comment in response to that blog. I don’t get many comments, so I thought I’d paste it below and then reply. (I’m putting Dan’s comment in italics so you won’t confuse it with my response.)

Do you accept the infallible Catholic Church teaching that homosexual acts are gravely sinful, Marian?

As a Catholic, you are required to.

Just a friendly reminder ;-)

In Christ,
Dan

Dear Dan:

Thanks for your comment. I really appreciate feed-back.

I have a feeling you’d like a yes or no answer to your question, but I’m afraid the issue is more complicated than that. From your photo, I’d say you’re a good deal younger than I am, so our experiences are different. And I do sympathize with your desire for something like the morality of homosexual acts to be clear and unambiguous; the world is in a terrible mess, and a person needs something to hang onto.

Unfortunately, for me, growing up before Vatican II, there were lots of things the Church taught, and that I therefore assumed I was required to believe, that then changed. And it was a good thing, because some of them they were mean and hurtful. For example, priests and nuns regularly told us that all Protestants were going to hell–kind of a problem for me, since one side of my family was Protestant . And that the “perfidious” Jews were, too, for being Christ-killers. And before that, back in the 19th century, the church taught that advocating the separation of church and state was as serious a sin as abortion.

This, and a good deal else, changed with Vatican II.  Another thing that happened at the Council was that the church acknowledged human freedom of conscience in a way it never had before. So since 70% of American Catholics favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry, and since we have seen so many other absolute truths change, myself, I’m betting that eventually the church will see the error of its ways on this one (and on the ordination of women as well).

My second rejoinder has to do with your use of the word  “infallible.” I hate to have to break this to you, Dan, but “infallibility” applies to very few teachings of the Catholic Church. The institution is pretty careful not to declare too many things infallible because if such teaching changes, it undercuts the church’s authority. In particular, most theologians agree that no specific moral teachings have been taught infallibly. If you doubt what I say here, feel free to read the work on infallibility by Catholic University of America moral theologian John T. Ford SJ in The New Dictionary of TheologyBut quite apart from that, according to Catholic canon law, if it isn’t clear that something has been taught infallibly, then it hasn’t. You don’t have to take my word for this. Consult the entry on  infallibility  in Beal, Green and Coriden’s New Commentary on the Code of Canon Law.

So I guess before I accept that Catholic teaching on the grave sinfulness of homosexual acts is infallible, you’re going to have to refer me to the official declaration that says it is. Till then, I’m going to continue to honor the freedom of conscience of my gay and lesbian sisters and brothers and argue that the US bishops ought to spend more time  focusing on the extreme injustice of the gap between the rich and the poor.

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  1. Marian,
    This is the first of your articles that I have read. Where, oh where, did you get the ability to explain things so complicated in a manner most people will understand them. After many years of service as a minister in the Roman Catholic Church and with a working knowledge of the Canon Law (both the old and the new one) and licensed as a biblical instructor at a college level, you have been able to explain this thing called “infallibility ” so clearly. Many (if not most) Catholics believe every time the pope speaks then he is speaking “ex cathedra” which we both know is not the truth.
    As far as the changes brought about at/in Vatican II the list is not as short as most would believe.
    Again, thank you for your very clear explanation. Now if only people will verifiy what you have written, you will have made it more clearly that what you stated is truth.
    Shalom

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    • Dear Bob:

      I have a confession to make. In the case of this blog, I consulted an old freind who is an expert in infallibility who has a chair in systematics at a distinguished Catholic university, and she wrote back the simple explanation. I didn’t acknowledge her input because you may be sure she doesn’t want her name associated withe a defense of gay sex (even an indirect one.)

      Of course, I could have read the articles she referred me to and made it all complicated but who has the time?

      I really do love comments, so thanks so much for writing

      Marian

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  2. Hi Marian and Bob,
    The Magisterium is the teaching authority of the Church- not the priests or nuns. So
    what your priests and nuns “taught” about protestants going to hell, was not what the Church taught.

    And to clarify the Magisterium- there are three types:
    1. The extraordinary Magisterium (there are two kinds)
    a.. where the pope pronounces a solemn definition “ex cathedra”, this has been done twice (Immaculate Conception and Assumption).
    b.. Ecumenical Councils (there’s been 21 so far) pronouncing a solemn definition. i.e. Council of Nicea on the Trinity.

    2. The ordinary Magisterium- this is bishops doing their day to day preaching- this is not infallible.

    3. Universal and Ordinary Magisterium
    When there is a universal consensus of Catholic bishops on a teaching relating to Faith and Morals- it is infallible.

    The Second Vatican Council teaching states that four conditions must be met for an infallible exercise of the ordinary magisterium of bishops around the world. These are:

    1. That the bishops be in communion with one another and with the pope.
    2. That they teach authoritatively on a matter of faith or morals.
    3. That they agree in one judgment.
    4. That they propose this as something to be held definitively by the faithful.

    Section 25 of Lumen Gentium extrapolates:

    As written in , that is so “when, even though dispersed throughout the world but preserving for all that amongst themselves and with Peter’s successor [the pope] the bond of communion, in their authoritative teaching concerning matters of faith and morals, they [the bishops] are in agreement that a particular teaching is to be held definitively and absolutely.”

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  3. In addition, you asked us to read John T. Ford SJ if we doubt what you say- coincidentally, I have. And he says something drastically different than what you are advocating.
    In 1978, the two American moral theologians — Jesuit Father John Ford and
    Germain Grisez — published what is probably the most important theological article to date analyzing and applying Vatican II’s doctrine. They appeal to the Universal and Ordinary Magisterium (Lumen Gentium 25) in claiming that the Church’s teaching on contraception is infallibly taught. (for reference see: John Cuthbert Ford, SJ: moral theologian at the end of the manualist era By Eric Marcelo O. Genilo page 70).

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  4. Another example of infallible Universal and Ordinary Magisterium is when Pope John Paul II invoked the Universal and Ordinary Magisterium to declare women’s ordination an infallible teaching (see: http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/apost_letters/documents/hf_jp-ii_apl_22051994_ordinatio-sacerdotalis_en.html)

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  5. Furthermore, if the CCC is a “an organic presentation of the Catholic faith in its entirety” (18) and all Catholic bishops universally approve of the teachings stated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church then the teaching about homosexuality (paragraph 2357) applies as an infallible teaching according to Lumen Gentium Section 25.

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  6. (as well as through the criteria set by Vatican II concerning Ordinary and Universal Magisterial infallibility).

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  7. Ryan:
    With regard to John Ford, we are both somewhat wrong. I described the John Ford who teaches at CU as a Jesuit, when, in fact, he’s a Holy Cross Father (CSC). You on the other hand called the Jesuit who co-authored the article with Grisez John T. Ford when in fact he’s John C. Ford. And they certainly disagree on this issue, as you and I do.

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  8. Marian,
    That is quite humorous and I apologize for the middle name mistake. I do want to affirm the importance of conscience. By conscience I do not here mean a blind feeling or instinct but a personal, discerned, and considered judgment about what one ought, or ought not to do. A person’s conscience can be out of phase with what is objectively right. In such a case the individual will not be guilty for following the voice of conscience, but may be guilty for having failed to form that conscience by utilizing the necessary means. So please, follow your conscience but if it is in discord with the Church’s teaching- pray, dive deeper into Church teaching, consult teachers, consult more teachers, pray, consult scripture, pray, dive deeper into Church teaching, consult more teachers, and continue to pray about it for the rest of your life- all in an effort to form your conscience to the best of your ability. If you do this with a sincere heart, I see no blame in whatever decision you come to.
    May God bless you on your journey!
    Ryan

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  9. Thanks, Ryan. God bless you, too.

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  10. You are playing lawyer games here. As Catholics, we are supposed to believe that Jesus Christ established the Catholic Church as an infallible guide to faith and morals. Sex and marriage are fundamental to human nature and society. If the Church is wrong about THAT, what else could it be wrong about? Almost anything! Rejecting these teachings means throwing the entire authority of the Magisterium—and the truth of the Catholic religion itself—into question. No level of sophistry would stop a rational, unbiased observer from reaching that conclusion. Catholicism is all or nothing.

    Predictably, your post closes by mentioning the seemingly unrelated topic of economic inequality. Why is it that “social justice” Catholics are almost always dissenters when it comes to Church teachings on issues like sexual morality and the ordination of women? What’s the connection? I think I have it figured out. Both tendencies spring from the same source: a lack of faith. Deep down, liberal Catholics don’t believe that Catholicism is what it claims to be: the one true faith established by the Son of God for the salvation of all humanity. They see it as just one faith among many. They believe all good people go to heaven regardless of what they believe or how they worship. With a relaxed view of salvation, liberal Catholics focus on this life rather than the next life. Religion is not about building a bridge to heaven; it’s about building a heaven on Earth. Since the Church is not necessary for salvation, they see it as a vehicle for expanding the welfare state. And if Catholicism is nothing special, then its teachings are the works of men rather than God. Hence, those teachings should change with the times and reflect progressive trends toward tolerance, equality, and nonjudgmentalness. Am I about right?

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    • Frank, you ignored the main argument for rejecting the Church’s teaching on homosexuality: that the Church has changed its mind on other things before.

      “Unfortunately, for me, growing up before Vatican II, there were lots of things the Church taught, and that I therefore assumed I was required to believe, that then changed. And it was a good thing, because some of them they were mean and hurtful. For example, priests and nuns regularly told us that all Protestants were going to hell–kind of a problem for me, since one side of my family was Protestant . And that the “perfidious” Jews were, too, for being Christ-killers. And before that, back in the 19th century, the church taught that advocating the separation of church and state was as serious a sin as abortion.”

      Let’s tackle that argument instead. 🙂

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      • Andres, to tackle that argument: The teaching authority of the Catholic Church, the Magisterium, only claims to be infallible on matters of faith and morals, and it has never contradicted itself in that area. This is the reason Marian’s argument holds no weight.

        Marian’s challenge in the text, “So I guess before I accept that Catholic teaching on the grave sinfulness of homosexual acts is infallible, you’re going to have to refer me to the official declaration that says it is,” was answered a few comments ago pointing to the Catechism of the Catholic Church and using a Vatican II document (Lumen Gentium) to substantiate its infallible authority.

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  11. Before he became Pope, Cardinal Ratzinger stated that sometimes a Catholic must follow her conscience, even when this means disagreeing with the Pope. “Over the pope as the expression of the binding claim of ecclesiastical authority there still stands one’s own conscience, which must be obeyed before all else, if necessary even against the requirement of ecclesiastical authority. Conscience confronts [the individual] with a supreme and ultimate tribunal, and one which in the last resort is beyond the claim of external social groups, even of the official church” (Pope Benedict XVI [then Archbishop Joseph Ratzinger], Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II, ed. Vorgrimler, 1968, on Gaudium et spes, part 1,chapter 1.).

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